It is safe to assume that the average football supporter experiences a far greater roller coaster of emotional volatility than do the players and coaching staff. While we have had a week of festering after the early season optimism was so mercilessly crushed last weekend, we must hope that on the training ground there has been a more measured reaction to resolving problems. After all, very few people would have expected there to be any points on the board from our opener although most would have expected fewer entries in the goals against column.
To a certain extent the scale of last week’s defeat was overshadowed by debate of the tactical fouling employed by Manchester City. With Manuel Pellegrini voicing his displeasure at the City tactics it brought to mind shades of Ron Greenwood, whose gentlemanly approach had him avoid the tough tackling enforcers favoured by many of his management contemporaries. In truth, successful teams always have their tougher, darker side and even if the game has moved on from the outright thuggery of Revie’s dirty Leeds, a hard, uncompromising edge is still required to consistently bring home the trophies. Like Greenwood, perhaps Pellegrini is just too nice.
West Ham’s woes aside, the Premier League season kicked off with a great deal of enthusiasm. Word is that a new breed of managers with new sets of ideas are going to be breath of fresh air, at least in the lower reaches of table. Farewell, the dour, attritional tactics of Allardyce, Pulis, Hughes and Hughton; welcome, the daring and enterprise of Farke, Wilder, Hasenhüttl, Smith and Potter. The latter, of course, is now at the helm of today’s opponents, Brighton and Hove Albion. Only time will tell whether the brave new spirit of adventure survives beyond the barren depths of winter – or whatever the modern day equivalent of a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke is.
The Seagulls were the surprise package of the opening weekend with an emphatic 3-0 away win against a muddled Watford side. Brighton’s expansive style was a far cry from what had been served up under Chris Hughton – but which did ensure Premier League safety for two consecutive seasons. By all accounts Graham Potter prefers a fluid and flexible formation that switches between 3, 4 or 5 at the back; something which will provide an interesting contrast to Pellegrini’s more predictable (tried but not fully tested) set-up.
Just a week into the season and the perennial injury jinx may have already have raised its ugly head. Depending on what you read, there may or may not be concerns with the fitness of Felipe Anderson, Sebastien Haller, Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmolenko for today’s game. Old-timers Mark Noble and Winston Reid are definitely unavailable.
The prospect of the Three Amigos (Anderson along with Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals) forming a mesmerizing attacking midfield alliance seemed to promise so much just a week or so ago. These are players with big reputations, hefty price tags and fat wallets who need to step up to be more than mere supporting parts. With good fortune it can start today but maybe injuries will force us to wait a little longer to see if it can work in practice. Will it reinvent West Ham as a team of rapid movement, quick passing and smart interplay or will it once more be all icing and no cake? I have a lingering concern that exciting as the trio could be it lacks anyone with a cool head and range of passing to take the game by the scruff of the neck and pull the necessary strings. It is Wilshere that is probably best suited to such a role but not if his freedom is curtailed by having to fill the problem area in central midfield alongside Declan Rice. The sad thing is that with Noble injured there is no credible alternative to replace him if it was decided to deploy Wilshere further forward.
For a team that has just conceded five goals in a home match we are only likely to see one change in defence where Arthur Masuaku is likely to step in for the hapless Aaron Cresswell. Since Cresswell’s England call-up a few years ago his form has dropped off significantly, apart from a brief spell as part of a back three under David Moyes. Perhaps he only looked good at left back when he had Payet to set up perfect overlapping and crossing opportunities.
Injuries permitting here is how I think Pellegrini will line up:
If Haller is really not available, I hope we don’t have to put up with another 60 minutes or so of Javier Hernandez wandering about forlornly to no effect. Best option in my opinion would be for Michail Antonio to come in to lead the line. I thought he was very unfortunate to be hauled off at half-time last week. You know what you are going to get with Antonio – someone with pace, power and muscle who will unsettle defenders. His lack of finesse doesn’t make him a good fit for a the softly, softly, tippy-tappy style. Alternatives are Yarmolenko or Albian Ajeti although I don’t see Pellegrini opting for either of these two as a starter.
On the subject of Ajeti, I think if I was a twin and my parents called by brother Adonis it might leave me with an inferiority complex. A little like “Hi, I’m Brian and this is my twin brother, Thor!” Maybe Albian also has a significant meaning in Albanian that I am missing. I am certainly looking forward to seeing him play.
Today’s Physical Assistant Referee is Anthony Taylor from Manchester while the person making all the important decisions will be his Virtual counterpart tucked away underneath the stands. My blogging partner made some excellent points yesterday in his article about how VAR looks to be exceeding its original brief of righting the wrongs of clear and obvious mistakes. TV pundits were unanimous in hailing VAR as an overwhelming success although to me this is from the perspective of football as business rather than as an entertainment. While it cannot be said that VAR got anything wrong last week the danger is that it will spoil the matchday experience for the paying customers in the ground. Fans will be unable to fully celebrate any goal until it receives official confirmation several minutes later.
For the record, today’s Virtual Assistant Referee’s name is Bond, Darren Bond – Dr No Goal, You Only Score Twice, Dive Another Day and so on.
On this week’s pundit watch we have Lawro back on his favourite fence with a 1-1 draw while Charlie Nicholas fancies West Ham to sneak a 1-0 away win. As we all know, the Hammers will need to score at least twice to win making allowance for the customary Glen Murray goal. I have a feeling there could well plenty of goals this afternoon, especially if the promised West Ham attacking creativity gets itself into gear and the defence remains as characteristically charitable. My optimistic prediction is for a 4-2 away win, although this can only come about through a significant upgrade in resilience and commitment; ensuring that we are not out-fought, out-thought and out-maneuvered by what will be an enthusiastic opponent. COYI!