With an unlikely August Bank Holiday heatwave on the cards, authorities have issued an Amber Alert warning with a forecast of high pressure, soaring temperatures and raging thirsts. If anything, it sounds like a typical August match day afternoon for hot-under-the-collar West Ham supporters, as the Hammers seek to register a first league win from ten attempts in the opening month of the season – the last August success being the first ever game at the London Stadium in 2016. To make matters worse, the Met Office are advising those at risk to avoid self-medication with copious quantities of alcohol.
Today’s encounter against Watford at Vicarage Road brings together two of the Premier League’s eight winless clubs. Both will have pencilled in the fixture as another opportunity to kick-start their seasons.
Manuel Pellegrini has urged supporters to be patient as he searches for to find the right blend from a squad that appears very talented on paper but has failed to deliver yet on the pitch. It is difficult to know, though, what level of tweaking in formation and personnel the manager has in mind. After all, he has only effectively brought in two new players – one a direct replacement for the departed Arnautovic and an additional attacking midfielder. Given that he is firmly rooted in his 4-1-1-3-1 formation, and there was no new recruitment in defensive areas, his options look somewhat limited.
The elephant in the room remains central midfield where, despite 80% of supporters (made up statistic) regarding further defence minded resources as a priority, the manager and coaches did not agree. Unless there is an ideal free agent out there somewhere, we are stuck with what we have got for the time being – which is a choice of Mark Noble, Jack Wilshere or Robert Snodgrass to fill the gap. Not a great deal of pace between them, but at least all are meant to be fit and available to play today.
I am sure we all love the skipper for the commitment he has given the club during his long career – he made his first West Ham appearance 15 years ago today. However, his contribution to the team reaches mythical proportions whenever he has a period of absence. Many will cite his leadership abilities but there have been just as many feeble performances when he is in the team as when he isn’t. Having said that, I would still have him as pick of the available bunch for that role.
As to the more advanced positions, the challenge is to select three from Manuel Lanzini, Felipe Anderson, Pablo Fornals, Michail Antonio, Jack Wilshere and Robert Snodgrass to form an effective unit behind (the hopefully fit again) Sebastien Haller. Of the Three Amigos (Lanzini, Anderson and Fornals), Manuel Lanzini has to be a definite starter and one of the others has to give way as collectively they are too similar and do not offer enough physically. I think Pellegrini will stick with Anderson if he is considered fully fit. Antonio has been one or our better players so far this season and would feel himself very unlucky to be on the bench again. If I were picking the team I would be looking at Wilshere as a candidate for a more advanced role. He is at his most dangerous there either picking out a killer pass or pulling off a quick one-two. Whether his body is up to the challenge is another matter. I don’t see Pellegrini going with that though and would guess at the following starting eleven:
At the back, all fingers and toes have been kept cross since last weekend that Fabian Balbuena will be back in place of Angelo Ogbonna. I don’t foresee any change to Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku at full-back who are also needed to provide width in attacking situations.
As important as who is selected to play will be evidence of a better overall tactical effort and level of commitment. This is my biggest gripe with Pellegrini right now. It is quite clear that we offer opponents wide open spaces to attack either through the middle of midfield and down the flanks; while the supposed creativity to fashion goalscoring opportunities at the other end has been poor. What are they doing on the training ground to address these deficiencies? Yes, it is early season but I have yet to see any other team in the league that is slower, less compact or as careless in possession. It shouldn’t be a case of looking for a leader on the pitch to stick to a plan, it should be something that is drilled into the players at Rush Green.
Having read reports online from the U23’s winning start to the season they have been playing a high intensity, pressing game and have even arranged additional matches to sharpen fitness. This is all very admirable but at the same time rather odd in that it is so different from how the first team plays. Modern football is fast, athletic and physical; all are ranking below average for the Hammers from current available evidence.
Watford, like the town itself, are pointless and goalless. Manager, Javi Gracia, might have to give up any thoughts of collecting his Watford long service award unless he can remedy the long barren run that goes back to their FA Cup semi-final win. What better opportunity, however, for a team down on its luck and looking for a boost in confidence than to come up against West Ham. And remember, Watford have won more Premier League matches against West Ham than they have against any other team.
Today, the Hornets will be missing talisman striker (and their own leader) Troy Deeney but have several very exciting players in their ranks including Roberto Pereyra, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Gerard Deulofeu (a frequent thorn in West Ham’s side). Great things are also expected from the pacey Ismaila Sarr, who could well make his debut this afternoon.
Today’s on-pitch referee is Chris Kavanagh from Manchester while his video counterpart is Jarred Gillett who is apparently from Australian where he has been VAR-ing since 2017. What are the chances of a match free from VAR controversy?
Our favourite TV pundits are united this week with both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas predicting a 2-1 Watford win. I did dream in the week that West Ham won the game 2-1 but before you dash off to the bookies to cash in on my premonition I should tell you that the goalscorers were Jack Wilshere and Paul Kitson – perhaps it was a West Ham Invalids XI. I am struggling to find any optimism for a positive outcome from the game. Having predicted two wins so far this season, it is time for caution. We always find Watford to be tough opponents and even without Deeney they may prove too physical for our rather lightweight and fragile outfit. In the circumstances, coming away with a point would be a decent outcome: 2-2!