Confidence high, on a good run of form, coming up against a side still trying to find their feet in the Premier League, who are short of goals and strikers, who didn’t have the most impressive home record even in their Championship season; and with the prospect that a win will rocket them into 3rd place (or mathematically 2nd even) in the Premier League standings. What could possibly go wrong? If history has taught us anything with West Ham it that the proximity of disappointment is inversely proportional to degree of optimism. Or will the new look Hammers finally manage to throw off that age-old gypsy curse that has held them back over the years? It’s not the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand!
The international break creates a vacuum in social media frenzy of club football coverage, in which two things happen. One is that supporters are left to dwell on events that immediately preceded the break – without another quick fix, pessimism deepens while optimism soars. West Ham ended with a swashbuckling victory against Champion-slayers Norwich City that rounded off a strong run of positive results following the disastrous opening day defeat. The law of unrealistic expectations has been allowed to flourish in this void and elevated the Hammers from erratic write-offs to realistic top six finishers. While I hope this can be so, I sense that it’s a little too early to get completely carried away. You can only beat what is in front of you but the fixture computer has kindly presented an unusually benign start to the season – with the one challenging fixture ending in the traditional white-flag moment against Manchester City. Still, if the game by game improvement we have seen since can be sustained it will result in an interesting and entertaining season.
The second feature of the international breaks has been the viral outbreak of punditry where any ex-player not talented enough to go into coaching is desperate to share a controversial opinion or two to anyone willing to stand the next round. I have never believed that, as a general population, ex-players have greater insight into the game than many supporters – but their spread has become pervasive and as difficult to get rid of as Japanese knotweed. It makes me nostalgic for the days when ex-players simply became pub landlords or went out to sell insurance.
Over the past two weeks, a procession of pundits have been volunteering their views on the prowess of Declan Rice and declaring when he should move to Manchester United and for what price. How dare they? He is not the first of our current players who have been described recently as ‘too good for West Ham’, with the list variably extending to Manuel Lanzini, Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop and Sebastien Haller. Of course, if they had said ‘too good for an underachieving mid-table outfit’ then they may have a valid point. It is a conundrum for any aspiring top six pretender. If you don’t show progress and ambition then you will not hold on to your prized assets.
Prior to the current round of games, I came across a presentation from a chap at Opta which showed West Ham in second place (to Manchester City) as far as ‘Expected Goals’ were concerned. Now I’m not really sure what an ‘Expected Goal’ is but it is good to see us up at the top. As we hadn’t scored as many actual goals as the ‘Expected Goals’ tally I assume we are better at creating chances than at converting them. On the flip side, the Hammers ranked poorly on ‘Expected Goals Against’ where we had also conceded fewer actual goals than the stats suggested. The upshot was that West Ham were higher up the table than they should have been statistically. Make of that what you will!
Today’s team pretty much selects itself and, barring any late breaking injuries, it should be the same that started last time out. The front four can cause plenty of problems for the Villa defence but they must not forget their defensive responsibilities. Watching Liverpool at the weekend it was noticeable how prepared Salah and Mane were to regain possession once the ball had been lost – even if it meant sprinting back to their own penalty area. Rice and Mark Noble will need to keep their wits about them to cope with the midfield threat of Grealish and McGinn and that contest could well be pivotal to the outcome of the game. Although Angelo Ogbonna has done enough to keep his place ahead of Fabian Balbuena I can’t get rid of that nagging sensation that he is overdue one of his calamity moments.
It is good to see Aston Villa back in the top flight. England’s second city needs to be represented in the Premier League but it could well be a tricky season for the Villains. They have invested heavily in the squad and will be expecting to see a return in the points column sooner rather than later if Dean Smith is not to become ‘at risk’ in the manager’s sack race. As so often with newly promoted clubs it is goals that are difficult to come by and in Villa’s case the situation has been hampered by injuries and suspension.
Today’s referee is the preening Mike Dean from The Wirral, with VAR duties down to Martin Atkinson. VAR continues to divide opinion as to how it impacts the flow of the game and remains very reluctant to reverse the on-field decisions of referees – the Haller non-penalty against Norwich being a perfect example.
Returning to the world of punditry both Lawro (BBC) and Charlie Nicholas (Sky) have the game down as a 2-1 home win. There was a strange comment from Nicholas suggesting that West Ham were ‘predictable’ – something which I would have thought was the polar opposite of reality. I would still like to see more width in our attacking play but there is plenty of flair. And I would still like to see Nathan Holland given some minutes on the pitch. It seems odd that for all his promise he still only has one sub appearance, in a September 2017 League Cup tie, to his name.
As Captain Sensible would say “You gotta have a dream” and so I will risk my 5 shillings this week on a third consecutive West Ham league win. Resist the early Villa energy before seizing the advantage with a controlled 2-0 victory. The resultant league table can become my screensaver for the remainder of the season. COYI.