True to form, West Ham fluffed their lines at Villa Park on Monday night and failed to put in the performance necessary to claim a spot in the top three. Or perhaps they were given the wrong script. One that was a variation on respect the point rather than the promised we’re gonna score one more than you. Was it one point gained or two points lost?
Following the exuberance of the Norwich victory, it was disappointing that the Hammers showed such little variation in attack. It was possession for its own sake in safe areas lacking quick breaks, penetration and precious little width. If Sebastien Haller is to become the striker we have waited so long for, then he needs far better service from those behind him.
So, instead of putting clear daylight between ourselves in 3rd place and the rest of the table , we are at the bringing up the rear of a gaggle of six teams on eight points – including today’s visitors, Manchester United.
The Red Devils are now a pale shadow of the club who have dominated English football for much of the Premier League era. The post-Ferguson era is playing out much like the post-Busby one did, although they are unlikely to get relegated this time around. Now on their fourth full-time manager in 6 years, they have the look a fading star who once graced the big stage but now has to be content with the occasional appearance in panto.
It’s not that Manchester United have bad players, they just don’t have enough good ones – certainly not good enough to present the credible title challenge that their followers demand. They have fallen way, way behind their two north-western neighbours and have no coherent plan to bridge the gap. They are obsessed with paying over the odds for big names rather than team building. Ole Gunnar Solskjær looks out of his depth in the Old Trafford hot-seat, like a modern day equivalent of Frank O’Farrell (incidentally the Hammer’s oldest living ex-player who will celebrate his 92nd birthday in a few weeks time).
Despite all the negativity, an encounter with the Red Devils remains one of the highlights of the footballing calendar. Success is relative and they have a reputation and world-wide following that others can only dream of. Champion’s League qualification (unless through the Europa League backdoor) looks beyond them once again. Interesting to compare their odds of a top six finish (2/5) with our own at 5/1, as I don’t see so much between the teams.
Rumours of Champion’s League reform resurfaced again in the week with proposals to change the group stage from four groups of eight to eight groups of four – guaranteeing additional money-spinning games that would ensure the big teams stay well ahead in the revenue generation stakes. Among further worrying proposals are suggestions that that domestic leagues would need to be reduced in numbers to compensate and that CL games would be moved to the weekend to attract a larger global TV audience – something I predicted some years ago. Personally, I would prefer if the rich clubs simply packed their bags and left domestic competition altogether. Perhaps then this could be one of our last meetings with the Manchester club.
Back to more pressing matters and Manuel Pellegrini will have at least one selection decision to make following Arthur Masuaku’s red card on Monday. Pellegrini is not a risk taker and will likely opt for Aaron Cresswell rather than call in Ben Johnson. Cresswell has really lost his way in recent times and badly needs to rediscover his mojo.
Elsewhere, there is a general consensus among fans (or at least those active on social media) that Andriy Yarmolenko needs to be benched this weekend after disappointing on Monday – from hero against Norwich to villain against …… Villa. But in Michail Antonio’s absence what are the options? We have yet to see what Pablo Fornals is all about and there are questions whether the Three Amigos (he, Manuel Lanzini and Felipe Anderson) are too much of a muchness to mix it up in midfield and effectively unlock defences. It looks so promising on paper but so far has been unable to deliver.
Jack Wilshere is a player who can offer something different. He is an intelligent footballer adept at progressive passing and switching the focus of attack, but the worry is that more than one of him, Mark Noble or Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time leaves the team exposed for pace. The situation may be complicated if Lanzini fails a late fitness test all things being equal, my guess is that Pellegrini will go for Fornals to replace Yarmolenko in the starting eleven.
I cannot see there being any further defensive changes (aside from Masuaku) and with two clean sheets in a row we must now be entering uncharted territory. With the visitors seemingly being awarded a penalty every outing, I will be holding my breath every time Angelo Ogbonna makes a challenge in the box.
Manchester United will be without Pogba and Martial while James faces a fitness test.
This weeks on-field whistle blower is Anthony Taylor from Manchester (hmmm?) while the eye in the sky will be Graham Scott from Oxfordshire. Even with a low bar set for refereeing competency, Taylor is often picked out for special mention. Expect at least some degree of controversy during the course of the game.
Our pundit friends are once again united in their predictions and both Lawro and Nicholas have surprisingly gone for a 2-1 home win. Part of their thinking may be that the Reds will be tired having also played on Thursday night. It will interesting to see if that is a factor and whether West Ham will exploit it. I fully expect the visitors to get a penalty at some stage making a third straight clean sheet unlikely. I do believe that the Hammers can win the game though, but much will come down to the right attitude. I am fancying a welcome 3-1 victory.