The two elder statesmen of football management will ride their mobility scooters into the London Stadium later today as West Ham contest their first capital derby of the season. Boasting a combined experience close to 75 years, Manuel Pellegrini and Roy Hodgson might have thought that, by this stage in their lives, they would be more likely sitting on a park bench (like bookends) reminiscing about dubbin, lace up footballs, nailed-on studs and £100 per week footballers. Instead they will be taking charge once again of another game in the cauldron (© Sky Sports) that is Premier League football.
Crystal Palace have been rather profligate with their managers over the years with Hodgson being the 60th to fill the position (Pellegrini is West Ham’s 17th manager, by comparison). A scan through the Selhurst Park managerial hall of shame shows many of the usual merry-go-round suspects (Bruce, Francis, Dowie, Warnock (twice), Pulis, Pardew, Allardyce) that suggests an unimaginative approach to recruitment which might represent the limits of their ambition. The one missing name that prevents a Dinosaur Bingo full-house is that of Mark Hughes – but give it time.
It is fair to say that Hodgson has brought a degree of stability to Palace that makes them unlikely relegation candidates – even if that stability is rather dull and dependable in nature. The cunning team strategy is to field ten plodders plus Zaha – just like when Le Tissier played for Southampton. The stats may show that Zaha has little end product but he really doesn’t have much to work with – apart from getting into the box and going quickly to ground. No wonder he wanted away. If Palace were a car it would be a VW Beetle or Citroen 2CV – functional and able to chug along forever but lacking style or glamour.
West Ham by comparison are a wheeler-dealer’s custom car project. Although the old policy of collecting old parts from the breaker’s yard has been mostly abandoned, it is still some way from peak performance. The flared wheel arches, racing seats and rear spoilers may all have been installed; but the important work of upgrading the engine and transmission has been largely overlooked.
Not that it hasn’t been an encouraging start to the season but there are nagging doubts that (given the games that we have played so far) there should be a few more points on the board if a realistic assault on the top six is to be mounted. I guess clean sheets and unbeaten runs build confidence, but they don’t always result in the bring optimum points haul. One win and two defeats from the drawn games against Brighton, Villa and Bournemouth would have earned exactly the same number of points. Would a more adventurous approach have gathered a few extra? It is no surprise that, as things stand, we are regarded in the media as a team that has enjoyed a better than expected start to the season, rather than being the team most likely to break into the top six (that being Leicester.)
Perhaps I am expecting too much. If you had asked me a few years back, then I would have been more than happy with our current situation. We are playing a more attractive style of football and have recruited some fine talent; but I can’t help wondering whether there shouldn’t be another enterprising gear in there somewhere.
By far, the biggest talking point of the week for Hammers fans has been in digesting the news of the long term injury sustained by Lukasz Fabianski. I knew that all those unnecessary pass-backs to the keeper would come to no good – a case of repetitive strain injury arising from all those punts upfield have taken their toll on the keeper’s hip. Outside of the management team, there has been little confidence shown in the abilities of his replacement, Roberto. Having confidence in the keeper is a key element of any defensive unit and if jitters are apparent they can quickly become contagious. If too much attention is being paid to protect the keeper it will be detrimental to the entire team performance.
Roberto’s career has been as a “have gloves, will travel” itinerant. He has played 272 league games in four countries over 15 years. He can be no Fabianski but he still needs our support. Maybe a R-O-B-Erto chant to the old Ottowan D-I-S-C-O tune that was once use for Di Canio during his stay at Sheffield Wednesday would do the trick?
Apart from the keeper, the only other likely change should be a recall to the starting eleven for Manuel Lanzini, at the expense of Pablo Fornals. It would be a good time for Lanzini, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko to start creating some decent chances for the hard working Sebastien Haller. The Palace defence will be well organised and well drilled and our creative players need to be at their sharpest to find a way through.
Yarmolenko is riding the crest of a wave at the moment and long may it continue. He is a hard player to pin down in any particular category. Not really a winger but playing wide on his weaker side should make him predictable but he has the sweetest left foot and rarely wastes a ball. Perhaps he is a conundrum that also baffles opponents.
Palace will be without set-piece specialist Milivojevic through suspension while defender Sakho is out injured. Veteran defender Cahill has relegated former West Ham pinup favourite James Tomkins to bench duty but there could be a start for wily ex-Hammer, Cheikhou Kouyate.
Making the long trip south from Northumberland with his whistle is one-time refereeing wonderkid, Michael Oliver. Agreeing with all his decisions at VAR Central will be Paul Tierney. I read that since Palace’s return to the Premier League they have been awarded more penalties than any side in the division (I couldn’t see how many of those had been ‘earned’ through Zaha’s tumbling act.) During that same period, West Ham have conceded more penalties than any other team in the same league. Make what you will of that particular omen.
Media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas both forecast a home win, by 2-0 and 3-1 respectively. Barring defensive howlers or calamities, it is difficult to see where the visitors will find goals from, if Jordan Ayew is the best they have to offer. The game will hinge on the Hammer’s ability to break down Palace’s stubborn resistance. It is one of those situations where if one goes in there could be several more. A good day to discover a killer instinct. A 3-0 win would do for me and depending on what happens at Anfield, it could see West Ham sitting pretty in third place by the end of the day.