If the evidence of the last few matches is anything to go by, wearing a Carlos Tevez mask at the London Stadium on Saturday afternoon might be a useful way of hiding your embarrassment come the end of the game. After two consecutive dismal performances, West Ham will need to face an energetic Sheffield United in a game that will have added spice due to the acrimonious events of 2007.
Other than the long embittered memories of the respective supporters, there are few remaining links back to the last to-flight meeting on 14 April 2007, when the Blades dispatched Alan Curbishley’s West Ham 3-0 to open up a five point gap over the visitors – with just five games to play. Mark Noble and Phil Jagielka were both involved that day and may feature again this weekend; and the visitors rent-a-quote owner Kevin McCabe is still involved despite having exchanged half of his interest for a handful of Saudi shillings.
The Tevez affair has created an unlikely rivalry between the two clubs – at least in supporter’s minds. Even though it was the Blades own incompetence (and in particular an inexplicable handball by Jagielka) that cost their Premier League status, it is always handy to have somewhere else to lay the blame. Not unusually typical administrative blundering by West Ham did nothing to help matters. No doubt, if the roles were reversed, West Ham fans would have felt equally aggrieved but, hopefully the rivalry can be expressed in a good-natured rather than menacing way.
Manuel Pellegrini has been quoted saying that “enough is enough” as his team prepare to put an end to their feeble run of games. Not just two defeats but two shocking performances as well. Given the apparent player disinterest in those two games, it is questionable whether the Chileans famous mild-mannered persona is exactly what is required right now. Rockets and backsides would be a more effective motivation strategy.
Following the defeat at Everton last week, Marco Silva described how he set up his team to be exploit the space around Declan Rice – something they achieved with great success. Many commentators saw this as a criticism of Rice himself – but I see it as something very different. It is a consequence of the poor structure and shape that continues to blight performances. Pellegrini’s Hammers have long been generous at gifting space in front in central areas, a result of the half-hearted attempts to regain possession once it is lost. That is not one player’s responsibility, it is a team one. Too slow, too disjointed and too rigid.
Defensive frailties would pale into insignificance if the promised swashbuckling style of play was rattling in the goals at the other end of the pitch. But it isn’t. The opposition penalty area as a restricted no-go zone – so rarely do we touch the ball inside its confines. Some attempt has been made to mix up the personnel, but nothing has looked close to working as a potent unit. Sebastien Haller has been isolated and width or penetration have been hard to find. Certainly, plenty for Pellegrini to work on.
Most probably we will see recalls for Aaron Cresswell and Andriy Yarmolenko from the team that started at Goodison – but will there be any other changes? Felipe Anderson continues to be an enigma – mostly indifferent but still the most likely to offer something different. Manuel Lanzini flatters to deceive – a few promising flurries disappears for large portions of the game or elects to run into blind alleys. Perhaps it could be another opportunity for Jack Wilshere to prove he can still perform at (and still has the legs for) this level. One of Lanzini or Wilshere must take on the role and responsibility of playing behind and getting much close to Haller.
There has again been talk of Nathan Holland being promoted to the matchday squad, on the back of a string of exciting performances for the table topping U23’s. It is interesting to hear that the current U23 success is based on the type of high intensity game conspicuously missing from the first team. A young player or two on the bench would be preferable (in my opinion) to the usual uninspiring options.
Chris Wilder has worked wonders since his appointment as Sheffield United manager in May 2016, enjoying promotions in 2017 and 2019 as the Blades climbed two divisions back into the top flight. He has put together a primadonna free squad that is, with only a few exceptions, made up of British and Irish players. They play with a unity, spirit and cohesion that is sadly missing with West Ham. Their system is refreshingly fluid with everyone appearing to know what is expected of them at any particular point in time. Their style may be pigeonholed as direct, but this is not BSF hoof-ball. There is much to admire in making the best of limited resources.
There have been fewer goals in Sheffield United matches this season than any other Premier League side. They have the division’s best defensive record (joint with Liverpool) but only Watford and Newcastle have scored fewer goals. It does not require a tactical genius to know what to expect from the opposition – and the physical challenge that Pellegrini has to prepare his team for. How successful can he be in extracting a performance?
Part-timer referee, David Coote from Nottinghamshire will be taking charge of only his fourth Premier League match of the season. Hopefully, he is aware of how VAR works but there to guide him in the control centre will be the experienced Martin Atkinson from Leeds. Why are so few of the select group referees from London and the south?
Surprisingly both of our pundit friends are expecting a West Ham home win – Lawro by 2-0 and Charlie Nicholas by 2-1. Surprising that both see more than one goal being scored in what surely will be the tightest game. Many observers will cite West Ham’s inconsistency but there have been several worrying consistent flaws throughout this season (and for much of the last as well). Among them are the inability to breakdown resolute and organised defences and a susceptibility to rapid counter attacks – both will be put to the test by the visitors. To get anything from the game the Hammers will need to up their game considerably from that of recent weeks. In a fantasy world, I can imagine the game being settled by Robert Snodgrass, complete with Tevez mask, coming off the bench to score a last minute winner. Failing that, I can see it ending 0-0.