It’s November, the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. It can’t be that much longer before the shops are welcoming their customers with the traditional seasonal chant of “It’s Chriiiistmaaaas!”
Equally, panto season will also be upon us and today’s game provides a suitable introduction as the two Baron Hardups of the Premier League’s (in the form of Mike Ashley and the Two Daves) sit back to watch their respective investments do battle at the London Stadium. A riches to rags story of great promises that always end up broken.
There are few British owners remaining in the top flight of English football and no-one divides opinion more than those in the hot seats at West Ham and Newcastle. Ask us fans where the glory days of our clubs are and we are guaranteed to answer “they’re behind you.” Oh, yes they are!
For most of the Premier League era, I have mentally bracketed Newcastle as the club that is the most similar to West Ham. Both can boast a passionate and loyal support, who continue to get behind their teams in large numbers despite having “won buggor aaal fo’ a lang time leek.”
Newcastle did enjoy a run of Premier League nearly years in the late nineties/ early noughties, and they certainly have a more impressive back collection of honours than the Hammers. But the 1969 Inter Cities Fairs Cup was the last time they won trophy of any note – with a team that included one of my all-time favourite ex-Hammers, Pop Robson. A good job they have Texaco and Anglo Italian Cups to fill out the gaps in the trophy cabinet.
The two clubs have also shared several managerial misadventures – with both having elected, at some point, to engage Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew. Fortunately, the Hammers finally steered clear of Steve McClaren (in the same way that the Toon ‘missed out’ on Avram Grant) and, as much I am disillusioned with Manuel Pellegrini at the moment, he is still a more attractive option than Steve Bruce. The lack of imagination shown by boards when making manager appointments is astounding.
So, what of this weekend’s game? In theory, West Ham in 10th place should be favourites against their 17th placed visitors but there are only four points that separate the teams. The Hammer’s form has been mediocre to desperate for much of the season and it will require a huge improvement in attitude, organisation and application (or a particularly poor Newcastle showing) to end the day with all three points.
It is impossible to know what is in the manager’s mind. It is true that he doesn’t have the strongest squad to play with but his past behaviour suggests he believes that the answer lies in tweaking his existing approach rather than trying something different, that might better suit the resources available. The football under David Moyes may not have been the brightest but he was prepared to experiment – Arnie up front, Declan Rice in midfield, a back three – in an attempt to freshen things up.
My own preference would be to have a look how a back three (Balbuena, Diop and Rice) could work out. My sense is that it could address some of the ongoing problems: it would shore up the middle of the park; allow the full-backs greater freedom to provide the width that the midfield don’t offer; allow the opportunity for someone to get closer to Sebastien Haller. Haller has taken a bit of stick recently but it is no surprise that his frustration has increased in proportion to his isolation. I don’t expect Pellegrini to do any of this. He is too wedded to his back four and hasn’t shown that he is one for new ideas.
Assuming he sticks with his preferred formation there is little room for manouevre. Maybe some like for like changes in defence, but the only decision of note is likely to be which two out of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Robert Snodgrass and Pablo Fornals are in the starting eleven. My money would be that Snodgrass is a definite starter (for all his limitations he will at least put in the effort). Then it is a toss up between Anderson and Lanzini – I can’t remember which of those combinations Pellegrini has ye to try. By a long chalk, my own preference would be to stick with Anderson. Perhaps he isn’t showing 30 million quids worth of quality but he is one of the few players to possess both a second gear and the ability to open up a defence. As I read once in a fortune cookie: It is better to be diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.
A warm welcome to matchday referee Stuart Attwell from Staffordshire and g’day to Aussie VAR maestro, Jarred Gillet, in the war room. Now that VAR has expanded its role into awarding penalties it could make for a long and interesting afternoon.
The punditry planets have aligned this week with both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas opting for a 2-1 home win. It is Newcastle’s weakness in attack that is the deciding factor for their predictions. The Toon have only scored six times in ten games this season, although such damning statistics rarely bring comfort to regular West Ham watchers. I have been rubbing all the pots in the kitchen this afternoon but, so far, no sign of a genie appearing to offer three wishes. If he does show up, wins for England in the rugby and for West Ham will be the first two wishes. If he can pull those two off, I will keep the third one secret – but I wonder if the Hammerettes are busy on Saturday night?