Recent events have proven that the world is about as prepared for a global virus pandemic as West Ham are for a Premier League relegation fight. With the level of anxiety rising on both fronts it has led to speculation on the possibility of the football programme being suspended or even abandoned as the consequence of a UK wide lock down on travel and public gatherings.
Imagine the outcry on Merseyside if the season were declared null and void some time in the next few weeks. It is not to be sneezed at! That is assuming there isn’t some footballing equivalent of the Duckworth-Lewis method that would be used to calculate final standings based on Opta Stats – no doubt, precipitating a raft of legal challenges.
For now, such a scenario will need to remain Plan-B, with a continuing focus on preserving Premier League safety through more conventional means – starting with Saturday’s home fixture against Southampton.
There was a notable improvement in the Hammer’s performance against Liverpool on Monday (when compared to the Manchester City game) and had it not been for the rarest of off-days by Lukasz Fabianski, one of the shocks of the season could have been on the cards. It is easy to understand fan’s frustration, though, as to why the same level of effort and commitment cannot be applied in all matches. For some reason the team have found it easier to play against Liverpool than City in both home and away fixtures this season. In the end, we expected zero points from those last two games and that is exactly what we got. More important now, however, is how the team shapes up for Saturday’s game. Will there be some carry over momentum from Anfield or will it be a return to the slow starting, low intensity team that we have been used to in the recent past?
Among the many West Ham weaknesses are an inability to break down hard-working, organised defences and preventing teams hitting us on the break. Southampton will provide a test on both fronts. Not throwing away another lead would also be welcome.
The Saints are 5th in the away table while West Ham sit just one off the bottom in the Premier League home table. Their style is well suited as a smash and grab away team in the modern style; not endowed with a great deal of midfield creativity but direct in rapid counter attacking and dangerous from set pieces -with a red hot striker at the moment in Danny Ings. They are, however, as prone to defensive howlers as the Hammers – as their goals against record (the same as ours) clearly illustrates, although nine of those did come in one game.
The question on all West Ham lips then is how will David Moyes set his team up to exploit Southampton’s weaknesses and deal with their obvious threats? Equally, what level of motivation will we see? Any chance of starting on the front foot, playing with energy and intensity, and giving the crowd something to get behind? The first twenty minutes could well be crucial in setting the tone of the game.
It is very unfortunate that Tomas Soucek is unavailable as he and Declan Rice could have provided a solid foundation in midfield to protect the defence, allowing Mark Noble to sit this one out. I would prefer not to see both Noble and Robert Snodgrass (too old and too slow in combination) on the pitch at the same time but fear that might not now be the case.
Popular opinion is that there should be starts for Jeremy Ngakia, Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen. I would go along with that but difficult to know whether the manager sees it the same way. Moyes reverted to a back four at Anfield but possibly only due to the enforced absence of Arthur Masuaku. It would be foolish to change back again and I am hoping to see an unchanged back line. Key decisions will be a choice between Snodgrass or Fornals and whether Felipe Anderson is considered ready for two games in a week. Opinion is very divided about the clubs two most expensive signings – Anderson and Sebastien Haller. I can’t say either is delivering value for money but would start with Anderson (if fit enough) as he is the one player capable of the unexpected. I don’t see anything but the bench for Haller. This would be my starting eleven but think Moyes will opt for Snodgrass over Fornals for his dead-ball contribution.
Anthony ‘Red Card’ Taylor from Cheshire is the matchday referee with Stuart Atwell as his virtual buddy in Stockley Park. I was interested to watch Mike Dean coming across as quite human in the Peter Crouch podcast this week – a reminder that refs might not be as incompetent and aloof as they seem in real life. Worth a watch if you have ten minutes to spare.
At time of writing, Lawro has not published his predictions – I expect his default 1-1 setting. Charlie Nicholas, who predicts far too many West Ham wins for his own good, has gone for a 2-1 home win. It would wrong to call games ‘must win’ at this stage of the season but it surely is one of the contests that we would pencil in as winnable. Attitude might well be the match winner. Keep on your toes at all times. Beware the pace of Long and the predatory instincts of Ings. Defend those set pieces properly and make sure Lukasz has his catching gloves on. I can’t see a lot of finesse in midfield from either team and it could end up as a dead-ball contest. I am hoping a fast start can see us get our noses in front. But if we do, can we finally keep it there. It could be a stressful afternoon all round but I will go for 3-1.