When we kick off at 8.15 pm on July 1st we may or may not be in the bottom three. Even if we are I stand by my assertion from my last blog article that we will not be relegated this season. Nothing that we have done on the field since the return after lockdown backs up my confidence. It is the form (or lack of it) from our rivals in the relegation stakes that makes me believe we will be OK.
Brighton (on 33 points) will almost certainly be OK thanks to their win against Arsenal and draw at Leicester. They have had (by a long way) the best results of the bottom six since resumption and still have seven games left to add to their tally. Four of their next five games look tough on paper (Man. Utd., Liverpool, Man City, and away at Southampton who have surprised me considering how poor they looked at the London Stadium shortly before the season was held up), but in between they play at Norwich, and then finish with games against Newcastle and Burnley. They should be fine.
Watford (on 28 points) now only have six games to play, two (out of their next three) of which don’t look too bad on paper at home to Norwich and Newcastle. Their toughest games should be at Chelsea and Arsenal and at home to Man. City. Of course they face us on July 15 which will be an important six-pointer. They have not looked that great so far, but I think they’ll be OK.
West Ham (on 27 points and outside the bottom three on goal difference only) will, after this home game against Chelsea (more on this later), face five teams currently in the bottom half of the table in our final six games, the only exception being the away trip to Old Trafford for the penultimate game of the season. Newcastle and Norwich (both away) plus three games at home to Burnley, Watford, and Villa are crucial games for us to pick up the necessary points for survival.
Bournemouth (also on 27 points) have a home game against Newcastle that kicks off just two and a quarter hours before our game against Chelsea. This surely is their best chance to move out of the bottom three, because their final six games will see them face Man.Utd, Spurs, Leicester, Man.City, Southampton, and Everton. I don’t see them picking up many more points from those.
Villa (also on 27 points) now only have six games to play, the first five of which are against Liverpool, Man.Utd, Palace, Everton, and Arsenal, before coming to the London Stadium on the last day of the season. Surely they won’t be collecting much from those games without a massive reversal of form.
Norwich (on 21 points) look doomed, although they won’t be the poorest team to have ever been relegated from the top flight. If they can hang on to their better players they will have a good chance of bouncing back.
So that’s my summary of what I think will happen. We won’t pull up any trees in the run-in, but if we still manage to go down now by failing to pick up enough points from the remaining games, then we will well and truly deserve it. And if we did happen to go down I would fear for our chances of bouncing back as quickly as we have done after previous relegations.
Of course we won 1-0 at Chelsea shortly before the end of 2019 in a game remembered for David Martin’s debut clean sheet, and his emotional reunion with his dad Alvin in the stands. Despite our win, we also scored another goal that was chalked off as a result of it “accidentally” touching Antonio’s arm, one of two goals denied to us this season by accidental handball both picked up by VAR. It’s a silly rule anyway in the sense that accidental handball by a defender in his own penalty area does not result in a penalty kick being awarded against him, so why are attacking teams penalised in this way? And don’t get me going about the VAR failure to spot the handball which led to Tottenham’s first goal against us!
As for team selection in this game then of course our keeper picks himself, but it will be interesting to see whether Ogbonna (who is now apparently fit) is recalled in place of Balbuena, who only looks a shadow of the player he was in his first season with us. And talking of players not at the same level as in the past, Cresswell now looks too slow, and seems to dwell on the ball in possession. It wasn’t that long ago that he won an England cap, but now he worries me, and we look especially vulnerable against teams attacking us on that flank.
Rice has been our standout player once again, and I’d like to see him line up alongside Soucek in a defensive midfield position. Of course there has been so much to admire about Mark Noble over the years, and much as I like him, the pace of the game just seems a little too quick now, especially against the top teams. He still has a part to play in this run-in but I’d like him to sit out this one.
Our attacking has been generally poor and we haven’t scored since Leap Years Day when we comprehensively put three goals past Southampton. Bowen and Antonio both scored on that day, and seem to me to be the only two attacking players who have shown any semblance of form in our last two games. Bowen continues to look impressive whilst Antonio has looked OK but is not a centre forward and certainly shouldn’t play up front on his own.
Beyond those two I don’t really know! Anderson and Lanzini have both looked so poor to me, and whilst I can see some potential in Fornals, he hasn’t looked that great in the last two games and certainly not in front of goal, spurning two excellent chances to score. Who else is there? Wilshere has apparently been very impressive in training, and should surely be given a chance to do it in games? If he could recapture some semblance of past form then there is a chance he could unlock some defences, but there must be a reason he hasn’t been given a chance yet in a team playing poorly? Yarmolenko has the highest ratio of goals to minutes played this season, but he has been inconsistent and Moyes doesn’t appear to rate him, nor does the manager seem to trust the inexperienced Xande Silva, nor Ajeti, who despite being an international footballer has not been given many minutes to prove himself.
Of course Haller apparently has a hip injury that is keeping him out. There are some scandalous conspiracy theories going around that suggest he isn’t playing because we will be selling him in the summer, and apparently one more appearance would trigger a hefty payment to Eintracht Frankfurt, the club from whom we bought him. That would be ridiculous! So my team for this game (but definitely not the manager’s selection) would be: Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Johnson; Rice, Soucek, Wilshere; Yarmolenko, Antonio, Bowen.
In the remaining games I’d like to see our manager make better use of substitutes, both in terms of who, and the timing. We are allowed to use up to five, and surely it makes sense to do so, especially if you are behind in a game?
I watched some of the FA Cup game between Leicester and Chelsea at the weekend and I was surprised at how poor Chelsea were, especially in the first half. But Lampard has laid into them deeming so many of their players’ performances unacceptable, and I would be surprised if they didn’t improve markedly when they face us. And talking of the FA Cup, an interesting fact. Teams are supposedly weakened in this competition these days, but the four semi-finalists, are four of the so-called elite six in this country, and in fact each of them has won the trophy in the last four seasons.
What do I expect from this game? Based on what I’ve seen in the last couple of games, I expect to be beaten, think that we could possibly snatch a draw, but hope for an unlikely win, the same as we managed at Stamford Bridge in November. What are the chances?