With four points earned from the last two games, the Hammers are running ahead of the re-start expectations of many battle-hardened supporters. The next three fixtures, starting with today’s claret derby with Burnley, were the ones seen to be the passport to Premier League survival. A return of five points or more from those games should be enough to avoid a final day relegation play-off reckoning with remaining claret club member, Aston Villa.
The win over Chelsea and a point against the Toons has helped us to breathe more easily, but nothing should yet be taken for granted. There might be an effective five-point cushion (if you take goal difference into account) over close rivals, Villa and Bournemouth, but there is still plenty to play for.
After a cautious first half display at St James’ Park, despite the early goal, there was a sense of disappointment at the failure to come away with all three points. West Ham looked comfortably in control after half-time, and yet allowed Newcastle to equalise with their only meaningful attack of the second period. Collective defensive failures, lapses in concentration and vulnerability down our left side continue to cost dear. It is now fourteen matches since the Hammers last kept a clean sheet – on New Year’s Day against Bournemouth – and the points lost from winning positions continue to mount.
While West Ham can be encouraged by their last two performances recent encounters with Burnley have not often ended well. As far as kettles of fish are concerned, this is a very different one to those previous two games. Burnley are a well organised, hard working and physical outfit. They will defend in numbers and will not be susceptible to the rapid breaks that benefited West Ham against Chelsea and Newcastle. The guile and finesse required to break down organised defences and team’s prepared to intimidate are not historic West Ham strong points. It might be tempting to select an unchanged team, but today’s challenge requires a very different approach.
At the back, there are few obvious options available to plug the alarming gaps in what is the fourth worst defence in the division. Pushing Declan Rice back weakens the midfield more that it strengthens the defence, and the return or either Fabian Balbuena or Arthur Masuaku adds no added confidence that things would be better. Although central midfield has looked defensively more solid since the recruitment of Tomas Soucek, the flanks remain a weak spot – particularly down the left hand side. Jarrod Bowen has done a great job of tracking back on the right and a similar level of support is badly needed on the left. That isn’t going to be provided by Manuel Lanzini but can anyone else do better – Andriy Yarmolenko, Pablo Fornals or Masuaku?
Further forward, it is doubtful that Sebastien Haller is ready to return, and so line-leading responsibilities once again fall to the broad shoulders of Michail Antonio. Antonio has performed admirably in this role recently, but I do fear burn-out or injury, especially given Moyes strange reluctance to deploy all his full substitution entitlement.
As for unpicking defences, the squad is short on creativity – it lacks anyone likely to come up with the unpredictable. Jack Wilshere is arguably the most able to do so, but has been been given insufficient pitch time to single him out as a starter.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Moyes plan is to bring back Mark Noble, as partner to Rice in defensive midfield, and push Soucek further forward to offer a greater aerial presence – a tactic that suited and worked for him in his Everton days. That would still leave a problem wide on the left of midfield. Yarmolenko has earned a start but with both him and Bowen preferring to play on the right, will one be able to effectively switch flanks? Of the two, switching Bowen would be the sensible choice, but it would require Yarmo to up his tracking back efforts in support of Ryan Fredericks. Alternatively, Moyes may opt for Masuaku in a wide midfield role as he has done in the past, but I don’t think he will go for this. Whichever way the team selection pans out, I sense it will be bench time once again for Fornals and Lanzini.
Burnley have enjoyed a decent season once again although are likely to miss out on Europa League qualification. Manager Sean Dyche has seen his stock rise in recent years and he now sits atop the rankings of plucky British managers, despite strong competition from newcomer Chris Wilder. The fall from grace of long-time leader and former golden boy, Eddie Howe, illustrates the conundrum facing managers at those clubs punching above their weight – when is the right time to jump ship out before the inevitable relegation and damaged reputation occurs
Dyche is, to date, undefeated in his managerial confrontations with Moyes (three wins and two draws) although their competitive relationship goes back to playing days in the mid 1990’s, slugging it out in League 2 in the colours of Chesterfield and Preston respectively.
The Clarets are experiencing something of an injury crisis at the moment and will be without influential captain, Ben Mee as well as midfielder Jack Cork and chief bully, Ashley Barnes. Worryingly, Barnes strike partner Chris Woods, who has scored in each of his five outings for Burnley against West Ham, is back from injury and likely to start. Dwight McNeil is another danger and been tormentor-in-chief in recent games against the Hammers.
Matchday officials today are Michael Oliver on the pitch and Kevin Friend on VAR. There was nothing contentious from the officials at Newcastle on Sunday and will be hoping for more of the same today.
Both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas have this down as a Hammer’s win at 2-0 and 2-1 respectively. Their rationale being West Ham’s greater need and Burnley’s growing injury problems. The biggest barriers I see to a West Ham win are being able to break down the visitors resolute and determined defence – not for nothing is Nick Pope in the running for the Golden Glove award – and getting suckered by the visitors big guns on a set piece. Still as a fan of claret, I want my glass to be, at least, half-full and will go for a welcome 3-1 home win. This is a game that usually has goals in it.