After an encouraging 4 point haul from consecutive games with Chelsea and Newcastle, the stage was set for West Ham to all but confirm their Premier League status against a much weakened Burnley on Wednesday evening. Alas, it was not to be and the visitors ended up leaving the London Stadium with a comfortable three points.
The manner of defeat perfectly illustrated the Hammer’s shortcomings which, even if relegation is avoided this season, will require extensive surgery to avoid a repeat next time around. While Burnley resembled a well-oiled machine with a structure, discipline and work ethic that compensated for their missing personnel, West Ham look like a collection of wayward individuals who have been bound together by sticky tape and string.
In fact, Burnley came with little ambition but when they get their noses in front, they are a very difficult team to breakdown. Not that there weren’t decent chances – some fine saves by Pope early on as well as two glaring misses by Michail Antonio and Sebastien Haller. Frustratingly, the home side had run out of ideas well before the final the whistle. The Hammers seemed convinced that hopeful high balls into the area were the route to success despite all the available evidence that Burnley’s defence would simply nod these away with ease. The manager didn’t see fit to change things and without any creative spark it was all so predictable. Plan B as far as it went was to bypass midfield completely.
Oh for the sorcery of a Devo, Berkovic, Benayoun or Payet right now! I guess that might have been Manuel Lanzini, but his injury has well and truly done for him. And quite why Jack Wilshere hasn’t been given an opportunity since the re-start is baffling. Indeed, David Moyes whole approach to substitutes is baffling, especially in the current circumstances with games come around every three or four days. The manager seems incapable of thinking on his feet and when things are going wrong, he is the last to see it.
We can all make mistakes and my assertion prior to the game that a starting place for Andriy Yarmolenko was justified saw me lured by Absent Player Paradox – that sense that the powers of an injured player increase exponentially in proportion to the time that he has been missing. Compounded by two promising cameo performances, it soon became clear that as a starter he really is too slow and too reliant on circus tricks and flicks. Similar exaggerated expectations are now starting to build over the possible return of Robert Snodgrass.
As is so often the case, the goal conceded to Burnley was a catalogue of collective incompetence. Yarmolenko went missing in action, failing to support his full-back; Ryan Fredericks was poorly positioned to prevent the cross; and Aaron Cresswell’s attempt to win the ball was even less than half-hearted. Even Lukasz Fabianski might have done better.
For some bizarre reason, successive West Ham managers have considered competent full-backs as an optional extra. The old Sunday park football concept of that’s where you play your worst footballers – the kid who turns up each week to cut up the half-time oranges. The current duo simply don’t cut the mustard and only one – depending on which side Jarrod Bowen is playing – gets consistent support from his wide midfield partner. The question is, are there any better alternatives – Ben Johnson or Arthur Masuaku?
The weekend trip to Norwich is the second of the supposed winnable games that will ensure top flight survival. Thankfully, Bournemouth and Aston Villa continue to show little sign of life and if safety is reached it will be by default, as it was in the Zola season. The record at Carrow Road is not a good one. For the last league win you need to go back to February 1973 when a Pop Robson goal was enough to give a West Ham side (containing Bonds, Moore, and Brooking) a narrow victory. The seventeen league games since then have resulted in nine defeats and eight draws.
Norwich are effectively relegated, but a West Ham win today will seal their fate mathematically. They may see the game as a last hurrah! The Canaries do pass the ball well but overall lack both pace going forward and a cutting edge – although the same could be said about the Hammers (apart from the passing the ball well bit). The home side’s form has been terrible, having lost each of their last six matches, yet anyone viewing this game is a ‘gimme’ may be in for a surprise.
I have said before that you cannot hold David Moyes responsible for the many weaknesses in the West Ham squad but, after 15 games or so in charge, he should have done far better on organisation, teamwork and fitness. His two signings, Bowen and Tomas Soucek, have been among the best performers in recent games and along with Fabianski, Antonio and Declan Rice at least look as though they belong in the Premier League. A good manager is paid to make the most of what he has got – to create a style of play that overcomes the weaknesses in the squad. This is where Moyes has fallen short.
What changes can and will be made this weekend is anyone’s guess. A return for Mark Noble? Arthur Masuaku on the left of midfield? Another chance for Lanzini as playmaker? An opportunity for Wilshere to prove his fitness? More game time for Haller who might even look like he is interested this time? Time to put some trust in Ben Johnson? There are options, just not too many obvious ones!
Following on from VAR duty on Wednesday, Kevin Friend has been given the whistle while Simon Hooper will be on patrol at Stockley Park. The eye in the sky was called upon twice in the week: correctly ruling out a second Burnley goal for a genuine offside; and confirming that is should only be yellow card only for Tarkowski’s challenge on Bowen – that one could easily have gone either way.
When in doubt or he can’t be bothered, Lawro always falls back on a 1-1 scoreline, as he does on this occasion. At time of writing, Charlie Nicholas has not unveiled his crstal ball. West Ham often serve up their better performances for those times when I am the least confident – and this is definitely one of those times. My sense is that Norwich will start brightly but easily run out of steam if they do not get any immediate reward. If the Hammers keep their shape and concentration during the initial exchanges they can grow into the game and exploit the Canaries frailty defending crosses. This will by no means be a classic, but I will stick my neck out for a 2-1 away win.