In all good movies (and even in most bad ones) the action unfolds to a three act pattern: the setup; the confrontation and the resolution. West Ham’s season has kept faithfully to the plot so far. A benign, almost encouraging, opening that bred a confident swagger until it was rudely interrupted by a defining and crushing defeat to Oxford United in the EFL Cup. This was the turning point in our plot, after which, fortunes went rapidly from bad to worse to atrocious. The great pretenders were exposed as the kings with no clothes. Today we find ourselves perfectly set up for the final act – the first of two potential climactic moments that will determine the immediate future of West Ham as a Premier League club.
West Ham remain outsiders among the four clubs competing for the two available relegation places, but there are no foregone conclusions at a time when an unexpected result can crop up at any time. Principle antagonists, Villa and Bournemouth, might look down and out, but what if they are only stunned and awaiting the opportunity to pick themselves up and strike back. Whereas three points today would see us walking off into the sunset of Premier League survival, anything less could still lead to a last day nail-biting, nerve jangling finale – great for the ratings but not for my sanity.
In a perfect act of symmetry, the season’s fixtures against Watford were scheduled as the third from the start and the third from the end. The deserved win at 3-1 Vicarage, with two goals from Sebastien Haller, set West Ham off on a mini sequence of games that briefly saw them flirt with the top three. The optimistic wisdom at the time being that a phenomenal potency in attack might be able to compensate for unresolved inadequacies in defence. Although there is some veracity in that train of thought (only the three bottom clubs have conceded more goals than the Hammers while ten EPL clubs have scored fewer) the differential has not been great enough to accumulate sufficient points – just enough to earn a better goal difference than our relegation rivals.
The only time this season that the Hammers have won back-to-back league matches were successive victories over Watford and Norwich at the end of August. Having easily dispatched a ragged Norwich on Saturday can history joyfully repeat itself against Watford, just when it is needed the most?
There will be a temptation for David Moyes to keep the same Carrow Road starting eleven, but we need to consider just how poor the Canaries were. It was a convincing impression of a West Ham tribute act from those afternoons of surrender that we have witnessed far too often in the past against the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. Their lack of fight and spirit was staggering, something that is unlikely to be repeated by the Hornets in this evening’s game. The question for me is whether Mark Noble, so influential in his contribution at Norwich, has the speed of thought or action to compete in what will be a busy and frenetic midfield battlefield of high tempo pressing and closing down. This would not be a time for dwelling on the ball, engaging reverse or taking multiple touches to nowhere.
If not Noble, though, is there anyone capable of performing a better job in directing operations in the attacking third? A case might be made for either Jack Wilshere or Manuel Lanzini, but neither has shrugged off long term injuries and returned to their former selves. I would prefer to see Pablo Fornals in a more central role, but he is needed wide left to provide much needed backup to Aaron Cresswell, a service that Andriy Yarmolenko is unable provide.
No solution is perfect, and the number 10 role has become a major weakness in the current setup. The Hammers will once again need to look for big performances as an attacking force from Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen. It is a given that the solid foundation provided in front of the back four by Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will also be pivotal. Rice has been a season long star performer but the addition of Soucek both defensively, and as an unexpected item in the penalty area, has been a refreshing upgrade on what went before.
Watford have a very good squad on paper but, like our own, it has not been translated into performances on the pitch. They do, however, come into the game off the back of successive wins against Norwich and Newcastle. Gerard Deulofeu usually impresses against us but will be missing while Danny Welbeck (another West Ham bogey figure) has now recovered from injury. The greatest threat that I see is from the pace of Ismaïla Sarr down the right wing. Cresswell will be left floundering and will need all the support that he can get in cutting off the supply to the wounded Troy Dee-knee.
Martin Atkinson is today’s referee while Stuart Attwell is his invisible virtual assistant. There is not really much time left this season for all those wrong VAR calls to even themselves out for West Ham. Perhaps we will be the beneficiaries of half a dozen penalty awards tonight.
Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are in full alignment this week, both opting for a 2-1 West Ham victory. That would do nicely for me. In theory, you might expect this to be a nervy, error prone affair, but that might be tempered in an empty stadium where anxiety cannot easily be transmitted from fans to players. The outcome, though, will be as much about attitude, desire, character and strength of mind as it will technical football ability. Will our boys be up to the task?
It is games like these when you start to question where is the enjoyment in watching football. It needs at least a three goal cushion with less than five minutes remaining before I can feel relaxed. If we go a goal down, the cat will know to keep a safe distance. I really don’t want to have to go into the final round of games needing to get a result against Aston Villa. Accordingly, I am going to line up alongside the pundits and predict a 2-1 home win, in the hope that a concentrated force of positive thinking will ensure it actually happens. It could be a very long Friday night – but will it be a good one? Yippee Ki-Yay!