So here we are, finally at the end of the longest season on record. The culmination of 9 games in 36 hectic days since the coronavirus interrupted restart. As often as not, there is little to play for come the last day of the season, and the whole occasion gets to take on something of a party atmosphere. Players go through the motions while supporters are happy to have a bit of a knees-up. Very different this year, however, with no fans in the stadium and opponents Aston Villa still very much embroiled in a last gasp relegation fight.
Those long suffering fans who have witnessed the last few West Ham matches might well be asking who those impostors in claret and blue are? The strutting air of confidence, dazzling movement, fizzing passes and rapid counter attacks all feels so foreign. What has happened to that team of plodders who laboured aimlessly through the previous thirty-odd games? There were media reports of players urging the team to take this current form into the next season. But this is not just a matter of form, it is a whole new chalk and cheese approach from that served up under Manuel Pellegrini and, in fact, during the early months of David Moyes.
The new found confidence just goes to prove that passing success and possession retention increases significantly when improved fitness levels and mobility provide the passer with more and better options. Players are no longer flat-footed or get easily channelled into nonthreatening cul-de-sacs. It would be churlish not to give much of the credit for the turnaround to Moyes. It may have taken longer than hoped to see improvement, but organisation, shape and energy have increased immensely. His two transfer window signings have made the world of difference and the transformation of Michail Antonio into an unlikely striking hero has been stunning – just as it had been previously with Marko Arnautovic.
No doubt there are the hardcore hate the board, hate the stadium and hate the manager brigade who will never be convinced but Moyes deserves a crack at re-modelling the squad at West Ham. Judge him on results and performances, by all means, but to dislike a manager as a matter of principle seems plain wrong.
I will be watching the summer transfer activity with interest. No doubt the club will need to unload a fair number of existing high earning players to balance the books and raise funds. And the extent to which transfer fees and activity will be impacted by post Covid financial realities is uncertain. The intention to recruit young, ambitious players with something to prove is the right strategy – let’s wait and see how well it is put into practice. Can David Sullivan resist the urge to meddle and pursue yet another of his vanity signings?
Moyes will certainly be treating today’s game with utmost seriousness, aware of the responsibility he has to other teams in the relegation battle. There is also a few extra bob in Premier League prize money to play for. I don’t envisage any surprise changes to the starting line-up being made, unless they are enforced by injuries. If either Aaron Cresswell or Jarrod Bowen are unavailable then it will be straight swaps by Arthur Masuaku and Andriy Yarmolenko. There’ll be no throwing in kids or messing about with formations.
What we won’t know until the game kicks-off is whether the players are equally sufficiently motivated to put in one last shift. Or will they have mentally switched off, even unconsciously? I really hope they are able to carry the momentum from the last handful of games into today’s finale.
Villa have themselves come into a handy run of late season form with two wins and a draw in their last three. A marked improvement when you think that many wondered whether they would pick up any points at all after the re-start. Their defence is abysmal and the visitors will again rely heavily of the running, prompting and diving of Jack Grealish, possibly make his farewell performance for the Villains. It is widely repeated that Grealish is the most fouled player in the Premier League, but when you go over easier than a drunken ice-skater that is no real surprise. The dive to try to win a penalty in the game against Palace was outrageous. Whatever did happen to that law about deceiving the referee that earned Manuel Lanzini a retrospective ban? The shortest clampdown in refereeing history. Grealish aside the only other real threat appears to be from the in-form Trezeguet.
Today’s dynamic refereeing duo are Michael Oliver (whistle) and David Coote (console). For some reason that combination does not fill me with total confidence when adjudicating exaggerated swallow-dives in the penalty area.
Lawro has today’s game down as a 2-0 home win – if all his West Ham predictions for the season had been correct, the Hammers would be finishing in 10th place with 53 points. Charlie Nicholas says it will be 1-1.
I can’t see how West Ham can fail to score a few today against such a poor defence. I would love to see the team put on a bit of a show and end the season on a high – a performance with just a touch of arrogance that doesn’t end up as complacency. Villa will be fighting for everything but will also be nervous about what is happening elsewhere. My prediction is West Ham to win by a comfortable two goal margin, but with Villa to survive anyway due to events elsewhere.