It doesn’t come much tougher does it? Liverpool, the reigning premier League Champions, who in the season that ended a little over three months ago, finished 18 points clear of Manchester City, who themselves were 15 points ahead of third placed Manchester United, are unbeatable aren’t they? Just a few days ago they were made to work hard but completed a comeback win against Sheffield United to extend their unbeaten Premier League run at Anfield to 62 games, so what chance do we have? They were also not at their best against FC Midtjylland, the Danish champions, in their Champions League game in midweek and could easily have conceded an equaliser before wrapping up the win in time added on. And who can forget the 7-2 drubbing they took at Aston Villa? But as the 62 game unbeaten run shows, at Anfield they are exceptionally hard to beat.
As West Ham fans we know this only too well – we couldn’t manage it from September 1963 (at about the time Gerry and the Pacemakers were recording their soon to be number one – You’ll Never Walk Alone) right through to the end of August 2015 until we thumped them 3-0 on their ground in front of a shocked home crowd, with goals from Lanzini, Noble and Sakho. Despite only having 33% possession (not untypical at Anfield) we matched them in all areas that day and displayed excellent counter attacking, and fully deserved our victory. Slaven Bilic came out with an excellent quote after the game “we parked the bus, but we didn’t put the handbrake on”. We even did the double over them that season with a 2-0 win in the return fixture at Upton Park with goals from Antonio and Carroll.
Do you remember the game there in February last season? When Wijnaldum scored the opening goal in the first ten minutes it seemed that we would be in for a long night, but Diop equalised within a couple of minutes, and we held on for 1-1 at half time. Fornals replaced Soucek early in the second half and hadn’t been on the field long when he put us into the lead. Unfortunately Fabianski chose this game to be probably his worst in our goal, and was badly at fault as Salah and then Mane scored to clinch a 3-2 home win.
2019-20 was a strange season of course due to the lockdown because of the pandemic, which meant that the last game was played a full 50 weeks after the first, the longest Premier League season ever. It was a strange season for West Ham too, with a very good beginning and end but with a lengthy poor spell in between. There was a certain symmetry in the campaign with us picking up 12 points in the first seven games (W3, D3, L1), and 12 points in the last seven games (W3, D3, L1). If only we could have maintained a similar record in the 24 games in between where we only amassed 15 points (W4,D3, L17)! An average of 12 points every 7 games would equate to 65 points in a whole season. That would have been good enough for a fifth placed finish last season. We’re not at that point yet but that is the level of consistency we must be aiming for.
The match at Anfield is our seventh of this new season, and with 8 points so far we will be unable to match the 12 points that we had after 7 matches last time, even if we do win the game. Nevertheless, I maintain that the start to this campaign is greatly superior to the last in view of the opposition we have faced. Not only has the quality of our football been a massive improvement, but the confidence and belief is evident for all to see, and much credit must go to our manager and coaching staff for the effect they have had in turning around the club.
We all knew that it would be a difficult start when we saw the fixtures schedule. But I wonder how many of us looked at those opening seven games and worked out how many points we picked up in the equivalent fixtures last season? How many points do you think we collected from home games against Newcastle, Wolves and Manchester City, and away trips to Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool? Those seven games yielded zero points, in which we scored five times and conceded 20. With Liverpool to come we are already 8 points better off than we were last time when matching up the equivalent fixtures with 12 goals scored and 8 against. Even if we only picked up similar points to last season in the other games, we would finish with 47 points. But I expect much more than that, and a top half finish.
But to achieve that we need to avoid injuries to the key players in our squad, which is a little thin in some areas. Michail Antonio has probably been the most in-form striker in the whole of the Premier League since football resumed after the lockdown, and his importance to West Ham, and the playing system that has evolved this season, is massive. He is a crucial cog in the system and the team. As an example, there was a massive difference in the performance of the team when he had to go off against Manchester City to be replaced by Haller. Haller is not a bad player, but he just doesn’t fit into the system we play, and arguably never has in his time with us. As Antonio is unable to play then we need to replace him with someone of a similar type, but we haven’t got anybody like that. The alternative will be to adopt a new approach and jettison the system that has been so successful so far.
Perhaps we might consider 4-4-2 with similar personnel? That system would have drawbacks of course. A back four of Coufal, Balbuena, Ogbonna, and Cresswell in front of Fabianski. A midfield 4 of Soucek, Rice, Fornals and Masuaku, with Haller and Bowen up front? Or perhaps a place for Lanzini, Yarmolenko or Snodgrass or maybe even Benrahma if they believe he is ready? What about Noble or Coventry? Possibly even adopting what they call the false 9 with no traditional strikers, and flooding the midfield with 6 players and excluding Haller from the starting eleven?
Do we need extra pace at the back? Almost certainly yes, but would Fredericks, Diop or Dawson get a look in? Or even Ashby who is considered to be a great prospect? Perhaps Diop’s pace would be an alternative to Balbuena? Balbuena hasn’t done too much wrong in his return to the team due to Diop’s self-isolation, but speed could be important when facing Liverpool’s attack. However, I doubt that Moyes will tinker with the players at the back, but who knows? It’s all speculation but we shouldn’t go to Anfield to roll over. We must take this new found confidence and belief into the game and give it a go. Wouldn’t it be great to come away extending our unbeaten league run to five games? It will be difficult but Liverpool themselves have their injury concerns over a number of players and certainly miss Van Dijk at the back. It’s a real shame that Antonio is not available to exploit this.
Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers don’t think we have much chance and quote odds of around 7/1 for us to pick up three points. Even the draw at 4/1 is a long shot. But our draw against Manchester City last weekend ruined many accumulators. Can we do it again? In this season of surprise results I am hoping for another one.