Football comes and goes these days as frequently as sunshine on a cloudy day. One minute, there are warnings of burn-out due to the hectic schedule and the next it is a week long break for the totally pointless European Zenith Data Systems Nations Cup. Whoever could have thought that would be a good idea in a time of fixture pile-up and a global pandemic?
So where exactly were we before getting so rudely interrupted? That’s right, a stuttering home win against Fulham that saw West Ham on eleven points from eight games, and into 12th place with a goal difference of +4. A satisfactory start in most supporter’s eyes, given the daunting run of games that many of us felt would see the team languishing among the relegation places at this point in the season.
Compared to the same stage last term, the Hammers are one point and five places worse off – although we had, in those opening eight games of 2019/20, played six of the teams who, along with ourselves, would end the campaign in the bottom seven. Perhaps it is hindsight at work, but my level of confidence is higher now than it was back then – with the proviso that the hard work and attitude is maintained, and that injuries are kept to manageable proportions. There is still no room for complacency
David Moyes has won round many of his doubters, while others remain unconvinced (or refuse to be convinced.) Was it a lucky win against Fulham? Not on the balance of play over 90 minutes it wasn’t, but the pivotal VAR decisions in added time could easily have gone differently. Perhaps the referee’s thought process about Sebastien Haller interfering with play was driven by the fact that he hadn’t done so during the rest of the contest – while Lookman’s bizarre penalty attempt was justice done for the softest penalty award since the last one given against us.
West Ham had created the better chances, but it was not an impressive performance. The same limitations that have prevented West Ham seizing the initiative against ‘lesser’ teams in the past, were all too apparent again. Failure to move the ball quickly enough, getting funnelled into congested cul-de-sacs, lacking the added creative spark and being unable to create space down the wings for crosses. If width is to be provided by the wing backs, then they need to be played into open space far more than they are now. Especially, while Sebastien Haller remains their target. Or is that a health and safety requirement due to the recent concerns over too much heading (which, of course, is a valid issue.)
Fulham were allowed to flood the midfield areas (albeit without posing much of a threat) leaving Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek outnumbered and unusually ineffective. Rice, particularly, was forced too deep and had the look of a backwards/ sideways parody of Mark Noble. He is at his best when driving forward and spreading play – we don’t need any of those Gareth Southgate, possession for the sake of it habits here, thank you!
Today’s game will present a very different challenge against possibly the most direct side in the league (or is that Burnley?) Past Hammers performances against physical opponents desperately seeking points might suggest a difficult afternoon. A trademark slow start that has often followed one of the enforced breaks could be the story of the game. It is vital that manager and team have prepared to weather an early and ‘in your face’ storm from the opposition. Timid away defeats at Burnley in both the of the last two seasons readily spring to mind as a yardstick.
Sheffield United were last season’s surprise package. Chris Wilder did a superb job with limited resources to finish top half, in a season of few goals – just over one per game scored and conceded – and with an admirable ability to come back from behind. They have yet to reproduce that success this time around. The loss of on-loan keeper, Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell to injury have resulted in a leakier defence – and what was a trickle of goals has almost dried up completely – not helped by missing two or three penalties they have been awarded. Brewster may eventually provide the missing cutting edge, but at the moment, the Blades look decidedly blunt.
Moyes will surely stick with his favoured three/ five at the back formation with final selection contingent on injuries and/ or fatigue. I am assuming that Angelo Ogbonna is available to play (it has all been very quiet on his injury) but there could be a recall for Issa Diop, if Fabian Balbuena has not recovered from his arduous trip back from Asuncion (how many connecting flights would that entail?)
Although Michail Antonio has been back in full training, I don’t see him being risked today. He needs to be packed in cotton wool as carefully as possible until there is a credible backup option. And despite his rousing cameo against Fulham, I don’t see Said Benrahma making the starting eleven yet – certainly not in the type of game where hard work and discipline will be paramount requirements. Expect another twenty to thirty minutes of him from the bench.
As ever, the wild card will be whatever grenades VAR throws up with penalty and offside decisions. It is obvious that the relevant rules lack precision, are largely vague and have become more subjective than ever. Just that we now have more than one person responsible for making those judgements. In fact, it appears there are two sets of interpretations depending on whether an incident took place inside or outside the penalty area. I am thinking it could be better entertainment if after any goal, or tackle in the box, the referee runs to the pitch-side and spins the Wheel of Fortune to determine the outcome. It would make about as much sense while at the same time producing great, nail-biting TV drama.
Whatever happens it is going to be a tight affair with few goals. My confidence that we can stop Sheffield United scoring is higher than it is on our ability to break them down at the other end. Could it be our first scoreless draw since September 2019? This is hardly likely to one of those games for the neutral (they must be better things to do on a Sunday afternoon even during lockdown) but will take the Hammers to nick it with the only goal of the game.