I have never been convinced that, as pundits, ex-footballers offer any greater or significant insight on players or games than the average knowledgeable fan. What they do know, however, is all the little cheats, wrinkles and tricks of the trade that players will try to dishonestly gain advantage. For that reason, there should be a big effort to encourage them into refereeing, rather than leaving it to naïve amateurs like Peter Bankes, who was nominally in charge of Monday’s win over Aston Villa. If that also meant a few less pundits on the TV, then even better news.
The exaggerated diving and cheating of Grealish, mainly, but also Trezeguet was farcical and indefensible. Even more disturbing is that the authorities seem to have no appetite to sort it out. When Trezeguet had a penalty chalked off for a blatant dive against Brighton where was the card for simulation? It is telling that the Villa antics were ridiculed only on social media, not in the mainstream, where it is simply shrugged off with a smile or as an accepted part of the game. In my mind, cheating is a far greater blight on the beautiful game than missing the occasional offside toes, or an accidental handball in the build up to a goal.
West Ham were clearly second best against Villa but were able to snatch a win to make it three in a row and fifth place in the table with seventeen points. The Hammers have not wholly convinced in that run of games and, although they were the better team in games against Fulham and Sheffield United, victory over Villa was down to the visitor’s below average finishing – karma at work.
Today’s meeting with Manchester United sees both teams searching for their fourth league win in a row. A West Ham victory would elevate them, at least temporarily, into the top three. Seasoned supporters will recognise such a scenario as ripe for disappointment.
It is a football phenomenon where a period of over-achievement so often leads to heightened and unrealistic expectations. As a wise man once said: “Good is not good, when better is expected.” David Moyes has moulded a team with great attitude and unparalleled (for West Ham) discipline and organisation. It has brought a measure of pragmatic stability, so sorely lacking during ten years of erratic and short-term decision making at the club.
The rapid transformation from pre-season relegation favourites to the top six has led to supporters wanting more. Expectation that lesser teams should be effortlessly brushed aside and a desire for the present balance between adventure and pragmatism to be relaxed in favour of the former. Cautious fellow that he is, Moyes is unlikely to veer far from his more realistic well trodden path – steady improvement and low risk consolidation.
What that means for the approach to today’s game depends once again on Michail Antonio’s hamstrings. A fully fit Antonio would cause havoc against the cumbersome Manchester United backline. If, as seems likely, he is not available then too many high balls to Sebastien Haller would play directly to the strength of the world’s most overvalued defender, Harry Maguire.
If Haller does play, it would present a more compelling case in support of a popular start for Said Benrahma, in place of Pablo Fornals. Personally, though, I don’t see that happening. No doubt Benrahama would offer a more creative attacking option but I sense Moyes doesn’t feel he is yet ready for the physical demands of the Premier League, or to provide the defensive energy and backup required.
Perhaps the manager will surprise me, but I think Haller for Antonio will be the only probable change. Against a team who have made a habit this season of late goal surges, sensible use of substitute resources will be essential today.
Manchester United are a club haunted by historic expectations. Something that has proved a graveyard for several managers since the retirement of Ferguson. In fact, I’m surprised that Solskjaer has lasted as long as he has. He might well be able to qualify for Europe on a consistent basis, but is unlikely to ever do better than that. Surely, not good enough for one of the leading brands in world football.
Like most of his predecessors Solskjaer has attempted to throw money at the problem, but without any discernible pattern to his spending. They have very good individual players but lack true cohesion. In terms of their own season, it may well be that today’s game is seen as of secondary in importance to Tuesday’s Champion’s League group decider against RB Leipzig.
West Ham have a decent record against the Red Devils in recent years. To extend that run they will need to take control of the midfield. One of the weaknesses of the Moyes favoured formation is that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek are prone to getting outnumbered in the centre of midfield. It happened against Villa, and also to a lesser extent against Fulham. Teams that prefer to attack mainly through the centre, as Manchester United do, are well placed to exploit that weakness.
My thoughts on how the game might play out are muddled. The Hammer’s with a record of forever blowing the rare opportunity to gate-crash the very top of the table. The visitors possibly preoccupied with a Champion’s League exit.
In many ways we are at our best against the bigger teams. But to take all three points will require a strong performance right from kick off to the seventh minute of added time. I’d love to be able to predict another win but feel, this time, we may have to settle for a draw.