Having struggled to eventually get past resolute non-league opponents in the FA Cup, West Ham now pit their wits against a more accomplished, equally resolute, and historically uncompromising Premier League in this afternoon’s encounter at the London Stadium.
Any side that relies heavily on counter attacking for its goals has to have a backup plan for those occasions where the opposition will happily dig in and sit deep – the probable Burnley strategy today. An injection of finesse and guile is required to create penetration and variety – either passing their way through the middle or getting in behind and around the defence.
The added commitment, fitness and organisation that characterises West Ham under David Moyes is commendable but effort is rarely enough on its own to win games. When faced with a massed defence the default tactic is to send in a succession of hopeful crosses from harmless areas of the pitch. This is all too easy to defend against and will not work against a well drilled Burnley backline. The footballing equivalent of a stranded wasp repeatedly bashing its head against a firmly closed window.
The West Ham squad is, by general consensus, short both in numbers and depth of talent. Since the win against Everton two weeks ago, the cupboard has become even barer with the departures of Sebastien Haller and Robert Snodgrass. Neither would have appeared in most supporter’s dream teams but both were regular matchday squad members who offered alternatives from the bench. David Moyes has been putting on a brave face about the strength of the squad, but he must be increasingly frustrated by the lack of resources and options in a congested fixture schedule.
The situation upfront remains the most critical with Michail Antonio, a converted winger with a history of troublesome hamstrings, the only recognised striker. A rational man would consider it preposterous not to fix this in the transfer window but that ignores the short-sighted nature of the West Ham board. GSB – Going Steadily Bonkers or perhaps Going Slowly Broke?
Hopes have suddenly been raised very high for 18-year-old, Mipo Odubeko, following his two-minute cameo at Stockport. He may well be given his Premier League debut today (or unleashed to use modern footballing terminology), if only from the bench. Hopefully, he will fare better than Ashely Fletcher, the last youngster to make the transition to West Ham from the Manchester United academy. Just as well that the club are able to pick up academy graduates from other sides as our own continues to underperform. What was once imagined to be an endless seam of precious talent (giving us Ferdinand, Lampard, Cole, Carrick and Johnson) has turned out to be an unproductive pit. Another casualty of under investment, maybe.
Radical team changes for today’s match would be surprising. Assuming some variation of 4-2-3-1 is deployed, the only area for debate would be who makes up the three. For me, the best balance has to be Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. Perhaps Moyes might consider Manuel Lanzini (rather than Benrahma) but I feel the Algerian needs to get a decent run in the side to build his confidence and make his mark. He is the one player who looks capable of doing something different on the ball, although admittedly decision making needs to improve.
It is surprising how quickly Craig Dawson has cemented his place in most fan’s preferred central defensive partnership. He and Angelo Ogbonna will be in for a very physical battle against the pairing of Wood and Barnes, so an extra helping of pre-match Weetabix might be needed for Dawson to keep his blood sugar levels topped up.
We may again have to rely on Tomas Soucek as the primary goal threat. His well timed runs from deep are a defender’s nightmare. Looking back at those goals against Brighton and Everton I couldn’t make my mind up whether both were really lucky, or whether he perceives time differently from other beings – allowing greater opportunity to react. I can imagine him able to dodge bullets like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. All the more reason to ping those crosses in low and hard from the byline.
Burnley had a rather poor start to the season, but have picked up markedly in recent weeks. They are still on the fringes of the relegation battle (along with Brighton and Newcastle) but it would be a huge surprise to me if they dropped down into the bottom three. Dyche’s pragmatic approach may not be the most exciting but it is effective at picking up points. A fact of modern football and the money involved ensures that clubs with limited resources must prioritise survival over entertainment, or face the consequences. Maybe their manager will get a shot with a bigger budget one day.
The aforementioned Wood and Barnes have always given the Hammers a hard time and it has been rare for this fixture to pass without a Chris Wood’s goal on the scoresheet. Dwight McNeil has also proved to be a regular thorn in the West Ham side, and has recovered from injury just in time to try it on again. At the back, one-time Hammer’s target James Tarkowski and Ben Mee make a formidable pairing that will not be easily daunted by aerial bombardment.
First instinct is that this is a game without too many goals. At least that would comply with the latest lockdown recommendations – fewer goals means fewer celebrations, and less opportunity to spread the Covid.
My guess is that Burnley will be happy to take care of their point, with an option to nick a goal from a set piece if it arises. They rarely score more than one, but once ahead that could be it for our chances. Previous attempts to breach packed defences does not inspire confidence. If West Ham score, though, the complexion of the game would change completely. Whether that would mean the Hammers pressing home their advantage or sitting back and allowing Burnley to regain the initiative is the great uncertainty. As I have a rather chipper outlook right now I will plump for a bonus 3-1 home win.