It seems inconceivable that any of the Premier League’s current bottom three have the remotest hope of escaping relegation – even though only 60% of the season has so far been completed. Not only would it require a massive turnaround in their own form, but also a drastic collapse by one of the sides immediately ahead of them. There must come a time when even the most optimistic of squads realise that survival is a lost cause, even before it is mathematically proven. Usually, this will bring with it a consequential loss of belief and commitment on the pitch – think Norwich when they visited the London Stadium in July. Some of the mid-table teams (Crystal Palace) already look like they are planning their summer holidays.
Despite Sheffield United sitting fourteen points from safety and being the league’s lowest scorers, I make them the least likely of the three condemned to throw in the towel. The mindset of the manager and squad will ensure that doesn’t happen, at least not yet. So another tough assignment for David Moyes and his West Ham team to negotiate as they endeavour to spend a fourth consecutive week in the top six.
If the relegation places appear nailed on, then recent form and events suggest the title is little more than a one-horse race. While each of the chasing pack performs in fits and starts, Manchester City are suddenly unstoppable. The ‘genius’ of Pep and a bottomless transfer budget have somehow managed to work their magic.
Of the teams with an eye on a European finish, West Ham and Aston Villa are the most improbable, having finished fifth and fourth bottom respectively last season. Both will be relying on a handful of key players staying fit as they attempt to get the better of Everton and Chelsea for the chance of glory.
I clearly haven’t been paying attention with Everton. In my mind they had faded badly after a promising start, and yet remain the most handily placed with a couple of games in hand over their rivals. Chelsea have embarked on a lukewarm streak since the appointment of Tuchel as manager, but in truth they have had such a benign set of fixtures that even Frank would have picked up a few points. The West Ham mission then, should they choose to accept it, is to demonstrate ever more over-achievement, teamwork and determination – and avoid picking up any unwanted injuries and suspensions. It might well come to nothing but it is a pleasant surprise to be in with a shout.
The media has been gushing over Guardiola in recent weeks and pouring effusive praise for his tactical innovation of playing without a recognised striker. Don’t they realise the Hammers have been doing that for most of the past twenty-five years. The club rarely gets the credit it deserves. Just because they failed to designate the string of hapless strikers as ‘False 9’s’. Same as the Hammers being the first side to field a ‘False 1’ by playing Roberto in goal.
Whether a striker will take the field in claret and blue on Monday night depends (as usual) on the fitness of Michail Antonio. By all accounts he is on track to be involved, but will that be as a starter or available from the bench if absolutely needed? My sneaking suspicion is that he will be held in reserve, for use in emergencies only. The crucial Tottenham game next weekend is a more probable target for him. If Antonio is absent then the troika of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma must take responsibility for providing the necessary movement and creating space for others to exploit. It sounds all good in theory, but they will need to raise their passing and decision making game if it is to be the Hammer’s Moyesiola moment.
Elsewhere, the backline will be missing Antonio Ogbonna for the first time this season. His absence leaves Craig Dawson as the mainstay of the defence – an argument that would have been laughed out of court just a few short months ago. A string of outstanding performances has proved many of us doubters wrong. At least with centre backs West Ham have Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena in reserve. Based only on media chatter I guess Diop will get the nod and a chance to show that he is more commanding in the air than we have come to expect.
Other team or position changes are unlikely, and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have to put up with Andriy Yarmolenko or Mark Noble for anything other than late cameos.
The Blades will be without several important players including Sander Berge, Jack O’Connell and George Baldock.
The game is unlikely to be a classic. The neutral might prefer to find a good book or take the opportunity to arrange their CDs into alphabetical order. The long running West Ham conundrum of how to break down a well organised defensive wall will determine the chances of success. Can the passing and movement be slick and incisive enough to find a way through and behind the Blades defence. Relying on lofted crosses and set pieces when faced with a defensive minded opponent is an unconvincing strategy. Past performances might point to a 1-0 win, courtesy of a late Tomas Soucek goal, but better is required if a serious tilt at the top six in this topsy-turvy season is to be kept alive. I know that after the event I would take a 1-0 win but we really need to see more dominant performances from the Hammers in this type of game. Hope never dies even if experience suggests it should. COYI!