I have found myself just recently sitting at the computer and staring at the Premier League table for many minutes at a time. Can it really be true? Last season’s ragged and sorry strugglers are loud and proud in fifth position with twenty-four games already played? With a chance (even if it is an outside one) of European qualification? Surely, it’s just a dream?
It should be time to enjoy the moment, but too many years of bad experience won’t let me shake off the feeling that it can’t possibly to last. I get that uneasy feeling whenever things are going well that it’s bound to be followed by something bad happening. It’s a symptom, apparently, of a condition known as cherophobia – although, technically, that is the fear of being happy, which is certainly not true in my case. I couldn’t be more happier if West Ham suddenly embarked on a momentous fourteen game winning streak between now and the end of the season.
The holy grail would undoubtedly be gatecrashing the Champion’s League places. Although quite how a shoestring squad such as ours could possibly negotiate a CL campaign would defy the greatest minds. In an average year, a total of seventy-one points are needed to bag a CL spot – a target that would require the Hammers to up their points per game tally from 1.75 to just over 2 in the remaining games. Sounds like a tall order, but, of course, it depends equally on how other team’s fare. Qualification with sixty-six points has been known in the past.
As football fans, we are never fully satisfied. A circumstance that led me to ponder those what-if moments that have denied us an even greater points haul by now. (For the purposes of this exercise, I will conveniently ignore any instances where the rub of the green actually went our way.) What-if the incompetent officials had noticed the clearance by the Manchester United keeper had gone 10 yards out of play? What-if a few of those fifteen attempts that hit the woodwork had bounced back into the net? What-if the blatant penalty for the foul on Michail Antonio against Manchester City at 1-0 up had been rightfully given? What-if we had started the comeback against Tottenham five minutes earlier and won 4-3?
That brings us nicely to this week’s opponents, and a game where anticipation anxiety is typically at its highest. A contest where you would be tempted to sell at least a small part of your soul in exchange for a positive result. A West Ham win would open up a nine point gap over the one-time north London giants, while injecting ever greater turmoil onto the chaotic reign of Jose Mourinho. The replacement of Pochettino by Mourinho is now looking as inspired as sacking Harry and bringing in Roeder was. The spirit and verve that once typified Pochettino’s Spurs has been thoroughly exorcised to a point where they now rely totally on the goals and assists from Son and Kane. Still a threat but a far more predictable one.
Something that has surprised me with David Moyes in recent games is his willingness to play around with formations and personnel. Even though some of this was forced upon him by injuries and availability, it did demonstrate a greater tactical nous then we might give him credit for. Manager and team have grown in confidence together.
Although Monday night’s game did end with a routine win, the changes against Sheffield United did illustrate that tinkering can sometimes expose hidden weaknesses – like a man uprating the power of his car engine but not upgrading the brakes and suspension at the same time. With Jarrod Bowen occupied elsewhere he was not available to support Vladimir Coufal. As a result Coufal looked unusually exposed at times, allowing the visitors to get in more crosses than might have been comfortable. It was also no surprise that an opponent with a mainly aerial threat would look to isolate Aaron Cresswell as part of back three. A team with more clinical finishers than the Blades (Harry Kane, for example) might well have made a lot more of the headed opportunities that presented themselves.
The Hammers line-up tomorrow will again hinge on the fitness of Antonio. All indications in the media are that he is available and raring to go. His inclusion would see a return to the favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with a toss up between Said Benrahma or Manuel Lanzini as to who partners Jesse Lingard and Bowen in the ‘3’. This would mean an unfortunate demotion to the bench for Ben Johnson who is rapidly becoming a very fine footballer, both defending and going forward, even playing on the wrong foot.
Tottenham will be without several minor players but may welcome back the unsettled Kane. Watch out for wind assisted tumbles in the penalty area.
West Ham have a below average record this season in London derbies – a return of just nine points from seven games played. The game will be a big chance to correct this and give a boost to the pursuit of finishing as top London club for the first time since 1985/86. If the Hammers are to win they must avoid getting caught by a slow start as they did in the return fixture back in October. Big performances will be needed from the likes of Craig Dawson, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Lingard and Antonio, but if they are the scene will be set for another famous victory.
I mentioned earlier the anxiety brought about by cherophobia. This should not, of course, be confused with chorophobia which is, in fact, the fear of dancing. Should my prediction of an impressive 3-1 West Ham victory prove correct, they’ll be dancing in streets of East London tomorrow afternoon.