In these times of great uncertainty I can now stop trying to work out all the permutations of where we might finish at the end of this magnificent season. Just a few games ago I was speculating on how we could finish as high as fourth or as low as tenth and plumped for sixth. One point against Southampton today, or Tottenham’s failure to win at Leicester, will make my prediction come true and bring us European football in the Europa League next season. Even if the very worst happens today (and I don’t for one moment believe that it will) then we will still be taking part in this new-fangled European Conference competition, which would still be OK although it would bring greater early season fixture congestion.
The win against West Brom was a nervy affair and not really settled until the last few minutes, although anyone looking at the statistics of the game would think that it was a stroll at the Hawthorns. It most certainly wasn’t but somehow this team are superb at battling it out even when not at their best. It was the type of game that some Hammers teams of the past might have lost, but the spirit and togetherness is something I haven’t seen for a while. (And just a thought – I reckon Cresswell would be a good penalty taker. I wonder if this has been considered?)
Massive credit to David Moyes and the coaching team for what they have achieved in turning around a club close to relegation last season into one that has qualified for Europe in this one with minimal new faces, setting all sorts of club records along the way, such as number of Premier League wins, number of Premier League away wins, number of Premier League points, best Premier League finishing position this century, best Premier League defensive record and others. We’ve even won as many points away from home as the great team of 1985/86 in fewer games, and if we win today we will have the second best points total in home games of all Premier League teams this season (after Manchester City). That is some turnaround in such a short time.
Set out below is an extract from my first article this season that was published before the Newcastle game where we went down 2-0 at the London Stadium in the first match this season. Looking at what I wrote then not very much has changed personnel-wise. The brilliant capture of Coufal (my choice for Hammer of the Year very slightly ahead of Rice, Soucek, Ogbonna plus some others perhaps) has had a massive influence defensively, as has the surprising emergence of Dawson as a solid defender, forming a good partnership with Ogbonna. Benrahma was the only addition in an attacking sense in the summer window and I’m sure he will become a valuable addition in the years to come. Haller has gone, and I don’t see a way back for Anderson or Yarmolenko. Lanzini was beginning to come good at the end before his latest injury. It seemed that most of the fans were clamouring for a forward in the winter transfer window and were less than impressed when Lingard turned up. That soon changed when he had a massive impact, especially in his early games for us. I wonder what will happen in this respect in the next few weeks?
Prior to the first game of the season – “How will we line up? I expect Fabianski to be behind a back four of Fredericks (or Johnson?), Diop, Ogbonna and Cresswell. I fear that Saint-Maximin can run our defence ragged as he did at the London Stadium last season and wonder if Masuaku will be included to provide extra cover for Cresswell? It wouldn’t be my choice but it may happen. Rice, Soucek and Noble may start in midfield, with Bowen, Fornals and Antonio providing the main attacking options at the start. But will there perhaps be a place for the in-form Yarmolenko, or a hopefully rejuvenated Haller, Lanzini or Anderson? Will any of the youngsters get a chance? Who knows? What we do know is that there won’t be any new faces to bolster a defence that had one of the worst goals-against records in the Premier League last season. I’m confident that we can score goals, but can we improve defensively? Perhaps David Moyes and his coaches can work wonders on this aspect of our team, but has he got the raw materials to work with?
It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. So here goes: 1.Manchester City, 2.Liverpool, 3.Manchester United, 4.Chelsea, 5.Arsenal, 6.Wolves, 7.Everton, 8.Tottenham, 9.Leicester, 10.West Ham, 11.Southampton, 12.Newcastle, 13.Leeds, 14.Aston Villa, 15.Sheffield United, 16.Crystal Palace, 17.Brighton, 18.Burnley, 19.West Brom, 20.Fulham.
There’s optimism for you! Enjoy the game.”
So we did get some defensive reinforcements in the end, and my forecast re league positions wasn’t too bad with Leicester and ourselves performing well above my expectations. But the squad remains light and will need reinforcing, especially to take into account participation in Europe. It remains to be seen how much backing that the manager gets from above. He has worked miracles with what he has despite very limited resources, and proved that he should never have gone in the first place to be replaced by Pellegrini. That was a massive error of judgement by those at the top.
A few additional seats for the game became available on Thursday from some of the 10,000 who were lucky in the ballot but who subsequently are unable to attend. I am one of the fortunate few who have come off the bench to replace them, so I am looking forward to my first visit to the London Stadium since February 29th 2020 when we beat Southampton 3-1 just before the initial lockdown. We have a good recent record against the Saints, winning five and drawing one of the last six encounters, and on quite a few occasions in recent years we have scored three or more goals in the games. I reckon 3-1 again today. What are the chances?