New Faces Prepare To Show Star Quality As West Ham Travel To Southampton

Top six, new signings, a better-balanced squad and European football. Can the West Ham feelgood factor maintain momentum into today’s clash at St Mary’s Stadium?

After months of phony rumours and speculation, the transfer window exploded into life at the last minute with a flurry of late deals and a hysterical media frenzy. All those who experienced it will all be able to tell their grandchildren where they when the news broke of which shirt number Cristiano Ronaldo will be wearing at Old Trafford – as Manchester United fans sent house prices rocketing in Croydon just to obtain a CR7 postcode.

After the dust on that blockbuster deal finally settled, it also emerged that West Ham had broken open the piggy bank to make three additional quality signings of their own. Kurt Zouma, Nikola Vlasic and Alex Kral all agreeing on moves to east London. A warm welcome to KZ4, NV11 and AK33. A trick missed, perhaps, with Kral not insisting on the number 47 shirt – as an inspiration to rifle in the occasional goal.

On paper, it looks a very productive window for the club. But only time will tell how well, and how quickly, those players adapt to life in the claret and blue. Zouma, with over 150 EPL appearances already to his name, should be ready and able to make an instant impression. Vlasic and Kral, on the other hand, will need time to demonstrate their transition from the Russian to English leagues.

The squad now has cover in most positions. Alphonse Areola provides competition for Lukasz Fabianski. Kouma increases the complement to four senior centre backs – how will Issa Diop reacts to becoming fourth choice – while Ben Johnson provides cover for both full-backs. Kral offers useful backup to Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, and potentially we will see all three deployed in games against Manchester City and Chelsea. The attacking midfield options are suddenly intriguing with Vlasic adding a different dimension to the blossoming talents of Pablo Fornals, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma.    

If only there was a backup striker, the squad would look comfortably at home as a top six side. Although it will be a challenge to cope with both domestic and European football, there is now a better balance in the squad and a flexibility to vary formation according to circumstances.

The striker situation is, as ever, complicated. David Moyes has stuck to his principles of focusing on quality rather than numbers but uncovering a productive striker on the cheap is a tough assignment – which a quick scan through the list of 50 or so strikers signed by West Ham in the last 10 years illustrates perfectly. It is a task that must now sit at the very top of Rob Newman’s (the club’s new head of recruitment) Todo list.  In the meantime, all hopes will be pinned to the brittle hamstrings of Michail Antonio, a well-deserved Premier League Player of The Month.

It would be no surprise to see Zouma go straight into the starting eleven for today’s trip to Southampton at the expense of Craig Dawson. That is the only probable change I see, barring any late injuries or positive Covid tests. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for a glimpse of Vlasic from the bench.

There has been debate among supporters that the time is now right for Areola to replace Fabianski between the sticks. Areola will inevitably take over the Number One spot at some point during the season, but I doubt that time has come quite yet.

Today’s opponents, Southampton, have experienced an indifferent start to the season. Defeat at Everton on the opening weekend was followed up by a creditable home draw against Manchester United, and a last gasp penalty equaliser at Newcastle.

Not sure that I am totally convinced by Ralph Hasenhüttl despite his obvious passion for the task in hand. Or more specifically at how appropriate/ resilient his narrow 4-2-2-2 formation is for the Premier League. A record to date of 16th, 11th and 15th place finishes is not particularly impressive but with the Saints rich youth production line seemingly run dry maybe it is as good as it gets.

The home side will still be a threat, however. The spearhead of Che Adams and Adam Armstrong may not offer much in the way of aerial threat, but they are both lively, work very hard and come with decent goal-scoring records. Add to that the dead-ball prowess of James Ward-Prowse and the Hammers defence must remain alert. Elsewhere, ex-Stamford Bridge academy player, Tino Livramento, looks exactly the type of exciting prospect that Chelsea will be wanting to buy back some time in the future.

Despite the transfer window being firmly closed, the media have yet to tire of speculation about Declan Rice joining Manchester United. If reports are to be believed, the hierarchy at Old Trafford are continuing to work on a bid that will take Rice up north in the summer – is that the best destination for a player wanting to win things? The bid should be a thing of beauty if they have ten months to work on it.

In the same vein, the talk of a Jesse Lingard move in the opposite direction persists. Strange that Lingard didn’t push for a summer move, but I wonder if his services will still be of interest following the capture of Vlasic.

After today’s game the Hammers set off to Zagreb on their first real European adventure for many years. There then follows a busy run of games interrupted only by more international breaks. It will be great to set that run off with a positive result against a weakened Southampton at St Mary’s. No doubt we will cause them enough problems in attack to win the game provided the players are alert defensively and maintain their compact shape in midfield.  Hasenhüttl has yet to taste victory over West Ham and that run should continue today. West Ham to win 2-0; or 9-0 if the Saints have a player sent off early on.