Today sees a first ever top tier clash between West Ham and Brentford, and the first in any competition since the 1992/93 season. Although the Bees had enjoyed one previous spell in the old First Division – a war interrupted run between 1935/ 36 and 1946/47 – the Hammers were languishing in midtable Division 2 obscurity at the time.
Among many pundits pre-season favourites for the relegation places, Brentford have equipped themselves well so far. Showing the determination and resilience necessary to make a go of it in the Premier League, and following in Leeds footsteps as the season’s surprise package. Prior to last weekend they had conceded just two times, but it was their refusal to be overawed by Liverpool, and to come from behind twice in a 3-3 draw, that rightfully earned the plaudits.
For the Hammers, today is the second instalment of the Sunday after the Thursday before schedule that will run until Christmas. A routine victory against Rapid Vienna in the week left them sitting comfortably at the top of Group H. That it has been achieved with a largely second-string selection is a bonus and all the more satisfying. Considerably reducing the risk of fatigue and injury from having to play twice per week.
The Europa League game saw another man of the match performance from Declan Rice. What a top class player he has become. I will admit to being one of those who initially thought he could only ever make it as a centre back – how wrong was that? It is not only his commanding performances on the pitch that would be missed but also his obvious role in encouraging the superb team spirit that currently surrounds the club.
It is unlikely there will be any surprises in the West Ham starting line-up for the game. The only uncertainty is at right back where both Vladimir Coufal and Ryan Fredericks may be unavailable. Fortunately, Ben Johnson can provide sound defensive cover, even if he still needs to offer more going forward. It was interesting to see that Brentford had targeted Alexander-Arnold as the weak link in Liverpool’s defence last week and I wonder if Thomas Frank sees any similar point of weakness in the Hammer’s backline. Both full-backs may need strong support from their respective midfield partners.
As last year’s set-piece kings, West Ham have carried much less of a threat this time around. One of the highlights in midweek was seeing Craig Dawson really attacking the ball at corner kicks. Dawson and Tomas Soucek were a handful for defences last season and corners were a productive source of goals. Kurt Zouma is the better defender than Dawson (and has a reasonable goal-scoring record of his own) but we have yet to see any aggression from him in the opposition box.
The Rice/ Soucek dynamic also looks in need of tweaking. The desire to get Rice forward more is understandable, particularly now he has started to weigh-in with a few important goals. But it does appear to have dampened Soucek’s party piece of arriving late in the box with purpose. There were signs of the old Soucek in the second half at Leeds and hopefully the manager and coaches are working on getting the right balance between the two.
A win today could move West Ham up to third or fourth place, depending on the scale of victory and what happens in the subsequent Liverpool-Manchester City clash. Not that victory is assured against a side who are as well organised and hard working as Brentford. Breaking down compact and organised defences is something we still seem to struggle with. Excellent counter-attacking has become a West ham core competency but that extra touch of magic to unlock packed defences remains elusive.
How Brentford approach the game will be fascinating. Last weekend’s barnstorming game with Liverpool was something of an anomaly for them, deviating from the cautious, disciplined style that had gone before and earned them three clean sheets – no doubt polycotton ones at a 50% saving in the Brentford Nylons great autumn sale, not arf!
Not knowing what to expect makes this game difficult to call. Surprisingly West Ham supporters have suddenly become accustomed to winning games, particularly at the London Stadium. But against an athletic, all-action opponent who don’t know when they are beaten, it will be a tough test.
In the past this fixture has thrown up some crazy score-lines including 7-4, 8-3 and 7-2. I’ve a feeling this one will be a tighter affair. I can see it being edge of the seats stuff right to the final whistle, with the Hammers finally winning out by the odd goal. COYI!