Losing was going to happen sooner or later but a tame one at Wolverhampton just as games against Manchester City and Chelsea appear on the horizon was not the best of timings. A chance, hopefully, to use the Europa League clash in Vienna to get the show back on the road and prove that Saturday was nothing more than a bump along the way.
West Ham have earned a reputation as a reliable, well-oiled machine in recent months but too many of its parts had seized up at Molineux. Few, if any, of the outfield players were close to their own high standards of performance as the hosts thoroughly deserved to coast to victory.
Ironically, the Hammers had made a really lively start to the game, but once Wolves had settled, they dominated – their extra man in midfield and the enterprise of their wing-backs stifling West Ham’s attacking ambitions and creating scoring opportunities of their own.
Although the West Ham downfall was largely down to sub-par individual performances, I do wonder whether the 4-2-3-1 formation is too rigid and predictable under certain circumstances. Particularly in the absence of greater imagination and orchestration in the centre of attacking midfield. Manuel Lanzini was an improvement when he replaced the off-colour Said Benrahma, but neither of them or Nikola Vlasic are influential or involved enough to pull the strings. Indeed, I have yet to see anything in Vlasic to get excited about. Maybe he will come good but there are so many aspects of his game that require improvement. Arguably, Pablo Fornals is the best equipped from the current squad to play that role, but he too was ineffective at Wolves.
It was a similar story with Michail Antonio who barely put a foot right all afternoon after his exertions in the international break. Despite West Ham flying his home early on a private jet it appears his ball control was left in the baggage reclaim. A touch of jet lag is a possibility, although an equivalent trek had done Raul Jimenez no harm. No surprise that Antonio will not feature at all today.
I thought defensively we looked adequate at the weekend even if the Kurt Zouma/ Carig Dawson partnership was a little clumsy. Surprising how difficult Zouma found it playing on the left side in the absence of Angelo Ogbonna. I hope we see Zouma paired with Issa Diop tonight to see how that works out. Aaron Cresswell and Ben Johnson also did OK but didn’t get forward enough for my liking. Supporting the attack and getting in behind the opposition defence is where Vladimir Coufal shades it over Johnson.
The final conundrum is how to get the best out of both Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek. The flourishing of Rice this season has been partially balanced out by the struggles of Soucek. His more withdrawn role does not play to his attacking strength of the late runs into the box. He doesn’t have the range of passing to truly boss the current role.
Had it not been for a late Soucek OG in Genk, tonight’s game in Vienna might have been something of a formality as far as Group H is concerned. As it is, West Ham need more points and Rapid will believe they can still be playing European football after Christmas. Perhaps it is to the Hammer’s advantage that the hosts really do need to win to make that happen – better suited than inviting us to break them down.
Rapid have won one and lost one since their last Europa League outing and now sit 5th of 12 in the Austrian league, a whopping twenty points behind runaway leaders RB Salzburg.
There will be a sense of déjà vu (all over again) with the return of the eerie behind closed doors atmosphere. Recent experiences shouldn’t affect the teams too drastically although the trend of empty stadia favouring away sides is comforting.
Predicted line up for tonight is: Areola, Coufal, Diop, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Kral, Yarmolenko, Vlasic, Benrahma, Bowen
Predicted score: West Ham to win 2 – 1.