Before the season started my prediction for West Ham’s finishing position in the Premier League was 10th. I felt it would be a struggle to reproduce the previous seasons success alongside a European campaign. The most probable outcome now is that the Hammers will end up somewhere between 6th and 8th. In that context the team will have exceeded my expectations.
Of course, there is still time for things to change. A few weeks ago, most were certain of Manchester City winning the title at a canter, with Norwich, Watford, and Burnley dead certs for relegation. Now, Liverpool are piling on the pressure at the top while Leeds (how did we lose to them), Brentford (how did we lose to them) and Everton are being dragged into the battle at the bottom.
For a team sitting in the top six and still in two cup competitions, there is plenty of disquiet among Hammers supporters. A combination of poor results, mediocre performances, and a shambles of a transfer window. It is easy to understand. They showed us a dream of the top four but complacency has it looking unattainable. As the song lyric by James put it: “Now I’ve swung back down again, it’s worse than it was before, if I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.”
Whatever happens between now and May, the next two weeks will be pivotal to how we remember the 2021/22 season. The sequence starts with today’s match up with close rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, then an FA Cup visit to in-form Southampton at fortress St Marys, followed by the perennially fruitless trip to title-chasing Liverpool, and rounded off by the Thrilla in Sevilla ©.
A variety of factors seem to have contributed to the West Ham slump. Individual loss of form, playing with injuries, fatigue, and opponents working us out are among the most obvious. Ultimately all come back to a ridiculously thin squad and a bench that the manager doesn’t really trust. There are just not the options for rest, freshening things up or trying something different.
I still believe that David Moyes has done a fantastic job considering the position he found us in. But just like Leeds are discovering, a change of plan is required when Plan A isn’t working. Thankfully, Moyes Plan A isn’t as bad as Bielsa’s.
The issues with the squad should clearly have been addressed in January but weren’t. There are too many limitations to play anything other than a counter-attacking game, even if we have some fine individual players. Genuine width and pace down the flanks, the ability to go past an opponent, the basics of pass and move, a dead-ball specialist are all in short supply. Adjusting the 4-2-3-1 (which is increasingly overrun in midfield) to a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 look equally problematic. Something needs to change but nothing obvious sticks out.
Will there be any adjustments to the side that failed to impress against Newcastle? Ben Johnson in for the injured Vladimir Coufal, I would think. Possibly one of Manuel Lanzini or Pablo Fornals dropping into a midfield three with Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek. Leaving a front three of Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma (or Nikola Vlasic). It might improve the balance in what is likely to be a tight and cagey affair.
Wolves are in a fine run of form despite their late setback in midweek at Arsenal. Back in November, Wolves ended West Ham’s four match winning streak when Jimenez scored the only goal in an otherwise uninspiring game. In many ways, the Mexican is the ideal hold-up player in a team that score few, but concede even fewer. Manager Bruno Lage now has further options upfront with the long-awaited return of the impressive Neto providing competition for Hwang and Podence.
Nothing suggests to me that it will be anything but an afternoon of hard labour for the Hammers. Little threat to the Wolves goal was on show at Molineux other than hopeful long-range pot shots. Will it be any different today? Antonio’s customary Row Z skier, Benrahma’s curling it past the post, and Bowen hitting the bar. There is always a set piece, I suppose, and an early goal can easily change the complexion of a match.
As much as I would like to see a perfect Craig Dawson hattrick, I think this game might ending goalless. COYI!