A week is a long time in football, especially one that will have such a defining effect on the entire season. The West Ham’s week started with the high of a win against Wolves, sunk to the low of defeat in the FA Cup at Southampton, and must now rise to the challenge of a game where, historically, we rarely come away with anything more than a ticket stub and an empty pie wrapper.
The decision by David Moyes to change formation to a back three with wing backs worked well against Wolves. It drew a much better performance from of the team and brought back a touch of the swagger that had gone missing. It was surprising how many decent chances were created against what is one of the meanest defences in the league. And to cap it off there was a fine man-of-the-match performance from Kurt Zouma to enjoy.
I do wonder, though, what might have happened had Wolves started with their strongest side and shown greater adventure. It was the strangest decision from Bruno Lage to leave all of Jimenez, Podence, and Neto on the bench for so long.
When the starting lineups were announced at St Marys it appeared history might be repeating itself in a matter of a few days. Ralph Hasenhüttl opting to field a second string while David Moyes selected nine of the eleven that had played most of the game three days earlier. It can’t have gone unnoticed that the Saints have far greater squad depth than us.
Ultimately, for the second time this season, a Southampton victory hinged on the eccentric interpretation of tussles taking place between Craig Dawson and Armando Broja inside and outside the area. On each occasions the outcome was Ward-Prowse blasting home emphatically from the spot. Disappointingly, the FA Cup years-of-hurt clock will now tick over to 43. A shame the FA don’t take a leaf out of the UEFA book and allow defeated clubs to drop down into the FA Trophy. I could fancy our chances against Needham Market in the last eight.
In the six meetings at Anfield since the Dmitri Payet inspired win in 2015 – the game that ended a 52-year drought – the Hammers have reverted meekly to type, losing (the last) four and drawing the other two. It would take something really special to disrupt that new sequence today. We are habitually reminded that Moyes has never managed a team to victory at Anfield, from seventeen previous attempts. Another record that will need to be shattered if West Ham are to register a season win double over the Merseysiders this evening.
I consider the win over Liverpool at the London Stadium in November as the Hammers finest performance of the season. Sadly, the international break intervened, and the same heights were never reached again. In previewing that game, I mentioned a grudging respect for Jurgen Klopp, but he lost me that day revealing himself as a poor and ungracious loser. Just because they missed out on a club record unbeaten run. Fortunately for him, his side have lost just one league game since.
There is little need for debate over the Hammer’s line-up. The team pretty much picks itself. Not the result of outstanding performances all round, but due to the absence of realistic alternatives. If there is to be a debate, it is whether Moyes will stick with the same formation that won at Wolves. The team did look better balanced, but we really don’t have the personnel capable of excelling in the wing-back roles. Normally, they are the ones meant to be the providing attacking width and getting behind the opposition defence. Ben Johnson is a fine defender who has the energy to get forward, but he lacks the composure to deliver when he gets there. Pablo Fornals works as hard as anyone and can show great vision with his passing, just not often enough. But he is not a wing-back and is not strong on his left foot. Square pegs in round holes.
There is a chance, I suppose, that Moyes will rest a few today with the Thrilla in Sevilla looming on the horizon. It would be a surprise to me, but it is possible. As things stand the likes of Nikola Vlasic, Alex Kral, Andriy Yarmolenko are best left on the bench. With Said Benrahma still sitting on the naughty step after last week’s outburst.
Liverpool have a few injury problems of their own and may be without Firmino, Matip, Thiago, Keita, and Jones. It is a strong squad, though, and they have plenty of attacking options to pick from: Salah, Jota, Diaz, Mane, and Origi. Read that and weep, Moysie.
The Hammers are hardly likely to register on the Oracle Cloud Win Probability for this one. The only glimmer of hope is that Liverpool won’t be sitting back and expecting us to break them down. Our twin threats of counter-attacking goals and set-pieces could cause Liverpool concerns, as they did at the London Stadium. But the game will be more about keeping Liverpool quiet and keeping their full backs occupied at the back. That will be the key to any success. COYI!