Football returns from the enforced hibernation of yet another international break to focus once again on the important business of club competition. I am increasingly ambivalent when it come to international football. Delighted whenever a Hammer gets called up by his country and always pleased to see England do well, but I’d rather it didn’t disrupt the rhythm of domestic leagues as much as it now does.
While we were away the draw for the tainted Qatar World Cup took place. Gareth must have been wearing his lucky waistcoat as England were landed the easiest of draws. He needs shooting if his team don’t make it through to the last eight at least.
The World Cup Finals will, of course, cause major and unprecedented disruption to the 2022/23 season. Once the European Nations League and Euro 2024 matches are shoehorned in, the schedule will be energy sapping for the players and frustrating for the fans. The international programme will look something like this:
European Nations League Qualifiers: June & September 2022
World Cup: November/ December 2022
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: March 2023
European Nations League Finals: June 2023
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: June, September, October & November 2023
Are we reaching a point where there is just too much football?
Back on the domestic front, West Ham play eight more league games between today and May 22. There will also be a minimum of two and a maximum of five Europa League fixtures to fit in. In a perfect world the final match of the season will be in Seville on May 26. It could be an exciting couple of months or fizzle out to nothing.
The first game of the run-in sees chaotic crisis club Everton visit the London Stadium. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, then whoever has been making the recruitment decisions at Everton must be stark raving bonkers. They are the Keystone Cops of the Premier League.
The current Toffee’s manager is, of course, top three West Ham pantomime villain, Frank Lampard Jr. He is the seventh manager at Goodison since David Moyes left in 2013. Apart from Martinez, none have lasted more than two seasons despite eye-watering amounts spent in the transfer market. In some ways, what has happened at Goodison is an exaggerated version of what was going on at West Ham until recently. Hubris, pretension, and vanity overruling intelligence and shrewdness when it came to recruitment. The chutzpah of the big-name shirt-holding photo opportunity being preferred to the hard work and diligence of team building and player development. Hopes and prayers that we don’t fall back into that mode.
For all the bad feeling around Lampard, he seems an intelligent chap and one who always looked cut out for management. A mistake that he abandoned a worthwhile apprenticeship at Derby for a taste of the big-time well before he was ready for it. He seems an odd choice to parachute in for a relegation battle, but perhaps he will be lucky that the three teams below him just don’t have enough quality to drag him down. Survival by default.
The Hammers appear to have come through the international break without any additional injury concerns, although it was disappointing that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek were both required to play a full ninety minutes in meaningless friendlies in midweek. Manuel Lanzini is apparently fine after being involved in a car accident and while Jarrod Bowen and Vladimir Coufal are now back in training, I would be surprised if either of them featured today, except from the bench.
Despite defeat at Tottenham there have been signs in recent performances that West Ham have recaptured some of their early season swagger. A shame that the doldrums of December and February had scuppered a realistic tilt at the top four.
The subtle tweak to formation that was seen against Aston Villa and Sevilla, with Manuel Lanzini playing deeper, has allowed Soucek to get forward more, without unduly restraining Rice’s freer role. It is closer to a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1. It makes better use of the talent available and I imagine that is how we will line-up today. Unfortunate that Lanzini will miss the Lyon game through suspension.
What was clear from defeat at Tottenham is that West Ham do not have the personnel to play any system that requires wing-backs. Aaron Cresswell, Ben Johnson and Coufal are all admirable defenders but fall short when it comes to the attacking requirements of that role. Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku are not up to standard either in defence or attack.
I can’t see much room for debate over the front three where Michail Antonio will be joined by Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. There has been speculation about Nikola Vlasic starting but other than he once played for Everton there seems no rationale to support this. For all his poor decision making, Benrahma is most probable source of the unexpected.
There is little to suggest that today’s game will be a thriller. Everton are desperate for points and will not want to give any of them up easily. They will defend deep and hope to hit West Ham on the break. Richarlison will be diving to ground and rolling around in simulated agony at every possible opportunity, with or without tactical head injury. The Hammers will need patience and should try to keep the ball moving across the pitch to create space for runners. The tendency to get bogged down in intricate congested triangles might work on the training ground but it is ineffective on the pitch. Breaking down stubborn opposition is not our strongest suit but we showed that we can do it against Sevilla. There is always the set piece for Plan B.
As with any tight game a goal can quickly change the complexion of a game. We need to keep plugging away to rattle the visitor’s brittle confidence. A top six finish is still a possibility, however remote, and it must remain the target until it is impossible. West Ham to win 3-1. COYI!