Cast your mind back two years to the same stage of the 2019/20 season, and you will remember that West Ham were languishing in 17th place in the Premier League. They had accumulated a meagre twenty-seven points from the thirty-one games played. With three of their relegation rivals each having a game in hand, the future looked bleak at the London Stadium.
It has been a phenomenal turnaround that the Hammers now find themselves in touching distance of a second consecutive top six finish and a Europa League semi-final. Even if those ambitions are eventually thwarted, it is a scenario that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the most claret-and-blue spectacled optimist back in June 2020.
Huge praise must go the manager, coaches, and a fantastic group of players for this improvement, built around hard work, commitment, and organisation. It’s a great time to be a Hammer. But as supporters we are never fully satisfied. Our minds are always filled with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’. While marvelling at the team’s stellar improvement, I am yet to be convinced that behind the scenes changes have made the progress required to create a legacy beyond the tenure of the manager and the current crop of players. The key to this is a planned and sensible recruitment strategy and a far more productive academy. The jury is still out on both of those – although I won’t let it spoil the enjoyment of the moment.
Harping on about the lack of transfer activity ends up sounding like a broken record. But the implications don’t go away. We are essentially the same side as last season plus Kurt Zouma. Games have been played without a recognised striker and now we must negotiate a Europa League quarter final without a recognised left-back. It’s just so very seat of the pants.
It is apparent this season that fourth spot is up for grabs for anyone able to demonstrate the correct level of consistency. Tottenham made a couple of astute signings in January and are now firmly in the driving seat. West Ham did nothing and have ended as plucky losers as far as that particular prize is concerned. While finishing fifth or sixth would be no mean feat, I can’t help feel it could have been better.
The other regret from the season are the needless points that have been dropped in sloppy circumstances. Losing twice to Manchester United when they both should have ended in draws, for example. And the below par performances that resulted in home defeats to bottom half sides – Southampton, Leeds, and today’s opponents, Brentford.
The home fixture against Brentford in October was especially frustrating. There’s no doubt the visitor’s deserved their first half lead as a bright and intense opening caught the Hammer’s cold. Having taken the lead, though, the visitors fell back on the dark arts of time wasting and going to ground at every opportunity. Arguably a pragmatic approach for a side on a limited budget newly promoted to the Premier League. Once West Ham had equalised it felt there would be only one winner in the match, but there was to be a sting in the tail. A pointless free kick conceded in the depths of added time, uncharacteristic lapses in marking, a poor parry by Fabianski, and the ball was lashed home for a Brentford win. The Bees leapfrogging the Hammers in the process to move up to eighth.
Brentford have successfully kept their heads just above relegation trouble since then and can now look forward to a second season at the top level. A recent improved run of form was capped with a thrilling and emphatic 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge last weekend. They will prove uncompromising opponents once again today.
If West Ham are to match last season’s points haul, they will require fourteen points from the final seven games. Four wins, two draws and a defeat would achieve that. Looking at the fixture list, today must feature near the top of the winnable games. As Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are still to come, we cannot risk our one defeat at the Brentford Community Stadium.
With the second leg Europa League tie against Lyon coming up on Thursday, some have suggested there might be a spot of squad rotation today. I don’t see Moyes going for that myself and, in any case, he doesn’t have too many options anyway. Perhaps there will be recalls for Vladimir Coufal at right back and Manuel Lanzini in midfield. Lanzini is a player who can be hit or miss, but when he is deployed deeper it does allow Tomas Soucek more opportunity to get forward. It also takes some of the pressure off Declan Rice as the default instigator of almost every West Ham attack.
The defence must stay on high alert to counter the movement and physicality of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo. Thankfully, Craig Dawson and Zouma have established a strong and solid partnership that has exceeded all expectations and should be equal to the task. Toney hasn’t quite lived up to his goalscoring reputation, and although he is the host’s leading scorer, five of his eight have been from the spot. I am delighted to see Christian Eriksen back playing football again. I wish him the best, even in defeat.
I expect it will be a tough, physical game. The hosts will start with intensity and on the front foot. Moyes will need to prepare his men for the initial onslaught – no slow start can be tolerated this afternoon. It will be an intriguing encounter which I predict West Ham will sneak 1-0. COYI!