We are spoiled this weekend with a glimpse of Premier League football matches before it all stops yet again, this time for an enforced international break. It seems an age now since the farcical VAR farrago at Chelsea which established a new low-water mark in the rich history of shocking refereeing. At least the Chelsea manager did the honourable thing and got himself sacked in the immediate aftermath. More than can be said for the two hopeless officials who walked away unscathed and with their whistles intact.
At least the Hammers have enjoyed two kick-abouts since then as they kicked-off their Europa Conference League group stage campaign. This phase of the competition has a going through the motions feel to it and, although unconvincing, two wins is a decent start in what is arguably our best chance of glory and a continued run in Europe. In contrast, it is the first action for Everton since their hard-won point in the most recent Merseyside derby, a game which for once provided decent entertainment.
A West Ham visit to Goodison Park is invariably framed as the return of David Moyes to the ground where his reputation was originally built. Like many fans of other clubs, I never paid close attention to the ins and outs of his time at Everton, but the take-away was always a period of relative success punctuated by unexpected poor starts to the season. If that is an accurate assessment, then history may be repeating itself now at West Ham. Is this a manager who continues to have difficulty dealing with transition and evolution? Does he struggle to adapt his side’s playing style once they have become a known quantity? Is he overly loyal to players who have served him well in the past and overly cautious when looking to introduce new players? The answers are eagerly awaited.
This season’s poor start in the Premier League – having already dropped fourteen points – makes an assault on the top six for the third season running look like a very long outside bet. After two seasons of being part of the ‘conversation’ being marooned in mid-table obscurity would be a huge disappointment. A double bubble of disappointment in the context of the significant investment made to the squad during the summer. Even though I am confident of improvement, a barnstroming run to the top of the table feels improbable in a safety first environment.
On the evidence of the season to date, any discernable tactical change to the Hammer’s style has been impossible to detect. What we have seen so far is the same plot but with a slightly different cast – Lucas Paqueta a replacement for Manuel Lanzini and/ or Said Benrahma; Gianluca Scamacca an understudy or replacementfor Michail Antonio. The prospect of Antonio, Scamacca and Jarrod Bowen collectively ‘unleashed’ to rattle an opposition defence is one for fantasy league enthusiasts only.
Moyes has been flirting with three/ five at the back in certain games this season but I really don’t see how we have the players, notably wing-backs, with the skill-set to handle that. Such a system relies heavily on wing-backs to provide width and pace to attackes, attributes that are not apparent with the current personnel. On the left, Aaron Cresswell has gone some way past his best and we have yet to see exactly what Emerson has to offer. On the right, Vladimir Coufal remains way short of his first season form and Ben Johnson appears worryingly injury prone. A look at what Thilo Kehrer can bring as a full-back/ wing-back would be interesting now that the centre back shortage has eased with the return of Craig Dawson and Angelo Ogbonna.
It was a surprise that Flynn Downes was not given another opportunity in midweek. Has he been held in reserve for this weekend? He would offer more energy and greater ball retention than Tomas Soucek does, but without the defensive height and attacking goal threat. If Soucek is not deployed to focus on the things he is good at, he is a very average player.
The other apparent undroppable is non-stop Duracel bunny, Pablo Fornals. There’s certainly no doubting his effort, likeability and commitment to the cause, but does he really do enough with the ball at his feet for an attacking midfield player at the top level? Unfortunately, I think not!
Having looked at a few of the predicted lineups in the media for the weekend’s game, many have gone for what is effectively last season’s team but with the addition of Paqueta. That would be a very strange move after a multi-million-pound spending spree in the summer. Surely, eyebrows would raised in the boardroom. For what it’s worth this is what I would like to see given a try: Areola – Kehrer, Zouma, Dawson, Emerson – Rice, Paqueta, Downes – Bowen, Scamacca, Antonio. One can dream.
Everton currently sit one place above West Ham by virtue of a superior goal difference. Apart from Leicester, they are the only side in the division without a win this season. They have, however, only lost two to the Hammer’s four, amassing their four points courtesy of draws with Forest, Brentford, Leeds, and Liverpool. They certainly played with a lot of spirit in the Merseyside derby and were able to survive thanks to a string of fine saves by Pickford, now missing through injury. The Toffees (like West Ham) are a low possession, counter attacking side who rely heavily on the pace of Gordon and Gray to drive attacks. It might suggest a paint-drying match played mostly backwards and sideways across the middle-third.
With Everton the draw masters and West Ham a mixture of slow starts and stifled ambition I can’t see past a share of the spoils for this one. Even the Orcale Cloud Win Probbaility will struggle to predict a winner for this one. COYI!