It’s been a massive week to ten days at West Ham that has (for now) completely changed the vibe surrounding the club. The surprise spirited comeback against Arsenal, easing past Gent in the Europa Conference, the demolition of Bournemouth have now been topped off by the U18s spectacular 5-1 triumph in the FA Youth Cup Final at The Emirates Stadium.
The Youth Cup win was the first since the Cole and Carrick class of 1999 won a two-legged final against Coventry City. It was a proud day for what looks to be a very strong and talented squad of lads. Here’s hoping a good few of them go on to carve out distinguished careers in professional football, whether that is at West Ham (obviously) or elsewhere in the game.
Although the trip to Bournemouth always suggested it might be a winnable game, the style and nature of victory was wholly unexpected. An unheard-of brace of early goals set the tone of the match and the travelling fans were treated to the most expressive football of the Hammer’s season to date. The long deserted swagger had returned, and for a while, it was as if the clocks had been put back by two years. The mind is often conflicted in such circumstances. Was the performance down to West Ham’s excellence or the result of Bournemouth’s deficiencies. The next two games against Liverpool tonight and Palace on Saturday will provide further evidence.
The risk of relegation hasn’t receded completely but on current trajectory is very remote now. I don’t see a scenario where four or more of the bottom six teams manage to scramble to 35 points by the end of the season. There are sure to be more surprises, though, and remember that nothing is settled until survival is mathematically certain.
As things stand, West Ham are sixth in the Premier League form table with 11 points from the last six matches played. Indeed, if we take the narrow view that form is only about results – and ignore the quality of performance – the Hammers have been on an improving trend since the turn of the year. The 17 matches before the new year yielded just 14 points (a relegation bound 0.82 points per game) but the 14 matches in 2023 have generated 20 points (1.42 ppg). So, recent form, while not stellar, is good enough for mid-table obscurity. There will be claims that the upturn validates the Board’s decision to stick with Moyes in the darkest hour, but that is not proven beyond reasonable doubt. For perspective, in the same new year period, a once struggling Aston Villa have averaged over two points per game under Unai Emery to become credible top six finishers.
Of course, many would argue that football should be as much about entertainment as results – something that has been sadly lacking in the dull, passive, and predictable fare on show for most of the campaign. It is a distinction that is close to the hearts of supporters but is almost exclusively overlooked by pundits. Media coverage outside the rich six is, as ever, scandalously superficial.
If the new hint of adventure that has emerged in recent weeks is not just a flash in the pan, it begs the question ‘what has changed?’ Did the manager buckle to pressure and release the handbrake? Did the drab victories against the likes of Southampton and Fulham inspire the confidence to play with greater adventure? Did player-power break out and force a change of thinking? Has Lucas Paqueta finally adjusting to the demands of the Premier League provided a game-changing extra dimension going forward? Has the return of Mark Noble to the club improved communication between manager and players and taken some of the load away from Declan Rice? Or did every player lose and then rediscover form at the same time? Perhaps it is a mixture of them all.
The 2022/23 season has been equally underwhelming for this evening’s visitors, Liverpool. Having spent the previous few years going toe-to-toe with Manchester City for the title, they now find themselves in a pitch battle with Tottenham to qualify for the continent’s pre-eminent cup competition – the Europa Conference League. Ensuring that the competition gets a lot more media attention than it gathered this year.
The Liverpool side has the look of a squad urgently in need of a major surgery and overhaul this season as key players have aged or become stale. Lacking the resources available to other title hopefuls, the Reds opted to throw all their cash at forwards while neglecting the shortcomings of a defensively vulnerable back four and pedestrian, lacklustre midfield. The Klopp style of play may well have exceeded its best before date with more opponents having worked out how to counter it effectively. They clearly still possess a dangerous goal scoring threat when things go well – Jota is the man to watch for me. It just doesn’t come off as much as it used to.
I’m expecting a largely unchanged West Ham eleven for the game. Possibly the only question-mark would be over Said Benrahma who has continued to labour of late. There are many clamouring for the inclusion of Pablo Fornals after his elaborate drunken scorpion strike on Sunday and it is a switch that Moyes might well be considering. Fornals doesn’t provide too much of an attacking threat when playing out wide but offers better defensive cover than a ball-watching Benny. This could provide useful assistance to Aaron Cresswell’s attempts to handle Salah.
There can be no more likeable a character in the Hammers squad than Fornals. It would be great to see him get more minutes, but the reality is that he is now primarily understudy to Paqueta. The idea of playing him in place of Thomas Soucek (as some have suggested) sounds disastrous to me. Not because Soucek deserves his place, but because Pablo is nowhere near strong enough to compete as a defensive minded midfield player at this level.
If West Ham show plenty of aggression tonight it will unsettle Liverpool – they don’t like it up ‘em, these days for some reason. There’s no chance of the Hammers bossing possession but as long as they press higher up the pitch, avoid giving away free kicks on the edge of the area, and can break at speed there is no reason the feel-good factor cannot be extended even further. It’s suddenly not so bad being a West Ham fan. COYI!