The Thriller With The Villa: West Ham Tilting At Top Five Spot

The world’s two most famous claret-and-blues battle for a place at the business end of the table. Can West Ham spoil Aston Villa’s 100% away record and become the first team to score against them on the road?

Former Coldstream Guard and peddler of Barbican alcoholic-free larger, Lawrie McMenemy, used to say that league tables shouldn’t be published until ten rounds of games had been played. Before that point, the big man reckoned, the table was misleading creating unrealistic expectations at the top and putting too much pressure on managers at the bottom.

Well, we are almost at the point, a quarter of the season has already come and gone, and the Premier League table makes surprising reading. It will not be lost on either of today’s teams that victory would catapult them into the top five. Even if it was only temporary, it could prove a memorable “I was there” moment to tell your grandchildren about. Almost cause for an open top bus parade if only we were in a Tier 1 Covid location.

Something that stands out, for me, in this most unusual of seasons is how away teams have taken the edge on victories – leading 42 to 35 with 19 draws. Liverpool are the only Premier League side yet to lose at home, as well as being the only team to be averaging more that two points per home game. Conversely, four teams are yet to lose on the road, while there are five averaging more than two points per game. Within that roll of top awayday performers are tonight’s opponents, Aston Villa.

Having played just three away games so far, Villa can boast a 100% record and have yet to concede a goal. It is a fascinating state of affairs when you consider they have managed to let in eleven goals across their five home games – more that West Ham have conceded in all nine of their games, home and away.

The home versus away riddle, I suppose, must be a consequence of crowd free stadiums, but it is still not easy to understand. I can see how a passionate crowd can act as an extra player, but does that explain everything? Shouldn’t the home team be better acquainted with (and capable of exploiting) the dimensions of their own pitch? Aren’t pitches prepared to suit the home style of play or to hinder the opposition?

Or is that, despite the absence of crowds, home team’s still feel the need to take the initiative, only to be undone by the counter-attack sucker-punch that is so prevalent in today’s game. There must be something psychological at play here!

Assuming no undisclosed injury problems, I don’t see much change to the Hammer’s starting line-up. The key decision will be to bring back Michail Antonio or stick with Sebastien Haller. Much may hinge on just how confident David Moyes is on Antonio’s return to fitness – too soon to risk him or not?

West Ham managed to stumble across the finishing line in each of the last two games Antonio missed, but he is by far the best fit with the overall Moyes game-plan. Haller is nowhere near as bad as some make-out although he has yet to get near £45m of value. He did OK in the Sheffield game, where a great strike to win the game disguised earlier limitations in the role he was being asked to play. For me, bringing back Antonio is a must. Although their defensive record on the road suggests otherwise, Villa are often wide open at the back, and Antonio is the one best placed to exploit that.

The other selection debate (at least among fans) is Pablo Fornals or Said Benrahma? It is an interesting managerial conundrum. Fornals works his socks off for the team off the ball, but does he do enough on it? Benrahma looks to possess an excellent repertoire of skills and tricks, but can he be relied upon to put in the graft off the ball? I was disappointed not to see Benrahma get another 20 minutes or so last week, particularly when several players were starting to flag in the final quarter. I think we are all keen to see exactly what he can do, but I believe Moyes will keep him up his sleeve for now. He is not ready to fuilly release the brake and go full throttle just yet.

When West Ham played Villa in the final match of last season, the visitor’s determination for survival was enough to earn a deserved draw against their off-colour hosts. The Hammers were unable to get a grip on Jack Grealish and allowed him to run the show. They would be ill-advised to let him do so again this evening.

Grealish is something of a marmite character. Undoubtedly, one of the most skilful ball-players in the league but far too prone to the theatrical dive for my liking. Unfortunately, the game seems in thrall to players who engineer fouls out of nowhere on a regular basis. The irony of Grealish berating a Brighton player for simulation last week was right off the scale. Grealish was, of course, in court this week facing a charge of careless driving – a welcome change from careless diving, I suppose – after pranging several parked cars during a late night lockdown binge. With sentencing due in the next two weeks, perhaps it will be a case of locked down to locked up.

It will be interesting to have a close look at Ollie Watkins. One of the many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer (and a former team-mate of Benrahma) he has made an encouraging start at Villa. He will present a menacing goal threat if the supply line is not curtailed.

The runaway penalty glut has dried up a little in the past two weeks. I had mentioned previously that referees might be given a new directive to stem that particular over zealous tide. The current total sits at 44 awarded, a run rate equivalent to 175 for the entire season.   

I have a feeling that this is a game that could have plenty of goals in it. An interesting clash of styles between Villa’s very open approach and the Hammer’s controlled smash and grab. Normally, whenever we are lured towards the rocks of over optimism (even against our better judgement) it ends in disappointment. We are like that old variety act where chairs are stacked on top of each other. We all know that eventually it will all come crashing down – just not when!

For today though, I will laugh in the face of fate and predict a thrill-a-minute, nail-biting, nerve-jangling, breath-taking 3-2 victory. We might even get a penalty. COYI!

Out On The Wilder, Windy Moyes: Hammers Must Prepare For Weathering Heights

A different test this weekend for the Happy Hammers as they travel to Yorkshire to face a Route 1 aerial onslaught from bottom dwellers, Sheffield United

Football comes and goes these days as frequently as sunshine on a cloudy day. One minute, there are warnings of burn-out due to the hectic schedule and the next it is a week long break for the totally pointless European Zenith Data Systems Nations Cup. Whoever could have thought that would be a good idea in a time of fixture pile-up and a global pandemic?

So where exactly were we before getting so rudely interrupted? That’s right, a stuttering home win against Fulham that saw West Ham on eleven points from eight games, and into 12th place with a goal difference of +4. A satisfactory start in most supporter’s eyes, given the daunting run of games that many of us felt would see the team languishing among the relegation places at this point in the season.

Compared to the same stage last term, the Hammers are one point and five places worse off – although we had, in those opening eight games of 2019/20, played six of the teams who, along with ourselves, would end the campaign in the bottom seven.  Perhaps it is hindsight at work, but my level of confidence is higher now than it was back then – with the proviso that the hard work and attitude is maintained, and that injuries are kept to manageable proportions. There is still no room for complacency

David Moyes has won round many of his doubters, while others remain unconvinced (or refuse to be convinced.) Was it a lucky win against Fulham? Not on the balance of play over 90 minutes it wasn’t, but the pivotal VAR decisions in added time could easily have gone differently. Perhaps the referee’s thought process about Sebastien Haller interfering with play was driven by the fact that he hadn’t done so during the rest of the contest – while Lookman’s bizarre penalty attempt was justice done for the softest penalty award since the last one given against us.

West Ham had created the better chances, but it was not an impressive performance. The same limitations that have prevented West Ham seizing the initiative against ‘lesser’ teams in the past, were all too apparent again. Failure to move the ball quickly enough, getting funnelled into congested cul-de-sacs, lacking the added creative spark and being unable to create space down the wings for crosses. If width is to be provided by the wing backs, then they need to be played into open space far more than they are now. Especially, while Sebastien Haller remains their target. Or is that a health and safety requirement due to the recent concerns over too much heading (which, of course, is a valid issue.)

Fulham were allowed to flood the midfield areas (albeit without posing much of a threat) leaving Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek outnumbered and unusually ineffective. Rice, particularly, was forced too deep and had the look of a backwards/ sideways parody of Mark Noble. He is at his best when driving forward and spreading play – we don’t need any of those Gareth Southgate, possession for the sake of it habits here, thank you!

Today’s game will present a very different challenge against possibly the most direct side in the league (or is that Burnley?) Past Hammers performances against physical opponents desperately seeking points might suggest a difficult afternoon. A trademark slow start that has often followed one of the enforced breaks could be the story of the game. It is vital that manager and team have prepared to weather an early and ‘in your face’ storm from the opposition. Timid away defeats at Burnley in both the of the last two seasons readily spring to mind as a yardstick.

Sheffield United were last season’s surprise package. Chris Wilder did a superb job with limited resources to finish top half, in a season of few goals – just over one per game scored and conceded – and with an admirable ability to come back from behind. They have yet to reproduce that success this time around. The loss of on-loan keeper, Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell to injury have resulted in a leakier defence – and what was a trickle of goals has almost dried up completely – not helped by missing two or three penalties they have been awarded. Brewster may eventually provide the missing cutting edge, but at the moment, the Blades look decidedly blunt.

Moyes will surely stick with his favoured three/ five at the back formation with final selection contingent on injuries and/ or fatigue. I am assuming that Angelo Ogbonna is available to play (it has all been very quiet on his injury) but there could be a recall for Issa Diop, if Fabian Balbuena has not recovered from his arduous trip back from Asuncion (how many connecting flights would that entail?)

Although Michail Antonio has been back in full training, I don’t see him being risked today. He needs to be packed in cotton wool as carefully as possible until there is a credible backup option. And despite his rousing cameo against Fulham, I don’t see Said Benrahma making the starting eleven yet – certainly not in the type of game where hard work and discipline will be paramount requirements. Expect another twenty to thirty minutes of him from the bench.

As ever, the wild card will be whatever grenades VAR throws up with penalty and offside decisions. It is obvious that the relevant rules lack precision, are largely vague and have become more subjective than ever. Just that we now have more than one person responsible for making those judgements. In fact, it appears there are two sets of interpretations depending on whether an incident took place inside or outside the penalty area. I am thinking it could be better entertainment if after any goal, or tackle in the box, the referee runs to the pitch-side and spins the Wheel of Fortune to determine the outcome. It would make about as much sense while at the same time producing great, nail-biting TV drama.

Whatever happens it is going to be a tight affair with few goals. My confidence that we can stop Sheffield United scoring is higher than it is on our ability to break them down at the other end. Could it be our first scoreless draw since September 2019? This is hardly likely to one of those games for the neutral (they must be better things to do on a Sunday afternoon even during lockdown) but will take the Hammers to nick it with the only goal of the game.

Calm After The Storm: More Hard Work Needed To Maintain Hammers Momentum

Having survived the hard start, West Ham must now prove they can also put in strong performances against the teams they are expected to beat.

Even though their team occupy an unspectacular 14th slot in the embryonic Premier League table, West Ham supporters would likely admit to being ‘mostly satisfied’ with how the season has gone so far.

Having lost the opening day ‘winnable’ home game against Newcastle, a return of eight points from the subsequent run of daunting fixtures was as welcome as it was unexpected. Looking back, the two victories against Wolves and Leicester are even more impressive and, were it not for two poor penalty calls (at either end) against Manchester City and Liverpool, the points tally might have looked healthier still.

On average, a typical Premier League season sees the award of somewhere in the region of 80 to 95 penalties. In the seven rounds of games to date, 36 have been  awarded – that is equivalent to almost 200 over the course of an entire season.  Could this be another consequence of empty stadiums? No doubt the referees will spot this trend and issue instructions to cut back as the season unfolds – thus, preventing matters from evening themselves out as we are told they do.

Naturally, the Hammers are one of only four clubs without a penalty to their name. It is worth speculating on what the reasons might be for this: we don’t get bodies into the box frequently enough; our players prefer not to throw themselves to the ground in spectacularly enough fashion; or because refereeing is notoriously inconsistent and always favours the bigger clubs.

For those of us brought up in an era where football was still a contact sport, the contemporary interpretation of what is and isn’t a foul is difficult to comprehend. The law simply describes a foul as a tackle that is careless, reckless or uses excessive force – leaving the rest up to the referee’s discretion. Although it has always been mostly subjective, we now have a situation where the slightest incidental touch is used as a conscious decision for a player to throw himself to the ground as if taken out by a sniper’s bullet.

Salah’s theatrically embellished dive last week deserved not the reward of a penalty but a ban for clear and obvious cheating. Pundits referring to such behaviour as “being cute or smart” does not help. It is cheating plain and simple – a scourge on the beautiful game that should be eliminated through lengthy retrospective bans. Klopp lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes with his post-match defence of Salah and his life-threatening bruise. Impossible to know how the game would have panned out without the penalty, but it gave Liverpool a way back into a game when they had been struggling to find one.

Turning attention to this weekend’s fixture with Fulham which presents a fascinating contrast to what has gone before. It is a game that many would expect us to win with some ease. But with Michail Antonio’s still missing and with the Hammers generally poor success rate against supposedly lesser sides, it would be premature to declare victory before all the goals are counted.

I have watched a few Fulham games this season and they look a little like this year’s Norwich. Preferring to stick with the adventurous passing and possession-based style that earned them promotion, they leave huge gaps at the back as a result.  In normal circumstances, such an approach would play to the Hammer’s counter attacking strengths. Without Antonio, though, it becomes less certain.

If there was ever any doubt, it is now obvious the squad has no like for like replacement for Antonio. Tactical and/ or positional changes are required if either Sebastien Haller or Andriy Yarmolenko are gong to be able to lead the line with any purpose. My assumption is that Moyes will go with Haller again and, if that is the case, I believe two things must happen.

First, Haller needs to be provided with the type of service that suits his aerial ability. As I don’t see how it is possible to play two up top, without compromising overall team shape and structure, the wing backs need to push much further forward and get into more threatening crossing positions. At the same time, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals need to have a greater presence in the box, alert to the second ball. It is a given that Tomas Soucek will already be waiting there.

Second, there needs to be an alternative out-ball other than the long pass up-field for the striker to chase. Haller can’t/ won’t do that and is not equipped to do so. It falls again to Bowen and Fornals to make themselves available immediately possession is won. This is an area where Said Benrahma could turn out to be a valuable asset. I don’t see him starting this week, but hope to see him on the pitch for more than two minutes – twenty to thirty at least.

Fulham will be buoyed by their first win of the season, even if it was against the abysmal West Bromwich Albion. I would love to see Scott Parker keep them up. He was a talented and wholehearted player at West Ham and hands-down wins the managerial Oscars for Best Hairstyle and Costume Design – smart suit, immaculate 1950’s RAF haircut, tie pin and cuff-links.

It’s tempting fate but I’ve never been convinced by Loftus-Cheek (since that dubious penalty he won at Stamford Bridge in March 2016) but Lookman is an exciting, if volatile, talent. And Mitrovic will always be a threat should a defence be intimated by his battering-ram style.

As mentioned, West Ham have long struggled to perform against the teams they are expected to beat. Whether it is an attitude problem or simply a lack of guile and application in breaking down defensively minded or more physical opposition is uncertain. Fulham don’t fit that bill, though. They work hard but otherwise play in an open, attractive style. With Antonio, I would be predicting a straight sets victory. Without him, it is going to depend how well the manager and team adapt to compensate for his absence. It promises to make the match a far tighter affair than it might appear. West Ham to scrape home with a 2-1 win. COYI!

Hamstrings and Shoestrings: Chances Of A West Ham Upset At Liverpool Torn Apart By Antonio Injury

It didn’t need Mystic Meg to predict that there would be injuries at West Ham, making the usual short-sighted penny pinching by the Board all the more unpalatable.

We all knew it was going to happen, it was only a case of just when. Still, the reports that Michail Antonio could be out for anywhere up to 4 or 6 weeks have come as an unwelcome blow, as West Ham prepare for their annual outing to Anfield. And potentially it will be an even more significant blow in the run of easier games that follow the Liverpool one.  

It had taken a while, but David Moyes hit upon a system that worked for him and suited the players available. A hard-working, disciplined, compact unit, capable of quick counterattacking – a system that made best use of what there was to work with, and compensated for its deficiencies. In the recent run of games, it had proved both effective and entertaining.

That system, though, relies heavily on a strong, athletic, mobile, and pacey presence upfront. In the past it had been Arnautovic, now it is Antonio. Very few would be inclined to describe Sebastien Haller in similar terms. But with the Board failing to spend the money required to recruit a suitable backup (to a problem that anyone could have predicted) there are limited options in a shoestring squad. The lack of ambition/ intelligence/ interest/ investment/ foresight/ self-awareness (*delete as applicable) strikes again.

It is fair to say that Haller has (to date) represented poor value for money at West Ham. The poisoned chalice of disappointment that goes with being the clubs record signing is in safe hands, just as it had with Felipe Anderson before him. Whether the fault lies with the players or is a consequence of absurd random recruitment practices is one to debate. It is easy to argue that neither Haller nor Anderson looks particularly interested in a West Ham shirt but a large part of the problem could be not being suited to English football or the style of football being played.

In the case of Haller, it is clear that to thrive he needs someone to play alongside him – and to receive more crosses into the box. Without reverting to a back four (and the defensive vulnerabilities that would involved) it is difficult to see how the team can be set up to provide that support. Whether such a one-dimensional player is worth £40-odd million is a valid question to ask, though.

Some suggest that Andriy Yarmolenko would be a better option, but I don’t see it myself – certainly not if his (almost) disastrous cameo last weekend is anything to go by. And pushing Jarrod Bowen further forward is not only ineffective, but weakens the team elsewhere.  It is a side that needs to work tirelessly when we don’t have the ball – which is almost 60% of the time – and Bowen provides a vital contribution in that endeavour.

With Moyes prioritising a clean sheet over goals scored, I believe he will go with a straight Haller for Antonio swap – it’s as near like-for-like as it gets. The out-ball will be the problem, though, and the Hammers will need to find different options for keeping the ball when they win it. Could that be Said Behrama? Possibly, but would be unlike Moyes to be make such an adventurous a move.

Elsewhere, I might be tempted to bring in Issa Diop for Fabian Balbuena. Not that the latter has done much wrong in recent games but because Diop may handle the pace of the Liverpool front three and provide cover for the threat from the Liverpool full-backs better.  

The long term absence of Van Dyke’s quality is a massive blow to the home side’s hopes of retaining the title – but the Antonio absence makes their job far more straightforward this weekend – even if other injuries mean they are struggling to find two specialist centre-backs. They have far greater depth than we do.

There is a Pavlovian response among a section of West Ham supporters to detest anything and everything to do with Liverpool (Football Club). Personally, I don’t get that. They are just another north-west club who beats us on a regular basis. They were worthy champions last season, by some distance, and have an excellent manager in Jurgen Klopp. It is a side very much in his image.

Their US owners are, however, one of the leading protagonists in the Big Picture money and power grab that has recently been exposed. It is yet another nail in the coffin of the ordinary matchday supporter in the search for an even greater share of the TV revenues.  The move towards a European super league has been brewing for some time and the proposals to organise it as a closed shop illustrate perfectly why sport and business are uncomfortable bedfellows. I have long believed that European games will eventually be switched to weekends to capture a bigger worldwide TV audience.

Personally, I would say let them have their super league, provided that resigning from domestic competition is a condition of the breakaway circus. Of course, that isn’t what they want. They want cake, to eat it and then have a second helping – with B teams competing in the lower tiers of the pyramid. More games for their customers to enjoy!

An oddity from last weekend’s hard-earned point at home to Manchester City was how little was made of the penalty incident where Garcia challenged Antonio in the area, completely missed the ball and sent the striker sprawling. Not worthy of VAR review apparently, whereas had it occurred at the other end, we would have been seeing it on repeat from every angle. In fact, anywhere else on the pitch and a foul would have been given. Isn’t this what VAR is meant to be for? Clear and obvious situations where the referee was poorly positioned to make penalty calls – rather than analysing offsides to the nearest millimetre.

Add in Gundogan escaping a yellow card for his cynical attempted foul on Declan Rice and it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I’ve never understood why a professional foul should dealt with differently depending on where on the pitch it occurs. Hardly a match goes by without someone ‘taking one for the team.’ It is revered in the pundit fraternity as some kind of heroic or selfless act rather than the intentional cheating tactic it has become. Time it was dealt with more harshly – a 10-minute stint in the sin bin, perhaps.

Talking of TV coverage, why do commentators continue to talk about players scoring in front of The Kop or the Stretford End when the stadiums are completely empty? It all seems rather pointless in the circumstances!

If West Ham are to extend their unbeaten run to five games it will require all the resilience shown in the Man City performance, another slice of the good fortune experienced at Tottenham and for VAR to be on its best behaviour. If each of those can be mysteriously aligned, there could be a point in it for us. On the other hand …….   

The Latest West Ham Bubble: How High Will It Fly?

A remarkable turnaround in performance and results sees the Hammers tipped for better days. But is it yet another false dawn waiting to be eclipsed by injuries and Boardroom interference?

Just five games into the new season and already it is the Year of the Comeback for West Ham. From weakest link to strongest link, the ugly duckling has blossomed into a beautiful swan. The shocking opening day defeat at home to Newcastle has been consigned to history following two excellent wins and a phoenix-like rise from the ashes in the last ten at the Tottenham stadium. Add in the rehabilitation of Manuel Lanzini with that stunning last gasp pearler on Sunday afternoon and the transformation is complete.

The emotional roller coaster ride is a huge part of football’s enjoyment for the committed fan – all doom and gloom one week, and on cloud nine the next. In the aftermath of last weekend, a mainstream and social media trend has been the suggestion that David Moyes is building something special at West Ham. It is tempting to jump on board the unexpected wave of optimism bandwagon (and long may it last) but I think many of us know that lack of cover in key positions is just waiting to trip us up. Like the circus performer spinning plates on poles, once one starts to wobble, the whole lot could come crashing down.

The manager, coaches and players deserve tremendous credit for what has been achieved in recent weeks – especially in the context of the toxic atmosphere that infests the club’s off-field activities. Who would bet against a fine run up to Christmas being derailed by further transfer treachery in January? As someone who was originally ambivalent on the appointment of Moyes he has earned my respect.

It has been some time since we have witnessed such a well-organized, disciplined and committed group of players, working so hard for each other. Is it sustainable? How will they react to the inevitable setbacks that will arise in the coming weeks? More importantly, how will they adapt to any long-term absences?

What has also been pleasing is the quality of the football being played. This isn’t an Allardyce (or Hodgson) style – football by attrition, hoping to nick a goal from a set piece, and then out up the barricades. We have seen a quick and incisive counter attacking team, which I, for one, have found highly entertaining. Only the most fervent anti-Moyes campaigner could refuse to acknowledge his contribution to performances over the last few weeks.

Despite the understandable euphoria at the Tottenham comeback we should not overlook the obvious in that opening 15 or 20 minutes. The compact shape, that had worked so well against Wolves and Leicester, had been left behind in the dressing room. The threat of Son’s pace and Kane’s deeper lying role should not have been a surprise, and it was disappointing that it took three goals to react to it. But it was testimony to the team’s new spirit that they kept plugging away to earn a memorable point. It was a remarkable match!

This is it! This is why, despite Sullivan this, Gold that and Brady the other, we keep coming back! Amazing!

The Guardian Minute By Minute Match Blog

The lessons learned from that first half experience will be vital if the Hammer’s are to compete with today’s opponents.  Although Manchester City go into the game in the lower half of the table, they are most people’s favourites to regain the Premier League title, particularly in light of the Van Dyke injury. Their strength is undoubtedly the no expense spared resources available to the manager. As ever, they have invested heavily in the squad but I do wonder if Guardiola has put too much faith in outright flair, at the expense of the blended efficiency that he inherited with players such as Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Silva and De Bruyne.

De Bruyne and Fernandinho are two players who (hopefully) might be absent today, along with Jesus, Mendy, Laporte and Ake. As we have learned, it is dangerous to rub hands at the thought of a weakened opponent (remember the penultimate game at Upton Park against Swansea?) and City are better equipped than most to deal with injuries. I don’t see Guardiola rushing anyone not fully fit back for this game – with a packed league and European schedule coming up.

Could this be a window of opportunity for West Ham to put an end to their terrible recent run against the visitors?

Injuries permitting the Hammers should line up just as they did at Tottenham. I see no reason to fix what isn’t broken, and there is now an additional option from the bench in Said Benrhama. I have no expectation that Moyes will throw him straight into the fray, and it might be several weeks of substitute appearances before the manager considers the Algerian for a start. Following their cameo performances at Tottenham, Benrhama will face stiff competition from Andriy Yarmolenko and Lanzini for the position of first change. Yarmo is the most enigmatic character to me. He has a great touch, is an accomplished finisher and has the sweetest of left feet (he also looks to be one of the squad’s real characters) but how to fit him into a system that is built around pace and tireless work-rate?

To get anything from the game every West Ham player will need to be at the top of their game. We are looking far more secure defensively down our left-hand side now, with Aaron Cresswell, Arthur Masuaku and Pablo Fornals combining well to track runs and limit supply. If anything, despite the introduction of Vladimir Coufal and the hard work of Jarrod Bowen, we have looked more open on the right, as neither Angelo Ogbonna nor Fabian Balbuena is offering consistent additional cover. Perhaps Issa Diop’s extra pace would be an option in place of Balbuena, but it would be harsh to leave out the Paraguayan at this stage.  Cresswell, in particular, has been given a new lease of life as part of a back three. The new setup has given him the space and opportunity to deliver the telling crosses that has made him our assist supremo – back to the days where he had Payet creating space for him.

If West Ham are to taste success today, much will be down to the dependables: the pairing of Declan Rice and Thomas Soucek in the centre of midfield; the energy of Michail Antonio up front; and the safe hands of Lukasz Fabianski between the posts. Rice and Soucek must be alert from the very start to Aguero dropping deep and the runs of Sterling, just as they ultimately got to grips with Kane and Son last weekend.

 VAR has been up to its tricks again recently and continues its campaign of interference in the flow of the game. The flawed interpretation of clear and obvious errors is clearly and obviously wrong. How the seven match officials involved collectively managed to miss Pickfords assault on Van Dyke defies logic. And the Mane offside decision at end was to a degree of precision that is impossible to justify. It may be true that you are either offside or you are not, but can anyone guarantee with 100% certainty of where everyone was at the exact moment the ball was played? We are dealing in millimetres here. Maybe players will start to paint their extremities with the camouflage paint that motorists use to confuse traffic cameras.

Apparently, West Ham last scored three or more goals in four consecutive league games back in September 1928. Spookily, the run of games 92 years ago started with a 4-0 home win, was followed by a 3-0 away win and then a 3-3 away draw. The fourth of the sequence was a 4-1 home win. Looks like a pattern that is too good to ignore to me. With a West Ham 4-1 win at an attractive 125/1, it is where my two shillings will be going. Possibly with an extra shilling on a Hammer’s title win at 500/1.

Students of the Hammers won’t be surprised to hear that although that 4-1 in 1928 put them top of the league, they would eventually finish the season in the bottom six. Never mind Spursy – that’s West Hammy!

Cock-A-Hoop Hammers In The Mood To Win Their Spurs

Buoyant West Ham will be confident of causing yet another upset on the short trip to north London as Mourinho strives to assemble his pick and mix of expensive parts into an effective unit

At 5pm on Friday afternoon, David Sullivan double checked that all the ‘windows’ were now finally closed, poured himself a celebratory Tesco Value brandy and sat back satisfied that most of the hypothetical £40 million transfer kitty had not been disturbed, at least for now. Later he would count it all again, put it in the vault and reset the pressure pad and laser field alarms.

Switching of the blood samples, with some of his own, had worked a treat – the medical team hadn’t been expecting cold reptilian blood. A masterstroke of cunning. The transfer can was well and truly kicked down the road – in the summer permanent deals for Said Benrhama and Craig Dawson could be revealed as exciting new signings and their commitment to spend.

The signing of Benrhama may well turn out to be an excellent move – a touch of much needed flair in the mould of a Payet, Benayoun or Berkovic. He certainly fits the profile of a younger player with something to prove – and with an obvious abundance of natural talent. Exactly how this will fit into the manager’s freshly honed system will unfold over the coming months.

The recent upturn in performances has been founded on a collective work ethic, organisation, and discipline. Modern Premier League football demands that work done off the ball is as important as what occurs when in possession. That is the reason why players such as Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko and Sebastien Haller have failed to impress. You need to be an exceptional talent if you are not prepared to put in the graft.

Benrhama’s delayed signing means that he is not eligible for today’s game, but I expect his be to a gradual introduction into proceedings. As we have seen during both his spells at West Ham, David Moyes is not the quickest to make changes, even if he gets there in the end. There will be no impulsive or rash changes to shape to suit an individual player. While a back four allows for greater options further forward, it exposes the well-known weakness at left back. Unless Benrhama can match the work-rate of Pablo Fornals his opportunities may be limited to impact substitute in the immediate future.  A welcome addition, nonetheless, to a squad that is one pinged hamstring away from disintegration.

Impossible to imagine any changes to the West Ham starting line-up for today, unless enforced through illness or injury. According to reports the only doubt is Arthur Masuaku who sustained a knee injury on international duty with the DR Congo. If he is not available, I would prefer to see Ben Johnson as s direct replacement rather than a reshuffle bringing Issa Diop (or Dawson) into the back three and pushing Aaron Cresswell back out wide.

Tactically, it cries out for a re-run of what we saw at Leicester. Tottenham’s threat is speed in attack, and it will be the pace of Son (rather than Vardy) that the Hammers must be alert to. Then again, West Ham can boast the second meanest defence in the league, so maybe there is little to worry about – unless that is merely a quirk of the early season table.

For all the hosts attacking prowess, there is vulnerability and uncertainty at the back that can be exploited by the movement of our own forward players. Tottenham have yet to win at home this season and if the Hammers can reproduce their Wolves and Leicester form, it promises to be an intriguing contest. Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will again be pivotal in maintaining discipline and providing the springboard for rapid counter attacking. Painful as it is to say, I think Tottenham will enjoy a very good season as others of the big six flounder, but not until after today’s game. My theory (or is it hope) is that it will take time for Mourinho to instil a workable balance into his side.

Much of the pre-match build up will undoubtedly be focused on the return of prodigal Spurs son, Gareth Bale. Astute readers will have spotted that Bale is an anagram of Abel and that linking up with Kane adds a biblical dimension, particularly with a manager who considers himself a god. The previous Cain and Abel story did not end well, and we must remember that Bale failed to end up on the winning side, in any league game, during his first season in north London. As far West Ham prophecies go, a chance, perhaps, for Moyses to lead his team to the promised land of top six by the end of the day.

The goals keep coming thick and fast in the mysterious atmosphere of a fan free Premier League, despite the dull affair served up by Manchester City and Arsenal at The Etihad yesterday evening. With the statistical averages to date favouring away sides and four VAR approved goals scored, everything points to a 3-1 West Ham win. That would do nicely!   

From A Jack To A King, Tomori Never Comes And Felipe Flops Off To Porto

With a lost weekend of international kickabouts interrupting the fledgling season, we take a backward glance to check on what has happened so far.

Isn’t Life Strange?

I think we can all agree that we are currently living through the strangest of times, and the early season Premier League results have been no exception to that rule. Whether a consequence of empty stadiums or the truncated nature of the summer break (particularly for those involved in Europe) the early rounds of matches have thrown up a succession of surprises. Who would have expected West Ham’s superb win at Leicester to be immediately and comprehensively overshadowed by the Liverpool and Manchester United games that followed it?

We have reached the first international kickabout weekend with exactly 10% of the leagues 380 scheduled games completed. Of course, it’s early doors (© Big Ron) but several interesting comparisons with previous seasons are emerging:

    • Goals scored per game is 3.79 compared to 2.72 for 2019/20 and 2.82 in 2018/19
    • Only 3 games (8%) have been drawn – 24% in 2019/20; 19% in 2018/19
    • There have been 16 home wins (42%) – 45% (2019/20); 47% (2018/19)
    • There have been 19 away wins (50%) – 31% (2019/20); 34% (2018/19

Maybe, the forces of equilibrium will return but on the evidence to date, it could be a memorable season for upsets as the usual suspects stumble. At the top of the table, Everton look best placed to gate crash the party, while neither Manchester United nor Chelsea look anywhere near convincing – expect some managerial changes there before too long. It pains me to even think it, but I can see T*tt*nh*m making a serious bid for glory this year. Unlike Leicester, who rely too much on Vardy, they have goals from all over the place. Our next match, in north London, will be a huge test.

At the bottom, the early runners in the relegation stakes are West Brom (red hot favourites), Fulham, Sheffield United and Burnley. Fulham have made some interesting signings (Lookman and Loftus-Cheek) which could give them fresh hope while I have a sneaking feeling that the lack of imagination at Palace will cause them to struggle big-time this year.

There’s Something Happening Here, But What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

I can’t lie but after the Newcastle game I had expected West Ham to reach this break with “nul points” on the board. Yet stunning victories, at home to Wolves and away at Leicester, have painted a very different complexion on to the season. Anguish has turned to astonishment. Where did that committed, well organised, hard-working, disciplined, skilful and quick breaking football suddenly come from?  How reassuring to be finally playing to a system – and one that suits the players available?  And all achieved despite the best efforts of the Board to create turmoil, despondency, and ill-feeling around the club. Full credit to the players and coaching staff for maintaining their dignity in such circumstances.

The Achilles heel, though, is a paper thin squad that threatens multiple single points of failure in the cohesion and stability of the team. In a West Ham context, Archilles has vulnerabilities in the knee, groin and hamstrings, as well as the heel. An injury to any one of Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna and even Arthur Masuaku and the wheels could easily fall off. David Moyes is often criticised for his reluctant use of substitutes but I wouldn’t have wanted any of last Sunday’s bench on the field until we were safely 3-0 up with less than 5 minutes to go.

The bubble could so easily burst and the Hammers dragged into the relegation fray. Clearly the squad needs greater depth but whoever is brought must be able to fit the system. Players picked by the manager – not special offers or clearance items touted by favoured agents.  

Around The Transfer Window In 80 Days

They may have slammed the international transfer window shut last Monday night, but it immediately bounced back open to allow Premier League clubs to trade with those below them in the pyramid – until next Friday. When it does finally close it will have been after 81 days of potential deals. Despite being linked with several squads worth of new recruits the Hammers went beyond the ‘preparing a deal’ and ‘weighing up options’ stage just once, to sign Vladimir Coufal. A last minute, desperate sounding attempt  to secure the loan signing of Fikayo Tomori fell through leaving West Ham with even fewer resources as Felipe Anderson took his floundering to Porto, and space was cleared on the treatment table by finally paying off Jack Wilshere.

I’m not sure that a player who can’t get a place in Chelsea’s defence is any great loss. But then again nor would one who can’t get into Watford’s. I sincerely hope that the stories about Craig Dawson are just another humorous fabrication. Off all the players mentioned in recent days I am most encouraged by the prospect of Josh King. He is much closer to an Antonio alternative than anyone else we have, and can perform in wide areas up front as well. That doesn’t mean other defensive reinforcements aren’t also badly needed.  Experience suggests that with the window open for another 6 days, any moves will be again be left to the very last minute in another stunning display of Sullivan’s failed brinkmanship.

When the window finally does close, there will be just 80 days until it re-opens – and the madness can start all over again!       

Not All Goals Are Created Equal

I have always found the recent trend to obsess on football statistics as interesting rather than meaningful. I’m sure there are very talented performance analysts at the more professionally run clubs who perform a pivotal role in assessing individual players at a far more granular level than we get presented with on TV and the internet. Apart from goals scored, the rest bear little relation to the outcome of a match. One stat that always bewilders, but which the pundits love is the Assist. Always giving credit to the last person to touch the ball before the goal-scorer seems a nonsense to me. Just looking at our previous two games throws up several examples of how inconsistent a players contribution to a goal might be.

On Sunday, you could imagine Aaron Creswell studiously working out his angles, velocity, wind speed and trajectory before executing his sublime cross for Antonio to convert. An obvious assist in anyone’s eyes. Later in the same half, he executed a clearance plucked directly from the Ginger Collins box of tactical punts. There was no intent and the fact that Fornals anticipated it, then controlled and dispatched it with aplomb was all down the Spaniard. A week earlier, there was no assist given for Cresswell because Soucek’s header from his corner happened to hit a defender on the way in – a consequence of the dubious goals rule, not the acuuracy of Cresswell’s corner. Equally, there was also no assist credited to Bowen’s second goal, as Fornal’s goal creating shot had hit the post before he netted the rebound.  

Dear Santa, New Owners For Christmas Please

Interesting (and excited) to read the continued speculation that the Gold and Sullivan era could soon be coming to an inglorious end. Their relationship with the fans has broken down so badly that recovery is impossible. Most fans don’t want them around and I wonder why, at their stage in life, they would want to stick around. If it is just a matter of agreeing price then hopefully something might happen in the coming weeks. I can’t say there has ever been a time where West Ham have been blessed with likeable, ambitious, level-headed or visionary owners but the loyalty of the support deserves better. Nothing is yet known on the identity of any supposed bidder but it couldn’t be any worse, could it?

Trading Places: Smart Leicester Investors Put West Ham’s Barrow Boys To Shame

The season of light meets the season of darkness. Today’s fixture spotlights how two clubs have fared over ten years of new ownership.

Comparisons, they say, are odious, but a fixture between West Ham and Leicester is an ideal opportunity to consider a pertinent footballing one. Two clubs who, in terms of revenues, sit behind the Premier League’s traditional big six – and who should be well positioned to take advantage of any slip ups above them for an occasional top four finish, something that could well happen this season on the evidence of early results.

Ten years ago, both were under recent new ownership. West Ham were a Premier League side, were quickly relegated but then immediately regained top-flight status and are now in their 9th consecutive EPL season. Leicester, on the other hand, had just been promoted from the third tier of English football and it would take them until the 2013/14 season to win promotion from the Championship. This is their 7th season back in the Premier League.

Apart from the notable 2015/16 season in which Leicester were surprise Premier League Champions, while the Hammers started with promise but faded badly, it has been difficult to separate the clubs in terms of league finishes, until last term. Digging a little deeper exposes why the two clubs are on very different trajectories.

While Leicester have invested heavily in infrastructure for a sustainable future, West Ham have never progressed beyond perennial fire fighting – applying patched up solutions to problems with urgency always overruling importance. Loose change spent on ‘upgrading’ the Rush Green training complex compared to Leicester’s £100m new state-of-the-art facility is a perfect example.

While Leicester’s owners have provided stewardship, they leave the running of the club to professionals – a full-time CEO, Director of Football and Head of Recruitment provide a sound foundation on which the football side of the club can flourish. Success is not just about transfer spend – remember Leicester have sold Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater, Maguire and Chilwell in recent seasons and may well be running a transfer surplus – but how wisely money is invested on and off the pitch. There have been poor managerial appointments in the past but these were quickly rectified and Leicester will be seen as an attractive destination – for both managers and players.

Conversely, while West Ham’s owners have spent money on transfers, it has rarely been well spent – short term expediency and vanity signings in the absence of underlying strategy or direction. A club overseen by Joint Chairman and a part-time Vice Chairman who mistakenly believe they have everything it takes to do it their way. A foolish, overconfident belief that they possess all the expertise required to run a football club, even though their record at Birmingham and West Ham suggests otherwise. Their only demonstrable competence appears to be hubris – a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own expertise, accomplishments, or capabilities.

No doubt, as fans we are going to have a different set of perspectives on the club that we support unconditionally than the owners do. The same would be true at any club, but those expectations should never be so far apart as they are at West Ham. I have no issues if owners make piles of money from their investment but isn’t the route to greater value and increased revenues (prize money and TV exposure) through success and progress on the pitch – not by selling more popcorn or replica shirts on matchdays? After ten years the West Ham footballing strategy is still all words and precious little action – what happened to that ten point pledge?. Even worse the owner’s financial aptitude is akin to the penniless guy who steals all the rent money to pay off the bookie.  Theirs is a dereliction of duty, no matter if it is deliberate or accidental.

With such a backdrop it is no surprise that West Ham is a club in turmoil and have found it difficult to recruit during the transfer window. Would many players with options choose to opt for the London Stadium, other than for financial reasons? Reliance on preferred agents, the absence of a scouting infrastructure and with the potential for David Sullivan’s legendary market trader negotiating skills to scupper most , it has to be a very frustrating time for David Moyes. I have mentioned before that Moyes would not have been my first pick as manager, but I do believe he is a decent guy who deserves better support. That we have reached the tail end of the window with little to show for it is scandalous. The last two days of the window are the worrying territory of desperation, misfits, and drifters.

At least/ at last we are able to welcome one new member to the squad, in the shape of Vladimir Coufal, and hope that he can have a similar positive impact to fellow countryman, Tomas Soucek. Coufal brings a good deal of experience with him that should help shore up a creaking defence, even though left back and centre back might have been (and remain) the areas of greater need.

West Ham put in an excellent performance last weekend against Wolves and we will probably see a very similar starting eleven and formation for today’s encounter. With Ryan Fredericks unavailable competition for the right back berth will be between Ben Johnson and Coufal (if considered ready). In central defence, Issa Diop is available for selection and it is a toss up between him and Fabian Balbuena as to who is best equipped to handle the threat of Jamie Vardy. It is remarkable that despite everyone knowing the danger of the through ball (or over the top) to Vardy, managers have found it impossible to counter.

An additional hazard to look out for will be the slippery penalty areas at the King Power Stadium – judging by how easily the Leicester players appear to go over. West Ham defenders must remember to tread that fine line between ‘not enough contact’ and ‘he was entitled to go down’ which is apparently how contact in the area is now judged by pundits and VAR.

I read various comments online in the week suggesting that by fielding a reserve side for the League Cup defeat at Everton (effectively throwing the game) it will have damaged the Hammer’s morale. I can’t see how that makes any sense and can be disregarded. What the midweek game did show, however, was just how poor our big name backup players actually are. What chance of getting anything more than the deposit returned on the likes of Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini and co? Others such as Robert Snodgrass and Mark Noble may show willing, but they are too far off the pace to be seriously considered as Premier League starters.

Leicester are without Pereira and Ndidi but have plenty of strength in depth with plenty of pace and guile in attack. Maddison is back from injury, Barnes is developing into a fine player and Castagne looks to be an excellent signing. If West Ham are to prevent a Leicester return to the top of the table it will require a superhuman effort of determination and concentration to achieve it. That might be too much to ask but what we are entitled to is the same level of commitment and organisation that was on show last weekend. If that is enough to frustrate Leicester than it will be an added bonus.

Tales of the Unexpected: Wolves Sent Packing And A Route To An EFL Cup Quarter Final

West Ham face Everton in EFL Cup action to see which club has the strongest second string. Who will triumph in this midweek ‘bench test’ to claim a quarter final berth?

Just when we thought that football’s ability to surprise was a thing of the past, West Ham shrugged off the menacing dark clouds surrounding the London Stadium to register a remarkable and highly impressive victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Full credit goes to the players and manager(s) for lifting the gloom (at least for now) in the face of overwhelming adversity – what a difference a win makes!

As ever, there was going to be the usual debate. Was the win down to an excellent West Ham performance or a poor Wolves one? It’s impossible to answer but, for me, despite a number of fine individual performances, every West Ham player played their part in a superb effort. It was arguably the best we have seen for some years, scoring four times, preventing Wolves from getting into their stride playing and recording a rare clean sheet. Top half of the table and with a positive goal difference.  From despondency to ecstasy in 90 short minutes – the erratic pursuit that is football supportership!

While we must wait until the weekend to learn whether it was the Wolves or the Newcastle performance that was the blip on the radar, we first have an EFL away tie with Everton to deal with. For the winner, it will be a place in the final eight, where the prospect of silverware suddenly becomes a little more realistic. A trip to an empty Wembley would be very West Ham. Both managers will be wanting to win tonight, but without risking fitness or injuries in this hectic schedule.

The Toffees have enjoyed a flawless start to the Premier League season and will be hoping to sit proudly on top of the pile come Saturday evening. In the previous round of this competition (against Fleetwood) Ancelotti selected five players who also started in the subsequent league game at Palace, including Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin. By comparison, Fabian Balbuena was the only Hammer who started against both Hull and Wolves.

How them might they approach tonight’s game? For the Hammers, further run-outs are probable for the likes of Sebastien Haller, Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini and Robert Snodgrass – plus we might also see one of Mark Noble or Jack Wilshere given an outing. More experience will be needed in defence, though, should Everton decide field their big guns once again. A much sterner test than that posed by Charlton or Hull.

With the game being played at a Premier League ground, it will come under the auspices of the dreaded VAR, and its ludicrous handball interpretations. Following the criticism received during its first year of operation, it was difficult to see how VAR could be made even worse, but somehow they have managed it. Rulings on handballs, offsides and penalties are now as much of a lottery (and as unfathomable) as offside decisions in rugby. Too many loose interpretations and all seemingly designed to help Manchester United, even after the game is finished. The next step might be setting up a VAR Cold Case Unit to investigate historic handball decisions against the Red Devils – any incidents resulting in the next match against offending opponents kicking off with a United penalty.

We must give credit where it’s due, so well done to Martin Atkinson for allowing Pablo Fornals quickly taken free kick on Sunday to stand in the lead up to the opening goal. A good example of advantage well played. On the other hand, I don’t understand why Tomas Soucek’s header was chalked up as an own goal. Surely, some mistake there!

Days go by and the transfer window deadline moves ever closer, and still it is all talk and no action. By now, we must have reached page 3 or 4 of the transfer target list. Even if the manager finds a players he wants, who is happy to come to east London, there is plenty of scope for the Board to scupper the deal by insisting on long, drawn out payment conditions – no deposit and nothing to pay for three years, as if they were buying a sofa.

Back to tonight’s game and it is very difficult to call without knowing the relative line-up strengths – who will take the gamble and who has the strongest second string to call upon. Goodison Park has never been a happy hunting ground, although West Ham have managed two wins from the last five visits.

The teams have met twice before in the League Cup, with Everton winning on both occasions – 2-0 at Goodison in a 1983 4th round replay; and 2-1 at the Boleyn in a 5th round tie in 2007. There will, of course, have to be a result tonight and maybe it will end up with a penalty shoot-out, just as it did in the memorable FA Cup tie in 2015. I wonder what Randolph is like from the spot?

After tonight the EFL Cup will take a break, returning in the week commencing 21 December for the quarter final ties. Will the name of West Ham United be unexpectedly in that hat?

Mission Improbable: Sullivan’s Message Self Destructs As Hammers Prepare To Face Wolves

David Sullivan’s ill-advised, grotesque, and conceited radio interview casts an even deeper shadow at West Ham’s as they seek to book their first points of the season. Apparently, it is all everyone else’s fault!

Imagine this. You are the unpopular owner of a struggling Premier League side. You have recently sold a promising academy graduate much to the dismay of your fans. Your team has made the poorest possible start to the new season and are now one of the favourites for relegation. There are well-known and long-standing weaknesses in your squad, but you have failed to invest any money in the transfer market, even though the window is soon to close. What do you do: (A) Knuckle down, identify and recruit the desperately needed reinforcements, find creative ways to raise the necessary finance and hope to restore confidence; or (B) Go on national radio, blame everyone else for your perennial shortcomings and plead financial hardship?

No surprise then, that with a trademark lack of self-awareness, David Sullivan opted for route B. His interview with talkSPORT managed to combine the worst of Prince Andrew, Gerald Ratner, and Donald Trump – “I have so many wingers, literally, eight wingers. I have them all over the place. They’re virtually useless.”

Bottom line is that Sullivan considers himself blameless for the club’s current plight, despite the evidence ten years or more of erratic, short term mismanagement.

In Sullivan’s eyes, in fact, it is the fault of supporters for demanding he appoint a big-name manager and a Director of Football. That he appointed a washed up one with unrealistic ideas on how to compete in the mid to lower echelons of the Premier League – and then compounding it by taking on that manager’s best buddy as DoF – was not, it seems, relevant. He had no control (and, therefore, no responsibility) for the Pellegrini/ Husillos signings. It is now David Moyes fault for the absurd idea of wanting to sign players who would improve the first team, not just to put bums on the bench and allow the club to claim it had been active in the transfer market.

We can only speculate on what was he hoping to achieve by such a PR catastrophe? Did he imagine he would win us over by going on air? Any remaining shred of credibility that remained could now only be found by forensic science. There is no way back from here and it’s about time ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’ replaced ‘The academy of football’ as the club’s strap line.

Despite frantic speculation, it is still all quiet on the transfer front as the clock ticks down to just over a week to go. As far as the outside world is concerned, the only newsworthy story of interest is whether Declan Rice will be eventually sold to Chelsea. Some news media, notably the Star and Express, are on a mission to make sure this happens. I am under no illusion that Rice will spend his whole career at West Ham, but it would be madness to sell him this late in the window. What over-priced, over-aged replacements would be we contrive to bring in with the money raised?

Elsewhere this week there was a comfortable EFL Cup success at home to Hull City, but not before the drama of Moyes, Issa Diop and Josh Cullen all being sent into isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. It’s a long time since the Hammers recorded four positive results in a single week. One anonymous source (@ExWHUtealady) tweeted that the three had previously shared one Ann Summer’s ‘Willy Soap on a Rope’ that are supplied complimentary in the Rush Green showers. All are unavailable for Sunday’s clash with Wolves, although apparently Moyes still intends to deliver his usual managerial address via Zoom. Perhaps images of him prowling the technical area of his lounge can be beamed onto the giant screens.  

On Sunday, it will be Chalk versus Cheese at the London Stadium as the downbeat Hammers face an effervescent Wolverhampton Wanderers for the fifth time since the visitors returned to the Premier League in 2018. West Ham have lost all of the previous encounters and failed to score on each outing – with an aggregate score of 0-8.  

There have been various comings and goings at Molineux during a close season that saw Jota, Doherty and Costa all leave to be replaced by Fabio Silva, Semedo and Hoever. However, Wolves still have Moutinho and Neves to pull the strings in midfield while Traore and Jimenez will be confident of causing alarm in the shaky Hammer’s backline.

For West Ham, it would be no surprise to see the same formation that performed well, but returned empty handed, from Arsenal. In Diop’s absence, the only alternative is a recall for Fabian Balbuena. Otherwise the back five is likely to be unchanged. Midfield protection will again be the responsibility of Rice and Tomas Soucek.

There could be scope for changes, though, in the forward three where Sebastien Haller and Andriy Yarmolenko made midweek claims for starts by showing they are more than good enough for League 2. I still struggle to see how and where Yarmolenko fits into a Premier League side. Despite his undoubted technical skills and accomplished finishing his lack of pace and work rate (particularly in tracking back) make him something of a luxury.

The situation with Haller is more complicated. In the right setup he will score goals but not unless he gets far better support. In addition to the much discussed defensive problems, we don’t have anyone with the right attributes to play just off the striker. In fact, the team have regularly struggled to get bodies into the box from open play – with only Soucek and Jarrod Bowen providing support to Michail Antonio. I feel that Bowen’s enforced defensive duties have detracted significantly from his goal threat in recent games, a situation that needs to be remedied if we are to see the best of him. Without doubt more goals are needed across the front three and we cannot continue to rely on Antonio’s heroics. Maybe a front three of Bowen, Haller and Antonio can be made to work.

It is difficult to know how much off-field calamity influences what happens on the pitch. It cannot be a force for good to have such disharmony coming down from the top. Own goals are never welcome in football and even worse when you find they are knocking them in in the boardroom. My only hope tomorrow is that the players can isolate themselves from the off-the-field mayhem and reproduce the effort and commitment that was shown at The Emirates. If they can then some sort of result is possible, even if it may not be very probable.

Alright, we’ll call it a draw.