West Ham will complete their third Premier League game of a congested festive schedule when they face Everton at Goodison Park this evening. Their opponents having the benefit of a yuletide rest following the postponement of their clash with Manchester City as a Covid precaution.
The Hammers go into the game with no win in their last four outings (although they have lost just one of these) while their hosts are looking for a fifth straight win on the bounce.
The omens for today’s game are mixed. When I say mixed, I mean that they almost all point to an Everton win. The exception being the remotest of straws to clutch at, that West Ham have a surprisingly good record on the opening day of new calendar years – six wins, four draws and only two defeats from the last twelve. Apart from that, Everton’s Premier League record against the Hammers is better than it is against any other club. To make matters worse, David Moyes has lost on all four return visits since he left Goodison in 2013.
After the disappointment of a rather fortunate draw at home to Brighton, the point won away at Southampton came as something of a surprise, particularly as the manager attempted to juggle the limited resources available to him. It all conspires to leave us guessing what the starting line-up, and indeed formation, might look like today.
Recalls for the benched Vladimir Coufal and Jarrod Bowen should be guaranteed, but will Craig Dawson’s unexpectedly competent display give him the nod over Fabian Balbuena? Great to see Michail Antonio back in the fold, but will be risked as a starter? Unlikely, given the tone of Motes pre-match press conference. And will it be three (five) or four at the back? What is best way to counter Everton’s traditional strength down the flanks? Even with a fully fit squad, left back continues to be a major cause for concern.
Everton got off to a storming start to the season, faltered somewhat (coincident with Richarlison’s three match suspension) before racing back into top gear, and a top four berth. For today’s game they will again be without Rodriguez (the South American Yarmolenko – one footed and lazy), Digne and Allan. A midfield that includes Iwobi and Davies isn’t the most scary but it is Richarlison that is the danger man – as the main supply line for Calvert-Lewin, he has to be nullified. Not forgetting, of course, that Sigurdsson has been a frequent thorn in the Hammer’s side.
With the turn of the year we also enter a new transfer window where media fuelled expectations will, no doubt, once again exceed reality. Loan deals would probably be preferred by the owners but West Ham already have the maximum number of domestic loans allowed – so unless Said Benrahma is made permanent or Craig Dawson is sent back (both unlikely) there is no further scope in that direction. International loans are possible but would be subject to new untested post-Brexit visa regulations.
There will be plenty of speculation between now and the window closing but I don’t see funds being made readily available given the relatively comfortable mid-table position at a time that the club pleads poverty. I’m sure everyone would be more than happy to see the back of Pellegrini’s expensive misfits but the best time to offload these will be the summer. Having to sell before you can buy must play havoc with the timing of transfer negotiations.
Josh King continues to be linked with a move to the London Stadium despite having played very little football this season – 30 minutes in total since November 7. Do we need someone who might not be fully match fit until March? January is typically for emergency buys, rather than for long term building. A new left back would be useful though! I’m sure they must have one in Prague or Brentford.
What is there to hope for in 2021? It would be great to have supporters back in the grounds but I doubt this can happen to any significant extent before the end of the season. I would love to see a prolonged run in the FA Cup, can we prioritise that, or will it be sacrificed for the place money that one or two league positions might bring? Can we put an end to, and stop condoning, the outrageous cheating that is diving and taking one for the team? Can we have a common-sense VAR regime that is fit for the game as a spectacle rather than one to suit armchair data analysts? Can commentators stick to telling us what is happening on the pitch rather than trying to show-off their knowledge (it’s not Test Match Special) and can pundits stop describing every ordinary event as brilliant?
Back to today’s game, and we are likely to see a cautious West Ham, at least in the opening exchanges (i.e. the first half). It was positive that Bowen and Coufal were able to get a much needed rest in midweek but the backbone of the team -Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna – have played every league game (maybe every minute?) so far this season (as has Aaron Cresswell). The Hammer’s fortunes will depend greatly on how they can perform again today. I guess we are stuck with another start for the central defender’s dream, Sebastien Haller, but at least there is the prospect of Antonio from the bench. Full of new year optimism, I am going for a 2-0 win, including that elusive first penalty of the season.