I Might Not Be Back Says Arnie While West Ham Prepare To Outshoot The Gunners

Uncertainty over the future of the clubs only decent striker may overshadow the meeting of two of the Premier League’s leakiest defences at the London Stadium.

With a comfortable league position and a favourable route offered through to the 5th round of the FA Cup, everything was starting to take on a rosy complexion in the wonderful world of West Ham.  But then just as we are making ourselves comfy in this state of abnormal well-being we are hit with a double whammy: first it is announced that Fabian Balbuena has become the latest in a long list of players to discover the West Ham treatment room has no exit – you can check-out but you can never leave; and then Marko Arnautovic comes down with an unprecedented case of yellow fever.

There is no doubt that the loss of Arnautovic in the wake of a huge bid from a Chinese Premier League club, would be a major blow to Manuel Pellegrini’s plans.  Although he may not be the most prolific of goalscorers, his power, pace and mobility provides an important, almost exclusive, focus to the Hammer’s attack.  There is no-one else in the squad comparable and options from elsewhere in the January transfer window will be both limited and expensive.  I can understand that players might love to win trophies but going to China to do so is a desperate move – the equivalent of Rodney winning the Under 15 art competition in Only Fools And Horses!  If his intention to leave is genuine (rather than merely a negotiating tactic) it is unlikely to end well for a club hoping to get the best out of him.  It is a sad fact of modern football that keeping a player against their will is rarely successful.

This weekend, West Ham face Arsenal in the Premier League Saturday lunchtime kick-off at the London Stadium.  When the two clubs met back in August both were pointless and the Gunners rather fortunate and flattering 3-1 win, after being a goal down, saw them embark on a long undefeated run of games.  Since that run was brought to ignominious end at Southampton they have looked somewhat indifferent as they slip further behind in the race for lucrative Champion’s League qualification.  Arsenal may well run around a lot more under new manager Unai Emery but the sacrifice has been a loss of flair and the introduction of comedy defending.  If you had asked me a few days ago about the outcome of the game I would have said West Ham were firm favourites to record their first home victory over the Gunners since November 2006.  Now I am not so sure.

With Balbuena possibly playing little part in the remainder of the season there is a bare bones look to the central defence.  Whereas the Balbuena-Diop axis was solid, the Ogbonna-Diop one is erratic and prone to a collective loss of concentration.  With few viable alternatives, the only defensive conundrum is the ongoing battle between Aaron Cresswell and Arthur Masuaku for the left back berth, where I believe Cresswell will get the nod.

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Following an encouraging debut in the FA Cup, I expect Samir Nasri to get thrown into to a first league start alongside Declan Rice and Mark Noble in midfield while further forward Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio would hopefully support Arnautovic, if he is considered in the right frame of mind to play.  This would leave no room for Robert Snodgrass and Grady Diangana but both would likely feature from the bench.  Central midfield continues to be a worry and links to Jonjo Shelvey and Gary Medel do nothing to ease those concerns.  Experience prompts an adverse Pavlovian repsonse in me when any player who is currently playing in Turkey is linked to the club; and a 31 year old ex-Cardiff City player is hardly an exciting, forward looking prospect.

Arsenal have been running West Ham close in the most injuries achieved competition but may be able to welcome back Bellerin, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal and Ozil this weekend – although Mkhitaryan, Holding and West Ham nemesis Welbeck remain sidelined.  Although Arsenal no longer have the traditional Wenger swagger in midfield (and what is the point of Iwobi?) the combined threat of Aubameyang and Lacazette can be as good as any in the league on their day.

Making his first refereeing appearance at a West Ham match this season is Jonathan Moss from West Yorkshire.  Moss loves to flourish the cards and will be looking to add to his total of sixty seven yellows and four reds in what is often a fiercely contested London derby.

With two of the leakiest defences in the top half of the Premier League, this game is sure to have goals in it.  BBC pundit Lawro is predicting 1-2 while at time of writing former Gunner Merson is still wrestling with his conscious before declaring for an Arsenal success.  For me, a lot hinges on the Arnautovic situation – whether he is picked to play and, if he is, what his level of commitment will be.  Arnie in churlish mood will see him limping around the pitch in a sulk looking to be the first name in the referee’s notebook.  Nevertheless I am mysteriously in confident mood and can sense a Nasri inspired 3-2 Hammer’s bonanza.

Pellegrini Steers A Course Towards Cup Success

Jasper Carrott, Ozzy Osbourne, Simon Bates, Peaky Blinders, Bob Carolgees and Spit, Richard Hammond, Kiroy-Silk, Crossroads Motel, Mr Blue Sky, UB40. Your boys gonna take a hell of a beating!

It has become common over recent seasons to hear the term game management to describe the dull final twenty minutes or so of a match where the team in command ceases to press home the advantage while their opponents lack the ability to do anything about it.   When it comes to the third round of the FA Cup, which sits at the end of a packed holiday schedule, it has become a case of witnessing season management – managers looking to select a team with just enough quality to get through without the risk of further injury or fatigue.

In years gone by, the third round of the FA Cup was one of the most eagerly anticipated dates in the football calendar; but it is now firmly in the shadow of Premier League money-go-round and the quest for final standing merit payments.  The cup now only really comes into its own, as far as managers and the media are concerned, in the later rounds with the final managing to retain a good part of its allure.

At the old Wembley stadium, there were famously 39 steps from the pitch up to the royal box where both Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds climbed to receive the challenge cup trophy.  This season marks the 39th anniversary of the last of those memorable victories.  Is it be a step too far to imagine Mark Noble raising the cup aloft with a claret ribbon when May comes around?  Can Manuel Pellegrini manage his depleted resources and navigate a course all the way to the Wembley Arch?

The majority of supporters love a good cup run although the definition of what would constitute good is uncertain.  While going all the way is fantastic, elimination before the sixth round doesn’t really carry much of a distinction or merit even a footnote in history – personally, I even have mixed feelings about the 2006 final; a great day out at the time but I have never been able to relive the experience by watching the highlights ever again!

Even under Avram Grant (the second worst West Ham manager ever) there were two barnstorming cup runs – reaching the sixth round of the FA Cup before losing to Stoke City and going one step further in the League where the Hammers lost in a two leg semi final – to Birmingham City!  It is perhaps easy to look back with the knowledge of hindsight and say that the experience of the cup runs trumped eventual relegation but that could easily have turned out a lot worse for the club.  In financial terms winning the cup is only worth a league place or two but the memories for supporters last a lifetime.  It is a difficult balance for managers to handle.  At least the manager has the cushion of a comfortable league position as his backstop.

Pellegrini says that the cup is important to him and it certainly represents a more realistic route to winning a trophy than league success.  But winning the cup has still been dominated by the big six during the Premier League era and, more than ever, requires good fortune and a lucky draw – providing both an easy path forward for us and allowing the bigger teams to eliminate each other on the way.

Pellegrini will be wanting to give a break to key players this afternoon, particularly those that have played almost every minute; such as Felipe Anderson, Declan Rice and Issa Diop – although it may not be possible in every case.  Who, for instance, is available to cover for Diop?  New recruit Samir Nasri will play some part but probably no more than a half.  With such a long injury list there is not too much on the fringes of the squad to get very excited about and it may well mean another outing for the odd striking couple of Andy Carroll and Lucas Perez.  Apart from Gray Diangana and Xand Silva there has been little indication that the manager is seriously considering others from the  academy as first team players right now.  Conor Coventry and hopefully Nathan Holland will make it onto the bench alongside Anderson and Marko Arnautovic who are likely to be held in reserve.

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The Two Daves will be keen to welcome their former club to the London Stadium, like a man trying to impress on his ex-wife how well he has been doing since the divorce.  It is strange not to have a club from England’s second city in the Premier League and with Birmingham (as well as Villa) just off the pace in the Championship, perhaps their minds and priorities will also be somewhere other than the FA Cup.

Manager Gary Monk who had a bright start to his managerial career at Swansea City, but subsequently struggled at Leeds and Middlesbrough, appears to be finally getting some consistency at St Andrew’s.  From what I have seen and read about Che Adams, he is just the type of player to give the Hammers the runaround and will need to get kept on a tight rein.

I was never one to attend many away games outside of the capital but, courtesy of a friend giving me some Persil tickets, I did travel to Birmingham to see the fifth round tie in 1984.  It was quite possibly the most miserable footballing experience of my life where the fighting started in the bar at Euston and remained a real and constant threat throughout the day.  A tepid West Ham performance and a 3-0 defeat did nothing to improve matters for the long depressing ride home.

The referee today is Roger East from Wiltshire who was last at the London Stadium for the win against Burnley.

As much as I would love to see West Ham sweep aside their lower league opposition, game management and season management will not allow that to happen.  This will be no Macclesfield (or Tranmere!).  It is even too tight even to be viewed as an upset – a banana skin without much potential, in fact. Keeping the faith, however, I will rely on the Hammers putting in a spirited performance and securing a single goal victory.

West Ham Ready To Bounce Back And Bury The Brighton Bogey

There might not be nine ladies dancing on this ninth day of Christmas but it could be league win number nine as West Ham look to return to winning ways in their first game of 2019.

For those still counting, today is the ninth day of Christmas and the notion of nine ladies dancing might bring back nostalgic memories of the Hammerettes strutting their half-time stuff to MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This at Upton Park.  But that is all in the past whereas today is about new beginnings as West Ham welcome Brighton and Hove Albion to the London Stadium for the opening game of 2019.  A new year brings with it renewed feelings of optimism; the opening of the transfer window has us dreaming of exciting new recruits to bolster the squad; and a reset of the yellow card count allows players added scope to hack, lunge, tug and dive knowing that the spectre of suspension no longer hangs over their head.

Brighton have become something of a bogey team for West Ham and will be looking to claim their fourth successive Premier League victory against the Hammers.  In fact, West Ham have only won one of the six top flight games against the Seagulls – a 2-1 victory (Cottee, Dickens) back in March 1983.  It was the consequences of the demonstrations at last season’s home fixture with Brighton, however, that prompted the Board to extend their previously short arms deeper into their pockets during the summer, finally employ a decent manager and take a welcome step away from Twitter.

Depending how you want to look at it, West Ham have won an in-form five from the last seven or are on the slide with two defeats in the last three.  The common denominator in those two defeats was an opposition playing with aggression and intensity; it would be no surprise to see the same approach from Brighton tonight.  Manuel Pellegrini suggested that fatigue was the major contributor to the disappointing showing at Burnley but it seemed as much about poor attitude and a lack of desire to me.  Not that the effects of the festive programme with a squad badly hit by injuries didn’t play a part – just that it was not the whole story.

West Ham will hope to welcome back Pablo Zabaleta in defence but, with few other alternatives available, the rest of the back-line will be as you were.   That leaves Angelo Ogbonna once again standing-in for the missing Fabian Balbuena and it will be fingers crossed that he will is more alert than he was at Turf Moor.  I had an old computer that was like Ogbonna.  It was fine when you first started it up but gradually over time its performance became slow and erratic until the only option was to re-boot.  Hopefully, he has been cleared down, reformatted and had a firmware upgrade installed over the last few days to increase power.  Issa Diop’s performances have also suffered in Balbuena’s absence and both will need to be on their toes tonight.

In midfield, Pedro Obiang must surely return as a replacement for the struggling Mark Noble, who is looking well past his best before date right now.  Assuming Robert Snodgrass has recovered from his knock, the rest of the midfield should be unchanged.  The wild card is Samir Nasri who is reported to be available for the game following his signing for the Hammers at the expiration of his doping ban.  It would be a stretch to expect him starting the game (he has only played eight times since the start of the 2017 season) but can see him getting twenty minutes or so from the bench. At least he shouldn’t be tired!

Marko Arnautovic will lead the attack again and his presence is essential to take some of the spotlight (and attention) from opposition defenders away from Felipe Anderson.  If other teams decide to double up on Anderson then it is up to the other players to exploit the extra space made available.  My preferred choice as a partner for Arnie would be Michail Antonio who looks to have regained much of his appetite in recent weeks.  Ideally, it will be Andy Carroll and Xande Silva on the bench with Lucas Perez safely at home watching the new season of Luther.

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Brighton are at completely the other end of the injury league table to West Ham.  Their only reported injury is Colombian bogeyman, Jose Izquierdo, and even then he may be available for selection today.  They will, however, be missing Mat Ryan and Alireza Jahanbakhsh who are both on international duty at the AFC Asian Cup.  In addition to Izquierdo, ageing striker Glenn Murray also revels in his games against the Hammers.

Referee Chris Kavanagh from Lancashire makes his second West Ham appearance of the season – the first was in the drawn game at Huddersfield in November.  He has his fair share of yellow cards this term but just the one red – Maddison of Leicester against Brighton.

I heard West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini’s comments about the scheduling during the festive period – if that’s a problem then he shouldn’t have taken the job.

Lawro on Pellegrini

Despite having a dig at Pellegrini concerning the busy festive schedule, Lawro expects West Ham to return to winning ways with a 2-0 win.  Paul Merson is going for exactly the same result and score.  I am expecting to see a positive reaction following the disappointment at Burnley.  Brighton will be well organised as usual and even though they are not good travellers this will be another stern test.  Apparently, January is West Ham’s worst performing month for Premier League wins but having watched a poor Everton – Leicester game yesterday there is every reason to keep our sights on the ‘best of the rest’ title.  It might ultimately turn out to be unrealistic but there is nothing wrong with setting challenging and ambitious targets.  West Ham to win 2-1.

Five Takeaways From West Ham’s Humbling At Turf Moor

Injuries, fixture congestion, travel difficulties and invisible grey shirts? West Ham surrender the points to Burnley because they just didn’t want them enough.

I Can Take The Despair, It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand

We wanted a return to the West Ham Way and that is what we’ve got.  Periods of exciting, free-flowing football, purple patches of form and heightened expectations – only for it all to come tumbling down just as a tantalising glimpse of glory is beckoning.  In reality, the return from the December fixture list is more than acceptable and the club appears to be in much better shape than it has been for some time.  That hardly softens the blow, though, of what was a massive disappointment in Sunday’s performance.  That the final score wasn’t by a margin of five or six goals in the host’s favour was due to the Clarets wayward finishing rather than the efforts of the Hammer’s defence.  At the other end the threat was so lame that even Joe Hart could have kept a clean sheet.

They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em

Various mitigating circumstances have been put forward to explain the inadequacies of West Ham’s performance: the lengthy injury list; a day less to recover than Burnley since their previous matches; and travel difficulties associated with the timing of the return flight (!) from Southampton.   Had the Hammers began proceedings with a fighting display, but faded in the last half hour, then a claim of tiredness could be more acceptable.  The fact of the matter was that West Ham were never at the races and gave the impression that in the aftermath of the hosts capitulation to Everton, they only had to turn up in order to snaffle the points.  As with the Watford game, Burnley bullied the Hammers out of it.  The Clarets were superior all over the pitch as our boys were out-thought, out-fought and out-played.  It must be a worry that many other teams will come to realise that the way to beat West Ham is to rough them up a bit.  Something I haven’t seen mentioned is that perhaps it was the light grey 3rd kit that was to blame – making our players invisible to each other as it had done for Ferguson’s Manchester United back in 1995.

Unnatural Selection

Manuel Pellegrini made two changes from the team that started against Southampton.  Mark Noble replaced Pedro Obiang in the centre of midfield and Marko Arnautovic returned in attack in place of Grady Diangana.  The return of Arnie was eagerly anticipated although, with his most effective work done as a lone striker, would he struggled to adapt to a role alongside Lucas Perez?   The Noble for Obiang switch came as a surprise.  With Pablo Zabaleta still absent through illness, Obiang would have been a more solid option and better suited to supporting stand-in right back, Michail Antonio – as he had at St Mary’s.  At least, we managed to fill all the seats on the bench this time.

Past Performance and Future Success

With the exception of Declan Rice and Lucasz Fabianski few came out of the game with any credit.  Perez, Noble and Angelo Ogbonna were particularly poor with Noble even trying a repeat of the tackle that got him a red card at Leicester.  Robert Snodgrass looked totally spent while Felipe Anderson rarely got a kick under the close supervision of the Burnley defence.  Antonio had some decent moments going forward in the second half but Cresswell was mostly anonymous.  Ogbonna had one of those games where his attention is mysteriously elsewhere and that lack of focus also crept into Issa Diop’s display.  Arnie was off-the-pace and possibly a start came too early for him.  The net effect was that, despite plenty of the ball, there were few cohesive passing movements, no penetration and minimal goal threat.  At the other end Burnley opened up the Hammer’s defence at will.  Of the substitutes: Diangana showed enterprise during the brief period of the game where West Ham applied late pressure; Andy Carroll did at least test the Burnley keeper with one header; and debutant Xande Silva also had a decent attempt on goal.

Looking Through The Transfer Window

The majority of the long term injured will not make any contribution to the remainder of this season and so, with the January transfer window about to open, it will be telling whether any new recruits make their way to the London Stadium.  With the manager wanting to play a passing game, attack with pace and defend narrow and high, there are several pieces of the jigsaw that are missing.  The team is badly deficient in central midfield where no-one has the necessary pace, vision and passing range to orchestrate play.  Better alternatives at full-back and other mobile striker options are also needed.  The recruitment of Samir Nasri seems to be a done deal but will there be any more than that?  Will it be a case of muddle through to the summer with what you’ve got, or will there be further recruitment to push-on during the second half of the season?  The conundrum is that if the season fizzles out then some of the better players will start to look elsewhere.  Contracts really are no guarantee once a players head is turned.

On The Sixth Day Of Christmas: Six West Ham Wins In December Please

Never mind geese-a-laying, it’s a sixth win in December, three more points and seventh place in the table that are the numbers on offer from today’s visit to Burnley. Can West Ham also manage to get seven bottoms on the bench?

The only time I have ever read anything negative about Sir Trevor Brooking was the account of a fan who encountered the entire West Ham team on the London bound platform of Southampton Central station after a game at The Dell back in December 1971.  Perhaps disillusioned after scoring but then being substituted by Dave Llewellyn in a 3-3 draw, Brooking was the only player who refused to autograph the then 12-year-old’s match programme.  I don’t suppose, for a minute, that the team still travel by train to Southampton but was speculating as to whether the reason for only six substitutes on Thursday night was because Karen Brady had not bought enough Supersaver tickets (or collected enough Persil tokens) to get seats for the whole squad.    Surely, even with the club’s lengthy injury list, there were other young players available who would have benefited from a first team match-day experience!

The decision to bounce the West Ham match at St Mary’s to the day after Boxing Day means that the Hammers continue to bat second during the holiday round of games.  With the dust having settled on all of the Saturday matches there is now an opportunity for our boys to leap into seventh spot of the Premier League going into the New Year; a state of affairs that would have seemed fanciful in the first few weeks of the season.  The ‘best of the rest’ tussle is usually an ever changing competition but ourselves, Wolves, Everton and, maybe, Leicester look to be the most likely contenders.  Hopefully, any ambition that exists will have more staying power than a Tottenham title challenge.

Ironically, today’s opponents, Burnley, were the best of the rest from last season but in a complete reversal of fortunes now find themselves as the weakest but one link in the Premier League table.  It was always destined to be difficult for a club of Burnley’s limited resources to sustain any momentum but the speed of their decline has been surprising.  With Sean Dyche a graduate of the Fat Sam School Of Dour Percentage Football it is odd to see Burnley so porous in defence.  After a run of poor results, Dyche will be looking to get his players fired up for today’s game while ensuring that defensive discipline is maintained.  Today’s tasks for the Hammers will be to match Burnley physically, effectively repel their set piece aerial threat and find a way through or around a crowded defence.

Of the ten first team players who were absent in midweek, Pablo Zabaleta and Marko Arnautovic are reportedly to be assessed in late fitness tests, while Javier Hernandez is regarded as a major doubt.  All the other invalids are said to be definitely unavailable.

If Zabaleta has recovered from illness he will most probably be the one defensive change from the Southampton game in place of Michail Antonio.  Elsewhere, Felipe Anderson, Declan Rice and Robert Snodgrass are certain starters but after that selection becomes more problematic – either due to uncertainty over availability or failure to impress.  Antonio deserves to keep a starting berth but where is it best to slot him in?  Will Manuel Pellegrini want to start with both or only one out of Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang – each have their particular strengths but neither are able to fully orchestrate play, pull the midfield strings or switch play intelligently on a consistent basis.  None of Lucas Perez, Grady Diangana or Andy Carroll did anything on Thursday that would stake a claim for a starting place: Perez doesn’t work hard enough; Carroll looked out of control; and Diangana needs to develop far greater strength before he can be considered for anything other than cameo roles.

In an ideal world, I would love to see the return of Arnautovic but fear it is too soon for him to be risked.  There has been a lot of talk about Anderson being the new Payet but we do not need to become a one-man team once again; Arnie is well placed to divert some of that pressure.  Perhaps a front three of Anderson, Arnautovic and Antonio would be a fearsome combination – at least the triple A’s shouldn’t run out of energy!

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Burnley are likely to be without Brady, Lennon, Defour (all injured) and Lowton, who is serving a one match suspension.  They will select two from their range of identikit strikers in an attempt to intimidate the West Ham defence.

By the time the next Hammer’s game comes around, West Ham may well have added Samir Nasri to their squad.  If that happens it will be interesting to see how he is deployed – more likely as a deep lying playmaker rather than in an attacking wide midfield role which was more typical at Arsenal and Manchester City.  Nasri is not a long term solution but he could be a short-term fix to an obvious gap in the make-up of the team.

Today’s referee is David Coote from Nottingham.  He is a new one on me although he was, apparently, the fourth official at St Mary’s in the week.  This will be only his fifth Premier League appointment of the season.

Lawro appears to have got stuck in a loop predicting 2-0 defeats for West Ham whereas Merson continues to be generally supportive, going for 3-1 away win.  In a table based on Lawro’s predictions to date, West Ham would be in 15th place with 18 points, below both Fulham and Burnley.  The Hammers have already broken their own record for most Premier League points in December and a sixth win of the month would extend that tally even further.  I don’t see this be a free-flowing open game but if/ when West Ham get their noses in front anything could happen.  A 2-0 win, first double of the season and sitting proudly in seventh place would make for a very happy new year in my world.

On The Third Day Of Christmas: Will My True-Loves Send Me Three Away Points

West Ham seek to improve on their unimpressive record of just three wins from the last sixteen visits to the home of the Saints.

A week is a long time in football.  It has been a week in which West Ham’s unlikely European ambitions suffered a reality check; and where it was all change at the top with Liverpool suddenly six points clear and Manchester City dropping down to third.  It will now take all of Guardiola’s legendary man-management skills to go out and buy a brand new £200 million defence in the January sales.

Having been denied a traditional Boxing Day fixture, the Hammers travel to the south coast to face Southampton in the televised Cinderella match.  The challenge of keeping sufficient beer, nuts and mince pies in reserve has been a difficult one.  The useless OPTA stat of the night is that if Charlie Austin manages to find the net (highly likely) then he will have scored a Premier League goal on every day of the week – apparently becoming the 26th player to do so!

A little while back this game could be viewed as one component of an eminently winnable run for the Hammers that would see them surge into the top half of the table.  The Saints were a struggling, dispirited side, .  However, since the appointment of Ralph Hasenhuttl (a name that will quickly become a commentators favourite alongside Nuno Espirito Santo) there has been a rapid resurgence in Southampton fortunes.  Their win against Arsenal was largely down to weak defending by the Gunners but having followed that up with a win against Huddersfield, they will be full of confidence.  The home side’s lowly position, in any case, was entirely down to the ludicrous decision to appoint serial failure Mark Hughes as manager (who makes these decisions?) and it is difficult to look beyond Huddersfield, Burnley and Fulham for the relegation places.

Injury problems continue to plague West Ham and, although there is some talk of a Marko Arnautovic return, it would be a huge surprise if he turned out tonight.  Assuming that Fabian Balbuena is unavailable then his replacement by Angelo Ogbonna may well be the only change from the side that started against Watford.  In an ideal world, Manuel Pellegrini would probably like to rest some of the older legs (and even the younger ones) but he has limited scope to do so.

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The most recent West Ham match refereed by tonight’s man-in-the-middle, Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire), ended in an 8-0 over Macclesfield in the EFL Cup.  What chance of a re-run tonight?  After an early season red mist where he made three dismissals in his first four games, Pawson has settled down to become an enthusiastic yellow card issuer only.

Sky Sport’s pundit Paul Merson is expecting a Christmas cracker of a 2-2 draw while Lawro (the BBC Football Expert as he likes to think of himself), fresh from correctly forecasting the West Ham – Watford score, has another 2-0 defeat in mind for the Hammers.

Volatility is the preserve of every football fan.  In this world, our team can swing from unbeatable to clueless in the blink of an eye, and with it expectations from tonight’s match have been significantly downgraded.  I am sure that things remain on a much more even keel in the dressing room and that, as we speak, Pellegrini is devising a cunning plan on his chalkboard and Powerpoint flip charts to take the wind out of Southampton’s sails.  The worry is that an effective balance in midfield is still elusive for the Hammers and it struggles in both providing support to the defence and acting as a springboard for attacks.  The hosts are likely to take advantage of these shortcomings with both Redmond and Ings coming into a run of form.

Despite the manager’s more enterprising approach to the game there are still too many unnecessary, unforced back passes to the keeper for my liking.  I have never seen the stats for this and would be interested to see how we compare with others.  With Lucasz Fabianski having a pass success rate below 50%, the player in possession might just as well hoof it up-field.  With few exceptions, I consider every back pass to the keeper to represent a failure in the team’s ability to create space and opportunity.

I would love to see a win but sense that three points could well be beyond us given the lengthy injury list; a draw would be a creditable return.  I am also hoping that the strange free-kick routine – the short pass and stop before putting in a cross – finally pays off tonight.

Five Festive Takeaways As West Ham’s Winning Run Shudders To A Halt In Stratford

Then like my top six and fifth win on the trot dreams, they fade and die. An exciting but pointless game precedes the Christmas holidays.

Fairytale Of New Ham

It was nice while it lasted and we all knew that the winning streak had to come to an end at some point.  Even so, it was a disappointment that what had started as a dream of a fifth win in a row and spending Christmas in the top six ended with the Hammers slipping back into the bottom half of the table – “you took my dreams from me!”  The result aside there was no denying that it was an entertaining and unusually open game in which, without playing particularly well, West Ham might easily have scored four of five goals.  Defeat would have been harsh on Watford, however, who by taking the chances presented to them just about edged it on the day.

Last Christmas You Gave Me Joe Hart

Of the sixty-one Hammer Of The Year awards, five had been presented to goalkeepers* and, although we have yet to reach the halfway stage, Lucasz Fabianski must, at least, be in with a shout of this season’s award.  During the summer it was obvious that we needed better than the on-loan former England keeper and the flamboyant but erratic Adrian, but I was less than thrilled when the signing of Fabianski was announced.  I am delighted that he has proved my jaundice opinion 100% wrong with a series of fine performances and even finer saves – we gave the keeper’s jersey to someone special.  Curiously, Fabianski just trails Joe Hart (69 versus 75) at the top of the most saves made this season Premier League rankings.  The save on Saturday from Doucouré was particularly impressive.

The First No-ble

When Andy Carroll was being warmed up early in the second half it came as a big surprise that Mark Noble was the player to be replaced.  Not that Noble was playing especially well but because it necessitated several other players shuffling in their positions – Robert Snodgrass dropping deeper and more central while Michail  Antonio went out wide right.  The subsequent introduction of Grady Diangana (for Javier Hernandez) then required Antonio to return to his more central attacking role.  Having needed to make the Angelo Ogbonna for Fabian Balbuena switch in the first half, the sequence of substitutions seemed unnecessarily disruptive to me.  A special mention to Ogbonna who put in a solid performance alongside Issa Diop (who played like he had taken one glass of sherry too many at the Christmas party) and also to Arthur Masuaku who was not implicated in either goal and was the top rated West Ham player as far as the whoscored stats website were concerned.

A Christmas Carroll

The return of Marko Arnautovic cannot come too quickly for me – although I appreciate the danger of bringing a player back too quickly.  In his absence you can perm any two from Hernandez, Antonio, Andy Carroll and Lucas Perez and end up with a disappointing outcome.  Antonio had a good game on Saturday, though, and was twice thwarted by the woodwork – I couldn’t believe that the second didn’t go in – and also caused a lot of problems to the Watford defence, much more like the Antonio of old.  Hernandez is anonymous when he isn’t scoring and he let three presentable chances go begging at the weekend.  Perez just seems to lack any desire to me which leaves us with the Carroll dilemma.  The not-so-secret weapon from the bench creates a wholly one-dimensional approach to our play even if that is not a conscious tactic.  Despite his unplayable tag and the encouragement of pundits to hang up the crosses for him to attack, it rarely pays dividends.  Granted he is still rusty but how he fits into Manuel Pellegrini’s match plans is a puzzle.

Jingle Bell Crocks

Already runaway leaders at the top of the Physio Room EPL injury table, the Hammers ended the day with Balbuena and Hernandez piling on to the treatment table – making it nine senior players in total out of action.  While Hernandez may be back available this week, the injury to Balbuena is looking more worrying.  I’m sure it is not imagination that West Ham suffer more than their fair share of injuries although there seems no rhyme nor reason why this should be the case.  Although there are a few players in the squad who could be classed as injury prone, injuries have been spread around, having occurred during matches, in training and away on international duty.  I have often suspected that the club’s below par training facilities are part of the problem but that is not going to change anytime soon.  In the meantime, I hope that a Value Pack of Magic Sponges is high on the club doctors Christmas wish list for an injury free New Year.

I would like to end by wishing everyone the happiest of Christmases and a very prosperous 2019.

* Lawrie Leslie (1962), Phil Parkes (1981), Ludek Miklosko (1991), Shaka Hislop (1999), Robert Green (2008)