With the transfer window slamming shut and the Premier League season starting in the course of two days, the scene is set for the mother of all media frenzies – Sky sources will be going beserk. As usual, the close season has witnessed a host of managerial comings and goings and vast sums of money exchanged for both exciting and mediocre players. Some are certain to shine while others are sure to fail. Everyone has spent big, optimism is widespread but ultimately three clubs will still be relegated. At the top the slate is wiped cleaned, but there is almost universal consensus for a two horse race between Manchester City and Liverpool.
Meanwhile at the London Stadium something very strange has been happening – as if the owners suddenly discovered the PIN for their ATM card and decided to dip deeply into their pockets. Even the most curmudgeonly anti-Board critics must find it difficult to complain about the scale of the summer’s transfer activity; although there is still the stadium, the design of the third kit and the sleeve advertisements to moan about.
At last, the much needed and belated squad overhaul has taken place with a vengeance. Whether this is a one-off reaction to keep the season ticket cash register ticking over or part of a longer term investment strategy remains to be seen. Rumours persist, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, for several more arrivals before Thursday’s deadline but, even now, looking at the attacking talent available in the squad makes some of us moist with anticipation.
New manager Manuel Pellegrini promises a new expansive approach and style of play that could prove the perfect antidote to the dour pragmatism of recent seasons. How quickly the Hammers can adjust to these changes (and the new arrivals to the frenetic pace of the Premier League) will only become apparent over time. Can the new boys hit the ground running, will it take a while to build telepathic understandings, and what is a realistic expectation for West Ham in the 2018/19 Premier League season?
There is a very strong correlation between the wealth of a club and their probable finishing position in the league. On that basis, the top six places are already spoken for – although it is not unknown for any individual club to experience a wobble in a given season. That would leave the Hammers fighting it out with the likes of Everton and maybe Leicester (or Wolves) as leaders of the chasing pack. If it was me setting targets then I would be looking at between sixth (with the most favourable of following winds) and tenth; worse than tenth would be a failure and the idea of another relegation haunted season is unthinkable.
However, I think many of us would prioritise entertaining football, a good cup run and being prepared to give it a go against the big boys above any particular league position. From what I saw of pre-season I am confident that can look very good in possession but fear a continued vulnerability without the ball – particularly exposed through the middle against marauding or fast breaking attacking sides. Defensive midfield has become the new right-back where the club and management have been slow or reluctant to address a long perceived weakness. Perhaps a solution can be found in the next day or so. In any case we are in a much better position now in attempting to outscore the opposition, even if it means conceding a few in the process. Hoping not to lose should no longer be the game plan.
From experience, we know that any discussion about the Hammer’s strongest line-up when everyone if fit is a purely theoretical exercise. Nevertheless, speculation is always fun.
I see little between the two keepers but suspect the Number One spot will be Fabianski’s to lose.
In defence, Pellegrini prefers a back four and I will be interested to see which of the various permutations best suits this set up. On the left both Cresswell and Masuaku have been better at going forward than in defending and are possibly more suited to a wing back role than as traditional full-backs. Across the other side of the park, Fredericks looks certain to be first choice and has looked electric going forward (I am, as yet, unfamiliar with his defensive prowess) while Zabaleta is a useful backup. The centre of defence would then be any two of Ogbonna, Diop, Balbuena and Rice. It may take some time to establish the optimum pairing but believe it will be Ogbonna and Diop who get the shout from day one.
Defensive midfield options are currently a choice from Obiang, Noble and Rice and I expect Pellegrini to be looking to select two of these. Each has their own limitations in a role expected to protect the back four, win possession cleanly and move the ball forward quickly. Noble will continue to be an important figure around the squad but unless he can be fitted with a new pair of legs before the weekend I am not convinced that he can still operate effectively at this level – more than happy to be proved wrong though. Rice is a great prospect but it would be a case of a central defender playing, out of position, in midfield to my view.
This year’s attacking options provide some mouth-watering options. Pole positions (subject to any late additions) must be Wilshire, Anderson, Yarmolenko and Arnautovic with Hernandez and Antonio (if he stays) as backup. There may be a case for starting with Hernandez as part of a two up top on some occasions but only in matches where one of the two defensive midfielders can be sacrificed. A prediction from all of that is for Arnie to set a new Premier League goals in a season record for the Hammers – eclipsing the current 16 by Di Canio in 1999/2000.
Of the departures it was sad to see Reece Burke go. He is the modern day Eliot Ward and I can see him making a return to the top level later in his career. It was also time for Kouyate to move on, even though he was nowhere near as bad as some made out – who will replace him as the whipping boy?
I have very high hopes for the season but then again this is not a brand new sensation. This time, more than any other time, maybe they can be at least partially fulfilled.