According to popular wisdom: “it is better to travel in hope than to arrive”. That has certainly been the case for West Ham visits to Liverpool in the past. A contest that has seen the visitors accumulate a paltry three away wins in ninety-nine years of competition. Recent experience provides no greater comfort with a run of five straight defeats since the Hammers last came away with a point in December 2016. Famously, a 50+ year hoodoo had been broken the previous season – but that was not to be start of a new era and the fixture continues to carry the hallmarks of a contractual obligation.
The ‘travel in hope’ quotation is said to have been coined by by Robert Louis Stevenson. Quite appropriate then that it would require a monstrous Jekyll and Hyde type transformation from last weekend’s respective performances for the visitors to improve on their sad record.
Following Liverpool’s stuttering start to the season, where their problem has been far too many drawn games, it was a shock to see them stifle and defeat a free-scoring Manchester City side, who I had earmarked as potential Invincibles material. Perhaps they were fortunate that Haaland had gone ‘off the boil’ by extending his goal drought to a whole match! Still it was a far more energetic and purposeful performance by the hosts in which the only straw clutching hope is that it may have taken a lot out of them – and resulted in one or two more injuries.
True to form, VAR once again found itself at the centre of attention when it went into overdrive to disallow what might heve been Manchester City’s opener. Had Haaland pulled Fabinho’s force with sufficient grippage (is that a word?) ; did Haaland subsequently kick the ball out of Alissons hands; if not, should that have constituted a new phase of play; does anyone understand the rules; do they make them up as they go along? Suffice to say, we shouldn’t expect any favours from the VAR team this evening.
As for the Hammers, it was a case of two points dropped at St Marys Stadium on Sunday. The absence of four recognised central defenders from the West Ham line-up set the scene for the game with David Moyes opting for an unusual all-full-back back three of Ben Johnson, Thilo Kehrer, and Aaron Cresswell. As I have written before, my aversion to playing three at the back is not that it is negative, but because there’s no-one in the squad capable of playing effectively as wing-backs. Vladimir Coufal and Emerson went on to prove that point perfectly. Sad to see that Coufal received abuse on social media. Whatever the shortcomings or poor form of various players, I don’t see any that are not giving 100%.
The makeshift defence started like a group of strangers and although understanding steadily improved, the Hammers found themselves a goal down by then. It was a goal conceded in bizarre circumstances when hapless referee, Peter Bankes, body checked Jarrod Bowen to present Perraud with a shooting opportunity. Bankes, and his VAR minder, would later go on to miss a penalty area judo throw on Tomas Soucek – the type of challenge that was penalised at every other ground over the weekend.
If the starting line-up that Moyes opted for could be seen as understandable in the circumstances, his substitutions were once more beyond perplexing. His team had been well on top for most of the game. Possession, goal attempts and corner kicks were off the scale, and Southampton had given up any pretence of trying to score. Only one team were capable of going on to win the game. Surely, time to give it a real go – an opportunity to see Giancarlo Scamacca and Michail Antonio terrorise the Saints defence for the final ten or fifteen minutes? But no, that’s just what they would have expected us to do. Far better to take off your biggest goal threats and tamely play out the remaining minutes to bank the point. A lovely goal by Declan Rice, by the way!
This week’s episode of Centre Back Crisis season 2 is the subject of conflicting reports. Wishful thinking says that at least one of Kurt Zouma and Craig Dawson should be available to play, while past performance indicates that recoveries always take longer than anticipated from the West Ham sickbay. It’s good news that Nayef Aguerd is nearing first team action and it can’t come soon enough. Relying on the ageing bodies of Dawson and Angelo Ogbonna in a packed programme of fixtures is never going to end well.
Even in perfect conditions, a trip to Anfield is a daunting task for West Ham. Having to play the same defence that took the field at Southampton would bring the pessimism level down several more notches. A silver lining is that Liverpool have their own injury problems, except they are still able to throw the combined talents of Salah, Firmino and Nunez at our depleted defences. The confirmed team news will be viewed with interest. If Antonio is preferred to Scamacca it will be obvious what sort of evening we are in for. An ultra-low block with hopeful punts up-field as the one and only outlet.
Perhaps Moyes will pull a surprise for once. But his record and deference against the ‘big six’ is well known. Over the past two seasons of relative West Ham success, his teams have lost sixteen of twenty-four games played against the ‘elite’. Away from home the record is poor in the extreme: played twelve, won none, drawn one, and lost eleven. Only Manuel Lanzini’s very last minute strike at Tottenham preventing an outright whitewash.
In the interests of travelling hopefully though, perhaps there’s an outside chance we can escape with a point. COYI!