It’s A Game Of Four Halves: But Is Today Gunner Prove A Distraction For West Ham?

Another pesky London derby gets in the way of Europa League business with the visit of Arsenal to the London Stadium. How will David Moyes balance his priorities?

In the end West Ham – Eintracht Frankfurt: The Sequel didn’t live up to the high standard set by the original. If Occam had a philosophical razor for football matches it might suggest the higher expectations are raised, the deeper the depression when they are not satisfied – at least, as far as West Ham are concerned. But it now opens up an even greater and more memorable achievement if the one-goal deficit can be overturned in the away leg next Thursday.

After all, the situation at what is effectively half-time in the tie, is exactly the same as it was 46 years ago. If Jarrod Bowen’s spectacular effort had levelled the score in the dying minutes, we would still need to win in Frankfurt to go through to the final. And even if the Hammers were taking a slender lead to Germany, there would still be the fears and anxieties of sitting back too much to hold on to the lead. Sure, it will be an uphill battle, but all is not lost. They are not unbeatable and neither of the previous rounds followed the same pattern in both legs.

There was widespread agreement that Thursday’s performance fell well short of what was needed. Only a few players came close to their usual standard. Stage fright, perhaps with the weight of expectation or occasion holding them back? Most definitely a lack of quality in the final third but isn’t that something we hear most weeks? What I didn’t see, though, was a lack of effort, as some suggested in comments I read online.

Conceding such an early goal certainly set the tone on proceedings. The defence were all over the place for that one, collectively dragged across to the right hand side and leaving a huge space in behind on the left. Despite the equaliser, West Ham were unable to build on it and impose themselves on the match. That was the disappointment and control of the midfield areas will need to improve in the return.

No doubt, the second coming of the Moyesiah has seen a MASSIVE improvement in the Hammer’s fortunes.  But we have to accept it is an improvement built around getting the absolute best out of a small and committed group of players. It would be great to have a Plan B when the going gets tough, but we simply don’t have the players to do that. We are very good at making the most of our strengths – breakaways or set pieces – but limited beyond that.

Time has yet to tell whether the improvement we have seen on the pitch can develop into genuine progress throughout the club. By which, I mean a platform that can be sustained beyond the current group of players. To achieve that requires better facilities, a productive academy and forward-looking player recruitment. The summer transfer window may provide pointers to whether an appetite exists to both upgrade and deepen the strength of the squad.  

With a fully fit squad, one of the greatest limitations is creativity in attacking midfield. Someone to pull the strings and offer a different dimension in unpicking tight defences. None of the options – Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma, or Manuel Lanzini – fit the bill. If Nikola Vlasic was meant to be the answer, we asked the wrong question.

The most sparkling period of football during the last memorable two years was when Jesse Lingard was doing just that last winter – although I no longer see him as the long term solution. Someone like Martin Odegaard from today’s visitors has the ideal attributes. He is the one individual who has provided the spark for Arsenal’s assault on the top four – as well as sparking their revival from three goals down in today’s corresponding fixture last year.

The Gunners are now firm favourites for the final top four place. It would be fantastic to put a spoke in their bid but maybe a Pyrrhic victory if it opened the door to Tottenham. Much will depend on the north London derby to be played on May 12.

The Hammers Premier League aspirations remain complicated. The Europa League is clearly the bigger prize but putting all the eggs in that basket would be costly if qualification from domestic league position is sacrificed as a result. Fortunately, Wolves have been eager to help out on that score. Yet, the possibility of finishing above Manchester United in sixth remains in our own hands, at least in theory.

The question then, is how will David Moyes set his priorities for today and Thursday? The team selection against Chelsea almost did enough to preserve the point it had started with, but Craig Dawson’s dismissal was a blow, both then and now. Will Kurt Zouma be fit enough to start or is that a risk too far for Thursday? Do Michail Antonio or Tomas Soucek need a rest? I suspect it will be a similar approach to the Chelsea game with a back three of Zouma, Ben Johnson and Aaron Cresswell, and further outings for Mark Noble and Andriy Yarmolenko.

Arsenal have some exciting young talent to call upon and their pace down the flanks has to be a concern for Moyes. They don’t have the deepest of squads and will miss the injured Tierney and Partey, while Xhaka is always one challenge away from a red card. They were quite fortunate to beat Manchester United last week and owed much of their victory to Fernandes stupidity with his spot kick.

It is difficult to like the Gunners under the management of Lego-haired supremo Mikel Arteta (or is it Duplo hair?) They are too taken with the dark arts of whinging, diving, and simulation to be admired. The tolerance of referees to cheating and simulation continues to cast a dark shadow on the game. The professional dive and the professional head injury are just as distasteful as the professional foul invented by Willie Young

As the game is another that is difficult to call, I dug out my Ouija board to get this week’s prediction. According to the spirit world, it’s West Ham to win 3-1 with goals from Vlasic, Yarmolenko and Masuaku. COYI!

Moyes Must Find A New Tune On The Old Fiddle To Shake Arsenal Disharmony

West Ham head to one of their unhappiest hunting grounds in search of London derby points. Can they come away with a rare victory?

A sure sign that West Ham are outsiders in the Premier League elite club was the failure to collect a get out of jail free decision when Craig Dawson was chopped down in the penalty area at Turf Moor on Sunday. No penalty goal bonus was to come our way on a weekend where Liverpool, Chelsea, and both Manchester clubs were each awarded soft spot kicks to guide them home.

The idea that there is context to a foul – he wouldn’t have reached the ball, or he didn’t have it under control – is a bizarre and undocumented concept as far as the laws of the game are concerned. Interpretations that only seem to apply inside the penalty area, on the subjective whim of officials, and in the eyes of prattling pundits.

It was difficult to assess the Hammer’s performance at Burnley. It was neither terrible nor good. Apart from a few shaky moments in the last ten minutes, the makeshift defence looked sound enough. Craig Dawson is, in many ways, the ideal centre back to resist the physical challenge of blunt instrument attackers such as Woods or Lukaku. It is against nippy and mobile opponents where he looks less assured. Elsewhere, we were treated to phases of neat passing and movement, except that all the the ideas fizzled out the closer we got to the Burnley goal.

This may be a season too far for the Clarets. Their time at the top table may well have run its course unless Dyche is allowed to refresh his squad during the transfer window. From early on the impression was they would be happy to finish with the point they started with. Setting out to frustrate the Hammers with a lack of adventure that allowed few opportunities for trademark West Ham counter-attacks (plan A). As one of the taller teams in the league, the hosts were also rarely troubled at set pieces (plan B).

In fairness, breaking down a well organised defence is not easy. It was why Manchester City and Liverpool had needed generous penalty gifts to get past Wolves and Aston Villa respectively. But the ability to create something special or perform the unexpected is in short supply in the West Ham squad. It can’t always be left to Declan Rice, who was once again head and shoulders above any other player on the pitch.

The inability to prise open packed defences (plan C) has already proved costly in points lost this season. There is no clear, obvious or quick fix to the problem and we must accept the squad does have limitations. It is still performing way above expectations. A creative attacking midfield player (or number 10, if you like) and a forward with true striker instincts are the undeniable missing pieces.

Tonight’s opponents Arsenal have made a good recovery after a very poor start to the season – although they continue to be inconsistent, particularly away from the Emirates. At home they have won their last four league games without conceding although each of these were against bottom six opposition (Leeds, Watford, Newcastle and Southampton). Although Mikel Arteta is now in his third season as manager, the team remains a work in progress. How long he will be given to turn matters around will be interesting. Arsenal doesn’t strike you as a particularly happy or together club/ squad and the latest Aubameyang disciplinary spat will only add to that disharmony. Another season without Europe may be the final blow for Arteta.

The Gunners are another of the sides who neither score nor concede many goals. They have several bright attacking players. Smith-Rowe is highly thought of (although I’m yet to be convinced) and Saka can cause havoc when given too much room. It is Odegaard, however, who poses the biggest threat for me. He was the spark that inspired Arsenal to claw their way back from three goals down at the London Stadium in March and will need to be closely shadowed. At the back, the hosts are bigger and stronger these days but somehow still fragile under pressure – more Vulnerables than Invincibles.

There is rarely too much to debate when it comes to the probable West Ham line-up. There are not that many options for David Moyes to ponder and he tends to stay loyal to a small group of players anyway. At some stage, Alphonse Areola will replace Lukas Fabianski, but don’t see that happening yet. If Aaron Cresswell is fit (fingers crossed) he will return at left back to keep an eye on Saka. Otherwise, it will be as you were in defence. Then it is a case of which three out of Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma play behind Michail Antonio. Of course, all that is subject to no positive Covid tests being revealed.  

The Hammers have a terrible record away at Arsenal. Even when playing well, they have come away empty handed. It is now just one win (2015/16) in fourteen visits and I believe David Moyes has a similarly dismal record in his managerial career. It would be an ideal time to put those things right tonight. It will be a very different game from Sunday. With Arsenal likely to be on the front foot, there should be the space available to exploit on the break. We are much better equipped to deal with team looking to attack.

I sense an opportunity for Michail Antonio to rediscover his scoring boots in a 2-0 win. COYI!

Recent results have not generally been great for the Hammers at Arsenal. What will happen when these two teams in the top six clash on Wednesday night?

With just five points from our last five games it is perhaps surprising that West Ham are clinging on to fourth place in the Premier League table. The latest disappointment was the goalless draw at Burnley on Sunday. I write “disappointment” because, although in years gone by we would always have been happy with a point from a trip up north, we now hope (and expect perhaps) for three to maintain a challenge towards the top of the table. It was disappointing too in that we were the much better side creating all the chances, but came across a goalkeeper in Nick Pope determined to impress the watching England manager with some excellent saves from Diop, Benrahma and Bowen. And on a weekend where all the top clubs won games with the help of (in some cases) very soft penalty awards there was also a contentious incident where McNeil appeared to foul Dawson in the Burnley area but referee Scott did not award one and the referee on VAR duty (surprisingly to me, although I am biased) decided not to intervene.

Scoring goals is a bit of an issue away from home at the moment and Michail Antonio hasn’t managed to score in his last eight appearances. But he is not alone, and although he is perhaps expected to be our leading scorer others must chip in too. Although we have only managed one goal in our last three Premier games on our travels it is perhaps just a blip; after all if the league table was produced based on goals scored in this season to date we would be in fourth place by that measure too. I guess the disappointment comes from the cracking start to the season where we picked up 13 points from our first five away games with four wins and a draw, and this has been followed by just one point and one goal from the next three games away from the London Stadium.

Part of the reason for us retaining fourth place is down to the fact that the team who were closest to us just a few games ago (Wednesday’s opponents Arsenal) have had a relatively poor run too with just six points from their last five games (only one better than us) and have dropped a place in the table with Manchester United under new management having a resurgence and now just a point behind us. Manchester City and Liverpool are undoubtedly the form teams with a maximum 15 points from their last five league games, but they are followed (with a bit of a gap) by Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United who all have ten points from their last five, although Tottenham now have two games in hand over us and trail us by only three points.

Wednesday’s game is an important one for both ourselves and the Gunners in the quest to finish fourth – the top three will undoubtedly be the top three at the end of the season, such is their lead over the chasing pack and their consistency. Of course they can be beaten in odd games, as we have showed against both Liverpool and Chelsea, but over the course of a season those three will finish a long way clear I reckon.

Will last Sunday’s starting eleven be the same again against Arsenal? Perhaps yes, although I wonder if Fornals will return in place of Benrahma for this one? I’m not sure if any of the fringe players have done enough to make a compelling case to start. Vlasic is possibly the closest, but is he a better bet than Benrahma or Fornals? I’m not convinced but perhaps if he gets a chance of a run in the team at some stage he can show why we paid such a lot of money for him. I believe that Areola looks a great long-term prospect and once he gets his chance to be a starter in league games it may be difficult for Fabianski to get his place back. He has been an excellent goalkeeper for us but could he have done better with some of the goals we have conceded this season? And as modern keepers go, is his distribution perhaps a little below par at times?

The bookmakers have done their research based on past performances and Arsenal are favourites to win the game at odds of around 11/10. We are about 23/10 with the draw priced at around 5/2. A Bobby Zamora goal at the Emirates was enough for us to seal a 1-0 win in April 2007 which was the third win in a row against Arsenal, and enabled us to complete the double over them that season. But we have faced them on 28 occasions home and away since then and we have beaten them just twice, a 2-0 win on their patch on the opening day of the 2015-16 season (Kouyate and Zarate were the goalscorers that day), and 1-0 at the London Stadium in January 2019 with a goal from Declan Rice, his very first for us. There have been two 3-3 draws in those 28 games. What are the chances of a similar score tomorrow?