West Ham return to Premier League action today in aspirational ‘turn things around’ mode as they make the short, and historically fruitless, trip across London to face league leaders Arsenal.
The Hammers entered the World Cup break with a bleak run of tame home defeats that saw them lose to Crystal Palace, Leicester, and Blackburn Rovers. Many believed it was a sequence that would see the end of David Moyes, but the board have decided to stick with him, in the hope of a miraculous upturn in fortunes. What fresh ideas they seen in performances to date can only be speculated upon. Yet they seem convinced he is the man to throw off his hard-wired caution and lead a charge back to the European table?
The worry for me is that we are entering a period of uncertainty and paralysis. The manager on life support hoping to survive day-to-day by scraping enough points to stay out of the bottom three and avoiding any embarrassing thrashings. It is a recipe for greater caution, not for a renewed sense of adventure that might get the best out of the expensive new signings.
How the six-week break will impact matters is impossible to tell. Some had the chance to take relaxed winter holidays while others experienced the thrills and heartache of representing their countries in Qatar. How will the World Cup hangover play out – not just for West Ham but for all teams?
Unlike the COVID break in 2020 there will have been no opportunity to work as group on fixing the many things that have been going badly. There was no obvious new approach on show in the recent friendly matches. And you will remember that West Ham lost the first two games when post-COVID matches resumed in June 2020.
The task that faces the Hammers today is a daunting one, regardless of their poor record in this fixture. Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the table having played eight of their fourteen games away from home. At The Emirates, they have won six out six. Conversely, West Ham have just one win and one draw to show from seven matches played on the road. The game will be a contest where pace and fluidity meets slow and predictable. Mismatches don’t come much bigger than this!
Moyes has selection dilemmas both front and back today. The roll call of injured and doubtful players includes Kurt Zouma, Nayef Aguerd, Aaron Cresswell, Maxwell Cornet, Michail Antonio and Gianluca Scamacca. If I were to be cynical, I’d suggest Moyes already has this down as a home win, and will not risk anyone who is not fully fit. His tactics will be driven by damage limitation, holding on to the point if that is at all possible.
On the other hand, the Gunners will be close to full strength apart from the missing Jesus who was injured in Qatar. I have mixed feelings about Arsenal. It is a club punching above its weight which at times can be a joy to watch. But under Arteta they are too fond of the dark arts for my liking. Expect at least one penalty with Saka and Martinelli going to ground faster than a paranoid fox.
I fully expect Moyes to play with a back five today – with the makeshift set of players that are at his disposal. It will be sitting deep and hoping to snatch a goal from a set piece. Moyes will have been making careful notes when Japan beat Spain in Qatar with less than 18% possession. A shot on target will be a momentous event.
I am conflicted right now. I never want West Ham to lose any game but equally don’t see any future scenario where the Hammers are a competitive and entertaining outfit under the current manager. Let’s not forget his abysmal managerial away record against top six sides.
Boxing Day success for the Hammers seems implausible. It would require David to slay Goliath, the tortoise to beat the hare, and Jack Reacher to fight off five hoodlums in the bar room parking lot – all rolled into one. Hats off to Moyes if he can pull something out of the fire but even the Moyesiah wouldn’t have chosen Arsenal away at Christmas as the starting point for his resurrection.
It is difficult to see any other outcome other than a comfortable defeat. I really hope that’s not the case but it’s what history and reality suggests. COYI!