There may well be special circumstances this season, but it seems very odd (and wrong) to be playing a league game immediately after the FA Cup Final has finished. For so long, Cup Final day was where everything stopped and the outside world went eerily quiet. Weekend chores were set aside early so we could settle down in front of the Grandstand with some tins of Ind Coope Long Life beer and a party pack of Hula Hoops for company.
West Ham players will barely have time to finish tweeting their Cup Final congratulations before kicking-off at the Amex Stadium in a bid to rescue European hopes . Although the top four dream would appear to have slipped tantalisingly out of reach there is still much to play for – a place in the top six and finishing above Tottenham for starters.
It is always tempting to want to blame someone else for your own shortcomings, but it in the end it was three defeats in the last four games that burst the West Ham bubble. That’s not to say a clandestine conspiracy by the sordid six to ensure top four dominance for themselves is out of the question. We still await news of their punishment for breaching Premier League rules!
The thinness of the Hammers squad was ultimately the undoing. Was it ever likely to be strong enough to mount a sustained challenge with the injuries and suspensions? Even in in a normal season, let alone one as compressed as this one has been. A late rush of injuries to key players just became impossible to manage.
For me, the absence of Rice has been the most crucial, particularly in the defeats to Newcastle and Everton. Others may argue that not bringing in a striker in January was the key factor but I do understand the manager’s stance on that one, unless an overseas loan could have been arranged. A permanent deal from the bargain bucket (think Jordan Hugill) would only have made a sizeable hole in the summer’s budget, and for questionable benefit.
The parlous state of the squad is a direct consequence of woeful oversight at Board level for many years. Paying over the odds for unsuitable vanity signings, with lengthy and inflated contracts, and with little or no re-sale value has proved a disastrous strategy. That when there were inspired signings (Payet and Arnautovic), insult was added to injury by allowing them both to leave for well below market value. At the same time, the academy has been experiencing years of famine. Aside from the good fortune of picking up Rice when he was rejected by Chelsea, the last academy graduate of any note was James Tomkins.
The game with Everton proved exceptionally frustrating. The Toffees are a notorious bogey-side for the Hammers and once they had been gifted an early goal it was always going to be a struggle to find a way back. It was a typical Everton away performance and the Hammers, not for the first time, lacked the individual flair to unlock a massed and well marshalled defence. The two clear opportunities that did arise, for Said Benrahma and Vladimir Coufal, were left unconverted.
The Everton goal highlighted the weakness still present in centre of the Hammer’s defence. For all his strength, bravery and aerial prowess, Craig Dawson has clear limitations on the ground that explain why he was plying his trade at Watford. Most certainly a decent squad player but not a mainstay for a team hoping to be regular European contenders. With an ageing Angelo Ogbonna, central defence is one more area requiring reinforcements in the summer – along with keeper, left back, striker and, indeed, others.
End of season games can be wildly unpredictable as more teams start to take their foot off the pedal, peruse the travel green list and stock up on Ambre Solaire. With Brighton having secured Premier League safety in the week it will be interesting to see how they react. More so in light of the rush of blood that saw two red cards in their fixture at Wolves last week, leaving them short of a captain and two leading goal scorers.
Brighton under Graham Potter are something of an enigma. It is quite unusual for a club on such a limited budget to strive for attractive possession football. I have been suitably impressed at how comfortable even their lanky defenders are on the ball. It is a lack of goals that has typically let them down. Bissouma and Trossard are very fine players as was Lamptey in the early part of the season before his injury. In seven matches since returning to the top-flight the Seagulls have yet to lose to the Hammers, and have scored every time.
The major hope for today is that it will mark the return of Rice to the midfield. Not only for his own undoubted talent, drive and contribution but also because it releases Tomas Soucek to get further forward. Seeing Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell on the team sheet would also be an enormous bonus. Apart from those injury concerns the outstanding call is between Jarrod Bowen and Benrahma for a starting berth. I think it goes to Bowen
As usual the bench will be very light on game changing options. When Andriy Yarmolenko and Ryan Fredericks are your big hopes, it does not auger well.
A big game for the Hammers, less so for the depleted Seagulls. Similar circumstances, perhaps, to when we faced a depleted Swansea at the end of the 2015/6 season and lost 4-1 at home, eventually costing the chance of a top six spot. Hopefully, we are made of sterner tough this time around. If Brighton play their normal possession game it should allow space for the West Ham runners to exploit on the counter attack. In theory, it should make them an ideal opponent. My prediction is that greater desire can break the Brighton duck with a comfortable 3-1 victory.