Survival Back On The Agenda As West Ham Head South To Visit The Vitality Bowl Of Cherries

West Ham must stop Billing to achieve top billing in the latest relegation scrap against Bournemouth. The Hammers need to display their new-found spirit and resilience if they are to pip the Cherries for the points.

West Ham eased themselves into the Europa Conference semi-finals on Thursday night with what turned out to be a comfortable victory over KAA Gent. Following yet another slow, stuttering start the Hammers picked up the tempo around the half-hour mark before running riot in the second period. The margin of victory should possibly have been even greater.

There is now the small matter of five Premier League fixtures in 15 days before the semi-final against AZ Alkmaar on May 11. With the first leg being played at the London Stadium this has the makings of a tricky tie against an unknown Dutch opponent. At first glance the relative youth of the Alkmaar team – an average age more than four years junior to the Hammers – raises anxiety levels, especially if it is the case that youthfulness equates to fast and energetic.

In an ideal world, West Ham will have been able to preserve their Premier League status before the Conference games resume. To do so will require a haul of six or seven points from the next five games. It’s a return that is above the season-to-date average – although below the last five match total of eight points.

Little further clarity was provided on the likely outcome of the relegation scramble from the games already played in the current round of matches. A win for Leicester puts them back in play while a point apiece for Southampton and Everton does more for morale than league position. Defeats for Leeds and Forest leaves both even more exposed to the dreaded drop

The run of West Ham’s five survival games kicks-off with a trip to the south coast to play Bournemouth this afternoon. It was not long ago that the Cherries were everyone’s favourite for relegation but a strong run of four victories from six has lifted them to the fringes of safety. A home win today might see them done.

Former Hammer, Gary O’Neil has knuckled down and performed a highly creditable job with his low budget squad. The Cherries are one of only two sides – the other is Forest – who have enjoyed less possession than West Ham this season. Their tendency is to get as many players behind the ball as possible – sound familiar – and rely on quick breakaways centred on the pace, movement and running of Dominic Solanke and Philip Billing.  

Solanke is a strange player who never delivered on his early potential at Chelsea and Liverpool. Although he scored a hatful of goals in the Championship, his Premier League total of eight from 70 games is less than impressive for a striker – did you know he also had one England cap?. However, his tally of five this season is as good as any West Ham player, and he has also contributed plenty in assists and as target man in counter-attacks. It is Billing who tops the scoring charts for Bournemouth (with seven) – goals which are typically scored from late runs into the box. Who will be picking him up? The other Cherry who has impressed in the games I have seen is Marcus Tavernier. If he plays – he went off injured at Tottenham last week – his runs along the flanks will require close attention from the West Ham full-backs.

Life and football is full of uncertainties. But one thing we can be certain of is that David Moyes will not be springing any selection surprises when the team sheets are handed in before kick-off. From the team that started against Gent, I see the only questions as: Aaron Cresswell or Emerson Palmieri, and Nayef Aguerd or Angelo Ogbonna.

That will mean starting berths again for two players – Tomas Soucek and Said Benrahma – who have looked well out of sorts for varying parts of the campaign. Moyes obsession with Soucek is legendary and hinges on the manager’s fixation with the aerial presence the Czech offers in defensive areas. If Soucek was still weighing in with goals at the other end it might be worth the trade-off. But he’s not and without goals his poor proficiency with the ball at his feet stands out even more. At this level a player shouldn’t he heading the ball because he doesn’t trust his own ability to bring it under control.

Benrhama has been consistently frustrating for much of his Hammer’s career and into this season. Granted he is joint top in Goals Scored and Goals + Assists but those stats do include four penalty kicks. His decision making is still haphazard, and, for me, he lacks the speed and strength to hack it at the top level. In the average game Benny looks incapable of pressing a grape, so it was something of a surprise last week when he outmuscled Ben White before crossing for what should have been West Ham’s winner against Arsenal.

It is baffling why Maxwell Cornet has yet to be given more minutes since his recovery from injury. Surely, he needs them to get match fit and his pace would be a welcome added dimension to attacks. Yet he has been mainly limited to five-minute cameos as a late Michail Antonio replacement since returning to the match day squad.

A West Ham win would be a second double of the season for the Hammers. It would also be a first ever double over the Cherries and the first win in Bournemouth since a Dimitri Payet inspired 3-1 victory in January 2016. A Hammer’s comeback inspired by one of Payet’s memorable free-kicks. How we could do with that now!

The game promises to be an intriguing clash of two sides inclined to play with a similar style – defend deep and counter-attack. It will be a very different challenge for West Ham than games against attack minded opponents like Arsenal and Gent. Despite some great goals scored recently – the Declan Rice and Antonio strikes on Thursday were top drawer – more penalty box chances need to be created from open play if the Goals For column is to be improved. The approach to the game must be adventurous enough for the Hammers to put pressure on the shaky home defence, with Jarrod Bowen and Lucas Paqueta the most likely to make it happen. But disciplined enough not to get caught out by Bournemouth counter attacks. A tight affair is forecast but one that must feature strongly on the winnable list. COYI!  

After a successful European win on Thursday, a cherry-picking trip to the South Coast for West Ham to face an improving Bournemouth team

An important game – the winner will virtually be safe from relegation, although whatever the result, they probably both will

The Opta Supercomputer makes and updates predictions on the likelihood of all manner of things, including which clubs will be relegated from the Premier League. It gives a percentage chance of facing the drop based on form, the strength of opponents in the games to play, and goodness knows what else. I wonder what the Supercomputer would have made of the chances of West Ham getting anything out of the Arsenal game last weekend after the first ten minutes? Surely it would have been close to zero percent. That’s what I thought, as did many of us I guess, so it was refreshing to witness a comeback that didn’t seem likely, and it could have even been a win at the end.

What brought about the change in the game? The Arsenal manager believes that they eased up once they were two ahead, and that may have been partly the case, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There was a marked change in the way we played. We pressed them higher and played with an intensity rarely seen of late. Which begs the question – why haven’t we seen this for most of the season?

Who will go down? It’s still a tough question to answer, but perhaps a little easier than it was a couple of weeks ago. Back then there were just three points separating Palace in twelfth with Bournemouth in the third relegation spot. Palace decided to dispense with a young progressive manager and replace him with the oldest manager around who had decided to give up managing last season. But three wins in a row for Roy Hodgson since taking over once again at Selhurst Park has taken the Eagles out of the equation and they are now as good as safe.

It’s partly to do with the way that the fixtures have fallen with Palace now playing teams in the bottom half, as opposed to a run of games against teams closer to the top before Hodgson was appointed. Scoring goals has been the difference for Palace too. In the three games with the new manager in charge they have scored nine goals. In the 16 games prior to that they had also scored nine goals. What a difference! Not long ago there was a big gap between Palace and the team in eleventh place. Now they are just three points behind Chelsea who have collected just one point from their last three games.

A new manager at Everton had a similar (but only temporary) effect. When Sean Dyche took over they won two of their first three games reinforcing the change of manager ‘bounce effect’. But since then they have won just one of their last eight games, drawing three and losing four, and they are still in deep trouble with just seven games to play.

With Palace now out of it that leaves only eight clubs at most in the relegation mix. Let’s now take a look at some of the statistics involving the bottom eight.

This article was written before the result of the Arsenal v Southampton game last night was known.

The league table at present from the bottom up:

Southampton 23 points (7 to play), Leicester 25 (7), Forest 27 (7), Everton 27 (7), Leeds 29 (7), West Ham 31 (8), Bournemouth 33 (7), Wolves 34 (7).

The form table (once again from the bottom up) for the last six games played shows why the gaps are opening up near the bottom:

Leicester 1 point, Forest 1, Southampton 2, Everton 6, Leeds 7, West Ham 8, Wolves 10, Bournemouth 12.

The form table for the last three games is even more revealing:

Southampton 0, Leicester 0, Forest 0, Everton 1, Leeds 3, West Ham 4, Bournemouth 6, Wolves 7.

None of the bottom five teams are averaging a point a game for the season to date, and they are now in reality strong favourites to provide the three teams who will be playing in the Championship next season. If our game at Bournemouth on Sunday has a winner then that team will almost certainly be safe from the drop. If we can follow up the positive performance from last Sunday when we travel down to the South Coast then our relegation fears will be all but eliminated. We still have a game in hand and a goal difference that could be worth another point compared to the other teams in the bottom eight. That assumes that we don’t concede too many when we visit Manchester City of course.

I mentioned the Opta Supercomputer at the beginning of this article; their up-to-date figures for percentage chances of relegation are:

Southampton 93.6%, Forest 74.4%, Everton 57.8%, Leicester 46.4%, Leeds 23.5%, West Ham 2.1%, Bournemouth 1.6%, Wolves 0.5%

Bookmakers’ relegation odds vary a little, but taking Bet 365 as an example, the current odds before this weekend’s games are:

Southampton 1/14, Leicester 2/7, Forest 5/6, Everton 1/1, Leeds 9/4, Bournemouth 16/1, West Ham 20/1, Wolves 40/1.

On Thursday night we progressed into the semi-final of the Europa Conference League with a magnificent second half performance against Gent.  AZ Alkmaar, fourth in the Dutch league (as Gent are in the Belgian league) stand in our way from reaching a European final in Prague, our first since 1976.

But before then it is back to the important domestic action. We don’t have a good record in away games at Bournemouth in the Premier League. We have won just once in five attempts when two goals from Valencia and one from Payet secured a 3-1 victory in January 2016, a reversal of the 4-3 defeat we suffered earlier the previous August when Callum Wilson (now of Newcastle of course) scored a hat trick in our last season at Upton Park.

The stakes are high for this game. Both sides know that a win will make them virtually safe. Will it be a cagey affair? Will both sides be happy with a point apiece? Both teams can count on recent momentum. Whatever happens I think we’ll both be in the Premier League next season. I’ll agree with the Opta Supercomputer and the bookmakers. It’s any three from five now – Southampton, Leicester, Forest, Everton and Leeds. It can still change of course, but I’ll stick with that.