In the end the AZ Almaar team that turned up at the London Stadium were not quite ‘as advertised’. In the pre-match build-up their reputation had escalated from being ‘no mugs’ to becoming an amazing fast raiding side who would weave intricate patterns around the pitch. In practice, they were rather pedestrian. If there was an element of Brighton about them, it was early Potter vintage and not the free-scoring De Zerbi incarnation.
Nevertheless, David Moyes had predictably treated the threat with the utmost caution. If AZ were a side who liked to break the press by tempting an opponent to commit, Moyes would counter that by refusing to press at all, and reverting to the favoured default low block. There’s nothing that takes him higher than an overdose of caution.
Ultimately, it took the gift of a poorly conceded goal to stir West Ham from their stupor. Several players were hoping for a foul, Tomas Soucek was slow to close down, and Alphonse Areola was embarrassed by a tame shot that he should easily have dealt with. It was to the Hammers credit that they eventually turned the match around, but the feeling at the final whistle was of an opportunity missed. The visitors looked uncomfortable in the face of any physical challenge, and even a modicum of adventure would surely have allowed West Ham to establish an unassailable first-leg advantage.
Instead, we are left with a tie that could go either way in the second leg. A game where Moyes is banking on his team’s resilience to reach the final. Now, I’m all in favour of resilience, but isn’t an attribute that would be called for against heavyweights such as Manchester City or Real Madrid – not against relative Dutch unknowns. A big spending Premier League side should be looking to overcome teams like AZ through the excellence of their football rather than resilience.
Sandwiched between the two European Conference semi-final encounters is a bothersome end-of-season affair at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium. Mathematically, West Ham could still end the season in the bottom three but the alignment of fortunes required for that to happen are as improbable as the United Kingdom winning the Eurovision Song Contest.
Brentford are already assured a top ten finish which is a remarkable achievement by manager Thomas Frank and his players. In certain aspects of style, there are uncanny similarities between the way Brentford and West Ham approach games. Neither is too bothered about the chore of ball possession and both favour launching it long as the cornerstone of attacking ambitions. In terms of attitude, however, the teams are streets apart. Brentford approach games without fear of any opposition, press higher up the pitch, and routinely setup with two dedicated strikers. Indeed, Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo are pivotal to Brentford’s success. If and when Toney receives the threatened lengthy ban for betting rule breaches – why has this taken so long – it will be a major blow.
The trade-off for this reckless sense of adventure is being more open at the back. No-one has made more saves in the Premier League this season than the Brentford keeper, and only Bournemouth and Everton have faced more opposition shots. Despite this, they have conceded five goals fewer than West Ham – and scored 14 more.
There’s plenty of speculation that Moyes will rest a number of players for tomorrow’s game. It would be foolish to play Michail Antonio given that he is the only player in the squad capable of playing the Moyes striker role. He may also choose to omit Kurt Zouma, Declan Rice, and Jarrod Bowen. Very likely we will see a 5-3-2 starting eleven along the following lines: Fabianski, Johnson, Kehrer, Aguerd, Cresswell, Emerson, Downes, Soucek, Paqueta, Ings, Cornet
When West Ham made it to the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976 they took just two points from the final eight league games. It feels like similar territory that we are now in. Survival may well be mathematically confirmed this weekend and after that there will be just the one prize.
The Hammers have yet to take a point off Brentford since their promotion to the Premier League. The chances on ending that run tomorrow seem remote. But maybe there’s the chance of a scrappy end-of-season draw. COYI!