It was another encouraging performance from West Ham in midweek even though it ended with the Hammers being dumped out of the FA Cup by Manchester United. The outcome of the game hinged on several critical ‘if only’ moments that allowed the hosts to recover from a goal down and book their place in a very open sixth round.
At the attacking end, it was Michail Antonio who left fans feeling frustrated. First, when he failed to capitalise on a one-v-one situation with David de Gea and later when going for goal when a square pass would surely have led to West Ham extending their one-goal lead. Both incidents illustrated the strength and weakness of Antonio. Using his pace and power to engineer openings but without the accomplished striker’s finesse to execute effectively.
At the other end, a collective defensive meltdown in the final twenty minutes placed the usually reliable Nayef Aguerd under the spotlight of supporter fury. It is always unfortunate to gift an equaliser through an own goal and this was an unforced error which should have been avoided. Who knows whether the call came from the keeper to claim the ball or not? Clearly it was very poor communication somewhere along the line. After that, the plot was lost, as was the game.
It is not at all surprising that the upturn in performances (as embryonic as it is) comes after a switch to a more solid 4-3-3 formation. If only David Moyes had listened when I first suggested it last October – as if he would read these ramblings! With the change has come greater pressing in midfield areas, more passing options for the player with the ball, and more freedom for the wide attacking players. It is a particularly suitable set-up to get the best from the talents of Declan Rice and Lucas Paqueta.
Tomas Soucek is the latest bête noire of many supporters who would rather see Flynn Downes as the third man in the midfield three. It is understandable from the point of view of ball retention, but Moyes will continue to opt for the aerial presence that Soucek brings to both ends. Without his goals, Soucek is a frustrating player to watch but he does still provide useful defensive cover.
The full-back positions may need to be shuffled today depending on availability. If Vladimir Coufal is available it will be him and Ben Johnson. If not, then Johnson and Emerson Palmieri – Aaron Cresswell was looking particularly rusty when he came on against Forest. Brighton do a lot of attacking down the flanks through March and Mitoma and the game could be won and lost out wide. In the absence of any other options, Aguerd and Angelo Ogbonna will continue as the centre back pairing. Not ideal having two left footers in the middle and Aguerd on the right imposes severe restrictions on his ability to influence forward play.
Danny Ings will return to the front three alongside Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma with Antonio and Gianluca Scamacca providing options from the bench. An Ings/ Scamacca axis would be a fascinating prospect but may be difficult to accommodate without going three/ five at the back.
Brighton have had a terrific season so far and find themselves well placed for European football next season. They sit in 8th spot in the league, ten points behind Tottenham but with three games in hand. They are also still in the FA Cup having won their 5th round tie on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke. A home draw against Grimsby Town stands between them and a semi-final place.
West Ham could learn a lot from Brighton’s scouting and recruitment model. Signing exciting young players that no-one has heard of – Caicedo, Mac Alister, Mitoma – and introducing them to the Premier League after spells out on loan. It has proved incredibly successful but requires a degree of planning that seems to be a foreign concept at the London Stadium. The Seagulls are an eclectic mix of young talent and unfashionable stalwarts – Dunk, Gross, March – that are always competitive, despite limited firepower up front.
A trip to the seaside is never complete without a seagull trying to steal your chips. And the same is true in football, where Brighton’s Seagulls have become adept at ‘piddling’ on the West Ham chips. No matter what the relative league positions, current form or respective managers, top flight meetings between the clubs invariably end the same way – a Brighton win or a share of the points. I’m suspecting some form of sorcery or gypsy curse is at play. The Hammers only top flight win against Brighton from 15 attempts came in March 1983 with a 2-1 win at Upton Park. The teams that day:
West Ham: Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart (Alan Dickens (1)), Alvin Martin, Joe Gallagher, Frank Lampard, Alan Devonshire, Paul Allen, Geoff Pike, François van der Elst, Tony Cottee (1), Nicky Morgan
Brighton: Graham Moseley, Steve Foster, Steve Gatting, Chris Ramsey, Gary Stevens, Jimmy Case, Tony Grealish, Neil Smillie, Andy Ritchie, Michael Robinson, Gerry Ryan (1)
I’d completely forgotten about Joe Gallagher’s West Ham career!
Today’s fixture is the first against Brighton since Roberto De Zerbi replaced the soon to be out-of-work Graham Potter. De Zerbi will serving a one-match touchline ban for his red card in his side’s 1 – 0 defeat to Fulham in their most recent home game. I’m not sure how much of a punishment a touchline ban actually is. It seems no more than a symbolic gesture – the equivalent of a player being allowed to play but not allowed to take throw-ins.
Now that I’m feeling a touch more positive about the Hammers credentials for survival, I have decided to reinstate my AI powered match result prediction service. After running the numbers the verdict is: West Ham to rip up the record books with a first ever Premier League victory against the Seagulls by two goals to one. COYI!