When Friedrich Nietzsche coined the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, he obviously hadn’t contemplated playing three crucial season defining fixtures in the course of eight days with only one fit central defender. Proof that German philosophers are no better at football punditry than Jamie Redknapp, Garth Crooks, or Michael Owen.
While I’m still clutching at the flimsiest of straws that Kurt Zouma might be back and available for Thursday night, the injury situation leaves a massive hole to fill for today’s encounter at Stamford Bridge. It now seems the Hammers final league position will be somewhere between 6th and 8th – dependent on whether they can scramble ahead of an increasingly shambolic and disinterested Manchester United and/ or holding off the challenge of Wolverhampton Wanderers. The understandable distraction of the Europa League and the extent of the injury situation will have a huge bearing on where that ends and how history ultimately represents the 2021/ 22 season.
To achieve a repeat of last year’s points tally would require four wins and a draw from the remaining five fixtures. A tall order with games against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City to come in the season’s finale. Reaching 60 points may now be a more realistic target. The Hammer’s league campaign has been steady rather than breath-taking. With a European campaign to contend with, having become a known quantity and little transfer activity that is maybe no surprise. Points won have been the result of a much-quoted resilience rather than due to footballing magnificence. The season’s most exuberant and barnstorming performances have been saved for Europe – second leg ties against Sevilla and Lyon. The possible exceptions are the two home victories over Liverpool and today’s opponents, Chelsea.
As the league campaign nears its conclusion it is clear that Manchester City and Liverpool are ahead of the field by some distance. Chelsea will most probably hold on for third, despite their recent poor run, after which it is the unpleasant prospect of a team from north London taking the final Champions League position.
If West Ham were to triumph in the Europa League, there would be a fascinating scenario of three London clubs participating in the Champions League group stages. Yet if the Hammers should manage to qualify, they would end up earning less money than their more illustrious neighbours given that a significant proportion of broadcasting revenue is distributed according to ten-year UEFA coefficients. A consequence of the Super League by stealth project.
When a slice of Masuaku magic defeated Chelsea in December 2021, it prevented the Blues from leaping to the top of the Premier League table. They had been early season favourites before gradually and steadily falling well off the pace. In truth, they have an excellent, well-organised coach but with good rather than great players. I don’t see too many Chelsea players who would be coveted by the top two. Without doubt they have stronger squad depth than West Ham.
Any suggestions as to how David Moyes juggles with the defence today is complete guesswork. A variety of options have been discussed online, some more appealing than others but none that stand out as ideal. Personally I would always prefer the least disruptive change, which in this case would mean either promoting a central defender from the Under 23s or shifting Ben Johnson to the centre. Moyes came out as reluctant to drop an inexperienced Under 23 into such a high profile game, which maybe highlights the folly of rarely giving young players a taste of action from the bench.
Moving Declan Rice back and/ or playing three at the back are other possibilities. The Chelsea threat is one of speed and movement rather than aerial, a consideration that Moyes may have in mind. The difficulty for me is with Rice so pivotal to both defensive and attacking midfield operations, we would struggle to string anything together in his absence. It merely weakens two positions.
In even the toughest of games I can usually muster some degree of optimism that there is a chance of a point or three being stolen. It is proving difficult to find that hope today. The prior record ahead of midweek Europa League games, the distraction of semi-final glory, the injuries, and Chelsea’s desire to bounce back from successive defeats all accumulate into a major serving of bad feeling. But then I remember the David Martin game from 2019. I wonder if he’s any good at centre-half? COYI!