A Bridge Too Far? Can West Ham Put European Excitement To One Side As They Travel Across Town To Chelsea?

With important Premier League points still to play for, the Hammers must rise above European distraction and injury misfortune in the east-meets-west London derby

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!  

West Ham face league leaders Chelsea at the London Stadium. Can the Hammers turn round recent results that have seen just one point from the last three games?

A look at the league table tells us everything we need to know regarding the difficulty that West Ham face in the early kick-off against Chelsea in Matchweek 15 today. Only Liverpool have found the net more than Chelsea’s 33 goals in their 14 league games to date, and no ne have been as mean as the Chelsea defence that has only conceded six goals in those 14 fixtures. They have only lost once, and that was to a goal from Jesus for Manchester City, who are themselves rather formidable opponents as we found out ourselves last weekend.

The last time we met Thomas Tuchel’s men was back in April where a 1-0 win for the men in blue put quite a dent in our ambition to finish last season with a top four finish. The game was a well fought contest, but a simple move attacking the right hand side of our defence resulted in Chilwell crossing for Werner to put the ball into the net from close range.

Although we tried hard we didn’t manage to create much against a well organised team, and then towards the end Balbuena was ridiculously sent off by referee Chris Kavanagh, a decision that was quite rightly overturned following West Ham’s appeal, but by then of course we were already forced to chase the game with only ten men on the field. It was hard enough when we had eleven!

Looking at the head to head games against Chelsea, the records were fairly even up until the end of the twentieth century with Chelsea slightly having the upper hand. But since then the West Londoners have extended their superiority although I’ll remind you of same famous West Ham victories in the last 20 years.

In May 2003 we were facing relegation and really needed to beat Chelsea in the season’s penultimate game to have any chance of avoiding the drop. Caretaker manager Trevor Brooking had sent on Paolo Di Canio early in the second half and he came up with a goal twenty minutes before the end which gave us the victory and an outside chance of staying up but it wasn’t to be. It was Di Canio’s last significant contribution in a claret and blue shirt, although he did score another as a substitute in the final game, a 2-2 draw at Birmingham. We completed the double over Chelsea that season but we still went down.

After that win we had 13 winless games against Chelsea, which included just two draws, before another famous victory in December 2012 with Sam Allardyce as our boss. We trailed 1-0 at half time before an equaliser from Carlton Cole, and then two late goals from Diame and Maiga gave us a 3-1 win. And to put the icing on the cake, Mourinho was sent to the stands!

In October 2015 in the final season at Upton Park goals from Zarate and Carroll gave us a 2-1 victory, a scoreline that was repeated early in our first season at the London Stadium when Kouyate and Fernandes both scored superb goals in a League Cup tie.

In December 2017 Arnautovic scored an early goal which turned out to be the only goal of the game, and that same 1-0 scoreline was repeated in November 2019 at Stamford Bridge in a match famous for David Martin’s heroics and clean sheet in the West Ham goal which went a long way towards contributing to our ultimate survival that season. We went on to complete a superb double when Yarmolenko’s 90th minute strike gave us a 3-2 win in July 2020 in the season extended way beyond normal as a result of COVID-19.

So what of today’s fixture? In the midweek game against Brighton I had predicted (and bet on!) a 1-0 West Ham win which so nearly was the case but for the disappointing late Brighton equaliser. Perhaps the Seagulls may have deserved a draw, but the close VAR decision which denied us a second goal, and the timing of Brighton’s goal made it just one point from our last three games, although Arsenal’s defeat at Manchester United meant that we retained fourth place in the league despite the recent results. The top three have, however opened up a gap to take them away from the rest; a lead that I can’t see being closed by anyone this season.

But thinking back to Di Canio’s strike in 2003, Arnautovic’s early goal in 2017, and Cresswell’s early second half goal backed up by David Martin’s great display on the last day of November two years ago, all of which gave us 1-0 wins over Chelsea I’ll predict a repeat of that scoreline. Bookmakers don’t think it will happen as we are around 18/5 to win the game, with Chelsea odds-on. A 1-0 Hammers win is priced at around 11/1, with a Chelsea win by that score to repeat last season’s game at the London Stadium at around 11/2.

It will take quite a performance, but I’ll stick with my 1-0 forecast. I fancy Dawson will score with a header from a corner sometime soon too. What are the chances?

Never Felt More Like Beating The Blues: Can The West Ham Stars Shine Again?

West Ham need a huge performance against league leaders, Chelsea, if they are to regain early season momentum and keep the top four show on the road

A quirk of human nature is that there is always far more material to write about, complain about and discuss when things are going badly than when they are doing well. The climactic joy of beating Liverpool that saw bubbles flying high has quickly faded and died following two defeats and a draw in the subsequent three matches. The feet are firmly back on the ground. Damn that international break!

It would be disappointing in any season to lose points at home to Brentford, Palace, and Brighton; but to drop five late on in games when you are looking to repeat or improve on the season before is doubly frustration. At least we are still fourth (and with three more points than at the same stage last season) but that will change at the weekend unless West Ham can pull a top drawer performance out of the hat.

Although the mood of supporters often swings erratically from week to week, the mood on the training ground is likely to be much more measured. David Moyes has done a tremendous job in getting more out of the team than the individual parts would suggest is possible. There are maybe only one or two Hammers that would interest any of the three teams above us and bumps in the road are to be expected.  But just as success is infectious, so is defeat (and Covid).

I get the impression that the team has lost its sparkle in recent weeks. Whether this is down to the fatigue of the Thursday and Sunday routine, the impact of injuries or just a temporary dip in form is uncertain. It has certainly brought debate about the obvious and significant gaps that the squad has back into focus. With Michail Antonio looking out of sorts and Aaron Cresswell having hit the post, the lack of cover for both positions has caused alarm and indignation.

It is good fortune that West Ham haven’t suffered badly with injuries so far (touch wood) with Angelo Ogbonna the only long-term casualty. It has enabled Moyes to use only 19 players in Premier League to date – the lowest apart from Burnley and Wolves. The starting eleven has been remarkably consistent in personnel and, except for Kurt Zouma, is mostly the same as last season. Two of the other summers recruits (Alphonse Areola and Alex Kral) have yet to feature in the league while Nikola Vlasic has only played 129 minutes in five appearances. Of course, they have each made contributions in the Europa League and Carabao cup, but it does raise the question whether the money might not have been better spent on a backup striker and left back.

As ever it is a question of juggling the club’s resources, a problem that supporters don’t have to worry about when calling for new signings. I can understand why Moyes says the quality must be right when it comes to transfers, but the flip-side of that is too much caution. It is clear, though, that the less money you are given to spend the more important the buying decision becomes. It is particularly problematic when it comes to strikers. A quick scan through that list of failed strikers who have passed through the club in the last ten years is all the evidence needed.  

But if a challenge for a top six place is to be maintained then the owners need to do some shopping in the January window. In an ideal world that would mean a striker, left back, attacking midfield and central defender (to cover Ogbonna’s absence). Not much chance of the complete set in what is typically a difficult time to find value.

On the pitch, much of West Ham’s success is founded on excellent team spirit and strong organisation. Offensively, we rely either on quick breakaways or set pieces for the bulk of our goals. Nothing wrong with that approach when it brings rewards, but opposition managers must now be getting wise to these strengths. An extra dimension is needed to mix things up but our passing and ball retention needs major improvement to make that happen. Maybe we don’t have the players capable of doing that, or are they simply under strict instruction is to move the ball forward as quickly as possible and play the percentages?

I’m not a fan of passing and possession just for the sake of it – a trap that Brighton seem to fall into whenever I have seen them – but greater controlled and creative use of the ball is necessary when the situation demands it. Part of the problem is that none of the attacking quartet are able to regularly escape markers, create space, pick the right pass, and weigh in with a fair share of goals. Just what Jesse Lingard was doing during his purple patch earlier in the year. We miss him or someone like him.

Saturday lunchtime’s visitors to the London Stadium are league leaders, Chelsea. Tuchel has fashioned an exceptionally efficient unit in west London. Nothing much has gone wrong for him since he arrived to replace Lampard Junior in January of this year. They have experienced a minor wobble of their own just lately drawing with Manchester United and Burnley and scraping past Watford in the week.

The Blues have several injury concerns for the weekend with Kovacic and Chilwell definitely out, and doubts over the fitness of Chalobah, Kante and James. The absence of both Chilwell and James would be a bonus, given our weakness with wing-back play, although Alonso and the loathsome Azpilicueta are not bad alternatives. There may also be a return to action for Lukaku, a perennial thorn in the Hammer’s side during his career in England.

Had it not been for a poor run of results, we may have regarded Saturday’s game as something of a free hit. It now takes on greater importance – for confidence, league position and pride. Chelsea’s resurgence has been built upon a miserly defensive foundation, having conceded just six league goals in their fourteen games. They have yet to concede more than one goal in any domestic or European fixture. The visitors will undoubtedly boss possession with the West Ham’s success or otherwise hinging on not surrendering the ball cheaply and taking whatever chances come their way.

It must be back to basics in defence with none of the horrifying passing between keeper and central defenders that scares the pants off me. Fabianski has to be one the worst distributors in the league – so the less he has of the ball, the better. Hopefully, Cresswell will be restored to the team at left back. Asking Ben Johnson to play full-back on his wrong foot just doesn’t work in today’s game – at least not from an attacking point of view.

With the gods on our side, a favourable wind, planetary alignment, and no nonsense from VAR, West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!