West Ham Head To Old Trafford On Sunday: Can They Find A North-West Passage To Victory?

The cities of Manchester and Liverpool have never been happy hunting grounds for West Ham. Can they break the hoodoo at Manchester United or will they yet again be north-west passengers?

The midweek Europa Conference game against Silkeborg ended in the type of unexceptional victory that has become commonplace in the late stage group games. West Ham were all but assured of top spot prior to kick-off and the visitors would have been aware that next week’s home fixture against Anderlecht was their key to progressing in the competition. The game really should have been more of a stroll for the Hammers but once their finishing was about as convincing as a politician’s promise.

Still. it was good to get a first competitive glimpse of Nayef Aguerd. Without being tested it provided an encouraging teaser for we might expect from a speedy, ball-playing central defender. There was also an accomplished performance from Conor Coventry. He may be some way down the defensive midfield pecking order – unless David Moyes fancies picking four of them together at some point – but he is now firm favourite for the tidiest haircut since Scott Parker award.

I can’t help thinking the club is going a little over the top with their seven home wins on the trot marketing campaign, especially when considering the quality offered by much of the opposition. I suppose they were games that needed to be won, though. As for the Conference, we can now look forward to the most pointless match ever held for next week’s trip to Bucharest. Are we allowed to field the Under 13’s?

Sunday sees a return to league action against another of the sides enjoying the rigours of Thursday – Sunday football. Manchester United have now guaranteed group qualification but must triumph at Real Sociedad next week to avoid the play-off round lottery in the Europa League.

Trips to Old Trafford may not be as fruitless for West Ham as they are to Anfield, but there’s not much in it. The Hammers have returned with all the points on just six occasions since 1958; just twice in the Premier League era with the last time being the great escape in the final game of the 2006/7 season. With an equally dismal record against Manchester City, and even Everton proving a regular bogey side, trips to the north-west rarely turn out well. Since the Hammers most recent return to the Premier League they have lost 31 of 42 league matches played in Manchester and Liverpool (won six and drawn five). Indeed it is a record that has been passed down from manager to manager.

Although facing the Red Devils is nowhere near as daunting as it once was, it should be pointed out that Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have already been beaten this season at Old Trafford. The home side may not yet be credible title challengers but they will certainly be in the mix for a top four finish.

Then there are the lurking perils of VAR. If you cast your mind back to the equivalent fixture last season, the home side won the game with the last kick of the game. Despite a strong suspicion that Cavani was offside before he played in Rashford to score, the goal was expediently awarded with indecent haste. No three or four minutes of line and angle drawing at Stockley Park on this occasion – the players were back in the dressing room by then.    

I have run the numbers and the eXpected VAR balls up ratio (xVAR) comes out as 1.9 : 0.2. This week our fate is in the hands, whistle and mouse of Chris Kavanagh (referee) and Paul Tierney (VAR). The current standard, consistency and subjective nature of officiating reminded me of playing football over the park as kids – with the legendary jumpers for goalposts. If you shouted ‘post’ or ‘over’ quickly and loudly enough, it was often all that was needed to get a goal chalked off!

I think most West Ham supporters expect a further dose of David Moyes cautious medicine tomorrow.  Initiative will be surrendered, opposition will be shown too much respect, defending will be as deep as possible, all in the hope of scoring on the break. His well-known inferiority complex preferring to hang on passively rather than forcefully targeting the host’s weaknesses.

With Lucas Paqueta again nursing his mysterious shoulder injury, Moyes may well persist with the unusual defensive midfield triumvirate of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, and Flynn Downes that featured against Bournemouth. It screams lack of creativity and ambition but may just work if the three selected further forward are predominantly attack minded players – e.g. three from Said Benrahma, Gianluca Scamacca, Jarrod Bowen, and Michail Antonio. At the rear the much-missed Craig Dawson is adding weight to the axiom that West Ham injuries always take longer to heal than originally anticipated. Dawson partnering Kurt Zouma in the centre with Thilo Kehrer and Aaron Cresswell as full-backs provides a solid enough backline.

The hosts may make several change to the team that shot three past Sheriff in midweek, with frequent West Ham irritant Rashford replacing the increasingly petulant Ronaldo. As usual the Red Devils have a surfeit of attacking talent but invariably look shaky at the back. If only West Ham could bring their clinical shooting boots with them.

Interviewed after the Silkeborg game, Aguerd (very good English) said the team set out to win every game. Is that true, does he believe it, or hasn’t he been around long enough to know differently? Observation and experience suggest the first priority is not to lose every game. Who knows, perhaps the spots on the leopard can be purposefully re-arranged this weekend? More probable, I think, is a goal apiece draw. COYI!

The Top Four Beckons Again: West Ham To Extend New Year Winning Ways By Clipping Canary’s Wings

Games don’t come much easier than this on paper. But Hammers must avoid complacency to see off the challenge of struggling Norwich on the London Stadium pitch.

It is odd that West Ham have been selected as one of only a handful of clubs to play a re-arranged fixture in the immediate aftermath of the FA Cup weekend. Not sure who has the final say in agreeing to these revised schedules but I can’t believe that David Moyes will be too chuffed that the game against Norwich has been shoehorned in between two testing Leeds fixtures. After all, this was our only cancelled match while others have three or four yet to fit in. Moyes will be fuming rather than buzzing, as the headlines like to say.

That said, a win today would put us right back into the top four, albeit having played extra games over rivals: Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. The bookmaker’s have the Hammers as clear outsiders from that group for finishing top four at the end of the season. That is no surprise, and it is probably no bad thing to fly just below the radar. The final placings may well be heavily influenced by what each club does in the remaining days of the transfer window. While I would back our ‘best’ eleven against those of the competition, our reserve depth is the weakest by some distance.

Hopes for early additions to the squad have been well and truly managed during the early days of January. Only Newcastle have been willing to spend recklessly and indiscriminately so far. That doesn’t stop the rumours coming thick and fast, though, as we have been linked with a host of new players.

We have all become transfer news clickaholics to some degree. We know we shouldn’t do it, but surely having one last look at the latest link won’t hurt, will it? As long as it is treated as entertainment, you are on safe ground. It really is pointless having a meltdown at the club about a transfer target that has been made-up by some bloke on the internet.  That way madness lies!

We just need to put our trust in those in charge. To believe that the bid-preparation team at the London Stadium are working overtime. The manager’s wish-list by their side and the keys to the transfer war-chest hanging on the hook by the door. In the coming days, swoops will be made, cash will be splashed and resolve will be tested. Targets will be prised away as wantaway strikers are snapped up with long-term deals penned before they are torpedoed by other clubs.

It has been the ritual of transfer windows since ancient times. As Shakespeare wrote in his short unpublished play, West Hamlet, “thee hamm’rs might not but maketh a raid f’r that gent who hast issu’d a cometh and getteth me plea, lest thine mast’rstroke be scupp’r’d by the hotspur

On paper, at home to Norwich has to be the easiest game on the entire fixture list, although nothing can be taken for granted. Prior to their weekend FA Cup win at Charlton the Canaries had lost five consecutive league games, conceding fourteen and scoring none in the process. Their last point was a 1-1 draw with ten-man Newcastle at the beginning of December.

The change of manager from Daniel Farke to Dean Smith has made little difference to results. A desire to play enterprising football without being prepared to invest in the squad is a hopeless rinse and repeat strategy. It is very difficult to see them escaping relegation this year even if one from themselves, Newcastle, Burnley, and Watford will ultimately survive. It would be no surprise, though, if they yo-yoed back up again for the 2023/24 season.

As is normal these days, final team selection is left to the mercy of positive Covid tests. West Ham will again be without injured defenders Angelo Ogbonna, Kurt Zouma and Aaron Creswell, although the latter two are reportedly on the cusp of a return. Said Benrahma is also missing in action at AFCON having come on as an 83rd minute substitute, and missed a ‘golden opportunity’, in Algeria’s scoreless draw with Sierra Leone yesterday. However, Vladimir Coufal may well be available again, as is Pablo Fornals.

I’ve a feeling Moyes will stick with Nikola Vlasic rather than recall Fornals. Vlasic has started to show some decent touches lately and looks to have developed a good understanding with Manuel Lanzini. Could there finally be a league start for Alphonse Areola? He deserves a chance even if Lukas Fabianski has done little wrong. Areola does look to command his box better. I doubt Moyes will go for it, though, and my predicted line-up: Fabianski, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Vlasic, Antonio.

Norwich have a number of injury and sickness concerns including highly rated Chelsea loanee, Billy Gilmour and the out if favour, Todd Cantwell – Cantwell looked to be a real prospect on Norwich’s previous foray in the top flight but his start has faded and is now angling for a move elsewhere.

West Ham completed the double over Norwich in the 2019/20 season and the same should be expected this time around. Complacency is the biggest danger. Moyes must ensure the team are well prepared and do not make one of their occasional sluggish starts. All being well, I foresee a comfortable 3-0 win. COYI!  

A look ahead to West Ham at Molineux this afternoon and memories of games against Wolves (mainly November ones!)

Thank heavens that is the last of the early season pointless international breaks finished. I get it that we have to play for World Cup qualification but surely someone can devise a better way to do it. I don’t wish to deny San Marino, Andorra or any other minor nation of their opportunity to take part but surely there should be some kind of pre-qualification among lesser teams and then the top teams from pre-qualification leagues can then progress to face the bigger teams. Our very own FA Cup is an example of how this can happen. The top teams don’t enter the competition until the third round proper. There are a number of qualification rounds to win through before the non-league teams who are successful in those get to face the big boys.

Albania aren’t exactly a minor footballing nation, picking up quite a few points in the group, but San Marino? I watched some of this and quite frankly it was a farce. The commentators and pundits did their best to talk up the England team and Harry Kane, but it was nonsensical as a game of football, it was really just attack versus defence. I got no pleasure from the twenty minutes or so that I watched.

This was in contrast to the last Premier League game I saw where we denied Liverpool the opportunity to extend their long unbeaten record any further. I thought it was a magnificent performance that saw us leapfrog the Merseysiders to reach the dizzy heights of third place in the table. Unlike Mr Klopp I saw nothing wrong with our first goal. Goalkeepers have been a protected species for too long and I don’t see anything that says you can’t jump in front of them to put them off. And as for suggesting Cresswell should have been sent off I don’t agree with that either. His tackle clipped the top of the ball which lifted his leg to foul Henderson. To his credit the Liverpool captain made nothing of it and was soon back on his feet. A foul yes but anything more? Not for me. Perhaps I am a biased Hammer but others I have spoken to who support Arsenal, Fulham and Norwich didn’t agree with Mr Klopp either.

We have lost Angelo Ogbonna for a long period now, but personally I am happy with Craig Dawson alongside Zouma at the heart of our defence. There have been reports that we might renew our interest in Tarkowski in the forthcoming window. He is certainly a quality player, but do we need strengthening elsewhere first? Perhaps with our new Czech shareholder there will be an injection of finance to boost the transfer kitty? We’ve never been in a better position to challenge the top teams but the addition of two or three quality players would do us no harm in our endeavour to maintain that challenge in the league and the three cups that we can still aim for.

We visit Molineux today to take on a Wolves team that are in eighth place in the chasing pack where sixth to thirteenth positions in the table are separated by just three points. When I began to watch football as a young boy in the late 1950s Wolves were probably the best team in the country at the time, and were league champions in 1957-58 and 1958-59. One of my earliest football memories was our first home game following promotion to face the champions in our first home game of the 1958-59 season. I wasn’t there but I was excited to wake up on the Tuesday morning following the Monday night game to be told the result by my dad and to read of our 2-0 win in the morning paper.

The following season I was at our game against the champions – Saturday November 21st – so this weekend’s game is almost on the same date. My first favourite footballer Johnny Dick scored a hat trick in our 3-2 victory that retained our position at the top of the league. The following Thursday I went into St Mary’s hospital in Paddington to have my adenoids removed. And then in typical West Ham fashion we lost 7-0 at Sheffield Wednesday the following Saturday! How many times has a team at the top of the league lost their next game 7-0? Only West Ham could do that. That was a season when we went down with the Christmas decorations and finished in fourteenth place just four points above the relegation places.

Wolves went on to finish second in the table that season finishing a point below champions Burnley. They won the FA Cup too beating Blackburn 3-0 in the final and were so close to being the first team to achieve the league and cup double. If only they hadn’t lost to West Ham!

Other highlights from games against Wolves include an entertaining 3-3 draw in November 1970. Apart from surrendering a 3-1 lead my main reason for remembering this game was a Bobby Moore headed clearance that hit the referee square in the face that knocked him out cold. Moore picked up his whistle and blew it to stop the game. Bobby Gould, who five years later played for us tapped in the late Wolves equaliser in that game.

Two years later (yes in November once again!) we were 2-1 down at Upton Park in the last seconds of the game when a Bobby Moore cross was headed across the edge of the area by Clyde Best, and Trevor Brooking equalised with a stunning diving header from fully 15 yards. It’s always said that Trevor never scored with his head, but I can remember quite a few, including an important one in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976 against Eintracht Frankfurt, and perhaps the most famous of all, the Wembley header in the 1980 FA Cup final.

Two years later once again in the month of November (are you picking up the pattern here?) we gave Wolves quite a thrashing (5-2) with five different goalscorers. The best goal of the lot, and one of the best free kicks I’ve ever seen was a result of Trevor Brooking flicking the ball in the air and Frank Lampard (senior of course) smashing a half volley into the bottom corner of the net.

I’ll deviate from the month of November with a final memory from the past to remember Liam Brady’s final game before retirement. After a fantastic career he spent his final three seasons at West Ham. Although he wasn’t quite the player he was at his peak, he was still great to watch with wonderful skill on the ball and magnificent passing ability. On as a substitute late in the game he picked the ball up midway in the Wolves half, moved forward, and unleashed a trademark left footed stunner that rocketed into the net, a fitting goal in his final ever game.

Last season we did the double over Wolves winning 4-0 at home and 3-2 at Molineux. What with our 3-2 win over Liverpool in our last game too, that seems to be the score of the moment and I’ll predict a win by that score today. We are around 7/5 favourites to win the game and around 22/1 to repeat last season’s score in the corresponding fixture. Jarrod Bowen scored in both games against Wolves last season, and is around 13/2 to score the first goal (same price for the last goal too) in the game, or 5/2 to score at anytime. One of those will be my fun bet. I might even combine Bowen scoring the first goal with a 3-2 win at odds approaching 200/1. With 12 points from our last 4 league games we are the form team in the Premier League. No other team matches that recent record. If Leicester can beat Chelsea in the lunchtime fixture, and if we can win at Wolves, then we would be level on points with Chelsea at the top of the table on Saturday evening. That would be good, wouldn’t it? What are the chances?