David Moyes dreadful managerial record in away games to top sides – no wins in 70-odd attempts – comes under the spotlight again as West Ham visit Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium this evening. In a fixture that would feature as the least winnable match of the season, even in the best of circumstances, is effectively a ‘gimme’ for the home side based on current trajectories and historic performance.
The Citizens are unbeaten in the Premier League since losing to Tottenham (yes, really) on 5 February. Since then, they have won ten and drawn one in their customary storming end to the season. At home they have dropped just five points in 16 games.
By contrast, West Ham go into the game off the back of two consecutive defeats. The short-lived feel-good factor following the win at Bournemouth now a distant memory. If a few positives could be taken from the unfortunate home defeat to Liverpool, the performance at Crystal Palace has to be one of the most abysmal of the season. With a final scoreline that seriously flattered the Hammers, and failed to represent the gulf between the two teams, this was Moyesball at its most depressing. Having witnessed this cautious, uninspiring fare for the best part of eighteen months has become so painful that the Sisyphean task of rolling a huge rock uphill for eternity is starting to look attractive. Please pray to your favourite deity that this is Moyes propreantepenultimate match in charge as West Ham manager.
If there was any mitigation for the Palace display it was the unhelpful Saturday lunchtime kick-off in the middle of West Ham’s intense fixture schedule. A situation exacerbated by an over-reliance on a handful of core players – particularly Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen, and Michail Antonio – who looked exhausted and frustrated. It has become a carbon copy of last season’s run-in where fatigue saw the team stumbling across the finishing line having fallen away in both domestic and European competition.
Palace only needed a basic competence to dominate the game on Saturday. In Zaha, Eze, and Olise they have players with pace, close control, and an ability to run with the ball that is missing from the Hammers midfield. All the visitors could offer was a threat from set pieces. Strange that the goal finally separating the two sides was a penalty awarded for a blatant dive – one that VAR deemed to be acceptable. It was the second poor penalty related decision that went against West Ham in four days -decisions that could still turn out to be significant and costly. Equally strange, were the strange substitutions and the Hammers reluctance to go all out for an equaliser once the score had been brought back to 4-3 with 20 minutes to play.
I’m not as confident as some Hammers fans that survival is all but guaranteed this season. We are certainly better placed than the five teams below us, but the probability of failing to pick up any more points is not as remote as might be believed. Tonight is the game in hand with a danger that the goal difference advantage will not be quite as healthy once it is over. Although, in practice West Ham have saved their heftier drubbings by City for home games.
Manchester City are now firm favourites to claim their third Premier League title in a row, making it five in ten years – unless they are relegated for the 100 or more breaches of FA rules and regulations under investigation. City have become even more formidable under the leadership of Pep Guardiola during a period where the other would-be title pretenders have all struggled for consistency. Guardiola is widely recognised as a tactical genius but needs a Champions League win or two to cement that title. Genius or not, he operates with a spectacular financial advantage compared to others with a bottomless transfer kitty. Scouting the goal scoring machine that is Erling Haaland was hardly a difficult, insightful or risky decision to take. Even under the guidance of Moyes at West Ham, Haaland would be leading scorer with seven or eight goals by now!
With a trip to Real Madrid to prepare for next week, Guardiola may rest key players for tonight’s game. Not that it will affect the result, but it might keep the score down a little. Moyes may be equally tempted into a spot of squad rotation with games against Manchester United and AZ Alkmaar to come in the next eight days. But we should remember that a slightly weakened Manchester City team is a very different beast to a slightly weakened West Ham one.
Both Rice and Bowen deserve a break and Antonio needs careful management. Rice has played every Premier League minute so far this season, and Bowen has missed just 22 minutes. Although Antonio has only played the equivalent of 18 games this season, he has featured heavily in all recent matches since the penny dropped that in buying Danny Ings, West Ham have yet again recruited a player wholly unsuited to the role required by the manager.
The reason that Moyes has such a terrible record away to top sides is that he approaches these games with the sole intention of trying not to lose. That this strategy has largely failed has never deterred him from giving it one more try. I’m sure he will play with five at the back again today with a game plan of all behind the ball and hoof it away as far as possible, hoping to win an occasional corner for an attempt on goal. My best guess is for West Ham to enjoy around 12% possession. Our best hope? That City get a couple of goals in front and then declare, conserving energy for the more challenging tasks in the weeks ahead. What a waste. COYI!