Tonight sees part two of the Manchester duology when West Ham entertain Manchester United in an inconvenient early evening kick-off at the London Stadium.
Part one of the showdown went pretty much according to script with a routine win for perennial champions, Manchester City. Compared to the dire pre-match predictions of many Hammers fans – including myself – it could have been a far worse outcome. West Ham never looked capable of scoring more than NIL, but the potentially crucial goal difference advantage didn’t take too big a hammering.
It was inevitable that Haaland would break the Premier League most goals in a season record in this game and Danny ings will forever be able to describe his pivotal assist in the build-up. City took yet another stride towards the title yesterday with a 2-1 win over Fat Sam’s Leeds United – a much closer contest score-wise than our own encounter, although mostly due to the hosts easing up in the second half with a Champions League semi-final on the horizon. No doubt, Guardiola will have something to say to his players about the unprofessional penalty taking debacle that precipitated their late wobble. Anyone remember Paul Kitson against Everton in April 1997?
A surprising element for me was that our boys managed a staggering 31% possession in the game – more than double than anticipated. But possession is a strange thing. Out of curiosity, I looked up the stats for when Brentford became the only team to win at The Etihad so far this season (in November) and compared these to the Hammer’s recent effort:
Brentford: Possession (25%) Passes (216) Pass Accuracy (56%) Corners (2)
West Ham: Possession (31%) Passes (327) Pass Accuracy (77%) Corners (3)
Brentford also faced more opposition goal attempts than West Ham – 29 to 16. But they did create more attempts themselves – a total of 10 to West Ham’s 6. As ever, the most telling of all statistics is goals scored, and the Bees netted twice from 8 shots on target – testament to their setup and the double spearhead of Toney and Mbeumo. West Ham on the other hand never seriously threatened the City goal. Still, shows how misleading the stats can be!
While City are now several streets ahead of their one-time imperious neighbours, the Manchester Reds remain in contention for Champions League qualification. Now on their sixth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his changing room hairdryer, they have never looked anywhere close to reproducing their previous dominance. The promising signs of Erik ten Hag’s early reign have slowly been swamped by a wave of inconsistency. The impression is a collection of talented individuals rather than a convincing, cohesive team on the cusp of a return to greatness. Today they may well be either galvanised or traumatised by the prospect of Liverpool coming up on the top four rails.
Any belief that Manchester United are a far less formidable opponent than in days gone by has yet to be translated into positive results for West Ham. The most recent Hammers victory in the league was a 2-0 win (Yarmolenko, Cresswell) for Pellegrini’s Hammers in September 2019. This was followed by a draw and then five straight defeats. Even in our two fantastic seasons (© D Moyes) the home fixture was lost 1-3 and 1-2 respectively. So, what cunning plan might the Moyesiah have up his sleeve for today? Could it be the revolutionary tactics of defend in depth and hope to score from a set piece or breakaway? Intriguingly, this is also Manchester United’s masterplan.
I sometimes have sympathy with football manager’s having to come out to face the cameras each week while the heat of battle and the frustrations of another incompetent performance are still fresh in the memory. While the victorious manager can afford to be magnanimous – see Pep praising West Ham’s resilience – the loser has to spin out the latest in the long line of tame excuses, especially when there is no contentious VAR decision lifeline to rant about. Unfortunately, when Moyes has his back to the wall, he is prone to petulance and unwise criticism of individual players not ideal for team morale.
However, there is no excuse for spouting the same level of unbelievable nonsense in the calm of the pre-match preparations. This week’s corker was Moyes attempt to explain why Maxwell Cornet had played so few minutes since his recovery from injury in late March. The reason, apparently, is that the established players (Michail Antonio and Ings) are already doing a really good job in that position. Thanks for clearing that up, David! It must be a particular problem for a manager who doesn’t realise he is allowed to make tactical adjustments with his substitutions as well as like for like changes.
Defeat today and West Ham will go in to the first leg of the European Conference semi-final with the spectre of relegation continuing to hang over them. A win would almost guarantee survival while a share of the points would leave work to be done.
It will be business as usual on team selection as Moyes welcomes back food poisoning victims Declan Rice, Nayef Aguerd and Tomas Soucek. It is rumoured that Soucek experienced his most explosive runs of the season during the absence. Either Ben Johnson or Thilo Kehrer will replace the injured Vladmir Coufal and there will be a toss-up between Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals to fill the problematic wide left berth. Other than that, same shoot, different weekend.
With games rapidly running out, we are left again to hope for the best and fear the worst. I wonder if it possible to borrow that Stone of Destiny for the afternoon? COYI!