Sticking Point: West Ham’s Desperate Scramble for Safety Meets Manchester United’s Stuttering Champions League Ambitions

With three league defeats on the bounce, West Ham badly need a boost to survival and European hopes when they meet inconsistent Manchester United at the London Stadium

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!

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!