Blade Runners: Newly Energised West Ham Face Tough Challenge In The Steel City

David Moyes ‘Don’t Run, Don’t Play’ policy faces it’s sternest test yet as the Hammers travel to Bramall Lane to face Sheffield United, the season’s surprise footballing package.

Things could hardly have gone any better for David Moyes at the start of his second stint as West Ham manager. Two games, two wins, two clean sheets. Lucky in many ways to have begun with such a benign set of fixtures but it will have helped build both confidence in the squad and a degree of support for the manager.

The bounciness of any new managerial appointment always has limits before gravity and drag attempt to return it towards equilibrium. Solskjær’s endured for several months at Manchester United last season while Mourinho’s honeymoon at Tottenham was much shorter lived. Coming up against a gritty, well disciplined and determined Sheffield United side poses a serious challenge to the momentum of the current Moyes bounce. And that ignores any potential energy that might be added to this evenings proceedings as a result of the Carlos Tevez effect. Remember, when West Ham played with the unfair advantage of Tevez in their team they only lost 3-0 at Bramall Lane.

The Blades have undoubtedly been one of the success stories of the season so far. A team with no stars but having great work ethic and a shape that manages to be both well organised and unorthodox at the same time. Manager, Chris Wilder, can take much of the credit in producing a style that is so unfamiliar to Premier League opponents that many have struggled to cope with it. Whether managers will ultimately become wise to the approach, as we enter the second half of the season, remains to be seen. One certainly wouldn’t have put any money on Pellegrini spotting an Achilles heel, but can Moyes fare any better?

I suspect that the manager would like to play three at the back today – I believe he sees it as the best way to instil defensive stability given the players available to him. It was also apparently (at least from what I have read) one of the tactics employed by both Southampton and Newcastle in their wins at Bramall Lane. That formation, however,  may have been frustrated by the injury to Ryan Fredericks – just when he was at last looking to use his pace as an attacking threat. Pablo Zabaleta would be the obvious replacement but, putting aside the unlikely strike at Gillingham, there is a major question mark over his pace and stamina these days. Perhaps Michail Antonio is an alternative wing back option if considered fit enough to start.

Elsewhere, there are unlikely to be many changes from the side that started against Bournemouth, subject to there being no further injury problems. It has been encouraging to hear the manager’s “if you don’t run, you don’t play” mantra being repeated again this week although, maybe, it is too early to expect fitness levels to have reached that required to compete for 90 minutes – especially against opponents that demonstrate an effective never-say-die philosophy.

Today will see a third encounter of a close kind with referee Michael Oliver from Northumberland. If you believe in omens you will disappointed to be reminded that the last two ended in defeat – home games with Palace and Tottenham. Oliver’s wingman on the VAR master console will be occasional Premier League referee, Simon Hooper of Wiltshire.

In a rare Jupiter aligning with Mars moment, media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are agreed in predicting a fence sitting 1-1 draw. It is easy to understand why, with the chances of a Friday night goal-fest for the stay-at-home TV audience, unlikely from two relatively low-scoring teams.

From his own bigger picture perspective, Moyes may be inclined to view the game as a point not to lose, rather than two more to win – and will approach the game accordingly. That’s not to say, though, that it can’t be won courtesy of a quick breakaway. The hosts are strong in the air and rapid attacks through the middle might prove a more productive route to goal than crosses into the box – perhaps a reprise of Felipe Anderson’s goal against Bournemouth might do the trick. A goalless draw would be no surprise but, as always, we live in hope.

Sheffield United v West Ham – The Friday Night Match

In blog articles over the past few years, and in Gary Firmager’s much-missed fanzine Over Land and Sea before that, I have frequently written about my dislike for football matches that kick off at non-standard times. If I had my way all league games would be played on Saturdays with a 3pm kick off. Of course, with the money that Sky, and then BT, and recently Amazon have put into the Premier League, then they dictate the times when football matches are played with little thought for the fans, especially as they turn up and fill the stadiums whenever.

Of course this enables me to watch a number of West Ham games away from home on TV that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, but in all honesty I would have preferred the game to have remained as it was before Sky pumped their money in. However I can’t change things so I have to go along with it as we all do. As for the non-standard kick off times then we now have a whole plethora of them each weekend. In addition to the 3pm start on Saturdays, we can now kick off at Saturday lunchtime, teatime and evening. On Sundays it can be lunchtime, early afternoon and late afternoon. We also have Monday Night football too, as well as all the midweek games which enable so many matches to be watched if you have the time, inclination, and are prepared to pay. This game is in addition to all those times though, and is one of the occasional games that are scheduled for a Friday evening. I’m not happy with the timing but I guess I will tune in nonetheless as it is West Ham. I really couldn’t be bothered if it wasn’t my team.

This game is the return fixture of the one that was played at 3pm on Saturday 26th October, just two and a half months ago. Such a lot has happened since then, and from a West Ham viewpoint, most of it has not been good. If you remember that day, then in the first half we were the only team that wanted to play but we found it very hard to break down a well organised Sheffield defence. But a minute before half time Roberto took a long goal kick which found Anderson who set up Snodgrass to fire the ball low past Henderson to put us one up.

We thought that we would go on from there in the second half, but Sheffield United decided to play, and they played well, deserving the draw that they gained from Mousset, who had just come on as a substitute, whose side-footed volley deceived Roberto as he dived to his left, and the ball crept inside the post. Following that game both teams had 13 points from ten games played and sat 7th and 9th in the table. As we go into the return fixture, Sheffield United are now 8th while we are 16th, and just two points above the relegation positions. The excellent win in our last league game (at home to Bournemouth) ensured that we were not in the bottom three when we played our FA Cup third round tie at Gillingham last Sunday. Incidentally, has there ever been an FA Cup tie where two different players called Pablo have scored for the same team?

Sheffield United have surprised many people this season with their current position in the league, and especially their organisation. But one fact we should bear in mind is that they have actually been a better side away from home, where they were unbeaten until their last two games when they lost 2-0 on each occasion to Manchester City and Liverpool, so no disgrace there. But at home they have actually lost four games, not surprisingly to Leicester and Liverpool, but also to Southampton and Newcastle, so potentially they are more vulnerable at Bramall Lane. The gap is now 7 points which have opened up since our last meeting. Wouldn’t it be good to cut that to four after this game? Not surprisingly the home team are odds on to win the game, whereas you can get in excess of 3/1 for West Ham to be within four points, and at the same time climb into eleventh place in the table, at least until all the other teams play their games over the protracted weekend period.

The last five games ‘form table’ has Liverpool at the top (of course) with 15 points, followed by Manchester City on 12, and then two surprises, with Southampton (who have climbed out of the relegation zone) and Watford (who are still in it) both with 10 points. Everton follow on 8 points and then there are five clubs each on 7 and 6 points respectively. Sheffield United are one of those on 7, whereas we are on 6. The teams propping up the form table are Norwich and Newcastle with 3, Bournemouth with 4, then Brighton and Arsenal with 5. The league is still very tight with just 12 points separating Manchester United in fifth and Watford in nineteenth. Norwich are the only team currently adrift and they will need a big upturn to avoid returning to the Championship next season.

So what will happen this evening? I have a feeling that it will be a very tight game with few, if any goals. Perhaps a goalless draw, or possibly a game settled by a single goal. I hope we score it! History is against that happening. We have a negative record in games against Sheffield United, and haven’t pulled up any trees at Bramall Lane. We haven’t both been in the top flight at the same time on too many occasions, but when we have we’ve only won one of the last 13 games away from home in a period which stretches back 56 years tomorrow. That win was in April 1968 when a team containing Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds, Brooking and Lampard won 2-1 at Bramall Lane with two goals from Geoff Hurst.