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.