In the end West Ham – Eintracht Frankfurt: The Sequel didn’t live up to the high standard set by the original. If Occam had a philosophical razor for football matches it might suggest the higher expectations are raised, the deeper the depression when they are not satisfied – at least, as far as West Ham are concerned. But it now opens up an even greater and more memorable achievement if the one-goal deficit can be overturned in the away leg next Thursday.
After all, the situation at what is effectively half-time in the tie, is exactly the same as it was 46 years ago. If Jarrod Bowen’s spectacular effort had levelled the score in the dying minutes, we would still need to win in Frankfurt to go through to the final. And even if the Hammers were taking a slender lead to Germany, there would still be the fears and anxieties of sitting back too much to hold on to the lead. Sure, it will be an uphill battle, but all is not lost. They are not unbeatable and neither of the previous rounds followed the same pattern in both legs.
There was widespread agreement that Thursday’s performance fell well short of what was needed. Only a few players came close to their usual standard. Stage fright, perhaps with the weight of expectation or occasion holding them back? Most definitely a lack of quality in the final third but isn’t that something we hear most weeks? What I didn’t see, though, was a lack of effort, as some suggested in comments I read online.
Conceding such an early goal certainly set the tone on proceedings. The defence were all over the place for that one, collectively dragged across to the right hand side and leaving a huge space in behind on the left. Despite the equaliser, West Ham were unable to build on it and impose themselves on the match. That was the disappointment and control of the midfield areas will need to improve in the return.
No doubt, the second coming of the Moyesiah has seen a MASSIVE improvement in the Hammer’s fortunes. But we have to accept it is an improvement built around getting the absolute best out of a small and committed group of players. It would be great to have a Plan B when the going gets tough, but we simply don’t have the players to do that. We are very good at making the most of our strengths – breakaways or set pieces – but limited beyond that.
Time has yet to tell whether the improvement we have seen on the pitch can develop into genuine progress throughout the club. By which, I mean a platform that can be sustained beyond the current group of players. To achieve that requires better facilities, a productive academy and forward-looking player recruitment. The summer transfer window may provide pointers to whether an appetite exists to both upgrade and deepen the strength of the squad.
With a fully fit squad, one of the greatest limitations is creativity in attacking midfield. Someone to pull the strings and offer a different dimension in unpicking tight defences. None of the options – Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma, or Manuel Lanzini – fit the bill. If Nikola Vlasic was meant to be the answer, we asked the wrong question.
The most sparkling period of football during the last memorable two years was when Jesse Lingard was doing just that last winter – although I no longer see him as the long term solution. Someone like Martin Odegaard from today’s visitors has the ideal attributes. He is the one individual who has provided the spark for Arsenal’s assault on the top four – as well as sparking their revival from three goals down in today’s corresponding fixture last year.
The Gunners are now firm favourites for the final top four place. It would be fantastic to put a spoke in their bid but maybe a Pyrrhic victory if it opened the door to Tottenham. Much will depend on the north London derby to be played on May 12.
The Hammers Premier League aspirations remain complicated. The Europa League is clearly the bigger prize but putting all the eggs in that basket would be costly if qualification from domestic league position is sacrificed as a result. Fortunately, Wolves have been eager to help out on that score. Yet, the possibility of finishing above Manchester United in sixth remains in our own hands, at least in theory.
The question then, is how will David Moyes set his priorities for today and Thursday? The team selection against Chelsea almost did enough to preserve the point it had started with, but Craig Dawson’s dismissal was a blow, both then and now. Will Kurt Zouma be fit enough to start or is that a risk too far for Thursday? Do Michail Antonio or Tomas Soucek need a rest? I suspect it will be a similar approach to the Chelsea game with a back three of Zouma, Ben Johnson and Aaron Cresswell, and further outings for Mark Noble and Andriy Yarmolenko.
Arsenal have some exciting young talent to call upon and their pace down the flanks has to be a concern for Moyes. They don’t have the deepest of squads and will miss the injured Tierney and Partey, while Xhaka is always one challenge away from a red card. They were quite fortunate to beat Manchester United last week and owed much of their victory to Fernandes stupidity with his spot kick.
It is difficult to like the Gunners under the management of Lego-haired supremo Mikel Arteta (or is it Duplo hair?) They are too taken with the dark arts of whinging, diving, and simulation to be admired. The tolerance of referees to cheating and simulation continues to cast a dark shadow on the game. The professional dive and the professional head injury are just as distasteful as the professional foul invented by Willie Young
As the game is another that is difficult to call, I dug out my Ouija board to get this week’s prediction. According to the spirit world, it’s West Ham to win 3-1 with goals from Vlasic, Yarmolenko and Masuaku. COYI!