Although it has been a few months now since West Ham endured their most recent fruitless encounter against Brighton and Hove Albion, it is only three games ago in match terms. Back in May, when a win would have secured a place in the top six for the Hammers, things had looked rather rosy at the half-way stage. But a simple tactical switch by Seagull’s boss Graham Potter in the second period bamboozled our boys and they slumped to the most convincing of defeats. A performance that was typical of many seen during the season run-in.
On the evidence of this season to date, the lethargy that has shrouded the club’s on-field performances since last January has yet to be shaken off. New signings have been trickling through the doors during the summer, and while additional bodies are welcome, I’m yet to be convinced the resources have been assembled to vary style, tactics, and approach according to changing circumstances. Is there now a Plan B or now just multiple versions of Plan A?
Even during the last two (very impressive) seasons the wit to break through organised opposition defences was clearly absent in the squad – resulting in points dropped against sides we would have expected to beat. This gap in the squad has yet to be filled. My worry is that if a new attacking midfielder is brought in, it will be as a battering ram rather than someone capable of picking locks.
Following the two early league defeats it was certainly a relief to get a win under the belt against the Danes from Viborg in Thursday nights Europa Conference qualifier. Not that it was a performance to take much comfort from. In a game played at half paced it was another stilted, low-gear showing from West Ham – papered over by three well-constructed goals which will probably be enough to claim the tie.
Indeed, it was the visitors who showed more endeavour when it came to passing and moving through the midfield areas. The absence of Declan Rice leaves a massive void in the Hammer’s midfield as all attacking momentum goes through him these days. Even against pedestrian opponents Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals had no magic to weave and made no impression as far as play-making was concerned. Thankfully, Viborg for all their energy were short of end product – a possible Brexit bonus as their two forward players were unable to enter the UK due to new visa restrictions.
For our own part it was mostly monotonous side to side passing across the back, with Tomas Soucek and Conor Coventry particularly culpable. Forward movement, other than hopeful punts, appeared to have been outlawed and the full-backs rarely crossed the halfway line. Whether this was a cunning tactical plan or the consequence of playing three right backs in the back four was not obvious.
Still a win is a win and there were brief encouraging flashes from Gianluca Scamacca, Maxwell Cornet and Said Benrahma – although each would have benefited from a greater level of involvement. The game also saw a welcome return for Angelo Ogbonna, back in the side after his lengthy injury lay-off, and an opportunity to have a first look at Thilo Kehrer.
With a return to league action on Sunday the need to avoid a third straight defeat will be on everyone’s mind. It’s a mystery why West Ham have found it impossible to come out on top against Brighton in recent years, a run that now extends to ten matches. No doubt that Potter is a tactically astute manager, but the Hammers were equally unsuccessful while Chris Hughton was at the helm. Perhaps it is just one of those odd quirks found in football and all talk of the Seagulls as a bogey-team will be swept away once a first win is recorded. Could it be this weekend?
Last weekend I was convinced that Scamacca and Cornet would feature in the starting eleven at Nottingham Forest but failed to gauge just how conservative Moyes is when introducing new players into his system. Understandable if you are in the middle of a hot winning streak but less so when you have only won two of the last ten league games. Whether the manager will do anything more radical in team selection than the usual lucky dip between Benrahma, Lanzini and Fornals is anyone’s guess. He is unlikely to regard Ogbonna or Kehrer as potential starters leaving Ben Johnson to once again partner Kurt Zouma in central defence. Personally, I would like to see Scamacca, Cornet and Kehrer all start but the chances of that happening are slim.
Brighton have made a promising start to the season with a win at Manchester United and home draw against Newcastle. They have lost Bissouma and Cucurella since last term and have signed a handful of young players who have yet to feature in the first eleven. Potter is likely to start with a tried and tested side and hope that Gross, Trossard, and Welbeck continue to unsettle the rigid West Ham defences.
A huge improvement from the opening two games will be required if the Brighton curse is finally to be lifted. Maybe with a returning Declan Rice and a little more competition on the bench can tomorrow be that day? West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!