When Huff N Puff Is Not Enough: West Ham Need Greater Cunning To Break Down Burnley

With barer bones than Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, West Ham must rely on Antonio’s hamstrings and a rarely seen spark of creativity to overcome dogged Burnley

Having struggled to eventually get past resolute non-league opponents in the FA Cup, West Ham now pit their wits against a more accomplished, equally resolute, and historically uncompromising Premier League in this afternoon’s encounter at the London Stadium.

Any side that relies heavily on counter attacking for its goals has to have a backup plan for those occasions where the opposition will happily dig in and sit deep – the probable Burnley strategy today. An injection of finesse and guile is required to create penetration and variety – either passing their way through the middle or getting in behind and around the defence.

The added commitment, fitness and organisation that characterises West Ham under David Moyes is commendable but effort is rarely enough on its own to win games. When faced with a massed defence the default tactic is to send in a succession of hopeful crosses from harmless areas of the pitch. This is all too easy to defend against and will not work against a well drilled Burnley backline. The footballing equivalent of a stranded wasp repeatedly bashing its head against a firmly closed window.

The West Ham squad is, by general consensus, short both in numbers and depth of talent. Since the win against Everton two weeks ago, the cupboard has become even barer with the departures of Sebastien Haller and Robert Snodgrass. Neither would have appeared in most supporter’s dream teams but both were regular matchday squad members who offered alternatives from the bench. David Moyes has been putting on a brave face about the strength of the squad, but he must be increasingly frustrated by the lack of resources and options in a congested fixture schedule.

The situation upfront remains the most critical with Michail Antonio, a converted winger with a history of troublesome hamstrings, the only recognised striker. A rational man would consider it preposterous not to fix this in the transfer window but that ignores the short-sighted nature of the West Ham board. GSB – Going Steadily Bonkers or perhaps Going Slowly Broke?

Hopes have suddenly been raised very high for 18-year-old, Mipo Odubeko, following his two-minute cameo at Stockport. He may well be given his Premier League debut today (or unleashed to use modern footballing terminology), if only from the bench. Hopefully, he will fare better than Ashely Fletcher, the last youngster to make the transition to West Ham from the Manchester United academy. Just as well that the club are able to pick up academy graduates from other sides as our own continues to underperform. What was once imagined to be an endless seam of precious talent (giving us Ferdinand, Lampard, Cole, Carrick and Johnson) has turned out to be an unproductive pit. Another casualty of under investment, maybe.

Radical team changes for today’s match would be surprising. Assuming some variation of 4-2-3-1 is deployed, the only area for debate would be who makes up the three. For me, the best balance has to be Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. Perhaps Moyes might consider Manuel Lanzini (rather than Benrahma) but I feel the Algerian needs to get a decent run in the side to build his confidence and make his mark. He is the one player who looks capable of doing something different on the ball, although admittedly decision making needs to improve.

It is surprising how quickly Craig Dawson has cemented his place in most fan’s preferred central defensive partnership. He and Angelo Ogbonna will be in for a very physical battle against the pairing of Wood and Barnes, so an extra helping of pre-match Weetabix might be needed for Dawson to keep his blood sugar levels topped up.

We may again have to rely on Tomas Soucek as the primary goal threat. His well timed runs from deep are a defender’s nightmare. Looking back at those goals against Brighton and Everton I couldn’t make my mind up whether both were really lucky, or whether he perceives time differently from other beings – allowing greater opportunity to react. I can imagine him able to dodge bullets like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. All the more reason to ping those crosses in low and hard from the byline.

Burnley had a rather poor start to the season, but have picked up markedly in recent weeks. They are still on the fringes of the relegation battle (along with Brighton and Newcastle) but it would be a huge surprise to me if they dropped down into the bottom three. Dyche’s pragmatic approach may not be the most exciting but it is effective at picking up points. A fact of modern football and the money involved ensures that clubs with limited resources must prioritise survival over entertainment, or face the consequences. Maybe their manager will get a shot with a bigger budget one day.

The aforementioned Wood and Barnes have always given the Hammers a hard time and it has been rare for this fixture to pass without a Chris Wood’s goal on the scoresheet. Dwight McNeil has also proved to be a regular thorn in the West Ham side, and has recovered from injury just in time to try it on again. At the back, one-time Hammer’s target James Tarkowski and Ben Mee make a formidable pairing that will not be easily daunted by aerial bombardment.

First instinct is that this is a game without too many goals. At least that would comply with the latest lockdown recommendations – fewer goals means fewer celebrations, and less opportunity to spread the Covid.

My guess is that Burnley will be happy to take care of their point, with an option to nick a goal from a set piece if it arises. They rarely score more than one, but once ahead that could be it for our chances. Previous attempts to breach packed defences does not inspire confidence. If West Ham score, though, the complexion of the game would change completely. Whether that would mean the Hammers pressing home their advantage or sitting back and allowing Burnley to regain the initiative is the great uncertainty. As I have a rather chipper outlook right now I will plump for a bonus 3-1 home win.

Can West Ham come out on top in the battle of the Clarets?

Who will have the Claret Blues today?

With a season that began a little over four months ago, we have now played 17 games. After the relegation battles in the last campaign and minimal transfer activity in the summer window, how many of us would have expected that at this stage we would be in the top half of the table, with 26 points, just half a dozen points off third place, and only conceded just 21 goals, the same as Liverpool, Leicester, Everton and Chelsea, and fewer than league leaders Manchester United? And of course into the fourth round of the FA Cup where a relatively straightforward (on paper!) home tie against Doncaster awaits.

WHUBUR1Following the games against Burnley, and then Big Sam’s West Brom on Tuesday we will have reached the halfway point of the season. In the equivalent 19 games last season (substituting the relegated teams with promoted teams) we collected 20 points. We are already six points ahead with two games to come. Two wins would take us to 32 points; a win and a draw to 30, and if we lost these games then of course we would still be on 26. Not bad for the midpoint of the season. An equal points tally in the second half would mean between 52 and 64 points for the whole campaign. This is our 25th season in the Premier League, and the most we’ve managed is 62 when we were seventh in the final season at the Boleyn (2015/16). Next best is 57 when we attained our highest ever Premier League finish of 5th in 1998/9. We average a little over 47 points a season in the Premier League so we are definitely on course for better than average, and potentially for the best ever. Quite a turnaround after last season.

Against Burnley we kick off for the first time this season in a league game at 3pm on a Saturday. Of course the circumstances are very different from normal. As a small boy the first football season that I remember is 1958/9. Today’s opponents were a force in the English game around that time finishing 7th in the top flight (Division 1) that year, and in the following years 1st (yes champions – something we’ve never achieved), 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 12th, 3rd. But by the late 1960s they were in decline compared to the previous few years and regularly in the bottom half, until they were finally relegated in 1970-71. They returned briefly in the 1970s but were once again relegated in 1975-76, beginning a long period of significant decline and very nearly oblivion.

1n 1986/87 they were in the fourth tier and only escaped relegation from the Football League on the last day of the season. Since then they have slowly climbed back up the leagues. After 33 years out of the top flight they returned in 2009/10. They’ve been down again a couple of times since but have returned swiftly under Sean Dyche’s management. This is now their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League but it hasn’t started well. A terrible start saw them with just two points in their first seven games with goalless draws away at West Brom and Brighton. But they have rallied well with 14 points from their last 9 games, beating Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Wolves and Sheffield United to bring them up to 16 points from 16 games to put them 16th in the table. They have scored fewer goals than any other team in the division with just 9. And in 10 of their 16 games there has only been one goal or less scored by both teams added together, including three goalless draws. On that basis we are not looking forward to a high scoring game, although hopefully we can do enough to collect the three points.

Our record against Burnley in history shows that we are very slightly ahead in wins but we have lost the last three conceding six goals in total without scoring ourselves. We’ve also only won once in the last five when we beat them 4-2 in November 2018 with goals from Arnautavic, Anderson 2, and Hernandez. There will be no spectators around this time to stick the corner flag into the centre of the pitch as happened in our 3-0 defeat in March 2018!

In my lifetime I have some good memories of past games against the Clarets. On a warm Monday evening in August 1968 we beat them 5-0, with four goals shared by the two knights, Sir Trev and Sir Geoff, and another from Martin Peters.

There was an exciting 5-3 win in November 2009 when we had five different goalscorers (Collison, Stanislas, Carlton Cole pen, Franco, and Jimenez pen – some interesting names from the past there) and scored two penalties. At one stage midway through the second half we led 5-0. Isn’t it about time we were awarded a penalty this season?

In the FA Cup in 2011 we beat them 5-1 in the fifth round with goals from Hitzlsperger, Carlton Cole 2, Reid, and Sears. However we then went out in the quarter final losing 2-1 at Stoke, having already beaten them twice earlier in the season. This was the Avram Grant year when we were relegated after finishing bottom.

But my favourite of all was, as a ten year old when I turned up with my dad at Upton Park at 11am to queue to get in at midday for the 1964 FA Cup quarter final that kicked off at 3pm (as all games did in those days) on Leap Years Day. We stood very close to the halfway line beneath the West Stand at the very front crushed against the wall and saw a famous 3-2 victory with two goals from Budgie Byrne and another from John Sissons. That was the year of our first FA Cup triumph, after beating Manchester United 3-1 in the semi-final, and then Preston 3-2 in the final.

But talk of all those goals is unlikely to be followed up today when I expect a tight affair. Perhaps 1-0, the same as last season, but this time with us as the victors? What are the chances?

All Change At Stratford: Moyes Must Mix Things Up To Banish Burnley Bogey

The visit of a no-nonsense Burnley to the London Stadium presents West Ham with a different set of problems to the last two games. What change will David Moyes make to rise to the challenge.

With four points earned from the last two games, the Hammers are running ahead of the re-start expectations of many battle-hardened supporters. The next three fixtures, starting with today’s claret derby with Burnley, were the ones seen to be the passport to Premier League survival. A return of five points or more from those games should be enough to avoid a final day relegation play-off reckoning  with remaining claret club member, Aston Villa.

The win over Chelsea and a point against the Toons has helped us to breathe more easily, but nothing should yet be taken for granted. There might be an effective five-point cushion (if you take goal difference into account) over close rivals, Villa and Bournemouth, but there is still plenty to play for.

After a cautious first half display at St James’ Park, despite the early goal, there was a sense of disappointment at the failure to come away with all three points. West Ham looked comfortably in control after half-time, and yet allowed Newcastle to equalise with their only meaningful attack of the second period. Collective defensive failures, lapses in concentration and vulnerability down our left side continue to cost dear. It is now fourteen matches since the Hammers last kept a clean sheet – on New Year’s Day against Bournemouth – and the points lost from winning positions continue to mount.

While West Ham can be encouraged by their last two performances recent encounters with Burnley have not often ended well. As far as kettles of fish are concerned, this is a very different one to those previous two games. Burnley are a well organised, hard working and physical outfit. They will defend in numbers and will not be susceptible to the rapid breaks that benefited West Ham against Chelsea and Newcastle. The guile and finesse required to break down organised defences and team’s prepared to intimidate are not historic West Ham strong points. It might be tempting to select an unchanged team, but today’s challenge requires a very different approach.

At the back, there are few obvious options available to plug the alarming gaps in what is the fourth worst defence in the division. Pushing Declan Rice back weakens the midfield more that it strengthens the defence, and the return or either Fabian Balbuena or Arthur Masuaku adds no added confidence that things would be better. Although central midfield has looked defensively more solid since the recruitment of Tomas Soucek, the flanks remain a weak spot – particularly down the left hand side. Jarrod Bowen has done a great job of tracking back on the right and a similar level of support is badly needed on the left. That isn’t going to be provided by Manuel Lanzini but can anyone else do better – Andriy Yarmolenko, Pablo Fornals or Masuaku?

Further forward, it is doubtful that Sebastien Haller is ready to return, and so line-leading responsibilities once again fall to the broad shoulders of Michail Antonio. Antonio has performed admirably in this role recently, but I do fear burn-out or injury, especially given Moyes strange reluctance to deploy all his full substitution entitlement.

As for unpicking defences, the squad is short on creativity – it lacks anyone likely to come up with the unpredictable. Jack Wilshere is arguably the most able to do so, but has been been given insufficient pitch time to single him out as a starter.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Moyes plan is to bring back Mark Noble, as partner to Rice in defensive midfield, and push Soucek further forward to offer a greater aerial presence – a tactic that suited and worked for him in his Everton days. That would still leave a problem wide on the left of midfield. Yarmolenko has earned a start but with both him and Bowen preferring to play on the right, will one be able to effectively switch flanks? Of the two, switching Bowen would be the sensible choice, but it would require Yarmo to up his tracking back efforts in support of Ryan Fredericks. Alternatively, Moyes may opt for Masuaku in a wide midfield role as he has done in the past, but I don’t think he will go for this. Whichever way the team selection pans out, I sense it will be bench time once again for Fornals and Lanzini.

Burnley have enjoyed a decent season once again although are likely to miss out on Europa League qualification. Manager Sean Dyche has seen his stock rise in recent years and he now sits atop the rankings of plucky British managers, despite strong competition from newcomer Chris Wilder. The fall from grace of long-time leader and former golden boy, Eddie Howe, illustrates the conundrum facing managers at those clubs punching above their weight – when is the right time to jump ship out before the inevitable relegation and damaged reputation occurs

Dyche is, to date, undefeated in his managerial confrontations with Moyes (three wins and two draws) although their competitive relationship goes back to playing days in the mid 1990’s, slugging it out in League 2 in the colours of Chesterfield and Preston respectively.

The Clarets are experiencing something of an injury crisis at the moment and will be without influential captain, Ben Mee as well as midfielder Jack Cork and chief bully, Ashley Barnes.  Worryingly, Barnes strike partner Chris Woods, who has scored in each of his five outings for Burnley against West Ham, is back from injury and likely to start. Dwight McNeil is another danger and been tormentor-in-chief in recent games against the Hammers.

Matchday officials today are Michael Oliver on the pitch and Kevin Friend on VAR. There was nothing contentious from the officials at Newcastle on Sunday and will be hoping for more of the same today.

Both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas have this down as a Hammer’s win at 2-0 and 2-1 respectively. Their rationale being West Ham’s greater need and Burnley’s growing injury problems. The biggest barriers I see to a West Ham win are being able to break down the visitors resolute and determined defence – not for nothing is Nick Pope in the running for the Golden Glove award – and getting suckered by the visitors big guns on a set piece. Still as a fan of claret, I want my glass to be, at least, half-full and will go for a welcome 3-1 home win. This is a game that usually has goals in it.