If West Ham were a hospital patient the bulletin issued to anxious friends and relatives would read critical but stable. The outlook is not quite as bleak as it was a few weeks ago, but there was still a long way to go on the road to recovery.
Recent form can be looked at in two ways. The optimistic view is that the Hammers have won three and lost just one in their last six games. Those with emptier glasses might point out that two of those wins were in the FA Cup against a deliberately weakened Brentford side and League 1 side, Derby. Still winning games is good for confidence and that can never be a bad thing. It’s just that confidence needs to translated into league points very quickly. Failure to improve on the current rate of five points from six games would lead to almost certain relegation – with 33 points. Relying on the incompetence of others for survival is not a recommended strategy.
I do sense there has been some improvement in performances of late, even if it is largely imperceptible to the naked eye. Absences through Injury continue to play a debilitating part and certain positional weaknesses cannot be resolved from within the current squad. But signs that the collective spirit have been rekindled are heartening. Perhaps the return of Mark Noble behind the scenes has been a factor, diverting some of the non-playing pressure away from Declan Rice. Survival chances depend significantly on Rice continuing to put in the type of performance that we saw at St James’ Park last Saturday.
A huge positive from the Newcastle game was the team not capitulating following a dreadful opening five minutes. West Ham gradually fought their way back into contention and grabbed a deserved equalizer through Lucas Paqueta. It was possibly one of the most flamboyant goal celebrations ever seen from a Hammer, although while his backflip scored high for degree of difficulty, execution was let down by an unstable landing. I don’t recall if we were ever treated to a Robbie Keane cartwheel after either of the two goals he netted in claret and blue.
The remainder of last Saturday’s game was reasonably even, although neither team worked the opposing goalkeeper particularly hard. The Hammers had their share of shots, but most were harmless long shots rather than skilfully crafted openings. A stunning last-ditch Moore-esque tackle from Nayef Aguerd was the highlight of the latter stages.
David Moyes substitutions were again disappointing as he opted to stick with the point in the bag with twenty minutes remaining, rather than risk pressing for a winning goal. Caution will always be his core competency.
Today’s visitors arrive on the back of equally unimpressive league form, having taken only six points from the last six games. Their only success was a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace in mid January. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) a profligate spending spree, they languish in 9th spot, nine points away from 4th place Tottenham. Chances of a top four finish are wafer thin and participation in next year’s Champions League will depend on how well they fare in this year’s competition – in which they visit Dortmund on Wednesday.
A factor in Chelsea’s favour is that manager Graham Potter has yet to lead a side to defeat against the Hammers. His record at Brighton was two wins and five draws – two wins and four draws against David Moyes.
We should expect a couple of changes from the team that started last week. Ben Johnson will take over from the injured Thilo Kehrer in the back three, with either Pablo Fornals or Manuel Lanzini the probable replacement for Said Benrahma in attacking midfield. Benrahma was particularly frustrating at Newcastle, getting into great positions and then dithering, over elaborating, or taking the wrong decision. He appears to struggle even more when there is a wing-back behind him.
Moyes has now reverted to a back three as his preferred defensive formation. It does have a more solid look to it but unless you have fast, fit wing-backs with great delivery – we don’t – it comes at the expense of attacking and creative options. The efforts and probing of Rice and Paqueta will be key for the Hammers today, as will the running of Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen.
For all Chelsea’s woes they continue to dominate possession in the majority of their games. And that is unlikely to change today. The danger for West Ham is retreating too far into their shells and leaving nine behind the ball in the all too familiar negative low block. It shows the opposition too much respect and it is obvious we look a better side when playing on the front foot. I still believe the team’s poor ball retention is as much to do with tactics and having too few options available as it is with technical ability.
The visitors have a wealth of potentially exciting talent to select from, but nothing approaching a team as yet. For Potter, a problem of too many individuals when his previous success was built on team ethic. My advice to him is stick with the floppy haired Cucurella instead of bringing in Chilwell today.
For some reason, Saturday lunchtime kick-offs have a reputation for being unpredictable affairs. While a draw would be the predictable outcome, perhaps the Hammers can enhance that reputation with a surprise three points. Otherwise it may be bottom three again by the end of the weekend. COYI!