Remember The Alamo: West Ham Plan Heroic Defence To Hold Off Second Chelsea Siege

The battle of the struggling stragglers in the Premier League survival stakes sees West Ham banking on a second lightning strike to secure an unlikely double against high flying Chelsea

Someone mentioned to me in the week that Liverpool had already won this season’s Premier League, although I couldn’t find any mention of it in the media. If true, then well done to them. They were the best team by some distance; and congratulations to Adrian, who becomes another in the long line of ex-Hammers to pick up a league winners medal after having left the club – Adrian, Johnson, Ferdinand, Gale, Cole, Carrick, Lampard, and Ince. That’s almost a full team now!

Tonight, the focus switches again to football’s equivalent of a slow bicycle race, as three of the frantic five relegation candidates take to the field in an attempt to belatedly put some extra points on the board. In the last thirty games combined, the five stragglers have managed just three wins and four draws between them – thirteen points out of a possible ninety.  There is often a mad scramble for the final relegation place, but in this unusual season it is distinguished by mass collective incompetence at the bottom. DLLWLLL may look like the name of a place in Wales but, sadly, it is the Hammers current form. We are indeed fortunate to others that escape is still feasible.

Tonight’s match with Chelsea is one of the toughest (along with the trip to Old Trafford) West Ham’s remaining fixtures. Both those clubs are at the top of the form table, have reacted positively in the early re-start games and will be looking confidently at a top four finish. A win tonight will move the visitors up into third place. I must admit to being surprised at how well Lampard Junior has done in his first term as Premier League manager. I think he can become a top manager but thought this job had come far too early for him. The glimmer of hope is that I said exactly the same thing back in November, when the teams last met. And we know how that turned out. A game notable for David Martin’s heroic debut, a fine Aaron Cresswell goal and zero fouls committed by Chelsea.

It will, no doubt, be another highly cautious approach from David Moyes tonight. A backs to the wall, deep defensive act of attrition. This is partly due to Moyes risk averse character but also partly due to the rag-tag of resources at his disposal, particularly in offensive areas. The task could be likened to defending the Alamo with broken guns and no ammunition.

Reading through Moyes virtual programme notes gives us a clue to how he is thinking. My takeaway from his goals from everywhere plea is that he expects attempts from free kicks or corners to be the extent of our ambition. I know the manager has to say positive things but to suggest that our downfall has been due to not taking the chances that came is a bit of a stretch. Moyes is not able to play the too tired card tonight as Chelsea have played twice since the Hammers last had a game. Perhaps he will claim we are rusty – or maybe we really will be geared up it, after a week off to re-charge the batteries. Tonight has all the hallmarks of a game that the manager wants to get out of the way quickly without too much damage. But I would like to think Moyes has a more cunning plan for the run of winnable fixtures to follow aside from hoping that our luck will change.

The good news on the team selection front is the probable return of Angelo Ogbonna. He is one of the names along with Lukasz Fabianski, Issa Diop, Declan Rice, Michail Antonio, Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen that you would want pre-printed on the team-sheet. After that it is a case of pick and mix.

The bare bones full-back option will likely default to the uninspiring pairing of Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks, now that Ngakia has packed his bags. Ben Johnson looks to be one of the several fringe players (along with Ajeti and Silva) that Moyes doesn’t trust (for whatever reason!) while Arthur Masuaku remains absent injured. According to Moyes, Masuaku is back ‘on the grass’ which leads me think ‘so, that’s what they’re smoking in the West Ham treatment room.’

Also confined to the sidelines is the club’s only striker, Sebastien Haller. I expect either Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko will be asked to play that lonely role up front. It might be worth giving Yarmolenko a try. There is little to lose and he is remarkably predictable when played in a wider role, no matter how sweet his left foot is. And I much prefer Antonio in a position where he can run with the ball at his feet. He is not a hold it up up player.

I guess from the manager’s comments that we will once again see Mark Noble starting if only for his (apparent) leadership qualities. It is a nice idea but ‘love’ for the club on its own doesn’t get you any points and Nobles best playing days are some way behind him. From another ‘it can’t be any worse’ perspective, giving pitch time to Jack Wilshere has to be a gamble worth taking sooner or later.  Pablo Fornals has demonstrated enough endeavour to be given another chance, but ideally not stuck out on the wing – he works hard enough but doesn’t have the pace. Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini only get on the bench because there are extra spaces available now.

Throw that all into the mix and my preferred starting eleven would be:

Fabianski
Johnson, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell
Rice, Soucek
Bowen, Fornals (or Wilshere), Antonio
Yarmolenko

The officials for tonight’s game are Martin Atkinson out on the pitch with Jonathan Moss struggling to fit behind the desk at VAR central. Time for those poor decisions that are meant to balance out over the course of a season to start doing so.

A mixed bag from the TV pundits. Lawro has woken up from his celebratory Anfield hangover to predict a 1-0 away win, whereas Charlie Nicholas again shows a soft spot for the Hammers by tipping them to earn a 1-1 draw.

If West Ham are to come away with anything from this game it will require massive performances from their key players – while the others must try not to do anything stupid. Chelsea have been on a good run of results without ever being convincing. They do not find it easy to penetrate packed defences but the threat will always be there if we keep gifting them the ball.

There is sure to be plenty of focus on Declan Rice in the light of the repeated transfer speculation and perhaps a thought at the back of his mind is that Champion’s League football is a possibility next season. The idea that Declan might soon be added to that list of ex-Hammer league winners is a depressing one – at least for us.

The Moyes sit back, soak up the pressure and hope for a breakaway philosophy is a long shot – might it just work? I doubt it, but you never can tell. We will need to be razor sharp, but I suspect that a draw is the best a fan get.

What West Ham would give for a repeat of the score at Stamford Bridge earlier this season!

When we kick off at 8.15 pm on July 1st we may or may not be in the bottom three. Even if we are I stand by my assertion from my last blog article that we will not be relegated this season. Nothing that we have done on the field since the return after lockdown backs up my confidence. It is the form (or lack of it) from our rivals in the relegation stakes that makes me believe we will be OK.

Brighton (on 33 points) will almost certainly be OK thanks to their win against Arsenal and draw at Leicester. They have had (by a long way) the best results of the bottom six since resumption and still have seven games left to add to their tally. Four of their next five games look tough on paper (Man. Utd., Liverpool, Man City, and away at Southampton who have surprised me considering how poor they looked at the London Stadium shortly before the season was held up), but in between they play at Norwich, and then finish with games against Newcastle and Burnley. They should be fine.

Watford (on 28 points) now only have six games to play, two (out of their next three) of which don’t look too bad on paper at home to Norwich and Newcastle. Their toughest games should be at Chelsea and Arsenal and at home to Man. City. Of course they face us on July 15 which will be an important six-pointer. They have not looked that great so far, but I think they’ll be OK.

West Ham (on 27 points and outside the bottom three on goal difference only) will, after this home game against Chelsea (more on this later), face five teams currently in the bottom half of the table in our final six games, the only exception being the away trip to Old Trafford for the penultimate game of the season. Newcastle and Norwich (both away) plus three games at home to Burnley, Watford, and Villa are crucial games for us to pick up the necessary points for survival.

Bournemouth (also on 27 points) have a home game against Newcastle that kicks off just two and a quarter hours before our game against Chelsea. This surely is their best chance to move out of the bottom three, because their final six games will see them face Man.Utd, Spurs, Leicester, Man.City, Southampton, and Everton. I don’t see them picking up many more points from those.

Villa (also on 27 points) now only have six games to play, the first five of which are against Liverpool, Man.Utd, Palace, Everton, and Arsenal, before coming to the London Stadium on the last day of the season. Surely they won’t be collecting much from those games without a massive reversal of form.

Norwich (on 21 points) look doomed, although they won’t be the poorest team to have ever been relegated from the top flight. If they can hang on to their better players they will have a good chance of bouncing back.

So that’s my summary of what I think will happen. We won’t pull up any trees in the run-in, but if we still manage to go down now by failing to pick up enough points from the remaining games, then we will well and truly deserve it. And if we did happen to go down I would fear for our chances of bouncing back as quickly as we have done after previous relegations.

Of course we won 1-0 at Chelsea shortly before the end of 2019 in a game remembered for David Martin’s debut clean sheet, and his emotional reunion with his dad Alvin in the stands. Despite our win, we also scored another goal that was chalked off as a result of it “accidentally” touching Antonio’s arm, one of two goals denied to us this season by accidental handball both picked up by VAR. It’s a silly rule anyway in the sense that accidental handball by a defender in his own penalty area does not result in a penalty kick being awarded against him, so why are attacking teams penalised in this way? And don’t get me going about the VAR failure to spot the handball which led to Tottenham’s first goal against us!

As for team selection in this game then of course our keeper picks himself, but it will be interesting to see whether Ogbonna (who is now apparently fit) is recalled in place of Balbuena, who only looks a shadow of the player he was in his first season with us. And talking of players not at the same level as in the past, Cresswell now looks too slow, and seems to dwell on the ball in possession. It wasn’t that long ago that he won an England cap, but now he worries me, and we look especially vulnerable against teams attacking us on that flank.

Rice has been our standout player once again, and I’d like to see him line up alongside Soucek in a defensive midfield position. Of course there has been so much to admire about Mark Noble over the years, and much as I like him, the pace of the game just seems a little too quick now, especially against the top teams. He still has a part to play in this run-in but I’d like him to sit out this one.

Our attacking has been generally poor and we haven’t scored since Leap Years Day when we comprehensively put three goals past Southampton. Bowen and Antonio both scored on that day, and seem to me to be the only two attacking players who have shown any semblance of form in our last two games. Bowen continues to look impressive whilst Antonio has looked OK but is not a centre forward and certainly shouldn’t play up front on his own.

Beyond those two I don’t really know! Anderson and Lanzini have both looked so poor to me, and whilst I can see some potential in Fornals, he hasn’t looked that great in the last two games and certainly not in front of goal, spurning two excellent chances to score. Who else is there? Wilshere has apparently been very impressive in training, and should surely be given a chance to do it in games? If he could recapture some semblance of past form then there is a chance he could unlock some defences, but there must be a reason he hasn’t been given a chance yet in a team playing poorly? Yarmolenko has the highest ratio of goals to minutes played this season, but he has been inconsistent and Moyes doesn’t appear to rate him, nor does the manager seem to trust the inexperienced Xande Silva, nor Ajeti, who despite being an international footballer has not been given many minutes to prove himself.

Of course Haller apparently has a hip injury that is keeping him out. There are some scandalous conspiracy theories going around that suggest he isn’t playing because we will be selling him in the summer, and apparently one more appearance would trigger a hefty payment to Eintracht Frankfurt, the club from whom we bought him. That would be ridiculous! So my team for this game (but definitely not the manager’s selection) would be: Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Johnson; Rice, Soucek, Wilshere; Yarmolenko, Antonio, Bowen.

In the remaining games I’d like to see our manager make better use of substitutes, both in terms of who, and the timing. We are allowed to use up to five, and surely it makes sense to do so, especially if you are behind in a game?

I watched some of the FA Cup game between Leicester and Chelsea at the weekend and I was surprised at how poor Chelsea were, especially in the first half. But Lampard has laid into them deeming so many of their players’ performances unacceptable, and I would be surprised if they didn’t improve markedly when they face us. And talking of the FA Cup, an interesting fact. Teams are supposedly weakened in this competition these days, but the four semi-finalists, are four of the so-called elite six in this country, and in fact each of them has won the trophy in the last four seasons.

What do I expect from this game? Based on what I’ve seen in the last couple of games, I expect to be beaten, think that we could possibly snatch a draw, but hope for an unlikely win, the same as we managed at Stamford Bridge in November. What are the chances?