David Moyes Claret & Blue Army To Outsmart Ole Gunnar’s All-Star Circus

Buoyed by an impressive midweek performance in Zagreb how will the Hammers shape up against Ronaldo & Co in the absence of the suspended Michail Antonio

It’s back to league action today for West Ham just a few days after an impressive Europa League victory against Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. It was a textbook awayday performance that completely belied the Hammer’s recent inexperience of European competition. Goals from Ant and Dec had put the visitors in firm control of a game where the clean sheet was rarely threatened.

The visit of Manchester United to east London is one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the season. They may be several levels below the standards set under Alex Ferguson on the pitch, but much of their worldwide appeal and glamour has not worn off. If West Ham have any aspirations towards qualifying for the Champion’s League through league position, then today’s visitors are one of the teams they must compete with. In truth, winning the Europa League is a more realistic target.

It is encouraging that many commentators (and opponents) are starting to look at West Ham differently. That perhaps last year’s sixth place wasn’t an aberration after all. But if there is one persistent criticism of David Moyes among pundits, it is that he is too cautious when coming up against the big teams. On the Southampton match commentary, Efan Ekoku, a rather erratic summariser at the best of times, went as far to suggest that had it not been for an overly cautious approach in big games, the Hammers would have comfortably won the two points needed for a top four finish last season. Wishful thinking, quite possibly, but it is difficult to completely dismiss the notion that an inferiority complex has influenced the approach to certain games.

That wasn’t the case in this equivalent fixture last December, though. The Hammers were by far the better team for over an hour, taking a first half lead through Tomas Soucek and looking likely to increase that lead. There was no hint of danger when the visiting keeper desperately kicked for touch in the 65th minute, only for the infamous ‘Wind of God’ to bring the ball back into play from several yards over the line. Pogba equalised in the immediate aftermath, heads dropped at the injustice of divine intervention, and the match ended in an unexpected 3-1 away win.

Today’s major West Ham team news is the absence of the squads one and only striker Michail Antonio due to a one match suspension. With no like for like replacement, Moyes will need to somehow shuffle his resources and come up with a new game plan. The pace and power of Antonio is so fundamental to the way we play that no obvious solution stands out.

If Moyes wants to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation, then he could go with either Jarrod Bowen or Andriy Yarlmolenko as the arrowhead. Bowen had some success in that role last season but was heavily supported by the initial purple patch of Jesse Lingard’s loan spell . Yarmolenko doesn’t work anywhere near hard enough to lead the line effectively or play more than a token ten minutes. Neither have the physical presence to unsettle what can be an uncertain Manchester defence.

Alternatively, Moyes might consider a change of formation – to either 3-5-2 or 4-3-3. When Moyes first arrived, I believed a back three was to be the default setting but it was most probably down to an expedient way of making use of the limited resources available at the time. I’m not really convinced that either Vladimir Coufal or Aaron Cresswell are at their best as wing backs, and Arthur Masuaku lacks enough game time to be thrown into such a high profile contest.

A change to 4-3-3 is the more interesting option. It is a formation that I think Moyes might toy with in selected games anyway – when he wants to be cautious! Either Manuel Lanzini or Alex Kral could fit in alongside the usual double pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, to stiffen the central midfield and pick up opposition runners. It is more likely to be Lanzini given that Kral has yet to step onto the pitch in claret and blue. That would leave a front three from Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Nikola Vlasic to provide an unfamiliar but, what could be, fluid attacking force. It feels attractive but is it too difficult to pull off at short notice?

Whereas West Ham strength is organisation and being greater than the sum of their parts, Manchester United are quite the opposite. It is a team of individuals, seemingly assembled without any grand plan, which can be devastating on its day but who too often blow hot and cold. The squad list looks formidable and yet they are rated some way behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool as credible title contenders. They will regularly win the games they are supposed to but will often fall short when up against the big boys – or playing with the Young Boys!

The signing of Ronaldo is typical of the big name, star studded, glamourous, big money attitude to recruitment. Of course, he has been an exceptional player during a fantastic extended career – and will still score goals – but was that really their top priority, and is it a sensible team building move?

Rarely a day goes by without a headline declaring that Declan Rice is yet another of the final pieces in the Manchester United jigsaw. Many in the media have already guaranteed he will move to Old Trafford. I have no illusions about West Ham being able to match his trophy and financial ambitions, but I hope if/ when he does leave he goes somewhere more sensible. Then again, I would be surprised if Solskjær is still at Old Trafford by next summer – but I had the same thought last year.

This will be an intriguing match. I would fancy a home win strongly if Antonio was playing. It works in our favour that Manchester United will not come to sit back but much depends on how well the counter attack works without our Number 9 fronting it? The visitors have an abundance of attacking talent and we mustn’t allow them to wear us down by defending too deep and squandering possession cheaply. Some big performances are needed and looking forward to Kurt Zouma taking care of Ronaldo.

In the interest of positivity, I will trust that Moyes and the coaching staff have devised a cunning plan B and that the players are able to execute it to perfection. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

After midweek success in Croatia, and with Antonio unavailable, can West Ham defeat Ronaldo-inspired Manchester United?

Two wins and two draws in the Premier League, and success in the first game of the Europa League in what was meant to be the toughest fixture in Group H. Unbeaten so far with potentially an even more daunting challenge this weekend when the Red Devils visit the London Stadium. Such a shame we won’t be able to field our strongest side with Antonio being forced to sit this one out after what I thought was a needless red card at Southampton last Saturday. It will be interesting to see how David Moyes constructs the team without our number 9, and no obvious replacement in that position without changing the style of play. Antonio ran the Croatians ragged in Zagreb on Thursday evening and will be sorely missed on Sunday.

The 2-0 win to take us to the top of Europa League Group H after the first game was well deserved, and David Moyes deserves massive credit for the way he has transformed this squad since his return to the club. This was never going to be an easy fixture against a Zagreb side used to competing in Europe. It was just a few months ago that they put Tottenham to the sword beating them 3-0 in the round of 16 second leg in last season’s Europa League to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg to progress to the last eight, where they went out of the competition against the Spaniards, Villareal. Dinamo had topped their group with 14 points from four wins and two draws so have considerable recent experience in European competition. They have also made an excellent start in this season’s Croatian League and currently sit on top with 16 points from their opening seven games.

This puts the strength of our performance into perspective. Even with a changed team, all of the players performed well and knew how they fitted into the side, and the roles they needed to play. The unchanged midfield partnership of Rice and Soucek was the springboard to our success, and how good was Rice when intercepting the ball in his own half and striding more than half the length of the pitch to score the second goal through the keeper’s legs? The goal reminded me of his strike in the final game of last season when a similar run led to the third goal in our victory over Southampton that sealed our sixth-place finish enabling us to qualify for this season’s Europa League.

Much credit too must go to the whole team for defending as a unit when we didn’t have the ball, and especially the back four who didn’t allow the home side to have a single shot on target in the entire 90 minutes. I thought that Fredericks had an excellent game, using his speed to great effect when going forward, and conversely when getting back to recover the ball. On the other flank the rejuvenated (under Moyes) Cresswell was as steady as ever. He continues to impress now that he appears to be fully recovered from the injury he suffered a couple of seasons back. But the defensive highlight for me was the massively impressive Zouma who dealt with everything comfortably, forming an excellent partnership with Diop. We have four centre backs vying for two places in the starting eleven when we play with a back four. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zouma lining up alongside Ogbonna for the game on Sunday, although this would be harsh on Dawson who hasn’t done a lot wrong since he was signed. On the other hand I wonder if for this game, with the absence of Antonio, Moyes may consider playing with three centre backs? I don’t think he will and I would anticipate this starting line-up for the game.

Fabianski; Coufal, Zouma, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Soucek; Fornals, Vlasic, Benrahma; Bowen.

If my prediction for the starting line-up is correct then the choice of players to sit on our bench is also looking stronger than it has for years with a first-class international goalkeeper in Areola, Diop and Dawson as centre backs, and Fredericks and the fit-again Masuaku as well as Johnson covering the full back positions, although I believe Moyes sees Masuaku more as an attacking wing back / midfielder. Noble and Kral seem the likely cover for Rice and Soucek, with Lanzini and Yarmolenko the other attacking options in the absence of Antonio. Not quite two like for like players to cover all over the pitch, as they have at Manchester City and Chelsea for example, but nevertheless stronger than in recent times. Let’s hope that some youngsters from the Development Squad can make a name for themselves and become involved at the top level as the season progresses.

Manchester United have been strengthened by the addition of world-class Ronaldo, who might not quite be the player he once was, but nevertheless he is still a massive goalscoring threat. He has hit the ground running and already started scoring goals in his first week. Let’s hope we can keep him quiet on Sunday. Manchester United are favourites, particularly with the additional rest-time from midweek endeavours of 48 hours compared to ourselves, but I still believe we can beat them, despite Antonio not being available, although it will be tough to do so without our in-form number nine. Others will have to step up to score, and I fancy Jarrod Bowen to do so.

Bookmakers certainly don’t rate our chances highly, but as an unbeaten team playing at home after a midweek success in Europe playing against a Manchester United team who surprisingly lost to Young Boys of Switzerland, the odds of a home victory at 7/2 are certainly more enticing than the odds-on chances given to the visitors. The odds for West Ham winning 2-0 are 18/1, or a 2-1 victory is priced around 12/1.

I always enjoy a fun bet at long odds that rarely comes off, but you never know. Ronaldo to score the first goal and then West Ham to come back and win the match is priced at 50/1. Ronaldo to score the first goal and West Ham to win the match 2-1 is around 90/1. Or if you fancy Bowen to score the first goal and West Ham to win the odds are 20/1. Or perhaps Bowen to score first and West Ham to win 2-1 you can get 87/1. Rice to score the first goal and West Ham to win 2-1 is priced at 342/1. For a bit of fun I’ll choose one of those. What are the chances?    

Great Expectations: West Ham Can Nearly Reach The Sky With Win Against The Red Devils

The prospect of a fourth straight win and the chance to gate-crash the top three beckons for an upbeat West Ham when they take on Manchester United this afternoon.

I have never been convinced that, as pundits, ex-footballers offer any greater or significant  insight on players or games than the average knowledgeable fan. What they do know, however, is all the little cheats, wrinkles and tricks of the trade that players will try to dishonestly gain advantage. For that reason, there should be a big effort to encourage them into refereeing, rather than leaving it to naïve amateurs like Peter Bankes, who was nominally in charge of Monday’s win over Aston Villa. If that also meant a few less pundits on the TV, then even better news.

The exaggerated diving and cheating of Grealish, mainly, but also Trezeguet was farcical and indefensible. Even more disturbing is that the authorities seem to have no appetite to sort it out. When Trezeguet had a penalty chalked off for a blatant dive against Brighton where was the card for simulation? It is telling that the Villa antics were ridiculed only on social media, not in the mainstream, where it is simply shrugged off with a smile or as an accepted part of the game. In my mind, cheating is a far greater blight on the beautiful game than missing the occasional offside toes, or an accidental handball in the build up to a goal.

West Ham were clearly second best against Villa but were able to snatch a win to make it three in a row and fifth place in the table with seventeen points. The Hammers have not wholly convinced in that run of games and, although they were the better team in games against Fulham and Sheffield United, victory over Villa was down to the visitor’s below average finishing – karma at work.

Today’s meeting with Manchester United sees both teams searching for their fourth league win in a row. A West Ham victory would elevate them, at least temporarily, into the top three. Seasoned supporters will recognise such a scenario as ripe for disappointment.

It is a football phenomenon where a period of over-achievement so often leads to heightened and unrealistic expectations. As a wise man once said: “Good is not good, when better is expected.” David Moyes has moulded a team with great attitude and unparalleled (for West Ham) discipline and organisation. It has brought a measure of pragmatic stability, so sorely lacking during ten years of erratic and short-term decision making at the club.

The rapid transformation from pre-season relegation favourites to the top six has led to supporters wanting more. Expectation that lesser teams should be effortlessly brushed aside and a desire for the present balance between adventure and pragmatism to be relaxed in favour of the former. Cautious fellow that he is, Moyes is unlikely to veer far from his more realistic well trodden path – steady improvement and low risk consolidation.

What that means for the approach to today’s game depends once again on Michail Antonio’s hamstrings. A fully fit Antonio would cause havoc against the cumbersome Manchester United backline. If, as seems likely, he is not available then too many high balls to Sebastien Haller would play directly to the strength of the world’s most overvalued defender, Harry Maguire.

If Haller does play, it would present a more compelling case in support of a popular start for Said Benrahma, in place of Pablo Fornals. Personally, though, I don’t see that happening. No doubt Benrahama would offer a more creative attacking option but I sense Moyes doesn’t feel he is yet ready for the physical demands of the Premier League, or to provide the defensive energy and backup required.

Perhaps the manager will surprise me, but I think Haller for Antonio will be the only probable change. Against a team who have made a habit this season of late goal surges, sensible use of substitute resources will be essential today.

Manchester United are a club haunted by historic expectations. Something that has proved a graveyard for several managers since the retirement of Ferguson. In fact, I’m surprised that Solskjaer has lasted as long as he has. He might well be able to qualify for Europe on a consistent basis, but is unlikely to ever do better than that. Surely, not good enough for one of the leading brands in world football.

Like most of his predecessors Solskjaer has attempted to throw money at the problem, but without any discernible pattern to his spending. They have very good individual players but lack true cohesion. In terms of their own season, it may well be that today’s game is seen as of secondary in importance to Tuesday’s Champion’s League group decider against RB Leipzig.

West Ham have a decent record against the Red Devils in recent years. To extend that run they will need to take control of the midfield. One of the weaknesses of the Moyes favoured formation is that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek are prone to getting outnumbered in the centre of midfield. It happened against Villa, and also to a lesser extent against Fulham. Teams that prefer to attack mainly through the centre, as Manchester United do, are well placed to exploit that weakness.

My thoughts on how the game might play out are muddled. The Hammer’s with a record of forever blowing the rare opportunity to gate-crash the very top of the table. The visitors possibly preoccupied with a Champion’s League exit.

In many ways we are at our best against the bigger teams. But to take all three points will require a strong performance right from kick off to the seventh minute of added time. I’d love to be able to predict another win but feel, this time, we may have to settle for a draw.