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!