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.

2000 fans back in the London Stadium as West Ham aim for a fourth league win in a row

Who would have thought it? A quarter of the season gone, and a difficult ten games at that with seven of last season’s top nine already played, and there we sit in fifth place. It’s been a strange year, we all know that, and football has not been any different, with away teams more successful than ever before. Manchester City are in the bottom half of the table, albeit with a league table so tight that a win with their game in hand would take them into a Champions League place, and Arsenal are 14th, but they are only five points off a top four position themselves. Yes, just six points separate Chelsea in third with Palace who are 15th, and even Tottenham and Liverpool are only two points better off at the very top.

Nevertheless we’ll take fifth for now, and a win this Saturday (early evening) against this week’s opponents Manchester United, would elevate us, albeit briefly into third. To add to the strangeness of this campaign, have we ever gone into the eleventh game of a season having not yet kicked off a league game at 3pm on a Saturday? United themselves are ninth, but if they win the game then they too would rise into the top four, such is the congestion in the league table so far.

We didn’t play particularly well against Villa the other night, yet for the third game in a row we came away with the three points. David Moyes acknowledged that we could play a lot better but he was happy to take the win. I have often written in the past how often we start each half of a game slowly, but this match was certainly an exception. We caught Villa cold with the opening goal within three minutes, and began the second half with a much quicker goal than that. Once again Benrahma provided the assist, and I can see him beginning to play a much more prominent role in the team in the coming games. I read that some people are worried about his ability defensively in a team that Moyes has moulded to defend energetically from the front. Anybody who saw him play for Brentford last season would not be worried on that score. His work rate is excellent and shouldn’t be so easily dismissed because of his attacking qualities.

The main talking points from the Villa game on social media focussed on our relatively poor performance (we can definitely play better), the number of “fouls” we committed as a result of inept officials being tricked by Grealish diving (he is a superb player but he lets himself down by cheating), VAR coming to our rescue (for a change), and Carragher’s post match analysis. As far as the late drama was concerned I would disagree with Carragher’s view. Surely Watkins was already offside when Ogbonna “fouled” him, so the offside, albeit by a fraction of a toenail as drawn by the VAR lines, came first. Anyway, Villa had already been awarded a previous penalty (controversially in my opinion) for a slight tug on a shirt which resulted in a player throwing himself theatrically to the ground. I loved a picture I saw on Instagram where Ogbonna has his arms around Watkins (in true Italian style) and was supposedly saying “I was just trying to keep him onside!”

whumun2Last week I wrote about Equivalent Fixture Analysis, and the win over Villa takes us 13 points ahead of the same games last season (17 this, 4 last). Of course in last season’s fixture against Manchester United at the London Stadium we collected three points in a 2-0 victory, so we need to win again to maintain the 13 points differential. United were playing (and losing) in the Champions League on Wednesday night so let us hope that will have some influence on their energy levels. A lot is written about players having to play too often these days, but I don’t really subscribe to that. Yes the game is faster than it was years ago, but with squad sizes and improved fitness regimes they should cope OK. I suspect that its often a case of managers and coaches getting their excuses in early.

2000 of our fans will be in the London Stadium for the game. I wasn’t successful in the ballot to get a seat. Perhaps next time? It will be interesting to see how much noise they can generate. I wonder if the artificial crowd noise on TV will be turned off or used to supplement the 2000 for the TV viewers?

I’ve no idea if the manager will change the starting line-up or formation this week. Whatever he decides there won’t be many changes because that’s not his style, and three wins in a row tells its own story despite his reservations that we can play a lot better. I’m sure that is right as we haven’t quite reached the levels of performance that we saw against Wolves and Leicester early on. But West Ham in fifth place despite not playing as well as we could? I’ll take that.

The visit of Manchester United is not the daunting one that I remember from my youth. But despite the league positions and the recent history of this fixture, the United reputation makes them strong favourites with the bookmakers. For some reason unknown to me, they are 11/10 favourites to win the game, whereas we are priced at a very appealing 13/5. I’m confident that we’ll do well and win our fourth game in a row by the odd goal. What are the chances?