West Ham United square off against Crystal Palace on Saturday, making the short trip over to Selhurst Park in South London.
State of Affairs
The international break gave the Hammers some time to think about their first seven matches in the league, and with one victory, one draw, and five defeats, Slaven Bilić and Co. are desperate for three points as they languish in 18th place in the Premier League.
For Palace, after the opening two defeats to West Brom and Tottenham, Alan Pardew’s men have gone unbeaten in five, winning 11 of 15 possible points. This is their longest run of form since December 2015, when they went unbeaten in six matches.
In that time, Christian Benteke – one of the (many) striker targets West Ham enquired over this summer – has scored three goals. Since Benteke’s Premier League debut in 2012, only Arsenal target-man Olivier Giroud has more headed goals, with 19. Winston Reid and James Collins will, in all likelihood, have their hands full come Saturday.
Captain Scott Dann is out with a hamstring injury, but the Eagles hope their key man will be back in time to partner James Tomkins in central defense. Andros Townsend also seems rejuvenated since his move from Newcastle United, most notably curling in this fine effort against Stoke last month.
However, a potential loss to Palace may not be the thing that hurts Hammers the most; instead, it might be Tomkins in a Crystal Palace kit. The summer sale of the 27-year-old center-back drew questions from fans and pundits alike, especially when no replacement was brought in during the window.
Instead, the move suggested expanded roles for Reece Oxford and Reece Burke, which has yet to happen under Bilić. Burke was sent to Wigan Athletic on loan, while Oxford has not made a Premier League appearance this season.
The Hammers picked up a point last time out against Middlesbrough solely due to the brilliance of Dimitri Payet, who dribbled through five defenders before beating Victor Valdes for the lone West Ham goal.
The Frenchman appears to be a man on a mission. Hopefully, that mission involves saving West Ham as opposed to earning a one-way ticket from Heathrow to Madrid or Paris. Either way, he must carry the Hammers until the rest find their feet. The midfielder also scored and assisted for France during Les Bleus’ World Cup Qualifiers this weekend.
As ever, there are striker problems. Injuries appear to be the real West Ham Way, and Andy Carroll is fully immersed in the treatment facility, but could see a return in two weeks. West Ham’s record signing André Ayew has begun his rehabilitation following a thigh injury he suffered 35 minutes into his debut. The missing man, Diafra Sakho, could be back within three weeks following a back injury.
However, if Bilić was willing to gamble (and he should, considering his team’s in 18th place, and his name might be next on the chopping block), he would give Ashley Fletcher or Antonio Martinez a go up top. Simone Zaza and Jonathan Calleri have had their shots and, well, missed them.
Martinez has scored 7 goals this season as part of the U23 squad. Granted, it’s a huge jump in class between the two levels, but the 19-year-old striker’s performance does warrant the opportunity.
Fletcher’s been given limited game time, but his performances show why he was supposed to be next-in-line at Manchester United. His loan to Barnsley gave Marcus Rashford his chance, and you know the rest of that story.
The Michail Antonio striker experiment is likely over after his outing against Middlesbrough, especially now that Gökhan Töre has been ruled out for up to five weeks with a quad injury. The timing is right for at least one half of action for Martinez and Fletcher.
Perhaps just as much of a risk for Bilić will be dropping captain Mark Noble or Cheikhou Kouyate, but after Pedro Obiang’s all-around performance against Middlesbrough, it should happen to ensure the Spaniard’s place in the starting XI.
It became clear very quickly that the deep-lying midfielder was the necessary cushion between the midfield and defense, an area West Ham have not adequately covered this season. Obiang led the Hammers with three tackles and 42 passes, while also adding four interceptions, 60 touches, and two clearances to his commanding display.
With Payet, Antonio, and Manuel Lanzini, there is enough attacking midfield talent to get on the score line. But the danger of too many midfield attackers is that it can leave the defense exposed.
Compiling statistics with the help of squakwa.com, Noble is superior to Obiang in terms of pass completion and key passing, but defensively, Obiang takes both Kouyate and Noble with relative ease.
The Hammers’ poor form can hardly be blamed solely on the move to the Olympic Stadium, as seen with the 4-2 shellacking West Brom gave the Hammers at The Hawthorns. But we shall see if the Hammers can get a result against Tomkins and Benteke of Crystal Palace.
A negative-nine goal differential through seven games is not the whole story of the defense. The sheer number of goals given away causes the most worry. The Hammers have now conceded the most goals in the Premier League, 17, while scoring eight themselves.
Losing matches 4-2 and 3-0 raise questions about the backbone of this team – that is, being able to stop the floodgates after conceding one goal. It certainly wasn’t possible against Southampton, and the Watford debacle showed that even a 2-goal cushion is not always enough.
Aaron Cresswell has already returned to training, even participating in a training match over the weekend. His return to action could come as quickly as this Saturday would be most welcome for West Ham. Not only is Cresswell a dangerous option on the overlap, but he is also a sturdy defender.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 1-1 West Ham. Another draw is another point towards safety. Not that Bilic should take a page from Sam Allardyce’s book, but while the Hammers heal up, a draw is well worth the short trip to south London. We fully expect Benteke to mug off all West Ham fans with a fabulous goal, but goal-machine Antonio should save the Hammers by popping in a Payet cross late. The players cannot give up, and this match will be a good test to see the state of player morale, and the state of Bilic’s job security.