A 4-0 defeat to open the season against Manchester United looked bad, but three points could never truly be expected after a stagnant preseason for West Ham. Two late goals doubled the scoreline and made the match appear more of a drubbing than it really was.
When West Ham travel to the south coast of England on Saturday to play Southampton, there will be two teams lacking in attacking production. The Saints’ scoreless draw against Swansea left much to be desired on their end, too.
But without key players in the side for the Hammers, such as Manuel Lanzini, Cheikhou Kouyate, Andy Carroll and Michail Antonio – though the latter is set to make his season debut this week – there were holes in a team that should comfortably finish in the middle of the Premier League table, if not challenge higher. That said, four costly mistakes led to four goals, and the attacking movement from the Irons wasn’t there to recover from that gap in score.
Continuing their away trot to begin the season, West Ham must cut out mistakes in their own defensive third – or have a bit of luck to prevent conceding – and increase the attacking threat.
With Antonio returning from last season’s hamstring injury and offseason recovery, there should be some aid in going on the front foot. And with striker Diafra Sakho making his first appearance last week for the Hammers since last April, an unlikely source could prove a boost alongside striker Javier Hernandez.
Southampton were near to the winning goal from the first minute while facing Swansea, when striker Manolo Gabbiadini headed a ball from a corner off the post. 28 shots later, the Saints finished with a point at home in a scoreless draw – finishing their sixth straight home match without scoring.
It continues struggles from the season before, when former manager Claude Puel led Southampton to one win and four goals in the last eight games before he was sacked. Now under Mauricio Pellegrino, the Saints need to buck the trend and must do it through Gabbiadini and midfielder Nathan Redmond.
Redmond led all scorers last campaign with seven goals, and Gabbiadini, who joined the Saints on the final day of the January transfer window, finished with four. The Italian striker scored in each of his first four matches, becoming the first player to do so with Southampton. But the 25-year-old was held goalless for his final eight matches.
To rekindle their goal-scoring ability, Southampton must find a way to get Gabbiadini back in form. The 25-year-old can find space and can finish a well-placed pass, but could benefit by playing off of a forward with a bigger presence, such as Charlie Austin, similarly as to how West Ham’s Javier Hernandez could prove lethal with Carroll or Sakho alongside.
It’s unclear where Andre Ayew is most adept at lining up. In his career, he’s played on both wings, as a striker and as an attacking midfielder. But after a solid first 10 minutes on the right wing Sunday against the Red Devils, he grew nearly invisible, not adding much to the game.
In fact, his statistics on Squawka are impressively bland. He had no shots, but his 83 percent passing wasn’t the worst on the team. He didn’t create a scoring chance, nor did he attempt a cross. He whiffed all three attempted tackles and failed to win even one of the seven aerial duels he jumped in on. The then-club record £20.5 million signing last summer likely played his way to the bench for the match at the St. Mary’s Stadium.
The answer, for the time being, could be Sakho to play alongside Hernandez. The Mexican star is capable of playing by himself up top, but was isolated far too much against Manchester United. Granted, the Hammers had to pack in tightly to weather the barrage laid against them. Starting Sakho alongside of Hernandez will relieve pressure on Chicharito to find space and create havoc in the box. Sakho provides a bigger frame while not compromising pace.
Sakho may not last an entire match, but a strong start from the Senegalese striker could resurrect his West Ham career after a promising start to his tenure, notching ten goals in 2014.
With two strikers in the lineup, manager Slaven Bilic would do well to keep more defensive options available in the midfield. After a rocky start to the season for midfielder Pedro Obiang, in which he completed 78 percent of his passes and missed four tackles in his defensive half, he should pick up his defensive duties after a breakout year last campaign.
Oft-criticized captain Mark Noble performed as the strongest holding midfielder last week, while also creating three scoring chances. Still, with only 29 percent tackle success, there is room for improvement for each of West Ham’s two holding midfielders.
To make way for an added striker, Edimilson Fernandez will be the odd-man-out of the central midfield. Despite creating one chance, he missed a clear opportunity before halftime to pull back level. But, off balance, he sent his shot straight to Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea.
On the wings, Marko Arnautovic and Antonio need to win the battle against accomplished fullbacks Ryan Bertrand and Cedric. Arnautovic was perhaps the liveliest player on either end of the pitch against the Red Devils. 15 minutes into the match, his sliding interception in West Ham’s box prevented an early scoring chance. He also had a shot saved and one hit the woodwork.
But the Austrian must have been working on delivery into the box during training this week, as he completed just one of six crosses. Putting the ball in the box is the first step, though, and at least he attempted to cross the ball, unlike Ayew.
Antonio may need time to get back to match speed, but if ready, he’s best when he takes on defenders in a foot race. If he can get past Bertrand and put a ball into the box, trust Hernandez to make it interesting. The striker is a poacher and knows how to finish in congested areas.
18-year-old Declan Rice played 40 minutes and impressed in the center of the park with two interceptions and 95 percent pass completion. With Kouyate injured, it would be good to see the Academy prospect receive more game time.
Perhaps the best outcome of the opening day defeat was goalkeeper Joe Hart’s response on Instagram.
“Hard work is the answer,” Hart wrote as his caption. “Thank you so much for the travelling support, we will make it up to you on Saturday. Very proud to play for your club.”
Despite conceding four goals, none were his fault. There was little he could do to stop Romelu Lukaku’s near post effort after a stunning through ball from Marcus Rashford put the Belgian behind center backs Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna. Later, Lukaku’s grazing header into the bottom corner was out of reach, and the two garbage time goals were aided by defensive letdowns.
While marking on Lukaku’s headed goal was poor and while Manchester United passed their way through the Hammers on three occasions, Bilic will likely employ the same backline. Ogbonna stepped up to intercept a pass across goal early in the match.
Pablo Zabaleta, on his Hammers competitive debut, played well enough. The Argentine fullback had an interception, four blocks and five clearances. On the opposite side, Arthur Masuaku had four clearances, two interceptions and two blocks.
Reid stood out with a 71 percent aerial duel win percentage, 50 percent tackle success, 3 interceptions, six clearances and three blocks.
Prediction: Southampton 1-1 West Ham
Neither team is up to full strength yet in the attack, so it will be hard to separate the pair. If the Hammers can aid Hernandez up top, they could get on the score sheet. Despite Southampton’s struggles up top, it seems inevitable that one or two mistakes will be made. It will be up to the Saints to take advantage of them.