It’s one of those games that seem to come by for us every now and again. A poor run, a huge defeat or two, and suddenly West Ham are in desperate need of a win. We’ve been here many times before.
For all his faults, Slaven Bilic had the knack for getting the big result when he needed it most to take the pressure off. There was the 1-0 against Burnley last Christmas when an awful run had put us in the relegation fight; there was the 3-0 against Crystal Palace when the saga surrounding Dimitri Payet’s transfer threatened to derail the club; there was the 1-0 against Swansea after a run of six straight defeats had put us in deep trouble; and finally there was the 1-0 over Tottenham that sealed our survival and bought the Croat another season.
The game against Southampton seems different. It is much bigger – partly because of the off-the-pitch context of the protests, the owners, the stadium and the fact that if we concede the first goal things could get ugly. But the main reason for the huge feelings of nerves West Ham fans will be waking up with is that this is 17th vs 18th: a bona-fide relegation six-pointer, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years in East London, certainly not since we’ve been back in the Premier League.
I truly believe that this is a winner-stays-up match. Therefore it’s impossible to underestimate how big the points will be today. For the Hammers, we’ve been on a truly rotten run for the last month, and the momentum gained by Moyes – as well as the plaudits he won for a more committed, organised team capable of scoring more goals – has completely vanished. A win would be vital for both confidence and the all-important points-tally, given the difficulty of fixtures to come. As for our opponents, they are sure to be boosted by the appointment of a new manager. If there’s one thing you can say about Mark Hughes from his playing and managerial career, it’s that he loves occasions like this.
This is also such a big game for us in that it’s difficult to see where else our points would come from between now and May. Southampton are currently on just short of one point per game. And teams fighting for survival usually expect to pick up more points at the end of the season. But given that not everyone will keep winning, I think we can reasonably expect the cut-off point this year to be somewhere around the 38-point mark. Therefore we’re looking at West Ham probably needing three wins to be sure. If we don’t win this, I’m not too sure where else we’re going to get those wins from.
Before the dreadful last month or so, Moyes had succeeded in building a team around a back-five that was both capable of defending well and creating chances going forward. Both of those attributes seem to have disappeared lately.
My ultimate desire would be for West Ham to play with a back four. But given how shockingly bad we were against Burnley when we shifted to a four, how far apart everyone was and how awful the communication was, I don’t think we’ll see one today, unless they’ve been working hard on one over the last three weeks.
For me, one of the most interesting questions will be whether Arthur Masuaku plays. I’m not his biggest fan at all. He seems to win praise for his dribbling but I find that 19 times out of 20 he runs down blind alleys and loses the ball, and then doesn’t make too much of an effort to track back. His close control and passing are at times woeful. I’d wouldn’t be unhappy to see Patrice Evra as part of a back three, with Aaron Cresswell at wing-back.
But I actually want Masuaku to play this one. A back-three with wing-backs shouldn’t actually be a back-five, as we seem to have thought it is all season. In a home game against a relegation rival you need an attacking threat. I think Masuaku should play because, while he’s not great, our team desperately lacks pace, width and attacking threat. He only gives us this sporadically, but it’s better than whatever else we have in that position.
Another thing I beg of Mr. Moyes is please, please don’t play Michail Antonio, one of our biggest threats to a defence, as a wing-back – a position which he clearly hates, and which nullifies all of his strengths. With that in mind, below is my team selection for today – one with Manuel Lanzini and one without:
Obviously, the fan sentiment and anger towards the board won’t just go away overnight. Much has been said and done over the last couple of weeks with lots of meetings and lots of promises. Personally on this I think we’ve heard it all before and will believe the board are committed to a measure of change when I see it.
Two things have really disappointed me from West Ham’s leadership over the last couple of weeks, which have served to strengthen, rather than soften my feelings towards the situation. The first is the stance the club has taken towards heighten security, police presence and ‘fan safety’. The number one concern of the ownership is clearly to show the media and the city of London that they’re acting tough.
Their rhetoric and action, specifically the way they speak of their own supporters, is frankly a disgrace. And it’s clear their desire is only to insulate themselves from further personal abuse and negative publicity surrounding pitch invasions. More of the same “the actions of fans is unacceptable, and we’re getting the police in to stop it”, rather than “we’re working to understand why the fans are so unhappy”. A huge opportunity wasted. They never learn and they still don’t get it.
The second is the sheer bombardment of propaganda from the club, demanding the fans get back on side as though we are to blame for our poor performances for the last two seasons rather than the clueless management structure. We’ve had PR team in overdrive, posting official interviews with the likes of Trevor Brooking, Mark Noble and Carlton Cole in a desperate attempt to appeal to the fans, videos of our former glories, fighting talk from the players and tough talk on ‘fan safety’.
It’s like the club is trying to shout as loud as it can to drown out the unrest, rather than try to engage with and deal properly with the problems. Let he who shouts the loudest be heard first, and all that.
I was particularly disappointed with Mark Noble’s interview. “Negativity can undoubtedly affect players’ concentration and confidence, as I believe it did in the second half against Burnley. We need you all, full-stop...”, it read.
I do think his overall point is valid, and echo the views of The H-List in his post last week, that we don’t want to be looking at ourselves in the Championship next year wondering if all this was worth it. Yet Noble’s message ought to have been “we know the fans love the club and we know you will get behind us”. Instead it came across as distrusting, blame-shifting and making us out to be incorrect in the views we have. Another opportunity for reconciliation of the last few weeks squandered.
Anyway, on to the game. Let’s get behind the team!
COME ON YOU IRONS