The S J Chandos Column
Well, the squad did choose the Everton match to ‘click’ and produced a very good away performance and victory. I am sure that most Hammers fans felt a overwhelming sense of relief at the final whistle. As I stated in last week’s article, the club needed the result on a number of levels, not least of which was the need to take the ‘wind out of the sails’ of the media and social media negative feeding frenzy around our club. Even in the midst of such a notable away victory, Sky still felt the need to make the allegation about Perez supposedly refusing to warm up to come on as a substitute in the second half. Both Pellegrini and Perez have since refuted the allegation and that is the end of it. But it does demonstrate how our club appears to be the media’s current favourite PL target for controversial stories/headlines. At the end of the day, it is only sustained good performances and results will change that.
The result vindicated the selection of Rice and Obiang in a dual defensive midfield partnership. They really impressed and combined well with ‘old war horse’ Mark Noble in a more advanced midfield role. Both players deserve credit for recovering from underwhelming starts to the season (Rice’s substitution against Liverpool and Obiang’s initial non-selection) and are now underlining their obvious qualities. We all knew Obiang’s credentials in this role, but it is a relatively new one for Rice, after playing at centre-back in his debut season. The youngster has had to adjust to the demands of the role, but he is obviously a quick learner and that is one of the things that I like about Rice, his ability to learn his lessons and quickly put them in to practice. That is a sign of footballing intelligence and sheer class. All things being equal, Rice is going to become a top player and we need to ensure that he is signed to a new, long-term contract. So, my advice to the board is to stop quibbling about the £30,000 a week and get the deal done as soon as possible.
That said, one thing that does trouble me slightly is our current lack of overall strength-in-depth in midfield. With Wilshere’s reported ankle injury, we definitely lack options there if stretched. We are fine at present with Obiang-Rice- Noble, with Sanchez for cover, as long as they all stay fit. If not, then we could find ourselves in the grip of a injury crisis. What are the available options then? Utilise Zabaletta in midfield or draft in Oxford? In retrospect, was it the correct decision to loan out Cullen, Browne and Fernandes? We need to keep a watching brief on that situation.
The Everton win also underlined the true potential of Anderson, Arnautovic and Yarmolenko as our front three. We all know Arnautovic’s ability and he is almost proving a bargain buy at £25m. The truth is that in Arnautovic, we have a player who is easily a ‘top four’ type of quality striker. Hence, why Man Utd were actively sniffing around him in the summer. Respect to David Moyes, last season, for spotting the Austrian’s ability to play centrally and converting him from his accustomed wide role. We all know Yarmolenko’s track record and it was never really a gamble to sign him from Dortmand. He was obviously struggling at the beginning of the season from both his disrupted pre-season and the legacy of a lack of playing time in Germany last season. As a consequence, Yarmolenko had a bit of a ‘stop-start’ commencement to his West Ham career. However, he really demonstrated what he is all about on Sunday and his fitness and form (plus goal scoring) will only improve. Finally, Anderson illustrated the skill and technique at his command and the reasons why we paid a club record fee to Lazio for his signature. He appears most effective when directly running at defenders. When he does that he causes chaos in their ranks and they are forced to double mark him, which frees up extra space for his colleagues to exploit. Anderson probably needs to work on two aspects of his game, his decisions in making the key pass/assist and his finishing. There is little doubt that he can become a top class creative force, but can he also weigh-in with his share of goals? We shall see?
Another pleasing factor was the improved cohesion in defence. The defence obviously benefited from the assurance of Rice-Obiang playing in front of them, but they also looked more solid in their own right. Fabianski is proving a very reliable custodian and a presence that breeds confidence in his defenders. In addition, Diop looks stronger and more commanding with each appearance. Diop’s centre-back partner on this occasion, Balbuena, also looked solid and competent. Yes, he probably should have beaten Sigurdsson to the header, for Everton’s goal, but apart from that he did not put a foot wrong. I had anticipated that Pellegrini would go with a Diop-Ogbonna CB partnership and that could yet emerge as the preferred option. Nevertheless, it is always good to have strength in-depth and competition for places, although I have a feeling that CB selection this season could become a case of Diop plus one other.
With regard to the full-backs, I must admit that I prefer Fredericks-Cresswell as a combination. However, you can not knock either Zabaletta or Masuaku on the basis of Sunday’s performance. At the end of the day, it is very much a squad game these days and the name of the managerial game is using the resources available in the squad to the best effect over the course of the entire season. And it is almost a certainty that both Fredericks and Cresswell will get their fair share of game time this season.
In terms of other squad members that have not hitherto featured much, one can only hope that they buckle down and fight for a starting slot and prove their point on the pitch. I am principally thinking of the likes of Perez and Hernandez. They are both very talented strikers and when their chance comes they need to be ready to grab it with both hands. That will give Pellegrini the type of selection headache that managers welcome. In that respect, I like the attitude of Antonio, who has reportedly stated his determination to play himself back in to his best form and secure more playing time. That is the type of positive attitude we want to see right throughout the squad.
Finally, having put the Toffees to the sword, we now face a tough (home) double-header against Chelsea and Man Utd. As stated, we saw the side ‘click’ last Sunday – now we need to see something else – consistency. That needs to be the objective. We need to demonstrate that we have turned a corner and can replicate or even supersede the Everton performance. As a challenge, both matches are a step up from the Toffees, but that is what it is all about – pitting yourself against the PL top four and getting results.
They are admittedly very tough back-to-back fixtures, but the performances/results should tell us something definitive about the mettle of Pellegrini’s Hammers. I am going to be uncharacteristically cautious and predict two very entertaining score draws! COYI.