Steve Bruce and David Moyes are set to meet for the 22nd time in their career on Sunday at St James' Park, this is the second ever time that these two are meeting on matchday 1 with the last fixture ending in a 2-0 victory for Bruce's mags. Bruce is currently unbeaten against Moyes since his return to West Ham with Newcastle winning two and drawing one with an impressive 7:4 aggregate score.
What happened last time?
Bruce fielded a flat 3-5-2 and set up his side to sit off and play counter-attack.
This invited pressure from the opposition and allowed West Ham's wing-backs to push high which left gaps in behind. This particular approach faired well against West Ham who aren't a possession based team, their centre backs lack pace and are shaky on the ball, in reaction to this Allan Saint-Maximin was generally our furthest man forward, his role was to apply pressure on the opposition centre backs or wait for Newcastle to transition the ball and breakaway on the counter-attack.
Newcastle crafted 51% of their attacks from the left wide/half-space areas, Matt Ritchie staying the furthest wide giving himself a yard or two to put a cross in or Miguel Almiron and Joelinton making themselves available for a pass.
There were some issues with the 3–5-2 in that there was no natural number 6 on the field, without Isaac Hayden who can be an aggressive presser in the defensive third, the midfielders on the pitch were often caught out walking towards the man on the ball, thus giving him time and space to do some damage and this is how West Ham scored their first goal. A penalty kick off the post by Lingard would reward their second. Newcastle’s goals were fortunate, an own goal from Diop and a spill from Fabianski from a corner which enabled the ball to freely drop to an unmarked Joelinton to put away the second from close range. It was the 3rd goal that was from a well executed counter-attack, with Matt Ritchie owning that left wide space, whipping in a dangerous cross across the penalty area which was met by the head of the substitute, Joe Willock. We are expected to have all of our centre back options available, my preferred back 3 would be Schar, Lascelles and Dummett. Jacob Murphy who has made the wing-back role his own offers a good attacking alternative while Matt Ritchie on the left can whip in dangerous crosses from the flank.
NEWCASTLE - 3-5-2
Newcastle will likely line-up in the 3-5-2 formation, in both build-up and pressing phases. When defending the formation generally goes into a 5-3-2 or a 5-4-1 low block with the wing-backs tucking in and either ASM or Wilson being the furthest forward. While Bruce has experimented with different formations specifically against West Ham, we seem to be settling in the 3-5-2 as it was used during the last nine league matches of the 20/21 season and through every pre-season match so far.
With the addition of Joe Willock who brought an abundance’s of energy and much needed end product to the central midfield, partnered with Shelvey and Almiron at the tip of midfield will bring more control and assertiveness to what will be a tough midfield battle. Saint-Maximin will be a key player for Newcastle, his pace quick feet make him a proper handful for defenders to stay on top of, this skill set on the counter would prove especially difficult against towering but slow centre backs, Diop and Dawson.
While Newcastle nor West Ham are a possession based side, Bruce will still set up his team to be conservative forcing West Ham to play possession luring them into a trap where we can launch a counter-attack or press the backline into making a mistake. Bruce’s team have been particularly set up to defend in transition, when the ball is won, it is often distributed quickly to the wide areas to a wing-back or ASM. The robust approach will be effective against players that like to carry the ball, Lanzini, Fornals and Bowen.
WEST HAM - 4-2-3-1
David Moyes has been consistent with his formation, primarily playing a 4-2–3-1 but against Newcastle, he has shifted to a back 3, possibly with the intent to match Newcastle man for man. West Ham recruited well last season with the additions of Lingard on loan, Soucek on a permanent paired with Declan Rice resulted in one of the top midfields in the league. West Ham are now without Jesse Lingard and they don’t look like resigning him or a replacement which suggests Pablo Fornals may go back to playing through the middle.
In goal, Fabianski was their no.1 and the signing of Areola on loan who has good distribution and was one of the league stand out keepers in the league last season. At centre-back, Craig Dawson and Fabian Balbuena have battled for a place alongside Angelo Ogbonna.
During the last meeting, West Ham played with width by instructing the wing-backs to stretch to the width of the pitch, primarily crafting attacking opportunities in the wide areas, piling bodies in the area creating overloads and creating space for crossing opportunities. When defending West Ham will tuck in their wing-backs and congest and central spaces to negate the creation of any dangerous opportunities,
To combat Newcastle’s defensive superiority, West Ham may need to rely on quick switches of play and quick passing. An approach that isn’t their first choice but they have some quality passers in their side.
In conclusion, it's going to be a tight battle, both teams are more comfortable without the ball and prefer to play on the counter-attack. West Ham will likely be the ones that will control possession while Newcastle will set up a trap where they can look to hit West Ham's defence with blistering pace.
Pictured: Allan Saint-Maximin dazzling the West Ham defence during the last meeting in April.
The man to watch will be Allan Saint-Maximin which will be no real surprise to us Geordies, The electric, tricky and at times unplayable French winger will be the key to victory on Sunday. Can we get him in the positions high up the pitch where he can do damage to the West Ham defence, which lacks the pace and mobility to cope with Allan's magic feet. Can he follow the advice handed to him (In no uncertain terms.) By Callum Wilson in a recent interview with club Legend Alan Shearer where he implored Saint, to YES, take on defenders but, to cut out the repetitive dribble he can be guilty of on occasion and instead to lift his head earlier and find our new number 9 to do what he does best, and finish the move that Allan can create. We know he has the ability and this game-changer will be chomping at the bit to impress France coach Didier Deschamps for the upcoming World Cup next year, providing assists and grabbing goals in the Premier League will be crucial! And the stern national coach will not be impressed by dribble numbers but will look for goals and assists for the likes of WIlson. Wilson has a great record against West Ham so don't rule him out of stealing the show also, but Allan in my view will be the stand out against a team in the Hammers who will be petrified that the Frenchman will be on his game. I see a goal in this for Maxi but I also see him providing moments of magic and envisage him getting an assist with the chaos he can create... watch this space!
ROUTE TO VICTORY/KEY BATTLES:
There have been goals in this fixture in recent seasons and we go into Sunday having not lost in the previous five meetings, scoring eleven goals and conceding six, so I expect the trend to continue. Expect goals! I really fancy us in this one and would go for a 2-0 home win, Wilson and Saint-Maximin to grab the goals.
The way to hurt West Ham is to be quick out the blocks, using our pace at the top of the pitch to our advantage, utilising the trickery of Saint-Maximin and combining this with the pace of Miguel Almiron or Ryan Fraser depending on who we choose to start. Wilson looks set to start having shaken off the knock he suffered in pre-season which is a massive plus for us given his record against Sunday's opposition. His pace, strength and hold up play will be vital to a positive outcome and I back him to be on the scoresheet.
The middle of the park will be where the balance of the game will be tipped for either side. West Ham did not strengthen in this area and in fact weakened having not attempted to re-sign Jese Lingard who was sensational during his loan spell last term. They are however physical and strong in central midfield with Declan Rice as a ball winner and Thomas Soucek as a box to box powerhouse who can pop up with vital goals, so whoever our partnership is on Sunday they will need to be wise of the Czech giants late surges into our box. Shelvey and Hayden will be the likely duo to face up against the West Ham pairing who will most likely add a more creative player such as Lanzini or Benrahma in the number 10 role so picking up on their runs will also be a task to watch out for. If the dotted line has not been signed by the deadline which is 12PM Friday by Mr. Joe Willock I do expect it to be the familiar shape with Jonjo and Hayden as deep central midfielders.
As for West Ham's attack against our backline and fresh-faced goalkeeper (Freddie Woodman), It will likely be Michail Antonio spearheading the attack with Yarmolenko and Bowen providing company either side of him on the flanks. Our three central defenders and wingbacks won't have it easy by any stretch of the imagination especially if Yarmolenko comes into the season with the same hot streak he showed in an impressive showing in the Euro's, but the way to keep them quiet is to press and give them no time on the ball at the back and nullify them higher up the pitch which would, in turn, stop the likes of Soucek ghosting into our area unchecked. Woodman looks set for a debut for the first time since joining the Toon way back in 2014 with Darlow arriving back to training late following a horrendous COVID battle which hospitalized our usual stand-in for first-choice goalkeeper Martin Dubravka who is set to miss the first few weeks of the season after ankle surgery for an injury he suffered during the Euro's. It will be a big step up for Freddie who is inexperienced at this level but I back him to impress. He is young but he has already impressed in his short career in football, winning the golden glove during England's 2017 under 17's World cup win. He has also impressed during his loan spells away, particularly at Swansea where he has spent the last two campaigns in the Championship, winning many plaudits and gaining a good reputation for himself as a very reliable goalkeeper, one with a massive future. Steve Bruce has heaped the praise in pre-season onto Woodman who featured in several of our games following the loss of our two more experienced stoppers. This leads me to believe he will get the nod ahead of Mark Gillespie on Sunday.
Pictured: Freddie Woodman sharpening up for his big debut in training.
I am sure we are all excited to be back inside St. James' Park on Sunday, especially given the torrid situation we all found ourselves in with the pandemic putting a holt on a normal day to day life. Match-day will provide supporters with a fresh dose of experiencing excitement, a reason to be hopeful and a little bit of normalcy back after so long away. Not to sound corny but it really does mean so much to so many. Back to church on Sunday! I really do fancy us to get a good result and the perfect start to what has been an anxiety-riddled off-season with arbitrations, never-ending transfer sagas and endless views of Joe Willocks Instagram stories... But I am going for a 2-0 win. I just can't wait to be breathless from climbing those seemingly never-ending stairs to my seat, with my son to stand and gaze at the beautiful hallow turf beneath me feeling just as excited as him to be back at our true home, to watch the mags play some football... Epic.