The disappointment of last Sunday’s surrender to Man City was washed away by the tidal wave of Newcastle’s dismantling of Bournemouth on Wednesday evening. In what was undoubtedly Newcastle's best performance of the season we played like a team full of confidence and a team free from the worry of relegation, focusing only on what’s was ahead of us, rather than behind. Bournemouth were woeful but make no mistake about it, we were excellent and fully deserved the win and plaudits that followed for such an assured performance.
Our opponents on Sunday also enjoyed a great win on Wednesday after registering a 3-2 victory over Chelsea which was a much-needed boost to their own survival hopes after David Moyes’ side had lost their opening two fixtures of the restart. The win moved them up to 16th in the table on 30 points which is three points above the relegation zone and they will be looking to take this momentum into what looks like a decent run of games for them.
After spending £70m in the summer West Ham had a poor start to the season under Manuel Pellegrini. In a run of results that started with our 2-3 win over them at the Olympic Stadium in November, Pellegrini’s side went on to lose eight out of nine games. This culminated in the West Ham manager being sacked on 28th December and David Moyes being appointed two days later to begin his second stint in charge of the Hammers. Moyes inherited a squad that sat 17th in the league and just one point above the relegation zone and things haven’t improved massively under the Scotsman as they’ve won only three league games since he took over.
It’s in defense where the majority of West Ham’s troubles have been this season as the Hammers have conceded 56 goals - the third worse defensive record in the league - with only Bournemouth and Norwich conceding more. One area they struggle in the most is defending against dribblers – they have the worst record in the league for the percentage of dribblers tacked, managing just a 20% success rate (which must have a certain French winger licking his lips). The Hammers’ defense has actually gotten worse since Moyes took over with an average goal conceded per game of 1.84 (24 games) compared to 1.66 (19 games) under Pellegrini.
They have a better record going forward and are 11th in the table for both xG and goals scored. West Ham have outperformed their NPxG (expected goals minus penalties) so far this season by +0.4 which suggests they’ve been efficient in front of goal when they’ve had opportunities. This makes sense when you look at their shooting stats: they have the best shots on target percentage (40.8%) which is +3.3% above second place Manchester United, and they take the third highest amount of shots inside the 18-yard box.
Vs. Chelsea and what to look out for
Since the restart, Moyes has set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with captain Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček as the double pivot in midfield. Rice is usually the one to sit back, collecting opposition clearances, breaking up play and feeding the ball into the more attacking West Ham Players. Souček, who was signed on loan from Slavia Prague in January, is the more advanced of the two midfielders and likes to push up when his team are attacking. The Czech Republic international won man of the match in their win against Chelsea and registered an 8.6 rating from WhoScored.com.
Souček is 6’4’’ and used his height and aerial ability to cause problems for Chelsea from set pieces, scoring twice from corners (the first was ruled out by VAR for being marginally offside). Newcastle need to be awake to the threat on Sunday as one-time target Jarod Bowen has a good delivery from set pieces and West Ham carry an aerial threat due the likes of Souček and the two central defenders, Ogbonna and Diop. These three players usually congregate around the penalty spot before the kick is taken, then Souček will peel off to the far post with Diop moving towards the front post looking to flick it on.
Another key player in their victory against Chelsea was Michail Antonio who played as a loan striker and registered an 8.5 rating for the game. Antonio caused the Chelsea defenders problems all night with his strength and power and he nearly scored after 13 minutes when West Ham’s high-pressing forced Chelsea to surrender possession in a dangerous area. Antonio was the crucial piece in the Hammers’ game plan, holding the ball up well and bringing his teammates into play. The powerful player had the most touches of the ball for his team and was rewarded for his efforts, scoring their second goal, and assisting Andriy Yarmolenko’s 89th minute winner in what was a textbook counterattack.
Style of play comparison
Although three games are a small sample size (and two of them were against Spurs and Chelsea) West Ham have been more direct and counterattacking since the restart which is what I expect to see from them today. Against Chelsea they also stepped up their pressing which gave Frank Lampard’s side less time on the ball and forced them into making errors. In West Ham’s two games prior to Chelsea (Wolves and Spurs) they allowed 24.37 passes per defensive action (PPDA) but against Chelsea this reduced to 15.64.
Newcastle’s style of play has changed dramatically since Bruce switched to four at the back at the end of February. In the five league games since, Newcastle have seen a lot more of the ball averaging 51% possession, which is 10% higher than our season average. The extra possession has allowed the team to do more with the ball, resulting in an increase in passes per possession (+0.88) and a reduction in our long ball % (-0.4%).
With five at the back, we used to drop off and invite pressure into our defensive third whereas now we’re dictating the tempo of the game more and pressuring teams when we don’t have the ball. For me personally, one of the most frustrating aspects of our play until recently is how easy we made it for opposition teams to play the game their way. Looking at PPDA Newcastle allow the most passes per defensive action in the league (17.78) but, in the Villa and Bournemouth games, we’ve reduced this to 13.16 which is a big improvement. A good example of this increased pressing was our first goal against Bournemouth where Sean Longstaff (who ran his heart out before injuring himself) hunted down Jefferson Lerma and forced the error which led to the goal - I’d like to see more of this in today’s game.
Team News and Possible line ups
West Ham look like they’ll be without top scorer Sébastien Haller due to a hip injury so I expect to see Antonio leading the line again after his display the other night. Brazilian winger Felipe Anderson also remains a doubt having injured himself in the warm-up before the Chelsea game but, in better news for West Ham, Mark Noble has been training this week and looks set for a return to against the Magpies.
Newcastle have some injury concerns of their own with Sean Longstaff ruled out of today’s game with a hamstring injury and there are concerns over Jamaal Lascelles after he picked up an ankle injury against Bournemouth. Joelinton also has a question mark over his fitness and is nursing a calf strain so he will be assessed before the game and may only make the bench. If the skipper does miss out, Bruce only has two fit centre-backs to choose from meaning Fabian Schär will be drafted in alongside Fernandez. This does concern me slightly as we’ll miss Lascelles physicality against Antonio, and I can see Schär coming off second best in that battle if he’s not careful.
With such a packed schedule it’s hard to guess who will be rested but one man that probably needs it is Saint-Maximin. The Frenchman has started every game since the restart, however, with the form he’s in at the moment you want him to start every match and Bruce will be tempted to play him again today. Two others I hope to see starting are Shelvey and Bentaleb because I thought they ran the show against Bournemouth. They complemented each other well with Bentaleb sitting deep and keeping it neat and tidy, whilst Shelvey got about the pitch and dictating our tempo, which is what he does best,
Newcastle sit on 42 points, just 3 points off 9th place Arsenal – a top half finish is within our grasp if we continue to pick up wins. In our remaining six games we still must play City, Spurs and Liverpool so it’s games like today which represent our best chance of securing three points. Against Bournemouth the lads played with a confidence and freedom we’ve not seen from them this season, and my only concern is that this could turn into complacency now the task of securing our Premier League status is complete.
West Ham on the other hand are only 3 points above the relegation zone and will be desperate to take something from the game. David Moyes’ men will be buoyed by their shock victory against Chelsea in mid-week and will be looking to earn a result today. However, If we play like we did on Wednesday, then I see no reason why we won’t be celebrating another three points this afternoon which would see Steve Bruce surpass Rafa Benitez’s haul from 2017/18. That would give the pundits something to talk about! (yawn). HOWAY THE LADS!