Updated: Sep 12, 2020
As I peruse the West Ham forums (like I often do when researching a game preview) I’m struck by the familiar sense of a fan-base completely at odds with their club ownership. Indeed, there’s been plenty of back and forth between Newcastle and West Ham fans over recent seasons about who has the worse owner, a weird kind of pissing contest. On the face of it, you’d say spending over £100m on new players last season automatically puts West Ham’s David Sullivan ahead of Mike Ashley on the benevolent owner scale. Both clubs are hall of fame members when it comes to being in the ‘soap opera’ bracket of PL clubs – destined never to fulfill their undoubted potential, too busy shooting themselves in the foot.
In the latest episode of Eastenders the villainous David Sullivan and his sneaky sidekick Karen Brady have sold one of the club’s best academy products from under the feet of manager David Moyes. The sale of Grady Diangana for £18m to West Brom has caused uproar, and not just with the fans – Mark Noble, the West Ham captain (along with several other senior players) took to Twitter to air his frustrations on Saturday in a thinly veiled attack directed towards the club's executives. This transfer has shades of Andy Carroll to Liverpool about it and it’s clear from reading West Ham’s pre-season match reports and supporter comments that they were expecting a big season from Diangana. The Frenchman may still enjoy a good a season, but it’ll be in the white and blue stripes of West Brom and not the famous claret and blue.
The statement West Ham issued to quell the rebellion caused by Diangana’s sale spoke about having to reluctantly sell to finance incoming transfers. In the week leading up to a new season this is exactly the type of thing you do not want to see… unless you support the team who plays them first (that’s us by the way). The London club have only managed to sign one player so far this summer – making Thomas Souchek’s loan permanent for £14.58m. David Moyes will be frustrated, not just at the sale of Diangana (they’re not exactly short of attacking players), but also the lack of transfer funds. He is desperate to strengthen in central defense, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given his team were 19th for expected goals against last season, and has made a £27m bid for Burnley’s James Tarkowski.
Until last Saturday West Ham had enjoyed a good pre-season with victories over Ipswich Town, Wycombe Wanderers and Brentford. The goals had been flowing with French striker Sebastian Haller scoring a hat trick against Ipswich and Thomas Souchek and Jarrod Bowen also getting among the goals. However, West Ham and Newcastle don’t just have bad owners in common, they’ve also both conceded 5 goals against Championship opposition during pre-season. In the fallout of the Diangana sale West Ham were beaten 3-5 by newly relegated Bournemouth with a defensive display that should leave Newcastle’s attacking players rubbing their hands.
But, you know what they say about people in glass houses… and Newcastle haven’t exactly enjoyed a stellar pre-season themselves, however, the mood music at both clubs is different following a rare purple patch in the transfer market for Mike Ashley. The arrivals of Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis have bolstered Steve Bruce’s squad considerably and, dare I say it, even managed to get the Toon fans excited for the new season (?)
On paper, West Ham have a lot of quality in their expensively assembled squad. The first player that stands out is a name NUFC fans are familiar with after being heavily linked with him in January, that's former Hull City star Jarrod Bowen. Bowen went on to play a big role in keeping the Hammers in the PL last season, helping them to win 12 points from their last 10 games, with Bowen scoring 1 and assisting 4. He’s had a good pre-season too, netting 4 goals overall with 2 of them coming against Bournemouth on Saturday. Bowen is now one of West Ham’s main creative threats playing as a wide forward on the right; only Andriy Yarmolenko had a better xA per 90 for West Ham last season. The Hammers like to get the ball out wide early to Bowen high up the pitch allowing him to deliver an early cross into the box for players like Michail Antonio to run on to. Assuming new signing Jamal Lewis gets the nod on Saturday then the Northern Ireland international will have to be switched on to Bowen and careful not to over commit going forward.
Michail Antonio is another player we need to be wary of after he enjoyed a brilliant end to last season scoring 8 goals in 9 games, including 4 against Norwich and a goal against Newcastle at St. James’Park. Antonio finished the season as the Hammers’ top scorer and made his claim to starting the season as first choice center-forward rather than his more familiar wide role, however, the Hammers’ fit again £45m striker Sebastian Haller will have different ideas. Regardless of what position he plays, Antonio is a handful for every defense he comes up against; he’s as strong as an Ox and has an eye for goal, so we need to be vigilant and not allow him to bully us off the ball - Lascelles physicality will be key in this battle.
Having watched all the available footage from West Ham’s pre-season games there is one glaring weakness which, luckily for us, plays to one of our strengths. Almost every goal they conceded during pre-season came down their right side and highlighted a problem position for them – right-back. I’ve pulled out some video footage below which shows Ryan Fredericks at fault for a couple of goals against Brentford and Bournemouth followed by 20-year-old right-back Ben Johnson being at fault for another 2. Johnson was withdrawn after only 27 minutes against the Cherries due to a woeful display which won’t have done the youngster’s confidence any good and it remains to be seen who David Moyes will start there on Saturday – whoever it is, they will not be relishing the prospect of defending against Allan Saint-Maximin, that’s for sure.
It really has been a great week to be a Newcastle fan (you don’t get to say that very often) and I’m excited to see what our new signings can bring to the squad. It sounds like Hendrick, Wilson and Lewis are all in contention to start against West Ham and I would expect to see at least our new striker and left-back on the team sheet when it’s announced at 7pm on Saturday. As for Ryan Fraser, he certainly sounded mentally ready to play and it’s great to see that kind of desire, but he may just miss out due to lack of match fitness, although I’m hopeful he’ll make the bench at least. Elsewhere, we know Clark, Dummett and Gayle will all miss out due to injury and Bruce is "sweating" over knocks picked up by Shelvey and Ritchie (although it sounds like they will be OK).
Beyond who makes the starting 11, I’m really hoping to see us establish our own style of play this season. We spent large parts of last year playing a hybrid of Rafa’s low block compact defensive football and Bruce’s more ‘expansive’ style which didn't make us solid defensively, nor more potent in attack – in fact, our performances in both areas declined significantly compared to the previous season. There were positive signs after the restart indicating Bruce had found a system that works with the games against Sheffield United and Bournemouth the two high-water marks.
The additions of Wilson, Fraser and Lewis on top of ASM, Almiron and Joelinton give Steve Bruce the tools to make Newcastle into a deadly counter-attacking force. To do this, we need to work on our pressing as we were just too passive last year and allowed teams to walk through us at times. It’s interesting that Wilson was the most aggressive forward for pressures in the attacking third which is a stark contrast with Newcastle who made the least amount of pressures in that area of the pitch. The positive result of successful pressing is to win the ball back and transition into attack. The higher up the pitch you win the ball, the quicker it is to get through on goal - and, with the players we now have in the team, deploying a higher press could be a successful tactic for us.
I think we’ll see both managers play with the same 4-2-3-1 formation they used for the majority of the post-lockdown games. David Moyes is also notorious for going with tried and tested players so I expect we’ll see a very similar team to the one we faced back in July - this was by far Moyes’ most successful run of results with West Ham, so why would he change it? The only concern for Scotsman will be Summer signing Thomas Souchek who hasn’t trained much this week due to under-going Covid testing after being on international duty. The 6’4’’ Czech international has been given the all clear but Moyes may opt to leave him out due to lack of training time. Souchek would be a big miss for West Ham after a successful second half of last season in which he scored 3 goals in 13 appearances.
Even with the takeover rearing it’s ugly head again, Newcastle should go into this game feeling positive after a week of good progress in the transfer window. West Ham on the other hand go into the game in disarray with all sorts of rumors of player and manager unrest behind the scenes. This is a great time to play the Hammers and a good opportunity to begin the season with 3 points away from home. As has been said elsewhere, Callum Wilson loves scoring against them (7 in 8) so this should be the perfect game for his debut - let’s hope we see him opening his Magpies account on Saturday night.
HOWAY THE LADS!
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Photo credit: MICHAEL REGAN / Contributor
Video credit: West Ham, Bournemouth