The Premier League table currently looks like a story of three clusters. In the top five positions, separated by four points between 24 and 28, are clubs that have shown exceptional form over a string of matches at least at some time during this first third of the season. Below them are a dozen average-performing teams bunched together between 11 and 19 points, and below these are the early relegation candidates between 6 to 10 points. This weekend in Premier League we will see a clash between Manchester United – a team desperate to move from the average performance zone into the top five positions and West Ham United, who will be desperate to avoid a return to the relegation zone.
Manchester United are fresh from a 4-0 thrashing of Feyenoord in the Europa League on Thursday night. While the second-tier European competition generally does not bode well for English teams on the following weekends, Man United have reasons to feel optimistic. The team that had scored just one league goal in the entire month of October, now has four in the last two league games. They have just scored four in Europe. Rooney, Zlatan, “Special Juan”, and thus far rusting Mkhitaryan all got on the goal sheet against Feyenoord. And all this happened at home, so there is no jet lag to deal with before the kick-off on Sunday. Add to all this the stat that Man United have not lost to West Ham at home since 2007 and it makes for a very confident home team awaiting the Hammers.
West Ham’s Europa campaign has long ended and after a torrid start to the season, it seemed that they were getting a bit in the groove. Draws against Boro and Stoke, along with wins against Crystal Palace and Sunderland have lifted them out of relegation zone but only by a point. In their last match, West Ham were quite good against Spurs for a large part of the game. But their defensive woes struck in the last few minutes and they ended up losing the match 3-2 at White Hart Lane. West Ham certainly have more things to be worried about – more injuries, their best defender suspended due to a needless red card in the last game, and an ineffective strike force. Dmitri Payet’s creativeness, Michail Antonio’s goal scoring form, and Mark Noble’s return from suspension are the few positives that West Ham can take solace in.
This fixture last season ended in a 0-0 draw, despite Man United dominating the possession (68-32) and shot stats (21-9). West Ham’s defense stood strong and Winston Reid was the best performer on the pitch. But both the teams have a much different look this season and despite the hosts’ recent scoring woes, it would be a bit of a surprise if this game also ended goalless.
Manchester United have only two players out injured – Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Mourinho will likely persist with the backline that earned a clean sheet against Feyenoord but bring De Gea back in the goal. Carrick might not start as the ageing midfielder has started two games in last five days and getting him to start three in seven days might be challenging. This could open the door for Maraoune Fellaini to join Herrera in the midfield. Mkhitaryan and Mata’s form might keep Rooney out of the starting lineup despite the uptick in his form.
For West Ham the suspension cycle continues as Mark Noble comes back in but Winston Reid – their best defender this season – will miss out due to his suspension. West Ham have a much longer injury list including Andy Carroll, Sam Byram, Gokhan Tore, and Arthur Masuaku. Bilic might have to call up James Collins to replace Reid. Noble might push Lanzini in to advanced midfield, which in turn could move either Sakho or Ayew to the bench.
- Man United have lost just two of their last 23 league games against the Hammers at home, winning 20 out of them.
- Rooney has been directly involved in 14 goals in last 13 appearances against West Ham (11 scored, 3 assists) but has not scored or assisted in the last three games between these teams. If he scores on Sunday, he will
- Michail Antonio has six goals in 12 appearances this season – all of them headers.
Despite their sixth position in the league, there is no doubt that Man United’s side is brimming with super stars. But West Ham are likely to present a stoic defense and to penetrate that defense, Man United will depend upon Zlatan Ibrahimovic to shoot with power at Adrian’s goal, while also providing knock downs to in-form Juan Mata or Mkhitaryan. West Ham lead the league in number of interceptions (20.9 per game) and that means the opportunities to thread through balls will be limited. At the same time, West Ham only win 17% of their aerial duels, indicating a weakness against crosses. This provides an ideal situation for Zlatan to score or assist, as he is likely to bully the Hammers’ defense, especially given that their best defender is suspended.
West Ham only have one genuine super star to bank on and if they are to do well, Payet needs to find his shooting shoes, because his creativeness is not being rewarded with quality finishes. Payet has provided a league high 43 key passes i.e. he has created 43 shooting chances but only four of those have been converted to goals. Irrespective of who leads the line for West Ham, if they have to start winning consistently, it is Payet who has to start shooting and scoring on a regular basis. For that to happen, he will have to make use of the slight fatigue Man United’s defenders are likely to be feeling due to the match on Thursday.
Despite Antonio’s heading threat and Payet’s creativeness, West Ham are unlikely to pose a major threat to Man United’s goal. Whatever threat comes up, will come from Payet’s passes and if Man United can mark him well and close him down fast enough, West Ham’s attack is likely to be blunt. At the same time, the changes in their defense would mean that they are slightly less settled and could be exploited by Man United, who would be desperate to continue their goal scoring form. I see this as a win for Manchester United.