As West Ham prepare for their opening Premier League game of the 2018/19 season, tomorrow at Anfield, they will be aware their defensive performance will be vital. With Liverpool boasting attacking talent such as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and last season’s Premier League top scorer Mo Salah, the Hammers can expect their backline to be put under intense pressure. It is still unknown who Manuel Pellegrini will opt to deploy in the heart of his defence for the test, a decision which could prove to be very important.
Judging from pre season selections, the Chilean tactician will use a back four with Angelo Ogbonna the most likely name to feature. This means that summer signings Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena are expected to be fighting for a spot alongside the Italian, with both of them hoping to make their competitive debut in claret and blue.
Both of these men have similar skillsets, fitting in with Pellegrini’s blueprint. They are both comfortable on the ball and willing to pass it out from the back, which will help the team to steadily move up the pitch. Diop stands at 6 foot 3 inches, while Balbuena measures 6’1”. Their physical presence translates at both ends, as they are dominant in the way they defend and even got six goals each for their respective clubs last season.
Of the two newcomers, Diop was arguably the one who brought the most excitement upon his arrival in East London. His £22 million transfer fee was a club record, until Felipe Anderson joined just under a month later. At just 21-years-old the Frenchman has represented Toulouse 85 times and captained the Ligue 1 club, as well as featuring for his country at every level between U16 to U21.
Balbuena joined for a much more modest £3.5 million from Corinthians, having worked his way up from the Paraguayan lower leagues before plying his trade in Brazil. The 26-year-old has had success of his own in South America, winning the Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A and representing Paraguay’s national team seven times.
While it was the young Frenchman who arrived with high levels of hype surrounding him, it is arguably Balbuena who has had the better pre season. Since the Paraguayan’s arrival, he has been given more game time than Diop by Pellegrini. He also earned praise in the first of those matches, when he maintained a 100% pass completion rate in the 3-1 win against Aston Villa, something which could be important in Pellegrini’s proposed attacking style.
Despite this, many will expect Diop to be the man selected. He has played at a higher level than Balbuena has in the past and been consistently impressive, which could give him an advantage. However, the main contributing factor will surely be what Pellegrini has seen first hand in training and the pre season friendlies.
It is uncertain who will get to start the match. What is clear though, is that whoever gets the nod will have to be on top of their game if West Ham are to leave Anfield with their first points of the new campaign.
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