EPL Player of the Week – Javier Hernandez (West Ham)

hernandezWest Ham have been having a fair to middling season in truth. At times criticised for poor performances, the Hammers have nonetheless staved off any threat of a relegation scrap thus far and find themselves ninth in the Premier League table. While they sit quite a distance from the European places – indeed, points-wise they are closer to the drop zone – they have managed to pull some decent results out of the bag, and this past weekend’s thriller at home against Huddersfield could be labeled many things, but never boring! Manuel Pellegrini has used his experience and past success in English football (one Premier League title and two League Cup trophies) to instill a sense of purpose throughout the side.

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EPL Game of the Weekend – West Ham vs Huddersfield

westhamhuddersfieldLife really can be cruel at times. Sometimes, no matter what you try and do, things just don’t come off – nothing works, and all you are left with is frustration and confusion. Depending on which side of the London Stadium you were sitting in on Saturday, that could be either the exact opposite of what happened, or the embodiment of your weekend. For the neutral of course, while West Ham taking on Huddersfield may not necessarily seem like the most must-watch game of the weekend, this was an absolute cracker. It could be argued that, like West Ham fans, the neutrals felt the opposite of the aforementioned frustration. Huddersfield, however, really look in danger – they somehow managed to claw defeat from the grasp of victory, and hopes of a miracle continue to fade with each passing match. Continue reading

EPL Best XI – Week 31

nobleThere was only half a round of games in the Premier League this past weekend, what with FA Cup action also going on, and so with just ten teams taking part picking a best XI may be slightly different to usual. Sunday’s action was fun-packed, as Everton raised some eyebrows by beating Chelsea 2-0 at Goodison Park – their first home victory since mid-January – putting a big dent in Chelsea’s top-four ambitions. Liverpool were tested more than many will have been expecting at Craven Cottage, a late James Milner penalty putting them top of the table with a 2-1 win against Fulham. On Saturday, Bournemouth played out a 2-2 draw at home to Newcastle, Leicester won 2-1 at Burnley and West Ham beat Huddersfield in a 4-3 thriller.

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Michail Antonio is having a brilliant start to 2019

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When Michail Antonio gets going with the ball at his feet he’s pretty hard to stop. His powerful running combined with quick thinking mean he can bulldoze his way through the opposition or jink his way past. The West Ham man had struggled to have an impact at the beginning of the season, however, he’s looking to be back towards his best based on recent performances, especially those coming since the turn of the New Year.

This week has been the epitome of what the Hammers’ number 30 is great at. Having played the full 90 minutes three games in a row, Manuel Pellegrini had opted to leave Antonio on the bench for Wednesday’s home match against Brighton & Hove Albion. He was eventually substituted on for Robert Snodgrass in the 63rd minute with his side 2-0 down, due to goals from Dale Stephens and Shane Duffy.

Mark Noble –who’d come on at the same time as Antonio- had set up Marko Arnautovic to make it 2-1 just five minutes after the pair had been introduced to play. Just two minutes later it was the winger who announced himself. With Jürgen Locadia and Bernardo doubling up on him, he kept them guessing until he was ready to make his move. He then pushed the ball past the Brazilian full back, barged him away and just kept the ball in play, cutting it back to Arnautovic. The Austrian took a touch and poked it into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

With Antonio wreaking havoc down the right hand side, West Ham were able to make other opportunities in the game, putting the Seagulls under sustained and intense pressure. Brighton stood strong though and held on for the draw, but nothing can be taken away from the impact Antonio and Noble had.

Three days later and he was starting at right back in the FA Cup against Birmingham City. He has displayed a disdain for playing at full back in the past, when continuously played there by Slaven Bilic. However, with Ryan Fredericks injured and Pablo Zabaleta ill, Antonio has had to fill in there at times in the last month, putting in stellar performances.

Yesterday’s 2-0 win was another of those great showings, as he assisted West Ham’s second goal of the game for the second match in a row. This time, the Hammers had gone up within two minutes and had been in danger of letting their lead slip. It was in the 91st minute that Antonio helped secure West Ham’s progression to the fourth round. He received the ball from Robert Snodgrass and took a touch out of his feet. He then sent a perfectly weighted cross towards Andy Carroll who rose above the defender to head in his first goal since returning from injury.

Aside from that moment, Antonio’s link up play with 20-year-old Grady Diangana was tantalising. The pair put together some brilliant combinations to great effect, taunting the Birmingham defence for the entirety of the game. Diangana was arguably the standout player for the Hammers, but his performance was certainly helped by the overlapping runs and slip balls that Antonio provided him with.

Antonio will be hoping to keep his impressive run of form in 2019 going when Arsenal visit the London Stadium on Saturday. The Gunners have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last four league matches, so Antonio and his team mates will look to exploit any defensive frailties they may meet.

 

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Mark Noble’s contract extension shows his importance to West Ham

Mark Noble

Whenever a new manager takes over at West Ham, the same question always seems to arise among the many on fans’ lips: will he play Mark Noble? Despite the lack of faith some seem to have in him now, he has endured every test he’s come across in his beloved claret and blue shirt. The same has been the case under Pellegrini. He may not start every game, but has featured in 11 of West Ham’s 16 Premier League matches this season.

He is still an integral part of the team and his new contract extension highlights that. The year extension means it will now run until 2021, so he will have been involved with the West Ham first team for an incredible 17 years when it expires. It also makes it likely that he will retire at the club he loves, seeing him become a one club man.

This is nothing short of what he deserves for his continued service to the club and proves to any doubters that he is still firmly in West Ham’s plans. Declan Rice has shown he can be a future club captain –should his contract situation be sorted- and Marko Arnautovic is a formidable presence on the pitch. However, Mark Noble is still the best leader the club has, as is signified by his captaincy.

Aside from the obvious leadership qualities, both in the dressing room and on the pitch, Noble is an important cog in the Hammers’ midfield on merit outside of that. He is as committed as ever and like Rice, is brilliant at breaking down opposition play. Some claim that he has lost his legs and is no longer able to get round the pitch as is needed, but in truth, he’s never been the quickest and has catered his game to dealing with this, with his positional play ensuring he remains a central part of the play.

The Hammers’ number 16 is just four appearances away from 450 in a West Ham shirt, after making his debut in a 2-0 League Cup win at home against Southend United in 2004. He featured in the Great Escape of 2006-07, won the Championship Play Offs twice, captained the team in their final game at Upton Park and has been one of the few constants in the club since the move to the London Stadium. He has over 50 West Ham goals, with a large amount of them coming from the penalty spot. He’s also represented England from Under 16 to Under 21 level.

He hasn’t scored this season, but has two assists- which came in wins against Everton and Manchester United. He has continuously said that he feels the club is heading in the right direction under the management of Pellegrini and this contract extension means he’ll be part of that for an extra year.

For now though, he’ll be looking to Saturday’s match against bottom of the table Fulham. The club are on an impressive run of three wins in a row –something they hadn’t previously managed for over two years. Another win this time around will likely see them break into the top 10.

 

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Mark Noble’s suspension could give opportunity to youngsters

Mark Noble

It seems as though West Ham’s squad is getting thinner by the week. There have been numerous absentees in recent times, with Andriy Yarmolenko and Marko Arnautovic among the most recent players to miss matches through injury. The latest man to become unavailable to Manuel Pellegrini is Mark Noble, though that is due to suspension rather than injury.

In the 38th minute of Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Leicester City, the Hammers’ captain was shown a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Wilfried Ndidi. This means he’ll miss three matches: tonight’s Carabao Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur, followed by league fixtures against Burnley and Huddersfield Town.

This opens up a place in the team for somebody to fill, however the usual suspects aren’t available. In the midfield area alone Manuel Lanzini, Jack Wilshere, Carlos Sanchez and Pedro Obiang are all injured. Therefore, it seems as though either Conor Coventry or Joe Powell could play alongside Robert Snodgrass and fellow academy graduate Declan Rice in West Ham’s midfield three during his absence. Though there is a chance that Obiang will be available against Tottenham and Wilshere could return before the skipper’s ban ends.

Having come through the academy, both 18-year-old Coventry and Powell, who turned 20 yesterday, have only represented West Ham’s first team once, coming on as substitutes during the 8-0 win against Macclesfield Town, which set up tonight’s tie against Tottenham. Republic of Ireland U19 international and Dylan Tombides Award winner Coventry came on at half time and gave an assured performance. Powell replaced Michail Antonio in the 61st minute and provided Grady Diangana (who was also a debutant and has now earned his place in the first team) with two assists.

Another alternative could be Reece Oxford, who has been playing his football with the club’s Under 23s this season. Having impressed on his debut against Arsenal as a 16-year-old in 2015, there were high expectations attached to his name. Since then he has represented the club just 16 more times though, having loan spells with Reading and Borussia Monchengladbach. He is naturally a centre back, but having played in midfield, this could be his best chance of getting back into the first team fold under Pellegrini.

If one of the trio are to be called upon to start matches, tonight’s Carabao Cup tie could be the perfect way to introduce them. There is less pressure on them than in the league, while the club’s rivalry with the opposition and the chance to get a step closer to getting silverware ensures it still holds importance for everyone involved with the club.

Alongside this, there is a chance that Mauricio Pochettino will field a changed side. Tottenham faced Manchester City on Monday and following tonight’s match will play Wolverhampton Wanderers in the league and a must win Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven; all within nine days of Monday’s loss. The Argentinian will be desperate to get a trophy –having failed to do so during his Totenham tenure to date- and so will likely field as strong a side as possible, as was shown by his team selection against Watford in the last round. However, his hand may be forced by the build up of fixtures.

Youngsters Rice and Diangana have both thrived under the tutelage of Pellegrini in recent times, so the Chilean has already shown he is willing to put his faith in youth- even if injuries have contributed to some of the opportunities he’s given. With the number of absentees in midfield, either Coventry, Powell or Oxford could be the next academy player to be given a first team start.

 

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Declan Rice shows he’s the midfielder West Ham need

Declan Rice

Before the Everton match last Sunday, West Ham’s midfield had looked lost on several occasions. With three points desperately needed, most Hammers supporters were wondering what Manuel Pellegrini would do to solve this issue, especially following the news that Jack Wilshere would be out injured. The Chilean’s answer was to go with three in the midfield with Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang deployed with Declan Rice just behind them.

With three defensively minded players in the centre of the pitch, many supporters were left wondering how things would work going forward. However, the team looked incredibly balanced, with Rice being the central cog which kept the team’s machine ticking over for the full 90 minutes. He screened the defence brilliantly throughout the match, covered his midfield partners if they were caught in possession and distributed the ball well whenever he had it at his feet.

With Rice playing such a disciplined and protective role, it allowed others around him to thrive. Noble and especially Obiang created a lot more than they normally would do going forward. However, with them still being defensively aware players they were also able to fill in when needed. When looking at the shape of the midfield when Everton were in possession, they were always a unit; close enough to support each other and double up but far enough to ensure that if the point of play was switched they could go out and cut out the opposition’s options. One thing that was always clear though is that everything centred around Rice.

This also helped Felipe Anderson, Marko Arnautovic and Andriy Yarmolenko to wreak havoc on the Everton defence. There have been games since his £42 million summer move where Anserson has looked ineffective, playing too deep so that he could help Arthur Masuaku defensively. This is partly because the number of attacking minded players Pellegrini had been using also forced them to focus on defensive duties. However, with Rice covering his team mates all the time, it gave the Brazilian and his team mates in the front three more freedom to focus on threatening the opposition. It is clear that this paid dividends, with Yarmolenko getting two goals, Arnautovic getting a goal and assist, while Anderson had Jonjoe Kenny pinned back for the majority of the game.

Rice got a lot of praise after the game, but what makes his mature performance even more impressive is the turbulent start to the season he had before this. He had started the first game of the season, but with the midfield being overrun by Liverpool’s, the 19-year-old was the man hauled off at half time with the side 2-0 down. Things didn’t improve after the substitution as the team ended up losing 4-0. He then didn’t even make the bench against AFC Bournemouth and was an unused substitute against Arsenal and Wolves. The only match he played in during that period was the 3-1 Carabao Cup victory against AFC Wimbledon.

Added to his lack of game time, he was at the centre of a media storm, which was whipped up after he decided to take time over deciding his international future. With three Republic of Ireland caps under his belt, the London-born player took the opportunity to mull over whether he wanted to represent the men in green or England. However, this is something which many including James McClean and Kevin Kilbane took exception to. For the teenager to recover from his early season disappointment and block those criticisms from his head, putting in such an assured performance in the first game since the international break, is testament to his attitude.

The next test for Rice and his team mates is Chelsea, the club that the youngster was released by when he was 14-years-old. With the Blues still maintaining a perfect record in the league, it is clearly going to be a big challenge for the Hammers. However, having impressed so much against another side in blue, Rice will see this as another opportunity to show the slot in midfield he occupied at Goodison Park should be his on a permanent basis.

 

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Game of the Weekend: Hammers Batter the Toffees

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Matchweek 5 was a forward’s feast as the English Premier League roared back into action following the end of the first international break. Defending proved too complex a task for back lines around England, with the likes of Leicester, Everton, Cardiff, and Fulham all conceding 3 or more.

My match of the weekend though comes brought to you courtesy of the Hammers of East London who beat Everton 3-1 away at Goodison Park. Highlighting both midfield effort and clinical finishing, West Ham win their first win and points of the season, while earning likely no one other than die hard Hammers fans boatloads of fantasy points.
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West Ham’s midfield weakness risks undermining exciting summer

West Ham caught the eye this summer. Hiring Manuel Pellegrini was a bold move after David Moyes guided the club to safety last season. The change in the dugout was met by another busy summer, bringing in big names from big clubs.

Felipe Anderson was the headline acquisition, arriving for over £30 million from Lazio. Andriy Yarmolenko and Lucas Perez also reinforced Pellegrini’s attacking options. Issa Diop and Fabian Valbuena were brought in at centre-back, Lukasz Fabianski arrived from Swansea to become first choice in goal and Ryan Fredericks signed as a free transfer from Fulham.

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