West Ham face Tottenham Hotspur in an ever-feisty London derby on Saturday that just so happens to be the biggest clash in the Premier League this weekend.
The two clubs will have slightly different ambitions this season; Spurs have their eyes on another title charge, while the Hammers would settle for Europa League qualification; but all bets are off when it comes to this rivalry, something highlighted by the Irons winning two of the last six encounters compared to Tottenham’s three victories.
If the east Londoners are to come out on top in Saturday’s early kickoff, however, manager Slaven Bilic will have to find the right answers to these four key questions…
It’s impossible to ignore the correlation between West Ham’s uplift in results and their change in formation. While 4-2-3-1 lead to three defeats and ten goals conceded, 3-4-3 has produced four points from a possible six and two consecutive clean sheets. But there’s one obvious drawback to the system that has stabilised the Hammers’ season – it doesn’t accommodate arguably the Irons’ biggest talent, Javier Hernandez.
The former Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen man is a notoriously lethal finisher, but the 3-4-3 setup pushes him out wide, playing to the left of Andy Carroll. Although Chicharito will still find chances when opportunities come to drift into the box, Bilic must consider alternatives that get the best out of both front-men.
A slight tweak to 3-5-2 or a more drastic change to 4-4-2 seem the most logical solutions. Then again, matching up to Tottenham’s system – assuming Mauricio Pochettino sticks with it – may not be the worst idea on Saturday.
West Ham’s 1-0 win over Tottenham in May was arguably the most impressive result of their 2016/17 campaign. It secured the Hammers’ top flight survival while simultaneously ending Spurs’ title hopes and was the first game in ten Pochettino’s side failed to win, let alone score in.
There are some similarities this time around, such as the venue, but also some key differences – most notably that neither side are under the same kind of pressure to win as they were at the tail-end of last season. That being said, there are still aspects of the game Bilic can try to replicate; his side grabbed the win by suffocating the life out of the game, finishing up with just 32% possession and playing a deep defensive line, before hitting Spurs down the flanks.
Can the same trick work twice, or will such a negative approach at home so early in the season send the wrong message?
West Ham would have been disappointed with anything over than a win over the Championship’s rock-bottom side Bolton Wanderers in the Carabao Cup. But the Hammers didn’t simply jog over the finish line; they marched to a convincing 3-0 win against the Trotters with a side containing a number of first-team regulars who were clearly eager to impress.
So the question for Bilic is whether any of them have done enough to force their way into a starting XI that held West Brom to a clean sheet last weekend. Goalscorer Diafra Sakho and captain Mark Noble were both subbed off, suggesting they could have a role to play against Spurs, while Angelo Ogbonna played the full ninety minutes but will likely be called upon to fill James Collins’ void.
Then there’s Andre Ayew, Marko Arnautovic and Declan Rice – they stayed on until the final whistle but will feel they have something to offer Bilic this Saturday.
When in full flow, Tottenham boast one of the most scintillating attacks in Europe, something they proved in abundance when Borussia Dortmund came to Wembley stadium earlier this month, and worryingly for West Ham, Harry Kane appears to be back amongst the goals after another barren August.
However, Spurs’ attack certainly isn’t unstoppable, as Swansea City proved last weekend. The Lilywhites have a knack of trying to play through central areas rather than stretching the opposition, so bodies between the width of the penalty box could quickly bog them down. Another potential ploy is targeting Dele Alli; the Spurs midfielder is a top talent but also plays on the edge and can get sucked into petulance.
If West Ham rile up the England international, there’s a chance he’ll be sent for an early shower.