The London Stadium will become a pressure cauldron on Saturday, housing two Premier League clubs that are probably still coming to terms with quite how they’ve managed to slip into the relegation battle, having never finished lower than 14th since both returning to the top flight in summer 2012.
Indeed, West Ham and Southampton both find themselves in a similarly bemusing situation and both with facing difficult final run-ins, they know this fixture could have a decisive impact on who finishes the right and wrong side of the dreaded drop line once the 2017/18 season comes to a close.
So, which side has just enough to come out on top this fixture? Football FanCast’s Hammers-happy editor-in-chief James Jones and Southampton-supporting James Beavis share their thoughts and predictions ahead of Saturday’s game.
Let’s address the elephant in the room here. West Ham’s last home game descended into a small-scale riot as fans invaded the pitch and honed in on the director’s box to protest the direction David Gold and David Sullivan have taken the club in recent years. That unquestionably impacted the team’s chances of coming back against Burnley in an eventual 3-0 defeat, and with so much on the line this Saturday the real concern is whether more protests will hinder the Hammers in a huge six-pointer.
What are the chances of witnessing similar scenes on Saturday?
JJ: “It’s quite simple – if West Ham fans choose to cause more mayhem instead of supporting the team on Saturday then they cannot moan when they’re handed part of the blame in the team going down (if we do). Yes, the fans have every right to protest and be angry with the owners, but there is a time and a place for that – during the game is not that time and they need to get behind the team, even if we go a goal down. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll be the case and it could turn ugly again off the pitch if we find ourselves in a losing position.”
It’s not been an easy season for Southampton either, though. Despite finishing last season in eighth and reaching the League Cup final, Saints now find themselves in the relegation zone and finally brought Mauricio Pellegrino’s tenure to an end prior to the international break.
What have been the key factors behind Southampton’s drastic slump this season?
JB: “While it has clearly been a disappointing season, there were signs that this was going to happen last season when it became clear that the club hadn’t effectively replaced Graziano Pelle, Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane – three huge players for the club. That said, Pellegrino is certainly one of the key reasons that the current campaign has been so disappointing because of his poor tactics and the fact that he failed to learn from his previous mistakes, but the players must also take some responsibility too with the majority of them under-performing and some looking not as fit as they have been previously.”
However, the appointment of Mark Hughes has breathed vital positivity into the club at just the right time. His first game in charge saw Saints beat a spirited Wigan side, using a 4-4-2 formation that was a much-awaited response to the south coast outfit’s struggles in front of goal this term. But neither forward found the net at the DW Stadium and West Ham are a much different proposition to the League One title hopefuls.
Would you stick with 4-4-2 this weekend, and which players will be key in that system?
JB: “Absolutely stick with 4-4-2. One of Southampton’s main problems this season is that they have struggled with the 4-2-3-1 system because it has often left the centre-forward isolated. Seeing as this is a must-win game and West Ham are hardly full of confidence right now, Hughes can’t really afford to be too conservative in this match considering Saints still have to play Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City in their remaining seven fixtures after this one.”
Does this Saints side still have some obvious weaknesses though?
JJ: “They haven’t been brilliant away from home this season and have a knack for crumbling under the pressure. I think that can play into our hands somewhat, especially if we can score early.”
And what West Ham weaknesses should Southampton look to exploit?
JB: “I think West Ham have a couple of weaknesses – in central defence and in the middle of the park. Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble have been pretty poor this season and Saints can definitely get the better of them in that area with a partnership of the skilful Mario Lemina and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
“With James Collins (potentially) and Winston Reid missing, the Irons could have something of a make-shift backline with Declan Rice, Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell starting as back three. Hughes must look to exploit a shaky defence that has conceded 11 goals in their last three Premier League matches by starting their best goalscorer in Charlie Austin, and a player that will continually put them under pressure in Shane Long.”
The big concern for West Ham, aside from the potential toxicity of the atmosphere on Saturday, is their seemingly never-ending account of injuries. Manuel Lanzini is amongst the latest casualties, now a doubt for the weekend after suffering a problem on international duty, but West Ham desperately need a key player to step up and take the season-defining clash by the scruff of the neck.
Which player do you think can be the difference for the Hammers on Saturday?
JJ: “Marko Arnautovic – he has gone a long way in redeeming himself following the ridiculous red card against Southampton at the beginning of the season, but if he can win us the game against the Saints this weekend then it’ll complete one hell of a turn around for him.”
And where do you think this game will be lost and won?
JJ: “It will be interesting to see how our ageing/make-shift defence handles Southampton’s attacking threat. If we can keep the likes of Austin, Dusan Tadic, Lemina and James Ward-Prowse at bay then I think we’ll stand a good chance of taking all three points.”
JB: “I really do think that the strikers will be key, with the likes of Austin, Long and Manolo Gabbiadini for Saints, and an in-form Arnautovic, Javier Hernandez and potentially even Michail Antonio for West Ham, having the ability to get the better of two defences that have been far from their best throughout the whole campaign. Considering they have conceded 101 Premier League goals between them this season it is difficult to see either keeping a clean sheet, and it could come down to which attackers are more clinical on the day.”
And finally, let’s hear your score predictions…
JB: “1-2. I’ve got a sneaky feeling that Southampton will nick the win, but they need Austin to start.”
JJ: “I’m absolutely dreading this game and I’m sure both sets of players are feeling the same. It’ll be a cagey affair – 1-1, I just hope it’s us who score first or there’ll probably be a riot.”