West Ham will be looking to continue their unbeaten start to the 2021/22 season when they make their Europa League group stage debut later today.
David Moyes’ side head to Croatia to face Dinamo Zagreb and they are not a side to take lightly, having knocked the Irons’ rivals Tottenham Hotspur out of this very competition in stunning fashion last season.
And the Scotsman has plenty of crucial decisions to make, especially with the small matter of facing league leaders Manchester United on Sunday afternoon in the Premier League in his thoughts.
None of his summer additions have made their full debuts, so this encounter could represent an opportunity for a shuffle to the starting XI, affording some key names a bit of rest as the games start to come thick and fast.
One player who underwhelmed during the Hammers’ draw with Southampton at the weekend was Said Benrahma. The winger started the season on fire, providing two goals and two assists across their opening two games but is yet to record any more since.
At St Mary’s, he struggled to have much of an influence on the game and lost the ball more than any other West Ham player (16 times), so perhaps he could do with a little refresh before the weekend.
In his place, Moyes should unleash his new playmaker, Nikola Vlasic, who made a cameo from the bench at the weekend.
He could prove to be a game-changing influence, in more ways than one.
The Croatia international will be heading back to his home country, where he once played for Zagreb’s top-flight rivals Hajduk Split. He has come up against the league giants on 14 occasions, so that experience could be crucial in what could be a hostile atmosphere.
Furthermore, the £27m-rated maestro will offer the Hammers some much-needed creativity, perhaps something they lacked in abundance during the Saints stalemate.
Last season at CSKA Moscow, Vlasic delivered 11 goals and five assists, adding to his 17 direct contributions in 2019/20, whilst the 23-year-old averaged a whopping four shots and 2.8 key passes per league outing, via WhoScored.
By comparison, his predecessor, Man Utd loanee Jesse Lingard, averaged just 2.6 shots and 1.1 key passes per game, also per WhoScored.
Moyes has already talked up Vlasic’s presence on the training pitch, so it’s surely time to see what he can do from the off.
“We’ve been really impressed by Niko. His attitude as a professional is first-class,” the Irons boss told the club’s official website before later adding:
“He can play 7, 10 or 11, so can play several roles for us which is important, and will be important through the season, but we also want to give him the chance to adapt and adjust. He’s only been really impressive since he’s been at the Club and we’re really hopeful that he’ll turn into a really good player for us.”
It’s time to see what Vlasic can offer West Ham and there won’t be a better environment to do it than in his home country. Moyes must turn to the Croatian playmaker over Benrahma.