West Ham United Entering Run of Six Critical Fixtures

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When West Ham United received their fixtures for the 2020/21 Premier League season in August, fans – and manager David Moyes – could have been forgiven for feeling downcast.

Facing six of last season’s top eight in their opening seven matches, the Hammers were dealt arguably the hardest schedule in the league. Yet, eight matches into the season, West Ham lie 12th with 11 points after embarking on a run which saw them demolish Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City, produce a remarkable comeback against Tottenham Hotspur and take a point off Manchester City.

However, even after ending this tough period of the season with probably eight more points than expected, West Ham can’t afford to let up. Starting against Sheffield United on Sunday, Moyes’ side embark on a potentially season-defining six-match run until Christmas.

West Ham Facing Six Critical Fixtures Before Christmas

How the Hammers’ Season Started

After losing to Newcastle United and Arsenal in their opening two matches of the season, no one could have predicted what would happen next at West Ham. Bouncing back from the disappointing performances and a brush with COVID-19, the Hammers smashed four goals past Wolverhampton Wanderers before expertly neutralising Jamie Vardy in a 3-0 victory over Leicester.

Hoping to extend their unbeaten run to three matches, West Ham found themselves three goals down inside the opening 16 minutes at Tottenham. However, where West Ham of old would have capitulated, Moyes’ side dug in and scored three goals – including Manuel Lanzini’s goal of the season contender – in the final 10 minutes to earn a hard-fought draw.

A gutsy point at home to Manchester City and a narrow 2-1 defeat at Anfield brought this difficult run to a close before Ademola Lookman’s penalty miss gifted West Ham three points against Fulham ahead of the international break.

Déjà Vu and Mid-Table Misery

West Ham’s transformation under Moyes is nothing short of remarkable. Last season, they took 10 points from a possible 48 off the top eight sides, this season West Ham are eight from 18. They’ve learned to win ugly, to cling on for a point rather than trading leading positions for defeats and, thanks to Moyes’ back five system, have rediscovered the art of defensive resilience.

Unfortunately for West Ham, it’s a situation they’ve been in before. At the eight-game stage last season, the Hammers were eighth with 12 points (albeit after a much kinder fixture list). By Christmas, they were 17th, having won just three times in the subsequent 15 matches and plunged into a relegation battle that would plague them until the penultimate week of the season.

However, the most concerning statistic from last season was the club’s form against the teams around them. West Ham took only 28 points off teams in the bottom half of the table from a possible 54 last season, including two defeats against Crystal Palace, and collecting two points off Brighton & Hove Albion and Aston Villa. Beating the top teams when the pressure is off is great but if you’re gifting points to relegation rivals then you’re destined for a difficult season.

West Ham’s Next Six Fixtures

Looking ahead to West Ham’s next six matches, the list reads Sheffield United (A), Aston Villa (H), Manchester United (H), Leeds United (A), Crystal Palace (H) and Chelsea (A).

Though always dangerous to underestimate an opponent, this is possibly the best time to face Sheffield United. The Yorkshire outfit are languishing at the bottom of the league: winless, suffering from injuries and a shadow of the force they were last season.

Aston Villa will be trickier opponents. They’ve beaten several of the top sides – including mauling Liverpool and Arsenal – but have also been done over by Southampton and Leeds. Likewise, Crystal Palace have started brightly and proved to be something of a bogey side for West Ham last season.

Leeds and Man United, both capable of amazing and dreadful performances, present good opportunities for maximum points but Chelsea will be the toughest test of all. Frank Lampard’s side are unbeaten since mid-September and have an imperious forward line that is beginning to hit its stride. However, West Ham can take heart from completing the double over the Blues in 2019/20.

Facing four teams of a similar standard to themselves and the two remaining sides from last season’s top eight, West Ham should be taking a minimum of 10 points from this period. 10 points would leave them with 21 points from 14 matches, a healthy haul to enter the festive period with. Any less and they could find themselves getting sucked into danger come the New Year.

Antonio and Fabianski Crucial to Hammers Success

Since the opening day’s defeat to Newcastle, Moyes has made just four changes to his starting XI. One was tactical (Arthur Masuaku for Mark Noble), three were enforced – Fabian Balbuena for Issa Diop (COVID-19), Vladimir Coufal for Ryan Fredericks (hamstring) and Sebastien Haller for Michail Antonio (hamstring).

Having found his preferred eleven, Moyes is providing his squad with some much-needed stability. However, depending on such a small group leaves West Ham vulnerable to injuries and there are two players they can’t afford to lose in the run-up to Christmas.

Michail Antonio has found a new lease of life since lockdown, scoring 11 goals in 15 appearances in claret and blue  (West Ham’s second-highest scorer is Tomas Soucek, with four). The 30-year old has missed the last two matches through injury and could only be fit enough for the bench at Bramall Lane, and his absence has been all too apparent.

The Hammers spurned numerous chances against Liverpool and Fulham with Antonio’s understudy, Haller, chronically out of form and Pablo Fornals less than prolific in front of goal. Whether he features in Sheffield or only returns against Villa, West Ham need their forward talisman back and wrapped in cotton wool.

The other crucial component is Lukasz Fabianski. It was his hip injury sustained against Bournemouth last September which triggered West Ham’s downturn in fortunes. The Hammers picked up just seven points without the Pole in goal, slipping from 5th to 17th in the run-up to Christmas and ultimately sacking manager Manuel Pellegrini.

This season, Fabianski has conceded just 10 goals in eight matches to help West Ham achieve the joint-second best defensive record in the league. Lose Fabianski and West Ham could lose the defensive stability Moyes has worked so hard to build in recent West Ham fixtures.

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