Although West Ham finished one place and two points above Liverpool last season, the two teams have had decidedly different trajectories since the new campaign kicked off. Liverpool have been at or near the top of the table for several weeks, whereas the Hammers find themselves in an unexpected relegation scrap. Despite the Hammers getting the better of the Reds last season, Liverpool will be favorites to earn all three points when the final whistle blows on Sunday. We invited Charlie from SB Nation’s Brace the Hammer to TLO Towers for a bit of friendly conversation about the upcoming game and all things West Ham.
The Liverpool Offside: Welcome, and thanks for stopping by. West Ham went from a respectable 7th place finish last year to a relegation battle this year. What the heck happened?
Brace the Hammer: Simply put, everything has gone wrong at once. Since the start of preseason we've been in terrible form with essentially every player struggling. Our stadium is comically poor. Our board are consistently shambolic and Bilic just can't do anything right. Last season almost felt unreal as a West Ham fan. We'd go to places (like Anfield) where we shouldn't have got anything from the game, cause an upset then head back to Upton Park happy as a Pig in muck. Now we're incredibly lucky if one of our strikers finds the net.
TLO: How hot is manager Slaven Bilic's seat at the moment? If he gets the ax, who would you most like to take his place?
BTH: You could probably fry an egg on it, let's put it that way. Last season's success has earned him time to try and put things right and (after Sunday) the 4 remaining games we have in 2016 are more winnable, Burnley and Hull at home followed by Swansea and Leicester away. I, along with the vast majority of West Ham fans, want Bilic to be the man to take us forward but if results and performances don't pick up fast and we don't win either of our home games I can see his head rolling.
Our board is mega conservative however and will not fire him unless 100% certain they can bring in someone of comparable quality straight away. It's how they conduct business. A prime (and sadly very apt) example is the season we got relegated with Avram Grant. Bottom of the Prem in January, it was leaked and subsequently reported that Martin O'Neil had agreed a deal to take over. After the following game, Avram clapped the Upton Park faithful and threw his scarf into crowd to acknowledge what we all knew. O'Neil's camp then reneged on the deal due to their anger at it being made public. Grant continued his tenure and we ended the season dead last.
There are 4 managers who are both available and of comparable quality, in my mind, to Bilic. Frank de Boer, Louis Van Gaal, Marcelo Bielsa and Roberto Mancini. They all have their pros and cons and all represent some kind of risk. Inexperienced, uninspiring, a "Madman" and possibly past his best. In a hypothetical world where we found ourselves in this situation but Bilic was a candidate and not current manager, I would pick him. If I had to choose another? De Boer.
TLO: Will the Hammers be dipping into the January transfer market to help right the ship, and if so what is the top priority?
BTH: Our owners won't want to but circumstances may force the issue. A couple of wins in the next month and we'll only see moves happening we can't refuse. Find ourselves in the relegation zone however and I'd hope the board would spring into action but I have my (considerable) doubts. Aside from Sam Byram last season, a move which we were forced to make after Everton agreed a deal with Leeds, the last time our owners spent money in January while in the Premier League was the 2010/11 season. We bought Demba Ba to try and save ourselves from relegation. It didn't work.
We have a ridiculously deep squad built for Europe and I imagine we would need to shift players out to create space/wages for any incoming. If by some miracle we were active however, our RB situation has to be sorted. Bilic attempted to turn Antonio into a RB but his lack of positional sense provided a hurdle to high to jump. This leaves us with the inexperienced Byram and completely uninterested Alvaro Arbeloa. For context, Arbeloa didn't even bring his shirt when he made the bench for the Arsenal game, believing he wouldn't get game time. A member of staff was forced to run to the changing rooms to collect it when he was called upon. We're desperate for someone capable of coming in, owning the position and taking young Byram under their wing.
Most fans will also point towards our strikers and ask for someone to put the round leather thing into the outdoor cupboard. Sakho is great but has serious off the field issues. Andy Carroll, no knees or something. Fletcher, too young. Zaza, Zaza. We aren't asking for a lot really.
TLO: Speaking of transfers: West Ham have been exceptionally generous in helping Liverpool recoup some of our losses on past transfer fiascoes. Any chance you'd be interested in a Mamadou Sakho or Lazar Markovic?
BTH: What's a Lazar Markovic? Sorry I'm getting a phone call, we'll come back to this I promise.
TLO: *checks watch, whistles “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for the 42nd consecutive rendition, when Charlie finally returns to TLO Towers*
Welcome back. Perhaps we should actually discuss the upcoming game. If the Hammers are going to come to Anfield and get a result, which player should we be most worried about?
BTH: Mr. No Knees himself. I joke but Carroll's a fantastically capable player who is also fantastically injury prone. Whenever he does play though, he's a constant threat. He made his long awaited return against Arsenal and scored within 13 minutes. I don't believe he'll start but if he does eventually make an appearance, prepare for an aerial bombardment. Payet is an obvious name but one worth mentioning. He hasn't exactly been putting in inspiring performances of late but the dude is capable of turning it on whenever he pleases. Lanzini has been one of the few lights in this almighty dim season and flourishes while all the attention is on his French peer.
TLO: Excuse me, I might have just thrown up a bit in my mouth thinking of Carroll scoring against us. Again. Conversely, if we want to really hurt you, what's the best strategy to employ?
BTH: Just turn up really. It seems super defeatist I admit but it's sadly true. I could point out multiple weaknesses all over the shop but why over complicate it? Our back line, and more importantly our mentality, is massively fragile. Pile on the pressure. We won't be able to contain you.
TLO: Sounds good. Score prediction?
BTH: I'm more concerned about the performance on Sunday than I am the result. I want to see something resembling a football team, not whatever has been "playing" for the rest of the season.
Best case scenario: Liverpool 3-2 West Ham.
TLO: Thanks for stopping by, and best of luck when you’re not playing us!
To find the “reverse fixture” go to Brace the Hammer, where I answer Charlie’s questions about Liverpool.