Tactics writer Sam Tighe picks out some of the key battles ahead of Southampton's crucial Premier League trip to West Ham.
Coming out of the international break and into the final stretch of the season, what shape are West Ham in?
Remarkably, they’re close to a 100 per cent bill of health: With goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański back in training in protective facewear, David Moyes’s training sessions will have represented a flurry of bodies this week.
That’s a powerful tool to have for the run-in, and remember West Ham remain in European competition, so Thursday nights must be accounted for too.
They have 12 games left of their Premier League campaign and Sunday’s visit of Saints will kick off a run of three in the space of just seven days, before European Thursdays kick back in. That’s gruelling stuff – so they’ll be desperate to start off on the right foot.
What’s behind their drop into the relegation zone – having booked back-to-back top-seven finishes in the Premier League in the seasons before?
The drop-off has been very sudden and very alarming. They’ve registered consecutive wins just once in the league this term, all the way back in October. Predictably, injuries have played their part in the dip, but there are other factors too.
Physical and mental fatigue is affecting everyone but West Ham may be the worst hit: they bounced from the bizarre Covid-19 season straight into back-to-back, long European campaigns; star performers like Declan Rice have clocked up an obscene amount of mileage since 2020.
They spent big last summer to try and freshen things up, but that hasn’t really abated the issues because it’s left them torn between two playing styles. There’s usually a very strong identity to how Moyes’s sides operate, how they play into the striker, how they defend space – but this has clouded in 2022/23.
All of this has affected the match-going fans’ mood, resulting in the London Stadium’s atmosphere carrying an impatient, concerned twinge rather than an outright supportive one.
What key threats must Saints be aware of?
In their last Premier League game against Aston Villa, Jarrod Bowen was absolutely sensational on the right flank. Constant runs in behind the full-back caused so many issues and he teed up several chances. It wouldn’t surprise if Plan A is to release Bowen wherever possible again this weekend, a tactic which Saints’ full-backs must be ready for.
West Ham’s midfield trio of Declan Rice, Lucas Paquetá and Tomáš Souček is of international calibre, mixing physicality, technicality and drive to great effect. It’ll be some task to get the better of it on the day, but the trend is the slower the pace of the game, the less able they are to get their teeth into it.
In typical Moyes fashion, he’s built one of the tallest and most aerially imposing teams in the division, so expect a strong set-piece threat, with the back post a particular area of focus for them.
Predicted XI (4-3-3): Areola; Coufal, Zouma, Aguerd, Emerson; Souček, Rice, Paquetá; Bowen, Ings, Benrahma.
• Moyes has tough choices to make across the pitch, particularly at left wing and full-back
• Lanzini, Fornals, Cornet, Scamacca and Antonio will all be vying for an attacking spot in the XI
• There’s a chance Fabiański retakes his place between the sticks now he’s back with the group
• West Ham have three completely different profiles of striker, meaning Saints must be prepared for an immediate switch in attacking style if a change is made.