West Ham began 2013 in fine fettle with victory at home to Norwich but will struggle to replicate that success when they host Premier League leaders Man Utd in the FA Cup third round on Saturday (5.15pm GMT, live on ITV).
The Hammers have made a very solid start to life back in the top flight and are currently 11th in the table with 26 points from seven wins, five draws and eight defeats.
They bullied Norwich into submission on New Year’s Day, physical play helping them to two goals inside the first half hour that proved sufficient for victory despite a late rally from their opponents.
Sam Allardyce is renowned as a manager who prioritises substance over style. The long ball football with which he is associated has very much been in evidence in West Ham’s fixtures to date.
Allardyce set out his stall by signing five players taller than six foot over the summer and has stayed true to the methodology that brought him success with Bolton and, indeed, resulted in West Ham’s immediate promotion back to the Premier League last season.
Only Reading play more long balls and crosses as a percentage of total passes than West Ham’s 23.83%. Only Reading and Stoke have a worse pass completion percentage than West Ham’s 75% and only Stoke win more aerial duels per match than West Ham’s 23.4 average.
Putting aside aesthetic concerns, Allardyce’s approach has been justified by the fact that West Ham are currently eight points clear of the relegation zone. They had, however, gone four matches without victory before the win over Norwich, a run Allardyce knows they can ill afford to repeat when they return to league action.
In many ways, the pressure is off for Allardyce and his players on Saturday. They have nothing to lose and can commit men forward to try and take advantage of a defence that has been the one negative from an otherwise excellent first half of the season for the visiting side.
United won all three of their matches over the Christmas period, maintaining their seven point advantage over local rivals City at the top of the table. They scored ten goals along the way, four of which came in a convincing win away to Wigan on New Year’s Day.
Even in the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men made short work of the Wigan defence, slicing through them with pace and precision. Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez both scored twice and formed an excellent partnership up front, always bright and alert to opportunities to penetrate.
Van Persie has been truly superb since his £24 million summer move from Arsenal, scoring 16 goals in 21 league appearances and three in four in the Champions League. Intelligent, technically proficient and a composed, confident finisher, he is one of the main reasons United have been so impressive this season.
The Red Devils have scored an incredible 54 goals in their 21 matches to date. They have a varied array of attacking options with threats from wide areas (Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young) and through the centre with the aforementioned strikers plus Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley. They also score from set-pieces as 33.33% of their goals have arisen from dead ball situations.
The defence has not been similarly imposing, conceding 28 times to date. United have often been forced to come back from behind to get a result, something that will become less easy to do as the season progresses and the fatigue brought about by competing on multiple fronts begins to kick in.
There have, though, been some signs of defensive improvement in United’s last two fixtures, in which they kept their first consecutive clean sheets of the season. Nemanja Vidic was a commanding presence in the 2-0 win at home to West Bromwich Albion, while Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans performed well in the victory over Wigan.
It must also be noted that United kept a clean sheet when they hosted West Ham at Old Trafford earlier this season, a first minute goal from Van Persie enough to separate the teams in a well-contested encounter.
West Ham v Man Utd Betting Tips
West Ham have been eliminated in the third round of the FA Cup in three of the last five seasons and are likely to suffer the same fate this time around. They will be vociferously backed by the Upton Park faithful, but United have enough quality to emerge victorious and progress to the next round.
- Back Manchester United to win @ best odds of 7/10 with BetVictor.
- Ferguson could elect to rest some players from the start, leaving him with options to bring off the bench if United are struggling. West Ham, too, could make positive changes if they are chasing a result towards the end of the match. With this in mind, we suggest backing a substitute to score in 90 mins play @ 9/4 with Paddy Power.