The Story So Far
Following a record breaking season in 2015-16, a move to the London Stadium, and another summer of big investment, West Ham were expected to build upon their 7th place finish this year. That will still be the aim for Slaven Bilic and the Hammers’ board, despite the club’s very poor start to the season.
With only two league wins from eight games, West Ham currently occupy 15th place. Heavy defeats against Manchester City, Watford, West Brom and Southampton have contributed to West Ham owning the league’s second worst defensive record, with 17 goals conceded in just eight games. For comparison, that is a third of what they conceded throughout the whole of last season.
Last time out at Crystal Palace the Hammers took all three points via a Manuel Lanzini strike, for their first league win in six games.
The Manager - Slaven Bilic
A cult hero as a player, Slaven Bilic’s record breaking achievements in his first season as West Ham manager saw the Croatian ascend to an almost God-like status amongst the Upton Park faithful. But things have seemed different this time around. He has looked dejected on the touchline; not only questioning his players and their performances, but questioning himself. Fans have also questioned his tactical approaches to the game, and at times, it seems as if the downtrodden manager has taken these criticisms to heart. Nonetheless, he was roundly praised for his approach to last Saturday’s win at Crystal Palace, and with The Black Cats visiting London this weekend, Bilic will view the game as a great opportunity to secure back-to-back victories.
Key Player - Dimitri Payet
The current ‘Hammer of the Year’ is undoubtedly West Ham’s biggest threat. The Frenchman took the league by storm after arriving from Marseille last year, with nine goals and twelve assists establishing Payet as one of the league’s most creative and dangerous forces. Starting from a wide left position, Payet looks to drift inside and link up with fellow attackers Lanzini and Simone Zaza, taking on a free role in the Hammers’ attack. From here, he is able to dictate play and shoot from range with high levels of success.
Payet also provides a significant threat from set-piece situations. With 16 goals scored from set-pieces last season, and three this season, Payet’s excellent ball delivery gives West Ham a sizeable attacking advantage. The Frenchman is also recognised as one of world football’s most dangerous free kick takers; Sunderland must be careful not to give away cheap free kicks between 20 and 25 yards out.
A physically imposing side, West Ham excel aerially, winning 18.8 duels per game, and in set-piece situations. Their total of 16 goals from set-pieces was the second highest in the league last season, and they already boast three from those situations this time around. James Collins, Angelo Ogbonna, Winston Reid, Håvard Nordtveit and Cheikhou Kouyaté all tower above six feet; they are equally adept in both attacking and defensive situations. The West Ham defence will have a field day if Sunderland persist with the bewildering tactic of playing long to Jermain Defoe.
While not as tall as his team mates, Michail Antonio also possesses great aerial ability. In fact, of the 13 Premier League goals that the winger has scored, all but two have came via his head.
Despite their slow start to the season, West Ham continue to create a significant number of chances per game. Their 14.7 shots per game was the 5th highest last season, and they average virtually the same number this time around. The problem for the Hammers has been that only 2.9 shots per game have actually hit the target, but with a poor Sunderland and their almost non-existent midfield visiting on Saturday, the likes of Payet and Lanzini should see more time on the ball to produce more accurate attempts on goal.
Most notably, West Ham have conceded a worryingly high 17 goals this season, second only to Hull. One of their biggest issues this season has been defending down the flanks, and with all full back options unavailable for Saturday’s game, this represents an area in which Sunderland can target the Hammers and potentially enjoy some success. Slaven Bilic is likely to continue with last weekend’s three-man defence. Due to their number of injuries, it’s almost certain that at least one Hammer will be played out of position. It’s unfortunate that beyond Wahbi Khazri and Duncan Watmore, Sunderland lack players who can run at these auxiliary wing backs.
Scoring goals has also been somewhat of a problem for West Ham, with only nine scored in eight games. Antonio has contributed five of those, and beyond him, Lanzini follows with just two. With both Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho injured, neither of Zaza, Ashley Fletcher or Jonathan Calleri have been able to find the net in their absence.
Slaven Bilic is likely to stick with the three-man defence that worked to great effect against Crystal Palace. Moving Kouyaté into the backline allowed Aaron Cresswell and Antonio to maraud up and down the flanks, while the compact midfield pressed effectively. The switch also freed up space for Payet, who was able to find space and link with lone-striker Zaza. While the Italian striker failed to find the net yet again for the Hammers, and never looked likely to do so, his tireless effort from the front allowed the West Ham midfield to advance and press themselves. Payet’s free role also allowed Cresswell to overlap at will, and it was his cross that set up Lanzini’s winner. Only Leighton Baines and Daryl Janmaat have registered more assists as a defender than Cresswell since his Premier League debut in August 2014. Thankfully for Sunderland, the defender will miss Saturday’s encounter through suspension.
With all of his full backs missing on Saturday, Bilic faces a real dilemma as to who should occupy the left flank. Ogbonna could slide across, but Sunderland, and Duncan Watmore in particular, may be able to expose his lack of pace. Likewise, Nordtveit lacks pace, and has predominantly featured as a right back this season. Bilic could turn to Sofiane Feghouli, but as a right winger lacking Premier League match fitness, that option has the potential to be disastrous.
Last season’s encounter at the Stadium of Light proved to be Dick Advocaat’s last game in charge. Goals from Steven Fletcher and a sublime Jeremain Lens lob gave Sunderland a 2-0 lead, before Carl Jenkinson pulled a goal back just before half time. Lens was stupidly sent off in the second half for two yellows, and minutes later Payet equalised to deny Sunderland a first win of the season. An Antonio goal consigned Sunderland to defeat in the return fixture in February.