EPL Previews: Will West Ham live up to their Olympic Stadium expectations?
After Leicester City’s 5000-1 odds to win the Premiership, capping off what is, in all likelihood, the most fantastic championship in major sports history, the perennial powerhouses have gone hard towards defeating the slew of underdogs currently rising up the table. With the addition of three world class managers, Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho, and Pep Guardiola, this season could shape up to be even crazier than the last. While international competition has been outstanding, as usual, we can’t help but miss that massive hole in our heart and pine for the return of the soccer league CoachUp loves the most. In order to prepare the loyal and initiate the newcomers, CoachUp will have you all ready for the August 13th showdown between current title-holders Leicester City and newly-promoted Hull City. We’re counting down by previewing the league’s top ten clubs from 2015-2016, detailing the players to watch, and their European (or lack thereof) adventures. So, without further ado, here’s number seven and the league's biggest wildcard, West Ham.
After finishing up at the wonderfully historic Boleyn Ground, where the Hammers have played the beautiful game since 1904, the Europa League-bound side will look to grow on an astonishingly optimistic 2015-2016. Under manager Slaven Bilic and lead by breakout star Dimitri Payet, the Hammers constantly punched above their weight level last year, taking down giants of the Premier League nearly more often than not. Even more impressive, perhaps, was how well the Hammers treaded water without target man Andy Carroll, the once focal point of a tactically predictable side, who missed a lengthy period over the winter with a groin injury. Although the Hammers will have to enter the qualifying stages of Europa League, their record of 16 wins, 14 draws, and 8 losses in 2015-2016 is certainly indicative of the improvement the side has made since their 12th place finish the year before. Their 8 losses were the 4th lowest mark in the league and only Leicester City, Arsenal, and Tottenham lost less games than West Ham last season -- so, impressive no matter how you choose to cut it.
The bad news is that the odds are slightly stacked against West Ham pulling off their wild ascent up the table once more, particularly given the amount of money being spent across the board league-wide -- but it’s not all doom and gloom. In 2015-2016, most of the major papers and pundits predicted that the Hammers would lag behind the pack -- collectively, analysts thought they’d finish in 10th, 11th, 13th, or even as low as 14th. That, of course, was before Payet had his coming out party as the electric magician that would push the Hammers to new levels. His 12 assists ranked him just behind Mesut Ozil and Christian Eriksen, but on level with Riyad Mahrez, all widely considered world class players. Should Payet carry his top form from Euro Cup into the regular season, the Hammers may hang around another Europa League berth far longer than they should.
Preferred Starting XI
By season’s end, the Hammers found a certain comfortability in their Starting XI, even finishing their campaign on an incredible high note against Manchester United -- but more on that later. For West Ham, the keys to the proverbial car exist within the midfield -- if Manuel Lanzini and Mark Noble can combine with Payet, then the club should fair well, all things considered. Although rumors swirl around potentially landing a new striker like Carlos Bacca or Mario Gomez, until then, this should be Bilic’s Starting XI come August:
Players to Watch
Adrian, the goalkeeper with incredible potential. After starting 32 games for West Ham in 2015-2016, a calf injury kept him sidelined for the final weeks of the season, with the side clearly looking weaker for wear without him. The backup, Darren Randolph, allowed 12 goals in just 6 games, including a 4-1 shocker against Swansea in April. Adrian's 104 saves placed him only behind Jack Butland, Lukasz Fabianski, and Heurelho Gomes in the race for most denials. Along with a respectable 9 clean sheets, Adrian will need to continue that great streak throughout the 2016-2017 season.
Dimitri Payet, the magician in the midfield. Truly, a completely average West Ham side has the potential of creating special moments each and every game thanks to Payet. Like this free kick, or this one, or this one, or… well, you get the point. If he can build on his other-worldly first season at West Ham, a deep run in Europa League is certainly in play.
Highlight of Yesteryear
I know, most of you are thinking: what? No Payet free-kick-madness-extravaganza? Well, that’s because the closing of the Boleyn Ground, something sentimental and historic for the fanbase both young and old, saved one of its best acts for last. With little chance to catch Manchester United or Southampton in the table, the Hammers faced the former in the final game ever at Upton Park. After taking an early lead against United, two goals from teen sensation Marcus Rashford had the Hammers’ backs to the wall. However, this is where Payet comes in! Down 2-1 in the 76th minute, Payet delivered a spot-on cross to Michael Antonio to equalize and then, just four minutes later, the Frenchman placed a free kick on the head of vice-captain Winston Reid. And there it was: 2 goals in 5 minutes to clinch an eternal place in West Ham history and send the classic grounds out on an unforgettable final note.
Getting Off To A Good Start
8/15 @ Chelsea
8/21 vs. Bournemouth
8/28 @ Manchester City
9/10 vs. Watford
9/17 @ West Bromwich
9/25 vs. Southampton
Overall, this is a relatively simple start for West Ham, as they'll get two of their harder matches -- away matches at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad -- done and dusted before the calendar even flips to September. After that, they should be able to defeat Bournemouth, Watford, and West Bromwich for the full 9 points, presumably. That home game against Southampton, however, may prove to be one of the club’s biggest showdowns in 2016-2017, as the Saints finished a point ahead of the Hammers last season. Rating: 6/10
Of the clubs we’ve detailed thus far, West Ham clearly falls under the we’re-just-happy-to-be-here category, as they’re, like Stoke City, unlikely to ever seriously challenge for even Champions League. However, a new stadium, Payet, and a war chest of television-deal money may change fortunes for the Hammers quicker than we expect. Unfortunately, West Ham are certainly a club in flux as well -- if they sign a striker like Gomez or Bacca, then they'll really be rolling. If they go with just Carroll again, well, I’d expect them to fall anywhere between 7th and 12th. But, if the oft-injured Carroll goes down for the long term again, they’ll be blowing bubbles of sorrow at the Olympic Stadium.
English Premier League Previews 2016-2017:
9th: Stoke City