The 2018-19 Premier League season is about two thirds of the way through and the top six are almost decided, barring a major collapse from Chelsea.
To the non-observer, this seems just like any ordinary fixture between two historically great teams from London. However, for those more closely involved, this game is of significant importance. A good Fulham squad lingers in the relegation zone, while West Ham are enjoying a comfortable time in 10th.
Rest assured that Claudio Ranieri’s team will come to the London Stadium looking for all three points. For West Ham, we must look to obtain the highest attainable position in order to establish a base-line momentum for next season, where I anticipate that Manuel Pellegrini will be looking for a position in the to six, or even the top four?!
We are blessed with a very good squad, have some excellent prospects in the U23s, and a number of very good players out on loan (notwithstanding any further player recruitment next summer.)
We must realise, though, that Southampton are only nine points adrift in 18th position, and while we have a reasonable run of fixtures to comes, bear in mind our history of performing poorly against apparent weaker teams. If we were to lose two or three games on the trot, we could easily find ourselves in big trouble. So, we have as much at stake, as do the lads from Craven Cottage.
For this game I have mooted a staggered 4-4-2 formation, which could easily morph into a 4-4-1-1 and/or a 4-5-1 shape, depending on the dynamics of the developing game and the mind-set of Pellegrini on game-day.
We all await the return of Marko Arnautovic into his role as central striker, and the possible first return of our great playmaker, Manuel Lanzini, after a long injury lay-off. If Lanzini plays even a small role in this game, the sound from the London Stadium will be heard all over the world.
So, I have slotted in Michail Antonio next to Arnie as the second striker. I have a feeling that Antonio will be given license to roam a little, as indicated by the arrows in the diagram above. He may fall back a little into central position, just behind Arnautovic, allowing the 4-4-1 alternative.
Furthermore, Antonio may fall back into a midfield position, possibly as an attacking right midfielder, between Declan Rice and Robert Snodgrass, thereby setting up a 4-5-1 shape.
Never underestimate the avant-garde thinking of our brilliant manager, and don’t be surprised for other cool tricks from his footballing neuron. The midfield four is almost self-selective, with Felipe Anderson and Snodgrass playing in their respective left and right midfield positions, slightly ahead of Mark Noble and an ever improving Rice.
I have started Rice close to Mark Noble, but Pellegrini may want to have him playing a little behind, more as defensive midfielder. Either way, Rice has matured so quickly to easily adjust to either role.
The back four will probably involve Aaron Cresswell, Ryan Fredericks Angelo Ogbonna and Issa Diop. I expect Aaron Cresswell to push up forward to a left-wing back position in close proximity to Anderson, where the two of them have set up a great understanding in recent weeks, which makes them a very potent attacking unit on the left side.
I fully expect that under the tutelage of Claudio Ranieri, Fulham will be at us from the start. While statistics often try to demonstrate the importance of possession, it is what we do with possession that really counts. We must anticipate an onslaught from Fulham, but try and win the all important initiative and dominance in the opening 20-30 minutes of the game.
That winning of the initiative must occur in midfield and not in front of our defensive unit, which sadly was one of the failings of Slaven Bilic, who often tried to encourage counter-attacking in front of the defenders, using a 4-2-3-1 formation and depending so much on the genius of Dimitri Payet.
We have to take stock of some of the danger men from Fulham, which includes Aleksandar Mitrovic, Tom Cairney and Andre Schurrle, and if we bottle them up in the middle we can hit them quickly on the rebound by getting the ball wide to Anderson and Snodgras who will eat themselves deep into the Fulham defence, and link up with Arnautovic or Antonio.
At some stage of the game, I expect Pablo Zabaleta, Pedro Obiang and Arthur Masuaku to make vital contributions off the bench, while of course hoping that Lanzini may play a cameo role at some stage in due time.
I also expect Anderson and Lanzini to develop a very strong attacking partnership. Together with Rice, we will suddenly be blessed with three of the best playmakers doing their trade, although we may not see this in full bloom till next season.
Looking at the present state of affairs, we have Fulham, Manchester City and Newcastle up ahead. We should be looking for wins against both Fulham and Newcastle and hope for an outside chance of a point against the rampant Manchester City.
This potential outcome could push us up even further into the top ten; however, if we melt down against Fulham and Newcastle, we may end up with 0-1 points from the next three games, busting up the fine morale we have built up so far.
Prediction: West Ham 3-1 Fulham.