Manchester United continue their Premier League campaign on Wednesday evening when they host West Ham United at Old Trafford. Because the Hammers spent last season earning promotion from the Championship, and because they did not draw the Red Devils in any domestic cup competitions during that time, these two sides have not clashed since a Premier League tie in April 2011 -- an encounter that is memorable due to Wayne Rooney's hat-trick that day and his expletive-laden outburst into a camera after his third goal.
Form Guide: United moved to the top of the league table last weekend after their 3-1 defeat of Queens Park Rangers and after Manchester City's 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The Red Devils have earned 30 points from 13 league matches and they currently hold a one-point advantage over their 'noisy neighbours'. Prior to the QPR victory, United had lost two successive matches to Turkish side Galatasaray (in a game that had zero consequence, though, due to United clinching top spot in their group prior to this meeting) and Norwich City.
WEST HAM UNITED
Form Guide: West Ham currently sit 8th in the table with 19 points from 13 matches. Their most recent match was a London derby 1-3 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur last weekend at White Hart Lane. Prior to that, they had a 1-1 draw with Stoke City, a 1-0 defeat of Newcastle United, and a 0-0 draw with City.
United: David de Gea recovered to make the bench last weekend after he recently had his wisdom teeth extracted. He could start but manager Sir Alex Ferguson may opt for Anders Lindegaard instead due to the Dane's ability to better command his box against West Ham's aerial threat. In central-defense, any two of Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones are possible. Rio, though, seems most likely of the bunch to be given a rest after having played last weekend. At right-back, Rafael is the clear first-choice but because one of Smalling or Jones could bring more height into the side against West Ham's physicality, the Brazilian could possibly get a needed rest.
United are short on natural wingers at the moment and they have a plethora of relatively fresh central-midfielders. Therefore, it's very possible that Ferguson could opt for a midfield diamond system. Here's what the gaffer told MUTV on Monday:
"I thought Ando won the game for us. His performance was outstanding. He took the game by the scruff of the neck and he was so positive and determined in his play that he picks himself on Wednesday. We'll see what Antonio [Valencia] is like today and tomorrow. Nani is still going to be out [but] Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were on the bench on Saturday and they're available. It's good to have them as back-up and in the back four things are much healthier. We've got plenty of options in the midfield and up front – it's just the two wide positions [where we have problems in terms of availability]."
Okay then, Anderson is starting. Michael Carrick is almost certain to as well after being rested this past weekend. They could form a midfield duo. If a midfield trio is used, then Tom Cleverley is likely to join them. If a diamond is used, look for Rooney to be at the tip of it in a playmaker's role. Darren Fletcher will be rested after featuring twice in the past week. Ryan Giggs is an option as well.
If a system with wide attackers is used, then any of Giggs, Rooney, Ashley Young, and Danny Welbeck are possible for selection. Up front, Robin van Persie is the clear first-choice No.9 but if he's rotated and given a rest, the in-form Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) would likely start. If two players are used up front, and if Rooney is pushed out wide, then the Mexican international could partner RvP. There are many possibilities.
West Ham: Trying to predict the selection choices from manager Sam Allardyce is a bit easier. Jussi Jaaskelainen is the No.1 and ahead of him in central-defense, Winston Reid is expected while James Tomkins has been preferred as of late over James Collins. George McCartney is the first-choice left-back while Joey O'Brien is anticipated at right-back. If Collins does come into the side, though, at center-back, then Tomkins is possible to slide over to right-back.
In Allardyce's 4-5-1 system, Mark Noble and Mohamed Diame are the deeper-lying central-midfielders while Kevin Nolan plays higher up the pitch in support of lead striker Andy Carroll. Since Benayoun is injured, Gary O'Neill is probable as the right-sided attacker. On the opposite left-flank, Matt Jarvis has recently returned from injury and he's anticipated to be selected over Modibo Maiga.
* The basics of West Ham: This is a typical Big Sam side as West Ham are very direct and they use a big center-forward, Carroll, up front as the pivot in attack. It's hardly surprising that the Hammers, along with Stoke City, are far and away the leaders in the Premier League in aerial duels won. Their passing accuracy (76.3% success rate -- 16th in the league) is obviously hindered by the wave of long balls they send forward but possession is not important to them (44.5% average -- 14th in the league). When West Ham do have the ball though, they prefer to swing passes out to the flanks so that wide players can send in crosses for Carroll. If they're not able to keep the ball, they then look to punt the ball long for Carroll while midfield runners, such as Nolan and Diame, try to get forward in support.
Noble is actually pretty decent on the ball and it is he that is able to give his side a calm presence at times. His 55.2 passes completed per game are far more than anyone else on the squad (right-back O'Brien is second with 31.3). The midfielder is capable of sweeping the ball out wide, aiming a long ball towards Carroll, or moving out wide to create overloads near the flank (7.1 cross attempts per game at a 24% success rate). Closing him down and forcing other West Ham players on the ball should be a focus for United as this will make them more predictable -- route one.
Diame is the energetic and combative player in the center of the park as evident by his 4.2 tackles and 2.1 fouls per game. In fact, as a whole, West Ham are a combative side -- their 20.6 tackles per game are 6th in the league and their 13.9 fouls per game ranks second most. Jarvis can be a handful on his day and it'll be important for United to limit his influence as he's a key source of crosses from the left-side.
* Winning the second ball: There is a plan to this 'route one' style of sending the ball long for a big target forward. The key isn't necessarily winning the initial aerial duel against Carroll, instead, as Michael Cox points out, the battle for the second ball is hugely important. Specifically, it's Nolan that does so well to collect these balls (he's their leading scorer with 5 goals while Carroll just scored his first this past weekend) but the wingers and Diame getting forward helps as well. When one of United's center-backs goes up to challenge Carroll for the initial ball, the other center-back needs to be intelligent with positioning in almost a sweeper sort of role. Ferguson may want to opt for a midfield trio so that he has a deep-lying central-midfielder near Nolan and two others to track the runs of Diame and Noble from deep. Tracking these midfield runners and beating them to the second ball will be hugely important for United. Effective clearances are a must as well.
* United's approach?: As discussed already, United may be short on winger options if Valencia is out. United probably wouldn't have too much difficulty in attack if a midfield diamond shape is used but the lack of wide attackers would lead to them being vulnerable when out of possession. West Ham's full-backs would have space to get forward into and this likely would create 2 v 1 and 3 v 2 overloads near the flanks. This would be dangerous for United because preventing delivery into Carroll is an effective way to limit the big man's influence. It would seem that using a system with wide attackers may be more prudent for United so they can be natural foils to West Ham's full-backs.
Another way for United to limit Carroll's effectiveness as the focal point of their attack is by pushing up the pitch and having their back four play a high line. The simple logic is that the further away Carroll is from United's goal, the further away the danger is. If he's too far from the target, he can't have an attempt. Second balls being won by West Ham are less dangerous, as well, the further away they are from goal. If Ferguson does instruct his side to play with a high line, a potential center-back partnership of Evans and Smalling should have enough pace to defend on the turn if needed. This may be another reason to give the 34-year-old Ferdinand a rest for this game.
* How high or deep will West Ham position their lines?: How conservative will West Ham be at Old Trafford? Their match versus Arsenal in early October may have taught them something. In the first-half of that contest, the Hammers sat deep and held their defensive line just outside the box. Carroll was stranded as the outlet up front and help was slow to arrive when the ball was punted long. In the second-half, Allardyce instructed his side to play higher and they were noticeably improved. Carroll was superb as the focal point and finally, he had help from midfield runners being able to break forward towards him from initial positions that were closer. West Ham were much better in the latter half. Will the visitors sit deep and defend or will they feel they can compete better by pushing their lines higher up the pitch?
KO: 8:00pm GMT, 3:00pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: None (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.)
Referee: Mike Jones
Odds: Manchester United 2/9, Draw 5/1, West Ham United 12/1