From the London Stadium – There would have been a time when traipsing down to east London to take on Manchester United would strike fear into me.
The butterflies would be going in my stomach, the tension in the car would be unbearable and that feeling of dread would take over. But on the way to the London Stadium today, I was calm – for a number of reasons.
United aren’t the force they were under Sir Alex Ferguson, that much is clear. The heady of days of winning countless Premier League crowns, year after year after year are a distant memory. Just ask Scott Saunders.
Instead, turning up this afternoon felt just like any other Premier League fixture. But it’s not just United’s shortcomings that have me feeling this way. It’s more a change of ethos at West Ham, and a belief that actual progress is being, and will continue to be, made under Manuel Pellegrini.
We’re still susceptible to poundings against the big boys, yes – but importantly, we’re more than a match for most teams in the division. We have actual quality in our team and, dare I say, have an identity. Compromising principles is not something that Pellegrini knows how to do, and against a side like United, that’s exactly what you want from your manager.
Reputation often comes into the equation, particularly in the modern game of pressing until your legs fall off, when really you should judge every game on its merits. Outside of Manchester City and Liverpool – clearly the two best sides in the league – West Ham have the quality to hurt a lot of teams – providing our strengths are played to.
It’s something that Pellegrini, who of course has the winning mentality instilled him after winning the league five years ago, seemingly knows too. And against United today, we saw exactly that.
Bold in selection – as we’ve become accustomed to – he handed a first start to Pablo Fornals, in the absence of the injured Manuel Lanzini, flanked on either side by the dangerous Felipe Anderson and the ever so one-footed Andriy Yarmolenko.
That in itself is a huge step forward for the club. I’ll explain why.
Before, we would have replaced one of our most influential attacking outlets with a workhorse kind of replacement. A Robert Snodgrass, or a Pedro Obiang or Cheikhou Kouyate in seasons gone by. Someone who would solidify and compact the midfield, making us difficult to beat and break down. That’s not the case anymore.
Pellegrini himself highlighted after the game that he will be unwavering in his approach, stating to the media in his post-match press conference that ‘we must have the mentality to play the way we trained in the week. It doesn’t matter who we are playing’.
That way of thinking comes naturally to winners and that is music to my ears, and the lugholes of all West Ham fans around the world.
What transpired was Fornals, along with Anderson and Yarmolenko, drifting into pockets of space, exchanging neat intricate passes in-field, before attempting to stretch the game with the advancing runs of Ryan Fredericks and Aaron Cresswell.
Of course, a helping hand was offered by the absolute shambles that is Manchester United. The visitors were abject in possession, lacked any kind of creative spark and showed just how reliant they are on Paul Pogba to set the tone in midfield. Marcus Rashford limping off didn’t help, but not even he can hold a candle to the calibre of striker I used to see visiting us at Upton Park in years gone by. It really was quite embarrassing to watch.
The reality is West Ham weren’t even that good. But we didn’t need to be in fairness, we only had to outplay what was put in front of us – and that wasn’t a difficult task for a team who were high on confidence after coming into this unbeaten in four.
Sebastien Haller was strong as an ox up top, fending off the apparently good Harry Maguire at every opportunity, while Yarmolenko and Anderson looked bright when drifting inside from the flanks. Fornals looked composed, Declan Rice was rarely troubled and even Mark Noble, whose legs gave up on him at least 57 years ago, looked in a different class to the midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.
It was all a bit bizarre really. When Yarmolenko’s neat finish handed us the lead just before half-time, I kind of expected it. The football on show had been dull, but we looked most likely to score – and on reflection, deserved to.
Aaron Cresswell’s swashbuckling free-kick was a rather tasty cherry to pop on a very nice fourth-placed (for now) cake, but the real takeaway here is that we were good, United were bad. We were positive, United were dreadful. We’ve changed our mindset, we’ve got 11 points and we’re just as likely as Leicester are to breach the top six divide.
Quite nice a feeling really.
Follow @Toby_Cudworth on Twitter for all things West Ham.