Let’s hope our pre-season helps us get off to a flyer in the league

Anything less than a positive start will put Moyes back under pressure despite recent Euro success

Vladimir Coufal (WHU) at the West Ham United v Chelsea EPL match, at the London Stadium, London, UK on February 11, 2023.

It’s difficult to know what to read into pre-season performances. Many of us may remember going unbeaten in seven warm-up games under Avram Grant only to then go winless in our opening five games and eventually suffer relegation. 

Likewise, in the build-up to the 2015/16 season we failed to beat Peterborough, Colchester, or Charlton, and struggled to secure wins against Norwich and Southend under Slaven Bilic; before going on to enjoy a wonderful swan-song season at the Boleyn. So we probably shouldn’t put too much stock into our results as we prepare for the new campaign. However, in lieu of anything else much to discuss, we may as well see what we can take from it anyway.

Thus far we have beaten Borehamwood 4-1, won 6-2 against Perth Glory and 3-2 against Spurs before drawing 2-2 with Dagenham and Redbridge. Bowen and Mubama lead the scoring with three a piece, whilst Ings, Cornet, and Scamacca have each bagged twice. Youngsters Kodua and Swyer have got themselves goals, as has Emerson. 

David Moyes reportedly threw down the gauntlet to last season’s victorious u18 squad to give him something to think about, and they have had plenty of opportunities to do so. Levi Lang has featured heavily as part of a back three, as has Freddie Potts – trusted to anchor the midfield in both games in Australia. 

Neither have looked out of place alongside the more seasoned veterans of the side, or against Premier League opposition in the form of a very strong Spurs side. Daniel Chesters has been deployed as a right-wing back; it was his industrious run that caused the breakthrough against Perth – his cross leading to an own goal. 

He then provided the cross from which Mubama scored a powerful header in the same game. Swyer and Kodua have contributed, linking play in midfield well against Borehamwood and Perth in particular. Lewis Orford, George Earthy, Ollie Scales, Kaelan Casey and Callum Marshall were all given minutes too, most notably against Dagenham and Redbridge. 

But of all the youngsters, it is Divin Mubama who has really staked a claim for consideration. It isn’t just that he has scored three goals, it has been his overall contribution that has impressed. 

Speaking after the 3-2 win over Spurs, Moyes singled the young striker out for specific mention, stating: ‘He makes us a completely different side with his running, his pressure and the work he does off the ball for the team.’

High praise indeed from the normally reserved Scot. Of the first teamers, Jarrod Bowen continues to burn brightest. After his heroics in Prague, the attacker has picked up where he left off and has really looked sharp and decisive. 

Ings has looked much more comfortable operating as part of a two-pronged attack – running channels and linking up play before finding space in the box. His two goals have shown his range of finishing, the first a smart finish from the edge of the box, the second a poachers header at the far post. 

Emerson improved a lot as last season progressed and like Bowen, seems to have carried that renewed confidence into the warm-up games for the new season. Pablo Fornals, playing more centrally, has flourished. Given the licence to advance as part of a three-man midfield, he has been the creative hub, looking to unlock defences or run beyond the strikers. 

It was one such run that saw him brought down to win the penalty Scamacca converted against Perth. The same two combined for the winner against Spurs, with Fornals playing a lovely through ball for the Italian to run onto before calmly converting. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these games is the way Moyes has set the boys up. 

We have lined up in a 352, with the midfield seeing one acting as an anchor, another in a more box-to-box role and the third playing the role of creator-in-chief and supporting attacks, largely fulfilled by Fornals in the absence of Paqueta. Up front we have seen an almost old-fashioned ‘big man-little man’ pairing with the ‘big man (Scamacca or Mubama) charged with occupying the centre backs, dropping deeper to link play; whilst the ‘small man; (Ings or Bowen) runs the channels, linking with the wingback and making runs in behind. 

Out of possession it has allowed us to press in a different way; the strikers engage the opposing centre backs, the wing backs press high on the fullbacks and the midfield wait to trap any ball into the centre. All these players can go high, safe in the knowledge that the two deeper midfielders and the three centre backs aren’t outnumbered or exposed. Admittedly the quality of the opposition needs to be considered but it’s an encouraging evolution. 

So what can we take from all that? Probably not a lot. Whilst we have seen some encouraging performances from our young champions, we’ve been here before. 

Nathan Holland, Cullen, Oxo-Flex, Coventry, the list of ‘promising’ youngsters who have featured heavily in preseason, only to find themselves loaned out, is a particularly long one. If Ex is to be believed, it’s likely to be a case of history repeating rather than any indication of an exciting future for our Academy alumni this season.

The tactical tweaks, whilst positive, raise questions too. Most notably, do we possess enough centre back or wingback options to provide depth? We still need a specialist defensive midfielder to anchor the midfield. Where does Benrahma realistically fit in this formation?

In the end, preseason is an exercise in exercise and experimentation. How any of this translates into our set-up or team selection is anyone’s guess. All we can hope is that preparations pay off and the boys start the season well. If not, Moyes will find himself under pressure.

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