Manchester United will play the first of two matches against West Ham on Sunday at Old Trafford, and nothing less than a win will be sufficient in the Premier League, especially considering the fact Arsenal grabbed a draw in the last-minute of United’s last match. West Ham hasn’t been great this season, sitting 17th in the table even through the financial benefits of their stadium move, but they have some of the brightest talents in the Premier League and can cause any side problems on their day.
Dimitri Payet, Attacking Midfielder, West Ham
Isn’t it obvious? Dimitri Payet is easily the best Premier League player outside the top seven, miles better than any other player (including Riyad Mahrez). His ability on the ball, incredible dribbling and pace is reminiscent of United’s own Henrikh Mkhitaryan at his best, and he has been incredible since his move to West Ham at the beginning of last season. Solely dragging West Ham into the title race for parts of last season, Payet combines his incredible ability on the ball with incredible free kicks that saw him score the most free kick goals in Europe last season.
Over 25 appearances this season (including the Euros), his average match rating is an incredible 7.75 on WhoScored, one of the highest in Europe’s top five leagues. With a goal and four assists for a misfiring West Ham side in just 9 appearances, Payet has been one of the best midfielders in the league considering the players around him. He poses the exact type of threat that would be able to breach Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia because of his ability to draw fouls. Combined with West Ham’s next player, he creates a massive threat from set-pieces, known to be one of United’s worst defensive areas.
Michail Antonio, Winger, West Ham
Playing all over the pitch for West Ham this season, Michail Antonio has scored the same number of goals as Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Premier League because of his incredible ability to head the ball. Antonio, used as an emergency right-back by Slaven Bilic, prefers to ply his trade as a winger, drifting away from his left-back and making a channel run to the back post to head the ball into the back of the net. This common run allows him not only to score goals with ease but also to occupy opposition defenders and create space for others.
The tactical issue with playing West Ham is that, with Payet and Antonio on the wings, the London outfit has two completely different outlets, both of whom penetrate the channels and create a gap in the centre. For this reason, West Ham has the potential to score goals if their striker is in finishing form, and United will need to be particularly aware of the distances between defenders, with midfielders tracking back to double up against Payet’s dribbling and Antonio’s heading.
Antonio Valencia, Right-Back, Manchester United
Finally adjusting to playing at right-back, Antonio Valencia has been in incredible form this season, offering all of United’s attacking and defensive impetus and still standing out. Earning the praise of everyone for the first time in years, Valencia averages an incredible 7.6 defensive actions per game for United, even completing 1.9 dribbles moving forward and even earning an assist. His individual defending is incredible and he has learned to use his physicality to help him defend space, making him, in my opinion, the best defender in the Premier League this season.
There is a chance that United will experiment with starting Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top, in which case United could suffer from a lack of pace at key moments. In this case, Valencia will be vital in providing the pace and width up top, and potentially creating the key chance that unlocks West Ham’s defence.
Paul Pogba, Midfielder, Manchester United
The performances of Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney on Thursday once again prompted opposition fans and the media to ignore Paul Pogba’s incredible performances of late. The media are clearly not intent on him succeeding after he was branded as a flop by everyone because he has been one of the best players in the Premier League lately and I have heard nothing.
Every week, Pogba offers a ridiculous array of talents. His passing range is incredible, and he offers such aggression and passion before offering a moment of absolute grace that splits the opposition defence open. If Pogba can reach 20 goals in a season in his career, and he already has four for United, he will cement his place as the best midfielder on the planet, because I can already see him developing his game. West Ham’s midfield poses a physical challenge and United’s world-record signing will be important in ensuring those midfielders do not get the best of the likes of Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera, or whoever else plays in United’s midfield.