The Premier League season is finally underway, with Manchester United and West Ham bringing the opening weekend to a close with their clash at Old Trafford.
The Hammers will face a tough task against United, having failed to win at Old Trafford since 2007 when Carlos Tevez’s goal enabled West Ham to retain their top-flight status. The Red Devils also have an imperious record against West Ham at home, having won 17 of their previous 21 Premier League contests at Old Trafford (D2, L2).
West Ham will hope that their four debutants will inspire a change of fortunes at the Theatre of Dreams, particularly with former United striker Javier Hernandez likely to start in attack.
Here are three key battles that will shape the course of the game:
Paul Pogba vs Mark Noble
Both of these players are likely to start in midfield at Old Trafford, with the battle between the two central to determining which side will hold sway in the middle of the park.
Paul Pogba was one of United’s brightest and most consistent performers last season, with his boundless energy and workrate complimenting a diverse passing range. Hammers’ skipper Noble boasts similar dynamism and tenacity in his game, even if he has less of a license to get forward in West Ham’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system.
The Frenchman has the slight edge statistically, with Pogba outscoring Noble by five goals to three in the Premier League last term. Pogba even completed an average of three interceptions per game to Noble’s one during the 2016/17 campaign, while he also boasted a superior pass completion rate and won a higher percentage of aerial duels.
With Matic set to start alongside Pogba and likely to be charged with engaging Pedro Obiang, Noble could find himself in direct combat with Pogba and may struggle to cope with the Frenchman’s power, drive and excellent technical ability.
If the Hammers are to get a result and end their 10-year winless run at Old Trafford, Noble will have to find a way of besting Pogba while driving West Ham forward when in possession of the ball.
Antonio Valencia vs Marko Arnautovic
While all eyes will be on Javier Hernandez in West Ham’s attack, the prolific Mexican will be relying on his teammates to provide him with some high quality service at Old Trafford.
In this respect, £25 million signing Marko Arnautovic will be crucial. An inconsistent and enigmatic performer, he combined brilliant goals with abject performances during his time at Stoke City, scoring six times in 32 appearances last term while creating 50 chances for his side.
He possesses the quality to unlock any defence with a moment of brilliance, so the Hammers will be looking to him to provide width and penetration from the left flank.
In his way will be the imposing figure of Antonio Valencia, with the 32-year old Ecuadorian now firmly established as one of the best right-backs in the league. Not only does he offer pace and a constant outlet in attack (which is crucial when you consider United’s narrow attacking formation), but is he also reliable at the back and completed a total of four interceptions per game during last season.
Valencia will be focused on preventing Arnautovic from cutting inside onto his right foot, while he will also look to drive him back and force him to defend at every opportunity. If he succeeds, West Ham will find it difficult to get the deadly Hernandez involved in the game.
Romelu Lukaku vs Winston Reid
The £75 million signing of Romelu Lukaku represented a significant piece of business for Manchester United, particularly given the Belgian’s ability to plunder goals against weaker opposition. This was an area where the Red Devils were sorely lacking last season, and they will be hoping that Lukaku starts to repay his fee with a goal or two on his Old Trafford debut.
The former Everton hitman scored 25 goals in 37 Premier League appearances last term, while he also created 46 chances for his colleagues. This is another important element of his game, as Lukaku will need to hold possession and quickly bring others into play as United look to build attacks against massed defences at Old Trafford.
Hammers centre-back Winston Reid will probably take responsibility for stopping Lukaku, with the New Zealand international now extremely experienced in the Premier League. The stopper also showcased excellent form in difficult circumstances last season, completing an average of 12 defensive actions per game in the top-flight.
He also won 53% of his aerial duels during this time, and this could be an important feature given the stature and aerial ability of Lukaku.
This could well be an exceptionally physical battle, but if Reid can subdue Lukaku it may provide a platform for West Ham to take the game to Manchester United and pose an attacking threat of their own.