After a less than pleasing debut season at the London Stadium last year, West Ham fans may be surprised at suddenly being quietly hopeful about the new campaign after their recent summer business.
The arrival of Manchester City duo Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart has added much-needed Premier League experience to the ranks in east London, whilst Marko Arnautovic will add attacking impetus.
But it’s a man in the shape of a pocket-sized forward that is the real marquee signing as far as the Hammers are concerned this summer, with boss Slaven Bilic well and truly pulling a rabbit out of the hat to beat off competitors and secure the signing of ex-Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez.
To think that West Ham have managed to secure a player of Hernandez’s talent for just £16 million defies belief given the current state of the market, but supporters certainly won’t be complaining.
The 29-year-old, who has been on extended summer break due to his involvement in the FIFA Confederations Cup last month with Mexico, was awarded his first taste of football in a West Ham shirt last night as the Hammers almost came unstuck against German fifth-tier outfit Altona 93.
Although he only came on in the 70th minute it’s fair to say that he gave a glimpse of what he will bring to the Premier League, showing some sharp passing and playing Edimilson Fernandes through on goal – to fire wide – before nearly winning it himself with an effort expertly cleared off the line.
For a first game back, and for a friendly, his movement and tenacity in the opposition half was very impressive, constantly sitting on the shoulder of the last defender and looking to exploit the space in behind.
This productivity up front will be a breath of fresh air for West Ham – who struggled for goals at times last year after Mikhail Antonio’s untimely injury – and at last they have a renowned, proven goal-scorer.
And perhaps one of the reasons that Hernandez will be successful this season is his never-ending desire to succeed at the highest level. Speaking to the Evening Standard just last week, he insisted:
“For me it is the most competitive [league] in the world.
“There are no easy games, you can see that the top 10 can change a lot. The Premier League challenges you and that is why I am here – I want to improve.
“I’m very desperate for the season to start now, and help the team to achieve their objectives.”
He became a cult hero during his five-year spell at Old Trafford, scoring 59 goals in 157 appearances for United, and it is fair to say that he played an influential part in winning two Premier League titles there.
It seems highly appropriate then that his Premier League debut for his new side is likely to come against his former side, with West Ham travelling to Manchester on August 12 for their new season opener, and it’d be a brave man to bet against ‘Chicharito’ showing his old side what they’re missing out on.
Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook looks destined for a top-four club
The 21-year-old has been called up to Gareth Southgate’s squad as a reward for his recent form.
His form has largely gone under the radar, but Lewis Cook’s England call-up for the prestige friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy has brought him fully into the public consciousness.
The Bournemouth midfielder has been rewarded for his eye-catching performances since establishing himself as one of the first names on Eddie Howe’s team-sheet.
Keeping the likes of Harry Arter out of the starting XI, Cook has become a fans’ favourite at the Vitality Stadium.
With each appearance, the 21-year-old looks increasingly at home in the top-flight and is growing in maturity.
Cook had been enlisted as cover by Gareth Southgate during last November’s friendlies but didn’t feature. This time, however, he is in the 27-man squad on merit alone.
Despite being a newcomer, Cook has international pedigree.
He captained England at the Under-20 World Cup and followed Bobby Moore as only the second Englishman to lift a global trophy when the Three Lions defeated Venezuela in South Korea.
His progress has been tracked by Southgate, who wants to build a pathway from the age groups to the senior team.
It is a model that has proved successful in Germany, whose 2014 World Cup winners featured a nucleus of the dominant under-21 outfit.
Southgate has made it clear that, ideally, he wants to pick those who are performing regularly for their clubs.
With an increasingly shallow pool of players to choose from, this is not always possible.
But for the likes of Cook and James Tarkowski of Burnley, their call-ups are proof that you do not have to play for a so-called ‘big club’ to receive England recognition.
It gives hope to all those who harbour international ambitions.
Cook arrived in Dorset with high expectations after joining from Championship outfit Leeds United in the summer of 2016, but his maiden season was bedevilled by difficulties.
He lined up for his competitive debut in the 2016/17 Premier League curtain-raiser against Manchester United, only for a persistent ankle injury to sideline him for seven months.
He featured only sporadically at the back end of the campaign.
This season began similarly frustratingly for Cook, who failed to make the match-day squad for the opening fixtures.
However, he made his first Premier League start of the term against Leicester City last September and never looked back.
First, in partnership with Andrew Surman and latterly alongside Dan Gosling, it is no coincidence the Cherries’ revival has occurred with Cook at the heart of the action.
He has been instrumental in their improvement.
Cook’s style has been compared to Jack Wilshere, who spent last season on loan at Bournemouth.
Howe has credited the Arsenal man with aiding his protege’s development, culminating in this England selection.
Like Wilshere, Cook could not be described a prolific goalscorer. In fact, he has netted only two goals in 120 career appearances.
Where he shines is in possession of the football.
Linking defence with attack, Cook’s vision and ability to execute a pass are stand-out qualities. He rarely gives the ball away and always wants to move the play forward.
Occasionally he picks the wrong option, but at such a tender age mistakes are inevitable.
Despite the microscopic scrutiny involved in the top-flight, he can never be accused of hiding.
Cook always demands the ball from his team-mates, no matter how well he is playing.
Speculation has risen that Cook might be a target for some of the Premier League’s elite clubs, most notably Liverpool, who were reported to be targeting him to replace the Juventus-linked Emre Can.
Whether this interest materialises remains to be seen, but should Cook’s form continue then Howe may face a fight to keep his prized asset on the south coast.
There is little doubt from those who watch him regularly that Cook has the potential to reach the very top.
England recognition – and a spot at this summer’s World Cup – will only accelerate his rise.
Jose Mourinho should build Manchester United around Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford returned with a bang against local rivals Liverpool on Saturday.
In his first Premier League start since Boxing Day, Marcus Rashford inspired Manchester United to victory over fierce rivals Liverpool. The 20-year-old’s first-half brace was the perfect way to mark his return to the starting XI, which had been confirmed following an injury to Paul Pogba.
Rashford has been a peripheral figure since Alexis Sanchez joined the club in the January transfer window. But, in arguably the biggest fixture on the Premier League calendar, the England international grabbed with both hands a rare opportunity to impress as United moved five points clear of Liverpool.
There was no evidence that Rashford’s prolonged spell out of favour had affected his self-confidence. His first goal was bursting with skill and composure. After latching on to a long ball from Lukaku, Rashford bamboozled Trent Alexander-Arnold before firing past Loris Karius.
Although his second found the net with the aid of a deflection, once again it was a testament to his sharpness. Despite his limited game time, that’s now 12 goals in all competitions this season for the World Cup hopeful.
Rashford’s stunning contribution will certainly give Jose Mourinho food for thought. The Portuguese has regularly picked Pogba, Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard ahead of Rashford of late, in the attacking trio behind Romelu Lukaku.
While Martial and Lingard have justified their selections, the same cannot be said of Pogba, who at times has looked uninterested. Sanchez too has yet to exhibit his best form in a United shirt since joining from Arsenal.
History has taught us that Mourinho rarely excludes his high-profile players, regardless of form. Had Pogba not been sidelined through injury, it is entirely likely Rashford would once again have been forced to watch on from the bench. Consequently, what transpired against Liverpool might have been a mere fantasy.
United have a proud tradition of producing homegrown players and not relying on foreign imports. Look at the treble-winning side of 1999, whose success was founded upon a British core.
Admittedly, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past two decades. The riches of the Premier League mean a club of United’s stature is able to cherry-pick the world’s best players. But just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. The club’s identity is sacred and, in recent times, United have been in danger of losing theirs.
The fact that Rashford was not signed for £75 million should not preclude him from being United’s centrepiece. As he reminded everyone in his performance against Liverpool, he has all the talent required to be a fixture at the club for years to come.
However, he needs to be playing regular football. A few minutes here and there will not accelerate his development. On the contrary, it could risk one of this country’s most promising starlets becoming an unfulfilled talent.
Rashford offers United something different from his team-mates. He gets supporters off their seats and electrifies the atmosphere thanks to his blistering pace and trickery, which in many ways is a throwback to the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford.
These are qualities not usually associated with Mourinho, who throughout his time in management has always demanded his players to be tactically aware. Rashford is a wildcard, the ace in the pack that can conjure something out of nothing.
Forget Pogba and Sanchez, If Mourinho gives Rashford an extended run in the team, he and United will flourish.
Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career
It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.
Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.
Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.
In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.
Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.
Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.
Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.
The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.
Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.
After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.
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