Brighton vs West Ham: Three key battles facing Pellegrini and Hughton

Looking to make it four Premier League games unbeaten, Manuel Pellegrini’s resurgent West Ham side will travel to the Amex on Friday night.

Since slumping to four defeats on the bounce at the start of the season, the Hammers have battled back impressively since the international break.

Coming off the back of a 3-1 win over Manchester United, whispers of a European push are circling around East London.

Suffering a pair of losses against Chris Hughton’s side last year, Brighton will be chasing just their second league victory of the new campaign.

Without a win since August 19th, there are three key battles to look out for on Friday.

Glenn Murray Brighton

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 22: Glenn Murray of Brighton & Hove Albion signals during the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Tottenham Hotspur at American Express Community Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Brighton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

1. Glenn Murray vs Fabian Balbuena

Although Brighton have been unable to pick up three points since their 3-2 win over Manchester United back in August, the ever-reliable Glenn Murray has started the season brightly.

The 35-year-old already has four Premier League goals and has also found the net three times in as many appearances at the Amex.

Building a reputation for his hold up play, Murray’s 33 aerial duels won after seven games sees him sat in the top 10 in the division.

With Murray likely to have been the main point of discussion in West Ham’s preparations, Fabian Balbuena will likely be paired to duel with the experienced striker.

Heavily criticized during their defeats against Bournemouth and Liverpool, the Paraguay international appears to have found his feet.

Doing an admirable job of keeping Romelu Lukaku quiet last Saturday, even United boss Jose Mourinho applauded Balbuena’s transformation.

“Working more calmly is something that the Paraguayan has improved. Where before he was sloppy in possession, often panicking to try and find a teammate, he’s become calmer, more precise with his passes into midfield and it’s helped the Hammers launch attacks much quicker.”

Making 20 interceptions, only Watford’s Etienne Capoue has completed more in the Premier League.

The 27-year-old has also completed 26 headed clearances, only four players in the top flight have won more.

Balbuena’s relationship with fellow summer arrival Issa Diop has also begun to show real signs of improvement.

While West Ham’s 21-year-old Frenchman is an elegant ball-playing central defender, his new partner is more of an enforcer.

It won’t just be physically where Murray will test Balbeuna and co.

As he showed with his delicate flick past David de Gea, he can be devastating if you let him drift off your shoulder.

Scoring three goals in his two meetings against the Hammers last season, Balbuena and Diop must be in constant communication.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 16: Ademola Lookman of Everton is challenged by Arthur Masuaku of West Ham United during the Premier League match between Everton FC and West Ham United at Goodison Park on September 16, 2018 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

2. Anthony Knockaert vs Arthur Masuaku

While Diop and Balbuena will have their hands full with Hughton’s target man, Arthur Masuaku could have the toughest and most important task.

Returning from injury last month to replace Aaron Creswell for their 3-1 win over Everton, the DR Congo international is clearly Manuel Pellegrini’s first choice left-back.

On Friday, the buccaneering Masuaku will have the job of trying to nullify the Seagulls’ winger Anthony Knockaert.

Although he may only have one goal to his name, the 26-year-old is undoubtedly Brighton’s creative spark.

Having almost twice the amount of shots that Murray has had after seven games, no attacking player has had more touches than the Frenchman.

With three assists to his name, the former Leicester man will once again look to be the main provider for Murray.

If the Hammers are to keep Knockaert quiet, they will need Masuaku to put in another disciplined performance.

A natural winger still adjusting to the demands of playing as an out and out left-back, the 25-year-old is always eager to join the attack.

Making the second most tackles for West Ham this season, he can’t allow Knockaert time to settle and find his rhythm.

One man who will certainly be offering him some protection will be summer signing Felipe Anderson.

Grabbing his first goal for Pellegrini’s side last weekend, it has been the Brazilian’s tireless work ethic that has endeared him to the London Stadium.

Masuaku’s 23 successful tackles are only bested by the Anderson’s 25.

A willing runner in front of his left-sided partner, the former Lazio man will have to help keep Knockaert out the picture.

LONDON, ENGLAND – MARCH 31: Marko Arnautovic of West Ham United celebrates after scoring his sides third goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Southampton at London Stadium on March 31, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)

3. Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk vs Marko Arnautovic

Is there a player outside of the top six enjoying a finer run of form than Marko Arnautovic of late?

Continuing to cement his position as West Ham’s talisman, the Austrian international now has four in his last four.

Since David Moyes’ decision to reinvent the 29-year-old as a lone striker, the former Stoke man has only gone from strength to strength.

Becoming the first West Ham player to finish with double digits in over a decade last season, Arnautovic has been directly involved in 21 goals in his last 26 Premier League appearances.

Much like Diop and Balbuena must do with Murray, Duffy and Dunk must be constantly aware of the positions Arnautovic is taking up.

With Dale Stephens likely to once again miss out due to a hamstring problem, Hughton’s side must find a way to plug their leaky defence.

Brighton’s 13 goals conceded means they now hold the second worst defensive record in the top flight.

With only Burnley’s James Tarkowski making more blocks than Duffy, the duo must not allow Arnautovic to link up with Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko.

While both Brighton’s central defenders lack any notable pace, they will be looking for Martin Montoya to offer them some cover.

Arnautovic is still keen to drift out to the left, when he does, the 27-year-old has to try and stop West Ham’s top scorer having a free run.

Related:

West Ham 3-1 Manchester United: What did we learn as United suffer their worst start in 29 years

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