Issa Diop: Let's repeat last season's Manchester United result
Anybody who’s followed Premier League football for any significant amount of time will know that lightning can indeed strike twice.
Every West Ham United fan will be believing in that mantra this weekend, with Manchester United the Hammers’ opponents at London Stadium on Sunday at a similar point in the campaign as the corresponding fixture was last year.
One of the stars that day was the towering Issa Diop, a summer signing of 2018 who, only seven competitive appearances into his career in England, helped subdue an expensively-assembled red forward line including the likes of Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial on the way to a 3-1 victory.
That result was arguably the best of the Hammers’ 2018/19 domestic season, creating an electric atmosphere at London Stadium as Felipe Anderson’s cute back-heeled flick, Andriy Yarmolenko’s deflected strike – later credited as a Lindelöf own-goal – and a cool finish from Marko Arnautovic sent the Claret and Blue faithful bouncing in the aisles.
Memories of that excellent performance came flooding back to Diop as, one year on, he again finds himself at the heart of a West Ham outfit full of belief ahead of the Red Devils’ visit.
“We played a very good game against them last season,” the French centre-back recalled with a wry smile. “It was our first win at home last season, and a very good moment for us.
“Sunday’s going to be a different game, so we have to try to do the same thing as last year. We have to play our football and not think about Manchester United.
“We have a very good team and can beat anyone, so we are confident. In the Premier League every game is difficult, but we are ready for this game. I think if we play our football, we’re a team who can do anything.”
While West Ham have recently been hailed for their attacking options, Diop has stood out for his uncompromising approach at the back in recent matches.
The former Toulouse defender has played the full 90 minutes in each of the Irons’ last three fixtures – attaining clean sheets against Newport County, Norwich and Aston Villa – as Manuel Pellegrini’s side have stretched their unbeaten run to five games in all competitions.
Diop was integral to West Ham’s hard-earned point at Villa Park on Monday night, leading the way with a team-high four clearances from the back, and the defender credits both his manager Pellegrini and his burgeoning experience of the Premier League with this fine form.
“I’m very happy – and very lucky to play – in the Premier League,” Diop reflected. “I have been here one year, and I now have more experience of it.
“Pellegrini’s coached big clubs and has a lot of experience, and I’ve learned a lot with him and improved a lot in that time. I think everyone saw last year how much the team improved, so I hope we’re going to improve more again this year.
“Of course I just want to play a lot of games and I want to play well, but I also want to repay the manager’s trust on the pitch, so I always try to do my best to win each game.”
With the additions of playmaker Pablo Fornals and strikers Albian Ajeti and Sebastien Haller this summer, Diop admitted that another of the reasons he feels he is improving at West Ham has been the challenge of defending against the trio in training.
“Good players are horrible to mark,” he laughs. “But it’s good because you can improve when you train with such talented players.
“Seb [Haller] in particular is very strong, tall, and clever. He can play it simply but he can also score and he can pass well. You don’t know as a defender what he’s going to do next, so it’s very difficult to defend against him.”
Those acquisitions have already made an impressive impact on West Ham’s output, and Diop believes the current forward line will help him achieve his own personal goals.
He said: “Our forward players are really talented. We are lucky to have a line of attackers like this. They can change a game in a second, so it’s easy to play with them. They attack well but they also defend as well, which is very important.
“This season, my target is the same: to play a lot of matches, as many as I can - and win as many as I can.”