The Third International Break

Another enforced interlude provides the opportunity to review the season to date

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On 9 November one year ago I was writing my first book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, which chronicled West Ham’s final season at the Boleyn Ground.  On that exact date I wrote a chapter reviewing the Premier League season as we went into the third international break. Twelve months ago we were just twelve games into the season when it was interrupted for the third time to allow international matches to take place. This time we have played one fewer.

On 9 November 2015, Aston Villa occupied the bottom slot, Sunderland were just above them, and Bournemouth made up the trio of teams occupying the relegation places. Of course, only one of them went down, as the Mackems and the Cherries climbed to 17th and 16th respectively by the end of the season. The other two relegated teams, Norwich and Newcastle sat in 15th and 17th place on this day. Is this a warning to Middlesbrough and West Ham?

A year ago we were sixth in the table, just one point below Tottenham. Our North London neighbours had only lost once, but drawing half of their games kept them down in fifth place. This season Spurs are unbeaten so far, but drawing six of their eleven games has once again kept them down in fifth. Ironically the first game after this break in 2015 was a visit to White Hart Lane where we were “Kaned” 4-1. History repeats itself fixture-wise this season, but I am hoping that we don’t get a repeat of the score from last time.

What a difference a year makes for Liverpool. This time last year they sat in mid-table and were lucky to be that high thanks to some dubious refereeing decisions going their way. They had just lost at home to Palace and after that flop, some way off the top, Klopp had a strop, caught everyone on the hop, and had a pop at the Kop (not so easy to say) for deserting the ground before the final whistle. A year on they do now sit at the top after a breathtaking demolition of Watford last weekend, a performance matched by Chelsea in their exhilarating 5-0 victory over high flying Everton. Manchester City and Arsenal follow closely on their heels (they occupied the top two positions a year ago) so it looks like the title will be won by one of the top four.

After their unexpected success last season Leicester have reverted to where you would expect them to be and only have one more point than ourselves. The league is very close if you ignore the top seven and bottom two, with just five points separating Watford in eighth and Hull in eighteenth.

We are seventeenth, in part due to a shocking goal difference of minus 9; only the bottom three clubs have a worse figure, Hull (-14), Swansea (-11), and Sunderland (-12). Last season 38 points (or exactly one point a game) was the figure needed to keep your place in the Premier League. This time around a similar pattern is emerging with just the bottom three not averaging a point a game. But we are only just on that level, and with the tough (on paper) run of fixtures to come against teams occupying 5th, 6th, 4th and 1st, we could easily find ourselves in the relegation mix (usually termed a dogfight) early in December. We really need to raise our level of performance in those games and take something from them.

After that run we have easier games (on paper, again) at home to Burnley and Hull, before visiting Swansea and Leicester to finish off 2016, and to reach exactly the half-way point in the season. But we haven’t shown that we can easily beat “relatively weaker” sides either this season (or indeed last). Our two home victories (out of six home games) were very late 1-0 wins over Bournemouth and Sunderland, we managed 1-1 draws with Middlesbrough and Stoke, and lost to Watford (2-4) and Southampton (0-3). We have managed just six goals in our six home Premier League games, a very poor figure, especially given the fixtures. This is matched by our five goals in five away games. So, eleven games played, eleven goals scored, and eleven points on the board. Not what we were expecting after last season, perhaps!

So now I’ll put my prediction hat on, and say that in the next eight games, taking us up to the midpoint of the season, we will amass a further eleven points taking us up to 22, which would be seven short of where we were in the middle of last season. Anything much less than this and we will still be in potential relegation trouble. The bookmakers think we’ll be OK. We are joint sixth favourites (with Crystal Palace) to be relegated, after Sunderland, Hull, Swansea, Burnley, and Middlesbrough.

How many of our players can look at themselves in the mirror and be pleased with their performances to date this season? Antonio, perhaps, early on for his goalscoring which earned him an England squad place, although the goals have dried up recently. Obiang, who has been man of the match for me in most of the games he has played, and who surely has cemented his place in the starting line-up. Fernandes and Fletcher have shown a lot of promise from limited opportunities, too. As for everyone else, I don’t think any of them have reached the level they played at last season. I am pleased for Aaron Cresswell getting his chance finally in the England squad, though he has hardly played since returning from injury; the call up is based more on his consistency last season, and a new manager prepared to recognise it.

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