Stoke Preview

A victory today would be most welcome with the difficult run of fixtures to follow after the international break

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I can honestly say that the game against Stoke is not the one that I look for when the fixtures schedule is released in the middle of June each year. In fact I think that when Tony Pulis was in charge, it was probably the game that I least looked forward to. I have never been a fan of watching Pulis’ teams play, and West Brom have now assumed the Stoke mantle for me. Perhaps many West Brom fans feel the same judging by the empty seating in last week’s game at the Hawthorns? Those fans who have been watching for a few years will probably remember the Rory Delap long throw tactic. Stoke would do all they could to attain throw-ins in the opposition half, and then Delap would spend an age drying the ball before launching a long throw into the penalty area, with his team mates blocking off defenders as if it were a game of American Football. Somehow they got away with it, and often went unpunished by referees.

But Stoke under Mark Hughes are different, although they still retain some players who play the game in the same way they did under Pulis, especially Shawcross and Walters. In my opinion Shawcross has always been one of the most over-rated central defenders in the Premier League, and I could never understand the clamour in the media to get him called up into the England squad. That appears to have died down in recent times though. He is one of those defenders often referred to as uncompromising, although I could think of other adjectives to describe his methods.

Last December at Upton Park the game ended goalless, but of all the 0-0 games I have ever seen this one was one of the best. Both sides played entertaining stuff and were applauded off at the finish. There were 34 shots in the game, of which we had 22, and there was a grandstand finish where we almost nicked the points. One of the reasons we didn’t win was the superlative goalkeeping of Jack Butland. He got injured playing for England in a later game, and has been out for a long time. I think they, and England, miss him

When I look back over the past fifty years or more I don’t have great memories of watching us play Stoke. At the Britannia Stadium, in the final game of last season we took the lead and had control of the game. We conceded an equaliser against the run of play and then lost the game right at the death. We pulverised them in the first half but only had a solitary goal at the interval for our endeavours. It should have been three or four with the game wrapped up. We missed stacks of chances, and Stoke cleared about four off the line. One was only an inch or so from being a goal but it just wasn’t going to be our day. In some ways we missed Payet, but we created so many chances it shouldn’t have mattered. We had more than twenty shots on goal to Stoke’s half a dozen.

Going back almost fifty years, in 1967-68 we were 3-0 up at half-time in a league game at Upton Park and we let Stoke back into the game to win 4-3. Two seasons later, almost to the day we were once again 3-0 up at half time, and Stoke fought back to draw 3-3 and were just denied a late winner with a shot that came back off the post! In 1971-72 we met them in the League Cup semi-final that went to four games that had everything (they didn’t have penalty shoot-outs in those days). We won the first leg away 2-1, but Stoke won 1-0 in the second leg at Upton Park when Gordon Banks saved a late-in-the-game Geoff Hurst penalty and it went to a replay. The first replay was drawn and we then lost an incredible second replay 3-2. I can also remember visiting their old stadium, the Victoria Ground in 1973. All I can recall is that a smallish crowd made a lot of noise, and we lost the game 2-0.

In some ways, their start to this season has mirrored our own. They began with a draw at Middlesbrough, and then lost four games in a row, conceding four goals in each of three of those fixtures. They followed this with two more draws, before a recent run of three consecutive victories, albeit against Sunderland, Hull and Swansea, the three teams currently occupying the relegation places. As I knew we were playing them this weekend I watched some of their 3-1 win over Swansea on the Monday night football on Sky. They looked quite impressive, especially Bony who scored twice, and Allen, who has scored four goals from midfield this season. Arnautovic will be missing serving a one match ban, whilst Shaqiri is a doubt for the game.

We haven’t actually beaten Stoke at home since March 2011 when our three goalscorers were Demba Ba, Da Costa, and Hitzlesperger. Where are those three ex-players now? The last time we did record a victory over them was in March 2013 when Jack Collison scored the only goal in the game at the Britannia. But since then we have played them six times in total, drawing three and losing three. Since returning to the Premier League our home record against them has been three draws and one loss, so it is about time we put an end to this run.

They currently sit in twelfth place in the table (to our seventeenth), but are only two points ahead of us, so a victory would take us above them, and we could in theory be in the top half of the table by Saturday evening if other results went our way, although this is unlikely. But with our difficult run of fixtures after the international break, three points would be most welcome, and I predict that we will win a tight game by the odd goal, perhaps 1-0 or 2-1.

I Wouldn’t Bet On It 16

Straight from the striker’s mouth. Going large on a West Ham win.

Fancy A BetLast week we had some fun bets on West Ham v Everton. It all hinged on West Ham winning or drawing the game. If either happened then we were up. But unfortunately we lost so our balance reduced to 100.0, which is exactly where we started.

This week we’ll have a look at our game at home to Stoke. On Paddy Power we were quoted at 21/20 to win, and 13/5 to draw. I fully expect us to win, despite our difficulty in scoring goals, added to the relative ease at which we manage to concede them so far this season.
I also expect Stoke to concede a penalty for blatant holding from a corner. I know that referees appear to have relaxed their early season edict to award penalties in these circumstances, but it is about time we were given a penalty. I therefore expect (well hope anyway) that Mark Noble will score the first goal of the game.

My stake will be:

20 points on a win @21/20 (41)
10 points on a draw @13/5 (36)
1 point Mark Noble to score the first goal @12/1 (13)
1 point on Noble 1st goal and we win 1-0 @60/1 (61)
1 point on Noble 1st goal and we win 2-1 @60/1 (61)
1 point on a 1-0 West Ham victory @15/2 (8.5)
1 point on a 2-1 West Ham victory @15/2 (8.5)

Total stake 35 points, reducing our balance to 65.

If we win or draw the game then we’ll be up on the day. A draw will return 36 points, and a win would be 41. If we win 1-0 or 2-1 then our return will be 49.5. But if Noble scores the first goal, and the game ends 1-0 or 2-1 to us, then our return will be 123.5 points. What are the chances?

If the unthinkable happens and we lose the game, then I’ll be more upset about the loss of a potential three points, than losing our stake of 35 points.

The Lawro Challenge – Week 11

Our mission to out-predict the BBC pundit predictor.

Lawro Crystal BallTen rounds of games in the Premier League have now been completed. That means we have now predicted the results of 100 matches. Just over a quarter of the season has elapsed, and Lawro has narrowed the gap at the top of the prediction league. Rich and Lawro are currently in the Man City and Arsenal positions, whereas Geoff is imitating Sunderland.

However a lot can happen in the next 280 games, just as it can to the teams in the Premier League, and Geoff has more chance of winning this challenge than Sunderland do of winning the league. But he will need to start making inroads into the points gap before falling too far behind.

In Week 10, Rich scored 5 points, Geoff 4 points, and Lawro had the best total again with 9 points. In this challenge we award one point for a correct result, and a further two points (making three in total) if the score prediction is spot on.

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 9 weeks

75

54

67

Score in week 10

5

4

9

Total after 10 weeks

80

58

76

 

 

 

 

Predictions – Week 11

 

 

 

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

SATURDAY

 

 

 

Bournemouth v Sunderland

2-1

 3-1

2-0

Burnley v Palace

1-1

1-2

1-1

Man City v Middlesbrough

 3-0

4-0 

3-0

West Ham v Stoke

2-1

3-1 

1-1

Chelsea v Everton

2-1

2-0 

2-1

SUNDAY

 

 

 

Arsenal v Tottenham

1-1

2-2 

2-0

Hull v Southampton

0-1

0-2 

1-1

Liverpool v Watford

4-1

3-1

3-0

Swansea v Man United

1-1

 0-0

0-2

Leicester v WBA

2-0

1-0 

2-1

A Tale of Two Stadiums

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Wisdom or foolishness, belief or incredulity?

Stadiums

Imagine there was a football team with a traditional working class support that gave up the cherished memories of its full of character home ground, which it owned, and moved away to rent a taxpayer funded converted athletics stadium. The first season at the new stadium witnessed an early European exit to an obscure eastern European outfit and then patchy form resulted in them slipping to 16th place in the league. This week that team has just defeated Barcelona and were reported to be top earners from last season’s Champions League with revenues of £76 million (equivalent to about 60% of West Ham’s annual revenue from all sources). The team is, of course, Manchester City.

Despite the obvious parallels there are also important differences. Critics of the London Stadium will point out that the conversion of the City of Manchester stadium was to a dedicated football stadium rather than a multi-purpose arena; and I’m sure there is some justification in that as far as the matchday experience is concerned. In addition, although City pay more in rent than West Ham do, and are responsible for all operating overheads, they are able to benefit more from the associated (and now significant) naming rights and matchday income.

In the first 6 years in their new home City finished 18th, 8th, 15th, 14th, 9th and 10th respectively. Despite what we may believe a shiny, new high capacity stadium doesn’t guarantee success. It wasn’t until the injection of Thai (briefly) and Abu Dhabi money that City’s new successful era began. It is arguable whether that investment would have been forthcoming if they had still played at Maine Road.

I know a few Manchester City fans and all are delighted with their new found status. They are now the second most profitable English league club, after their near neighbours, and with massive financial backing are well placed to continue the upward momentum. I don’t recall too many rumblings related to the move but, if there was a lot of moaning in Royle family style sittings rooms across the City at the time, it is long forgotten now.

Famous victories under the lights against Barca may seem a long way away to the average Hammer’s fan at the moment. The optimism of the new stadium (where it existed) has been overtaken by events and with the negativity fuelled and amplified by the media. With few exceptions the media is rather patronising towards West Ham regarding them as a wayward cousin to the ‘real’ glamour London clubs or Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. A rare moment in the sun is tolerated but other than that the club and its supporters are seen as a caricature that belongs in an Eastender’s plot. The nature and generosity of the deal for the London stadium has made the club a perfect target for journalists and online media sites to exaggerate and repeat half truths. It has not been helped by the actions of some supporters while similar flash-points at other grounds, with Manchester City fans smashing up the toilets at Old Trafford or Liverpool fans throwing flairs on to the pitch at Selhurst Park, barely get a mention. The stories about a return to the hooliganism of the 70’s or 80’s and the stadium being unsuitable for football are clearly risible.

I have mentioned before that in the past West Ham have relied heavily on TV money for revenues; far more so than our closest rivals in financial terms do. Staying at the Boleyn Ground (as it was) did not provide any opportunity for the club to develop or even to maintain the status quo with our peers. Whether it was viable to developing Upton Park into a stadium that could generate more revenue is another question but a moot one now. The point being that West Ham’s future depended on being able to increase Matchday and, more importantly, Commercial income. The alternative was to slip further away from any aspiration to join the leading London clubs and join the also-rans of Palace, QPR and Fulham instead. It is possible that some fans would be quite happy with this situation if it meant that traditions were maintained but, as a business decision, passing up the opportunity of the London stadium move would have been foolish; particularly with Tottenham hovering in the wings.

The gulf in earnings between West Ham and the (financially) big clubs is so huge now that even if the teething problems with the new stadium are fully resolved it can only take us a few rungs up the ladder. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where we are able to grow organically into becoming a regular Champion’s League participant. Major outside investment is the only route to such a promised land and that is something that would change the club out of all recognition.

The London Stadium and its location is ideal to attract the attention of investors (likely to be overseas) but the unanswered question is what type of club do we want?

The Fixtures Computer

Can we blame the fixtures computer for the fact that we sit seventeenth in the Premier League table after a quarter of the season?

Season Fixtures

In modern times in the Premier League era, fixtures divide very neatly into two halves of the season. What I mean by this is that we play games against each of the other nineteen teams in the league in the first half of the season, which concludes very neatly on 31 December, and then play them all again between January and May. As there are twenty teams, we play nineteen matches in each half.

From August to December our nineteen games comprise nine at home and ten away. The situation is reversed in the second half with ten at home and nine away. All very logical you might think, but this has not always been the case.

My support of West Ham goes back almost sixty years, and in the first season that I remember (1958-59), our second league game of the season on 25 August was at home to the previous season’s champions, Wolves. Then our fourth game was a visit to Wolves on September 3. So, just four games into the season and we had played our quota of games against the best side in the country. Incidentally we won at home and drew away. In 1964-65 a similar situation arose when we played Manchester United at home and away on August 24 and September 2.

So, in those days there was no real balance to the season, and the league table could therefore be potentially misleading if you fulfilled all your fixtures against the top clubs early on. I’m not sure when exactly this was rectified, but the current situation of playing all nineteen teams once, before playing them all again would seem to be fairer.

If we look at this season in detail then our nine home games in 2016 are against Bournemouth (16), Watford (13), Southampton (6), Middlesbrough (P), Sunderland (17), Stoke (9), Arsenal (2), Burnley (P) and Hull (P). The figures in brackets denote last season’s league position, plus “P” for the promoted clubs. That is just three teams who finished in the top half, three in the bottom half, and all three promoted teams. On paper you would have to conclude that our home games in the first half of the season should yield a substantial points total.

Conversely the ten away games in 2016 are against Chelsea (10), Man City (4), WBA (14), Palace (15), Everton (11), Tottenham (3), Man United (5), Liverpool (8), Swansea (12), and Leicester (1). Eight of the ten games are against teams that finished in the top twelve in the league. On paper, the conclusion we can draw from this, is that it is a very tough set of away fixtures in the first half of the season.

Of course, the situation is reversed in 2017, so that in the second half of the season we have easier away games and tougher home fixtures (on paper). I’m not sure how randomly the fixtures computer allocates fixtures, but there is certainly an imbalance in the apparent strength of our opponents in our home and away fixtures in the two halves of the season. For that reason perhaps we should not take too much notice of the league table until we are a long way into the season.

Surely it wouldn’t take too much computer programming skill to ensure a much more balanced fixture list. The fixtures computer should come up with an end result such that in each half of the season we play roughly half of our home games against teams that finished in the top half in the previous season, and half against teams from the bottom half. The same should be true of the spread of away fixtures.

This would be fairer to all teams, both top and bottom, and would ensure that the league table is more representative of the strength of clubs throughout the season, and give an indication of finishing positions much sooner. As it stands, teams with tough early fixtures could find themselves in a relegation dogfight early on in the season, which then inhibits the way that they play for the remainder.

So does this explain why we sit in seventeenth place after ten games of the season? No. It may be a partial factor, but we are there because of poor defending, plus the fact that we are as weak as I can remember at scoring goals. We have only found the net ten times in ten games, and conceded nineteen at the other end. Only Sunderland and Hull have conceded more goals than we have, and have poorer goal difference statistics.

Over a whole season an average of one goal a game would give us just 38 goals. In the last twenty-five years we’ve only managed such a poor scoring record twice. In one of those seasons we were relegated, and in the other we escaped relegation on the last day of the season. And conceding 19 goals in ten games or 1.9 goals a game would equate to 72 in 38 games. When did we last concede that many goals or more in a season? Fifty years ago in 1966-67. But in that year we scored eighty!

West Ham Heroes – Number 4 – Billy Bonds

Six foot two, Eyes are blue, Billy Bonds is after you!

Billy Bonds

Throughout most of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s the number 2 shirt at West Ham was owned by John Bond. He was the right back in our FA Cup winning side in 1964 and was really the only number 2 I ever remember in my early years of watching West Ham. He played his last game for us in 1965, and was followed towards the end of the European Cup Winners Cup winning season by Joe Kirkup and Dennis Burnett. But we really needed to strengthen the team in this position so Ron Greenwood signed William Arthur Bonds, known to us all as Billy, in 1967.

Those of us who were there on 19 August 1967 for the opening game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday witnessed the debut of the player who went on to play more games for the club than any other, 799, in a long career that spanned 21 seasons. He started at right back and without a doubt he was the best player I have ever seen in that position at West Ham.

Around three years later he was switched to play in midfield and formed an amazing partnership alongside Trevor Brooking. Throughout the first half of the 1970’s he continued in this role and once again, I have to say he was the best player I have ever seen at the club in the “box-to-box” midfield role.

He became captain when Bobby Moore left in 1974, and for the final ten years at West Ham he played at the back, initially alongside Tommy Taylor, and then formed an excellent partnership with the young Alvin Martin. He was one of the best centre backs I’ve ever seen at West Ham too, and in all three roles at the club he excelled.

He would be one of the first names in my all-time West Ham heroes team, and could fill any of the three positions, but perhaps he was at his playing peak in the early 1970’s when he single-handedly won so many games for the club from midfield.

To be honest I cannot recall a single game where I left the ground thinking that he hadn’t played well. He was fully committed throughout every game, and perhaps his skill was overshadowed by his commitment to win the ball when our opponents had it, but you shouldn’t be fooled, he was great with the ball too.

If I had to pick out one game that I remember above all others it was the day in March 1974 when we beat Chelsea 3-0 and Bill scored a hat-trick. He finished that season as leading scorer, which was most unusual from a midfield role, particularly in those times. Around the time of the Chelsea game I remember seeing him score a magnificent left-footed volley from outside the penalty area in a game against Coventry at Upton Park. I was standing on the North Bank directly in line with the shot.

He was always considered to be the fittest player at the club, and was almost 42 when he retired at the end of the 1987-88 season. I’ve watched the England team since the late 1950’s and when I think of some of the players who have pulled on the three lions shirt, then I am amazed that Bill never did. Without a shadow of a doubt he was the best English footballer I have ever seen (by a country mile) who never represented the full national team. He came very close a couple of times, but injury denied him in the end.

After being a youth team coach at the club, he became manager following the resignation of Lou Macari in 1990, and in his first full season at the helm led us to promotion. In the following ill-fated “Bond scheme” season that followed we were relegated, but the following year he led us back up into the top flight. He resigned in August 1994 when Harry Redknapp took over, and the two of them, who were very close friends, have never spoken since. The circumstances regarding the resignation have differing versions according to what you read.

Many consider that he was the best West Ham manager ever. Certainly those who trust statistics do. His win percentage of 44% is the highest of all full time West Ham bosses in history, his losing percentage of 30% is the lowest of all full time West Ham bosses in history, and the goals scored minus the goals conceded per game at 0.32 is also the best of all full time West Ham bosses in history.

He was Hammer of the Year four times, was awarded the MBE, won the PFA Merit award when he retired, and was the initial recipient of the West Ham lifetime achievement award in 2013. Quite simply he was an absolute West Ham legend. I’d personally like to see greater recognition for him at our new stadium.

5 Thing We Learned From Defeat At Everton

A few tricks but no treats in the lessons from last weekend’s match.

5 Things WHUYou may already have read the excellent 20 Questions article inspired by Sunday’s defeat at Goodison Park.  For good measure here are some additional takeaways from the game following a little more quiet reflection.

Early Dominance but No Reward

Going into the game with a shot of confidence most of us were probably reasonably happy with the display in the first 20 minutes or so. We had plenty of the ball, passed and moved well and Lukaku hardly got a kick. Payet and Lanzini were bossing matters as far as creativity was concerned and it seemed that the momentum was with the Hammers against an opposition suffering a longish winless streak. Koeman spoke about having words at half time but in fact Everton had sorted it out on the pitch before then. The inability to turn good possession into at least one goal appeared to dispirit the team and the early intensity fizzled out. As in a few games last year the Payet/ Lanzini combination faded as the game went on; whether it is because they lack the stamina to maintain that intensity level or whether it was due to Everton closing them down more quickly I cannot decide. Antonio worked hard with good movement and, as suggested by Jim Beglin, is likely the best forward we have available at the moment. He created space for others but is not the natural goalscorer that is so badly missing from our ranks.

The Return of the Injured Strikers

It is true that injuries have yet again been unkind and losing Ayew to the treatment room alongside Carroll and Sakho was extremely unfortunate. Ayew is now back and hopefully can show us what he can do but I doubt he is lone striker material. It would take a very optimistic fan to imagine a lasting return to full fitness for the other two invalids. Both would seem to have conditions that will continue to plague them. With Sakho there is the additional question of his temperament (and whether he has burnt his bridges with Bilic) and with Carroll I still have reservations about his all-round game. On occasions (Arsenal at home last season) he did indeed look ‘unplayable’ but I would disagree that he is “brilliant outside of the box” as suggested by Bilic last week. He does not have the technique nor mobility to play the effective lone striker role in the modern game. Could we play two up front? Unlikely without getting overrun in the midfield. The striker conundrum remains with us even with a fully fit squad.

Three at the Back and Cresswell

One of the disappointing aspects of Sunday’s game was that Cresswell didn’t seem to get as far forward to link up with Payet as he usual does. Despite being a full-back he is one of our most potent attacking threats and far more competent at crossing the ball than other players that we employ specifically for that purpose. The three at the formation should theoretically allow him more freedom to get forward but the impression I took away from the game was that he had been instructed not to venture too far forward. This was possibly to counter the threat of Bolasie and if that was the case it raises the question of whether the 3 man backline was the best option in the circumstances. Despite Everton being the better team I thought Reid and Ogbonna could have done much more the prevent the two goals. Reid was both slow to react and lightweight in his challenge for the first and Ogbonna looked like he was on a training jog when tailing Lukaku for the second; that he might have anticipated an offside call is no excuse.

Those Crazy Substitutions

The substitutions were puzzling particularly from the perspective of the players taken off. By that stage of the game the most under-performing players were Noble and Payet who were both giving away possession and offering little creatively. Maybe there was a notion that Payet could grab something from a set piece but on the evidence of the day this seemed unlikely. It was confusing that the two most effective midfield players (Obiang and Fernandes) were the first to be sacrificed. I can understand the imperative to make changes and ‘give it a go’ but keeping some degree of shape is important and the changes contributed more to the second goal that they did to any greater attacking threat. It was expected that Ayew would be given a further 20 to 30 minutes but he was unable to create much impact. The introduction of Zaza was akin to throwing in the towel and Feghouli, who I do have lingering hopes for, only provided a masterclass in how not to cross the ball. Antonio may have claimed the record for number of positions played in a single match. This certainly did not help in creating cohesion.

League and Cup Form

At the end we were unable to build on the momentum from the excellent performance in the EFL Cup against Chelsea to improve our league position and end this round of matches just outside the relegation places. In the This Week in Hammer’s History post we highlighted two seasons where West Ham reached League Cup semi-finals and FA Cup 6th Rounds in 1988/89 and 2010/11. Now we all love a cup run but in both those seasons we were relegated. Thankfully, I do not believe in omens (………….or do I?).