Southampton Preview

Can we reverse the result at the London Stadium in September?

Southampton West Ham

We move on to game twenty-four in our topsy-turvy season. We have a trip to the St Mary’s stadium on the south coast to face a Southampton side whose season has been just as inconsistent as our own. Anybody who saw them beat us convincingly 3-0 in the sixth game of the season, at which point they had a five point lead over us in the table, would be surprised that they now sit one place and one point below us in that congested area which sees Stoke in 9th place on 29 points and Bournemouth in 14th on 26. We are 11th on 28 points, at a midpoint of nine points below Everton who currently sit in our finishing place last season (7th), and nine points above the drop zone.

It is highly unlikely that we can improve enough to move upwards to finish 7th as we did last season, and improbable that we can implode to finish in the drop zone either. So mid-table obscurity is the order of the day, and an exit from cup competitions means that we have little to play for other than pride, and to finish as high as possible to earn financial rewards that are based on finishing positions.

Realistically, based on our performances to date, our final finishing position is very likely to be somewhere between 9th and 14th, so the six clubs in that band, Stoke, Burnley, West Ham, Southampton, Watford and Bournemouth, separated by just three points, are in a mini-league hoping to finish at the top (i.e 9th). These six teams can perhaps be considered to have performed the most inconsistently this season, and all six have lost more games than they have won, without being that bad to be considered relegation candidates.

The prize money for a 9th place finish is £24 million, and drops by £2m for each position, down to £14million for finishing 14th. The difference of £10 million is sufficient to buy you another solid Premier League footballer (such as Robert Snodgrass, for example) who will help you to retain a mid-table position the following season, but not enough to buy any players to take us to the next level.

So the games against the other five teams in my mini-league take on added significance, and we have yet to play all of them for a second time this season, and the first of these games is on Saturday. We have already met all five of them at home, so they are all away games between now and the end of the season.

Our opponents on Saturday have beaten seven teams so far, Swansea, Burnley, Everton, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Leicester, in addition to ourselves. By the middle of December they had only lost five times, but a very poor run since then has seen them lose five of their last six league games. Their only win in that time was a 3-0 win over Leicester in their last but one game.

Of the six aforementioned teams in my mini-league, only Burnley and Leicester are still in the FA Cup, although Southampton have performed well in the EFL Cup to reach the final where they will take on Manchester United at the end of February. It is surprising to me as to how many of them fielded weakened teams in the FA Cup competition this season. None of them were in a position to challenge for a European place, and none of them were likely to be involved in the relegation dogfight. Surely they owed it to their fans to try to win the FA Cup? Fans will remember a visit to Wembley to contest the FA Cup final for years to come, but they won’t remember the difference between finishing 9th and 14th in the Premier League. We can exclude ourselves of course. We put out a strong team but were still battered by a rampant Manchester City team in the third round!

So what will happen when we take on one of the other “inconsistent” teams this weekend? To be quite frank I haven’t a clue. Based on current league form since around mid-December, we have performed better in our last eight games than our opponents, winning five of them to their two victories. But for many of those we weren’t that impressive, but nonetheless they were victories. On the other hand Southampton will remember their victory at our place earlier in the season.

We were both promoted to the Premier League in 2012 and have met nine times since then. We have won three times (all at home), they have won three (including two at our place), and three have been drawn (two of them goalless). We last won on their ground in November 2000, more than sixteen years ago, when goals from Kanoute, Stuart Pearce, and Sinclair, helped us to a 3-2 victory.

The smart money (according to the bookmakers) is on a home win, with Southampton odds-on to collect three points. I hope that we can prove them wrong and win there for the first time in a long while, but realistically I predict a 1-1 draw, replicating the score in the game in April 2013, and an important point against one of the other teams in the race to finish 9th! On that day less than four years ago, Andy Carroll scored our goal, and he is the only player in our team from that day who is likely to face the Saints on Saturday. How times change. Other players in the starting line-up that day included Jaaskelainen, Demel, Diame, Nolan, O’Brien, O’Neill, Jarvis, Tomkins and Vaz Te, all long gone. The only other starter on that day who could possibly play is James Collins, but I suspect he will be on the bench.

The Lawro Challenge – Week 24

The season long challenge takes an alarming twist as Lawro takes a slender lead.

Lawro Crystal BallThe whole concept behind this challenge was to prove the assertion of how hopeless Lawro was at predicting the outcome of Premier League matches.  He may be able to come out on top against an assortment of minor celebrities but that was never going to be the case against a couple of seasoned and insightful football enthusiasts.  Well now the unthinkable has happened and Lawro has taken a narrow lead in our season long head-to-head challenge.

Twenty-three rounds of games in the Premier League have now been completed. That means we have now predicted the results of 230 matches. In Week 23, Rich scored 5 points, Geoff 3 points, and Lawro 8 points. Lawro has hit the top of the league and holds a one point lead, with 150 matches still to forecast before the end of the season. Can he hang on at the top?

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.

We now proceed to week 24.

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 22 weeks

180

140

178

Score in week 23

5

3

8

Total after 23 weeks

185

143

186

 

 

 

 

Predictions – Week 24

 

 

 

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Saturday

 

 

 

Chelsea v Arsenal

2-1

1-2

2-0

Palace v Sunderland

2-1

1-1

2-1

Everton v Bournemouth

2-0

3-1

2-0

Hull v Liverpool

1-1

0-2

0-2

Southampton v West Ham

1-1

0-1

2-1

Watford v Burnley

2-1

2-0

1-1

West Brom v Stoke

1-1

2-2

2-1

Tottenham v Middlesbrough

2-0

3-0

2-0

Sunday

 

 

 

Man City v Swansea

3-1

5-0

3-0

Leicester v Man United

1-1

0-2

1-1

West Ham 0:4 Manchester City

The Premier League gap is getting wider.

Embed from Getty Images

The top six teams in the Premier league are a long way ahead of the remaining fourteen. It is just as if there are two competitions. The points difference is vast, as is the revenue that they generate. The quality of footballer from all over the world that the top six teams are able to attract means that the others just cannot compete. Sure, the top teams do have off days and suffer the occasional defeat to one of the lesser teams, but that happens rarely these days. And when it does happen, the manager of the lesser team usually manages to come up with a plan to stop the big team playing. If they are frustrated for long enough, and if they are having an off-day, then the big team can lose. But just take a look at the league table. It tells the whole story of how money influences football these days. And the Financial Fair Play rules don’t help either.

But what about last season I hear you say? Little Leicester broke the mould and romped away with the title. Yes, I have to admit that was the case, but I believe it was the combination of three outstanding players (Kante, Mahrez and Vardy) hitting a purple streak of form, the other players in the team all playing above themselves for a long period, and the top teams all having an off-season at the same time. I don’t think we will ever see it happen again. Well perhaps there may be another freak year, but I honestly don’t expect to see it. And look where Leicester are now. Just a couple of points above the drop zone in the second half of the following season. Normal service has been resumed.

The rich clubs are getting richer, and the gap from the others is widening all the time. It would take the injection of serious money into one of the teams outside of this elite to give them any sort of chance of competing. Our current owners are very rich men by British standards, but are not in the same league as the foreign owners of the top teams. I’m not knocking them, and I am grateful that they came in when they did. They do their best and they are fans. But while they are in charge we will not be able to bridge the gap; a fact that they themselves have admitted in that they say they will only sell to mega-rich buyers who can inject the sort of money that they cannot, to take us to another level.

Geoff summed up the game perfectly in his article Five Observations From City Humiliation. Unfortunately, positives from the game were few and far between. Carroll lacked any real support, although Antonio covered every blade of grass in an attempt to help him up front. Randolph couldn’t be faulted for any of the goals conceded, Reid had a steady game, and Snodgrass looked lively when he came on.

Most of the others had poor games. Obiang has been excellent lately and I will excuse him on this one, although his poor pass led directly to their third goal. Not that it really mattered by then. I don’t know what has happened to Cresswell this season. His performances have generally been very poor and his two memorable contributions last night were a woeful pass that led to the first goal, and then missing the target by miles when put through by Carroll for our only clear opening in the game. I cannot see him getting anywhere near future England squads if he continues as he has for most of this season.

When you play against teams such as Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham or Chelsea, who all move the ball at pace, you have to develop a method of competing. One thing you cannot do is gift them the ball in midfield to set up a swift attack which invariably leads to a goal. If you can frustrate them for long enough, they can sometimes go off the boil. The one thing you must not do is concede sloppy goals. But I am afraid that is exactly what we were guilty of once again.

Although a season ticket holder I couldn’t get to the game so I had to endure the BT Sport coverage. I’m afraid that in my opinion it doesn’t come close to that provided by Sky Sports. Commentator Ian Darke should stick to boxing, and Glenn Hoddle and Owen Hargreaves were poor (a bit like us really!), as well as being factually inaccurate at times. More than once Hoddle described the pitch as vast, and said that we should reduce its size because of the way we play. Well firstly, the pitch is the regulation size that all Premier League clubs should have, provided their ground allows for it, and secondly we are not allowed to reduce it. In fact it is the same width as Upton Park and just over four metres longer. But this is just one example of some of the (in my opinion) nonsense that came from the mouths of the co-commentators and pundits on the programme.

I watched the game through to the end, unlike many thousands at the stadium who decided that they had seen enough long before the final whistle, and were trudging off to Stratford station in their droves. I felt quite deflated at our performance, but realistically it is not a competitive game when we are playing against a team who can have a player of the calibre of Aguero sitting on the bench (well, padded seat). We are nowhere near the top teams, and the best we can hope for is to play for a place in the top half, and even try to emulate last season’s seventh place finish. Even that looks unlikely with Everton too far ahead.

I’m not sure that Bilic has the tactical nous for the job, even though a large number of fans love him. It was interesting to see Roberto Mancini sitting in with the directors. I wonder if he was a guest of Manchester City who had sacked him a few seasons ago, or perhaps even a guest of our own board?

Nevertheless, ever the optimist, and a fan of almost sixty years who has seen it all before, I will take my seat for the next home game against a West Brom team on Saturday week, who, much to my surprise, Pulis has inspired to punch above their weight this season. Before then we visit Southampton this weekend, to face another of the teams aiming for seventh place, which in effect is the competition to finish top of the second tier of the Premier League.

5 Observations from City Humiliation

Another night of tame surrender against Manchester City at the London Stadium.

5 Things WHUWere they great or were we terrible?

Whenever I see such an uneven game as happened last night (and indeed the cup tie a few weeks ago) I wonder how much of it was due to the opposition playing really well and how much was down to our own incompetence.  Generally commentators like to take a polarised view but usually it is a combination of the two.  There are many similarities in the style of play of Manchester City and Arsenal and it is telling that both have thumped us on our own turf.  For many years we have been vulnerable against teams that run at our defence at pace.  We seem able to competently nod away crosses until the cows come home but incisive passing and movement rips through the heart of our defences at will and with ease.  My sense is that even our players recognise this collective fragility and once the first goal goes in then, as far as they are concerned, it is just of case of how many will follow – as if it is a fate that no-one has the wit or strength to resist.

Where have all the tactics gone?

Manchester City are a very wealthy club who probably have far better players that don’t even make the bench than West Ham do as regular starters.  This is the way of modern cash rich football and it will be impossible for West Ham to get close to the top teams without major external investment, which will probably happen just before the next financial crisis.  In the meantime it is still 11 versus 11 and last year we enjoyed notable success against several top clubs by tactically stifling their major threats.  Tactics appeared to be patently absent yesterday with no particularly plan to either offset the attacking threat of a quick breaking opposition or in putting their inconsistent back-line under any form of pressure.  It was if all that was written on the dressing room white board was “Hope for the Best”.  With the array of attacking talent at their disposal you need to frustrate and press City and not give them acres of space to play as they please.  Whenever I have seen them as casual observer it is obvious how important de Bruyne is to them offensively and yet we were happy to give him a free access all areas pass.  Not for the first time we were completely over-run in midfield.  We may still have lost regardless but the speed with which heads dropped and spirit evaporated shows a disappointing absence of leadership and character.

All things must pass

In his post-match comments Slaven Bilic bemoaned the fact that we gave the ball away cheaply for two of the first three goals.  It would be difficult to disagree with the manager on that one but the fact is that it has been a problem all season, just that we were punished for that sloppiness by a clinical City side on this occasion.  I believe that we are one of the worst teams for maintaining possession where it matters in the Premier League and it makes me wonder whether anything is done in training in order to improve matters.  As I have written previously good passing teams do not only rely solely on successful execution of the pass but also on having more than one player making themselves available at any one time.  Obiang’s pass that led to the third goal was an example of poor execution but quite what Cresswell was thinking for the all-important opening goal is anyone’s guess, there was no West Ham player anywhere near where he played the ball.  Far too often when our players do not have the ball they stand about static and flat footed.

No place for sentiment

Football is a very different game from when I first started watching, a time when players stayed at clubs for years and many were local lads made good.  It is unfortunate that much of the sense of community and belonging has been lost but most of football has faced reality and moved with the times.  I often feel that West Ham are stuck in a time warp with a sentimentality that is at odds with the multi-million pound industry that football has become.  It is not enough for a player or manager to be West Ham through and through or for someone to keep his place in the team because he did alright last time out.  A team needs to be selected that can get the best from any particular fixture.  There are still many unanswered questions on Slaven Bilic’s managerial credentials at Premier League level.  The recent run of wins bought him some time but he does not convince.  I am sure he is a nice guy but football is full of nice failures.  I would imagine that his performance during the remainder of the season will be under extreme scrutiny and that it will require noticeable improvement if he is to keep his job.  His record on player recruitment, tactics, preparation, fitness and selection leaves much to be desired as far as I am concerned.  It would be great to see him succeed but I am not hopeful.

What about the positives?

The most significant positive is that we do not have to play Manchester City again this season and our only remaining heavy defeat should be away at Arsenal.  Other than that Michail Antonio worked hard and new signing Robert Snodgrass looked sharp when he finally came on.  I was wrong in my pre-match prediction that we would be 2 goals down when Snodgrass came off the bench.  The other debutant Jose Fonte had a bit of a nightmare and worryingly looked very slow, let’s hope he has a couple more gears in the mythical locker.

Ratings: Randolph (6), Byram (4), Reid (6), Fonte (4), Cresswell (4), Obiang (5), Noble (5), Feghouli (3), Lanzini (5), Antonio (7), Carroll (6) Subs: Snodgrass (6), Fernandes (5), Fletcher (5)

I Wouldn’t Bet On It 29

So close to a big win, but we win anyway!

Fancy A Bet

We were within a minute of a 98 point haul with our bets on the Middlesbrough game. As a reminder they were:

9 points on West Ham to beat Middlesbrough @2/1 (27)
5 points on a draw @11/5 (16)
1 point on Andy Carroll to score the first goal and West Ham to win 2-1 @50/1 (51)
1 point on West Ham to win 2-1 @19/1 (20)

Yes, so near on three of our four bets coming in, including the big one. Nonetheless, we did have 27 points from the well-deserved win, bringing our new balance up to 130 points.

What will happen in our game against Manchester City? I haven’t got a clue. It’s only a few weeks since they well and truly outplayed us and dumped us out of the FA Cup. I am hoping that our new signings will inspire us to victory over an inconsistent City side. When they turn it on they are quite a force, but they don’t do it regularly. Hopefully they will be over confident after their recent success here.

Smaller stakes this time as follows:

West Ham to win the game, 5 points stake at 5.2/1 (Betfair) (31)
Drawn game, 3 points at 3.6/1 (Betfair) (13.8)
West Ham to win 2-1, 1 point at 18.5/1 (Betfair) (19)
2-2 draw, 1 point at 15/1 (Betfair) (16)

Total stake 10 points. Potential returns if correct in brackets.

What are the chances?

Matchday: Hammers host the Citizens at the London Stadium

Can it be a once in a blue moon event at the London Stadium as the have-nots of West Ham seek to wreak their revenge against bountiful Manchester City.

West Ham Man CityThankfully the transfer window has settled safely back in its frame for another few months and attention can return in its entirety to action on the pitch, even though I suspect the ghostly tones of “We’ve got Payet” will reverberate around the cavernous stadium and in the media for several weeks to come.  It turned out to be a pragmatic window for the Hammers, rather than an exciting one, and much still rides on the continued fitness of Andy Carroll, the only remaining credible striker option in the continued and long running absence of Diafra Sakho.    I was encouraged to hear Carroll say that he was now conscious of picking his battles on the pitch and that he no longer felt the need to try to win every ball; hopefully this should serve to minimise the stresses and strains on his body.

Blah, blah, blah, Dimitri Payet, blah blah blah…..

– Slaven Bilic Press Conference

The closing of the window is unlikely to shut out all of the noise about ‘two-bob’ ‘penny-pinching’ owners but in the context of mid-table obscurity (with an outside chance of Europa League in the event of extraordinary planetary alignment) it is better to keep the ‘war chest’ safely buried until the summer, when there is better value and greater options.  The majority of supporters will not remember a making-up-the-numbers January signing when it comes to scrutinising and comparing future summer investment.

Today’s visitors are one of the few clubs where transfer budgets are meaningless and for whom the odd £50 million thrown around is simply loose change burning a hole in the pocket of a dishdasha. They were quiet this window (unless you count £27 m Gabriel Jesus who was signed in the summer but has only recently arrived) but their net spending for this season still exceeds £150 m.

I am always torn on match-days between a natural, but understated, optimism for a West Ham victory and a litany of reasons why just now is a bad time to be playing this week’s particular opposition.  The recent indifferent run by the Blues and the resultant media focus on Pep’s performance are the anxieties that will gnaw away at my confidence and create growing pre-match-tension as kick-off approaches.

Head to Head

It is a mere 3 weeks since our last encounter with City at the London Stadium when once again the head to head advantage clicked a further notch in their affluent direction.  We have won just two of the last 16 meetings between the two clubs.  In the recent FA Cup tie it was difficult to determine to what degree the final outcome was the result of City’s brilliance or the Hammer’s pitifulness.  Either way it will require one of those special ‘obscene’ all-hands-to-the-pump displays if we are to take advantage of an early opportunity for revenge.

Team News

The injured are still injured, Andre Ayew is busy scoring penalties at the African Cup of Nations and Cheikhou Kouyate continues to queue at Heathrow immigration.  According to the Physio room both Andy Carroll and Mark Noble have knocks but are expected to recover.  It is the manager’s style to keep the same team and formation until we lose a game and so, with the exception of Jose Fonte in for the injured Angelo Ogbonna, I expect to see the same line-up that started at Middlesbrough.  Personally, I would put Snodgrass straight in at the expense of Feghouli but he will most likely be introduced from the bench at two-nil down.  If I owned a hat then I would offer to eat it if either Feghouli or Calleri ever make it as regular Premier League players.  There is a story that Brian Clough once went to scout a player but left after the warm-up because he didn’t like the way he ran; well that is how I view these two, neither of whom look like top-flight footballers – not that I would compare my judgement to Cloughies – and clearly Bilic has seen something he likes about them in training.

“He’s so important, we’ve played a lot of games without him, and I’m happy he’s back.  He’s not an aggressive player. He’s tough. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. We accept the ban and don’t complain.”

– Guardiola on Fernandinho

For Manchester City, there is good and bad news.  The bad news is that Kompany is fit again, Aguero has recovered from injury, Fernandinho is available after suspension and everyone else is available.  The good news is that only 11 can be on the pitch at any one time and that one of them is likely to be Claudio Bravo.

The Man in the Middle

For the first time this season we’ve got a Friend in the shape of Kevin from Leicestershire.  A comparative stranger to West Ham games, the single coming together last season was in the historic away win at Liverpool where he erroneously sent off Mark Noble.  In his total of 21 games this term Friend has flaunted  73 Yellows and 1 Red card.