Not So Super Saturday
The self-styled best league in the world managed to serve up a complete boxed set of drab fixtures for a Saturday afternoon. Despite Leicester’s unexpected success last season there has been a return to predictability where the sole objective of 70% of clubs is merely to survive to live another year in the money generating environment of the top flight. Generally, it does not make for great entertainment and I get a sense that the overseas broadcasters are making a gradual move to the Bundesliga for their routine everyday football coverage. The Premier League is becoming more and more like La Liga where interest beyond a limited number of glamour clubs is minimal, and when games are more about attrition than entertainment then it is not surprising that appeal does not extend to a wider audience. As our game at Stoke progressed yesterday it was apparent that the priority of both sides was to preserve the point they started the day with rather than striving for more.
I guess that after losing five games on the bounce then a sequence of four without defeat has to be seen as a positive. The six points earned in those games against Swansea, Sunderland, Everton and Stoke are probably enough to keep West Ham safe. I have not seen anything in the performances to convince me that things have been turned around or that the ship has been steadied but it is an improvement of sorts. Two cleans sheets in a row is not a regular West Ham phenomenon and it may well be that Bilic has accidentally and belatedly stumbled on a way to organise his defensive resources. Listening to some debate after Sunderland’s demise on the position of David Moyes it was interested to hear a reasonable level of support for the Scot. The argument being that Sunderland have lived for so long on the brink and focusing on short-term survival that time is required for someone to perform surgical rebuilding. This is the great danger arising from our own lack of progress this season where there is no clear style of play and stuffing the squad with older or journeyman players. Only a forward looking plan can elevate us above the relegation haunted pack on an ongoing basis.
Three to Go and Still Not Safe
With three games to play West Ham are yet to be mathematically safe. The points cushion plus goal difference should be enough but when the number of clubs below you (who are still able to catch up) becomes fewer it is not the time to stop looking very carefully over your shoulder. Past performance may suggest that both Hull and Swansea are unlikely to embark on sudden winning sprees but, as we are always reminded, past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future results. Swansea getting something out of their visit to Old Trafford today would certainly bring the cats and pigeons in a proximity that is too close for comfort. The overall table has a very lopsided shape to it with fourteen points separating 7th from 8th but only six points separating 8th from 16th. Theoretically a top ten finish is still possible for the Hammers although 16th or 17th seems a more likely outcome.
In the circumstances of who was available, the starting lineup yesterday almost made sense. It has been reported that Diafra Sakho’s absence was due to (another) back injury (and not a Di Canio style travel sickness) and with Andy Carroll also absent we were lumbered once again with Jonathan Calleri. What Calleri has to offer remains a mystery to me and why he is preferred over Ashley Fletcher despite contributing little is puzzling. Some claim that Calleri runs around a lot but that is no more a rational for selection than being born in Canning Town. At least Calleri’s inappropriate rabona introduced some lighthearted comedy value into the game. Nordtveit and Kouyate in central midfield did much to protect the defence and the three central defenders were all solid, including a man of the match performance from Winston Reid. Personally, I thought Fernandes did well enough out of position at right wing-back but I still may have been tempted to have gone with Sam Byram.
Those Wacky Substitutions
Slaven Bilic has built up a reputation for his game changing substitutions. Unfortunately these have a close correlation with the reputation for losing points from a winning position. It seems that the Cresswell for Masuaku was due to injury so no real complaints with that one but the later changes were strange to say the least. Ayew looked to be our greatest goal threat so the decision to replace him, rather than Calleri, was odd enough but bringing on Noble as the replacement only compounded it. It effectively removed any notion that we would try to win the game and handed the initiative firmly to Stoke. Ending the game with no strikers at all only added to the negativity even if the game was petering out by then and replacing Calleri with Snodgrass was hardly likely to make matters worse.