What Will Deadline Day Have In Store For West Ham?

The most eagerly awaited day of the football calendar has finally arrived. After 63 days of gossip, speculation and downright made up madness the transfer window finally closes (sorry, slams shut) at 11 pm tonight.  Spending has already topped the £1bn mark but with many believing the window is not complete without a last minute deal or two that figure is destined to hit new inflated heights.

A number of long running transfer sagas have dominated the window since it opened back in June and so today we may well finally find out what will happen to the likes of Coutinho, Costa, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez and Van Dijk .  One thing that we know for certain is that none of the above will be heading down the Jubilee Line to the London Stadium.

Whether there will be any more comings and goings at West Ham is a confused picture and subject to contradictory information.  Some say that our business is done and we can all go to bed early while others maintain that players from all corners of the  globe are making a beeline to the London as we speak; in order to thrash out terms, undergo medicals and ink deals with the Hammers.

The apparent pursuit of William Carvalho has kept the West Ham faithful entertained for a few weeks now and, despite being exactly the type of player needed to make us harder to beat, it has the whiff of a token affair about it.  A traditional part of every West Ham window has been to target a big name dream signing but to eventually come up short when it gets down to agreeing a fee; tweeting with an air of faux frustration that we had tried our best but failed even after checking down the back of every sofa in Sullivan Mansions for loose change.

With seven of last season’s squad having departed and only four new recruits then the squad looks light on quantity as well as the obvious gaps on quality.  Throw in a median figure of six or seven out injured at any one time and a reluctance to blood those young players who have yet to be sent out on loan and you might get the impression that there is a self-destruct element to our season’s preparation.  At the risk of labouring a point I can’t go along with satisfied self back slapping that has been going on regarding our transfer business.  Apart from Javier Hernandez (although even there I remain curious as to how we can support him from our midfield assets) I think we could have done better than the other recruits where proven experience has blinded us to current and future potential.

Further confusion has now arisen from the Diafra Sakho situation with the striker seemingly trying to arrange his own transfer back to France.  I have to admit to always having liked Sakho as he brings attributes of strength, mobility and defending from the front to forward areas that were otherwise missing.  Allegedly he has some attitude issues but he is far from the first to have fallen out with the management.  If he does end up staying I wonder what possible use he is going to be.  On the other hand relying on Hernandez alone (to score and stay fit) plus a fragile Andy Carroll is as thin as it possibly gets up front.  The continuing noise about cliques and favourites at the club is indeed worrying.

On the subject of noise, the Manuel Lanzini to Liverpool (as a replacement for Coutinho) refuses to go away.  It would be a disaster to lose the team’s only creative player on the last day of the window but I think we need to accept that, even if  he stays for now, it is only a matter of time before he is off to seek the brighter lights of European football that he is unlikely to find at West Ham anytime soon.

There have been a few new West Ham targets to emerge in the media over the last few days.  These include diminutive striker Abdul Majeed Waris from just down the road at Lorient (oh, not the Barry Hearn one!) and a loan deal for Barcelona central midfielder Andre Gomes.  My sense is that if there is any business done today then it is more likely to be loans than permanent deals.  Maybe a loan for Jack Wilshere could be on the cards.

I am always open to a touch of shock and awe in the transfer window and so will not be able to resist sitting by the computer, impatiently refreshing the deadline day news-feeds to see which players have been spotted changing trains at Canning Town or going into a Pie and Mash in the Roman Road with the Sullivan family.  If the Board could just see their way clear to bringing in William Carvalho and Moussa Dembele (every club needs a Dembele) then I am prepared to upgrade my transfer window assessment from ‘Slightly Disappointed’ to ‘Quietly Encouraged’.

Bilic out or Bilic in? Where do the fans stand?

With three games gone, and still almost a fortnight until our first home game of the season, we look at the speculation regarding the manager

Much has been said and written about our game last weekend at Newcastle, and our season to date. We are only three games into the Premier League campaign, but we sit at the foot of the table, just as we did after both the first and second round of games, too. We’ve been there before at this stage and gone on to have an OK season. Also, from this position we have not progressed and ended up being relegated.

I’ve been a regular at Upton Park (and latterly the London Stadium) for sixty years. I’ve seen us win the first three games of the season, or lose the first three, and every combination in between. Perhaps the worst start I remember was in 1962-63 when we lost our first three games 1-3, 1-4, and 1-6, and two of them were at home! (to cap it all, the 6-1 defeat was to Tottenham!). In fact we only had one point after five games, and were rock bottom of the league. But we rallied to finish comfortably in mid-table, and by the first week of October we’d had wins of 6-1, 4-0, 6-0 and 5-0.

But it is not just the fact that we have lost our first three games, albeit all away from home, and at grounds where we haven’t had much success in the past. It is the manner of those defeats that worries most fans, and apart from our comeback against the odds at St. Mary’s, our football has not been of sufficient quality to warrant a great deal of optimism. It would be hard to envisage a turnaround of 1962 proportions.

The majority view, as far as I can tell, is that we have generally had a successful transfer window. At least most thought so before we had played any games. Personally, I believe that the jury is out, although I do reckon that we have a squad of players capable of finishing in a mid-table position. The evidence of the opening games doesn’t necessarily suggest that, though, and fans and pundits alike have been having their say regarding what has gone wrong.

If you read the newspapers, watch football on TV and listen to the comments of ex-players who now ply their trade as experts, and sift through the multitude of views on social media, then there are so many differing views as to why we sit at the bottom.

The biggest debate seems to surround the manager (and coaching staff, perhaps), who many feel are not getting the best out of the players that we have. On the one hand we have the ‘Bilic out’ brigade who I generally feel aren’t just picking on him as a result of the first three games and lack of results and points. Many like him as a person, and for his enthusiasm, but feel that the writing was on the wall last season and has just continued into this one. They cite what they consider to be some strange team selections, players not playing in their best positions, an apparent favouritism for “undroppable players” (Noble being the main one here), poor preparation for games, a lack of organisation and tactical awareness, and players not seeming to understand (or able to carry out?) a playing style that has any consistency or is the right one for the opposition that we are facing. Many are also questioning the fitness of the squad, which is very worrying at this stage of the campaign, as were the post-match comments from the captain and manager talking about “tiredness” which I found to be astonishing.

The “pro Bilic” supporters on the other hand, which appear to me to be declining in numbers, although many still exist, cite the fact that we finished a very creditable seventh (which could have been even higher) in his first season in charge, we were only a point off eighth last season, after a difficult time of transition to a new stadium, both of which were final league positions that they consider to be appropriate for a team of our standing, and he should be given more time. I read phrases like “we need to stick together”, and “in Slav we trust”, whilst at the same time the pro-Bilic fans believe the blame lies elsewhere, in particular the board. But for those supporters who want to back the manager I have read very little that contradicts the reasons put forward by those of an opposing view.

Quite how anyone knows what the manager was told by the chairman at their meeting at Rush Green last Sunday I do not know. Perhaps the discussion was leaked, either deliberately or inadvertently, but the general consensus seems to be that he has four games to “turn it around.” Other reports suggest that he only has two. According to some, Sullivan has a “six defeats in a row and you are out” policy. Whether this is fact or conjecture only time will tell.

Discounting the Bolton League Cup tie, which is at home, three of the next four league games will also be played at the London Stadium, and they will not be as easy as many believe. Huddersfield have seven points from their opening three games without conceding a goal, Tottenham are always a danger despite their indifferent start to the season, and Swansea look more formidable than they were for much of last season. Those are the three home games, whilst a visit to the Hawthorns against a so-far unbeaten West Brom team will not be a walk in the park either. I have no idea what will be considered an acceptable improvement, but I would imagine that being unbeaten in the month of September will be the minimum requirement, but who knows for sure?

What we do know is that if the board decides that they have had enough and appoint a new manager, he will have to work with the squad that we have. And what odds can you currently get on who our next manager will be? Benitez is favourite at 5/2, followed by Mancini, Inzaghi, Jokanovic, Bielsa and Howe, in a list that extends to 33 names down to Curbishley at 66/1. And he isn’t the only ex-manager of our club on the list. Pardew, Redknapp, Zola and Roeder all appear too, showing what a nonsense this betting market can be.

As a fan, I hope he does turn it around and we have five wins in the next month, and sit with twelve points from seven games played in the league, as well as progressing to the next round of the league cup. I fear however that he may not be the right person to take the club forward, and wonder if he recognises and can change what many believe to be his shortcomings as a manager? The next month will be an interesting one, as it always is (one way or another) when you support our team.

A Very West Ham Muddle

Are West Ham sleepwalking to disaster as indecision rules the day?

Having apparently received an overwhelming Vote of Procrastination from the West Ham Board it now looks like manager Slaven Bilic is effectively on a one day at a time rolling contract to save his job.  If reports are to be believed he has until the next international break to prove his mettle as the man to take the club forward; or at least until his contract expires – unless, that is, we lose to Huddersfield in which case he could be straight out of the door.

It is interesting to consider for a moment what would constitute a successful return from those next four games (at home to Huddersfield, Tottenham and Swansea and away to West Brom).  Would a couple of wins giving us six points from seven games be enough to appease the doubters or are our sights no more ambitious these days than getting carried away by victory over Tottenham?  The notion that a manager, who has struggled to organise, prepare and motivate a squad for the last eighteen months, will be able to turn things around over the course of a month has a sense of wide-eyed wishful thinking about it.  Perhaps the Board see it as loyalty but it looks more like recklessness to me.  I can’t believe, as some have suggested, that they “don’t have the balls” to sack him as nobody becomes a multi-millionaire businessman without making difficult decisions.  Surely they must have learned something from the Avram Grant episode.

The uncertainty also casts a shadow over the remaining days of the transfer window as a move to the London Stadium becoming an even less attractive option than it was before.  We are unlikely to hear a player telling us how he was unsure about the move until he was convinced by the manager’s vision for the club; not with Slaven’s current dejected air of calamity.  Furthermore would the Owners, prudent with their money at the best of times, be inclined to back the manager’s judgement to any sizeable degree given his recent track record and our current predicament?

A consequence of having a confused game plan/ style of play is that it makes buying players to suit it very difficult.  Maybe Slaven does have an idea somewhere in his head but it has clearly not been communicated to the players.  The game is not simply about announcing a formation but how those relevant parts interact with each other; full backs supporting attacks, central defenders covering for full-backs, defensive midfielders slotting into defence to fill gaps, wide midfielders tracking back to assist full backs, attacking midfielders supporting the striker. These things are not learned on a white board but must be drilled into players over and over again on the training ground.  I see no evidence of this having taken place with our set of strangers.

Bilic has said that the club will not be buying more players for the sake of it but I wonder if he really knows what is wanted.  Previously it has been said that the club were not looking for defenders or midfield players; but then that all changed with the apparent pursuit of William Carvalho.  It seems very obvious to most that pace and athleticism in central midfield and defence should be at the top of the priorities if we are to compete.  Without that the struggles are set to continue.

For me the jury is still out on the success or otherwise of our transfer dealings to date.  Hart and Zabaleta have yet to cover themselves in glory, Arnautovic has only confirmed that he may be the moody individual that everyone predicted he would be, and Hernandez, although definitely a class act, will find it tough to prosper in the role of unsupported isolated lone striker.

The club’s transfer business has been presented to us as a pragmatic purchase of proven Premier League performers (but then so were Ayew, Fonte and Snodgrass) when in fact it is no more than a short term survival strategy.  Any idea that a new bigger stadium, by itself, was the gateway to success is now clearly an old man’s pipe-dream.  The long established amateurish West Ham ways need urgent reform or we can never fit the apparent ambition of the surroundings; and will end up as just another Sunderland.  With our current set up we fit in the top echelons of Premier League football about as well as the Clampetts did when moving into Beverley Hills (if anyone remembers that).  Perhaps that should be the Pudding Mill-billies!

If I ever come across a genie who grants me three wishes for West Ham they would be: a progressive and disciplined manager, a proper football person to sit between the Board and manager; and investment in fit-for-purpose training facilities.  Without these improvements our seasons will be stuck on repeat for ever.

Five Takeaways From West Ham’s Desperate Defeat at Newcastle

A chance to kick start the season is thrown away by bizarre selections and perplexing tactics.

We Have All Been Here Before

I was watching the early game yesterday and the commentator, who was fawning over Pep and the Arab lottery winners, shared his view that it was too early to consider Manchester United as serious title contenders as they had only played two of the weaker sides in the Premier League.  Interesting that this is now how West Ham are classified but, on the evidence of yesterday’s appalling display at St James’ Park, it is fittingly justified.  At the end of last season I believed that Slaven Bilic was lucky to have kept his job on the basis that there was no evidence to suggest he was equipped to take the club forward to the next level promised land.  A consensus perception that summer player recruitment constituted a fantastic transfer window (as yet unproven) gave a momentary glimmer  of hope but now it is evident that we are being served up the same disorganised fare that epitomised last season.  Three games into the new campaign and all the warning signs are there of a desperate relegation struggle.  Bilic may write it off as a ‘loss of form’ but what is he comparing it to?  When did we last show the type of form that is now allegedly lost?  If you look at the last nineteen league games (half a season) the record shows four wins, five draws, ten defeats and seventeen points; relegation form in anyone’s book during which time we have shipped an average of two goals every game.  All of the shortcomings have been carried over from last season but with different personnel; no discernible style of play or tactics, players out of position, picking favourites, poor organisation and preparation, a collection of startled individual strangers rather than a team and a level of fitness that is way below what is expected.  That we have signed players who did well at other clubs (Ayew, Snodgrass, Fonte, Nordtveit) but have bombed at West Ham cannot all be pure coincidence.

Changing Places

Before the game yesterday there was a reasonable assumption that West Ham were coming up against a team that perhaps were in worse shape than we were.  Doom, gloom and conflict appeared to have engulfed crisis club Newcastle United on their return to the top flight.  By the end of the afternoon they had been made to look like world beaters.  Ask a hundred West Ham fans before kick-off how the team should line up and I doubt that any would have chosen the eleven that Bilic selected. A random jumble of midfield players effectively handed the initiative to Newcastle from the off and left our only goal threat, Javier Hernandez, marooned and isolated up front.  Bilic seems to have a notion that players can be slotted into any position at will while all the evidence shows that, not only does it not work, but it destroys confidence as well.  Modern football cannot be so rigid that it hinders fluidity and mobility but such flexibility must still be meticulously drilled into players on the training ground; not just thrown together to see what happens.

Just A Collection of Antiques and Curios

Baffling selections do not come any stranger than having all three of Pedro Obiang, Manuel Lanzini and Cheikhou Kouyate on the bench yesterday.  Quite what Obiang, clearly the most competent and disciplined defensive midfielder in our squad, has done to be overlooked for Mark Noble and Declan Rice is bewildring.  It should be no secret that defence isn’t just about the four or five at the back but how you approach it and cover for each other as a team.  All good teams now defend from the front and our defence needs all the help it can get.  With each passing week Noble looks more like the small kid who has been asked to make up the numbers with the big boys but simply can’t keep up; he is becoming Bilic’s Kevin Nolan.  To rely on him and the rookie Rice, who is really a central defender anyway, to control the centre of midfield was foolish.  It was a shame that it was Rice’s mistake that led to the opening goal but hauling him off at half time to be replaced by Lanzini only left the defence more exposed.  That is probably Bilic done for his experiment with youth just as Oxford was jettisoned following defeat by Leicester two seasons ago.  If Lanzini and Kouyate were both fit enough to be on the bench then at least one should have started.  Is there some rule about a player returning from injury always has to be on the bench first.

The Possession Enigma

It was a surprise to me to discover that West Ham ‘enjoyed’ 63% of the possession in the game and that we bettered Newcastle on pass completion rate, aerial duels won and tackles made.  It just shows how misleading the statistics are as a means of judging a game.  Delve deeper and you will see that leading the field for number of touches were Angelo Ogbonna, Pablo Zabaleta, James Collins and Aaron Cresswell.  This is indicative that we spend much of the time passing the ball around in our own half; a tactic that slows the whole game down and allows opposition defenders plenty of time to re-group.  That possession resulted in only half as many shots as Newcastle tells it all.  How many times does a West Ham free kick in a promising position result in a pass back to their own keeper?  What is the intention?  Once again the Whoscored website analysis for West Ham concluded that ‘Team has no significant strengths’; now that is one area where the statistics do not lie.

The Weakest Link

How can you describe our play?  There appears to be no plan of attack other than to lump the ball forward and hope to benefit from a mistake.  There is never an outlet to relieve the beleaguered defence and very little movement off the ball to create space for others.  Our defence tries to play a high line but is repeatedly beaten for pace meaning that they are horrendously vulnerable to the ball through the middle or over the top.  Fitness levels are way below those of the competition, ball retention is woeful and the players give the appearance that having only just met and they are not really sure what is expected of them.  For me this is all down to management and coaching.  It is not about signing William Carvalho as the missing piece of the jigsaw.  There is little point having ever more pieces when no-one has any idea of the picture we are trying to make.  West Ham need a manager who can provide consistency, entertainment while building for the future.  Bilic is providing none of this and does not look capable of doing so.  Being a nice guy doesn’t win points and wanting to be mates with his players is a handicap; what is required is organisation, effort and discipline.  Change is required.  There may be other things wrong at the club but the Board are going nowhere fast and we can’t replace a whole squad of players.  Sorry, Slav, you are the weakest link.  Goodbye!

A few thoughts after just two games of the Premier League season

Early season expectations, advance of the stats and the time wasting rip-off.

1      Two games do not a season make

Lots of football followers are getting a bit carried away with how their team will fare this season, even though we are just two games into the Premier League campaign.

Huddersfield are only the second team to keep clean sheets in their opening two Premier League games following promotion from the Championship. The first team to do so were Charlton in 1998-99. And what happened to Charlton that season? Yes, they were relegated.

Hull City had six points after their first two Premier League games last season after promotion. They had beaten champions Leicester in their first game, and then won away at Swansea in their second. Of course, they were relegated at the end of last season.

2      Expected Goals (xG)

We continue to be bombarded with ever-increasing volumes of statistics in football these days, which may be of some interest, but what do they actually prove? Arsenal had 77% possession of the ball at Stoke last weekend and lost the game 1-0. Does that mean it is better not to have the ball too much?

And the latest statistic to come to prominence this season, although it has been around for a while is “expected goals”. I have been reading about this in some detail, and despite quite a liking for statistical analysis (out of interest only), I wonder if this one has been thought through properly. The concept is that they now measure the probability that any given shot will result in a goal. The purpose is to quantify the quality of each chance created, by analysing historical shots (up to one million of them) to assess how the probability of a goal being scored is affected by various factors, such as the distance and angle from the goal, whether the shot was hit by the stronger or weaker foot, or head, the type of assist, and passage of play.

Expected goals (given the shorthand xG) for each individual shot can then be added together to arrive at the expected goals for individual players and for teams. So, for example, in the Arsenal game at Stoke last weekend, the Gunners won the “xG” by 1.48 to 0.67. What does this prove? That they were the better team? Just like possession statistics does it really matter? Stoke won the game 1-0.

And what about potential flaws in the data? What other factors are not taken into account? The quality of the defenders, does the chance occur at the beginning or end of the game, what is the score at the time, are you under greater or less pressure because of league position, the beginning or end of the season, tiredness. These are just some of the factors that have occurred to me, and I’m sure there are many others. There are so many “human dimensional” factors that will influence what will happen in a game of football, and you have to include “luck” too.

Just for interest, in expected goals terms (xG) we lost our opening fixture at Old Trafford 1.93-0.48. Our game at St. Mary’s was a close run thing but we lost that, too, by 2.08-1.96. I’m sure that there are data analysts out there who would prefer the results of matches, and the subsequent league tables to be based on expected goals rather than actual goals! On a lesser scale, instead of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs, perhaps they would like to use xG to determine the result of drawn (actual goals!) cup games? It would be almost impossible to have a drawn xG game, so we would always have a winner.

What nonsense! Let’s not take this all too far! An interesting insight into performance? Perhaps, yes. Am I missing the point? Perhaps, yes. But let’s not get too carried away. Although if it was based on xG we wouldn’t actually be bottom of the league after two games!

3      Time-Wasting

In June I wrote a series of articles based upon the International Football Association Board (IFAB) rule change proposals. Part 3 of my series looked at their ideas for increasing playing time, which revealed how they were considering dispensing with 45 minute halves in a game of football, and replacing it with two periods of thirty minutes, with the clock being stopped every time the ball went out of play. The purpose was to make the concept of time-wasting a thing of the past, as the clock would not be running unless the ball was in play.

In my article I made reference to Tony Pulis bringing his Stoke City side to play at Upton Park in years gone by and how much time-wasting went on. And in an article I wrote for the much missed fanzine, Over Land and Sea, in November 2015, and also in my book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, my review of West Ham v West Brom (managed by Tony Pulis!) on 29 November 2015 referred to my own timekeeping of the game when I watched it back in replay on Sky Plus. I timed the second half as around 25 minutes of actual playing time.

So I had to smile when I read a piece on the BBC Sport website which referred to last weekend’s Burnley v West Brom match (you know the manager of the away side here!) which timed that the ball was in play for 47 minutes and 40 seconds in total! No game in the premier League has seen less action than this one. The fans are most definitely being short-changed in this respect. Apparently all the games in the Premier League this season have been timed and the ball was in play for more than an hour in just two of them. It’s about time the lawmakers took action and introduced this rule change immediately. It would be so simple. It would totally eliminate the whole concept of time-wasting. What is stopping it from happening?

A preview of West Ham at Newcastle

Can West Ham record their first league victory of the season?

If we want to avoid the ignominy of still propping up the Premier League table by the end of the next round of matches we will have to significantly improve upon our performances at St James Park in recent times. Without delving back too far, just looking at our results there in the 21st century, we have played 13 games and won only once. That sole victory was courtesy of a Kevin Nolan goal in November 2012 in our first season back in the top flight under Sam Allardyce. Although that win was less than five years ago, it demonstrates the turnover of players at our club in that of the starting eleven, Reid, Carroll and Noble are the only three who are still at the club, and Collins is the only one of the seven substitutes still here.

Being quite disheartened by our record in the present century, I looked back to the twentieth century and found little comfort when assessing our historical visits to the North-East. We first played a top flight away game at Newcastle in 1923, the year we played in the first Wembley FA Cup Final. But we didn’t manage a win up there until fifty years later in 1973 when Ted MacDougall netted twice in a 2-1 victory. One more win in the 1970s in 1977 was by the margin of 3-2 with our goals scored by Jennings, Taylor and Pop Robson. In our record breaking 1985-86 campaign we won 2-1 with goals from McAvennie and Cottee (who else?), and our next win was 2-1 in 1989 when Keen and Ward hit the target. A 1-0 victory in the 1997-98 season came from a Stan Lazaridis goal, and we followed this up in the next season with our most emphatic win there, 3-0, with two goals from Ian Wright and another from Trevor Sinclair. In total we have won just seven league games at St James Park in around 50 attempts!

Our last visit there was in January 2016, the season before last, when we conceded two goals in the first quarter of an hour, before Jelavic pulled a goal back early in the second half. We ended up losing 2-1 and Newcastle were relegated that season.

In terms of Premier League status, the Geordies are a club on a similar level to ourselves, being one of the top ten clubs in terms of seasons spent in the top league. Only six clubs have been ever present in the top flight in the 25 years of its existence up to the end of last season, namely Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton. Aston Villa come next on 24, followed by Newcastle on 22, West Ham on 21, and Manchester City 20.

In that time they have been more successful than us, in that their highest placed finish is 2nd (twice) (ours is 5th), and they have finished in the top four on five occasions, although the last of those was in 2003. Since then they have been relegated twice, but bounced back at the first attempt both times.

Newcastle have made an equally ignominious start to ourselves, and in their first two games of the season they lost 2-0 at home to Tottenham, and then 1-0 at newly-promoted Huddersfield. So they have no points and have not scored a league goal this season. In addition they were dumped out of the EFL cup this week, losing 3-2 at home to Championship side Nottingham Forest.

But beware! In their entire history, Newcastle have only once failed to score in their first three top flight games, and also Rafael Benitez has never lost three consecutive Premier League games as a manager in England. But on the plus side, Chicarito has scored three goals in his last four league games against Newcastle when he has started, and the one that we really hope will continue is that Joe Hart has never been on the losing side in 16 league games against them.

The Sports Analytics Machine (SAM), the super-computer used to predict the outcome of football matches reckons that the game will end in a 1-1 draw. I am more hopeful, and the return of Lanzini, and the confidence of the team gained by our first win in midweek, will I believe lead to our first league win of the season, and only our eighth when visiting Newcastle. I’ll predict a 2-1 victory.

Matchday: West Ham take on Newcastle United

The resistible force encounters the movable object in a bottom of the table clash at St James’ Park.

I am not sure what the opposite of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object is but we may well find out at St James’ Park this afternoon as both sides strive to improve on their 100% losing starts to the season.  Will the powder puff Newcastle attack overcome the wafer thin West Ham defence or will Geordie passion be extinguished by the Javier Hernandez get out of jail free card?  To claim that this a relegation six pointer before the blackberries have ripened is premature in the extreme but the outcome of today’s game could play a major part in deciding the Premier League sack race; or more precisely who the first manager to leave his post will be.  There is added intrigue in the form of persistent speculation linking Rafa Benitez as the next in line for the hot seat at West Ham.

In a cruel twist of fate I ended up watching both of Newcastle’s opening Premier League fixtures live on TV.  They were well beaten in the opener by a cruise control Tottenham with the Toon offering little once their initial enthusiasm had died down and Shelvey was deservedly sent-off.  The follow-up uninspiring encounter with Huddersfield was a more even, but drab, affair which was decided by the game’s only real quality moment when Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy scored the only goal of the game.  There is clearly an air of smouldering doom surrounding Bentitez and his frustrations with player recruitment could result in a spontaneous eruption at any moment.

“What I think happened is they (Newcastle) tried but maybe they were unable to get those targets that they wanted.  Maybe they were thinking too big and those players, they didn’t want to come.”

– Slaven Bilic surely being ironic about Newcastle’s transfer policy

Both teams were in EFL Cup action during the week and, whereas the Hammers came through unscathed with a competent performance against League Two Cheltenham, Newcastle were dumped out, after extra time, at home to Championship Nottingham Forest; albeit with a definite second string line-up.  Whether West Ham will be buoyed by success or Newcastle humbled by defeat remains to be seen.

Head to Head

Newcastle hold the edge in the all-time record between the two clubs having won 40% of the 129 meetings to West Ham’s 31%.  In the last twelve encounters the Hammers have seen four wins, five defeats and three draws.

It has been a much more one-sided affair for games at St James’ Park with West Ham having won only nine times (and lost thirty six ) out of sixty five attempts.  In the last twelve away fixtures the solitary Hammers success was a 1-0 win, courtesy of a Kevin Nolan goal, in November 2012.  Even the last two away meetings when Newcastle were battling for survival both ended in relatively comfortable victories for the hosts.

Team News

Marko Arnautovic is suspended for West Ham but Winston Reid is the only senior player missing through injury.  This means not only the potential return of Manuel Lanzini but also a phenomenon rarer than a total solar eclipse with both Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho available for selection at the same time.  Lanzini’s running and creativity have been sorely missed but he may have to settle for a place on the bench if deemed not yet ready to start.  It would be a surprise if Carroll is included in the match-day squad but who knows; he has faced his old club in West Ham colours five times but has so far defied football convention by failing to score.

Elsewhere Cheikhou Kouyate is set to return in a midfield where we will be able to assess the extent of Slaven Bilic’s marble lossage if he persists in selecting Mark Noble ahead of Pedro Obiang.  In defence we should expect the return of seven goal Joe Hart between the sticks and to see 34 year old James Collins start in place of 34 year old Jose Fonte.

“We will see if we can improve as much as we can this week. I will try to do my job.  How much can I improve the team? It depends on how well we work and how much the players can learn.”

– Rafa Benitez has the weight of the world on his shoulders

Newcastle are without the injured Karl Darlow,  DeAndre Yedlin, Paul Dummett and Florian Lejeune plus the suspended Shelvey.  The Toon could see a welcome return for Dwight Gayle who must be one of the most ineffective strikers in the Premier League.

Man in the Middle

Neil Swarbrick from Lancashire is today’s referee.  Swarbrick had a full set when refereeing three West Ham home games last season that saw a win against Palace, a draw with Middlesbrough and defeat to Liverpool.  This will be his second Premier League match of the season having previously officiated at the Everton v Stoke game on the opening weekend.

Predictions

BBC’s Lawro has gone for a 1-1 draw while Paul Merson has predicted a 2-0 win for the Hammers.

I see a number scenarios for this one depending on what happens during Newcastle’s expected early surge.  Whoever scores the opening goal will go on to win and provided that the Hammers do not get off to a typical slow start I can imagine a rare 1-0 victory to bring back from the north-east.