Overawed by Potential Champions
There is no doubt that Manchester United are one of the favourites for this season’s Premier League title. Mourinho has assembled a side that has a pragmatism alongside power and pace that will enable them to grind out results whenever opponents go to Old Trafford to frustrate. They won’t have many easier days than yesterday’s canter against a feeble and unadventurous West Ham side. The gulf in class was so great it could have been Premier League versus League 1 in an early round FA Cup tie, although in those circumstances you would have expected the opposition to put up more resistance. Slaven Bilic may well have selected the best eleven players available to him, as a result of injuries to key players, but it felt that he sent them out with no discernible game plan or belief that they could get anything out of the game. As has so often been the case in recent seasons it is not the fact that we have lost to a much better side that exasperates and causes concern but the manner in which we have apparently accepted defeat as inevitable .
Repeating Last Season’s Mistakes
It is only one game into the season and so rash judgements should be avoided at least until the transfer window has closed and we have welcomed the respective returns of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio. However, the underlying worry is that we have simply picked up where we left off last season. Persistent concerns from last term surrounding levels of fitness, tactics, selection, organisation and motivation continued to surface in pre-season and were apparent once again yesterday. Better players may have been signed but that is only one part of the equation in creating a team that will perform week in, week out. The impression given is of a disjointed side with players who are strangers to each other and any sign of cohesion and collective desire is difficult to spot. Bilic claimed after the match that they had spent three days on the training ground working on defending set pieces and yet the best that they came up with was to have Arthur Masuaku marking Lukaku at a free kick. Repeating last season’s mistakes gives no cause for optimism that it will be anything other than another disappointing campaign. The only way to turn things around is by doing things differently; not doing the same things over and over again.
The Problem of Ball Retention and Unforced Errors
A recurring theme in West Ham’s play for some time is how cheaply the ball is given away. If you game plan is to sit and back and soak up pressure then one assumes there should be some ambition once you get the ball. If the only tactic is give it back to the opposition straight away and invite them to try again, then sooner or later something will give. Accepting that Manchester United have better players does not mean that our players should be unable to execute the most basic of football skills; control, pass, move. In the opening exchanges yesterday the ball was given away repeatedly even when under little pressure and it was one such unforced error by Pedro Obiang that led directly to the first of Lukaku’s goals. Equally there is not enough movement off the ball to create space or provide options for the player in possession. Do West Ham have a patent on the 180 degree turn? It used to be said that West Ham played ‘on their toes’ in anticipation of pass and to occupy opposition defenders; now it is mostly a case of players remaining flat footed until the ball arrives at their feet losing momentum and allowing opponents to re-group. Our players seem to want to play in little triangles as if it is a training ground practice drill with the result that the opposition is not stretched and attacks are slow and predictable.
Selections and Substitutions
I had expected West Ham to go into the game with three at the back and so was somewhat surprised when the team was announced. Our full backs are generally better at going forward (and relatively suspect defensively) while the wide midfield players are not known for paying attention to defensive duties. Having said that, I am not sure that a back three would have led to a different outcome as we are equally vulnerable to attacks at pace through the middle as we are down the flanks. I would not be too critical of Bilic about the substitutions although arguably it resulted in a heavier defeat than might have been the case. At 2-0 down it was a gamble to bring on an additional forward but at least Diafra Sakho looked lively and the change was an attempt to give some support to Javier Hernandez, who toiled manfully but was largely isolated.
Declan Rice The Only Positive
The only real positive from the game was the thirty minute contribution by Declan Rice. I had questioned using him in midfield previously but was very impressed with both his maturity and how comfortable he looked on the ball and in the Premier League. If you are good enough you are old enough. Of the new signings, Pablo Zabaleta did OK and at least showed commitment, Hernandez ran willingly and demonstrated good touch, Marko Arnautovic blew hot and cold and Joe Hart should maybe have done better for the last goal. I wonder if they are starting to wonder what they have let themselves in for at West Ham. Of the others Edmilson Fernandes and Masuaku were particularly disappointing, Obiang had a bad day, Mark Noble tried hard but is well off the pace and I am still left scratching me head at what Andre Ayew is meant to contribute. I will leave the summing up of our performance to whoscored.com:
Strengths Team has no significant strengths
Styles Team showed no specific style of play