Matchday: Hopeful Hammers Take On Stuttering Swansea

In the latest instalment of must win games for manager Slaven Bilic, West Ham entertain Swansea City

It was the visit of Swansea at the tail end of the 2015/16 season that raised the first alarm bells as to the vulnerabilities of Slaven Bilic’s side; notably showing up the shortcomings of players being played out of position as right back Michail Antonio was exposed for two of the goals in a 4-1 home defeat that finally ended any lingering Champion’s League aspirations that we may have held.  The ‘blip’ was soon forgiven and forgotten as a consequence of the emotional last game at the Boleyn victory over Manchester United just a few days later; but the Swansea performance has set the tone for much of what has come since.

West Ham come into the game having lost four out of six Premier League games from a relatively benign set of fixtures and now embark on a run of so-called ‘winnable’ games (including today’s) in an attempt to demonstrate there might be something to the season beyond a desperate survival battle.  A great deal of last year was wasted wishing that the season would soon be over and there is a huge danger of this happening again.  Yet again manager Slaven Bilic is under immense pressure and his continued week to week employment renewal is likely to remain a defining feature for much of the campaign.

At the time of Swansea’s victory in May 2016 their manager was Francesco Guidolin who, having steered the Swans to safety, was out of the door the following October following a terrible start to the season.  His replacement, Bob Bradley, had only been in post for eighty-five days when a 4-1 home defeat by the Hammers led to his dismissal.  Bradley was subsequently replaced by current boss Paul Clement who worked wonders to stave off what looked like certain relegation.  Swansea’s recent seasons have been characterised by poor starts and storming finishes which makes their current position look like over-achievement, even if they are only a point better off than West Ham.

Head to Head

West Ham have won twenty-eight and lost eighteen of the previous sixty-one meetings between the two clubs.  The last twelve meetings have seen five West Ham wins and three Swansea victories.

In the thirty-one of the matches played in London, the Hammers have won twenty-two, lost only twice, never failed to score and have averaged over three goals a game.  The victory in 2015/16 was Swansea’s only win in their last twelve visits during which time they have left empty handed on nine occasions.

Team News

It is reported that both Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio are available for selection while James Collins, Pedro Obiang and Edmilson Fernandes are unavailable.  The barnstorming finish that put an undeserved gloss on last week’s defeat at the hands of Tottenham might lead our manager to conclude that he ‘can’t change a losing team’.   We will see!

I probably have more chance of picking the first three (in order) at tomorrow’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe than successfully predicting how Slaven will choose to start the game this afternoon.  On paper it remains a strong looking squad but with all the ingredients selected independently of any particular recipe it is impossible to know what will be served up.

Personally, I would like to see Hernandez back in a central position with Lanzini in a more advanced role just behind him.  Swansea have yet to concede on the road this season and need to be unlocked rather than bombarded.  More likely though we will resort to the trademark direct style built around Andy Carroll’s head.  There were probably times when such a tactic was effective (the 1970’s for instance) but just like typewriters, floppy disks and VHS tapes the rest of the world has moved on.

Swansea have no significant injury concerns and are likely to be very compact defensively.  How adventurous they are will be interesting as a front three of Wilfred Bony, Tammy Abrahams and the talented one from the Ayew family definitely have the ability to upset West Ham’s suspect defence.

Man in the Middle

Once again we have a referee, Roger East from Wiltshire, who rarely gets run out at a top Premier League game.  East was at the London Stadium twice last season for the defeat by Leicester and the dull goal-less draw with Everton.


Both TV pundits, Lawro and Paul Merson, have today’s game as a 2-0 home win; each feeling that Swansea lack the form or confidence to harm the Hammers.  I wish I was as confident as there is every chance, based on their away performances so far this season, that the visitors have enough to frustrate West Ham.  The shape of the game will depend on whether Swansea will show any attacking threat or belief; they have the potential but maybe not the appetite.

On previous occasions when Bilic has been desperate for a result to save his job the team has come through for him and this will probably be no exception.  This should not be the first West Ham to fail to score at home against Swansea even if a glut of goals in unlikely.  I will keep everything crossed for a narrow victory.

A preview of West Ham v Swansea

Will Swansea be the swansong for our beleaguered manager? Plus a few thoughts on the continuing effect of the London Stadium hosting the World Athletics Championships in August.

It’s a weird feeling isn’t it? A home league game that kicks off at 3pm on a Saturday. The first one of the season, so make the most of it if you are a fan of the traditional kick-off time, as it won’t be happening again until at least 9 December. The second international break of the season is upon us, and begins after the Swansea game. I wonder if it will be a swansong for our beleaguered manager who seems to be under more pressure than ever if media reports are to be believed.

I wondered about the derivation of the word swansong. Legend has it that swans are mute throughout their lives, but they sing beautifully and mournfully before they die. Let us hope that the team performs beautifully for the manager on Saturday, and that we pick up the much needed three points that would take us out of the relegation zone.

We only have one home game in the month of October (Friday 20 October 8pm v Brighton), and by the end of the month 10 league games will have been played (four at home and six away). November is a more balanced month with two home games (Saturday 4 November v Liverpool 5.30pm kick-off, and Leicester (Friday 24 November 8pm), and two away. Of course the third international break takes place in that month to continue the stop-start to the Premier League season that we endure every year now.

Seven games are scheduled for December, with just three at home and four away. The next potential Saturday 3pm kick doesn’t happen until the 9th when Chelsea are our visitors, but once the Sky / BT schedules are announced that may of course change. By the time we sit down for our Christmas lunch we will be exactly half way into the season, having played 19 games, 9 at home and 10 away, but visits to Bournemouth on Boxing Day, and the return fixture at Tottenham four days later, mean that we will once again be in the position we were in just three games into the season, that is having played three more games away from home than at the London Stadium!

We are forever behind, and the effect of the World Athletics Championships being held at our stadium will be a significant one if we are still lingering in the lower reaches of the table by then. The home / away balance doesn’t even itself out until the end of March, at which time we will have played 16 games at home and the same number away, with just six games left in the season at that time.

If you look back on the history of Swansea visits to West Ham, we have an overwhelming superiority. But I’m not sure that statistics such as these are a good thing! In almost 30 home games against them we have only lost on two occasions. The first of these was in 1956 when we were both in the second tier, but that was too long ago for even me to remember.

The second I can recall very clearly though. It was of course the penultimate game at Upton Park and the last to be played on a Saturday. We went with high expectations as a record-breaking season was coming towards a close and were thrashed 4-1, with a certain Andre Ayew scoring one of the Swansea goals. Of course this massive disappointment was soon forgotten in the following week when we met Manchester United in that never-to-be-forgotten final game at the old ground.

Last season we beat them in April with that terrific strike along the ground from Kouyate from outside the box which was the only goal of the game. That left Swansea in big trouble in the bottom three with just half a dozen games of the season to go, but they escaped the drop with a fine finishing run.

This season, their seventh consecutive one in the top flight, they (like ourselves) have not started as well as they would have hoped. They have lost all of their three home games at the Liberty Stadium, 4-0 to Manchester United, 1-0 to Newcastle, and 2-1 to Watford. But we need to be wary, as their form on the road has been excellent. A goalless draw at Southampton to begin the season, a 2-0 win at Palace, and then another goalless game at Tottenham has given them five points, all away from home. This puts them in 15th place, just one point above ourselves. It is a bit early I know, but we could perhaps call this a “six-pointer” this weekend, as well as an extremely important (must win?) game for our manager.

I rarely manage to accurately predict our starting line-up, as the manager always seems to throw in a surprise or two that I wasn’t expecting. But this time I am confident that he will start with the following eleven:

Hart, Fonte, Reid, Ogbonna, Zabaleta, Noble, Kouyate, Cresswell, Ayew, Arnautavic, Chicarito.

If the manager subscribes to the “horses for courses” theory then he will be tempted to include Carroll in view of his fine goalscoring record against today’s opponents. Apparently Lanzini is now fit, but I expect him to start on the bench, although I would personally include him from the start in place of Ayew. But I reckon Ayew will get the nod, particularly as the game is against his former employers. Depending on how the game is going I would expect important contributions as substitutes from Lanzini, Carroll, Masuaku, or Rice. I don’t think anyone else will get a look in.

The bookies make us favourites to win the game and we are slightly odds-on to do so. Swansea are around 3/1 plus, and the draw is around 5/2. Given Swansea’s away form, especially the fact that they have yet to concede a goal on their travels, the game is likely to be a tight one. Despite the tension surrounding the manager I hope that we can win a close game, possibly by the odd goal, just as we did about six months ago. A repeat of that scoreline, with the same goalscorer, is on offer at around 33/1.  

West Ham 2 Tottenham 3

A spirited comeback from West Ham but nothing to show for it.

Saturday’s result means that we move back into the bottom three in the Premier League. Six games played, four points. Four games away from home have yielded just a single point, and a win plus a defeat at home give us another three. To get back on to an average of a point a game we must win at home to Swansea next Saturday. The pressure is once again back on the manager, and this will increase still further if we don’t collect all three points in that game.

The Tottenham game was a strange one in many ways. I was there to watch it live as usual, and then saw re-runs of the game on TV later and the usual analysis on Match of the Day. I guess that each time you watch you pick up something new.

For much of the game we matched Tottenham for effort, but were lacking when it came to skill, and a tactical plan. Of course it didn’t help that Antonio picked up another muscle injury before half an hour had elapsed, and I was as surprised as those around me that Carroll was the manager’s choice to replace him. Once again Chicarito was moved to a wider position which, although he possesses a lot of skill it is not his forte. So much of football depends on the officials and their interpretation of events, but I could see quite clearly from a distance of 100 yards away that Arnautavic was having his shirt tugged when put through by Noble fairly early in the game. To my mind it was a clear penalty, (and even possibly a sending-off offence?) and if it had been converted, a 1-0 lead would have put a totally different complexion on the game.

But referee Oliver thought otherwise. He could see that the tackle was clean enough but apparently couldn’t see the shirt pulling. In many ways Oliver is a fine referee, although many social media views from West Ham fans suggested otherwise. They say that if you are good enough you are old enough, but I’m not entirely convinced that this applies to football match officials, particularly at the highest level. He wasn’t any older than some players on the pitch, and I’m not sure that he seems to have the authority necessary to handle a game.

Poor defending let us down, and I hope that when they look back at the game, then Carroll, Kouyate, Cresswell, Reid, and Fonte, will all feel that in different ways they could have done better for the first Tottenham goal. Similarly Carroll and Ogbonna for the second. And everyone back for the free-kick when Kane hit the post seemed transfixed when Eriksen stroked home the third.

But that wasn’t the end of the game, and our heads didn’t go down. A spirited comeback picked out a particular weakness of Tottenham for the ball in the air, and the headed goals from Chicarito and Kouyate led to an exciting climax. I felt that Carroll was moving at speed to head in the equaliser at the end when he was pushed just enough to put him off, in a similar way to Zabaleta conceding the injury-time penalty at Southampton that cost us a point. But once again referee Oliver thought otherwise, and our late pressure petered out with some handbags in the middle of the field that wasted endless time that stifled our momentum.

For me, Zabaleta was our best defender, but nobody else really stood out in the team apart from the short cameo from Masuaku in the latter stages, who showed good ability and looked dangerous going forward wide on the left. Cresswell can cross a decent ball at times, but doesn’t have Masuaku’s ability or pace to go past players. But neither are the best left-sided players around from a defensive point of view.

If you watch the game again you can measure how much time elapsed for each of the three goals scored in the second half and when the game was restarted. Add that to all the second half substitutions, the time taken for players to leave the field, and the Tottenham timewasting in the last twenty minutes and then try to reconcile that with the paltry four minutes that were added. The first half also had two goals, one substitution and Antonio’s injury, yet a mere two minutes was added. The sooner the authorities change the timing system in games, so that the clock is stopped every time the ball goes out of play or the game is halted, and then only re-started when the game resumes, the better. As spectators we are getting short-changed, and teams with a narrow lead are getting away with blatant timewasting.

We could possibly have got a point out of the game, but our shortcomings and contentious decisions not going our way let us down once again. Tottenham showed in many respects why they will probably end up in the top four or five in the league once again, although I cannot see them challenging the two Manchester clubs or Chelsea for a tilt at the top three. I believe that our lowly position is a false one, and that we have the quality of players to be a side challenging for a position in the top half of the table, but no better than that. But I’m not sure that we have a manager with the ability to motivate, and tactical awareness necessary, to go any further than that.

I’d love to see him prove me wrong, but unless we pick up three points against Swansea, then with the second international break following that game, I wonder if the board will lose patience and will give him the opportunity to do so.

Five Takeaways: Late Hammer’s Surge Papers Over The Cracks

A more resounding defeat than the score suggests ends West Ham’s run of clean sheets.

A Flattering Scoreline or Spirited Fightback?

Yesterday’s game was nowhere near as close as the record books will show for eternity.  After a cagey opening period Spurs, realising that there was to be no early West Ham onslaught, upped their game and, by the early part of the second half, had taken a commanding hold on the match .  The visitors with a midweek European adventure on the horizon decided to ease up rather than go for the jugular in the way that Arsenal and Manchester city had previously done at the London Stadium.  West Ham, to their credit, did not implode on this occasion despite heads appearing to have dropped at the time of the third goal.  The two headed goals plus the sending off leading to a barnstorming finale that was out of character with the rest of the match.  It was not that West Ham lacked spirit but they were very much second best in terms of quality and cohesion.  Should the Hammers find the same desire (frustratingly reserved for matches against the north Londoners) in the coming run of fixtures then a reasonable haul of points might be expected.  How can it be that the team is not ‘up for it’ every week?

Decide On A Shape and Stick With It

With the players available most were happy with the starting lineup and for the opening twenty minutes or so the team pressed and blocked well.  On paper Spurs looked vulnerable in the centre of midfield where expensive misfit Sissoko filled in for the absent Wanyama and Dembele.  Although the Hammers did little to exploit this weakness they were more than holding their own until the Michail Antonio injury.  Antonio’s pace, power and stamina are one of West Ham’s greatest assets and he was always going to be missed but, even so, it was a baffling decision to replace him with Andy Carroll and to meddle with the shape of the side so early in the match, given that things were going reasonably well.  It should be safe to assume that our preparation had been based around playing in a particular shape and style; to change it appeared, and was ultimately proved, to be foolish.

Individual Errors, Collective Disarray

When any goal is scored I guess you can always point to someone who could have done better to prevent it.  Yet I believe that individual errors are far more costly when a side is poorly organised, where players are not firmly drilled in what is expected of them and where the need to cover for each other is not apparent.  Giving the ball away cheaply is an all too common feature of our play and Carroll’s attempted pass, without looking, on the half way line led directly to the opening goal; as did his half-hearted challenge for the second one.  On both occasions, however, Tottenham still had lots to do and it was disappointing that there was so much space for them to exploit and that a number of players were merely ambling back. In different circumstances it would be possible to admire how fast clinical Spurs were on the break; an ability that is in stark contrast to our own laboured efforts to turn defence into attack.

Arnie Is Back – To Being Moody

In what was probably our best move of the game, Mark Noble played an astute pass to Marko Arnautovic who powered past his marker only to be denied by what one commentator describe as ‘an absolutely brilliant tackle by Aurier’, when in fact the tackle was only possible due to the fact that the defender was tugging at Arnie’s shirt.  Why this was not a foul and yet Alli’s blatant cheating dive in the build up to the third Spurs goal was, is anyone’s guess.  Not that the officials can be blamed for our defeat and, despite claims at the time, there was no offside for either of the first two Tottenham goals.  After his encouraging performance in midweek it was a disappointing show from Arnautovic who doesn’t look the type of player you can rely on to run his socks off each week.  Sadly there are too many like that on show in the current team which continues to give the appearance of a group of strangers rather than a well oiled machine.

Dead Manager Walking

Almost everyone you talk to believes that it is only a matter of time before Slaven Bilic is replaced as West Ham manager.  Maybe the mood in the boardroom is to allow him to see out his contract (whether this is out of loyalty or to save money, you can decide) although such procrastination is a dangerous game, as we know only too well from the Avram Grant experience.  As I have mentioned before, I see no scenario where Bilic is still manager at the start of the 2018/19 season.  Everyone must know that including himself, the coaching staff, players and the tea lady.  It must produce a completely negative and toxic atmosphere around the club.  It is not impossible that the team could muddle along and collect enough points here and there to survive but it is not going to be pretty to watch.  The ongoing concern is that with over two years under his belt we are no nearer seeing any emerging direction or style from Slaven.  Although I have no knowledge of who the potential available replacements might be I still see little justification for putting off the inevitable any longer.

Matchday: West Ham Aim For Three In A Row Against Spurs

Can it happen again? West Ham target a hat-trick of home wins against the pretenders of Tottenham.

After a run of three games that has seen two wins and three clean sheets West Ham get the opportunity to convince whether it is a corner turned or simply a competent return from a benign set of fixtures.  There certainly seems to be a greater air of confidence around the club (and especially in the manager’s demeanour) and usually there is little needed in terms of additional motivation to prepare the team in readiness for today’s visitors.  That a London derby continues to arouse such passions on the pitch in an era where few players have any local connections is evidence that football has not totally lost its soul.  More of a concern for Hammer’s supporters is why the team being  ‘up for it’ is not something we can experience week in and week out!

“They have patterns, good players and, for me, that makes them one of the best teams probably the most attractive one.”

– Slaven Bilic

It is an unwholesome thought but Tottenham have most probably been the best footballing side in the Premier League over the past two seasons and they are very fortunate to have (for now) one of the best managers in the business.  In some ways it makes their ultimate failure to win the league and our part in that downfall all the more amusing.    Tottenham like to consider themselves as part of the ‘Big 6’ but in truth, from a financial viewpoint, they are very much in the second division of that six, along with Arsenal and Liverpool.  Astute transfer dealings and a progressive manager have enabled them to play above themselves but like West Ham it will take more than a larger stadium to mount a sustained challenge at the top table.  Once Pochettino moves on to greater things and the likes of Kane, Eriksen and Alli go searching for larger pay packets then they will surely bump back down to their customary status of flattering to deceive.

Head to Head

This will be the 148th meeting between the two sides (excluding Southern League and war-time cups).  West Ham have won forty-nine and lost sixty-two of those previous games but have won thirty-three (lost twenty-three) of the home games between the two clubs.  The last twelve matches (home and away) show five wins apiece while the last twelve in East London gives the Hammers an advantage of six wins to Tottenham’s five.   The Hammers are looking for their third consecutive home win against the north Londoners

Team News

James Collins and Manuel Lanzini are definitely out while Pedro Obiang and Edmilson Fernandes are doubtful.  Tottenham are without Rose, Wanyama and long term casualty Lamela.

There were some bright performances from several young players, together with a much more fluid look to the side, in midweek but I expect it will be back to the old guard for today’s game.

The way that Tottenham play will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched them under Pochettino over the past few seasons.  Pressing all over the pitch, full-backs getting forward quickly to provide width with the movement and probing from Eriksen and Alli creating space and chances for a clinical Kane.  It will be interesting to see what cunning plan is employed by our coaching team to counter these threats.  The greatest concern, as ever, is the lack of pace in defence and midfield; both to keep things tight defensively and to launch rapid counter-attacks.

West Ham continue to miss Lanzini and I hope that Bilic utilises Marko Arnautovic in a more central creative role.  Arnautovic and Michail Antonio can provide that much needed outlet for the defence which is sure to come under some intense pressure.  Otherwise the hopeful punt up-field is unlikely to trouble the visitor’s back-line.

“For all the excitement and desire they show to beat us, we must show the same. We must show the same desire, excitement and aggressivity,”

– Mauricio Pochettino

Bilic has indicated that he will continue his controversial fox-outside-the-box experiment which I suppose means that Andy Carroll will once again lead the line.  Maybe Carroll is the best at what he does; it’s just that there are not many others bothering to do it in the modern game.  Even though Spurs have conceded more all-time Premier League goals than any other club their defence is a little more experienced these days to be suckered by Route One tactics.

The Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is Michael Oliver from Northumberland.  At just thirty-two years old Oliver is still young enough for a place in the Hammer’s defence.  He was last seen at the London Stadium in the 2-2 draw with West Brom last season and before that in the 5-0 FA Cup drubbing by Manchester City.


Lawro has this down as a 1-1 score draw while Paul Merson is predicting a 1-3 Tottenham win.  West Ham have surprised me in both the past two seasons and will do well to make it three wins on the trot this afternoon.  There will not be so much pressure on the visitors this time around with the fixture taking place early in the season and so West Ham will need to play with a high intensity from the off.  My fear is that we will be overly cautious and surrender too much possession as a result.  An early goal for Tottenham has the potential to spark the type of rout witnessed against Arsenal and Manchester City last season.

I would be very happy with a point but believe it will ultimately be a fruitless afternoon.  What we should be looking for is a committed and spirited performance or the pressure may well return on our beleaguered manager.

A preview of West Ham versus Tottenham

Five Visits to Wembley in One Season for West Ham?

The draw for the Fourth Round of the Carabao Cup has paired us with our North London neighbours who are visiting us this weekend. The away tie, to be played in the last week of October, whilst not the kindest, guarantees at least two trips to Wembley this season. And when we go there for the Carabao Cup final, in addition to the FA Cup semi-final and final, that will make five trips to the iconic North-West London venue in one season. OK, so it is a long shot I’ll agree. I wonder what odds the bookies would give for us making the five visits to Wembley in one season? But we have to dream, don’t we?

The 12.30 kick-off is yet another “non-standard” time for a game of football, just as last season when we played Tottenham at 8.00 pm on a Friday night on May 5. We went into that game as vast underdogs. How much would we give for a repeat of the performance and result that we achieved just 141 days ago?

We moved up into 17th place in the table, and just outside the bottom three, when Everton were hammered by Manchester United last week. Tottenham, despite their (typical?) slow start to the season still manage to occupy fifth place, albeit five points adrift of the two Manchester clubs just five games into the season.

Much has been written about their inability to adapt to playing their home games at Wembley, but they have gone some way to rectify this with a convincing win (3-1) against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last week, and scraping home 1-0 against Barnsley in the Carabao Cup this week. But in the league their results have been disappointing to say the least, with a home defeat (2-1) to Chelsea, and draws (1-1) with Burnley, and (0-0) v Swansea.

On the other hand, their away form has been excellent and has given them their two wins in the league with victories at Newcastle (2-0) on the opening weekend, and at Everton (3-0). So they come here with a 100% away record which we will be hoping to end. The bookies don’t give us much chance of doing so, and we are quoted at around 5/1 to win the game, with Tottenham around 4/6, and a draw at 3/1. But in the equivalent fixture last May we were even longer odds at 13/2 to win, with the draw at around 4/1, and a Tottenham victory was even shorter than it is this time. I took a punt on us winning the game then, and I’ll be doing the same this time.

The convincing win over Bolton with mostly fringe players was good for confidence, and a third clean sheet in a row. Bolton were poor, but the performances of the players should have given the manager some food for thought when he is selecting the team to face Tottenham. However, despite that I wouldn’t expect to see many changes from the team that played at West Brom last weekend.

Of course, Collins is out and will need to be replaced, but how the manager does this is the £64 million dollar question. Will we revert to a back four of Zabaleta, Fonte, Reid and Cresswell? Or if he wants to continue with three at the back, could Zabaleta be one of the three, or will he want Ogbonna to partner Reid and Fonte? Or might he even be bold and include Rice in his favoured position?

Apparently Obiang has a slight injury and is likely to miss the game, so he will need to replaced too if he doesn’t make it. Perhaps there will be a return for Noble in this position? That would certainly increase the traffic on social media. Or Fernandes even? After his performance in midweek, I also believe that Bilic may want to bring Arnautavic into the starting team to give us much-needed creativity, although many would argue that it is difficult to do this without weakening the team from a defensive viewpoint. Some media outlets suggest that he may come in at the expense of Chicarito, but personally I’d like to see them both in the team. We cannot go into games (even ones against top sides like Tottenham) without the means to create chances and score goals. Somehow the manager has to find a balance between defence and attack but this is what he is paid for. The best teams always defend in numbers without the ball, and attack in numbers when in possession, and we have to find the right personnel and strategy to achieve this.

We will find out the make-up of the team at about 11.30. We will need a performance of high intensity and total commitment to match the result from last May. A draw would be a good result but the optimist in me hopes that we might just sneak the win.

West Ham v Bolton: Hammers Breeze Into Round 4

West Ham march into the last 16 of the Carabao Cup

I am old enough to remember the early days of the League Cup, currently the EFL Cup, and as a result of sponsorship known as the Carabao Cup this season. It has been a competition with a number of guises (mainly drink ones), the Milk Cup, the Littlewoods Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, the Coca Cola Cup, the Worthington Cup, The Carling Cup, and the Capital One Cup, and perhaps others that I have forgotten, but essentially the competition has remained unaltered since its inception, being open to the 92 clubs in the four divisions of the Football League.

The first Wembley final was in 1967, when third division Queens Park Rangers produced a comeback of Lazarus proportions against West Brom to win 3-2, after being two goals down at half-time. Prior to this the final was a two-legged affair. With effect from then, the winners gained a passport into Europe, initially the Fairs Cup, and now the Europa League, provided that they were in the top flight of English football, although that rule has since been relaxed.

Despite this, it continues to be perceived as a lower priority tournament than the more prestigious FA Cup, although it is surprising that many teams outside of the elite do not appear to take it more seriously with the carrot of Europe on offer to the winners, especially as it is perhaps the only realistic chance of qualifying.

West Ham’s first ever game in the competition was 57 years ago next Tuesday with a comfortable 3-1 win over Charlton. But in the next round we began a long history of being dumped out of the tournament by lower ranked teams when we lost 3-2 at Darlington, despite fielding a full strength team. It is a competition that we have never won and it is about time that we did.

So far this season the draw has been kind. In the last round we were drawn at home to Cheltenham, almost bottom of League Two, but of course had to play away from home as the stadium was not yet ready for football. A 2-0 win created the opportunity to progress further when we were handed another home draw, this time Bolton being the visitors. It is hard to believe but Bolton have made a worse start than ourselves, with two draws and six defeats leaving them rooted to the foot of the Championship. It was therefore a formality that we would move into the Fourth Round, or last 16, leaving us just two wins away from a two-legged semi-final appearance.

And a formality it was with an excellent commanding performance from an almost wholly changed team, including younger players being given their chance. Everyone played well, especially Arnautavic who played as if he owed the supporters something, and ran the show. Almost certainly I can see him filling in Lanzini’s position while our diminutive Argentinian remains injured. I hope the manager can see the same. And how good was it to see a centre back so comfortable on the ball with excellent distribution, as well as defending well, albeit against weak opposition. I wonder if Declan Rice will be given another chance as a starter, but this time in his natural position?

Ogbonna’s early goal was a boost and gave the side confidence from the start. Once Sakho had doubled the lead the game was over as a contest, and Masuaku’s thunderbolt at the end was the icing on the cake. Despite the impressive performances all over the pitch it is unlikely that more than two or three of the team will be in the starting line-up when Tottenham are our visitors next Saturday lunchtime.

In the meantime we move into the last sixteen of the competition hoping for another kind draw, which takes place at 10pm this evening. After the farce of the second round draw where John Salako confused the issue, and then the third round draw taking place in the early hours of the morning in China, I wonder what they have in store this time? Perhaps it could take place in a rocket orbiting the earth if they can overcome the gravity issue? Or even under water in Thailand? Anything that can boost the name of the sponsors is usually the order of the day.

Last Saturday we took part in one of the most uninspiring games in the Premier League when we came away from the Hawthorns with a goalless draw. My web colleague Geoff Hopkins wrote an excellent review of this game and I don’t propose to add anything further. Since then our manager is reported to have said that he is finding it difficult / it is challenging / he is struggling / he is finding it almost impossible to pair Carroll and Hernandez up front in the same team. Yes, the “big man / little man” combination has never worked in football has it! Come on, let’s make it work! Hernandez is a goalscorer of the highest calibre and we need him up front, and not cast aside out of his best position on the left wing. Surely it cannot be rocket science. Work on it and find a way to get the best out of both of them if you want them both in the side. Don’t just accept the situation. How long did it take to realise that Antonio was not a right back? We need to play to players’ strengths, and fit them into a workable formation.

Five Takeaways From West Ham’s Stroll In The Olympic Park

A pleasing and accomplished EFL Cup victory over Bolton Wanderers entertains a well attended London Stadium.

The Best Supporters

Pride of place goes to the supporters who once again proved that they are the club’s greatest asset.  Despite an indifferent start to the season and continued mutterings about the London Stadium experience almost 36,000 turned out to watch the third round EFL Cup tie against Bolton Wanderers.  Maybe the fans see this competition as the best route to glory and silverware but it is still an outstanding effort compared to the less than 24,000 that rattled around in the national stadium at Wembley on the same evening.  Should there ever be a Board and team who get even close to the enthusiasm, loyalty and persistence that the supporters show then what a force that could turn out to be.

A Very Satisfactory Performance

There is nothing to criticise about the performance.  Bolton were clearly low on confidence and offered little in the way of threat or resistance yet the West Ham performance was efficient and economical.  As they say ‘you can only beat what is in front of you!’  A third clean sheet in a row should be a tremendous boost for confidence as we embark on a run of important games.  With the first goal going in so early in proceedings the game was effectively over as a contest as soon as it started.  Following the second, the match became something of a formality with little incident of note until the super third goal by Arthur Masuaku at the death; a strike worthy of both Julian Dicks and Frank Lampard (senior) in their prime.  We can now look forward to today’s fourth round draw and make sure that, at least for now, we keep the weekend of 25th February 2018 free in our diaries.

I’ll Be Back!

The stand out contribution on the night was from Marko Arnautovic in providing the assists for both of the first two goals.  Slaven Bilic was right in saying that this was ‘the beginning of the comeback’ for Arnie and to emphasise that ‘more was required’.  As the Hammer’s record signing, he needs to atone for his stupid sending-off at Southampton and start to perform on a consistent basis regardless of opposition; he needs to prove that he can be a game changer as well as a player who shines when we are on top anyway.  At the moment, there is an impression of a luxury player who after demonstrating a flash of undeniable skill then spends the next ten minutes reliving and admiring it in his head.  A fine performance but more of the same please.

The Promise of Youth

Each of the young players that were given a chance acquitted themselves admirably.  It would nice to think that they will not just be packed away until the next round but also given a look-in on Premier League match-days; and not just as 92nd minute substitutes.  Declan Rice looked much more at ease in his natural central defensive role and is by far the most comfortable of our centre backs when in possession.  Sead Haksabanovic put in a tidy performance, as did Nathan Holland when he replaced the Montenegrin just after the hour, while Domingos Quina also contributed an encouraging cameo during the final fifteen minutes.  It would be foolish to throw them all in together in league games but careful management with occasional starts or fifteen to twenty minutes off the bench would be very welcome.

What Lessons Learned?

There is apparently a big game coming up at the weekend and it will be interesting to see what if anything has been learned from last night’s more fluid performance?  The presence of Diafro Sakho in the lone striker role offers far greater movement and mobility creating space and options for the midfield passers and runners; yet, he is likely to remain behind Andy Carroll and Javier Hernandez in the pecking order.  Just how do West Ham accommodate a player like Hernandez or has the ‘signing of the summer’ suddenly become no more that the impact substitute that he was at Manchester United?  Is Arnie the best option to fill the creative void left by the continued absence of Manuel Lanzinin? Will Bilic be brave enough to let Rice to show what he can do at centre back in the Premier League and should Sam Byram and Arthur Masuaku be challenging Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Creswell for the wing back berths?  Stay tuned and all will be revealed on Saturday.

Matchday: Trotters In Town For West Ham Scrap

The Hammers are less than eight hours from Wembley as they ‘entertain’ Bolton at the London Stadium.

Although most strongly associated in recent memory with their Fat Sam direct bombardment incarnation, Bolton Wanderers are a club with a long and (nearly) distinguished record.  One of only three clubs to have spent more seasons in the top flight (73) than West Ham (60) without actually ever winning the title, Bolton have yet to shake off the pantomime villain tag, at least in my mind, earned while escaping relegation at the expense of the Hammers in the season of 2002/3.

Sadly for The Trotters they suffered the Curse of the Retrearting Walrus when Allardyce jumped ship in 2007 leaving the club in the hands of Oddjob Sammy Lee.  Despite several more years scrabbling for Premier League survival they were finally relegated in 2011/12 since when the club has encountered financial difficulties, an HMRC winding-up order and the ignominy of further relegation to League 1.  Current manager, Phil Parkinson, was able to steer Bolton back to the Championship in his first season in charge but they now sit rock bottom and without a league win all season.  However, wins at Crewe and at home to Sheffield Wednesday have earned them the honour of tonight’s visit to the London Stadium to face the mighty Hammers.  Since their second round victory over Wednesday, Bolton have lost all four of the league games played scoring no goals and conceding ten.

For West Ham, the EFL cup represents the most realistic chance of silverware for the trophy cabinet that hasn’t been opened for past thirty-seven years.  However, with (what has recently become) the biggest game of the season scheduled for next Saturday, manager Slaven Bilic will be anxious to deploy his resources prudently; would his tenuous position survive either a shock EFL cup exit (probably) or a home spanking by those neighbourly, north London itinerants (unlikely)?

James Collins will be unavailable, possibly for some weeks, having limped off at the weekend although Mark Noble and Edmilson Fernandes are apparently fit again for action.  According to PhysioRoom, Manuel Lanzini is now out until 14 October although it had previously been reported that he was back in full training and only lacked match fitness (since when has that been barrier to selection at West Ham?)  It would have been a huge surprise to me if Lanzini had played any part in proceedings anyway and it is fairly certain that Andy Carroll will be given another day off.  The imperative to rotate the squad and Bilic’s often baffling team selections make any further predictions impossible, although there were strong hints from last night’s U23 side that Rice, Holland, Quina and Haksabanovic could all play a part. Is it a coincidence that all of the aspiring young players are those snaffled from other academies rather than our own products?   It would be nice to see Declan Rice as part of a back three to add a much needed ball playing option but my sense is that this is unlikely to happen.

Bolton, of course, have two West Ham academy players, Reece Burke and Josh Cullen, currently on-loan at the Macron (formerly Reebok) Stadium.  Both have featured regularly in the starting eleven this season but are unavailable for EPL Cup games.  Looking at various Bolton fans forums there are mixed reviews for the performance of Cullen ranging from “good player” to “always passing sideways” but little on Burke who seems to have been deployed in a variety of roles from right back, centre back and defensive midfield.  As with any team in crisis, the message boards were littered with criticism from Trotter’s fans on a range of topics regarding: the manager’s lack of a game plan; misfiring strike-force; porous defence; backwards and sideways passing in midfield; and player’s being played out of position.  It seems that West Ham may have stumbled upon the perfect second home for their academy loanees.

The referee for tonight’s game is Simon Hooper from Wiltshire.  A league referee since 2008, Hooper has just the one previous encounter with the Hammers in a 1-0 Championship home win (Nolan) against Coventry City in January 2012.

I don’t see anything but a regulation home win tonight and with both team’s minds on more pressing league issues I take West Ham to secure a comfortable 2-0 victory.

In case you were interested the other two clubs to have played more seasons that West Ham in the top flight without ever winning it are Stoke (62) and Middlesbrough (61).

Five Takeaways: West Ham at The Hawthorns – That’s Not Entertainment

Was this the best that elite and highly paid managers and coaches can come up with?

Oh What A Terrible Game!

Dull, dire, dismal, ghastly, abysmal, boring, joyless, tedious: none of these words alone do justice as to how bad this game was as a spectacle; in what is supposed to be the world’s elite football league.  In truth, I was expecting a poor game from two very direct sides lacking creativity and subtlety and, in that, it did not disappoint.  West Ham were shockingly bad and West Brom were probably even worse.  It was best summed up in a comment I read online at half time where someone suggested that they would take a point now if it meant not having to watch the second half.  Entertainment it was not; and the fact that both teams are allowed to keep a point as a result seems a travesty.  Possibly our brains do a good job of expunging the most dreadful games from memory with the passing of time; maybe there have been worse games in the past but none readily spring to mind.  Even Fat Sam at his most unenterprising and point respecting pomp would find it difficult to top such a shabby display.

Selections and Substitutions

As predicted, Slaven Bilic opted for an unchanged team to start the game.  There is some merit in the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach but not when it extends to ‘don’t fix it until it breaks,’ which is what will eventually happen.  Optimists may point to a steadying of the ship with two consecutive clean sheets as proof of the wisdom of a move to three at the back; even if we did play against two teams who appeared to have little interest in trying to score.  We will now stick stubbornly to this formation regardless until the next time that we ship four or five goals (e.g. against Spurs next week) and then it will be a return to a back four.  There is no concept of setting up to counter the opposition, just a collection of players who have been assembled without any apparent thought as to how they will work together.  When James Collins had to be replaced due to injury the obvious options would have been a straight replacement with Angelo Ogbonna or a switch to a back four.  Instead Bilic elected to go for one of his baffling re-arrangements that saw Zabaleta move from right wing back to the left side of the back three and Michail Antonio (the only real attacking threat) withdrawn to wing back as his replacement.  If confusion was the objective then it was certainly successful.

Slave Wants More From Wide Players

Having spent the best part of three transfer windows scouring the world for a proven goal-scorer, finally signing a supposed long term target with one of the best goals to minutes played records in Premier League history, agreeing to pay him well in excess of £100, 000 per week to secure his predatory fox-in-the-box skills, who in their right mind would then play him on the wing.  To add insult to injury, Bilic then berates the wide players in his post-match press conference for not doing enough to win the game.  The passing was woeful yesterday with Kouyate, Obiang and Cresswell particularly culpable but despite that our overall passing success rate was a creditable 86%; the reason being the preponderance of pointless passes in our own half.  I can only assume that it is under instruction that the first instinct on receiving that ball is to go sideways or backwards rather than forwards; and what is it with the short free kicks in good positions that end up back with our own keeper when there is a perfect Andy Carroll head to aim for?  With the team lacking pace and movement throughout the options for the man with the ball will remain limited.  Where Cresswell was able to put in great crosses in the past by running into space created by Payet or Lanzini now he is attempting to do the same from a standing position in congested areas.  Ponderous build up has successfully nullified our own threat.

That Obiang Shot

The forty-five yard shot from Pedro Obiang that hit the bar after he spotted Foster off his line was the one moment of class in the whole match.  It didn’t really belong in this game at all such was the vision, quick thinking and execution; it would have been perverse had such an amazing goal won such an appalling game.  According to the statistics there were only 15 shots in the entire match of which only one each side were on target.

That Foster Tackle

Aside from the Obiang shot, the only other incident worthy of note, and one that finally managed to stir the emotions of the West Ham players, was the tackle by Foster on Hernandez. Did it warrant a red card or not.  It could have gone either way based on the precedents of last week’s refereeing decision and Tierney played it safe by not sending off the home keeper.  It was all a touch unseemly to see the manager and players waving imaginary cards in a desperate attempt to gain an advantage.  As soon as laws of the game got to be interpreted not based on an action in itself but took account of the surrounding circumstances or where on the pitch it occurred then you are always going to be left with a matter of opinion.  What is consider dangerous, was a goal scoring opportunity denied or who is the last man mean?  I blame Willie Young for all this but in attempting to eliminate the cynical challenge all that has been achieved is to move it further up the pitch, where ‘taking one for the team’ is now seen as something commendable.