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.

Matchday: West Ham visit West Bromwich Albion

The future is up in the air as West Ham travel to The Hawthorns for a not so eagerly anticipated encounter.

In a weekend where the neutral will need to wait until Sunday to find what looks, on paper, to be an attractive Premier League fixture we can look forward to an enticing encounter by two of the more direct sides in the ‘West’ derby at The Hawthorns.  Even the most ravenous supporter or TV commentary hype-ster would struggle to generate any level of mouthwatering anticipation for today’s unimaginative offering.

It was almost a year ago to the day that the equivalent fifth match of the season fixture, a 4-2 defeat, sounded the early alarm bells that the wheels might not be fixed as securely as first thoughton the Bilic bandwagon; that the stuttering start to his second season in charge was not solely down to the challenges of settling into a new home.  The game, best remembered for Arthur Masuaku’s handball in the area, featured a catalogue of collective and repeated defensive inadequacies that have been passed off as unexplained individual errors ever since.

“Of course, it’s early days but teams like West Brom – Stoke, Watford, Huddersfield as well – they have done what we wanted to do. But with a good run of results you can catch them up quite easily.”

– Slaven Bilic aiming high

Despite a welcome three points on Monday night the manager’s job remains under the spotlight.  The whole season may well unfold as a long running reality TV show where the suspense is whether it is this week where the manager will be finally voted off or whether he will make it through to the grand finale in May.  Any scenario that has Slaven Bilic as the manager of West Ham for the start of the 2018/19 season should probably be tested for substance abuse.

Head to Head

This is a fixture that has ‘even-steven’ written all over it.  In 105 previous meeting each team has won forty times while each has also won three of the last twelve encounters.

It is a slightly different situation for games at The Hawthorns with the Hammers having lost over half of all contests.  Surprisingly, however, the more recent record is relatively buoyant with West Ham having won five (and lost four) of the last twelve away games. History suggests at least three goals in any game.

Team News

As a rule of thumb Slaven Bilic does not change a winning side unless it is to accommodate a return for one of his inner circle of favourites.  With Manuel Lanzini and Mark Noble both unavailable through injury, any changes from the side that started on Monday seem unlikely.  Marko Arnautovic has completed his three match suspension and is in contention for a recall but bringing him in for Little Pea, which has been speculated in some quarters, would be a brave (where brave is a euphemism for foolish) decision.  The presence of Andy Carroll was enough to terrier-ise Huddersfield but the Baggies uncompromising approach to defending is unlikely to be as easily rattled.

West Brom are without Chadli (who has been as irritating as an inebriated autumn wasp in games against West Ham since his move from north London) but will, as usual, field a team of no-nonsense, take no prisoner giants.  Their lineup is likely to include Grzegorz Krychowiak who, may or may not have been, available to West Ham during the closing hours of the transfer window; sufficient justification in normal circumstances for him to play a blinder this afternoon.

“West Ham have got a lot of match winners in their squad. They might be where they are but I don’t expect them to stay there.”

– Oily Punts not making much sense

A potentially decisive factor in the game could be the form of Joe Hart in the West Ham goal.  If ever a match needed a keeper prepared to dominate his area then this is it.  On the evidence to date, Adrian in goal would fill me with marginally greater confidence.

The Man in the Middle

Premier League refereeing makeweight Paul Tierney from Lancashire is today’s man in the middle. A member of the Select Group of Referees, Tierney is only occasionally called into Premier League action and never for a high profile game.  This is his first EPL gig of the season.  His one and only encounter with West Ham was in the home draw with Everton in 2015/16 where he was very generous in his interpretation of McCarty’s scissor tackle on Dimitri Payet.

Predictions

The BBC’s Lawro is seeing a 1-1 draw while Sky’s Paull Merson is going for a 1-0 home win.  It is always fascinating, although not necessarily in a good way, when two sides with equally direct ‘styles’ come up against each other.  Like one of those old school dinosaur fights in movies such as One Million Year’s BC; but with less finesse. A passing hot air balloonist might see as much of the ball as someone in the ground.

Past performance indicates a draw and although neither side are particular threatening in attack I am plumping for a scattering of goals in a 2-2 stalemate.

West Brom v West Ham Preview

A look forward to our trip to the Hawthorns, and a look back at our first win of the season at home to Huddersfield on Monday night

I have been watching West Ham for almost sixty years now, and when I go along to a game I hope for a West Ham win, a convincing performance, an entertaining game, a clean sheet, good conversation with fellow supporters, and a trouble-free journey both to and from the game. On Monday evening I saw a West Ham win, a very good performance, albeit not totally convincing, decent entertainment, good conversation, and a trouble-free journey to the game. I won’t dwell too much on the return journey other than the fact that two significant road closures meant that I didn’t arrive home until almost 2am, when I would have been in before midnight without the M11 and A12 being totally closed off for road works at important junctions, with no advance warning that I was aware of.

My blog colleague, Geoff Hopkins, wrote an excellent review of the game and I couldn’t add much to his article. In my view, by West Ham standards in recent times I felt that some of our movement and passing was slick, and I also felt that our organisation and set up was good, and appropriate for the opponents we faced. I liked the way the defence worked as a unit. Fonte and Zabaleta combined well on the right, as did Collins and Cresswell on the left. Reid was almost an old-fashioned sweeper, mopping up. Zabaleta and Cresswell went forward well to provide width on the flanks, as we had five defenders without the ball, but reverted to three when we were in possession.

If only Kouyate had managed to get on the end of Carroll’s splendid cross in the first couple of minutes, or if Chicarito’s shot against the bar had been inches lower, then an early goal might have set us on our way to a more convincing victory. As it was we needed a lucky break for the opening goal, but it was certainly well deserved. Huddersfield were well organised defensively and came looking to stifle us, but they lacked adventure and flair going forward, and I believe they got what they deserved from the game, which was absolutely nothing.

Anybody who has read this blog in the last couple of seasons, or who may have read my articles in Over Land and Sea, or in my book Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford which covered the final season at Upton Park, will know that I am not a fan of West Bromwich Albion. The majority of our fans will, of course, put forward Tottenham as the team that they most dislike, and I don’t particularly care for them either, but when I consider which teams I just wouldn’t want to watch because of the way that they play football, then the Baggies top my list, having taken over the mantle from Stoke in recent seasons. The common denominator is, of course, their manager Tony Pulis. For me, there is so much to dislike about his approach to the game, and how his teams are set up, although I cannot argue with the effectiveness and results that are obtained. I watched a little of the televised West Brom v Stoke game earlier this season, but turned it off to go and watch some paint drying which was much more entertaining.

Last season was a particularly effective one for them, as they remained in the top half of the table almost throughout. In fact they were clear in eighth place for much of the second half, but had a disastrous run-in with seven defeats and a draw in their final eight games which relegated them to tenth, one place above, and level on points with us, but with a superior goal difference. They lost all of their four final home games of the season without managing to score a goal, losing every one of them to a single strike. In fact they failed to score a single goal in eight of their final twelve games of the season, their solitary victory in these dozen games being a 3-1 win over Arsenal.

This season began well for them results-wise with a (predictable?) 1-0 home win against Bournemouth, followed by another 1-0 win at Turf Moor. They were then held 1-1 by Stoke in their third game, before losing their unbeaten record in a 1-3 reverse at Brighton last weekend. From their viewpoint they have put an end to their failure to score at the end of last season, by finding the net once in each game. And seven points from four games puts them in the top half of the table once again, in ninth place.

Our manager has some interesting decisions to make in respect of team selection this weekend. I assumed that Lanzini, Fernandes and Noble would be fit, but this is apparently not the case. But of course Arnautavic has served his suspension for his lunacy at Southampton, and will therefore be pressing for a place in the starting line-up. The future dilemma for the manager will be how he can possibly fit players like Lanzini and Arnautavic back into the side to add much-needed creativity, whilst at the same time not losing out on the solidity in a defensive sense that was so evident in the Huddersfield game. Ayew’s contribution from the bench last Monday was an important, albeit surprisingly good one, and he will be hoping for his name on the team sheet today, too.

I have no idea what Mr. Bilic will decide to do, but personally, for the West Brom match I would retain the same team that started against Huddersfield, with Arnautavic and Ayew sitting eagerly on the bench waiting to enter the fray if we fall behind. I can see West Brom keeping up their record of scoring one goal in every game, and the question remains for me, will we manage to score one or even more goals? I’m hoping that we avoid complacency after our first win of the season on Monday. We need to watch for West Brom on set pieces as they are possibly the tallest side in the league, and try to use this to their advantage. Providing we can nullify this threat I can see us winning our first away game of the season by the odd goal in three.

Five Takeaways From West Ham Win Against Huddersfield

An energetic and deserved win at the London Stadium provides a stay of execution for birthday boy Slaven Bilic.

A Welcome Win and Clean Sheet

A wise man once said ‘Football’s a funny old game!’ At last, there are points on the board, a rare clean sheet to celebrate and a welcome birthday present for forty-niner Slaven Bilic.  It was not a classic game, the football was seldom slick and the team still had a disjointed look; but there was no doubting the effort put in by all and sundry and the vastly improved levels of fitness on display.  The intensity was several levels higher than anything we had previously seen this season and that effort, in itself, usually translates to the mood of the crowd.  Why it needed to reach crisis point before there was a reaction is a mystery; but not one that is unique to this set of players in West Ham’s history.  One game does not change a season but it gives Bilic a platform to build on and to prove to the doubters (of which I am one) that he can be a competent manager.  As they say ‘you can only beat what is in front of you’ and that was accomplished with relative ease against a strangely unadventurous Huddersfield side.  There was a huge slice of luck for the first goal (I wonder where the ball was headed before it hit the defender’s back) but we had squandered a handful of decent chances prior to that and clearly had the upper hand.  Sometimes in sport a change in fortunes can be sparked by the most accidental of incidents.  The visit to West Brom next weekend will provide more of a clue as to whether this will become a corner turned or a mere arbitrary wobble.

Three Men at the Back

A flat back four or three at the back is one of the hot topic arguments in football at the moment.  Listening to many you might be led to believe that it is a binary choice,  that you must always elect to play one system or the other.  Many will insist that West Ham are more solid with three at the back while others will swear blind that the exact opposite is true.  As I see it, a good team should be able to slip effortlessly between the two and that different opponents might require different solutions and different set-ups.  Recent history has seen us stick with one or other until a heavy defeat occurs when we revert to the other; rinse and repeat.  The back three was the right call against Huddersfield as it released the wide midfield players from most of their defensive duties.  Many of us were concerned that Zabaleta might not have the legs to carry off a wing back role but he did OK on fitness even if the quality delivery was not quite there.  Equally Cresswell had his most effective game for some time.  The presence of Reid on the pitch is always a boost and Collins, despite his lack of finesse, can be a colossus at times.  I would love to see Rice given an occasional chance as the one capable of carrying the ball out of defence as an alternative to Route One.

The Midfield Mix: Little Pea Cast Adrift?

I didn’t see any mention of the reasons why Noble did not feature in the match-day squad; perhaps it was an injury, convenient or otherwise.  Great servant and character that he is, his days as a regular starter seem to be over where his presence serves to slow everything down as we contrive play possession football well in our own half. The inclusion of Obiang and Kouyate worked well and gave the team the springboard to play at a far higher tempo; with the majority of our possession in the opponent’s half.  Obiang is the best defensive midfielder at the club by a street that is longer than a country mile, why he gets overlooked is weird.  Pace, power and athleticism are essential in the modern day Premier League football and with Antonio and Carroll added to the two central midfielders there are players able to mix it physically with the best of them.  The questions that arise from our formation are: the implications of playing Hernandez in a wider slightly withdrawn role which is contrary to his ‘fox in the box’ instincts; and how is a creative player such as Lanzini accommodated (or for that matter Arnautovic)?  The formation deployed and with Carroll spearheading the attack almost certainly guarantees a very direct style of play.  Possibly acceptable when desperate for points but as a footballing philosophy it is not necessarily the greatest entertainment, and not a significant upgrade from Big Sam style.

Andre Ayew Impact Sub

Maybe Andre Ayew’s best position has finally been discovered – super sub.  I have rarely seen him make a significant impact on a game as a starter but to come on with less than half an hour remaining with the score at 0-0 and contribute an assist and a goal is not to be sniffed at.  Mind you his assist was of the type that brings that particularly statistic into disrepute; a standard short range pass to a colleague well away from the danger area is not really opening up a defence is it?  On the other hand he does have a knack of popping up in the right place for tap-ins and his conversion from Cresswell’s corner effectively sealed the game.  A player who never does enough to justify a start but is worth having on the bench; but you could say that about a number of our players.

The Boot is on the Other Foot: Was Reid Lucky?

The boot in the face tackle by Reid on Mounie elicited something of a social media brouhaha, mainly from disgruntled Liverpool supporters still smarting over Mane’s red card, and the ensuing red faces, following annihilation at the hands of Manchester City.  A similar incident also occurred in the Swansea – Newcastle game where Ritchie was shown only a yellow card for a foot high tackle on Mawson.  The majority of fans interpret these situations according to who they support, or hate the most, but most commentators appear to agree that referee Friend was right not to punish Reid, and in fact did not even award a free-kick.  Graham Poll suggested the referee’s decision was right in the Mane and Reid incidents but wrong for the Ritchie one.  Fans moan about inconsistency and I guess this is where the argument for video referees comes in; but I am not sure that is always going to help if factors such as intent or how badly the opponent appeared to be injured are taken into account.  The question of intent confuses me tremendously.  I have no idea whether intent is technically allowed for in the way that referees interpret the laws of the game but it can be seen in practice every week with handball decisions in the area.

Matchday: West Ham take on Huddersfield in Bilic’s Last Stand

On a day known for its disasters can West Ham avoid collapse at the London Stadium.

High flying Huddersfield Town roll into town tonight, for the season’s opening fixture at the London Stadium, looking for the win which could take them to the very top of the Premier League table.  The Hammers, on the other hand, require victory by an equally unlikely six goal margin to lift themselves out of the relegation zone.

It is, of course, early days but Huddersfield manager, David Wagner, has the look of a man with a plan and an idea of how to implement it.  His team have a system that relies on round peg players fitting into round hole responsibilities where everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and are both fit enough and disciplined enough to achieve it.  Almost the polar opposite, in fact,  of what we have been seeing from West Ham for the past year or so; aside from the notable odd occasion.

It would be difficult to imagine how the start to this season could have been any worse for the Hammers and the euphoria of what was meant to have been a fantastic transfer window is now a distant and illusory memory.  Poor performances and results on pitch and an obvious lack of unity between board and manager have created a toxic environment that could go critical should there be the typical slow and ponderous start in Stratford tonight. I imagine the visitors would be very aware of the situation and keen to exploit the vulnerability.

Head to Head

Games against Huddersfield have not been a regular feature in West Ham’s calendar in recent years.  In forty-one previous meetings, the Hammers have won eleven and lost twenty-two while the last twelve encounters (which include games as far back as 1958) have seen only three West Ham wins and seven defeats.  It is a rosier picture at home where West Ham have won six (lost five) of the last twelve; although for that sequence you need to go back to games played during the Great Depression of 1929.

Team News

There are, of course, two aspects to the concept of being fit; those who are not missing due to injury and those who have the stamina and pace to last a ninety minute game of Premier League football.  Focusing solely on the injury front, Manuel Lanzini and Edmilson Fernandes appear to be only definite non-starters while Marko Arnautovic serves the last of his three match ban.  This means possible returns for Winston Reid and (pause for trumpet salute) the unplayable Andy Carroll.  Trying to predict the starting lineup has become a pointless exercise given the disposition of the manager to come up with a formation and personnel that no-one else could possibly have thought of.

On paper, Bilic has the luxury of three fit strikers to choose from but with a fragile and sluggish central midfield and defence it is difficult to see how more than one can be accommodated at any one time, without the risk of further exposure.  The most likely scenario is starting with Javier Hernandez as the lonesome striker, bringing Carroll on in a desperate late attempt to score and leaving Diafro Sakho to sulk on the bench.

“Andy Caroll is OK. He’s been training now for almost four weeks with us and he looks good. He is going to be in the squad definitely. OK, we are playing on Monday but he is back and will be there, definitely.”

– Slaven Bilic on the return of the prodigal.

There is a good chance we will see the return of Cheikhou Kouyate in a midfield, where Mark Noble is still curiously preferred to Pedro Obiang, with the versatile Andre Ayew ( where versatile means equally inept in any position) filling in for Lanzini.  At least Reid returning to a probable back four is a welcome bonus.  Whether Declan Rice gets a look in after his one mistake is anyone’s guess but my sense is that Bilic will see his inclusion as a gamble in such a must-win game (for him).

Huddersfield have no significant injury problems and will be fresh from the international break where, with few of the squad away on international duty, they went one better than us by cruising to a 3-0 victory against pre-season opponents Altona 93 in Hamburg.

The Man in the Middle

Making his third London Stadium appearance is Kevin Friend from Leicestershire.  Friend was in charge of last season’s league defeat by Manchester City and the victory over Swansea.  He was also the referee in the historic win at Anfield in 2015 where he mysteriously sent of Noble for doing very little.  With officials continuing to make controversial game changing decisions let’s hope that he has a quiet game tonight.

Predictions

Lawro has gone 2-1 for West Ham while Merson is also predicting the same result and scoreline.  It is difficult to know what to expect when the league’s best defence (with no goals conceded) comes up against the worst (ten goals conceded).  I don’t see a high scoring game and the only goal of the match could eventually be enough.

“We have our aim and our target on Monday, but I think we should be honest that in terms of the size, these are two different clubs.”

– David Wagner on West Ham match

Huddersfield will be full of spirit, confidence and pressing and with West Ham missing their only true creative force in Lanzini it will be a struggle for them to break down the opposition’s rearguard.  The usual pattern of having lots of pointless possession in our own half would not be a surprise.  From what I have seen of Huddersfield they do not possess a massive goal threat but they should not be under-estimated on the break.

What is not needed is a cautious start and an early home goal could completely change the complexion of the game and the atmosphere inside the stadium.  The longer that the visitors can frustrate the more the barely concealed negativity is likely to spread.

I never want West Ham to lose a game but you do have to wonder whether defeat (and a new manager) might not be in the best interests of all concerned.  I would be happy to take a three or four goal romp and heap bounteous praise on the manager accordingly; on the ether hand but a scrambled win (like last year’s wins over Hull and Burnley) would leave us stuck in that limbo land where we have spent too much of our existence.  I will assume my position on the fence and predict a 1-1 draw.