Curbing Our Enthusiasm at The London Stadium

Hope generally trumps expectation but is it time to forget the promises of next levels and accept our role as Premier League also-rans?

The story behind the naming of the hit TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm is that it was a reaction by creator, Larry David, against the many people who lived their lives projecting false enthusiasm and also to urge viewers not to raise their expectations too high.  Regrettably there is no connection to former Hammer’s manager Alan Curbishley!  False enthusiasm and the managing expectations do, however, play a large part in the current undercurrent of discontent that continues to surround West Ham and the London Stadium.

My personal view about the current board is reasonably ambivalent.  It makes no difference to me how our owners originally made their money; suffice to say that they have been successful business people which allowed them to take control of the club at a very uncertain time of it’s history.  Nevertheless, they cannot dine out on their reputation as the club’s saviours forever.  I do not subscribe to the view that their tenure has been synonymous with penny pinching yet do not feel that they have spent their money wisely; the value of their asset has undoubtedly increased but on the back of the money pouring into the game rather than as a result of their own efforts in develop the footballing side of the club.

Expectation management is the biggest concern in particular the misleading naming of high profile transfer targets where we have little hope of persuading the player or deep enough pockets to meet the demands of his current employers.  Supporters often focus only on net transfer spend but in reality there is no such thing as a separate transfer budget.  Clubs will focus on total expenditure (against revenues) which includes transfers, wages and agents fees.  That West Ham were ranked sixth in agent fees paid last season and have several players (with limited re-sale value) earning more than anyone at Tottenham just doesn’t seem to make any long term sense.

Many of us were no doubt carried away a little by the prospect of a new golden era of prosperity following the move to the new stadium even if there were differences of opinion as to how many years this would take.  Fine talk of regular European football and an assault on eventual Champion’s League qualification is a commendable dream (and there is nothing wrong with having a dream) but a dream without a plan is nothing more than a wish.   The structure of the club in terms of footballing direction, scouting, coaching, fitness, youth development and training facilities are way behind other Premier League clubs and leaves the impression of muddling for the sake of survival rather than with any loftier ambitions.  To borrow from The Waterboys, the Owners had promised us ‘the whole of the moon’ but have, so far, we have only seen ‘the crescent’.

It will be no surprise when the end of season Premier League table is almost identical to the amount of money that each club rakes in.  The outlier my well be ourselves in finishing well below the 7th or 8th position that our revenues would suggest.  Despite the Leicester blip, money has increasingly become the determining factor to league position.  As I see it, there is even a split in terms of financial muscle in the so-called big six with the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea now well ahead of the remainder.  Large external investment is the only way to get onto the top table on a regular basis.  Arguably the Premier League is more competitive than other European leagues where one or two horse races have become the norm.  The dilemma for top Premier League clubs is does this relative greater competition diminish their chance of Champion’s League success.

As TV and commercial revenues become far more dominant to the wealth of clubs it is impossible to see how a next level can be achieved simply by year on year incremental and organic growth.  If Gold and Sullivan intend to pass on ownership of the club to their families there can be and never will be a new promised land in east London football.  Perhaps we should just accept our place in the scheme of things to make up the numbers.  An occasional tilt at a Europa league place or a domestic cup every few decades is, maybe, the best a West Ham man can get.

The status quo leaves West Ham in a difficult position leaving the club as it does as the fourth largest in London.  I have long wondered whether it is this factor of geography that makes a large contribution to our recurrent under achievement.  Proximity creates far greater competition for the signature of the brightest and best youth players; and from clubs with better facilities, as evidenced by the poor productivity from the academy over the last ten years or so.  On the other hand established players signing for a London team, with the attraction and distraction of the bright city lights, may well become complacent big-time Charlies now that they have made the big time; without the need for the hard work that a more competitive squad would require.

An interesting blog from When Saturday Comes published in the Guardian by a Swansea supporter questioned whether, for teams with limited resources, perennial struggle in the Premier League was better or worse than being reasonably successful in the Championship.  Certainly the allure of the Premier League is great but does it wear thin after a while It is an intriguing dilemma for supporters as to whether the chance to see world famous footballers in live action makes up for the disappointment of regular defeat.  (For me, the article was spoilt by the cheap, needless and irrelevant swipe at the London Stadium – it is fine for own support to slag off the club but others should keep their unsolicited views to themselves; particularly where it is not pertinent to the point in hand.)  As the Premier League becomes more polarised around money there should be no circumstances where mid ranking clubs such as West Ham or Newcastle ever get relegated and even to flirt with it is a sure sign of mismanagement.

We have the worst of all worlds at West Ham at the moment.  A manager who, with no chance of a new contract, few tactical ideas, regularly prepares teams with questionable fitness and deployed with no overall system or plan, is limping along from week to week in an attempt to scrape together enough points to avoid the sack.  It is a sorry state of affairs. At least the team will not this time have a hangover from a warm weather break in Dubai to disadvantage them when Premier League action resumes at the weekend.

The highlight of the international break was seeing Iceland qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time.  With a population of around 330,000 (just a few thousand less than the borough of Newham), this is some achievement and a great example of producing a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Perhaps part-time manager (and dentist) Heimir Hallgrímsson could do a job at West Ham even if it is only filling in until the end of the season!

What has been going on in the Second International break?

I’d prefer to watch a re-run of the West Ham v Swansea game (or even paint drying) rather than watch England play

I’ll begin my international break review with my usual rant. Why do we have to put up with these breaks so early in the season that totally disrupt the Premier League campaign? OK, so England have qualified for the finals tournament of the World Cup to be held in Russia next summer. Is that really much of a surprise when we were in a group of world football powers such as Scotland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta? The combined population of those five countries when added together totals around 16 million.

The biggest surprise is the fact that we haven’t actually won all of the games in the qualifying group. With one game to go we haven’t even averaged scoring two goals a game! When you compare our 17 goals against the other leading European nations it is clear that we are nowhere near their level, and if we continue to struggle to score goals against such weak teams in qualifying, then what chance will we have in the finals themselves? To be fair though, our goals conceded record is not bettered by any other team in any of the qualifying groups, so look forward to some low scoring games when England are playing in the tournament.

Fortunately I was playing football myself on Thursday evening when we clinched qualification, so I missed what must have been a performance equivalent to watching paint dry. I saw that Joe Hart was named as man of the match, so that says it all really. One wag wrote that Southgate comes from the same school of football tactics as our manager, in that a free kick in our opponents half ended up with Joe Hart after a succession of sideways and backwards passes, and then possession was given away by a long aimless kick upfield. Southgate was quoted as saying that we are “a work in progress”. A bit of an understatement?

So what else has been happening on the club front? I see that Reece Oxford is back after what appears to be an unsuccessful loan spell in Germany. I wonder if he can recapture the early promise that he was showing a couple of years ago? Or is he going to be one of those players that appears to have it all at a very young age, and then fades from the scene?

The manager seems to have survived the rumours that suggested he could be on his way out during the break, although constant speculation as to his successor continues in the media. The latest names that I’ve seen linked are Sean Dyche, who has done an excellent job at Burnley, our next opponents, and Carlo Ancelotti who is said to be taking a break from football for the remainder of the season, making him available for recruitment at the end of the season. Who knows? I reckon that provided we have an OK run from here and don’t dabble with relegation, then perhaps our owners are prepared to let our manager continue until the end of his contract. It would probably take a final league position of around seventh or eighth for him to be given an extension, and based upon what I’ve seen so far this season I would say that is extremely unlikely, though I would love to be proved wrong.

There hasn’t been much in the way of original transfer speculation, although I read that Everton are prepared to bid £20 million for Carroll in January! Walcott and Wilshere from Arsenal are names that we are constantly linked with, but we shall see what happens when the next window opens.

Many West Ham fans have been complaining on social media regarding our ticket allocation for the next round of the Carabao Cup against Tottenham at Wembley. I believe that they have failed to realise that Tottenham and the police have put a maximum crowd for the game, and as such the allocation is exactly what should be given to us.

Apparently there is much speculation that Sky Sports want to televise our game against Newcastle just before Christmas, and want to put the game back to a 1.30 kick-off on Christmas Eve. I can imagine that going down well with the Westfield authorities, not to mention the travelling support who would have rather a long journey at a time when all the transport systems will be closing down for the Christmas break. If true, it reinforces the belief that the TV companies who sponsor Premier League football to the tune of around £11 million a game, have no regard whatsoever for football supporters.

Our former captain, Kevin Nolan, has made an excellent start to his career as manager of Notts County and has won the League Two Manager of the Month award. The award itself is usually the kiss of death to a manager and it remains to be seen if he can follow this up throughout the season.

There have been many calls for both Sakho, and particularly Masuaku to be in the starting line-up in the Burnley game. I’m assuming that the majority of our injured players will be back available for selection in the near future, so soon we will have a fully-fit squad, which is most unusual. It will be interesting to see our line-up and formation for the forthcoming run of fixtures, which (on paper) is as easy a run of games that you can get in the top flight. If we don’t manage to start climbing the table in the next month then the speculation concerning the manager will once again reach a crescendo.

Premier League clubs will be voting soon on the distribution of overseas broadcasting TV rights. At the moment this money, which is expected to rise considerably at the next renewal in 2019, is shared equally among all clubs in the top division, but the elite teams want to see a change (unsurprisingly) such that it is based upon finishing positions. Reports initially suggested that we would be voting for this change, but latterly I have read that we intend to vote against, and quite right too in my opinion. The revenue received by the top teams is already way ahead of the rest, and this would exacerbate the divide still further if passed. Fortunately, it requires a majority of around two-thirds to go through so I can’t see it happening.

Some commentators are speculating that failure to make the change will result in the acceleration of the set-up of a European League for all the top clubs in Europe. Let it happen I say. Perhaps then our domestic football will be more of an equal contest among the remaining clubs. We are already seeing the boring predictability of the same six clubs dominating the Premier League season after season, and more games are finishing with these teams easily beating the rest by three or four goals in unequal contests. It is becoming rarer for the “also-rans” to beat the top sides, and I, for one, would much rather see closer games of football. I’m not sure that it would be beneficial for the national team, but as I grew up in an era of Moore, Hurst, Charlton, Greaves, Peters, Banks, Ball etc., then current international football leaves me cold anyway.

Five Takeaways: West Ham Get Out of Jail Against Swansea

A last gasp goal in West Ham’s lucky victory over Swansea throws yet another lifeline to Slaven Bilic.

Another Very Poor Game

Based on the last published information available, West Ham and Swansea have a combined annual wage bill in excess of £160 million paid to players considered worthy of featuring in the world’s elite football league.  It would be difficult to imagine a more uninspiring, dull and turgid ninety minutes of football than what these highly paid superstars served up.  In fact, you would need to go as far back as two weeks ago to find a game that was anywhere near as poor; when West Ham visited West Bromwich Albion.  The money that has attracted managers and players from all around the world to the Premier League has also ensured that the game, in its lower reaches, is characterised by the fear of failure and relegation; any pretence at entertainment has seemingly disappeared .  Barring one or two touches of quality there was nothing to justify the lofty admission prices.  The first half was poor and the second even worse, with only the relief of a last gasp winner providing a moment to remember.  If this were any other business very few would bother to turn up next time around.

The Circle of Strife

It is quite clear that this season is unfolding as a replay of the last one: a run of poor, disjointed, dispirited performances; the manager under increasing pressure; a must win game against a fellow struggler; a lucky sneaked victory; brave talk of taking confidence from the win; rinse then repeat.  For most of the game yesterday West Ham were the inferior of two bad sides.  Thankfully, Swansea, for all their neat midfield possession, carried even less of a goal threat than West Ham.  The win will temporarily ease the pressure and give the board an excuse to take no action as we muddle through to the next game, at Burnley, after the international break.  Slaven Bilic had the look of a haunted man as he stood forlornly on the touch line watching his misshapen team attempt to make sense of what they were supposed to be doing.  Even he must know that his days are numbered.  It can’t be in anyone’s interest to extend the agony any longer.

What’s In A Formation?

Just a few weeks after claiming that a Carroll – Hernandez partnership was impossible, Bilic decided to give it a try anyway.  Swansea manager, Paul Clement, sensing perhaps that this was a game his team could win also opted for two up front.  If anyone thought that such adventurism would open the floodgates to a pulsating attacking master-class then they were sadly mistaken.  I had previously suggested that Bilic would stick with a back three until we lost a game and then immediately revert to a back four.  Even so, I was surprised by his decision to do so for this game but assume it was the only way to shoehorn in the two strikers.  Defensively West Ham were sound enough and apart from one Bony drive, that Hart parried, and an Olsson shot just past the post, our goal was rarely threatened.  In attack, however, there were few ideas on show.  A central midfield duo of Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate has rarely clicked and offers nothing creatively; Michail Antonio either had a very bad day or, more likely, wasn’t really fit; and Andre Ayew was as astonishingly ineffective as ever.  Whatever it was that had been hoped for from a front two failed to materialise as once again, regardless of formation, the assembled eleven gave the impression of a group of strangers.

That Genius Substitution

The late goal probably saved Bilic his job (for now) and he also received heaps of praise for his inspired, genius and game changing substitutions, when Arthur Masuaku set up Diafra Sakho for the only goal of the game in the final minute.  Yet that one moment barely made up for what had gone on in the previous ninety minutes with his selected eleven.  I am no fan of the Carroll style of player but, if that is what you are starting with, then you have to give him the service he needs.  Even when there were opportunities from set pieces to aim for Carroll’s head we chose to go short and backwards instead. There were a few crosses by Aaron Cresswell in the first half but all from positions that favoured the defenders.  I don’t remember any West Ham player getting behind the Swansea defence in a wide position prior to the goal.  There was no width in midfield and no support for the full-backs when they endeavoured to get forward.  For those few minutes when Cresswell and Masuaku were able to double up on the left hand side it led, not only to the goal, but also to Carroll striking the woodwork.  Starting with Masuaku rather than Ayew would have made far more sense and Sakho must surely be, despite his recent problems, the most complete striker on our books.  The substitution did reap benefits but maybe they both should have been in the field from the start.  I cannot recall any dangerous crosses coming in from the right even though Pablo Zabaleta put in another spirited display; I wonder what he makes of it all after his time at Manchester City?

Is There a Bright Side?

It was great to see Manuel Lanzini back on the pitch.  We should make the most of him as I can’t believe he will stick around too much longer; gone in the summer if not before.  In the meantime it is difficult to know how he fits into Slaven’s master plan (if there were one!)  The squad has clearly been assembled with no system or design in mind.  As long as we stick with Bilic (or any unimaginative replacement that may happen along) then I don’t see anything other than plenty more of the same.  We probably have enough talent to finish lower mid-table but no better than that; certainly under-performing for the seventh largest revenue generator in the league.  Of the recent much lauded arrivals: Zabaleta has been the stand-out performer; Hernandez will score goals in the right system; Arnautovic has yet to impress; and loanee Hart has done no better or worse than Adrian would have done.  I really wish I could feel more positive.