Can West Ham close the Watford Gap?

Can the Hammers hammer the hornets? A preview of Watford’s visit to the London Stadium that doesn’t have a single reference to the transfer window or the apparent growing unrest with the board.

The Premier League is the most popular league in the world in terms of spectators and media appeal yet we all knew who would win the title after just a few short weeks of the season. And before the season started we all knew which teams would occupy the top six places, even if we weren’t exactly sure as to the exact order they would finish in. And as we all predicted, the top six places have gone to the “big six” in terms of the revenue that they generate, and I’ve no doubt the same will happen next season. OK, so there is still a mini competition taking place to see which clubs will finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, but in reality the most “popular” league in world football is so predictable, and it all comes down to money.

We are not alone. The “generally recognised” big five European Leagues have all turned out as expected. Manchester City’s 13 point lead in England is well beaten by Bayern’s massive 18 point advantage in Germany. PSG are 11 ahead in France, Barcelona are 9 clear in Spain, and the only competition for the title outright is in Italy where Napoli and Juventus are just one point apart, although 13 clear of the pack. Season after season the same teams qualify for the latter stages of the Champions League. It is all so predictable. And as a result, it is becoming boring.

For me the most interesting aspect of the Premier League is not who is going to win it, or even qualify for Europe, but the real competition involves the 14 teams who have no chance of winning, and little likelihood of qualifying for a place in the Champions League. If the predictability continues then perhaps the top six teams can be ignored, and a trophy can be awarded to the team that finishes 7th? The competition among those 14 teams is fierce, and the battle to avoid finishing in the bottom three is (sadly) by far the most exciting part of the Premier League. For a long time now there has been talk of European Leagues whereby all the top clubs in Europe ignore their domestic competitions and take part in Europe alone. I’m surprised that it hasn’t yet happened. If we removed the top six teams from the Premier League the competition for the title among the remainder would be a far more open affair. Would we miss playing them? I for one would not. I suspect that the same would be true of all the other top European leagues.

So, getting back to this season, with just 12 games to go Burnley lead the chase for the “seventh place title” on 36 points, just one ahead of Leicester, who in turn are then four clear of Bournemouth and Everton. Today’s opponents Watford are just one point further back on 30, before the cluster of 9 clubs that make up the bottom portion of the table. Burnley and Leicester are as good as safe from relegation, whilst the three clubs below them are almost there, but not quite. Of the nine clubs that are seriously in the mix at the moment, we are at the top (12th) on 27 points, but only three points ahead of 19th placed Huddersfield. Only West Brom with 20 points are beginning to be cast adrift.

The closeness of the fight to avoid the drop makes for an interesting finale to the season, and every match from here to the end assumes massive importance. A win for us today will take us up level on points with Watford and edging closer to safety, whereas three points for the visitors would be a huge step towards ensuring Premier League football at Vicarage Road next season.

Recent form is often a good indicator of what is likely to happen, but this can be distorted by other factors such as the strength and form of opposition, and whether games have been played at home or away. Nonetheless it is worth taking a look at the bottom 12 with a dozen games to go and look at how many points they have picked up in recent matches. I’ve chosen the last 5 fixtures for each team, which in itself may or may not be a reliable indicator of the term “recent”.

The bottom 12 teams in the Premier League after 26 games Points after 26 games Current Goal Difference Points in last 5 games
  9. Bournemouth 31 -7 11
10. Everton 31 -16 4
11. Watford 30 -8 5
12. West Ham 27 -14 6
13. Brighton 27 -14 5
14. Crystal Palace 27 -15 8
15. Southampton 26 -10 6
16. Newcastle 25 -12 6
17. Swansea 24 -18 8
18. Stoke City 24 -26 4
19. Huddersfield 24 -27 0
20. West Brom 20 -16 4

Based on the recent form table alone then the current bottom three would be the ones playing in the Championship next season. As they include two teams that I dislike the most (West Brom and Stoke) then I wouldn’t be unhappy with that outcome. Our final twelve games comprise 7 at home and 5 away. Five of the 12 games are against sides in the bottom 12 (above), with four of them at home (Watford, Southampton, Stoke, Everton) and one away (Swansea). These games are crucial to our survival and are true six-pointers. It is important to win most of those games, and equally important to avoid defeat if we don’t pick up three points from each of them. Apart from the Swansea game, the other four away matches are against sides in the top eight (Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester) so we are unlikely to collect many points from them. A home game against the champions elect (City) won’t be a walk in the park either, nor will two other home fixtures against top eight sides (Manchester United and Burnley).

The importance of today’s game cannot be over-estimated. The gap between ourselves and Watford could be wiped out if we win, or extend to six points if we lose. Here are a ten factors to bear in mind in respect of this match, some of which are very worrying given West Ham’s predilection to allow other teams to end sequences of poor results:

  1. If we avoid defeat that will extend our unbeaten run in league and cup at home to five matches – that would be a record for the London Stadium!
  2. As a manager, David Moyes has never lost a home game against Watford.
  3. This will be our 14th game this season against a team who are currently above us in the table. The only game that we have won so far was at home to Chelsea. Nine of our final twelve games will be against teams currently in the 11 places above us in the table!
  4. Watford have only won one of their last ten away games.
  5. Watford have never beaten us twice in the league in a single season ever.
  6. Watford won their last game convincingly beating Chelsea 4-1. They haven’t won two league games in a row for more than three months.
  7. Michail Antonio has scored 6 goals in his last 7 games against Watford.
  8. Michail Antonio scored both of our goals when we lost 4-2 at home to Watford last season (September 2016). He hasn’t scored a goal at the London Stadium since!
  9. We have played a home league game against Watford before on February 10th (11 years ago). We lost 1-0.
  10. West Ham are 11/8 favourites to win the game, Watford are 15/8, with the draw at 23/10.

Five Takeaways: West Ham All At Sea As Brighton Rock

We don’t like to be beside the seaside. A second defeat of the season to the Brighton hauls the Hammers right back into the relegation mix.

A Giant Leap Backwards

This was as terrible a West Ham performance as those we had to endure in the early part of the season.  Although some allowance can be made for the perennial long injury list it was worrying that the resolve, spirit and determination that had developed since the appointment of David Moyes was nowhere to be seen yesterday.  West Ham were disjointed, lacked cohesion and once again the defensive/ central midfield offered little or nothing; allowing Brighton through at will and providing no springboard to launch ou own attacks.  If the best we have in that area of the field for the remainder of the season is a mix of Noble, Zabaleta and Kouyate then I would be very worried.  The inability to fill this long standing and well known gap in the squad, particularly following the injury to Pedro Obiang, could be a disaster that is paid for with the ultimate Premier League price.

Uninspiring Selection

I was very surprised to hear an unchanged team announced for the start of the game.  It may have been a spirited performance and comeback against Palace but there now appeared more options available to supplement what had been regarded as a scratch side.  Perhaps there was an element of caution in not wanting to bring players back too quickly but it backfired badly.  Brighton played OK but as usual West Ham were the architects of their own downfall.  The first goal was a great example with the ball given away cheaply in attack, Aaron Cresswell more interested presumably on revenge, for an earlier hand in the face, committed an unnecessary and reckless challenge, the midfield had gone missing and the back three were all over the place in allowing Murray all the room in the world to score.  Cresswell did, at least, look a threat going forward and either side of a fine goal by Javier Herandez, set up presentable chances for Sam Byram (twice) and Joao Mario.  In fact, with the scores level at half time, and with Brighton’s early energy levels dropping,  I was still quietly confident that the Hammers would be able to take something from the game.

Second Half Surrender

Any half time confidence was quickly dissolved by an insipid second half performance in which the Hammers managed to go through the whole forty-five minutes without bothering the Brighton keeper once.  No changes were made at half time in an attempt to seize the initiative and as the game developed it was no surprise when Brighton regained the advantage.  Despite it being a stunning strike by Izquierdo, he was again given far too much time and space to work out his necessary angles and trajectories.  West Ham had managed to scrape back into the game in the first half with a goal out of the blue but this time there was no way back.  Gross, the best player on the field, capped an influential display with a third after a poor James Collins clearance.  By then the Hammers were in complete disarray and it could well have been a more emphatic defeat.  Michail Antonio was eventually thrown on (but did little of note) and Jordan Hugill was given no time at all to make an impact.

Collective Liability

No doubt that the goal by Hernandez was an excellent piece of opportunist finishing.  It was typical Little Pea but other than that he contributed little to the overall play.  The dilemma is how to incorporate such a player while attempting to build a modern team ethos in which everyone works for each other.  How many goals would he need to score before his limitations in a tight team formation became acceptable?  I don’t believe he is really suited to the style of football that most Premier League teams now play.  Not that Hernandez was stand-out poor in comparison with the rest of the team.  If I was giving ratings the only players worth more than a 4 would have been Mario and Adrian.  Having been pleasantly surprised by the improvement in Mark Noble’s performance and leadership in recent weeks he was back to his frustratingly slow sideways and backwards worst yesterday.

Gloomy Outlook

West Ham are now in the middle of the run of games that were meant to guarantee their safety before the fixtures became stickier against the bigger clubs from April onwards.  A return of two points from games against Bournemouth, Palace and Brighton is way below what I expected.  West Ham sit just three points above the relegation places and although maintaining an average of a point per game may be enough there are still some tough games to come.  There needs to be a huge improvement over the next few weeks coinciding, hopefully, with the return of Arnautovic and Lanzini.  Unfortunately, we will not see Obiang again this season and with that weakness in central midfield I can’t, at times, help but fear the worst.

West Ham To Continue Their Unbeaten Start To The Year At Brighton?

Beyond the injuries, transfer disappointments, suspensions, scandals and sackings there is a football season taking place. Can West Ham consolidate their mid table position with a result at Brighton?

Leaves on the line, icy roads and a disappointing January transfer window.  They happen every year and yet we are all still caught by surprise.

As we entered the window there was almost universal agreement that West Ham needed more bodies in the squad; and that was even before serious injuries to key players and a needless suspension added to the toll.  The previous window had closed with a desperate attempt to sign a decent defensive midfielder, the need for which remains glaringly obvious.  Apparently, it did not seem to occur to anyone to line up feasible replacements in advance of the shops re-opening as the club once again stumbled to heroic failure on the last day of the sales.  It is looking like a repeat of the three year search for a right back that only ended with the signing of Pablo Zabaleta – who ironically may now be asked to cover in a defensive midfield role.

Without a shadow of a doubt the current owners are the worst West Ham have had ……..since the last ones and the ones before that.  Rinse and repeat until the club is eventually purchased by a small middle-eastern Emirate or overseas oligarch.  Unfortunately, the club has a history of being accident prone: from Mannygate, Tevezgate, Icelandicsgate through to the hot off the press Henrygate (why would anyone with half a brain put those types of thoughts down in a permanent electronic record?).  With Tony Henry now dismissed I await the announcement of Big Ron Atkinson as the next director of Players We Won’t Eventually Recruit.

With all the off-field shenanigans taking place it is sometimes difficult to remember that there is also a football season going on.  Today West Ham travel to the south coast to face Brighton at the Amex Stadium.  It was only a few months ago that after promising starts to the season you would read many an article praising the exploits of the newly promoted clubs and predicting a season in which, for once, none of the three would be relegated.  Now they each find themselves just a point away from the drop zone and dropping fast.  It would be no surprise if at least one experiences a quick return to the Championship, although with such a congested table picking which one is anyone’s guess.  Of course, our own Hammers are still well within the mix and so there is all to play for in yet another crucial race to the bottom clash this afternoon.

Head to Head

The Hammers have a 100% record at the Amex Stadium having previously won on their only previous visit in October 2011.   The win that day was courtesy of a Kevin Nolan goal in a team where only Mark Noble and Winston Reid still survive in West Ham colours.  Apart from that success West Ham have won on just one more occasion (1978) while losing four times in their nine visits to sunny Sussex.

Brighton memorably romped to a comfortable 3-0 victory at the London Stadium in October in one of the Hammers most incompetent displays of the season.  In the preview to that match I mocked Brighton’s (alleged) tax-avoiding striker Glenn Murray and his double that day means that I won’t be making the same mistake this time around.

Team News

There is better news on the West Ham injury front with Reid, Michail Antonio and Jose Fonte all reported to be available for selection along with the newly recruited Jordan Hugill.

The selection questions for David Moyes will be: whether Zabaleta plays again in midfield with Sam Byram filling in at right wing back; which is the best threesome out of Reid, Fonte, Angelo Ogbonna, Declan Rice and James Collins to bring stability at the back; if Antonio is brought into an attacking midfield role will Kouyate make way (with the risk of ensuing mayhem!) or would that mean Zabaleta returning to wing back with a reliance on the previously suspect Noble/ Kouyate combination in the centre; does he start with Javier Hernandez, Hugill or Antonio as the lone striker?

I will be interested to see Hugill, a player who I admit to never having heard of before Wednesday.  He deserves to be given every chance to show what he can do before any premature conclusions are reached.  He is said to have an admirable never-say-die attitude and great strength although a supposed lack of pace could be a red flag at the top level. A debut goal would be welcome.

Brighton are without Locadia, Brown, Sidwell and Skalak but may give an outing to loan signing Ulloa, a player who often seems to have a productive afternoon against the Hammers.

Man In The Middle

Match-day referee is Roger East from Wiltshire.  East was previously in charge of the 1-0 home win against Swansea in September.  In nineteen games he has awarded sixty-four yellow cards and two reds.

Predictions

Both Lawro and Merson are convinced that this game is a 2-1 home win which would put the Seagulls level pegging with West Ham on twenty-seven points from twenty six points.  With Brighton without a league win in 2018 and with only one win in fourteen, I am looking for the Hammers to prolong their misery for a little while longer.  It will be a tough game and I expect a lot of early pressure from the home team.  If the all-new resolute Hammers can weather that early seaside storm I will back them to win by the odd goal.  Three points from the Amex – that’ll do nicely!

West Ham Take The Relegation Fight To The Beaches Of Brighton

More birds this weekend as, after meeting the Eagles on Tuesday, West Ham visit the AMEX stadium to face the Seagulls

When I was a football-mad young boy growing up in the 1960’s, although you had your favourite team that you supported, many would have a second team that they followed. The comics and magazines aimed at young boys, such as the Tiger, Roy of the Rovers, Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, Goal, Soccer Star etc. positively encouraged appreciation of players and teams beyond your own. Especially following the 1966 World Cup, when West Ham players were instrumental (to say the least) in England lifting the trophy for the one and only time, many acknowledged us as their favourite second team. I can personally relate to this as when I advertised for pen friends (do youngsters still do this activity these days?) in Soccer Star magazine I was swamped with responses from supporters from all over the country who related to us as their second team to follow.

In the modern social media age apparently liking a team beyond your own is considered a no-no. You have to love the team you follow and hate or despise all others, otherwise you are not a “true supporter”. I’m sorry but I can’t relate to those emotions. I can’t bring myself to actually “hate” any team. I can’t say I particularly care for many of them, and in the Premier League both Stoke and West Brom easily top my list of teams I really don’t like. And though I don’t particularly care for Tottenham either, I have a grudging admiration for some of the football that they play.

Of all the other teams in the Premier League, then if I had to pick a second team, or a team I like to see beat all the others (other than West Ham of course) then it would be Arsenal. I also have a soft spot for Newcastle, Bournemouth and Brighton. These are all for varying reasons that extend back to my youth, and are not particularly strong feelings, other than if I am watching a game on Sky or BT, I will usually want one side to beat the other. I find it hard to watch a game as a strict neutral and have no interest in the outcome. Unlike so many who seem to relish teams from the bottom half beating the big boys, I cannot join that group either. As West Ham are frequently one of the sides involved in the relegation fight these days, then I will usually want one of our “lower in the league” competitors to lose to a top team, purely for the preservation of our Premier League place.

This weekend we visit the South Coast to visit a team that I have a bit of a soft spot for. Nevertheless, although I hope they escape the drop, I also want us to give them a battering equivalent of the one that they gave us at the London Stadium (3-0) towards the end of October. That was just over three months ago, and their first away victory enabled them to move into the top half of the table, while we sat immediately above the three teams in the drop zone at the time, namely Leicester, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace. A lot can change in three months of course, and to illustrate this both Leicester and Bournemouth are now in the top half of the table (8th and 10th), with Palace now 13th, just one place below ourselves. Brighton, on the other hand are now 15th and are only one point better off than Southampton and Swansea who occupy two of the three relegation places, just above West Brom at the bottom. Ironically the three teams at the bottom now were all between 11th and 14th in the league at the end of October.

The battle to avoid the drop is now perhaps the most interesting part of the Premier League. At the start of the season there could have only been a maximum of six possible contenders to win it, and the elite six are as expected well clear of the rest. Manchester City already have the title sewn up so it remains to be seen which three of the chasing five will get into the coveted “top four” for the Champions League slots, and the money that it brings.

You would think that Burnley, Leicester, and possibly Everton probably have enough points in the bag already to avoid relegation, so the remaining eleven teams ranging from Bournemouth on 28 points (but only 5 clear of 18th / 19th) down to West Brom on 20 at the bottom are the ones who will provide the most interest in the final third of the season.

If Brighton were to repeat their 3-0 victory over us from earlier this season then they would leapfrog us, whereas if we beat them they could easily find themselves in the bottom three. Whilst all of our remaining games are important, those against the other teams in the bottom eleven are the true six-pointers, and many will set out not to lose, just as ourselves and Palace appeared to settle for a point apiece with a quarter of the game still to go on Tuesday night.

The importance of this game (as I guess all games) cannot be over-emphasised. If we can win then it would take a lot of the pressure off whilst we await the return to fitness of some of our key players. With the extent of our injury list many were surprised that we didn’t bring in more new faces in the transfer window that closed this week. In fact the word surprised is a bit of an understatement if you read any of the damning comments aimed at our board via social media sites.

One thing that disappointed me about the knee-jerk reactions was the negativity aimed at our new recruit, Jordan Hugill. Whilst I would have been more excited by the recruitment of Cairney (from Fulham) or especially Madison (from Norwich) (both midfielders) I am not averse to the club taking on players from a lower level. Many will forget that Billy Bonds, Julian Dicks, Dean Ashton, Alan Devonshire, Aaron Cresswell, and Michail Antonio were all bought from teams at a level below ourselves. I don’t know if Hugill will cut it at the top level, but from what I’ve seen on Championship highlight programmes in the last couple of seasons he is certainly worth a try. He seems to me to be a fully committed, all action, old fashioned centre forward, and I believe that he may surprise a few people. To anyone who hasn’t seen him play I would describe his playing style as “raw Dean Ashton”. It may not work, but then again we’ve bought enough players with much bigger reputations where it didn’t happen.

Recent form is never a particularly good indicator when assessing how West Ham will perform in a game of football. Brighton’s recent home form is poor with just one win in their last nine games at the AMEX. In their last 13 Premier League games Brighton have failed to score in nine of them, and have only scored 5 goals in the other four. Their entry in the “goals for” column is a lower number than any other team for the season as a whole, and they have only scored more than once in just four of their 25 games. So expect a hat full of goals from the home side then! On the other hand we have only lost one of our last ten Premier League games, so it is about time we had another defeat! I expect to see a tight game probably ending in a draw, perhaps 1-1, or even goalless. But I am hoping that we can extend our excellent recent away form in the league, and perhaps sneak a win.

What I am particularly looking forward to though, is watching Mario, Lanzini, and Arnie all playing in the same team. I don’t know how far in the future this will be, but I am expecting great things creatively when it happens. Let us hope that it is sooner rather than later.