The Good, The Bad And The Game Of Two Halves
Whenever a match ends in an emphatic win for one side or the other, the reporting tends towards the extremes of whether the victors being excellent or the defeated very poor. What we witnessed at the weekend was a combination of both in what could be described as a typical ‘game of two halves’. Arguably the Hammers played some of their best and most fluent football of the season in the first period, almost reaching rampant on the domination scale. It is a shame that it was decided to declare at half time, in what has been described as a show of game management, because I was really hoping for a hat-full of goals. I have enough West Ham games under my belt to know that sitting back can be, and has been, a dangerous tactic. A team rarely comes back from three goals down but if it is going to happen then it is going to happen against the Hammers. In the circumstances Southampton had nothing to offer and gave the impression of not being too bothered about making a game of it. The second half lacked any real incident and it seems that Mark Hughes is well on his way to relegating two teams in a single season.
For once, the starts were aligned and there were excellent performances throughout the team. At the back, Declan Rice didn’t put a foot wrong and Angelo Ogbonna had a fine game showing what a good defender he can be when he stays alert for the entire ninety minutes. It was interesting to read that David Moyes had intended to play Rice in midfield if James Collins had been fit as the much criticised (particularly by me) partnership of Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate exceeded all expectations in securing central midfield. Noble threw off his recent sluggishness adding intensity to his usual graft while Kouyate was surging forward to great effect. Arthur Masuaku made a welcome return on the left and immediately provided balance providing an outlet for his colleagues (Alan Devonshire style) as someone able to maintain possession for more than one or two touches. When Michail Antonio limped off early in the game I feared the worst as without his physical presence goal scoring options looked to have narrowed even further. Little did I know that Joao Mario would step up to the plate for his best game yet in claret and blue or that the returning Edmilson Fernandes would be so energetic and effective after a long lay-off? The icing on the cake was another superb Marko Arnautovic performance which embraced pace, power, flair and enterprise. His spat with Hughes was priceless!
The Bare Bones Formation
On the face of it Southampton went into the game with the more attacking line-up. But there is no point having two strikers (neither of whom are particularly mobile) if you don’t give them any service and, at the same time, you blunt your most dangerous weapon by playing the wing backs in a flat back four. There were no doubt some eyebrows raised at the Hammers starting eleven but a look at the bench shows how few options there are available at the moment – the bare bones can be partly put down to bad luck with injuries but it is mostly the result of haphazard and arbitrary player recruitment practices. Arnautovic has been a revelation since being moved to a more central role and has a style (pace, invention and mobility) that none of the more recognised strikers possess. Even if the others were fit they really are no more than impact players in my mind. There won’t be many easier opponents than Southampton and my jury is still out over the central midfield pairing until they prove it can work without reasonable doubt. There are also questions as to whether Manuel Lanzini and Mario can play effectively in the same team or what the best role is for Fernandes.
Beautiful Team Goals
The beauty of Saturday’s win were three excellent team goals which, to me, are more satisfying than the spectacular pile-drivers that routinely make the goal of the season running. Each of the goals featured a speed and aggression that is all too often missing from West Ham’s play. For the first, there was pressure by Mario and Noble to win possession following a Saint’s corner and when Kouyate embarked on a typical powerful run it was, for once, topped off with an insightful pass rather than a hopeful punt. Mario’s three touches (including a cheeky one with his knee) ended with a satisfying ripple of the net. The second was also the result of sustained pressing before Mario’s measured cross was met by a powerful Arnautovic header that the keeper couldn’t hold allowing Marko to react first to slot home. The third currently stands as my favourite West Ham goal for some time. Like the first it was excellent, rapid counter attacking football culminating with Masuaku’s raking cross expertly stroked home by Arnautovic. It reminded me of a goal of the season scored by Martin Peters past Peter Shilton at Upton Park in 1968. Had Aaron Cresswell’s late effort snuck in under the bar then perhaps there would have been even more competition for favourite goal.
The Relegation Stakes
It was a good day all-round for West Ham in the relegation stakes. Three points gained while most of the relegation rivals lost has put some daylight between the Hammers and the bottom three. The survival threshold now looks as if it will be around 36 or 37 points and if Saturday’s level of performance and commitment can be repeated then this should be comfortably achieved. However, if there is a return to the performances witnessed in the previous three games then all bets are still on. It is difficult to understand why our players need to specially psyche themselves up to put in this level of effort. Surely it should be the norm. The fragility of the squad depth is still a concern and we are possibly just another injury or two away from yet more anxiety. Had we not been so generous to Brighton and Newcastle or seen out the game properly at Selhurst Park then the players could already be preparing to splash on the Ambre Solaire on a beach of their choice.