West Ham Star Men On Mission To Eclipse Blue Moon

We’re gonna score one more than you! Have new look West Ham got the pizazz to cause an opening day upset against the reigning Premier League champions?

The big day has arrived.  It’s time to fish out the lucky underwear, try to retrace those superstitious morning routines and then head out for your preferred match-day refreshment.  Peak pre-season optimism will continue up until the team sheets are revealed, at which point pre-match tension (PMT) will kick-in with the realisation of just how strong today’s opponents are.

I was trying to remember back as a young supporter, looking forward to a new season following Ron Greenwood’s West Ham, whether I ever believed the Hammers were in  with a chance of winning the league.  Even then my expectations probably weren’t that high, but now a title challenge is well beyond the realms of possibility.  So what am I looking for – why bother?

For me a successful season is one where we look committed and are competing in every game – both league and cup.  We would be trading blows with the monied elite and making sure they know they have been in a game.  We should look to entertain but not be intimidated by the more physical opponents, whose priority to is contain and spoil.  We should be in with a shout (or be part of the conversation in modern footballing parlance) of European qualification right until the final weekend and be prepared to embark on barnstorming cup runs.  Not a lot to ask is it?

The pundits are always talking up the Premier League as an excitingly competitive pursuit but really it is most predictable, at least for the present moment.  There may be a big six when it comes to counting the money and overseas following but only two teams  have any real hope of lifting the trophy.  Manchester City will resume their long running weekend leapfrogging contest with Liverpool before finally recording their third title on the trot in the closing weeks.  Then there will be a gap to Tottenham in third place followed by a bigger gap to Arsenal in fourth.  After that the placings might get a little more interesting this time around, with clubs including ourselves, Everton, Wolves and Leicester fancying their chances of muscling in ahead of potentially distressed Chelsea and Manchester United sides.  Not that there is much hope of ever breaking into the top six longer term (not without significant outside investment) but it would nevertheless be amazing as a one-off event.

I was relatively pleased with the transfer window recruitment although only time will tell how well the new players adapt to life in the Premier League.  It was good to see signings in the right age profile rather than more of the traditional practice of boosting retirement funds for fading superstars.  Like many supporters I would have liked to have seen more but appreciate there are constraints.  It is strange how so many fans saw reinforcements in defensive midfield and at full-back as close season priorities and yet these have been left untouched by Manuel Pellegrini and his team.  A clear indication of where his football philosophy lies.  We have no option but to trust the manager but pre-season did nothing to allay the fears concerning wide open spaces left for opponents to exploit in midfield and on the flanks.

Today will be Manchester City’s 5th visit to the London Stadium with a record that reads played 4, won 4, goals scored 17, and goals conceded 1.  Guardiola has created a formidable team that pose a threat all across the pitch.  They weren’t so bad when Pellegrini was at the helm but are now fitter, more compact and more together.  They are also highly professional and even their most gifted of their players is prepared to do his bit defensively even if this involves a niggly, cynical foul to thwart an opposition breakaway.  A slight tug of the shirt or minor body check in the opposition half rarely receives more than a finger wagging censure from referees.

The Sky Blues were relatively restrained (for them) in the transfer window spending a mere £130m for Rodri (a Fernandinho replacement) and Cancelo (another expensive full-back).  It is without doubt the strongest squad in the league although today they will be without Sane and Mendy.

For the Hammers, the pre-season friendlies have offered a good indication of how they might line-up with the attack minded quartet of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Sebastien Haller looking to cause City problems.  The anticipation of some excellent movement, passing and interplay between the forward players is quite mouthwatering.

Declan Rice will adopt his usual defensive midfield role leaving Jack Wilshere (in the absence of Mark Noble) as the remaining midfield option.  If he stays fit, Wilshere can be a magnificent asset this season but playing in a more withdrawn position may not be conducive for his best work to be on view.

At the back, I am hoping to see the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership return to its optimum level of cohesion following an uncertain pre-season.  The full-back pairing is most likely to be Ryan Fredericks and Aaron Cresswell.  I doubt that we will see so much of Pablo Zabaleta’s weary legs this season and although I believed Pellegrini preferred Arthur Masuaku on the left, he didn’t feature a great deal in pre-season.  Incidentally, it was Cresswell who netted the Hammers only London Stadium goal against City and he will probably skipper the side today.

It goes without saying that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with Lukas Fabianski being passed fit to start in goal.

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Is this a team that can cause an upset?  I don’t think we can rely on complacency or rustiness from the opposition and so it must be down to a cunning and perfectly executed game plan.  Strangely, the weakness in central midfield might not be as important in a game like this where we will be forced to defend deep with most players behind the ball for long periods anyway.  We do now have players able to cause problems on the break provided that focus, shape and discipline can be maintained throughout.  It is not a game where we will boss the possession stats!

Mike Dean is today’s referee and there is a huge likelihood that we will get to witness a controversial VAR incident or two at first hand.  But will it be to rule out Aguero’s last minute equaliser for offside or to confirm that Diop’s boot lace was sufficient to send Sterling tumbling in the box?  In theory, I welcome VAR but am worried about its execution.  I can envisage multiple incidents every game with players surrounding referees and making TV shaped gestures with their hands.

Lawro returns to the BBC with a 2-1 away win for Manchester City while punditry duties at Sky seem to have transferred to Charlie Nicholas who opts for a 3-0 away win.  At least both predicted outcomes would keep us off the bottom of the table after Norwich’s defeat at Liverpool last night.  Personally, I am going for broke, keeping everything crossed and predicting a 2-1 West Ham home win.  COYI!

What can West Ham expect in season 2019-20?

We begin our fourth campaign in the London Stadium, and our eighth consecutive season in the top flight with a game against possibly the toughest opponents of all, the champions Manchester City.

The Premier League comprises 20 clubs. Like in so many other major leagues there are very few of the teams that can realistically hope to come out on top at the end of the season. Perhaps six think they have a chance, although there are probably only two at the most who could be champions. The “elite” six teams, the ones with by far the greatest revenues, they were the ones that finished in the top six places last season, and according to most, will do so again this time, and possibly for the foreseeable future with the way that money is distributed within the league.

The aim of the remaining 14 is twofold, firstly not to be involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table ensuring that they remain a Premier League team, and secondly (in some cases) to try to threaten the top six and break their stranglehold. Based on the evidence of last season the chances of doing the second one would seem to be remote. I’d like to think that all teams would be trying to win one of the two domestic cup competitions but sadly, their importance is in decline as far as the clubs themselves are concerned, although perhaps not in the eyes of fans, who love to see our team involved in a cup run.

A quick reminder of the table last season shows City and Liverpool way ahead with 98 and 97 points, with Chelsea 25 points adrift on 72 in third, a point clear of Tottenham (71), and then Arsenal 70. A very poor Manchester United team trailed on 66, but they were still 9 points clear of the best of the rest (Wolves on 57). I would expect the four clubs who finished outside the top six but in the top half of the table (Wolves, Everton, Leicester and West Ham) to be the ones with aspirations to get closer to the elite but is it a realistic thought? I’d love to think so but I doubt it.

Of course the start that a club gets to the season often (although not always) sets the tone for what follows. I am aware that the fixtures computer arranges the fixtures randomly (with some input from clubs and police etc.), but what odds would you have got six years ago that West Ham would face an opening day fixture against each one of the elite six in the six seasons that followed? Very long I’ll wager, although when the fifth one came up last season I said at the time that next season I reckon it will be Manchester City (if we survived in the top flight of course!)

The one game of the previous five opening day games that we won (2-0 at Arsenal) coincided with one of our best ever seasons in the top flight, although those with a good memory will recall that we then went on to lose our first two home games that season, 2-1 to eventual champions Leicester, and 4-3 to Bournemouth.

Last season of course we had an abysmal start, losing our first four games and propping up the league at that point. Ironically, Watford had a dream start and had 12 points after their first four fixtures, so it was pleasing that we recovered well to finish in tenth place, just in the top half of the table, and incidentally two points clear of Watford in 11th.

Our opponents today won 32 of their 38 games in the league (as well as winning both domestic cup competitions, including the demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final) so will be formidable opposition. I suppose facing them in the opening game is as good a time as any, but personally I will just be looking for a good performance, and hope that the players begin to gel together.

Unlike many on social media I like to refrain from commenting in advance on players arriving until I’ve seen how they settle and trust that the players in our team and squad are ones that the manager and his team want there. But on the face of it, the two big signings, Haller and Fornals would appear to be excellent acquisitions, and the return to fitness of Lanzini, Wilshere and Yarmolenko is like adding three new players as well. It would appear that we will have the capability of creating lots of chances, and hopefully we will score a lot of goals. Unlike many observers, I don’t believe that we have bad players in defensive positions; on the contrary I am generally happy. What I think we don’t do well is defend as a team, and in this I mean everyone on the pitch. I’d like to see the manager appoint a first class defensive coach, but he will run the team and coaching (quite rightly) as he thinks fit. I did read that one or two of the top teams even have throw-in coaches! You might laugh but if you analyse how often we lose possession of the ball from our throw-ins (one of the few statistics I haven’t yet seen!) you’d agree that it would be a good thing.

Of course there are new things for us to see this season. The introduction of VAR is something I have personally advocated for years. Going back to the book I published in 2016, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I made many references as to how I would like to see it used to ensure that we got the correct decisions more often, especially in relation to offside. I’m not entirely happy with some of the ways it is being used however, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed it in action in the Premier League. I’ve seen some (tongue in cheek?) comments suggesting that we’ll all be home much later, and that the classified results will now be moved to Match of the Day!

There are a number of rule changes being introduced too. Some of them are minor, and some will be more influential on games, for example the change to handball. Once again I’ll wait to see it in action before commenting, although early examples, such as in the Women’s World Cup, showed some potential teething troubles and inconsistency. I was not happy to read that the head of referees is suggesting that the Premier League will have its own interpretation of the new handball law, but once again I’ll wait and see. Surely consistency is what we want, whether or not we agree with the interpretation of the laws?

I welcome the fact that goalkeepers should have at least one foot on the goal line when the kick is taken, but hasn’t that always been the case? The problem has occurred with referees and linesmen having an inability or lack of desire to penalise goalkeepers moving off their lines before the penalty is taken (or encroachment for that matter). I suppose with VAR we can expect a rise in the number of penalties, so let’s see how consistent the officials can be.

A lot of the minor changes are just tinkering, and the one big change I’d love to see implemented is the correct timing of games, and the correct amount of time added on for injuries, goal celebrations, time wasting etc. The referee already has a lot to think about, and this could be taken out of his hands with the introduction of a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock, and stopping the time when these things happen, as happens in Rugby Union for example. Am I the only person who can see how this could totally eliminate the concept of time wasting?

When the opposing team scores and goes off to celebrate with their fans (especially at our stadium!) make a note of when the goal goes in and when play resumes. The amount of time will surprise you. See how much time is added for substitutions from when the decision is made to change a player up to the resumption of play. And don’t get me going on how long goalkeepers take to take a goal kick when their team is winning. And referees never add it on. They just seem to add a token time to reflect stoppages which bears little relation to how much actual time is lost. And one thing I don’t understand. If a referee stops his watch at any time how does he know how long he has stopped it for? The only way is to have another (stopwatch) and start that when he stops the main watch, and then stop the stopwatch when he starts his main watch again! Doesn’t a referee have enough to think about without faffing about with watches? I repeat; a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock would put an end to it all. I’ll return to this hobbyhorse as the season progresses.

Anyway, enjoy the game. I’d love to see an upset, although doubt that it will happen. On paper of course the fixtures for the rest of August are easier, so don’t get too upset if the result is not great, as long as we put in a good performance. We won’t face Manchester City every week!

How High Can They Fly: What Would Represent A Season Of Success For Gung-Ho Hammers?

As the new Premier League season approaches can Manuel Pellegrini get the best from his array of talented attacking players, or will defensive lapses continue to plague the Hammers?

All of a sudden a new Premier League season is almost upon us.  Just one more week to reach peak optimism before the reality of an opening weekend clash with Champions Manchester City kicks in.

Although you can never be certain how well new players will adapt to the English league, the signings of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals look to be exciting acquisitions; and with the return from injury of Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmalenko there are many good reasons to expect an above average season for the Hammers.  Not that ‘average’ sets a particularly high bar at West Ham where, in 21 years of competing in a 20 team Premier League, the average finishing position lies between 11th and 12th.

Only the most pessimistic supporter will be contemplating involvement in a relegation battle, but just how much higher can those bubbles fly?  In those same 21 seasons, a top ten finish has only been achieved on 7 occasions, with a high-water mark of 5th in 1998/99.

It is difficult to see beyond a third consecutive Manchester City title with Liverpool and Tottenham in their wake.  Perhaps a high-spending Arsenal will be reinvigorated, if they can sort out their defence, but Manchester United and Chelsea are likely to be well off the pace under their rookie, panic measure, ex-player managers.  There is certainly an opportunity for other clubs to take advantage and having a tilt at the lower reaches of the top six – and a gaggle of clubs including Everton, Wolves, Leicester and West Ham might all think that they are in with a shout of a break-out season.

It goes without saying that to win football games you need to outscore the opposition.  Yet there are different approaches in trying to achieve this.  There are too many recent bad memories of bus parking managers preferring to strangle the life out of the game in the hope of snatching a goal in a breakaway or from a set piece.  Manuel Pellegrini’s approach, on the other hand, is looking more and more to be the polar opposite – all out cavalier attacking and fingers crossed that it works out at the back.  It promises to be exciting, but can it be successful given that free-flowing football is the more difficult style to sustain over a long season?

In the past few years, West Ham have saved their best performances for matches against the better sides, while struggling against those set on attrition, spoiling and denying space.  A perfect example was the recent Asia Trophy game in Shanghai where Newcastle put an extra man in midfield and the Hammers created few meaningful chances as a result.  Admittedly, it was only a friendly and there were several key players missing from the Hammer’s lineup, but it is a lingering concern – as is the amount of space that is left vacant in front of the defence.   While it is great to see West Ham give the top teams a run for their money, the season will ultimately be defined by how well they perform against the remainder – that is where the majority of points lie.

Although there is still a week of the transfer week to go, the noises coming out of the club is that there is little cash left to splash.  Maybe there will be last minute surprises if the owners can be persuaded that they have yet to do enough to push beyond their survival comfort zone.  If there is any true ambition, or dreams of nights of European football, then spending just enough to stand still is a misplaced strategy.  Apart from attacking midfielders, the squad remains very vulnerable to injuries in several key areas – notably the fitness of Lukas Fabianski, Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop, Declan Rice and Haller.  It is not as if West Ham are strangers to long term injuries.

I prefer to think that West Ham are suspect at defending rather than in defence.  The weaknesses are as much about team shape and cohesion as it is about individual players.  When possession is lost we are slow to reform into a compact shape and thus allow opponents far too much time and space to mount counter-attacks both in central areas and on the flanks – a feature of all three goals conceded to Hertha Berlin during the week .  The defence plays very narrow, relies on a tricky offside trap and with only one defensive midfielder it is no surprise that Fabianski is the busiest keeper in the league.  I wonder if his agent has considered negotiating a productivity bonus – as he won’t be picking up many clean sheet payments?

On paper, the attacking midfield resources available to Pellegrini are awesome.  Individually, it is packed with talent and we can only hope that he has the instruction sheet on how to assemble them together into an effective unit.  I would like to see a lot more width from the midfield and a greater willingness to get behind defences than we have seen in recent years.  Apart from Robert Snodgrass (who is unlikely to be first choice) decent delivery into the box has been in short supply. Relying mainly on the full-backs for width, as a number of other sides do, would only make us more susceptible to the counter attack.

I am expecting great things from Haller leading the line.  He looks to have all of the attributes to do so effectively.  Can he be the player to finally beat Paolo Di Canio’s record of 16 West Ham goals in a Premier League season – or even become the first to reach 20?  I would like to think so, but then again I tipped Arnautovic to do the same last season!  Backup striker remains a big problem and with Javier Hernandez looking to be even more of a spent force (a Mexican has-bean) it may well fall to a rejuvenated Michail Antonio to provide support.

If striker and defensive midfield reinforcements arrive during the next week then I would be delighted.  Although the squad lacks depth it does now include a number of very talented players.  Sadly, the better ones will not stick around for very long if the team doesn’t progress beyond its average mid-table position.  It might be all well and good to pocket £200m in player sales next summer but not if their replacements are the modern day equivalents of Rigobert Song and Titi Camara.

I can see it being a very interesting season.  Lots of entertainment but with the usual frustrations where we fail to compete against the more resolute and uncompromising (physical) opponents.  Somewhere between 5th and 7th would exceed expectations; whereas below 9th would constitute a failure to progress.  Or perhaps this will be the season to put an end to 40 years of hurt; to finally lift another piece of cup silverware.

I am probably, once again, expecting too much!