Manuel’s Labours: Pellegrini And West Ham Certain To Be Singing The Blues After Stamford Bridge Showdown

The tortoises travel across London to face the hares this afternoon. What are the chances of a fairy tale finish?

If there was to be a Manuel Pellegrini terrace song then surely it would be one of those old blues/ country numbers where his women’s done left him, his momma’s an alcoholic, the house has burned down and the dog has died. The protagonist reflecting on this as he awaits the padre to escort him to his execution.

After a week of intense speculation where the entire focus was exclusively on who the club are lining up as his replacement, it has been reported that our manager has been given two weeks to save his job. At least when Flash Gordon was given 14 hours to save the Earth he had a sporting chance of achieving it.

In their wisdom, the two Daves decided that kicking the can down the road a little more was the sensible course of action to take – seemingly prepared to write off the games against Chelsea and Wolves.  Maybe they believe it will make them appear more reasonable and thoughtful chaps – or else, save them a few weeks worth of severance payments. It is difficult to understand that anyone who has sat through a West Ham game in the past two months can’t see that the chance of Pellegrini turning around the fortunes of this aimless, dispirited, divided and disorganised squad are several times slimmer than winning the Euro millions. The more humane option would have been to put him quickly out of his misery; allowing someone new the chance to assess strengths and weaknesses before the transfer window opens in the new year.

If actually getting a new manager in place is going to take a few more weeks, then let the U23 manager take charge on a caretaker basis. From what I have seen (admittedly only highlights) it looks like he knows how to set up and organise his side with both pace, energy and enterprise – it’s not as if he could do any worse. It really is a bizarre club where the academy sides play an entirely different style of football to the first team.

The elephant in the room when it comes to appointing a new manager is, unfortunately, the lack of imagination present in those making the selection. I don’t believe for a moment that the Board have been scouring the European leagues to identify up-and-coming talent – a few phone calls to their favourite agent or a search on Google would be closer to the mark. There have been so many names bandied about it is impossible to know which are genuine contenders and which have just been made to gain attention.

Personally, I would like to see someone who can be a longer term fix – a younger manager capable of instilling the kind of style, ethos and unity necessary to compete in modern Premier League football. What we don’t need is another rescue mission from one of the a managerial dinosaurs who may know how not to lose, but has little idea how to win.

We like to clutch straws and take comfort where we can find it and I would be happy with an appointment such as Eddie Howe – should he have any interest in coming to the London Stadium. At least now when I see a headline claiming “West Ham keen to pursue 41 year old” it just might refer to a managerial candidate rather than the latest stand-in goalkeeper or central midfield target.

Speaking of young managers, today will see West Ham come up against a Chelsea side managed by old foe Frank Lampard.  It has really surprised me how well he has done so far this season. I did think he would make a good manager one day but that this job had come too early for him – particularly with the transfer ban in place. Like it or not, Lampard is intelligent, articulate and happy to learn and adjust as he goes. His team play fast and attractive football and work hard for each other.  The introduction of a number of young academy players must have exceeded all expectations at the club.

Quite how our own laggardly rabble will fare against such youthful exuberance doesn’t bear thinking about. It could be a very long afternoon – starting an hour before kick-off when Pellegrini announces his latest permutation from his group of apparent strangers.

I read one laughable report in the week that suggested a recall for Carlos Sanchez (with Declan Rice dropping back to replace the suspended Issa Diop). The rationale being that the introduction of Sanchez changed the course of the game last week. Good grief! The worrying thing is that there is a good chance that Pellegrini saw it the same way – a tactical masterstroke that just came too late to save the day.  Can you imagine a midfield of Sanchez, Noble and Snodgrass chasing the shadows of Kante, Mount and Willian? He may as well bring back Pablo Zabaleta to take care of Pulisic.

Unless there is something devilishly cunning going on beneath the manager’s calm persona, I don’t expect any revolutionary changes to what we have seen taking place over recent weeks. A token effort for 15 to 20 minutes or so followed by a collapse when the first goal goes in. The other great unknown being who will it be be picking the ball out of the net when that happens. Seeing Roberto on the team sheet again could cause spontaneous combustion across the east-end.

This week’s referee double act consists of Jonathan Moss (West Yorkshire) trying to keep up with play on the pitch and Andrew ‘Andy’ Madley (Huddersfield) on VAR duty.

Media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are being rather conservative in predicting a home win but only by 2-1 and 2-0 respectively. I can easily see this being a complete rout and annihilation – something close to the 7-1, which I believe would equal our worst ever Premier League defeat (away to Blackburn in October 2001). Despite all this negativity I will still be watching and be urging us on to win. Perhaps there can be a miracle (like the two Di Canio goals in September 2002) but I can’t see where that individual quality can come from these days. I usually look forward to games but will be more than happy when this one is all over.

In-form Chelsea face out-of-form West Ham. Surely there is only one possible outcome?

Shortly before our game against Bournemouth on 28th September, just two months ago, I wrote the following words in this column:

OK, so I know we are only six games into the new season. Nevertheless, how good is it to see three teams who are not members of the “elite six” occupying places in the top six of the Premier League even at this early stage? And if one of the two teams meeting at the Vitality Stadium (still known to some fans as Dean Court) emerges as the winner of this Saturday’s game then they are guaranteed a place in the top half dozen for another week at least, and potentially a place in the top two! Well that’s unlikely as I can’t see Manchester City tripping up at Goodison Park, but a third place beckons (at least in the short term) as neither Leicester nor Arsenal, who currently occupy third and fourth, play until Sunday or Monday. Let us hope we can keep our excellent run in the league going with another win to enable us to look down on the majority of teams in the top flight. But it won’t be easy!

The three non-elite teams in the top six just seven games ago were ourselves, Bournemouth and Leicester. We drew 2-2 at the Vitality Stadium that day whilst Leicester went on to thrash Newcastle 5-0 the following day. Not a bad result for us in the scheme of things. The previous Sunday we’d beaten Manchester United 2-0, but then we crashed out of the Carabao Cup in midweek to Oxford by an embarrassing 4-0 scoreline. Just another cup blip like so many in my lifetime. Never mind perhaps we were concentrating on the Premier League! So where are the three teams who had gate-crashed the top six just a few weeks ago? Well, Leicester are now second, Bournemouth are eleventh, and we are seventeenth! Just one place above the three teams occupying the relegation positions!

Just before the Everton game on 19th October, just six weeks ago, I wrote the following in this column:

It also means that Marco Silva heads the betting (at 5/4) for the next Premier League manager to leave his post (ahead of Solkskjaer at 2/1 and Pochettino at 5/1). What better for Everton than a home game against West Ham who specialise in helping teams and managers in this kind of predicament? Incidentally, at 50/1 our manager has only two managers below him in the betting to be next to leave (Klopp and Lampard are both 66/1).

Third favourite (Pochettino) has gone already, so the betting for the next Premier League manager to leave his post makes interesting reading. Emery at Arsenal is the new favourite at 1/2, Silva is still a low price despite Everton collecting 7 points in their last five games at 2/1, and the third favourite is guess who? Yes, Mr Pellegrini at 5/1. Quite a shortening of odds over a 7 game run in the league! The form table that I write about regularly in this column, based on the last 5 games, now has us at rock bottom, tied with Palace at 1 point! Southampton have 2 and Arsenal 3. Norwich have 4, and then both Watford and Bournemouth have 5. One point a game average is usually the minimum needed over the course of a whole season, so the teams I’ve just mentioned are the ones based on current form who would appear to be in the most trouble.

Our opponents this week have won four of their last five league games and so are in really good form. I watched their game last weekend where they lost 2-1 at Manchester City. The quality of football produced by both sides was so far superior to anything we have seen in recent times. Frank Lampard has made a very promising start to management at the top level, which won’t be a pleasing thing for some of our fans who dislike him (or worse). Where does he stand on the hate scale compared to Messrs. Ince, Defoe, and Payet? Chelsea sit comfortably in fourth place seven points clear of the fifth team, who incidentally are our next opponents. Yes, the game after this one will be another away game at Molyneux. Wolves, despite their slow start, have risen to fifth in the table and have only lost two games this season. Where are our next points coming from?

There is little point in me writing about the shortcomings of the team, or our current manager. In the last few columns both Geoff and I (mainly Geoff) have gone into some detail as to what we believe the problems would appear to be, but has anything changed? I always remain hopeful but the club appear to have hit a very low spot that requires drastic action. The dramatic fall from the top six down to seventeenth with a run of fixtures that on paper were not the most difficult would have resulted in action elsewhere, but, despite numerous rumours, it appears nothing has changed. I still expect to see the same team and squad selected this week, and cannot see anything other than another defeat. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I just cannot see anything else. If it is any consolation we can’t be in the bottom three on Saturday night, but by Sunday it is possible, albeit unlikely. At the current rate it will happen soon, and then perhaps some action will be taken.

The gulf between the teams at the top of the table and those further down is now massive. Three teams who are not even in the bottom three, ourselves, Newcastle and Brighton are very long odds to win their games this weekend. We are 9/1 to win at Chelsea, Newcastle are 14/1 to win at home to Manchester City, and Brighton are also 14/1 to win at Liverpool. A 2,250/1 treble on three football matches shows just what the Premier League has become.

Should He Stay Or Should He Go: Pellegrini’s Time Surely Up After Spurs Clash?

If he stays there could be trouble, but if he goes will there be double? Is there any way we can rely on the owners to make a sensible decision?

Shattered Dreams

I don’t pretend to speak for all West Ham fans, but would like to think that what most of us are looking for is a club that we can feel rightfully proud of. One that attempts to entertain but even when that doesn’t come off, a team that goes into every match with 100% commitment. So that, whoever the opposition, they know that they have been given a game. It’s not much to ask and, if we are really lucky, there might also be the faintest whiff of success in one of the cup competitions. There are a collection of probable causes at to why we don’t have such a team. Owners who prioritise committing just enough to protect their asset over ambition: who have failed to invest sufficiently in both playing staff depth and infrastructure (such as training facilities, academy and scouting); who have no credible long-term footballing strategy. A manager and coaching staff who are unable to motivate, prepare and organise the team in a way that Premier League football now demands; who have recruited too many players that are unsuitable in meeting those physical and athletic demands. A squad of players who may have technical ability but lack the appropriate level of personal pride – a few notable exceptions aside.

Mark Noble says that if we are not careful, we will be in a relegation scrap. Have I got news for you, Mark – we are already knees-deep in one. At the current trajectory (two points from seven games) and a high probability of three defeats in the next three games, it is not a wild stretch of the imagination to envisage West Ham being rock bottom by Christmas.

If We Only Had A Heart (Or A Nerve)

Saturday’s game was a virtual re-run of the previous home fixture against Newcastle. A late flurry providing an undeserved air of respectability to what could easily have been a rout. Roberto may be the worst player ever to have pulled on a pair of Premier League goalie gloves for West Ham (and I’m including Julian Dicks and Carl Jenkinson in that definition) but he wasn’t the sole reason for such an undignified defeat. Once again, it was a team without plan or shape: too slow in possession; giving the ball away far too cheaply; and creating no space for themselves while allowing acres of it to the opposition. That West Ham relied so heavily on the heroics of Lukasz Fabianski’s for many of their points last season should have been a massive red flag. Skimping on the wages of a backup keeper in the hope that he wouldn’t be called into action was an act of gross irresponsibility. And what sort of cunning plan is it to hope that everything will be OK again once Fabianski returns?

On The Road To Nowhere

Apart from counting down the weeks until the return of Fabianski, the remainder of the current master plan is to “work harder”, “buck our ideas up” and “turn things around”. No need to worry then, everything is all in hand! If anyone can look at the displays served up over the course of the past month or so and conclude that all we need is a bit more effort, then they are fooling themselves. Of course, the players should be putting in a shift but the overriding reality is that the team are a disjointed and stuttering shambles. No-one seems to have a clue as to their respective roles and responsibilities. The captain was also reported on the Official West Ham site as saying the game has not changed in the 15 years that he has playing. I make him absolutely wrong on that score – it is much more team focused game now built around structure and cohesion (almost to a micro-managed level.) Individual flair and expression can still be encouraged but it has to be incorporated into the whole – just look how hard Salah, Mane and Firmino work at Liverpool. Pellegrini’s style belongs to the past. He has no roadmap or project for building a lasting legacy at West Ham. When we needed a unit constructed on solid foundations he wasted all the budget on soft furnishings. Pellegrini has to go and go now. There is no point giving him more time just to repeat the same old mistakes – he has no credible plan. The player’s morale and body language is at a record low and suggests an absence of belief. No player has improved as a result of his coaching – Diop, Balbuena, Anderson, Yarmolenko and others have all gone backwards since their encouraging arrivals. Although all of the other problems at the club will still need addressing, they are are longer term fixes. The only way I can see to avoid a devastating relegation is to replace the manager. Act now and let the new man can assess the strengths and weaknesses in the squad in advance of the transfer window.

Who Comes Next?

If the club should take the sensible decision and switch manager, the big question is who comes in as replacement? As ever, the usual suspects have been banded about in the media. I have no particular insight but would prefer a younger manager; one open to fresh ideas, who can also introduce far stricter discipline – like it or not, the players need it. Some may not want to believe it, but managing West Ham has to be seen as a top job – clearly it is not as glamourous as some others but the club are still top twenty in terms of world football revenues.  There should be no shortage of interest.  I can’t believe that Chris Hughton is a serious or genuine candidate (we may as well go for Mark Hughes or Tony Pulis) and can see Rafael Benitez want to hold out for the Everton job.  To my mind bringing Benitez back form China would risk repeating the mistake of Pellegrini – an older manager looking for his final payday. I don’t see why a new manager has to be British but, would be quite happy if the right candidate was home grown. Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Scott Parker would each be interesting options, in their own ways. There are sure to be exciting younger overseas coaches in the European leagues of the right calibre – if our scouting reach extends that far.  What we don’t need is a new manager who can do no more than steady the ship – a team builder is required. The worry in all of this, however, is that it will be the limited imagination of David Sullivan making the final decision.

Player Ratings: Roberto (2), Fredericks (4), Ogbonna (6), Diop (4), Cresswell (4), Rice (6), Noble (5), Yarmolenko (3), Snodgrass (6), Anderson (3), Haller (4). Subs: Antonio (8), Fornals (4), Sanchez (4)

Something Better Change: Dippy Dave’s Dither As Daniel Presses The Panic Button

Stick or Twist? What will win the day, West Ham continued indecision or Tottenham’s panicked recruitment of faded box-office star?

Just a week ago today’s game was billed as the South American manager death-match beat-down. A last tango in Stratford elimination contest where the victor lived to fight another day and defeated was cast out into wilderness, P45 in hand. It was all change, however, when pantomime Bond villain, Daniel Levy, sent his manager sliding into the metaphorical shark tank. A preemptive move that denied the Argentinian the perfect symmetry of starting and ending his Tottenham career with a game against West Ham – who can forget that injury time Eric Dier (yes, I know) winner that decided his opener?

Levy’s action has the hallmarks of a Terry Brown/ Harry Redknapp style spat rather than being a considered footballing decision. On this occasion the Glenn Roeder role is to be played by none other than Jose Mourinho. Yesterday’s man he might be, but Mourinho remains good box office and in the increasingly showbiz world of Premier League football, he is guaranteed to generate media attention. The Levy/ Mourinho dynamic and its inevitable meltdown should prove compelling viewing over the coming months. Meanwhile, Pochettino can take a short rest before picking up the reins at Old Trafford in the new year.

Meanwhile back in east end, the Two Daves find themselves once again firmly stuck in dither mode. For them, being driven the wrong way down the motorway, by a confused elderly driver, who is baffled by the controls and refuses to change gear, would not constitute a major problem. Unless there is immediate danger of head on collision, they are prepared to chug along to the next Services and hope the driver can turn things around.

With Christmas fast approaching, all the old chestnuts are still being banded about – ‘we must work harder’, ‘we need to sort things out’. Unfortunately, it has got to a stage where much more than platitudes are needed. We can only hope that Manuel Pellegrini, his staff and the players have used the international break to good effect. The squad and the injuries are what they are; it is the manager’s responsibility to organise and motivate those available in the best possible way – that is what he is paid big money to do. We are frequently reminded that Pellegrini is vastly experienced, so time to see some evidence of that. At least he has the advantage that this is one fixture the players are usually up for.

According to the joint-chairman’s statement issued yesterday, it is not only the aforementioned hard work that we have up our sleeves as a cunning plan. Today will see the Hammers unleash the ‘power of unity’.  This is easily dismissed as meaningless mumbo-jumbo, but it does sounds very new age and mysterious. Maybe the scattering of healing crystals around the dressing room will help. Or perhaps appeasing the gods by sacrificing a goat in the centre circle at half-time.

But enough of the negativity. There has been some good news in the week in that both Mark Noble and Michail Antonio have been passed fit for selection. Although, Noble has struggled for much of the season, he is still the best available as a more defensive minded midfielder alongside Declan Rice. The thought of Carlos Sanchez (or the laughable suggestion of Pablo Zabaletta) stepping into the role would be enough to trigger a panic attack in the most balanced individual.

When players are out for an extended period, their abilities tend to become exaggerated to mythical proportions. Even so, I look forward to the return of Antionio. He offers pace, muscle and a directness that is not apparent elsewhere in the squad.  I hope Pellegrini uses him wisely and that Antonio can provide an antidote to our slow ponderous build up. We desperately need to see some change in formation and cohesion. Something to suggest that this is a professional outfit rather than a bunch of blokes that have turned up for a kickabout over the park. I am a long- time advocate of giving 3-5-2 a try but don’t see the manager getting that radical. Let the wing backs provide the width and get those wrong-footed wingers off the flanks. Could there be any chance of a little imagination in the bench selection?

The elephant in the room is, of course, the goalkeeper situation. You don’t need to be a special one to know that Roberto is suspect under physical aerial threat. Any team (well maybe not ours) will know that and will plan to exploit that. Can David Martin provide a better option? Probably not, but his weaknesses might not be such common knowledge. Perhaps he and Roberto could play some form of three-and-in (or should that be three-and-out) keeper rotation. Is rush-goalie allowed?

Tottenham are nothing like the threat they were a few years back. Most of the players they have brought in have been a downgrade from those leaving or fading away – the exception being Lucas Moura. Having Harry Winks at the heart of midfield has slowed everything down to the extent that it is almost as torpid as ours. WInks is almost Noblesque in his short, back and sideways passing. Anyway, he went down in my estimation when he spurned the ’40 Winks’ squad number – watching him on a regular basis would certainly send me to sleep.

Today’s refereeing dream team are Northumberland based Michael Oliver, on the pitch, and Andre Marriner, at VAR mission control. It could be a feisty afternoon and with the north London diving team out in force, let’s hope they have all their wits about them.

Pundit-wise, Lawro has reverted to his default 1-1 prediction while Charlie Nicholas envisages the new manager bounce giving the visitors the edge with a 2-1 away win. I never like to predict a West Ham defeat, even more so against Tottenham. But it is difficult to call it any other way. The straw to clutch at is the hope that the players will for once find an acceptable level of commitment to make a game of it – provided that it doesn’t boil over into reckless card worthy challenges (Noble, Snodgrass – I am looking at you).

I really want to believe, but Santa Claus is looking the more believable option right now.

Pellegrini’s West Ham v “The Special One’s” Tottenham – who would have predicted that?

A season which began with high hopes for both teams appears to have gone wrong for both West Ham and Tottenham as they approach Matchday 13. By the end of this London derby, one third of the season will have been completed. Prior to the game the teams occupy 16th and 14th places in the Premier League, not what was expected of either when the campaign began. But whereas Manuel Pellegrini will, according to reports, apparently be given time to turn round the club’s alarming slump in form, the same is not true for our unpopular North London neighbours, who sensationally sacked Mauricio Pochettino as manager on Tuesday. Jose Mourinho was appointed as his replacement almost before the Argentinian had cleared his desk, so we face a team with a new manager on Saturday lunchtime.

Despite occupying such lowly positions in the Premier League table, both teams can take comfort in the fact that with 13 points (West Ham) and 14 points (Tottenham), they are not far points-wise behind the team who surprisingly are currently fifth in the table (Sheffield United) who have 17 points. A good run could see a rapid climb up the table. With the exception of the teams at the very top and bottom the Premier League is a tight affair at the moment. Liverpool at the summit are eight points clear of the second team, and Manchester City in fourth are eight points clear of the fifth placed team. You would get long odds against the teams in the top four not being the ones to claim the Champions League places at the end of the season.

It is less than six months since Pochettino took Spurs to the final of the Champions League, and he will be coveted by many of the top teams in the world. In my opinion he performed miracles in his five seasons in North London, with four top four finishes in the last four seasons following a fifth place in his first season at the helm. Before his arrival Tottenham had finished in the top four just twice in the previous 24 campaigns. He did this without the spending power of his rivals in the elite six of the Premier League. However, Tottenham have slumped in 2019, and have been beaten 18 times in the calendar year. The board under chairman Daniel Levy obviously felt that a change was necessary and have appointed Mourinho, a proven winner, but I see this as a backward step. Not that I am concerned about our North London neighbours going backwards, and I will be interested to see if my view is borne out. Mourinho has had a lot of success and won trophies at all the clubs he has been at, but only when given a lot of money to spend. I wonder if Mr Levy has promised the “Special One” a big kitty to strengthen the team and squad?

Looking at our own form though, the manager is obviously under scrutiny following a disastrous run which has seen us pick up just one point in our last five games, a comparable figure to Norwich and Southampton at the foot of the table. Even Watford, currently occupying the third relegation slot, have collected six points from the last five games, and look as though they are potentially ready to climb out of trouble.

In the opinion of the writers of this blog, the reasons behind our decline in recent games have been well documented in the last few articles, and we can only hope that the manager has used the enforced two week international break to try to work out for himself what the problems are, and how they can be remedied, given the shortcomings of the squad at his disposal. My main gripe is his inability to make changes to either tactics or personnel when things are obviously going badly wrong. One thing is for certain though, and that is a continuation of recent form will soon see us embroiled in a relegation dogfight when a few weeks ago we were being touted as possible top six contenders. The manager himself was quoted after the miserable loss at Burnley as saying that we must improve, as he was angry and upset and the performance was unacceptable. As fans we all felt the same way, and in my view it was just a case of him stating the bleeding obvious. He is one of the most highly paid managers around and he is paid to sort problems such as the ones he is facing. It remains to be seen if he can.

Based on recent performances the long term injury to Lanzini, whilst being a blow to him personally after his long lay-off, will not be a big loss to the team, as he was performing well below the standards he reached prior to the injury, when he was selected as part of the Argentinian national squad. The loss of Fabianski, and the poor judgement in failing to recruit a suitable back-up keeper have been instrumental in recent results. Apart from the obvious errors, Roberto seems to have lost any confidence that he may have had, and worse than that, the rest of the team would appear to lack confidence in him too. I doubt that David Martin is of sufficient quality to replace him, so we must hope for the speedy return of Fabianski, and the purchase of an experienced keeper of the necessary quality in the transfer window to come in if he gets injured again. Saving some money by not doing so could have dire consequences if Fabianski is out of the team for an extended period.

Personally I am hoping that Antonio gets back sooner rather than later. We must get somebody to play alongside (or at least much closer to) Haller as he continues to be an isolated figure so far detached from the rest of the team. Our Development Squad has been in terrific form this season with several players catching the eye of seasoned observers. Whilst I accept that you can’t just throw in a load of youngsters is one go, I am amazed at the reluctance of the manager to even try to blood one or two by finding places on the bench and getting them used to being part of the first team squad. I despair at seeing Sanchez in the squad every week, and if none of the youngsters are considered good enough then what is the point of the Development Squad? I’d like to see Diangana recalled from his loan spell at West Brom too, where he has been performing well. We can then see if the loan experience has helped to turn him into a player of sufficient quality for our first team.

The important thing is that when things have been as bad as they have been in recent games the manager has to try something new. If I turn up to the game Saturday lunchtime and see the same group of players in the 18 with no attempt at trying something new, then I will not be in the least surprised to see a poorly performing Tottenham team beat us. And unless results start to improve, and we have a relatively tough set of fixtures coming up, then I can see Mr Pellegrini on his way through the exit door. I seem to recall the owners being very keen on Rafa Benitez in the past, and after his none too successful start in China, I wonder if they would want to try to tempt him back for another go as a Premier League manager? Money is of course the big issue in these moves, but unless the situation is turned around soon I fear the worst.

As I’ve written before, I love surprises. I just hope the manager can surprise me with some new ideas, and that the team can surprise me by beating Tottenham on Saturday.

Hope Don’t Live Here Anymore: The Decline And Fall Of Pellegrini’s Hopeless Hammers Episode 6

After another terrible West Ham performance radical changes must be made if disastrous consequences are to be avoided. Hoping that there are three even worse teams is a reckless strategy.

Surprise, No Surprise

It is a sad reflection on the current state of affairs at the club, but what happened on Saturday came as no real surprise. A few weeks ago, I described West Ham’s performance at Everton as abject (adj – something experienced that is bad to the maximum degree; a performance completely without pride or dignity.)  Now it looks like I peaked too early with that description, as the situation has become progressively worse – adjective wise, it has left me nowhere to go. Performances have become above and beyond abject if that is possible. Are wretched and deplorable any worse? Or perhaps we should start adding binary prefixes to differentiate the state of disarray: mega-abject (Newcastle), giga-abject (Burnley)? As predicted, it was Sean Dyche who managed to galvanise his team into a reaction while mild-mannered Manuel Pellegrini continued to dither. A strong and pacey home side demonstrated belief and intent. West Ham were weak and rudderless, seemingly content to drift aimlessly towards the precipice of the relegation places.  Even though Burnley’s strength in the air is well known to all, there was no strategy to cut off the supply of crosses.  In fact, the Hammers offered nothing new – tactics, approach or hope – just what had failed so spectacularly over the course of the last six matches. What is it they say about repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Footballing insanity!

Collective Responsibility For Individual Errors

It is football manager 101 to reel off a whole string of incidental excuses whenever your team has lost – bad luck, refereeing decisions, individual errors, and so on – it is never your own fault.  It is always tempting smokescreen to use when your team have been comprehensively outplayed by what, in theory, is a lesser team – at least in terms of support and resources. Sure, the first goal should not have been a corner and, without doubt, Roberto and Fabian Balbuena contributed enormously to the other two goals conceded. Most goals have some degree of culpability from the defending side but well drilled teams endeavour to minimise the impact of individual mistakes by effective organisation. Pellegrini seems as afraid of organising his troops as Roberto is of crosses. The fact that it was a goalkeeper who was last year’s Hammer of the Year should have been cause of concern, not one of celebration – taking nothing away from Lukasz Fabianski’s heroics. Now his injury, and the decision to make a cheap gamble on a backup, have led to a reckless own goal. As dodgy a keeper as Roberto is, he also made some very good saves. As with the previous week, defeat was not entirely down to him. In fact, for the stat lovers out there, he was the Hammer’s highest rated player according to the whoscored website.

Manuel’s Random Team Selector

This week’s pin sticking team selection lottery comprised replacing Pablo Zabaleta with Ryan Fredericks and Andriy Yarmolenko with Pablo Fornals. Everyone else was deemed to have done well enough the previous weekend to keep their places. Fornals was, sort of, deployed central and in a more advanced role but you might not have noticed but for some half-hearted attempts at closing down when we lost possession. As usual the Hammers faffed about with the ball in no-man’s-land (possibly as a mark of respect for Remembrance Day) and steadfastly refused to move the ball forward quickly – and when they did only down the flanks. Before his injury, Mark Noble had only two touches in the opposition half. His positional replacement, Robert Snodgrass, did get further forward but mainly down the congested left side where Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini and Aaron Cresswell also congregated for most of the afternoon. Sebastein Haller managed only two touches in the opposition penalty area during the whole ninety minutes, while Albian Ajeti amassed a grand total of five touches in his thirty minutes on the pitch. This is not a side that plays with any pattern, cohesion or shape.  It is not a jigsaw where there is just an odd piece needed for completion; it is one where none of the pieces seemingly match the picture on the box. From the off, there was never a time when it looked as though West Ham would get anything from the game.  It was just a matter of time before Burnley’s superior aerial threat overwhelmed the Hammer’s inadequate defences.

Here’s Another Fine Mess We’ve Gotten Into

The scale and extent of West Ham’s current woes run deep.  There is no quick fix that will address all of them. The first casualty will likely by Director of Football (DoF), Mario Husillos and although I wouldn’t lose any sleep over his departure it will go now way to resolve any of the pressing, immediate problems. In truth, the DoF should be providing an independent input to player recruitment, not be an old pal of the manager – but that is just another example of the amateurish West Ham way of doing things. Worst case scenario would be the return of David Sullivan (or one of his boys) as the de facto DoF. I am probably more ambivalent towards the owners than many supporters, but ultimately it will only be by investment (in players and in infrastructure such as training facilities and the academy) that can move the club forward. While their ambition is inclined more towards treading water than moving forward, the club finds itself being swept into very dangerous territory. They should not have allowed the squad to become so irresponsibly thin but equally they are not directly responsible for the unmotivated, disorganised rabble that regularly takes the field on a Saturday afternoon. That is down to the manager. You might also argue that the players are not putting in the required level effort or playing for the manager, but much of that is down to poor preparation and an absence of belief in what they are supposed to be doing.

What Happens Next?

Another international break now and there is so much work to be done if there is to be any hope of improvement (not confident, though).  The next run of games sees fixtures against Tottenham, Chelsea, Wolves and Arsenal which would not, on recent performance,  promise a lot in the way of points. This is not a team in a poor run of form but one that has fundamental issues in the way it is set up; and a manager who has admitted to being baffled as to how to fix it. Personally, I find it impossible to imagine how Pellegrini can turn things around.  He is stuck firmly in the past and has few fresh ideas that are relevant in a modern game where pace, fitness and organisation are all important. When the clocks changed recently, they may as well have gone back to the 1990’s. It was mentioned at the weekend that West Ham had covered less ground this season than any other team in the Premier League. That is no surprise. They probably had the lowest average speed as well, if that was measured. As things stand this is not a group of players you would want with you in the trenches of a relegation scrap with – at least not under the current leadership. The board will be reluctant to replace the manager, due to the cost involved, but it is looking increasingly like it will be necessary. West Ham are adrift now, lacking fitness, motivation, cohesion and any structured style or approach. Everything that suggests these are desperate times requiring the most urgent attention. Hoping that there are three even worse teams in the league is a risky strategy (and I can easily see Watford climbing away from trouble now.) The general consensus in the media is that Pellegrini’s job is safe for now. I really don’t see why that should be the case.  It is not a sensible position to take when the stakes are so high and there are so few positive signs to pin your hopes to.

Ratings: Roberto (4), Fredericks (4), Diop (4), Balbuena (3), Cresswell (5), Rice (5), Noble (4), Snodgrass (6), Fornals (4), Anderson (4), Haller (4) Subs: Yamolenko (5), Lanzini (4), Ajeti (3)

Burnley v West Ham – Who Will Have The Claret Blues After the Game?

At the start of the season, as a West Ham fan, would you have been happy that, after eleven games had been played, the team were level on points with Manchester United, Tottenham and Wolves? Almost certainly the answer would have been yes. But if you were asked a different question, such as, after eleven games have been played, would you be happy to be sitting below Sheffield United,  Bournemouth, Brighton and Crystal Palace in the Premier League table? The answer would definitely have been most certainly not. Such is the nature of the Premier League after eleven games with approaching a third of the season completed. Together with the Red Devils, Wolves and our friends from North London, then compared to last season’s finishing positions, then so far we are under-performing, unlike the other four teams mentioned who are currently occupying positions in the table which are exceeding expectations.

I always like to look at current form (say the last five games), and based on that then we would be in a relegation position with just two points, with only Southampton and Norwich below us on one apiece. Even Watford, who have been rooted to the bottom all season, have picked up three points from the last five games. Our opponents this weekend, Burnley, sit immediately below us trailing us by just one point. Their recent form has not been good either, collecting just four points in the last five games. But if they beat us, they will leapfrog us, and in fact all of the teams down to 17th in the table could go past us with wins this weekend if we lose, as we are only two points above Everton who are 17th.

So what exactly has gone wrong? It wasn’t that long ago when we were being touted (alongside Leicester) as one of the teams that could push ahead and perhaps challenge for a place in the top six, or even top four according to some. My friend and co-blogger Geoff wrote an article after the Newcastle game where he highlighted a number of the deficiencies in the team. In particular he mentioned a lack of pace, width, organisation, fitness, commitment and motivation. It is difficult to argue with those. He also mentioned (and I may have added one or two of my own) a slow pedantic build up when attacking, sideways and backwards passing to no real effect – this was particularly galling as the final whistle approached, a selection of an ageing right back to face one of the fastest wingers in the Premier League, the lack of strategy in not having faster players defending against counter attacks launched by the opposition from our corners, a manager with an apparently strange selection policy by not changing an underperforming team, an apparent reluctance to try something different when things are not going right, including a reluctance to try a different formation, the lack of chances given to in-form younger development players, the inability to recognise the need for the club to have at least two goalkeepers of the right quality for the Premier League, the apparent lack of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of opponents prior to games, and perhaps the most worrying of all, a manager who admits that he has no idea where things are going wrong, and no idea what he needs to do to turn it around. That’s quite a list!

On the plus side we do have some talented players. We are one of a number of teams that are probably not good enough to break into the elite six club at the top, but hopefully too good to become embroiled in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table (I hope!). The fact that Sheffield United in sixth place have 16 points and Everton in seventeenth have 11 points demonstrates how closely matched so many of the Premier League teams are. But we cannot become too complacent, and a continuation of the recent poor run would mean that we do get involved at the wrong end of the table. The theory of averaging one point a game throughout the season to avoid the drop usually applies, and this season doesn’t appear to be an exception at the moment with just three teams falling short of that level at the moment. Bookmakers’ odds in respect of relegation reflect the league table to some extent, although we are only tenth favourite to go down (and Everton are 12th), whereas Sheffield United are seventh. I guess the closeness of this season’s Premier League to date (ignoring the clubs at the top and bottom) makes it more interesting for the neutral observer, but how many neutral observers are there?

Burnley are favourites at around 5/4 to win the game, our odds are around 21/10, and the draw is about 13/5. But when you look at the correct score odds, a 1-1 draw is favourite at 5/1, very short odds for predicting a correct score in a football match! The overall head to head record between the two clubs is slightly in our favour, a fact bolstered by recent times. In the last 40 years we have won 15 of the 23 meetings, with 4 draws and 4 defeats. However our last visit to Turf Moor, just before 2018 drew to a close, resulted in a 2-0 defeat with an abject performance, despite coming off the back of a good run at the time. Burnley had suffered a heavy defeat just before they met us, and the same applies this time! This followed the game at the London Stadium a few weeks before then where we came out on top 4-2.

I’ve absolutely no idea about what the manager will decide regarding team selection. If he sticks with the same starting eleven as last week with no discernible change in how they approach the game, then I fear for us against a strong physical Burnley side. My best hope is for West Ham to do what they have done in the past and surprise me. I like surprises of a good kind!