Oh! What A Surprise
I doubt that even the most optimistic of us saw this coming. I certainly didn’t, and had fully prepared myself for the worst – that adding yet another game to the demoralising win-less run was a mere formality. But it wasn’t to be. The West Ham of recent weeks had seemingly hired an unusually energetic and lively set of impersonators who would compete rather than capitulate. In the end it was a comfortable victory against a surprisingly subdued Chelsea side. The final margin of victory could easily have been wider, even ignoring the disallowed goal. It was a much improved effort all round. Better shape, improved intensity, space closed down and the ball moved far more quickly. Much was made of the change of keeper (and that was immensely important) but other factors contributed equally: Mark Noble sitting deeper alongside Declan Rice as a defensive midfield duo; Robert Snodgrass and Pablo Fornals working their socks off in the wider midfield positions; and greater mobility up front through Michail Antonio. The obvious question is, why did it take eight games and the onset of a sacking crisis for Manuel Pellegrini to finally make changes to his game plan? With an away game against Wolves coming up in a few days we will get the opportunity to see whether Saturday’s performance was a one-off reaction or the springboard for better things.
In Comes Startin’ Martin
David Martin’s Premier League debut at age 33 was the great story of the weekend. His emotion at the end of the game and the embrace with dad, Alvin, was a priceless moment. It is the first time I have seen him play and he looked more than a competent deputy. Handled well, was composed and communicated with his team-mates throughout the game. It must have been an enormous relief to the rest of the defence to know that disaster wasn’t lurking behind you. Quite what the manager and coaching staff have seen in training to prefer Roberto over Martin is a puzzle. The choice between the erratic flamboyance of Roberto and the unspectacular, competence of Martin should not be a difficult one, Señors. Neither can be regarded as a replacement for the injured Fabianski but only one will have the trust of his colleagues. Buoyed by the presence of a capable keeper and better protection from midfield the improvement in the performances of Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena was clear. Admittedly, Chelsea offered little attacking variety but the defence did all that they had to do very well. A bonus takeaway from the weekend was confirmation, if it were needed, that Giroud would not make a positive addition to the West Ham squad.
The Beast Is Back
Michail Antonio rightly took many of the post-match plaudits for a performance that was pivotal to West Ham’s success. With Antonio you get exactly what it says on the tin – pace, power and directness. He unsettles and out-muscles defences, provides a willing outlet for team-mates and is prepared to chase down opponents once possession is lost. He may not possess the greatest of technical ability but so what? It doesn’t diminish his overall effectiveness and eliminates much of the predictability from West Ham’s attacking play – provided that he is used correctly. Antonio’s qualities have frequently been undervalued by successive managers at the club, who have regarded him as emergency cover across multiple positions, rather than to be used where he can do most damage. It would be great to see him deployed in tandem with Sebastien Haller – opposing defences would certainly know that they have been in a game.
How do you solve a problem like Felipe?
Felipe Anderson has become the most enigmatic of characters. I have to say I was pleased to hear that he had been moved to a central midfield position when the lineups were revealed. The failed tactic of using him and Yarmolenko stranded on the ‘wrong’ flanks has never worked since the start – and, what’s more, it denies space for the full-backs to exploit. Aaron Cresswell demonstrated this to good effect on Saturday culminating in an excellent goal. Ryan Fredericks was less inclined, and seems too nervous to venture forward beyond his midfield partner. I don’t subscribe to the view that Anderson is a lazy player but he is frustrating one. He is clearly not happy, has lost his early swagger and is not providing value for money as far as creativity is concerned. I wonder if there is a problem between him and Pellegrini? Unable to rely on the services of Jack Wilshere or Manuel Lanzini, West Ham need Anderson primed and ready if they are to make anything of the season. Yarmolenko’s brief cameo from the bench didn’t inspire any confidence, while the remainder of the bench was, as usual, completely uninspiring. With Haller already benched, why also include Albian Ajeti, rather than giving Nathan Holland the experience?
Falling Foul Of Jon Moss
A notable statistic from the match was that Chelsea did not commit any fouls – correction – were not penalised for committing any fouls. Jonathan Moss is well known as a ‘homer’ referee and he did not disappoint on this outing. I am sure he was quite relieved that his VAR pal was able to detect a technical infringement for the second ‘goal’. The decision may have been correct according to the letter of the current interpretation of the law. But this ‘any arm contact is handball interpretation’ is a brand new concept – it is not the reason so many were keen to see the introduction of VAR in the first place. I can recall controversies with penalty and offside decisions but not with balls accidentally striking hands. An infringement should be an infringement regardless of who does it and where on the pitch it happens. VAR remains a good idea but typical of the football authorities that it has been so poorly implemented.
Player Ratings: Martin (7), Fredericks (7), Ogbonna (7), Balbuena (7), Cresswell (7), Rice (8), Noble (7), Snodgrass (7), Anderson (6), Fornals (7), Antonio (8) Subs: Yarmolenko (5), Haller (6), Masuaku (6)