One of my favourite jokes from the Edinburgh Festival in recent years is the one that goes “if you don’t know what introspection means you need to take a long hard look at yourself.” Apparently in the aftermath of the West Brom debacle on Saturday Mark Noble addressed his team mates and told them precisely that. They need to take a long hard look at themselves. And it is true. Supporters may not like the owners, the stadium, the manager or whatever, but the fact remains that the players on the pitch are just not doing what they should be doing. We are now fighting a third relegation battle in just four seasons despite a sizeable investment in players in the past couple of years. And in the 40 years since we won the FA Cup we have now played in 80 domestic cup competitions (FA Cup and League Cup), and have been eliminated by a side from a lower tier in almost half of them. I wonder how many other clubs can “boast” a record to match that?
OK so the recruitment policy has been flawed, and for one reason or another we have neglected to sign enough appropriate players to compete in the Premier League, but the fact remains that we still had eleven players on the pitch at all times, and West Brom, who hadn’t won a league game for eight matches, had made eight changes, and with virtually a reserve side, and only ten players for the last twenty minutes or so, beat us more comfortably than the scoreline would suggest. Quite frankly there are so many problems at the moment at our club, but for some reason so many of the players just haven’t grasped a number of simple concepts including the need to tackle opponents to win the ball, the need to pass to a team mate when we do have the ball, and the need to move into spaces (or even move in some cases!) to enable the person with the ball to have somebody to pass the ball to.
We can debate all the many problems at our club at length, but those simple concepts are the ones that went through my mind as I sat watching the game in disbelief on Saturday. For once I decided not to book my usual season ticket seat for this game, but instead chose to sit level with the halfway line at virtually the top of the East Stand. After over 60 years of watching the majority of West Ham home games, as well as some away games too, I’ve viewed the team from many angles and different terraces and stands, and I have to confess I liked the view from where I sat. If I am to believe social media then I am in the minority of fans in that I like the stadium too. Yes, it’s not perfect, and if we owned it then alterations could be made to make it more like a football stadium. The stadium wasn’t a problem when we were thrashing Bournemouth recently.
One thing I did appreciate on Saturday though was the concept of “tourists” that I’d read about on social media, but hadn’t witnessed from my usual season ticket seat, as when I am there I guess I am surrounded by other season ticket holders. There was a sizeable range of nationalities in the seats all around where we sat, and many of them were up and down like yo-yos travelling down to the toilets, bars and food outlets, and returning with their goodies whilst missing large parts of the game. They didn’t appear to be too interested in the game, but having said that, the game on offer before them wasn’t that interesting anyway.
Amongst the comments on social media regarding our performance, some of which reached vitriolic highs, there were some that made me smile. One, which summed up Balbuena’s distribution in the game was very apt. It read “I’d just gone down for a piss, and as I stood there in front of the urinal I received a perfect pass from Balbuena.” There were other comments about Sanchez not taking part in the race between the two mascots, because in practice he didn’t qualify as fast enough to join them, and would have trailed in a distant third. Another suggested that if he ever saw Sanchez in a West Ham shirt again he would immediately be in touch with the Samaritans. One also suggested that Haller would be excellent at the game of statues, while some others made comments about Lanzini and blind alleys.
My ratings for the game were Randolph 6, Zabaleta 4, Balbuena 1, Diop 5, Cresswell 5, Sanchez 1, Rice 4, Fornals 3, Lanzini 1, Ajeti 3, Haller 3. Subs: Ogbonna 6, Noble 6, Antonio 7.
Today we face a side that has won 22 of its 23 Premier League games, and drew the other one. They are on course to break all kinds of records and top the table by 16 points with a game in hand. And that game is against us! I’m not sure that bookmakers have fully grasped how one-sided this game is going to be. We are quoted at around 17/2 to win the game, which means that if the game were played 100 times they believe we would win 12 of them. I think if this game were played 100 times then we would be lucky to win one of them, and that would rely on Liverpool having their pre-match meal at a certain hotel in Canary Wharf.
Throughout the past sixty years of watching our club, I have often felt that we could spring a surprise and get something against the top teams. But this one is different. We really have virtually no chance whatsoever based upon our recent games. After the dismal display away to Leicester, and then the even more abysmal performance against West Brom, I think we’ll be doing well to keep the score down to four or five. A reverse by four goals would see us drop into the bottom three, and looking at the fixtures coming up we could be well adrift of the pack by the end of February.
I hope I’m being unduly pessimistic. Usually I am unrealistically optimistic that we can win games against superior opponents, but quite frankly not this time. So many fans reckon that it has never been this bad. It certainly has in the days of Avram Grant and Glenn Roeder. And even more revered managers have been in charge when we have been relegated before. But what began as a season with high hopes has very quickly turned sour, and looks like it will rank with some of our worst in the top flight.
We urgently need some new faces in so many positions both in the team and in the squad as a whole. We definitely need more pace in the side, especially in midfield. I was thinking about some of the midfielders we’ve let go in recent times as I watched the lack of movement in the West Brom game. Edmilson Fernandes, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Pedro Obiang all had some limitations, but all had attributes that would have been useful this season. Personally I particularly liked Obiang but just like Upton Park, it is water under the bridge now.
As I write this it would appear that the signing of Tomas Soucek is close, although I never trust these “signings” until I see the player at the London Stadium photographed wearing the claret and blue shirt. He has quite a reputation but I am not sufficiently versed in Czech football to have an opinion. Others are urgently needed too before the window closes on Friday.
Perhaps our recent performances have finally galvanised the owners into buying players that have been required for so long now. But why are they leaving it so late? As fans we all knew what was needed. Perhaps the fans unrest is beginning to sink in. As it is, any new recruits will have to try to settle into a side in the midst of a relegation dogfight. That will not be easy. Nevertheless it is probably our only chance of avoiding the drop.
We also need our injured players back quickly (particularly Anderson), and for Antonio (and others) to remain injury-free. Diangana has been earning rave reviews in the Championship, and although he is currently injured I don’t think it’s a long term thing. He may not be the answer but I am surprised he hasn’t been recalled to bolster the squad as is our right at this time.
There is so much we do need to do if we are to avoid going down into the Championship. We definitely need to avoid losing this game by more than three goals to avoid occupying one of the relegation positions with just 14 games of the season left to go. And we need to beat Brighton this weekend in view of the other more difficult games that are coming up in February. We need a lot, don’t we? I think that tonight we need a miracle. But very occasionally miracles do happen! Let us pray for one today.