If we supported any other team we would have been in shock after the last twenty minutes of the Brighton game last weekend. But as we are West Ham fans we’ve seen it all before, and many of us could see what was about to happen before it actually did. Nevertheless as we trudged back to Stratford Station after the game, being constantly stopped by those wretched stop-go boards which come into operation at random intervals that appear to have little logic to them, we were all scratching our heads and grumbling about what we’d just witnessed.
It was a crazy afternoon where all of the bottom six in the Premier League occupied places in the bottom three at one time or another between 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock. When we were in the lead in the game at one stage we had climbed up to 15th in the table (in-play). We led 2-0 at the interval, thanks to a near post goal from Diop, and a deflected shot from Snodgrass. Brighton emerged after the break on the front foot and caught us cold, and had soon reduced the deficit when Fabianski’s weak punch rebounded off Ogbonna into the net. Was Fabianski fouled? Would we be reprieved by VAR? Of course not.
It was looking a bit ominous as Brighton seemed to gain more confidence and increased possession and attacking threat. But no, we restored our two goal lead with yet another deflection to a Snodgrass shot to make the score 3-1. With a little over a quarter of an hour to go the manager decided to take off Antonio. He had been terrorising the Brighton defenders all afternoon, but as usual was beginning to tire, and to save him from injury he was allocated a place in the comfy seats and replaced by Masuaku.
Within a couple of minutes Masuaku attempted a clearance which looped into the West Ham penalty area on the rebound from a Brighton player, which began a chain reaction of laughable defending that reminded me of the Marx Brothers for comical effect. Diop and Ogbonna were the initial culprits as they hesitated. Fabianski realising the problem rushed from goal only to be beaten to the ball by Gross who nipped in first, and the ball rolled agonisingly slowly into the goal off the post, barely reaching the net. “You are kidding me” uttered the West Ham fan sitting beside me. But I kid you not. It really happened.
It was now game on as Brighton pressed forward searching for the equaliser. Just a couple of minutes had gone by when a cross was not intercepted and Murray (who always scores against us) seemingly controlled the ball with his arm before scoring. But despair turned to relief when we spotted that Michael Oliver had spotted the handball and disallowed the goal. But wait, VAR got involved, and it seemed several minutes elapsed before there was a decision. The referee had disallowed the goal but VAR overturned it. I thought they could only do that if there was a clear and obvious error. I could see the handball from 100 yards away, and then they showed it on the big screens. It certainly looked like handball on there too. Booing broke out all around, but the referee accepted the decision of VAR and the goal stood.
How many points has the handball issue cost us this season? And how many points have we dropped from winning positions too? The total has now increased to 19 ensuring we extend our lead in that league table; unfortunately not a table we would want to be at the top of. So by the end of the game, where we just about held on for the draw, we were sitting in the relegation zone, with some tough upcoming fixtures, beginning with Manchester City and Liverpool away games either side of the winter break. Oh dear. We are well in the mire now.
So we now have 13 games to go with six at home and seven away. On paper the away fixtures are generally much tougher than the home games, but if we are to avoid dropping into the Championship with the long term ramifications of that, we need to start winning some games of football. I have studied the remaining fixtures for all six teams that currently look in most danger of going down, and whilst there are various people in the media who are highlighting our difficult fixtures that are coming up, I have to say that all six teams have equally tough games to face between now and the end of the season.
The problem that we have is that the harder fixtures on paper generally come up first and then it gets relatively easier towards the end. Somehow we have to try not to fall too far behind which would then mean we are trying to catch up. In five of the last six games we face Newcastle, Burnley, Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa – on paper an easier run of matches than the ones coming up next. If we can still be in touch by the beginning of April we will have every opportunity of staying up. Perhaps there could even be a last day relegation decider when we face Aston Villa at the London Stadium?
Manchester City away is tough. They beat us on our own ground 5-0 in the first game of this season, almost exactly six months ago to the day, but whilst they haven’t been quite as formidable this season as last, they are still easily the second best team in the country. They have failed to score for two games in a row, so must be relishing the thought of their next visitors. I have no idea how long it is since they failed to score for three games in a row, but I’ll bet it hasn’t happened for some time. And they haven’t won a home Premier League game since they beat Everton 2-1 on New Years Day.
With the imminent return of Anderson, the signings of Soucek who made a promising debut, and Bowen who arrives with many praising his potential, and also hoping that Antonio will be fit, then I am confident that we can score goals. What worries me is that I am not sure how we can avoid conceding them. Declan Rice has been massively important to our midfield, but he grew up as a centre back, and I wonder if any thought has been given to playing him there as part of three at the back, perhaps for the games against City and Liverpool. There is not a lot to lose in those two games as we are not expected to pick up any points, and it may be worth trying something different.
I have had to write this column well in advance this week so have no idea regarding injuries and availability. But perhaps we could line up something like this:
Fabianski, Zabaleta, Diop, Rice, Ogbonna, Cresswell, Snodgrass, Soucek, Anderson, Bowen, Antonio
That would leave Fredericks (who seems reluctant to use his pace going forward, and is making too many errors), Noble (who looks in need of a rest, and pace could be more important than usual in the next 2 games), Lanzini (who is so out of form and short on confidence), Masuaku (who to me should only be used as a forward) and Haller (who looks unfit and short of confidence) out of the starting eleven at the moment, but all will be needed in the games to come.
Haller (when he plays) really needs to play with someone close to him, whether it is Antonio, or perhaps Bowen could be the one. It was good to read that Silva is now fully recovered as he really does look like one for the future, but it is unlikely that many youngsters will be given any opportunities this season.
As fans we all have our own ideas as to the players we like, the team we would pick, the formation we would adopt, and generally how we would manage the side. And they would all be different. I’ve read so many opinions on social media. But, we are now in the hands of David Moyes and his coaching staff. We are in the bottom three, and are generally third favourites to go down. Can we stay up? Yes we can. Will we stay up? It is likely to be touch and go, but I hope so. A miracle at the Etihad would be welcome.