Out On The Wilder, Windy Moyes: Hammers Must Prepare For Weathering Heights

A different test this weekend for the Happy Hammers as they travel to Yorkshire to face a Route 1 aerial onslaught from bottom dwellers, Sheffield United

Football comes and goes these days as frequently as sunshine on a cloudy day. One minute, there are warnings of burn-out due to the hectic schedule and the next it is a week long break for the totally pointless European Zenith Data Systems Nations Cup. Whoever could have thought that would be a good idea in a time of fixture pile-up and a global pandemic?

So where exactly were we before getting so rudely interrupted? That’s right, a stuttering home win against Fulham that saw West Ham on eleven points from eight games, and into 12th place with a goal difference of +4. A satisfactory start in most supporter’s eyes, given the daunting run of games that many of us felt would see the team languishing among the relegation places at this point in the season.

Compared to the same stage last term, the Hammers are one point and five places worse off – although we had, in those opening eight games of 2019/20, played six of the teams who, along with ourselves, would end the campaign in the bottom seven.  Perhaps it is hindsight at work, but my level of confidence is higher now than it was back then – with the proviso that the hard work and attitude is maintained, and that injuries are kept to manageable proportions. There is still no room for complacency

David Moyes has won round many of his doubters, while others remain unconvinced (or refuse to be convinced.) Was it a lucky win against Fulham? Not on the balance of play over 90 minutes it wasn’t, but the pivotal VAR decisions in added time could easily have gone differently. Perhaps the referee’s thought process about Sebastien Haller interfering with play was driven by the fact that he hadn’t done so during the rest of the contest – while Lookman’s bizarre penalty attempt was justice done for the softest penalty award since the last one given against us.

West Ham had created the better chances, but it was not an impressive performance. The same limitations that have prevented West Ham seizing the initiative against ‘lesser’ teams in the past, were all too apparent again. Failure to move the ball quickly enough, getting funnelled into congested cul-de-sacs, lacking the added creative spark and being unable to create space down the wings for crosses. If width is to be provided by the wing backs, then they need to be played into open space far more than they are now. Especially, while Sebastien Haller remains their target. Or is that a health and safety requirement due to the recent concerns over too much heading (which, of course, is a valid issue.)

Fulham were allowed to flood the midfield areas (albeit without posing much of a threat) leaving Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek outnumbered and unusually ineffective. Rice, particularly, was forced too deep and had the look of a backwards/ sideways parody of Mark Noble. He is at his best when driving forward and spreading play – we don’t need any of those Gareth Southgate, possession for the sake of it habits here, thank you!

Today’s game will present a very different challenge against possibly the most direct side in the league (or is that Burnley?) Past Hammers performances against physical opponents desperately seeking points might suggest a difficult afternoon. A trademark slow start that has often followed one of the enforced breaks could be the story of the game. It is vital that manager and team have prepared to weather an early and ‘in your face’ storm from the opposition. Timid away defeats at Burnley in both the of the last two seasons readily spring to mind as a yardstick.

Sheffield United were last season’s surprise package. Chris Wilder did a superb job with limited resources to finish top half, in a season of few goals – just over one per game scored and conceded – and with an admirable ability to come back from behind. They have yet to reproduce that success this time around. The loss of on-loan keeper, Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell to injury have resulted in a leakier defence – and what was a trickle of goals has almost dried up completely – not helped by missing two or three penalties they have been awarded. Brewster may eventually provide the missing cutting edge, but at the moment, the Blades look decidedly blunt.

Moyes will surely stick with his favoured three/ five at the back formation with final selection contingent on injuries and/ or fatigue. I am assuming that Angelo Ogbonna is available to play (it has all been very quiet on his injury) but there could be a recall for Issa Diop, if Fabian Balbuena has not recovered from his arduous trip back from Asuncion (how many connecting flights would that entail?)

Although Michail Antonio has been back in full training, I don’t see him being risked today. He needs to be packed in cotton wool as carefully as possible until there is a credible backup option. And despite his rousing cameo against Fulham, I don’t see Said Benrahma making the starting eleven yet – certainly not in the type of game where hard work and discipline will be paramount requirements. Expect another twenty to thirty minutes of him from the bench.

As ever, the wild card will be whatever grenades VAR throws up with penalty and offside decisions. It is obvious that the relevant rules lack precision, are largely vague and have become more subjective than ever. Just that we now have more than one person responsible for making those judgements. In fact, it appears there are two sets of interpretations depending on whether an incident took place inside or outside the penalty area. I am thinking it could be better entertainment if after any goal, or tackle in the box, the referee runs to the pitch-side and spins the Wheel of Fortune to determine the outcome. It would make about as much sense while at the same time producing great, nail-biting TV drama.

Whatever happens it is going to be a tight affair with few goals. My confidence that we can stop Sheffield United scoring is higher than it is on our ability to break them down at the other end. Could it be our first scoreless draw since September 2019? This is hardly likely to one of those games for the neutral (they must be better things to do on a Sunday afternoon even during lockdown) but will take the Hammers to nick it with the only goal of the game.

Can West Ham extend Sheffield United’s Second Season Syndrome Misery?

When Sheffield United began the 2019-20 Premier League season they were the favourites of many (including the bookmakers) to make an immediate return to the Championship at the end of the campaign. As we now know that didn’t happen, and they finished in the top half of the table in a very creditable ninth place, surprising a lot of teams along the way. This season has been a very different story, and they have collected just one point from their opening eight games. That came in a disappointing (for them) 1-1 draw at home against lowly Fulham. But that is exactly how our game against the Cottagers could easily have ended a fortnight ago! What a finish to a football match that was!

It got me thinking about the offside rule and also the law re fouls, and for a bit of lockdown reading I read through two of the laws of the game issued by the International Football Association Board through FIFA and also the FA. “Interesting” stuff and easy to see why they raise such controversy and discussion. Scott Parker was unhappy regarding our goal with Haller in an offside position, but was he committing an offence? The relevant point from the law (Law 11) is that a player can be penalised for offside if he is making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball. Parker’s point was that Haller affected the header of his defender which fell to Benrahma who very cleverly laid the ball for Soucek to calmly score. It becomes a subjective decision for the referee and is not a black and white situation. After the game David Moyes described the guidance as “not a good rule.” Scott Parker said that despite all the technical help we get, nobody really understands the rule in respect of interference. I agree with both of them. Fortunately for us, it fell our way this time (for a change!) and the goal stood.

Another aspect of the offside rule that continues to cause controversy is where you have offsides by a fraction of a centimetre, by a nose or an armpit, for example. A very simple change to the rule, as championed by Arsene Wenger earlier this year, was that if any part of an attacker’s body that can score a goal is in line with the last defender, they are not offside, even if other parts of the attacker’s body are in front. Effectively it would mean you have to have daylight between an attacking player and a defender for an offside offence to be committed. This would mean that more goals will stand as currently three times as many goals are being disallowed as reinstated following the VAR check, largely due to very marginal offside decisions. As DelBoy would say “you know it makes sense.” But have we heard any more about the proposal?

I am no fan of Leeds but the goal disallowed by VAR for offside scored by Patrick Bamford was a terrible decision in my view.  

Patrick Bamford Offside?

In my opinion we also have to try to remember why the offside rule was introduced many years before we were all born. It was to prevent goal hanging. Perhaps they should also restrict offside to the final 18 yards at each end of the pitch, instead of half the field? It would also stretch the play too, potentially making the game more entertaining.

And even after our goal in the 91st minute it almost went wrong when a penalty was awarded against us for the “foul” by Benrahma. In this case the referee seemed to decide that our player tackled or challenged the Fulham player and was careless showing a lack of attention when making the challenge (from Law 12). Once again a very subjective situation for the referee and not too dissimilar from Masuaku’s challenge on Salah; on both occasions the referee was (in my opinion) fooled by the “theatrical” plunge to the ground. But a penalty it was, although justice was done thanks to Lookman’s appalling attempt at the Panenka. How ridiculous was that? If you are taking a penalty just follow the approach taken by Geoff Hurst, Julian Dicks, Ray Stewart, or Mark Noble, my favourite penalty takers in my time following the team. Why try to chip the ball into the goal?

More lockdown reading; I’ve been looking through the Premier League statistics regarding penalty kicks. I have my own views about penalty kicks being awarded, as I think they are given far too easily. I believe that they should only be awarded if a goal looks likely when an offence is committed, otherwise it should just be a direct free kick even if it is in the penalty area. Too many are awarded (in my opinion) when there is no real goal threat. Around 83% of penalties are scored, so in most cases they lead to a goal whether the award is justified or not. Usually the home team get around 61% of penalty awards and the away team 39%. This season so far it has been very different. Of the 41 penalties so far, only 19 have been for the home side, and 22 for the away team. Perhaps the absence of home fans putting pressure on officials is a factor? Of the 41 awarded it doesn’t pay to be a team that begins with W – Wolves, West Brom and ourselves have yet to be given one. Claret and blue shirts doesn’t fare much better – Burnley are the only other team not to yet have one, and Villa have only been awarded one. Leicester top this table with 8! I wonder why? The most ever awarded in a complete Premier League season is just 106. We are on course to smash that total this time – at the current rate the final total will be approaching 200!

So we won the game against Fulham, and just about deserved to do so. The three points puts us into twelfth position in the table after eight games with 11 points, a very good return from a difficult run of fixtures. Sheffield United can also claim that they have faced many tough opponents with their home defeats when facing Wolves, Leeds and Manchester City, and away losses at Villa, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Five of those seven defeats have been by the odd goal. So we should not be complacent in this game. The Blades are not world beaters but potentially a better side than the table would suggest.

Last season we drew 1-1 in the home game against Sheffield United, and in the corresponding game at Bramall Lane we also scored a late equaliser to make it 1-1, before being “robbed” of the goal by one of the worst examples of how the handball rule was interpreted when the ball brushed Rice’s arm in the build-up. In theory they have made changes to the handball rule (also covered in Law 12) this season, but having read the Law (I know how to enjoy myself!) I can see why the officials’ job is so difficult when trying to interpret it. It still needs work to make it fairer and easier to understand.

I really can’t see any need to change the team unless Antonio is fit, in which case I would have him in the side straight away. The general consensus was that Haller had an improved game against Fulham, but the system we play doesn’t suit him. Personally if Antonio is not yet ready to return I would even consider replacing him with Benrahma, but I think the manager will stick with Haller. Unlike a number of fans on social media I am a big fan of Fornals (although not in front of goal!). I think he adds so much energy to our midfield in addition to being a threat in the creation of goalscoring chances. According to many, his place is the most under threat from Benrahma. I reckon that our Algerian recruit will be a terrific asset but it may be a little while before he commands a place in the starting eleven. But once there I don’t believe he will easily be left out.

It looks as though the use of five substitutes rule is likely to be re-introduced, which makes the game a little like rugby union in that respect. With a fully fit squad we have enough players to come off the bench and make a difference in games. But as the season progresses, too many injuries and the squad would begin to look a little thin. It’s good to read that Dawson has made a positive impact in training, and alongside Diop we seem to have decent cover at centre back at present. I’m looking forward to the game which kicks off at 2pm on Sunday. Have we had a 3pm Saturday kick off yet? I find it interesting to note that we are favourites to win an away game for the first time in ages. We are around 7/5 to win the game with the Blades around 2/1. I don’t think that this will be an easy game but hopefully the confidence gained from such a promising start to the season will enable us to (at least) pick up a draw. I’ll go for a win by the odd goal. What are the chances?

In a match with a history of goals, can West Ham maintain their excellent record against Fulham?

A trip down memory lane as we preview Fulham’s visit to take on the Hammers at the London Stadium

Saturday 3rd February 1968. 52 years ago. It was two days before my fourteenth birthday. A morning game playing for the school under 14s was followed by a trip to Upton Park in the afternoon. We took the District Line train from Barking to Upton Park shortly after noon, bought our programme (6d – 2.5p), and our hot dogs (1 shilling – 5p) outside, before heading into the ground when the gates opened to take up our places on the “big step” about halfway back slightly to the left of the goal in the North Bank. A group of us congregated there for the home games. I can’t remember for sure how much it cost to get in. I think it was 2 shillings (10p) for Juniors, but it might have been double that?

We were expecting to win the game against Fulham who were bottom of the league and looked like they would be going down. To be fair, we weren’t world beaters at the time ourselves and sat in sixteenth place. We had been 20th in November, and 19th at Christmas, but a run of five wins in six games had seen us climb the table and begin to alleviate any fears of relegation.

The West Ham team that day was full of many players who were, or would become club legends. In goal we had Bobby Ferguson who had joined us at the beginning of the season for a world record fee (for a goalkeeper) of £65,000. He was never quite the keeper that we expected, a great shot stopper but not so great at crosses. However, he went on to appear 277 times for the club over a number of years.

The full backs were two youngsters. Billy Bonds who had signed in the close season for £50,000 from Charlton, a transfer which would turn out to be probably our best ever, and a young Frank Lampard who had made his debut the previous November. They would go on to become West Ham legends and the two players who made the most appearances in a claret and blue shirt, 799 and 670 respectively. The centre backs in our 4-3-3 formation were England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore who was of course our most famous player of all time, and who made the third most appearances in our shirt (647), and John Cushley, a centre half signed that season from Scotland who never really made it with us.

The three summer signings, Ferguson, Cushley & Bonds were made to strengthen the defence following a season (1966-67) where we had conceded 84 goals. We had scored 80, so it was obvious that we made the purchases to strengthen the weakest part of the team (current administration take note!). That season had ended poorly, and was one of the examples often quoted of West Ham coming down with the lights after Christmas. On December 27th we sat in 7th place in the table, but only won four games in the remainder of the campaign (including three in a five day spell over Easter). We were still 10th with just eight games remaining, but just one point in those final fixtures, three goals scored, and 19 conceded, led to a finishing position of 16th (out of 22 in those days).

Back to the Fulham game that day, and in midfield we had three club legends, Sir Trevor (4th most appearances for the club), Martin Peters, another England World Cup winner, and Ronnie Boyce who had scored the winning goal for us in the 1964 Cup Final. They played 643, 364, and 341 times for us.

Up front another legend and scorer of the hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final, Geoff Hurst, who scored 249 goals in his 503 appearances for the club, Brian Dear, who was bang in form and had scored 9 goals in the 7 games before the Fulham game, and a tricky left winger John Sissons who turned out on 213 occasions for us.

What a team that was, and yet we were struggling to make an impact in the top flight, rarely finishing in the top half of the table. It was hard to believe that we lost more games than we won with those players in 1967-68. In our 42 games that season we won 14, drew 10, and lost 18. In fact we lost 8 of our home games, a number only beaten by the two clubs who were relegated that season, Fulham and Sheffield United. We scored 73 goals and conceded 69, so a positive goal difference which was helped by the game that day against Fulham. At least the season was a bit of an improvement on the one before and we eventually finished 12th, with a better finish this time, only losing two of our final 11 games.

We won the match 7-2, with goals from Brooking (2), Hurst (2), Moore, Dear and Peters. The 11 players who played that day went on to play a total of 4,564 games for the club, and scored 660 goals for us between them. The world has changed in more ways than one, and football has changed too. I wonder if we look back in years to come at the 11 players who will start the game against Fulham this time around, and total up their appearances and goals. Of course it won’t come anywhere close to those legends I watched as a young teenager. I wonder how many of today’s team will be remembered as legends of the club?

The current restrictions mean that I am unable to be at the London Stadium for this game but I’ll be paying my £14.95 and tuning in to the TV to see if we can manage another 7-2 victory. We go into this game in 14th place, while Fulham sit just above the relegation places in 17th. Our position does not really reflect our fine performances in a number of games in this season so far, it is more a reflection of the strength of the opposition we have faced in our opening 7 games. All 7 teams we have played are in the top 11 of the league at this early stage of the campaign, including the top three. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of our supporters have been generally pleased with our start, and would have bitten off your hand for 8 points from the opening seven games.

We now have the opportunity to put more points on the board in the next 12 games against lesser opposition (on paper) that will take us up to the halfway point of the season on 16th January, later than usual this time. But to do this we will need to maintain the form that we have shown so far, and find a different way to play in the absence of Antonio, whose form was a key factor in the opening six games – he was missed in last week’s game at Liverpool. An interesting statistic that I saw was that we have only won one of our last 12 Premier League games when Antonio has not been in the side. That emphasises the proof of his importance to the team, and the need to find a system that suits when he is not there.

I have no doubt that Haller will be given another opportunity to replace him in the starting eleven, but he really needs a player alongside to bring out the best in him. That would go against the system that has been successful this season so far, so it will be interesting to see if David Moyes and the coaching staff have come up with a suitable plan. Perhaps one to consider for this game against Fulham who seem to be a “keep possession side” would be to play without a recognised centre forward and flood the midfield, in a 4-6-0 formation? Whatever is decided I hope we see more of Said Benrahma than the two minutes he was given at Anfield.

In a season of more goals than usual, it is hard to imagine that the game can possibly end up goalless, especially as we have only kept two clean sheets in the 13 Premier League home games in David Moyes’ second time in charge, and Fulham haven’t kept a clean sheet in any of their last 15 Premier League fixtures against us. It would be great to see a repeat of the 7-2 that I remember so fondly from my teenage years. But games don’t end 7-2 these days do they? Oh, hold on a minute, what was the score in the Aston Villa v Liverpool game just a few short weeks ago?

In the season before our 7-2 win we beat Fulham 6-1 with our World Cup winning goalscorers netting all the goals (Hurst 4, Peters 2). I was at Upton Park that day too before going home for fireworks in the evening to follow the fireworks in the afternoon. The date was 5th November 1966. 6-1 would be a great score too.

On the exact anniversary of today’s game – two days later on 7th November 1966 – 54 years ago today – we had an evening game at home in the fourth round of the League Cup when we faced the mighty (at the time) Leeds United. We did even better than we did against Fulham, beating Leeds (with all their first team playing – players weren’t rested for the Cup games in those days) 7-0, with hat-tricks from Hurst and Sissons and a goal from Peters.

So what do I fancy today, the first game in the second lockdown, and the last game before the second international break? 7-2? 6-1? 7-0? So many times in the past we have failed to beat “lesser” teams that we would expect to beat. I’d just like to see an entertaining game, a good strong performance, a comfortable victory and the three points that would enable us to start to climb the table. What are the chances?

Calm After The Storm: More Hard Work Needed To Maintain Hammers Momentum

Having survived the hard start, West Ham must now prove they can also put in strong performances against the teams they are expected to beat.

Even though their team occupy an unspectacular 14th slot in the embryonic Premier League table, West Ham supporters would likely admit to being ‘mostly satisfied’ with how the season has gone so far.

Having lost the opening day ‘winnable’ home game against Newcastle, a return of eight points from the subsequent run of daunting fixtures was as welcome as it was unexpected. Looking back, the two victories against Wolves and Leicester are even more impressive and, were it not for two poor penalty calls (at either end) against Manchester City and Liverpool, the points tally might have looked healthier still.

On average, a typical Premier League season sees the award of somewhere in the region of 80 to 95 penalties. In the seven rounds of games to date, 36 have been  awarded – that is equivalent to almost 200 over the course of an entire season.  Could this be another consequence of empty stadiums? No doubt the referees will spot this trend and issue instructions to cut back as the season unfolds – thus, preventing matters from evening themselves out as we are told they do.

Naturally, the Hammers are one of only four clubs without a penalty to their name. It is worth speculating on what the reasons might be for this: we don’t get bodies into the box frequently enough; our players prefer not to throw themselves to the ground in spectacularly enough fashion; or because refereeing is notoriously inconsistent and always favours the bigger clubs.

For those of us brought up in an era where football was still a contact sport, the contemporary interpretation of what is and isn’t a foul is difficult to comprehend. The law simply describes a foul as a tackle that is careless, reckless or uses excessive force – leaving the rest up to the referee’s discretion. Although it has always been mostly subjective, we now have a situation where the slightest incidental touch is used as a conscious decision for a player to throw himself to the ground as if taken out by a sniper’s bullet.

Salah’s theatrically embellished dive last week deserved not the reward of a penalty but a ban for clear and obvious cheating. Pundits referring to such behaviour as “being cute or smart” does not help. It is cheating plain and simple – a scourge on the beautiful game that should be eliminated through lengthy retrospective bans. Klopp lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes with his post-match defence of Salah and his life-threatening bruise. Impossible to know how the game would have panned out without the penalty, but it gave Liverpool a way back into a game when they had been struggling to find one.

Turning attention to this weekend’s fixture with Fulham which presents a fascinating contrast to what has gone before. It is a game that many would expect us to win with some ease. But with Michail Antonio’s still missing and with the Hammers generally poor success rate against supposedly lesser sides, it would be premature to declare victory before all the goals are counted.

I have watched a few Fulham games this season and they look a little like this year’s Norwich. Preferring to stick with the adventurous passing and possession-based style that earned them promotion, they leave huge gaps at the back as a result.  In normal circumstances, such an approach would play to the Hammer’s counter attacking strengths. Without Antonio, though, it becomes less certain.

If there was ever any doubt, it is now obvious the squad has no like for like replacement for Antonio. Tactical and/ or positional changes are required if either Sebastien Haller or Andriy Yarmolenko are gong to be able to lead the line with any purpose. My assumption is that Moyes will go with Haller again and, if that is the case, I believe two things must happen.

First, Haller needs to be provided with the type of service that suits his aerial ability. As I don’t see how it is possible to play two up top, without compromising overall team shape and structure, the wing backs need to push much further forward and get into more threatening crossing positions. At the same time, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals need to have a greater presence in the box, alert to the second ball. It is a given that Tomas Soucek will already be waiting there.

Second, there needs to be an alternative out-ball other than the long pass up-field for the striker to chase. Haller can’t/ won’t do that and is not equipped to do so. It falls again to Bowen and Fornals to make themselves available immediately possession is won. This is an area where Said Benrahma could turn out to be a valuable asset. I don’t see him starting this week, but hope to see him on the pitch for more than two minutes – twenty to thirty at least.

Fulham will be buoyed by their first win of the season, even if it was against the abysmal West Bromwich Albion. I would love to see Scott Parker keep them up. He was a talented and wholehearted player at West Ham and hands-down wins the managerial Oscars for Best Hairstyle and Costume Design – smart suit, immaculate 1950’s RAF haircut, tie pin and cuff-links.

It’s tempting fate but I’ve never been convinced by Loftus-Cheek (since that dubious penalty he won at Stamford Bridge in March 2016) but Lookman is an exciting, if volatile, talent. And Mitrovic will always be a threat should a defence be intimated by his battering-ram style.

As mentioned, West Ham have long struggled to perform against the teams they are expected to beat. Whether it is an attitude problem or simply a lack of guile and application in breaking down defensively minded or more physical opposition is uncertain. Fulham don’t fit that bill, though. They work hard but otherwise play in an open, attractive style. With Antonio, I would be predicting a straight sets victory. Without him, it is going to depend how well the manager and team adapt to compensate for his absence. It promises to make the match a far tighter affair than it might appear. West Ham to scrape home with a 2-1 win. COYI!