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!