Make Do And Mend: West Ham’s Lack Of 2020 Vision Casts A Shadow On South Coast Visit

The final game of 2020 is time once again reflect on the many failings of the West Ham board as the team continue to struggle in the absence of their only striker.

Baffled, bemused, bewildered, mystified, confused, confounded, perplexed, flummoxed – just a few of the words listed in Moyset’s Thesaurus to describe reaction to his team selection on Sunday to face Brighton.

Faced with a run of three games in five days, the manager apparently chose to approach the most winnable of them, by fielding a flair-free side at home to relegation threatened Brighton. What was he thinking?

Granted his is not a squad overflowing with an abundant depth of talent, but that was a side even Stockport would fancy their chances against in the upcoming FA Cup tie.

I did see the rationale of bringing in Ben Johnson as left wing back. After all, Brighton are decent enough going forward and Aaron Cresswell is a much safer bet as part of a back three. But Johnson is an out and out defender (a right footed one at that) and was never going to be marauding down the flank, providing width with menacing crosses. If Johnson was going to be play, then creativity was required elsewhere, in the form of either Manual Lanzini or Said Benrahma. Not the one paced Mark Noble.

The supposed intention was to have Jarrod Bowen playing close to Sebastien Haller with Noble in the creator role, but it didn’t even get close to working out in that way. Hadn’t they given this setup a try on the training ground during the week, to spot its obvious flaws?

What we got was Noble dropping too deep, disrupting the normally effective Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek partnership, and Bowen playing too far forward, removing his pace from midfield and eliminating the only option of an out-ball.

As for Haller, even the most mild-mannered and patient of supporters will have lost all hope by now. A more impotent performance would be impossible to imagine. If ever a centre back wanted a worry free ninety minutes, even with a Christmas hangover, then coming up against Haller would be perfect.

At least Moyes has admitted his mistake and the occasional blooper can be acceptable in a mostly over-achieving season. The long term mismanagement of the club is down to the dreadful owners, not the manager. I’m confident Moyes would have got far better value from the £80 million odd that has been wasted on the vanity signings of Haller and Felipe Anderson.

Still onwards and upwards. Today is another day and there’s another game in a festive programme dominated, so far, by drawn games.

How the Hammers will line-up at Southampton will be governed by the usual dilemma. Who will play upfront in the likely continued absence of Michail Antonio? As poor as Haller has been (and it is like playing with ten men for much of the time) who is available to do a better job? Can Andriy Yarmolenko play through the middle? He looked bright enough against Brighton, but he is not known either for his pace, physicality or hard work. Equally, I don’t see Bowen as an effective alternative for the striker role. Do you think Ian Pearce still available? What a way to run a football club!

In midfield, Lanzini, Benrahma or Pablo Fornals should always start in preference to Noble. It is painful to watch the club captain trying to keep up with play nowadays. It’s no way for the sun to go down on such a distinguished career.

The Benrahma situation is beyond reason. Did Moyes want him in the first place? Is he another Sullivan special? Are there some other hidden agendas at work? We’ve not yet seen what he can bring to the team, but it can’t be worse than some of the other options. He deserves an opportunity to prove his worth, or otherwise.

Southampton’s storming start to the season has stalled a little in recent weeks, as they have struggled to cope with the absence of Danny Ings. The ability to call on a competent and reliable goal scorer sets the Saints apart from the Hammers. It looks like he will again be missing today and, although that is a bonus, the Hammers must be keep alert to the threat of the lively Che Adams and the set pieces of James Ward-Prowse. Jannik Vestergaard will also be an absentee from the Saint’s defence.

Seven of the twelve holiday matches played to date have ended in draws. Adding one more to that list might be the best we can hope for if the Hammers cannot find new reserves of energy and enterprise on their trip to the south coast. The optimism and swagger of a few weeks back has gone as flat as last years champagne. A fresh injection of bubbles is badly needed. I will take a 1-1. COYI!

Graham Potter And The Deathly Haller: West Ham To Return To Winning Ways Against Brighton

Not quite Boxing Day football makes its debut at the London Stadium. West Ham will have to raise their game several gears to break their Brighton Premier League duck.

A trip out to an early morning Boxing Day fixture at the Boleyn is one of my fondest footballing memories. I couldn’t tell you how many times that actually happened, but the experience is firmly etched in my personal memory banks, alongside long hot summers, white Christmases and the aroma of fried onions on hot dogs.

Since the move to the London Stadium there has never been a home Boxing Day match and this year has turned out to be no exception. Although today’s game with Brighton was due to be played on the 26th (the first Boxing Day at home since 2013) it was later pushed back 24 hours to fit with TV schedules.

Despite the unusual circumstances that we find ourselves in, the Premier League is slowly adapting to resemble a more typical season, where it is difficult to see beyond Liverpool and Manchester City as credible title contenders.

Although I try to steer clear of too many football statistics (it’s a game is for entertainment, not for study) I found it interesting to hear that teams are doing far less pressing this season than they have in the recent past. Is this a natural evolution in style of play or a result of player fitness/ fatigue in this most compressed of seasons?

Personally, I have found many of the games watched on TV to be verging on dull and bogged down in a congested midfield gridlock. The early doors rush of high scoring games is in the past with goals per game now only marginally above last season’s average (despite Crystal Palace’s best efforts). Caution has replaced progressive, high energy strategies by the majority of coaches, included those with far greater resources than ours.

One contribution to the slowdown in goals scored is the number of penalties being awarded. Having seen record levels in the early rounds of games they are now being awarded with greater discretion. As we are well aware, West Ham are one of just three Premier League sides yet to be awarded a spot kick. Brighton, on the other hand, have witnessed something of a penalty bonanza with ten awarded in their fourteen games played (five for and five against.)

Surprisingly, the Hammers have not won any of their six Premier League games against the Seagulls – three defeats, followed by three draws – and will need to rediscover their mojo very quickly if they are to break that duck. A win would maintain touching distance with the top six chasing pack, while anything less sees us roped in with the dregs of mid-table obscurity.

A run of three games in quick succession in the next five days will test the ingenuity of David Moyes in sustaining some form of momentum while juggling the limited resources at his disposal. Even with a fully fit squad, the bench quality is depressingly light and underwhelming.

Ideally, I would prefer to see a return to 3/5 at the back. Aaron Cresswell is too exposed in a back four, but with Arthur Masuaku missing once again, options are limited – unless Moyes is prepared to give Ben Johnson an outing in the left wing back role. I believe he will stick with a four.

In midfield, there is little doubt that Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen will all be confirmed starters. Then, hopefully, one of Said Benrahma or Manuel Lanzini (if fit) in the hope of providing some much needed creativity and variation to the attacking play that depends too much on crosses and set pieces. Maybe that lack of penalties is partly down to how infrequently passes are made into the area.

Pablo Fornals continues to divide opinion. Looking at the West Ham pressing statistics (yes, there is such a thing) and no-one does more pressing than Fornals, but rarely leading to possession change. There’s no doubt he works very hard, but is that enough on its own to justify a place? He needs to do far more on the ball. In glimpses he has shown the eye for a pass but pace and strength often let him down.

It may surprise you to learn that the same pressing statistics show that after Fornals, Rice and Soucek with most presses comes Sebastien Haller. As with Fornals, though, his pressing rarely results in West Ham gaining possession.  

It is reported that Michail Antonio is back in training and available for selection for today’s game, but it is likely too early to risk him, at least as a starter. We now need to treat him like our finest china – only brought out on special occasions in case it gets damaged. In his absence, the choice between Haller and Andriy Yarmolenko doesn’t set any pulses racing. Perhaps the memory of Haller’s wonder goal against Crystal Palace just gives him the edge.

In truth, West Ham have not had a regular, consistent goal-scorer in the entire Premier League era and not even Antonio comes close to fitting that bill. Only Frederic Kanoute has scored ten or more goals a season on more than one occasion. It’s not that the team have struggled for goals this term, but having a reliable finisher can take away much of the pressure. I think many of us hoped Haller was that guy but he has turned out more deathly than deadly.

Having watched Brighton earlier in the season I am surprised that they are flirting on the fringes of the relegation battle. They have some very decent and lively players – Bissouma, Maupay, Connolly and Trossard all look useful – and play in an open and attractive style. Perhaps boss Graham Potter is simply too adventurous for his own good at this level.

One of the season anomalies that continues to apply is the relative success of away sides. To date visitors have left with all three points in 40% of games played, compared to a 30% success in 2019/20. It will need a committed and energetic West Ham performance to avoid adding to this statistic, and record that long awaited Premier League victory against Brighton. Both teams will feel they can win the game which should make for an interesting and entertaining afternoon.

Time for the Hammers to get back to winning ways with a Soucek hattrick (one penalty) spurring West Ham to a 3-1 win. COYI!

Festival Fixtures Alert – West Ham face the Seagulls, the Saints and the Toffeemen in 125 hours! It’s not fair!

How many times have you read or heard the manager of one of the leading clubs in the Premier League complain about fixture congestion? Or how difficult it is for their big squads of top players having to manage with only three substitutes permitted in each game? Well I haven’t yet heard David Moyes complain about this year’s Christmas schedule, but he damn well should!

I have been having a look at the festive fixtures and don’t believe that any club faces as many games in as short a space of time as West Ham do. With our thin squad it’s going to be a tough ask. All of the 20 teams play their first game of this demanding time over a period of two days on 26th / 27th December. They then play the next round of matches over the following three days, 28th / 29th / 30th. There are no games at all on New Years Eve, and then all the teams play their third festive match over four days 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th January. So three games are crammed into a ten day period for all teams.

But they are not equally spread out for all! A couple of examples – Liverpool play their first game of the three on 27th December, and the last on 4th January – 3 matches in 9 games. Southampton (one of our three opponents in the period) play their first game on 26th December and their last on 4th January – 3 games in 10 days! Conversely West Ham are asked to play on 27th and 29th December and then on 1st January. Our three games are all squeezed into six days! From the kick-off in the first to the end of the third game it will be around 125 hours – that is a little over 5 days.

So we face the teams 17th, 7th and 4th in the table in a period of time that I believe is shorter than any of the other 19 teams in the Premier League. And it’s not as if we don’t have to travel either. The first game is at home in London, then we travel to away games on the South Coast and then finally Merseyside. It’s hardly fair is it? Not a level playing field to quote a popular phrase banded about. And what of our opponents in the second and third fixtures? Well Southampton are second up and they will have an extra day’s rest before facing us after their first game in the period. And Everton will similarly have an additional day without playing after their second match of the three.

I’d like to think that the club will complain about the unfair way we have been treated, but even if we did I doubt that it would get us anywhere. The fixtures are all lined up to satisfy the TV companies, not for the good of the clubs or the players.

14 games have been played so far this season and we have 21 points. When you look at the equivalent 14 fixtures in the last campaign we picked up 13 points from them so we are currently +8. In the three games coming up over the Christmas period, the equivalent fixtures last time yielded 4 points (a draw at home to Brighton, a win at Southampton, and a defeat at Everton). How many will we pick up this time? Three wins would give us nine points, to take us up to 30 for the season, or three defeats would leave us on 21, and into the bottom half of the table. I reckon that given the closeness of the fixtures and the calibre of our opponents, three wins is not likely to be achieved. We would be doing well to match or exceed last season’s equivalent of four points from these games. I’d love it to be more but I just don’t think that we have the squad or the rest time to enable us to achieve more. One win and a draw or two would be quite an achievement given the difficulties we face.

Once the festive fixtures have been completed we have a break from league games to face a game at Stockport County in the FA Cup on 11th January before completing the first half of the season (all 19 teams will have been played) with winnable (on paper) home games against Burnley on 16th January and West Brom three days later on the 19th. So how many points will we have at the halfway stage of the season? It would be good to reach 30 points by then, but that will require at least three wins in the next five games. And we are not always entirely convincing when facing teams that we should perhaps be beating. In the equivalent 19 fixtures last season we accrued 20 points, so we have already exceeded that with another five games to go, but how many points will we collect in these five matches?

I worry about the depth of our squad at times like these when fixtures are congested into a short period. But that is an issue that we knew about during the last close season and little was done to rectify matters at the top level within the club. I wonder if this will be remedied during this mid-season transfer window? I won’t hold my breath as there are difficulties in recruiting quality players at this time of year. Perhaps we can have a look in Prague?  

Tell Me Why, I Don’t Like Monday Night Matches: Hammers Head West To Chelsea

Will it be one big Christmas knees-up or will tiredness and injuries take their toll as the Hammers face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge

If the Christmas bells that ring aren’t exactly what you would call ‘clanging chimes of doom’, the world in general (and football in particular) is still a long, long way away from a return to normality with supporters crammed into packed stadiums. Maybe not until the start of the 2021/22 season under the current wishful thinking trajectory.

Until then, we must continue to make do with current arrangements. Matches staggered over the entirety of the weekend that suits the TV audience demographic e.g. off-peak scheduling unless you are playing one of the big boys. I have always disliked Monday night games even though they have been a part of TV football ever since the early days of Sky. Even more that their Friday night cousin, they never really feel part of the weekend programme.

On the other hand, the top of the Premier League table is starting to take a normal, familiar shape with five of the ‘rich six’ now nestling in the top eight. If the tonight’s game goes the wrong way, then it could be five in the top seven. Only the ongoing turmoil unfolding at Arsenal is preventing a clean sweep.

Having watched too many of this weekend’s games I was left with an overriding sense of how ordinary most of them are when you don’t have ‘any skin in the game.’ Enthralling matches are an exception despite the commentator’s best efforts to make every game to sound like it’s been a thriller.

It occurred to me that maybe we will never return to the days of matches kicking off at the same time. That the staggered kick-offs might well suit the broadcasters and hence the clubs, grateful for the additional revenues that it might bring. It could be something else (like muddy pitches and physical contact) that disappears from the game for good.

In these changing times there is, at least, some consistency with the unexpected return of Fat Sam to football management. The sporting equivalent of Marley’s ghost who has been doomed to a lifetime spent wandering the lower reaches of the English game attempting to rescue lost causes. He looks to have his work cut out this time, though, as he replaces the hapless Slaven Bilic at West Bromwich Albion – a reversal of their sequence at the helm in east London.

Taking the spirit of the ghost of Christmas past, I was reminded of a Boxing Day fixture at Stamford Bridge in 1973. Having lost at home to Stoke the previous Saturday, West Ham were propping up the table when they travelled across the capital to Chelsea four days later.  In those days, if you didn’t go to the game, it was quite difficult to find out the scores until they appeared in the newspaper on the following day. Fortunately, I caught a clip on the TV News in the pub and was surprised to discover the Hammers had one 4-2 (Clyde Best (2), Frank Lampard Sr and Bobby Gould) .

The 1973/74 season was maybe the poorest of all under the management of Ron Greenwood, although it did include a win double over Chelsea. In the return game in March 74, West Ham won 3-0 thanks to a Billy Bonds hattrick. We eventually escaped relegation by a single point in a season that was notable for Bonds ending as the club’s top scorer (13); Derby, Ipswich and Stoke qualifying for Europe; and for the relegation of Manchester United – beware Arsenal!

West Ham versus Chelsea has often been a feisty affair. Before their Russian inheritance I saw them as our London equals on the pitch, slightly behind the more successful north London neighbours. Since then, it has become a more one-sided affair and West Ham have won only one of the last fourteen meetings at Stamford Bridge – that being the equivalent fixture last season, in which Chelsea recorded no fouls against.

The presence of Frank Lampard’s backside in the Chelsea hot seat adds a further dash of spice to proceedings. It has been a mediocre start to club management for the ex-Hammer and despite spending massive amounts of money in the summer, his team lacks any true identity – more a collection of individuals than a team. There have been days when it has clicked, but not often enough to call it a success.

If the press reports are to be believed, Lampard remains keen to add Declan Rice to his numbers. Naturally, I am hoping Rice sticks around at West Ham for some little while longer yet, but if/ when he does eventually leave, he could do so much better than Chelsea. Never go back, Declan!

West Ham were disappointing in midweek against Crystal Palace, demonstrating once again that we struggle to adapt our style when coming up against more dogged opponents. Paradoxically, we are better suited to playing against teams like Chelsea, who we can hit on the break, than those such as Palace, where guile and imagination are required to break down stubborn defences.  Still the game saw a goal of the season contender from Sebastien Haller as well as fine performances from Vladimir Coufal and the skipper (the real one, not the old guy that sometimes turns up.)

Despite its success at Leeds, I do worry about four at the back given our current resources. The thinness of the squad could be a significant factor tonight as a number of players are reportedly carrying knocks. Michail Antonio may be available (but only from the bench, I would think) while Fabian Balbuena, Jarrod Bowen and Aaron Cresswell are among those who have been receiving treatment.

New recruits to the squad are needed badly in the January window if Moyes team are to build on their fine start and maintain momentum in the cluttered schedule of league and (hopefully) cup games. The board should already be in contact with Good King Wenceslas to pop another couple of Czechs in the post.

I can’t make my mind up whether it is a good or bad thing that Chelsea have lost their last two league games. Does that make them more determined to perform or does it add extra pressure? I’m sure David Moyes will approach the game much as he has others against the top sides. Keeping shape and discipline will be essential, as will not letting the fleet footed Chelsea forwards embarrass us for pace. Keep it tight and they will fall over each other trying to walk the ball in. Too open and our defenders won’t see them for dust.

I am staying on the fence for this one with a predicted 1-1 draw. More importantly, I wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year.

Nobody Said It Was Eze: West Ham Momentum To See Off Workmanlike Crystal Palace

A chance to leapfrog Chelsea and reclaim their place in the top six is the target for the buoyant Hammers as they entertain a competent but uninspiring Eagles at the London Stadium

It was immensely satisfying to see West Ham come away from Elland Road with three points at the weekend. Away wins in the north against energetic opponents have rarely formed part of Hammer’s folklore. One of the most pleasing outcomes of the season so far.

Despite a creditable run now of excellent performances my default setting, when things are going well, is still that it is only a matter of time before the wheels eventually fall off. Conceding an early penalty, twice-taken would easily have knocked the stuffing out of West Ham of old – making the gutsy comeback all the more impressive. Interesting that VAR can detect a keeper a few millimetres off his line but not a ball that is two metres out of play.

If there was any criticism from last week’s game, it was that the score-line should have been even more conclusive. According to Sky Sports, we have had more shots on goal in the last five games than any other team in the division. A higher conversion ratio would be lovely.

It was an honest and enjoyable game to watch, without any of the cheating and diving that so often taints Premier League games. Full credit to both teams for that. I like Bielsa’s approach to the game which makes for entertaining viewing. I don’t believe it is a myth surrounding him, as some have suggested. I’m sure they will survive the season with plenty to spare, and return even stronger next year. Managing a promoted team and becoming established at the top level is not an easy task.

I’ll admit that David Moyes surprised me with his team selection for the game. I expected an attempted like for like swap when news broke that Arthur Masuaku would be side-lined for several weeks. Reverting to four at the back was the last thing I expected, but it worked a treat. Amazing what confidence can do for a player’s performance and Aaron Creswell slipped back into the left back role as if it was 2015 all over again.   

The added bonus in the game was the full debut of Said Benrahma and his Playmobil hair style. What a player he looked on that evidence. He excelled both going forward and in fulfilling his brief to cancel out the threat from Kalvin Phillips.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of the same from him in coming weeks, providing the outlet in midfield that has been missing for so long, and the enticing ability to run directly at defences. 

I’m fairly certain that it will be the same starting eleven once more for tonight’s game with Crystal Palace. Frustrating as his is, I don’t see any viable way of leaving Sebastien Haller out until Michail Antonio’s return. Haller has represented extremely poor value for money, but he is not as bad or as disinterested as some make out – we have had far worse. Suggestions of playing Benrahma in the striker role just seems plain crazy – putting him in a position he is not cut out for, while at the same time removing his threat from midfield.   

By historical standards, the Hammers have been relatively ‘lucky’ with injuries this season, perhaps a reflection of improved overall fitness levels. This is just as well, really, given there is little to get excited about on our bench. Some honest pros but no game changers or exciting prospects that can be used for reliable squad rotation. The danger of player burn-out or exhaustion is a real one as the season unfolds if no further recruitment is forthcoming.

With the January transfer window just around the corner, there are two possible approaches the owners can take. One, spend some money to strengthen the weaker areas of the squad with a view to sustaining a European challenge. Two, rest on their laurels now that relegation appears to be the most remote of dangers and keep their hands in their pockets. I wonder which one it is likely to be?

Player trading under the new post-Brexit foreign transfer rules agreed between the FA and Home Office will bring about changes to player recruitment. It will be interesting to see how these pan out in reality, but no surprise if they end up favouring those richer clubs able to afford signing established internationals.

Squad rotation is not such a big issue for Roy Hodgson at Palace as with the exception of Zaha (and now Eze) most of his squad are much or a muchness. Whenever, I have seen them this season they have looked fairly ordinary, but then something has happened to turn the game in their favour – the Bamford VAR offside vs Leeds, and the red card vs Albion, for example. Last weekend, Spurs looked like they would run away with the game but a trademark Mourinho lack of adventure, once they had gone ahead, allowed Palace to rescue a point courtesy of a Loris goalkeeping error.

In the past it has been a case of stop Zaha and stop Palace, but the signing of Eze has added a different dimension, both from open play and set pieces. Eze was one of many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer, and it will be interesting to see him on the same pitch as Benrahma.

I am relying on another Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek masterclass to steer the Hammers to victory, leapfrogging Chelsea in the Premier League table. It will be refreshing to look down upon Chelsea for a change when we face them next week.

Of course, we have been here before with Palace. Last season a win would have seen Pellegrini’s team climb into third place, but despite taking the lead they contrived to lose 2-1. Instead, it was the beginning of the end for the Chilean with a return of just seven points from twelve games.

I’m feeling supremely confident today and more than ready for an early Christmas present. The Irons to romp home as seasonal 3-0 winners.  

Do the statistics point to three points for West Ham tonight?

I never cease to be surprised by the vast array of statistics available in football these days. When I was young all that I can remember are league tables and goalscorers. Now absolutely everything is analysed in microscopic detail. Assists is an interesting one and can vary from playing a major part in a goal being scored, to being almost incidental. I suppose they add another element to fantasy football leagues, but really what is the point? Why not give credit to everyone involved in the build up to a goal? A player could go on a mazy dribble beating seven or eight players and then pass to a team mate who mishits a shot badly into the path of another team mate who scores a goal. The one who badly mishits his shot is credited with an assist.

I’ve been looking at a number of statistics in preparation for this game, and there are all sorts of reasons why West Ham should be collecting three points tonight. Firstly, a look at the current form, which is something I wrote about frequently last season when analysing the last five games played by each team. If you think our position in the table (6th) is very good, then you’d be even more impressed if you looked at the form table for the last five games. This puts us second on 12 points, a point behind Manchester United on 13. Even the top three teams can’t match us; Tottenham have 11, Liverpool and Leicester 9 apiece.

We have a positive record against Palace in history and despite losing to them in our last two meetings we are unbeaten against them in the eight before that. We currently have 20 points from 12 games, so a win would take us to 23 from 13. That would be our highest ever total at this stage in the top flight for 37 years, even surpassing the record breaking 1985-86 season.

Apart from our opening day defeat against Newcastle, we have scored in every league game this season. It’s not very often to find West Ham scoring in 11 consecutive matches. David Moyes has never lost a game when facing a team managed by Roy Hodgson and has won 8 of the ten games when managing a team against Crystal Palace.

Palace on the other hand would also have their best start in a top flight season if they beat us, and we have to remember they scored five goals in their last away game (admittedly only against West Brom, but then again Albion drew at Manchester City last night). Jordan Ayew has an interesting record against us. I remember him being sent off for quite unnecessarily elbowing Aaron Cresswell when playing for Aston Villa a few years back, but I see that he has scored more goals against us than against any other team, including the winner in both fixtures last season. But he wasn’t in the starting eleven against Tottenham last weekend with Benteke preferred up front. I would also add that Lanzini has scored four goals in games against Palace; does that mean he should be selected for this match? Are we also the unluckiest team in the Premier League this season? We’ve hit the woodwork on no fewer than nine occasions – more than any other side.

Another statistic from our last game against Leeds was that Haller lost possession of the ball 12 times in the first half. He is infuriating to watch at times, but still retains the potential to score goals. I saw a piece written by our old favourite David Cross praising Haller’s willingness to keep finding positions from which he could score and suggesting that when one or two go in his confidence might improve. Perhaps if that overhead kick had gone in? I don’t know, the jury is still out, but I hope he comes good, as I hope for all our players. He’s not small but doesn’t possess the strength that Antonio does to hold opposition players off and bring others into the game. But that is not his forte.

I was very impressed by the skills displayed by Said Benrahma in his first start for us and believe he can be a major asset to the team. Jarrod Bowen continues to impress as does Soucek, and Declan Rice is playing better than ever. What a change in atmosphere in the (almost) one year since David Moyes came back to the club!

I’ve no idea about team selection although David Moyes is not one to make changes unless forced to do so. But with our recent form why would he? There is a suggestion that a couple of our players are carrying knocks, so we’ll have to wait and see. One of the features of this season for me has been the inability of referees to spot “simulation”. As long as we can keep Zaha quiet and the referee doesn’t fall for any diving antics then I’m confident that we can continue our great run and pick up three points once more. I keep seeing penalties being awarded week after week when watching the Premier League games on TV. It’s about time we were awarded one or two.

I’m going for 2-0 with goals from Benrahma and Haller. What are the chances?

West Ham Aim To Bite The Legs Of Not So Dirty Leeds

Moyes West Ham look to bounce back from last week’s defeat as they take on Bielsa’s much admired and far more cuddly Leeds United – no longer everyone’s most hated team.

Dirty and Leeds are two words in the English language that effortlessly belong to each other, like heavy traffic, rich history or strong coffee. Collocations they are called. There are also others that we have become intimately acquainted with over the past few years: white elephant; broken promise; and expensive flop, to name a few.

The dirty Leeds tag goes back a long way, to the Don Revie side of the 1960s and 70s, but it has been difficult to shift, at least in my mind – similar perhaps to the concept of the ‘West Ham way’ under Greenwood and Lyall. So entrenched was the dislike of Leeds that their financial woes and fall into the third tier of English football during the noughties was largely greeted with a sense of schadenfreude.

Revie’s Leeds team contained had some exceptionally talented individuals, but their playing style was often characterised by bone-crunching tackles and unrestricted thuggery. It was a perfect fit with the stereotypical view of the typical no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and was eminently successful – delivering a clutch of league titles as well as domestic and European cups.

Quite what the temperamental modern-day footballer would make of the game back then – shuddering challenges, quagmire pitches, lambchop sideburns, jumpers for goalposts – can only be imagined. Along with the terraces, such agricultural tactics were consigned to football’s history many years ago, as the game rebranded from full bloodied confrontation to slick TV friendly marketing event. No doubt, many of the changes were out of necessity and for the better, but by no means all of them.

Just as we have seen the demise of the tackle from behind and the pass back to the keeper, there is now a possibility that there will come a time when heading the ball is also prohibited. It seems implausible right now but could it happen? The physical side of contact sports is under increasing scrutiny and the recent focus on ex-players with brain disease, together with the threat of litigation, might well lead to changes in the rules. A further VAR check for accidental head-ball after each goal is scored, perhaps.

Moving on to tonight’s game, and West Ham will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of the Manchester United defeat last Saturday. Looking eminently comfortable and good for another win during the first hour of the game, everything changed when the ‘wind of God’ turned a wild clearance that had clearly gone out of touch into an assist for the assister. The Hammers earlier profligacy, their decision (by then) to sit back and protect the lead, and the introduction of Bruno, all leading to our eventual downfall. When the equaliser went in, all momentum was with the visitors.

With Michail Antonio once again absent tonight it will be a sub-optimal West Ham who take on Leeds at Elland Road. With our best starting eleven, there could, at least, be a hope of challenge the top six – but on a depth of squad basis, we are no better than mid-table. I wonder what the January sales will bring, if anything?

When I originally drafted this article the only potential change I could see for this evening was the popular call from supporters to start with Said Benrahma in place of Pablo Fornals. A test of David Moyes attitude to risk. Fornals to provide the off-the-ball hard work to counter the energy of Leeds; or Benrahma to offer the absent creative spark that could test the vulnerable and further weakened home defence. With Fornals proving so ineffective on the ball in recent games, I expected Benrahma starting to be the only change. However, the news that Arthur Masuaku is now unavailable raises a new set of questions.

I don’t envisage Moyes tinkereing with the formation even though the current setup does have a lopsided look. The pairing of Aaron Cresswell and Masuaku had compensated well for the absence of a specialist left back – but with Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena operating mostly in the centre, it exposes an over-worked Vladimir Coufal on the right. While Jarrod Bowen offers excellent support it is not his primary role. It compromises his attacking threat, especially in the latter stages of games, when he is clearly exhausted. To my mind, Ben Johnson as a replacement for Arthur feels like the least disruptive option.

Elsewhere, I see no alternative to Sebastien Haller continuing to deputise for Antonio.

Leeds under Bielsa are this season’s maverick side, and the best equipped of the three promoted teams to prosper. El Loco is one of the game’s characters and his high-octane style of play is geared to providing goals and entertainment. It is a far cry from the Revie days and quite possibly the most flamboyant thing to come out of Yorkshire since its eponymous pudding. Leeds have something of a defensive injury crisis at the moment, but we can be certain that whoever plays, will not be lacking in effort.

Patrick Bamford is key to the Leeds attacking threat, not just for his goals but also for his movement and ability to create space for others. In his various loan spells from Chelsea as a youngster, it looked like he had the makings of a top class talent, before apparently losing his way at Middlesbrough. He has now found a perfect niche in the Leeds setup and will be a real danger today.

The game will be another big test for Moyes team. Leeds with a hard press, quick counters, lots of movement, width and direct passing will require his team to have extra high levels of concentration. The hosts have weaknesses at the back, but do West Ham have the tools to exploit that by striking on the break? Without Antonio, out-ball options are limited, and they may struggle to break the press often enough and quickly enough. Instinctively, this should be a high scoring game, but I believe it will be tighter than that. It will be an interesting clash of styles that I’m finding difficult to call. Maybe a 1-1 draw!    

Can West Ham beat Leeds for only the second time this century?

I won’t dwell for too long on the game against Manchester United last Saturday. We outplayed them for 60 minutes, held a 1-0 lead, missed a number of chances that should have put the game out of sight, conceded an equaliser because a linesman wasn’t looking down the touchline but instead looking for offside, and then heads went down and we let in two more goals. The equaliser that shouldn’t have stood changed the course of the game, but in many ways we only have ourselves to blame for failing to increase our lead in the first half. The result meant that the opportunity to climb the table into third place was lost, and by the end of the weekend we would have been fifth had we won. The Equivalent Fixture Analysis figure comparing results this season against the same games last season fell to +10 points following the defeat.

But we didn’t win and it is hoped that lessons will be learned by the players and management. Considering the difficulty of our fixtures in the first 11 games, we ought to be satisfied with 8th place in the League, having won 5 games and drawn twice. A positive goal difference of +4 with 18 scored and 14 conceded is a good return, although we seem to have missed many good goalscoring opportunities, with Pablo Fornals particularly guilty in this respect. Of course we have missed Michail Antonio, and the debate regarding his replacement Haller continues with statistical analysis of his game seeming to contrast with what we see with our eyes. He is not as bad as many fans make out, but we definitely don’t play to his strengths. Personally I like the look of Said Benrahma in the cameo appearances he has made, and surely he should be given the opportunity soon to show what he can do from the start of a game. Whether it will happen in this game I am not sure.

For the twelfth game in a row we do not kick off at 3pm on a Saturday; this time it is a Friday night, which gives us the opportunity to climb into fifth place with a win. My thoughts on our opponents, Leeds, are tainted by the memories of them when I was growing up in the 1960s. Under Don Revie, who managed them for 13 years, they had probably their most successful period, winning a number of trophies and also being there or thereabouts in all the main competitions during that era. They had a reputation for being the bridesmaids, falling just short on several occasions in league and cup; I think they were runners-up in the league about five times in that period.

But I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the way they played, or their win at all costs attitude to the game. I know many who hated them despite them being a dominant force in English football. I guess success often breeds contempt, but my dislike of them was enhanced by the perceived way they achieved their position as one of the best teams around. To me they were highly physical and at times brutal and extremely cynical in style. They had a poor disciplinary record as they bullied and kicked their way to the top.

Our historical record in matches against Leeds is a poor one, especially in more recent history. Of course, we haven’t always been in the same division, with Leeds having only just returned to the top flight after 16 years in the second tier, but the last time we beat them was in November 2000, a 1-0 victory at Elland Road with an unlikely goalscorer – Nigel Winterburn, the only goal he scored for us in 94 appearances. I can remember being at the game at Upton Park in 1998, which was the only other time we have beaten them in the last 38 years; we won 3-0 with goals from Hartson. Abou and Ian Pearce. Our keeper that day was Bernard Lama – remember him? Two substitutes came on in the latter stages of the game, Scott Mean and Manny Omoyinmi – do you remember them? Our record in the last 28 fixtures against Leeds is, Won 2, Drawn 8, Lost 18.

I was also there at a game close to the end of the season in 1982 when we beat them 4-3. That was our first season back in the top division following promotion. I believe Leeds were relegated that year. We were almost invincible at home that season losing just twice in our 21 games, a record we equalled in our record breaking campaign of 1985-86.

There was one game against Leeds that I didn’t see but wish I had been there. On a cold Monday evening in November 1966 we beat the (then mighty) Leeds 7-0 in a League Cup tie after putting six goals past Fulham two days earlier. We then went on to win 4-3 at Tottenham the following Saturday. Geoff Hurst scored 8 goals that week. You’d think that would have been quite a season. But despite scoring 80 goals, we conceded 84, and finished 16th in the league!

I haven’t seen too much of the present Leeds team, but under Bielsa they seem to be a highly energetic and attractive side. They have scored 16 of the 36 goals in their 11 matches, and four wins plus two draws equates to 14 points and 14th in the table. But the league is a tight one so far, and if they win they will be level on points with us. 9 of their 14 points have been achieved away from home with victories at Sheffield United, Villa and Everton. They have only won one of their five home games (4-3 v Fulham), but have drawn against Manchester City and Arsenal. Their two home defeats were 1-0 to Wolves and 4-1 to Leicester. Patrick Bamford has been a surprise to many with 8 goals in the league, exactly half of the teams total so far.

I wonder if there will be any changes to our starting eleven for this game? Our lack of pace on the right hand side of our defence was exposed in the latter stages of the Manchester United game. The manager realised this (but too late) and Johnson was introduced towards the end. Perhaps replacing Balbuena with Diop might go some way towards solving this problem, although Balbuena hasn’t played too badly in his run in the team. Fans on social media often urge changes after a defeat, but I doubt Moyes will make many – that’s not his style either before (or during) games.

Leeds are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at odds of around 6/5. We are about 11/5 with the draw at 5/2. As is often the case, 1-1 is the “favourite” score at 11/2, and unsurprisingly, Bamford is favourite to score the first goal. Despite their league position, I believe this will be a tough game, and a draw would be a good point. We need to match their energy, and if we do this could be a highly entertaining game. My hope is that away victories will continue to outnumber wins for the home sides (for this week anyway!) and we pick up the three points. The players will believe that they are playing for their places and will not want a second consecutive defeat. It would be good to be the fourth team to score four times against Leeds this season; perhaps 4-3 just like the game in 1982? What are the chances?    

Great Expectations: West Ham Can Nearly Reach The Sky With Win Against The Red Devils

The prospect of a fourth straight win and the chance to gate-crash the top three beckons for an upbeat West Ham when they take on Manchester United this afternoon.

I have never been convinced that, as pundits, ex-footballers offer any greater or significant  insight on players or games than the average knowledgeable fan. What they do know, however, is all the little cheats, wrinkles and tricks of the trade that players will try to dishonestly gain advantage. For that reason, there should be a big effort to encourage them into refereeing, rather than leaving it to naïve amateurs like Peter Bankes, who was nominally in charge of Monday’s win over Aston Villa. If that also meant a few less pundits on the TV, then even better news.

The exaggerated diving and cheating of Grealish, mainly, but also Trezeguet was farcical and indefensible. Even more disturbing is that the authorities seem to have no appetite to sort it out. When Trezeguet had a penalty chalked off for a blatant dive against Brighton where was the card for simulation? It is telling that the Villa antics were ridiculed only on social media, not in the mainstream, where it is simply shrugged off with a smile or as an accepted part of the game. In my mind, cheating is a far greater blight on the beautiful game than missing the occasional offside toes, or an accidental handball in the build up to a goal.

West Ham were clearly second best against Villa but were able to snatch a win to make it three in a row and fifth place in the table with seventeen points. The Hammers have not wholly convinced in that run of games and, although they were the better team in games against Fulham and Sheffield United, victory over Villa was down to the visitor’s below average finishing – karma at work.

Today’s meeting with Manchester United sees both teams searching for their fourth league win in a row. A West Ham victory would elevate them, at least temporarily, into the top three. Seasoned supporters will recognise such a scenario as ripe for disappointment.

It is a football phenomenon where a period of over-achievement so often leads to heightened and unrealistic expectations. As a wise man once said: “Good is not good, when better is expected.” David Moyes has moulded a team with great attitude and unparalleled (for West Ham) discipline and organisation. It has brought a measure of pragmatic stability, so sorely lacking during ten years of erratic and short-term decision making at the club.

The rapid transformation from pre-season relegation favourites to the top six has led to supporters wanting more. Expectation that lesser teams should be effortlessly brushed aside and a desire for the present balance between adventure and pragmatism to be relaxed in favour of the former. Cautious fellow that he is, Moyes is unlikely to veer far from his more realistic well trodden path – steady improvement and low risk consolidation.

What that means for the approach to today’s game depends once again on Michail Antonio’s hamstrings. A fully fit Antonio would cause havoc against the cumbersome Manchester United backline. If, as seems likely, he is not available then too many high balls to Sebastien Haller would play directly to the strength of the world’s most overvalued defender, Harry Maguire.

If Haller does play, it would present a more compelling case in support of a popular start for Said Benrahma, in place of Pablo Fornals. Personally, though, I don’t see that happening. No doubt Benrahama would offer a more creative attacking option but I sense Moyes doesn’t feel he is yet ready for the physical demands of the Premier League, or to provide the defensive energy and backup required.

Perhaps the manager will surprise me, but I think Haller for Antonio will be the only probable change. Against a team who have made a habit this season of late goal surges, sensible use of substitute resources will be essential today.

Manchester United are a club haunted by historic expectations. Something that has proved a graveyard for several managers since the retirement of Ferguson. In fact, I’m surprised that Solskjaer has lasted as long as he has. He might well be able to qualify for Europe on a consistent basis, but is unlikely to ever do better than that. Surely, not good enough for one of the leading brands in world football.

Like most of his predecessors Solskjaer has attempted to throw money at the problem, but without any discernible pattern to his spending. They have very good individual players but lack true cohesion. In terms of their own season, it may well be that today’s game is seen as of secondary in importance to Tuesday’s Champion’s League group decider against RB Leipzig.

West Ham have a decent record against the Red Devils in recent years. To extend that run they will need to take control of the midfield. One of the weaknesses of the Moyes favoured formation is that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek are prone to getting outnumbered in the centre of midfield. It happened against Villa, and also to a lesser extent against Fulham. Teams that prefer to attack mainly through the centre, as Manchester United do, are well placed to exploit that weakness.

My thoughts on how the game might play out are muddled. The Hammer’s with a record of forever blowing the rare opportunity to gate-crash the very top of the table. The visitors possibly preoccupied with a Champion’s League exit.

In many ways we are at our best against the bigger teams. But to take all three points will require a strong performance right from kick off to the seventh minute of added time. I’d love to be able to predict another win but feel, this time, we may have to settle for a draw.

2000 fans back in the London Stadium as West Ham aim for a fourth league win in a row

Who would have thought it? A quarter of the season gone, and a difficult ten games at that with seven of last season’s top nine already played, and there we sit in fifth place. It’s been a strange year, we all know that, and football has not been any different, with away teams more successful than ever before. Manchester City are in the bottom half of the table, albeit with a league table so tight that a win with their game in hand would take them into a Champions League place, and Arsenal are 14th, but they are only five points off a top four position themselves. Yes, just six points separate Chelsea in third with Palace who are 15th, and even Tottenham and Liverpool are only two points better off at the very top.

Nevertheless we’ll take fifth for now, and a win this Saturday (early evening) against this week’s opponents Manchester United, would elevate us, albeit briefly into third. To add to the strangeness of this campaign, have we ever gone into the eleventh game of a season having not yet kicked off a league game at 3pm on a Saturday? United themselves are ninth, but if they win the game then they too would rise into the top four, such is the congestion in the league table so far.

We didn’t play particularly well against Villa the other night, yet for the third game in a row we came away with the three points. David Moyes acknowledged that we could play a lot better but he was happy to take the win. I have often written in the past how often we start each half of a game slowly, but this match was certainly an exception. We caught Villa cold with the opening goal within three minutes, and began the second half with a much quicker goal than that. Once again Benrahma provided the assist, and I can see him beginning to play a much more prominent role in the team in the coming games. I read that some people are worried about his ability defensively in a team that Moyes has moulded to defend energetically from the front. Anybody who saw him play for Brentford last season would not be worried on that score. His work rate is excellent and shouldn’t be so easily dismissed because of his attacking qualities.

The main talking points from the Villa game on social media focussed on our relatively poor performance (we can definitely play better), the number of “fouls” we committed as a result of inept officials being tricked by Grealish diving (he is a superb player but he lets himself down by cheating), VAR coming to our rescue (for a change), and Carragher’s post match analysis. As far as the late drama was concerned I would disagree with Carragher’s view. Surely Watkins was already offside when Ogbonna “fouled” him, so the offside, albeit by a fraction of a toenail as drawn by the VAR lines, came first. Anyway, Villa had already been awarded a previous penalty (controversially in my opinion) for a slight tug on a shirt which resulted in a player throwing himself theatrically to the ground. I loved a picture I saw on Instagram where Ogbonna has his arms around Watkins (in true Italian style) and was supposedly saying “I was just trying to keep him onside!”

whumun2Last week I wrote about Equivalent Fixture Analysis, and the win over Villa takes us 13 points ahead of the same games last season (17 this, 4 last). Of course in last season’s fixture against Manchester United at the London Stadium we collected three points in a 2-0 victory, so we need to win again to maintain the 13 points differential. United were playing (and losing) in the Champions League on Wednesday night so let us hope that will have some influence on their energy levels. A lot is written about players having to play too often these days, but I don’t really subscribe to that. Yes the game is faster than it was years ago, but with squad sizes and improved fitness regimes they should cope OK. I suspect that its often a case of managers and coaches getting their excuses in early.

2000 of our fans will be in the London Stadium for the game. I wasn’t successful in the ballot to get a seat. Perhaps next time? It will be interesting to see how much noise they can generate. I wonder if the artificial crowd noise on TV will be turned off or used to supplement the 2000 for the TV viewers?

I’ve no idea if the manager will change the starting line-up or formation this week. Whatever he decides there won’t be many changes because that’s not his style, and three wins in a row tells its own story despite his reservations that we can play a lot better. I’m sure that is right as we haven’t quite reached the levels of performance that we saw against Wolves and Leicester early on. But West Ham in fifth place despite not playing as well as we could? I’ll take that.

The visit of Manchester United is not the daunting one that I remember from my youth. But despite the league positions and the recent history of this fixture, the United reputation makes them strong favourites with the bookmakers. For some reason unknown to me, they are 11/10 favourites to win the game, whereas we are priced at a very appealing 13/5. I’m confident that we’ll do well and win our fourth game in a row by the odd goal. What are the chances?