Batten Down The Hatches: Trouble Ahead As West Ham’s Defence Put To The Test

Quick, incisive, attacking flair meets slow, disorganised, accident-prone defence. What could possibly go wrong? Moyes and the Hammers have their work cut out to avoid crushing defeat.

If, as they say, you are as good as your last game, then Arsenal are in for a torrid time against a rejuvenated West Ham at the The Emirates on Saturday evening. Alternatively, using the more realistic yardstick of how the two teams performed in their opening games of the season and the only conclusion reached is that the Hammers could be in deep, deep trouble.

With another week gone by where the east London arrivals lounge has been closed for business, there are few options available to freshen up the side this weekend. Reinforcements continue to be desperately needed for three or four starting positions.

There are more than two weeks remaining before the ceremonial slamming shut of the transfer window and the Hammers should be one of several clubs looking to get more business done. With a few exceptions it has been quite a relatively cagey window so far, as changing financial realities hit the game at all levels.

This uncertainty does not to give a free pass to the dithering Board regarding our own lack of transfer engagement, though, as they once again give the impression that the opening of the window has taken them by surprise. Any thought that they might have prepared a recruitment master plan with detailed plans and scouting dossiers on well researched targets would be simple flight of fancy.  As usual we have been drip fed the annual long running transfer pursuit saga (Tarkowski on this occasion) who will end up going elsewhere (Leicester) for twice what we were hoping to pay. At the same time, a succession of young, promising talent gets snaffled by more imaginative clubs while we are not looking.

The official club narrative (and their mouthpieces) tell us of frenetic behind the scenes activity involving gallons of midnight oil being burned as bids are prepared and deals hammered out. No doubt there will eventually be money spent on oven-ready deals as the clock ticks down and the Black Friday sales or liquidation sales become apparent. Like the man who doesn’t buy his presents until Christmas Eve, we will get what’s left rather than what we need.

The West Ham performance against Newcastle was bitterly disappointing but not that surprising. It reminded me of that first post lockdown effort back in June against Wolves – enough possession but not knowing what to do with it. Will we now see a similar level of improvement? Or was the change in fortune back then more the result of opponents lacking season end commitment?

Until the deep seated issues in the squad of defensive frailty, lack of pace and the absence of midfield creativity are addressed, it is difficult to break free of the pessimism. The only consolation from last weekend was how bad Fulham and West Bromwich Albion looked. appearing even more clueless than we were.

I have seen plenty of debate over the last few days regarding playing Sebastien Haller in a front two, supported either by Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko. In an ideal world that makes a lot of sense. Haller did his best work at Eintracht Frankfurt in a two and looks a fish out of water in the lone striker role. The fly in that particular ointment, however, are the consequences that removing a player from midfield would have on the rest of the team’s setup. If there was more mobility and athleticism in midfield and if the defence wasn’t so abysmal then it could be a decent plan. Failing that it is an open invitation for opponents to overrun us.

Arsenal may no longer be the title contenders that they were, but they have chosen well in appointing Mikel Arteta as manager – the kind of progressive appointment we can only dream about. They will believe a return to Champion’s League football is a real possibility next season. Although not the strongest defensively, they have attacking flair in spades. The worrying thing from a West Ham point of view is the pace at which they attack. Any two of Willian, Pepe and Bellerin marauding down the right wing promises to make it a disastrous evening on the left side of our defence – the weakest of our weak positions. With no other options than Aaron Cresswell or Arthur Masuaku to provide resistance, I’m glad it’s not me not picking the team!

The game has all the hallmarks of being a very long ninety minutes for Hammer’s supporters. David Moyes will make a few changes from last week but none of them will be inspiring or carry much hope with it. Maybe Haller, Yarmolenko or Robert Snodgrass are all in with a shout of a start, but with damage limitation likely at the forefront of the manager’s thinking, it might all be academic. The objective may be to play for a goalless draw (there were no draws in the last round of games) but that plan often falls to pieces once a goal is conceded, allowing the floodgates to open.

It pains me to say this, but West Ham will lose this game – and probably quite heavily!   

Going Through The Motions: West Ham Plot Carabao Cup Exit

Is it right to have a definition of Meaningless in the dictionary? If so, it could be tonight’s EFL game at the London Stadium.

“Name something that is completely pointless” asks host, Les Dennis, in an episode of Family Fortune’s Always Hiding. Of one hundred people surveyed, the second most popular answer is “West Ham after their first seven Premier League games of the season.” Top answer, though, is tonight’s 2nd round EFL cup game against Charlton Athletic – played in an empty stadium, where any pretence of winning is a distant second to damage limitation and the need to fulfil contractual obligations.  In a congested and compressed season, it is a puzzle that the competition is actually going ahead.

In recent years successive of West Ham managers have, for whatever reasons, failed to treat the competition seriously – and even when we did, being on the wrong end of a lower league giant-killing was not unheard of. It is a footballing conundrum. The League Cup is surely the easiest of the three major trophies to win for the Premier League also-rans – yet many make no real effort to compete. While in the past twenty years, the names of Leicester, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Swansea have all been etched onto the not so famous trophy, risk averse managers continue to consider giving it a go as a distraction from the real business of not being relegated. It’s enough to make you wonder what the point of following football is?

In a further downgrade to the League Cup’s  status, this season’s winners no longer qualify for the Europa League, but will instead have to make do with the unimaginatively named third-tier Europa Conference League – an Auto Windscreens/ Sinod Cup affair designed to prevent smaller clubs and countries clogging up the more illustrious televised competitions.

This evening’s match provides the opportunity for our former tenants from south-east London to inflict an early round embarrassing defeat on the Hammers. Although newly relegated to League 1, manager and ex- Hammer, Lee Bowyer, will be confident his side can pull off an apparent upset. That no-one would be particularly surprised, or even really care, is a sad reflection of where we find ourselves.  After all, there is plenty of transfer speculation and the excitement of a potential US consortium takeover to tweet about.

Tonight will see the fourth meeting between the two clubs in the 61 year history of the League Cup, an exchange in which West Ham boast a 100% success rate. For the record, these were: 3-1 in 1960 (Moore, Dick, Musgrove); 1-0 in 1976 (Alan Taylor) and 2-1 in 1980 (Cross 2). That win in 1980 came in a run that took the Hammers all the way to their last major final appearance, where they lost to Liverpool in a replay in April 1981.

Despite never having won the competition, there are two West Ham related entries in the League Cup record books. The first, a 10-0 win over Bury in 1983 which stands as the biggest ever winning margin (equalled by Liverpool v Fulham in 1986) and notable in that so impressive was the performance of the Bury centre-half (Paul Hilton) that he was subsequently signed for the Hammers by John Lyall. The second, Geoff Hurst’s career total of 50 League Cup goals which remains a competition record (shared with Ian Rush), although some of Hurst’s goals were scored after he had moved to Stoke. An extra side-note is that Rush’s first League Cup appearance for Liverpool was in that 1981 final replay, although he failed to score on that occasion.

It is quite difficult to imagine what would represent a weakened West Ham side these days  – one that doesn’t include Rice, Soucek, Bowen and Antonio I suppose. Otherwise we might not be able to tell the difference. Perhaps we will be surprised, who knows? I will probably check the score in the morning paper.

West Ham Disunited: Where the Calamity Never Ends

Years of delusion, unprofessionalism and poor decision making at West Ham have shown the next level promises to be a shambolic farce. If ever a club has been ill-prepared for a new season it is West Ham in 2020/21

I can’t remember a time when I have had less enthusiasm for the start of a new football season. Although partly due to the unusual circumstances that we are living through – forcing a foreshortened break and the absence of that slow build pre-season anticipation – the primary reason is undoubtedly the continued chaos and calamity that the club conjures up  for itself out of nowhere.

Having finished the post lockdown phase of the season in a relatively positive manner there should have been grounds for optimism in the face of a new campaign. All that was required was careful grown-up stewardship to address the obvious critical deficiencies in the squad, and then building on the hard work and collective team spirit that had been growing during the closing run of games.  What we got instead was the worst of all possible worlds – a malignant disharmony that has quickly spread throughout the club alienating owners, chief executive, manager, skipper, players and supporters. What could possibly go wrong with that as a preparation for a new season?

In days gone by, we might have laughed off supporting West Ham as a character building roller-coaster ride – but it is now a curious roller-coaster that travels only downwards. Starting a new season in turmoil; selecting from an even smaller squad of players; glaring weaknesses in defence left unaddressed; and a tough opening set of fixtures leads to only one conclusion. We are faced with yet another season of backs-to-the-wall attrition, where the only hope is there being three even more incompetent sides in division – it is difficult to see who these might be!

This will be West Ham’s ninth consecutive season in the top flight of English football. During that period the club have signed close to 75 players at a combined outlay of over £420 million (in transfer fees) and goodness knows how many millions frittered away in wages. That we have a squad that is little better in depth and quality than a promoted club is damning evidence of a club with no strategy and poor leadership. A board obsessed with short-term vanity signings at the expense of building for the future. As one newspaper article described the recruitment policy:

“And when age finally takes its toll, when the world stops waiting for you to become what it seemed you once could be, when you are written off with a dismissive shrug as a could-have-been then, in England at least, there are really only two places you can go: West Ham or Everton.”

In isolation I was ambivalent about the sale of Grady Diangana. I was not convinced that he would become a consistent Premier League performer but, on the other hand, he is an academy product (which we all love) and he could do no worse than several other of our very highly paid squad members. In a well run club he would have been given time to prove his worth but sadly West Ham is now a make do and mend operation, crippled by knee-jerk decision making and arrogance at Board level. Throwing money at Pellegrini and allowing him to appoint his mate as Director of Football was astonishingly foolish and will take years to recover from without a further injection of funds. The owners have created the chaos and we look to them to repair the damage. Either by shelling out or selling up.

Any pretence of building for another level is laughable. We can all see the king has got no clothes, so please stop telling us he has. It is clear that Gold and Sullivan do not have the competence to run a progressive football club and if they intend to stick around then they must bring in someone who understands what it takes to run a modern football – someone who knows the importance of scouting, recruitment, player development and training facilities – and is not just focused on shifting merchandise.

As for the season opener, West Ham entertain a Newcastle side who had hoped to be starting their own campaign under new ownership. Even so they have been busier in the transfer market than the Hammers (who hasn’t) and will be approaching the game in the more positive frame of mind.

The good news for David Moyes is that both Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek are available to start but beyond that he has no fresh options to call on. The famously leaky defence has not been reinforced and it is bare bones right across the backline – West Ham being the only club in the league who regard full-backs as optional extras.

Strangely, for a club that boasts only one recognised striker and little midfield creativity, scoring goals has not been a major problem in the recent past. Much will depend on the tireless endeavours of Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio to keep that record going. Maybe we will be surprised and Moyes will find a way to deploy the likes of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Andriy Yarmolenko that will justify at least part of their phenomenal wages.

Newcastle can now boast two players in Jonjo Shelvey and Callum Wilson who traditionally thrive in games against West Ham. Throw Saint-Maximin and Almiron into the mix and they carry more than enough threat to cause serious headaches to the West Ham rearguard – even at the best of times. In the current toxic atmosphere surrounding the London Stadium any outcome more positive than a draw is difficult to predict.

This weekend’s game is meant to be the easiest (on paper) of the opening sequence of Premier League games. If West Ham extend their opening day of the season losing streak to five games, then it is no leap of the imagination to suggest that we might find ourselves rock bottom after the first seven games on zero points.  Perhaps a late flurry in the transfer window can lighten the gloom but right now there is little cause for optimism. A season of real struggle awaits!

We Did It Moyes Way: West Ham Have No Regrets As Villa Face The Final Curtain

With the season coming to an end the Hammers have finally got into their stride. Can the end in style against relegation threatened Aston Villa or will they have mentally switched off?

So here we are, finally at the end of the longest season on record. The culmination of 9 games in 36 hectic days since the coronavirus interrupted restart. As often as not, there is little to play for come the last day of the season, and the whole occasion gets to take on something of a party atmosphere. Players go through the motions while supporters are happy to have a bit of a knees-up. Very different this year, however, with no fans in the stadium and opponents Aston Villa still very much embroiled in a last gasp relegation fight.

Those long suffering fans who have witnessed the last few West Ham matches might well be asking who those impostors in claret and blue are? The strutting air of confidence, dazzling movement, fizzing passes and rapid counter attacks all feels so foreign. What has happened to that team of plodders who laboured aimlessly through the previous thirty-odd games? There were media reports of players urging the team to take this current form into the next season. But this is not just a matter of form, it is a whole new chalk and cheese approach from that served up under Manuel Pellegrini and,  in fact, during the early months of David Moyes.

The new found confidence just goes to prove that passing success and possession retention increases significantly when improved fitness levels and mobility provide the passer with more and better options.  Players are no longer flat-footed or get easily channelled into nonthreatening cul-de-sacs. It would be churlish not to give much of the credit for the turnaround to Moyes. It may have taken longer than hoped to see improvement, but organisation, shape and energy have increased immensely. His two transfer window signings have made the world of difference and the transformation of Michail Antonio into an unlikely striking hero has been stunning – just as it had been previously with Marko Arnautovic.

No doubt there are the hardcore hate the board, hate the stadium and hate the manager brigade who will never be convinced but Moyes deserves a crack at re-modelling the squad at West Ham. Judge him on results and performances, by all means, but to dislike a manager as a matter of principle seems plain wrong.

I will be watching the summer transfer activity with interest. No doubt the club will need to unload a fair number of existing high earning players to balance the books and raise funds. And the extent to which transfer fees and activity will be impacted by post Covid financial realities is uncertain. The intention to recruit young, ambitious players with something to prove is the right strategy – let’s wait and see how well it is put into practice. Can David Sullivan resist the urge to meddle and pursue yet another of his vanity signings?

Moyes will certainly be treating today’s game with utmost seriousness, aware of the responsibility he has to other teams in the relegation battle. There is also a few extra bob in Premier League prize money to play for. I don’t envisage any surprise changes to the starting line-up being made, unless they are enforced by injuries. If either Aaron Cresswell or Jarrod Bowen are unavailable then it will be straight swaps by Arthur Masuaku and Andriy Yarmolenko.   There’ll be no throwing in kids or messing about with formations.

What we won’t know until the game kicks-off is whether the players are equally sufficiently motivated to put in one last shift. Or will they have mentally switched off, even unconsciously? I really hope they are able to carry the momentum from the last handful of games into today’s finale.

Villa have themselves come into a handy run of late season form with two wins and a draw in their last three. A marked improvement when you think that many wondered whether they would pick up any points at all after the re-start. Their defence is abysmal and the visitors will again rely heavily of the running, prompting and diving of Jack Grealish, possibly make his farewell performance for the Villains. It is widely repeated that Grealish is the most fouled player in the Premier League, but when you go over easier than a drunken ice-skater that is no real surprise. The dive to try to win a penalty in the game against Palace was outrageous. Whatever did happen to that law about deceiving the referee that earned Manuel Lanzini a retrospective ban? The shortest clampdown in refereeing history.   Grealish aside the only other real threat appears to be from the in-form Trezeguet.

Today’s dynamic refereeing duo are Michael Oliver (whistle) and David Coote (console). For some reason that combination does not fill me with total confidence when adjudicating exaggerated swallow-dives in the penalty area.

Lawro has today’s game down as a 2-0 home win – if all his West Ham predictions for the season had been correct, the Hammers would be finishing in 10th place with 53 points.  Charlie Nicholas says it will be 1-1.

I can’t see how West Ham can fail to score a few today against such a poor defence. I would love to see the team put on a bit of a show and end the season on a high – a performance with just a touch of arrogance that doesn’t end up as complacency. Villa will be fighting for everything but will also be nervous about what is happening elsewhere. My prediction is West Ham to win by a comfortable two goal margin, but with Villa to survive anyway due to events elsewhere.

No Sympathy For The Red Devils: West Ham Eye Unlikely Double Over The Manchester, United

A relieved West Ham have the opportunity to put a spoke in the wheel of Manchester United’s Champion’s League ambitions. Will they be up for the challenge?

Had you been an observer at the end of Matchweek 6, when West Ham had breezed past a lacklustre Manchester United at the London Stadium, you may well have been tempted to speculate on how the fortunes of the two clubs would map out during the remainder of the season.

Could it be possible that be the brilliantly coiffured Manuel Pellegrini could turn his team, now up to 5th place in the table, into credible top six contenders? Would the impish Ole Gunnar Solskjær confirm the view of the many naysayers that his was no more than a short-term tenure at Old Trafford and scuttle off back to the fjords?

By the halfway point in the season, the Pellegrini dream was over as the Hammers plummeted towards the bottom three while in Manchester, the Red Devils continued to drift along in an unconvincing mid-table no man’s land that did nothing to enhance their manager’s credibility . The West Ham board eventually ran out of patience with their man dismissing him just after Christmas and the chances of Solskjær making it until end of the season still looked doubtful.

Fast forward to today and much has changed. West Ham have finally scrambled clear of the relegation places while Manchester United have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence, prompted by the signing of Bruno Fernandes in the January transfer window, and now have eyes firmly on Champion’s League qualification.

West Ham overwhelmed Watford in the first half of last Friday’s game but still found time to give us all the serious jitters thanks to a collective loss of concentration between the second half restart and the drinks break. I feared more points needlessly thrown away yet again and was mightily reassured to see both Deeney and Doucouré removed from the field of play – one of Nigel Pearson’s last acts as Watford manager. In the end we managed to settle down again and were able to see the game out. The temperament of the team is impossible to fathom at times. It has been particularly bad this season but the ability to protect a lead has long been a weakness.  Chickens can never be prematurely counted where West Ham are concerned.

It was pleasing to see Mark Noble become the 10th West Ham player to make 500 first team appearances for the club. Although I don’t expect to see too many more starts for him in the future, he still has time to overtake Geoff Hurst, Vic Watson and Steve Potts in the all-time appearance stats. One more league goal for the skipper would also see him draw level with Paolo Di Canio as the Hammer’s leading all-time Premier League goal scorer (with 47 goals). A place among the backroom or coaching staff would be a fitting reward for Nobes.

Given his current rich vein of form, it is also worth pointing out that Michail Antonio only needs six goals in each of the two remaining games to also equal Di Canio’s total. He can do no wrong at the moment and I fully expect to see him pop up and head home one of his own long throws one day.  As things stand, no Hammer has yet reached double figure for league goals scored – finding a reliable regular goalscorer continues to be as elusive as dodo playing hide and seek. Antonio is leading the field with nine (equalling his previous 2016/17 best) which have been impressively scored achieved from just sixteen starts.

Today’s game is a rare opportunity for West Ham to record three league wins in a row. To do so, though, requires the Old Trafford form book to be torn up, shredded, and pulped. In the twenty-three Premier League meeting in Manchester, West Ham have won just twice (2001/02 and 2006/07) while there have been two draws and nineteen defeats. Attitude will also play a part now that the spectre of relegation has been removed. It has never needed much for the Hammers to take their foot off the gas and David Moyes will need to summon untold levels of motivation to get one over on his old club.

Although the hosts are not the strongest at the back (and can be sloppy when trying to play out of defence) they have plenty of pace, movement and scoring options in attack. Defensive organisation, 100% concentration, and the legs to get forward quickly in support of Antonio will be essential if this is not to become defeat number twenty.

Manchester United are one of the clubs reportedly interested in securing the signature of our club’s greatest asset, Declan Rice. It is impossible to know how this saga will play out during the close season, but with all the speculation I have yet to see any numbers quoted that I consider realistic – particularly if you are using Harry Maguire as a benchmark (Leicester must still be pinching themselves over that transfer fee). Certainly what we wouldn’t need is any Old Trafford clearance stock in part exchange. I have a funny feeling that Rice will eventually end up at Liverpool, but hopefully not any time soon.

Paul Tierney from Wigan makes the short trip to Manchester to perform the man in the middle duties while Championship referee Peter Bankes is at the helm in Stockley Park. In the absence of home support, VAR can once again be the 12th man for the Reds.

Putting a spanner in the Red’s Champion’s League aspirations would provide a memorable end to the season. A ten goal defeat would put a cat among the pigeons for us in a season that refuses to die.

The pundits are adamant that this will be a home victory. Charlie Nicholas has gone for 3-1 while Lawro has chipped in with 2-0. It is difficult to find grounds to argue with their logic as Manchester United chase that Champion’s League spot – and the Hammers have little to play for other than finishing above Crystal Palace. On the other hand, who needs logic when blind unfounded optimism is available? West Ham to win 3-2.

A Long Good Friday To Die Hard: West Ham Look To Triumph Over Watford In Stressful Stratford Showdown

Can wise cracking, no-nonsense Scot’s boss David Moyes create the decisive never-say-die spirit in his team that will defeat Watford and lead West Ham to Premier League safety? Yippee Ki-Yay!

In all good movies (and even in most bad ones) the action unfolds to a three act pattern: the setup; the confrontation and the resolution. West Ham’s season has kept faithfully to the plot so far. A benign, almost encouraging, opening that bred a confident swagger until it was rudely interrupted by a defining and crushing defeat to Oxford United in the EFL Cup. This was the turning point in our plot, after which, fortunes went rapidly from bad to worse to atrocious. The great pretenders were exposed as the kings with no clothes. Today we find ourselves perfectly set up for the final act – the first of two potential climactic moments that will determine the immediate future of West Ham as a Premier League club.

West Ham remain outsiders among the four clubs competing for the two available relegation places, but there are no foregone conclusions at a time when an unexpected result can crop up at any time. Principle antagonists, Villa and Bournemouth, might look down and out, but what if they are only stunned and awaiting the opportunity to pick themselves up and strike back.   Whereas three points today would see us walking off into the sunset of Premier League survival, anything less could still lead to a last day nail-biting, nerve jangling finale – great for the ratings but not for my sanity.

In a perfect act of symmetry, the season’s fixtures against Watford were scheduled as the third from the start and the third from the end. The deserved win at 3-1 Vicarage, with two goals from Sebastien Haller, set West Ham off on a mini sequence of games that briefly saw them flirt with the top three. The optimistic wisdom at the time being that a phenomenal potency in attack might be able to compensate for unresolved inadequacies in defence. Although there is some veracity in that train of thought (only the three bottom clubs have conceded more goals than the Hammers while ten EPL clubs have scored fewer) the differential has not been great enough to accumulate sufficient points – just enough to earn a better goal difference than our relegation rivals.

The only time this season that the Hammers have won back-to-back league matches were successive victories over Watford and Norwich at the end of August. Having easily dispatched a ragged Norwich on Saturday can history joyfully repeat itself against Watford, just when it is needed the most?

There will be a temptation for David Moyes to keep the same Carrow Road starting eleven, but we need to consider just how poor the Canaries were.  It was a convincing impression of a West Ham tribute act from those afternoons of surrender that we have witnessed far too often in the past against the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. Their lack of fight and spirit was staggering, something that is unlikely to be repeated by the Hornets in this evening’s game. The question for me is whether Mark Noble, so influential in his contribution at Norwich, has the speed of thought or action to compete in what will be a busy and frenetic midfield battlefield of high tempo pressing and closing down. This would not be a time for dwelling on the ball, engaging reverse or taking multiple touches to nowhere.

If not Noble, though, is there anyone capable of performing a better job in directing operations in the attacking third? A case might be made for either Jack Wilshere or Manuel Lanzini, but neither has shrugged off long term injuries and returned to their former selves. I would prefer to see Pablo Fornals in a more central role, but he is needed wide left to provide much needed backup to Aaron Cresswell, a service that Andriy Yarmolenko is unable provide.

No solution is perfect, and the number 10 role has become a major weakness in the current setup. The Hammers will once again need to look for big performances as an attacking force from Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen. It is a given that the solid foundation provided in front of the back four by Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will also be pivotal. Rice has been a season long star performer but the addition of Soucek both defensively, and as an unexpected item in the penalty area, has been a refreshing upgrade on what went before.

Watford have a very good squad on paper but, like our own, it has not been translated into performances on the pitch. They do, however, come into the game off the back of successive wins against Norwich and Newcastle. Gerard Deulofeu usually impresses against us but will be missing while Danny Welbeck (another West Ham bogey figure) has now recovered from injury. The greatest threat that I see is from the pace of Ismaïla Sarr down the right wing. Cresswell will be left floundering and will need all the support that he can get in cutting off the supply to the wounded Troy Dee-knee.

Martin Atkinson is today’s referee while Stuart Attwell is his invisible virtual assistant. There is not really much time left this season for all those wrong VAR calls to even themselves out for West Ham. Perhaps we will be the beneficiaries of half a dozen penalty awards tonight.

Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are in full alignment this week, both opting for a 2-1 West Ham victory. That would do nicely for me. In theory, you might expect this to be a nervy, error prone affair, but that might be tempered in an empty stadium where anxiety cannot easily be transmitted from fans to players. The outcome, though, will be as much about attitude, desire, character and strength of mind as it will technical football ability. Will our boys be up to the task?

It is games like these when you start to question where is the enjoyment in watching football. It needs at least a three goal cushion with less than five minutes remaining before I can feel relaxed. If we go a goal down, the cat will know to keep a safe distance. I really don’t want to have to go into the final round of games needing to get a result against Aston Villa. Accordingly, I am going to line up alongside the pundits and predict a 2-1 home win, in the hope that a concentrated force of positive thinking will ensure it actually happens. It could be a very long Friday night – but will it be a good one?  Yippee Ki-Yay!

The Wacky Relegation Races Continue: West Ham Seek Survival As Best Of The Worst

West Ham remain outsiders for relegation but without big changes it is only putting off the inevitable. Points from Norwich will provide breathing space but survival will be down to the inadequacies of others.

After an encouraging 4 point haul from consecutive games with Chelsea and Newcastle, the stage was set for West Ham to all but confirm their Premier League status against a much weakened Burnley on Wednesday evening. Alas, it was not to be and the visitors ended up leaving the London Stadium with a comfortable three points.

The manner of defeat perfectly illustrated the Hammer’s shortcomings which, even if relegation is avoided this season, will require extensive surgery to avoid a repeat next time around. While Burnley resembled a well-oiled machine with a structure, discipline and work ethic that compensated for their missing personnel, West Ham look like a collection of wayward individuals who have been bound together by sticky tape and string.

In fact, Burnley came with little ambition but when they get their noses in front, they are a very difficult team to breakdown. Not that there weren’t decent chances – some fine saves by Pope early on as well as two glaring misses by Michail Antonio and Sebastien Haller. Frustratingly, the home side had run out of ideas well before the final the whistle. The Hammers seemed convinced that hopeful high balls into the area were the route to success despite all the available evidence that Burnley’s defence would simply nod these away with ease. The manager didn’t see fit to change things and without any creative spark it was all so predictable. Plan B as far as it went was to bypass midfield completely.

Oh for the sorcery of a Devo, Berkovic, Benayoun or Payet right now! I guess that might have been Manuel Lanzini, but his injury has well and truly done for him. And quite why Jack Wilshere hasn’t been given an opportunity since the re-start is baffling. Indeed, David Moyes whole approach to substitutes is baffling, especially in the current circumstances with games come around every three or four days. The manager seems incapable of thinking on his feet and when things are going wrong, he is the last to see it.

We can all make mistakes and my assertion prior to the game that a starting place for Andriy Yarmolenko was justified saw me lured by Absent Player Paradox – that sense that the powers of an injured player increase exponentially in proportion to the time that he has been missing. Compounded by two promising cameo performances, it soon became clear that as a starter he really is too slow and too reliant on circus tricks and flicks. Similar exaggerated expectations are now starting to build over the possible return of Robert Snodgrass.

As is so often the case, the goal conceded to Burnley was a catalogue of collective incompetence. Yarmolenko went missing in action, failing to support his full-back; Ryan Fredericks was poorly positioned to prevent the cross; and Aaron Cresswell’s attempt to win the ball was even less than half-hearted. Even Lukasz Fabianski might have done better.

For some bizarre reason, successive West Ham managers have considered competent full-backs as an optional extra. The old Sunday park football concept of that’s where you play your worst footballers – the kid who turns up each week to cut up the half-time oranges. The current duo simply don’t cut the mustard and only one – depending on which side Jarrod Bowen is playing – gets consistent support from his wide midfield partner. The question is, are there any better alternatives – Ben Johnson or Arthur Masuaku?

The weekend trip to Norwich is the second of the supposed winnable games that will ensure top flight survival. Thankfully, Bournemouth and Aston Villa continue to show little sign of life and if safety is reached it will be by default, as it was in the Zola season. The record at Carrow Road is not a good one. For the last league win you need to go back to February 1973 when a Pop Robson goal was enough to give a West Ham side (containing Bonds, Moore, and Brooking) a narrow victory. The seventeen league games since then have resulted in nine defeats and eight draws.

Norwich are effectively relegated, but a West Ham win today will seal their fate mathematically. They may see the game as a last hurrah! The Canaries do pass the ball well but overall lack both pace going forward and a cutting edge – although the same could be said about the Hammers (apart from the passing the ball well bit). The home side’s form has been terrible, having lost each of their last six matches, yet anyone viewing this game is a ‘gimme’ may be in for a surprise.

I have said before that you cannot hold David Moyes responsible for the many weaknesses in the West Ham squad but, after 15 games or so in charge, he should have done far better on organisation, teamwork and fitness. His two signings, Bowen and Tomas Soucek, have been among the best performers in recent games and along with Fabianski, Antonio and Declan Rice at least look as though they belong in the Premier League. A good manager is paid to make the most of what he has got – to create a style of play that overcomes the weaknesses in the squad. This is where Moyes has fallen short.

What changes can and will be made this weekend is anyone’s guess. A return for Mark Noble? Arthur Masuaku on the left of midfield? Another chance for Lanzini as playmaker? An opportunity for Wilshere to prove his fitness? More game time for Haller who might even look like he is interested this time? Time to put some trust in Ben Johnson? There are options, just not too many obvious ones!

Following on from VAR duty on Wednesday, Kevin Friend has been given the whistle while Simon Hooper will be on patrol at Stockley Park. The eye in the sky was called upon twice in the week: correctly ruling out a second Burnley goal for a genuine offside; and confirming that is should only be yellow card only for Tarkowski’s challenge on Bowen – that one could easily have gone either way.

When in doubt or he can’t be bothered, Lawro always falls back on a 1-1 scoreline, as he does on this occasion. At time of writing, Charlie Nicholas has not unveiled his crstal ball. West Ham often serve up their better performances for those times when I am the least confident – and this is definitely one of those times. My sense is that Norwich will start brightly but easily run out of steam if they do not get any immediate reward. If the Hammers keep their shape and concentration during the initial exchanges they can grow into the game and exploit the Canaries frailty defending crosses. This will by no means be a classic, but I will stick my neck out for a 2-1 away win.

All Change At Stratford: Moyes Must Mix Things Up To Banish Burnley Bogey

The visit of a no-nonsense Burnley to the London Stadium presents West Ham with a different set of problems to the last two games. What change will David Moyes make to rise to the challenge.

With four points earned from the last two games, the Hammers are running ahead of the re-start expectations of many battle-hardened supporters. The next three fixtures, starting with today’s claret derby with Burnley, were the ones seen to be the passport to Premier League survival. A return of five points or more from those games should be enough to avoid a final day relegation play-off reckoning  with remaining claret club member, Aston Villa.

The win over Chelsea and a point against the Toons has helped us to breathe more easily, but nothing should yet be taken for granted. There might be an effective five-point cushion (if you take goal difference into account) over close rivals, Villa and Bournemouth, but there is still plenty to play for.

After a cautious first half display at St James’ Park, despite the early goal, there was a sense of disappointment at the failure to come away with all three points. West Ham looked comfortably in control after half-time, and yet allowed Newcastle to equalise with their only meaningful attack of the second period. Collective defensive failures, lapses in concentration and vulnerability down our left side continue to cost dear. It is now fourteen matches since the Hammers last kept a clean sheet – on New Year’s Day against Bournemouth – and the points lost from winning positions continue to mount.

While West Ham can be encouraged by their last two performances recent encounters with Burnley have not often ended well. As far as kettles of fish are concerned, this is a very different one to those previous two games. Burnley are a well organised, hard working and physical outfit. They will defend in numbers and will not be susceptible to the rapid breaks that benefited West Ham against Chelsea and Newcastle. The guile and finesse required to break down organised defences and team’s prepared to intimidate are not historic West Ham strong points. It might be tempting to select an unchanged team, but today’s challenge requires a very different approach.

At the back, there are few obvious options available to plug the alarming gaps in what is the fourth worst defence in the division. Pushing Declan Rice back weakens the midfield more that it strengthens the defence, and the return or either Fabian Balbuena or Arthur Masuaku adds no added confidence that things would be better. Although central midfield has looked defensively more solid since the recruitment of Tomas Soucek, the flanks remain a weak spot – particularly down the left hand side. Jarrod Bowen has done a great job of tracking back on the right and a similar level of support is badly needed on the left. That isn’t going to be provided by Manuel Lanzini but can anyone else do better – Andriy Yarmolenko, Pablo Fornals or Masuaku?

Further forward, it is doubtful that Sebastien Haller is ready to return, and so line-leading responsibilities once again fall to the broad shoulders of Michail Antonio. Antonio has performed admirably in this role recently, but I do fear burn-out or injury, especially given Moyes strange reluctance to deploy all his full substitution entitlement.

As for unpicking defences, the squad is short on creativity – it lacks anyone likely to come up with the unpredictable. Jack Wilshere is arguably the most able to do so, but has been been given insufficient pitch time to single him out as a starter.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Moyes plan is to bring back Mark Noble, as partner to Rice in defensive midfield, and push Soucek further forward to offer a greater aerial presence – a tactic that suited and worked for him in his Everton days. That would still leave a problem wide on the left of midfield. Yarmolenko has earned a start but with both him and Bowen preferring to play on the right, will one be able to effectively switch flanks? Of the two, switching Bowen would be the sensible choice, but it would require Yarmo to up his tracking back efforts in support of Ryan Fredericks. Alternatively, Moyes may opt for Masuaku in a wide midfield role as he has done in the past, but I don’t think he will go for this. Whichever way the team selection pans out, I sense it will be bench time once again for Fornals and Lanzini.

Burnley have enjoyed a decent season once again although are likely to miss out on Europa League qualification. Manager Sean Dyche has seen his stock rise in recent years and he now sits atop the rankings of plucky British managers, despite strong competition from newcomer Chris Wilder. The fall from grace of long-time leader and former golden boy, Eddie Howe, illustrates the conundrum facing managers at those clubs punching above their weight – when is the right time to jump ship out before the inevitable relegation and damaged reputation occurs

Dyche is, to date, undefeated in his managerial confrontations with Moyes (three wins and two draws) although their competitive relationship goes back to playing days in the mid 1990’s, slugging it out in League 2 in the colours of Chesterfield and Preston respectively.

The Clarets are experiencing something of an injury crisis at the moment and will be without influential captain, Ben Mee as well as midfielder Jack Cork and chief bully, Ashley Barnes.  Worryingly, Barnes strike partner Chris Woods, who has scored in each of his five outings for Burnley against West Ham, is back from injury and likely to start. Dwight McNeil is another danger and been tormentor-in-chief in recent games against the Hammers.

Matchday officials today are Michael Oliver on the pitch and Kevin Friend on VAR. There was nothing contentious from the officials at Newcastle on Sunday and will be hoping for more of the same today.

Both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas have this down as a Hammer’s win at 2-0 and 2-1 respectively. Their rationale being West Ham’s greater need and Burnley’s growing injury problems. The biggest barriers I see to a West Ham win are being able to break down the visitors resolute and determined defence – not for nothing is Nick Pope in the running for the Golden Glove award – and getting suckered by the visitors big guns on a set piece. Still as a fan of claret, I want my glass to be, at least, half-full and will go for a welcome 3-1 home win. This is a game that usually has goals in it.

Hammering Out A Toon: As The Pubs Re-open West Ham Head Up For A North-East Knees Up

A midweek win has transformed West Ham from an ugly duckling to a beautiful world-beating swan. Can West Ham justify our implausible new found optimism with a back-to-back win at Newcastle?

The past week has witnessed a massive TV make-over show style transformation at West Ham. From a ragged, unloved, down at heel, ugly duckling of a side to a beautiful swan, as the Hammers gracefully swept past an astonished Chelsea at the London Stadium.

Talk Sport presenter and Chelsea supporter, Andy Jacobs (the unfunny Sid Little half of the Hawksbee and Jacobs double act) received a lot of stick for his on-air rant on the Hammer’s performance and his desire to see them relegated – but he had a valid point. How can a team that has performed so badly and carelessly for most of the season, suddenly pull out a committed performance such as that?

As a brief reality check for seasoned Hammers, the last time that West Ham completed a league double over Chelsea, in the 2002/03 season, it all ended in tears and relegation. In an eerie coincidence, the scorelines were also the same (although in the reverse fixtures) and achieved under the guidance of different managers (Roeder and Sir Trev on that occasion.) Just worth bearing in mind!

Today at Newcastle, we will get a chance to observe the make-over show epilogue, that bit when they return a week or so later to see whether the ‘made-over’ has managed to maintain their new and improved glamorous persona, or has slumped back into their customary shabby ways. What do we think might happen?

In his article yesterday, my blogging partner, Richard Bennett, admitted to having a soft spot for today’s opponents. What I would add to that, is a sense that our fortunes are somehow inexplicably entwined, as if by some mysterious external force. Both are massively under-performing clubs, with fantastically loyal support, that should never get relegated, but regularly do. Clubs hamstrung by dodgy, arrogant owners with little feel for football or what it takes to run a professional football club and who lack even the merest hint of imagination when appointing managers. Football clubs don’t do twinnings, but if they did West Ham would be twinned with Newcastle – partners in adversity, in much the same way that Coventry is twinned with Dresden, in recognition of their shared devastation during WW2. Success has been a stranger in both East London and Tyneside for far too long, aside from both sides belonging to a select group of proud Intertoto Cup winners!

Consequently, this fixture is often an unpredictable one. The last ten encounters have produced four wins and six defeats for the Hammers. You need to go back to St James’ Park in August 20113 for the last drawn game – a goalless grim stalemate, according to the Sporting Life, as Alan Pardew faced off with Sam Allardyce. This time around it is Steve Bruce versus David Moyes, each with over 900 games under their respective managerial belts (as you would expect, Bruce’s belt is the larger of the two) but with little to show for it, apart from Moyes 2013 Community Shield win.

Takeover fever also surrounds both clubs, although, as far as West Ham are concerned, it might simply be wishful thinking. A Saudi takeover at Newcastle has been bubbling under for some months while in London there are renewed murmurings of a Tripp Smith consortium. Whenever, I see consortium mentioned Tony Cottee immediately springs to mind and the ones that he has supposedly been trying to put together for the last twenty years. Give me a filthy rich, single minded, megalomaniac over a consortium any day. How conflicted we are as football supporters. Principles, morals and money laundering are easily trumped by success!

I see no reason to make any changes today from the team that started on Wednesday (unless there are enforced changes) as Moyes is likely to adopt the same defend in numbers, forgo possession and break quickly approach to the game. The potential return of Mark Noble, Sebastien (the cheques in the post) Haller and Arthur Masuaku should make it no further than the bench. I would again look to use Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere as substitutes, as they continue their respective roads to recovery. There are decent options on the bench.

For Newcastle, Shelvey and Ritchie have historically caused problems in games against West Ham but it is the mercurial Saint Maximin who worries me the most. Pace down the flanks is one of the Hammer’s principle Achilles body parts. Ryan Fredericks needs to be on his toes and Jarrod Bowen will have plenty of tracking back responsibility.  Apart from that, there is also the scores-against-his-old-club threat posed by Big Andy.

VAR has had an horrific week even by its own low standards. The disallowed Michail Antonio goal was bad enough but the Lucas Moura handball was possibly the most laughable yet. It’s not often I agree with Mourinho but his assertion that the principal refereeing decisions are now made by a guy hidden way in a Stockley Park bunker is difficult to argue with. You would have thought that only a government could take a good idea and implement it so badly – but never underestimate the incompetence of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited. Today’s deliberating duo are Craig Pawson (whistle) and Simon Hooper (mouse).

Returning to the Chelsea game it also looked as if their players were not sufficiently socially distanced (according to this season’s new guidelines) from our wall for the Willian equaliser. Did that get reviewed?

So, what might happen today? According to the pundits: closet Hammer’s fan Charlie Nicholas is predicting a 2-1 away win; while Lawro had adopted his default 1-1 fence sitting position. Prior to the re-start I had expected Newcastle to be one of those teams whose minds were more on an air-bridge to Mediterranean sunshine than empty football stadiums. From their efforts to date it seems I was wrong – although perhaps it was thoughts of FA Cup glory (now thwarted) that had spurred them on. Results yesterday were again favourable meaning that any additional points would be most welcome. Maybe the boys can sneak away with all three, but I think that just the one is more likely: 2-2!

Remember The Alamo: West Ham Plan Heroic Defence To Hold Off Second Chelsea Siege

The battle of the struggling stragglers in the Premier League survival stakes sees West Ham banking on a second lightning strike to secure an unlikely double against high flying Chelsea

Someone mentioned to me in the week that Liverpool had already won this season’s Premier League, although I couldn’t find any mention of it in the media. If true, then well done to them. They were the best team by some distance; and congratulations to Adrian, who becomes another in the long line of ex-Hammers to pick up a league winners medal after having left the club – Adrian, Johnson, Ferdinand, Gale, Cole, Carrick, Lampard, and Ince. That’s almost a full team now!

Tonight, the focus switches again to football’s equivalent of a slow bicycle race, as three of the frantic five relegation candidates take to the field in an attempt to belatedly put some extra points on the board. In the last thirty games combined, the five stragglers have managed just three wins and four draws between them – thirteen points out of a possible ninety.  There is often a mad scramble for the final relegation place, but in this unusual season it is distinguished by mass collective incompetence at the bottom. DLLWLLL may look like the name of a place in Wales but, sadly, it is the Hammers current form. We are indeed fortunate to others that escape is still feasible.

Tonight’s match with Chelsea is one of the toughest (along with the trip to Old Trafford) West Ham’s remaining fixtures. Both those clubs are at the top of the form table, have reacted positively in the early re-start games and will be looking confidently at a top four finish. A win tonight will move the visitors up into third place. I must admit to being surprised at how well Lampard Junior has done in his first term as Premier League manager. I think he can become a top manager but thought this job had come far too early for him. The glimmer of hope is that I said exactly the same thing back in November, when the teams last met. And we know how that turned out. A game notable for David Martin’s heroic debut, a fine Aaron Cresswell goal and zero fouls committed by Chelsea.

It will, no doubt, be another highly cautious approach from David Moyes tonight. A backs to the wall, deep defensive act of attrition. This is partly due to Moyes risk averse character but also partly due to the rag-tag of resources at his disposal, particularly in offensive areas. The task could be likened to defending the Alamo with broken guns and no ammunition.

Reading through Moyes virtual programme notes gives us a clue to how he is thinking. My takeaway from his goals from everywhere plea is that he expects attempts from free kicks or corners to be the extent of our ambition. I know the manager has to say positive things but to suggest that our downfall has been due to not taking the chances that came is a bit of a stretch. Moyes is not able to play the too tired card tonight as Chelsea have played twice since the Hammers last had a game. Perhaps he will claim we are rusty – or maybe we really will be geared up it, after a week off to re-charge the batteries. Tonight has all the hallmarks of a game that the manager wants to get out of the way quickly without too much damage. But I would like to think Moyes has a more cunning plan for the run of winnable fixtures to follow aside from hoping that our luck will change.

The good news on the team selection front is the probable return of Angelo Ogbonna. He is one of the names along with Lukasz Fabianski, Issa Diop, Declan Rice, Michail Antonio, Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen that you would want pre-printed on the team-sheet. After that it is a case of pick and mix.

The bare bones full-back option will likely default to the uninspiring pairing of Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks, now that Ngakia has packed his bags. Ben Johnson looks to be one of the several fringe players (along with Ajeti and Silva) that Moyes doesn’t trust (for whatever reason!) while Arthur Masuaku remains absent injured. According to Moyes, Masuaku is back ‘on the grass’ which leads me think ‘so, that’s what they’re smoking in the West Ham treatment room.’

Also confined to the sidelines is the club’s only striker, Sebastien Haller. I expect either Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko will be asked to play that lonely role up front. It might be worth giving Yarmolenko a try. There is little to lose and he is remarkably predictable when played in a wider role, no matter how sweet his left foot is. And I much prefer Antonio in a position where he can run with the ball at his feet. He is not a hold it up up player.

I guess from the manager’s comments that we will once again see Mark Noble starting if only for his (apparent) leadership qualities. It is a nice idea but ‘love’ for the club on its own doesn’t get you any points and Nobles best playing days are some way behind him. From another ‘it can’t be any worse’ perspective, giving pitch time to Jack Wilshere has to be a gamble worth taking sooner or later.  Pablo Fornals has demonstrated enough endeavour to be given another chance, but ideally not stuck out on the wing – he works hard enough but doesn’t have the pace. Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini only get on the bench because there are extra spaces available now.

Throw that all into the mix and my preferred starting eleven would be:

Fabianski
Johnson, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell
Rice, Soucek
Bowen, Fornals (or Wilshere), Antonio
Yarmolenko

The officials for tonight’s game are Martin Atkinson out on the pitch with Jonathan Moss struggling to fit behind the desk at VAR central. Time for those poor decisions that are meant to balance out over the course of a season to start doing so.

A mixed bag from the TV pundits. Lawro has woken up from his celebratory Anfield hangover to predict a 1-0 away win, whereas Charlie Nicholas again shows a soft spot for the Hammers by tipping them to earn a 1-1 draw.

If West Ham are to come away with anything from this game it will require massive performances from their key players – while the others must try not to do anything stupid. Chelsea have been on a good run of results without ever being convincing. They do not find it easy to penetrate packed defences but the threat will always be there if we keep gifting them the ball.

There is sure to be plenty of focus on Declan Rice in the light of the repeated transfer speculation and perhaps a thought at the back of his mind is that Champion’s League football is a possibility next season. The idea that Declan might soon be added to that list of ex-Hammer league winners is a depressing one – at least for us.

The Moyes sit back, soak up the pressure and hope for a breakaway philosophy is a long shot – might it just work? I doubt it, but you never can tell. We will need to be razor sharp, but I suspect that a draw is the best a fan get.