Hammers Hoping To Upset The Clarets And Stop The Fat Lady From Singing Too Early

Injuries remain a concern but Moyes playing with a full deck can keep the European dream alive until the final day of the season

In an unusual turn of events, the weekend’s Super Sunday was thrown into disarray by a pitch invasion at an empty Old Trafford. Unexpected as it was, it is perhaps not surprising that something like this has happened. Authorities do not like it when the hoi polloi take direct action, but if complaints are persistently ignored, then frustrations will eventually boil over. Incidents of violence should not be condoned, but that is not the main story here. The continued hijacking of the national game by mega business interests, sovereign states and private equity funds cannot proceed unchecked. The aborted ESL plans have brought the issue to a head and must be addressed before the next inevitable power grab raises its ugly head.

What the fall-out from the postponement will be can only be speculated on. A deathly silence remains on the sanctions yet to be applied to the sordid six for their original breach of Premier League rules. Given that rulings generally work against the interest of West Ham, I expect Liverpool to be awarded last night’s match as a walkover with Manchester United docked just enough points not to threaten their top four status.

It was interesting to hear David Moyes raise the issue of the Hammer’s treatment by referees and the league in the wake of the Fabian Balbuena red card debacle. Having had five of the last straight red cards overturned should be raising alarm bells, even at the FA. It’s a while since I studied probability, but if we assume the likelihood of a card being overturned is 10%, then five out of eight equates to a seven in a million chance of being random. Perhaps I have worked that out wrong, but said with enough confidence, people will believe it!

I was quite surprised at the number of pundits coming out in support of the referee’s decision. Too many basing their opinion incorrectly, it seems, on selected slow-motion replays of the point of contact, just as the ref had done. Do all the ex-players not good enough to coach now take up punditry? Having a controversial opinion online has no downsides, it appears.

Each time the authorities introduce rule change to address perceived problems in the game they manage to make things worse, or more inconsistent. Football is the world’s most popular sport due to its simplicity. Having different rules to punish offences depending where on the pitch they occur defies that simplicity. Cynical fouls and handballs are perfect examples.

Christensen was allowed to escape a yellow card for an early cynical foul on Tomas Soucek in the game last week because it was in the Hammer’s half. Leaving him free to repeat the crime on Jesse Lingard later on to take his ‘one for the team’. It is not selfless sacrifice it is cheating.

Elsewhere, Azpilicueta was deemed not to have handled the ball because he was as a defender, whereas Callum Wilson (as an attacker) was earlier penalised for a similar accidental play when scoring the first equaliser for Newcastle against Liverpool?  Cynical (or tactical) fouls like diving and acting are not part of the game and should be dealt with severely and consistently, wherever they occur.

As for the 3D line measurements coming out for VAR offside decisions, why not just simplify matters, until a complete review of the offside law is completed, by taking account of feet only and ignoring other body parts?

The one late Sunday game that did go ahead yesterday saw West Ham drop down to sixth and swapping places with Tottenham. A little more pressure added to the Hammers as they prepare for their visit to Burnley.

Injuries will play a major part in the concluding weeks of the Hammer’s excellent season. The current situation is far from clear with different reports suggesting Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell, Arther Masuaku and Michail Antonio are either all available or all still knee deep in the treatment room. With Moyes preferring to play his cards close to chest, we have no way of knowing whether he has a full deck (or Dec) or not. Having Rice and Cresswell back at Burnley would be a huge bonus. Without having any inside knowledge I am doubtful that we will see much of Antonio and Masuaku for the rest of the season.

The captain (and by that, I mean Rice) in particular, has been sorely missed in the past two games for his drive, energy and leadership in every area of the pitch. His influence cannot be overestimated. In his absence, Mark Noble has tried hard but nowadays plays so deep it would be no surprise to see him run out with a miner’s lamp and a canary. Ironically, there are rumours that Noble is also on the injured list. Both missing would be perplexing.

Getting the Balbuena red card rescinded was something of an academic exercise in that we are unlikely to see any more of him in a West Ham shirt. The damage of that poor decision was done on the day, not by any subsequent suspension. Craig Dawson will be back tonight (from his own suspension) and is the ideal man to stand-up to the physical challenge of Chris Wood, as he did in the home fixture last January. All other changes will depend on what the injury situation finally reveals.

Burnley produced the stand-out result from last weekend when they beat Wolves 4-0, effectively making themselves safe from lingering relegation worries.  As well as Burnley played, Wolves were truly dreadful – one of the most incompetent performances I have seen for some time. The Clarets have some useful players and more importantly a tremendous team spirit. Pope is a top class keeper, Wood and McNeil are always dangerous, Vydra is starting to look a handful and the Tarkowski/ Mee partnership doesn’t give too much away in the air. Certainly no pushovers wo were never realistic relegation candidates!

Only desperate TV executives and commentators continue to hang on to the belief that the Premier League title and the relegation places are yet to be decided. Outcomes are usually obvious well before mathematical certainty confirms them to be so. Those wanting final day drama may be banking on a West Ham resurgence to ensure there is at least one issue in the balance. It will be a damp squib Sleepy Sunday if they are left cutting from match to match to check on the race for seventh.

Burnley are one of the few teams in the Premier League who rank below West Ham in terms of possession, touches and passes completed this season. With both teams averaging around 41% possession, where the ball go for the rest of the game?

It is fascinating how few touches players actually have during a game. According to the stats, West Ham players have totalled just under 17,500 touches in 33 games this season: the equivalent of 48 touches per player per game. Or around £1,000 per touch per week.

With a full complement available, this is a game that West Ham can win. Jarrod Bowen and Lingard carry enough pace, movement, and threat to compensate for the loss of Antonio, but only if the midfield foundation is solid. Without Rice the midfield platform looks shaky and Bowen gets drawn too much into defensive duties – leading the line and chasing back very soon begin to take its toll.

As ever, width on the left hand side is a problem. Ryan Fredericks and/ or Ben Johnson filling in again on their wrong foot is just not good enough in this league. Better contributions are also needed from Pablo Fornals (ineffective in the last two games) and Said Benrahma (ineffective for most of the season). It is a game that has to be won to keep the dreams alive. The TV guys may also need a West Ham win to generate season ending excitement. Otherwise, the fat lady may just as well sing her song and toddle off home for an early bath.

West Ham Bubbling Under While Blue Is The Colour Of Deceit, Greed And Duplicity

After the ESL furore, West Ham face off with disgraced Chelsea for the title of most super team in London

In the blink of an eye the world’s shortest coup came crashing down in a blaze of ridicule. The brave new world of the European Super League turned out to be an emperor with no clothes. Whoever imagined this as a popular reform that would be good for all football has some serious delusions. That the rest of the football world would be convinced by a plan dreamt up by a group looking to save themselves (at the expense of others) from a financial mess of their own making. It beggars belief. The unanswered question, though, is what will happen next?

Personally, I am less concerned about the severity of the sanctions served on the shameless six Premier League clubs than I am about the steps required to prevent something similar happening again. Having said that, any team breaking the League’s rules should not be allowed to escape scot-free. Perhaps whatever sanctions are arrived at, they should be doubled for Tottenham and Arsenal for the sheer temerity of considering themselves as elite clubs.

Competitive domestic football must remain the cornerstone of our game. Anything else is icing on the cake. But whatever competition is imagined, it must be based on sporting merit if integrity is to be retained. Independent oversight/ governance and fan participation in any decisions on structural changes should be mandatory if we are to the counter self-interest of self-appointed elites.

It was no surprise that this weekend’s visitors, Chelsea, together with Manchester City were the first to break ranks once they started to feel the heat. Both are the play-things of billionaire owners and, as such, have no need to make a grab for a greater share of the proceeds – just to feed their habit of paying nonsensical transfer fees and wages to players and agents. Their involvement may have been a surprise (fear of missing out), but it makes them no less culpable. Like any crime, this was a joint enterprise, many months in the making.

With all that has been going on, one might easily forget that there is a season still going on. Or that tomorrow will see what might be billed as the final Champion’s League qualification spot ‘play-off’. Two teams separated merely by goal difference.

It would have been nice going into the game with Chelsea a few points to the good. But the Hammers blew that chance with a self-inflicted horror show at St James’ Park last Saturday. A game where we not only lost soft goals and priceless points, but also the services of Craig Dawson, for a brace of reckless challenges. To have lost twice this season to a poor Newcastle side takes some understanding.

With Dawson’s suspension, the ongoing absence of Declan Rice and Michail Antonio and the probable unavailability of Aaron Cresswell and Arthur Masuaku, it leaves David Moyes painfully short of options. If Cresswell is out then Fabian Balbuena will deputise for Dawson in the back three with Ben Johnson slotting in again at left wing back – not his best or most natural position by a long way.

I know Masuaku is something of a marmite player with West Ham fans but I do think we miss him (or a player like him) as he provides an available out-ball and a link between defence and attack, particularly when playing three at the back and sacrificing a creative spot in midfield. Every little helps for a side far too prone to giving the ball away cheaply. There has been some talk in the media of Said Benrahma filling that role but I am doubtful that it will have got Moyes attention. Benrahma is looking more marginalised as the weeks go by. The less game time he gets, the more he tries too hard to impress during his short cameos.

In the madly optimistic nature of the football supporter, I had been hoping for a miracle recovery by Rice in time for this weekend. His presence was sorely missed in a compressed midfield at Newcastle. Mark Noble will always give his all, but when he is not slowing play down or dropping too deep, the game is passing him by.

For the visitors, it has been a season for two halves as the naivety of Fat Frank gave way to the pragmatism of new media darling, Thomas Tuchel. On paper, the Blues are among the most talented squads in the division, but as a team they lack a spark to truly impress, even if they have become very difficult to beat. Expect plenty of comings and goings in west London during the close season. Lampard did have initial success by fielding a number of Chelsea youngsters but apart from Mount, they have flattered to deceive. It would be no surprise to see the likes of Abraham and Hudson-Odoi end up as perpetual loanees, following Loftus-Cheek and Barkley. Apart from Kovacic the Blues have a full squad to chose from tomorrow.

It feels like it should be a make-or-break game for the Hammers Champion’s League aspirations even though plenty can still happen in the remaining games. Leicester’s win last night has given them breathing space and a firm hold on third place, now that their injury problems are largely behind them. In the circumstances I would be happy with a draw against Chelsea, but I am also conscious of the dangers of Moyes playing for a draw. West Ham need to be set-up to retain the ball far better and be prepared to show ambition wherever possible – an approach that has rarely been seen against the top teams.

There is no need to boss possession but equally there is no need to surrender it needlessly. The worry is how the team can collectively keep control of the game with so many key players missing. Maybe a first home scoreless draw of the season is on the cards? COYI!

West Ham Season Opener Revisited: You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next

This week’s preview is brought to you by HammerCalm, the official stress relief medicine of West Ham United. Take one tablet after the third Hammer’s goal and the proven slow-release formulation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation until the seventh minute of added time.

Do you remember, the 12th night of September? West Ham had just crumbled to defeat in the opening game of the 2020/21 season to Newcastle United. The omens were grim. A dispirited Hammers, lacking pace and positional sense, reeling from the controversial sale of Grady Diagana, had been easily beaten 2-0 by a visiting side considered to have recruited wisely during the transfer window. The obvious flaws in the West Ham defence had not been addressed and a season of relegation struggle and disharmony was widely predicted.

Who but a fool would have guessed, back then, that when we reached the final seven matches of the season, West Ham would be challenging for a Champion’s League place with Newcastle on the periphery of the relegation scramble?

West Ham’s transformation has been astonishing, regardless of what happens in the remaining games. The defence was eventually patched by the addition of the inspirational Vladimir Coufal and the resolute Craig Dawson, but it was done at very little expense. Where biggish money was pledged, for the creative probings of Said Benrahma, this has yet to pay the expected dividends. Otherwise the team is largely unchanged – in personnel, if not in performances. There have been many notable contributions to the team’s success (Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna to name but a few) but it has been the arrival of Jesse Lingard that has sparked the final assault on the top four.

At the end of January when victory at Crystal Palace first saw West Ham break into the top four, the pundits warned that a difficult run-in would bring them back down to earth. Most of those tough fixtures (at least on paper) are now behind us and still we sit with an opportunity to end the weekend not only in the top four, but in third place. No doubt there is still time for the wheels to fall off, but what delight to be in with a shout.

After last night’s draw between Everton and Tottenham, the race for the remaining two Champion’s League’s places is realistically down to Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool. The assorted bookmakers, sporting indices and pundits continue (not unsurprisingly) to see the Hammers as firm outsiders. I’m sure many West Ham fans feel the same wrestling between their privately held hopes and their publicly voiced expectations. At least the top four race provides an element of intrigue to a season that is in danger of fizzling out long before the end.

Next up in the West Ham run of weekly cup finals is a visit to St James’ Park for the return fixture with Newcastle. The Hammers achieved a league double over the Geordies in the 2018/19 season but, so far, have yet to taste victory over a Steve Bruce Toon, including a Premier League Asia Trophy third place play-off in Shanghai. The most recent visit ended in a 2-2 stalemate in July 2020 with West Ham twice surrendering the lead.

Newcastle supporters will be disappointed by their season season and, although they are not mathematically clear of relegation, they opened up a useful gap over the bottom three with a comeback win at Burnley last weekend. The game itself was a largely mediocre affair but the return from injury of Wilson and Saint-Maximin has provided a major and timely boost. The introduction of Saint-Maximin effectively changed the game and with Wilson always enjoying his games against the Hammers, the home side will be cautiously optimistic.

David Moyes has played his injury cards close to his chest making it impossible to predict the available permutations in the away side’s starting eleven. We know that Rice and Michail Antonio will again be missing but reliable news on Ogbonna’s fitness, and the extent of Aaron Cresswell’s and Mark Noble’s injuries are difficult to ascertain. My instinct is that Moyes will only be making enforced changes from the team that started last week. The most difficult gap to fill would be the absence of Noble. At least there are options elsewhere but unless the manager suddenly decides to put faith in Conor Coventry there is no backup as a partner to Soucek in the defensive midfield anchor.

A further unexpected feature of the West Ham season has been an unusually low profile from the boardroom. Not like them to be bashful in the light of unforeseen success on the pitch. Should the exceptional run continue to the end of the season then you can be sure they will be milking it for all it is worth – as the planned commemorative issue of the Sunday Sport recently leaked by a club insider reveals. No doubt they would see a place in the Champion’s League as reward for their efforts, not something achieved despite them.

It is going to be another tough match at St James Park today. Newcastle have lost just one of their last six and will have momentum from last week’s success. Hopefully, the West Ham mentality really is to take each game one at a time but it would be understandable if the pressure of expectation starts to creep in. A win and third place would be amazing and set things up nicely for the clash with Chelsea next weekend. If we do get ahead I’m looking for a better stab at game management than we have seen in recent weeks. The nerves can’t take much more of trying to throw away three goal leads – and there are no fingernails left to chew. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

West Ham Jockey For Top Four Place With Leicester Pivot

A crunch encounter in the race for the top four. But will the handicap of missing players impede the Hammers as they approach the final turn?

Following the entertaining win at Wolverhampton on Monday evening, David Moyes briefly referred to entering the final furlong of the Premier League race, then quickly corrected himself. With 20% of the season still to play, he was right to do so. If the league was a three-mile chase, then there would still be five furlongs to run – complete with a couple of tricky to overcome, including this weekend’s crunch encounter with Leicester City.

In a historical context, six pointers between these two clubs, this late in the season, would be taking place at the other end of the table. Not looking to gate-crash the elite’s Champion’s League qualification party.  A Hammers win and it drags the Foxes back into the field of five clubs chasing two places. Whereas a Leicester success puts them firmly in the driving seat for third place.

As things stand, the visitors are four points better off. Both have experienced eight defeats but Leicester have recorded two more wins (while the Hammers were drawing). The game sees the league’s second-best home record come up against the league’s second-best away record. Something’s gotta give!

Moyes was also correct in saying that West Ham sitting fourth in the table is not a fluke. They are there on merit and thanks largely to an amazing resilience that has been injected into the team. There have been many exceptional individual performances, but the major strength in the side is collective discipline, organisation, and teamwork. It is a rare occurrence for the West Ham whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Football hipsters may drone on about false nines, double pivots, half spaces, inverted wingbacks, expected goals, transitions, and so on ………….. but it is hard work, effort and energy that have provided the foundation for exponential improvement.

The other unusual feature of West Ham’s season (or at least it was to about a week ago) has been a better than expected experience with injuries. There have been isolated setbacks, but were negotiated successfully despite the thinness of the squad. But suddenly there is an epidemic. No-one can accuse this team of being spineless but we do now look like a team without a spine, the result of the simultaneous absence of Declan Rice, Angelo Ogbonna, and Michail Antonio.

I’m sure I am not alone in fearing that these injuries will be our undoing. Perhaps the manager has a cunning plan but with no radical options available, Moyes is unlikely to stray far from what (and who) he knows and trusts.

I can’t see any change from the defence line-up that started against Wolves despite the vulnerability that has crept in and seen five goals conceded in the last two games. That will mean Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku featuring again as wing backs and providing width going forward. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the ageing legs of Mark Noble alongside Tomas Soucek in the midfield ‘double pivot’. Several creative suggestions have been mooted online including moving Issa Diop, Said Benrahma or Coufal into that role, but even if I coul dbe convinced they might work, Moyes certainly wouldn’t go for any of them. My particular concern with Noble in this game is picking up yellow cards for poorly timed tackles on James Madison, another player who likes to go to ground rather too easily.

That leaves a front three of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. They provide enough threat to cause problems to an uncertain Leicester defence, but only if the rest of the team realise that none of them is Antonio. A very different level of service will be required.

The Foxes went through their own mini-injury crisis recently, but have come through it relatively unscathed and without the predicted fall off in performances. Of the key players only Harvey Barnes remains side-lined. They famously faltered in the home straight last season and will be eager not to do so yet again. Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans present a formidable partnership in defensive midfield while Kelechi Iheanacho has been the surprise pick lately as Jamie Vardy’s partner in attack. Linked with the Hammers before his move to Leicester in 2017 he has yet to deliver on his early promise and price tag.

Leicester have developed into much more of a possession-based side than the one that won the title in 2015/16. Back then they averaged just over 42% possession compared to 53% so far this season. By comparison, West Ham are averaging 41% this term. This provides a good indicator of how tomorrow’s match will pan out – containment and strike on the break.

The Foxes have yet to taste defeat at the London Stadium. At full strength I would give the Hammers every chance of changing that. The worries for me are not being able to adapt to the absence of Antonio and the lack of pace in defensive midfield. These tip the scales in Leicester’s favour but I think we’ll still manage to get a draw out of it. COYI!

West Ham Must Stay Positive Or Top Four Will Be Out Of Reach: No Time To Be Crying Wolves

Out of reach, so far, we never had the start. Out of reach, couldn’t see, Top Four’s ever meant to be. Who dares, wins, Mr Moyes!

If someone were to analyse my dreams, they might reach the conclusion that frustration is the common and recurring theme. Invariably, I am attempting to achieve or reach some goal or target and am unable to do so – whether it is catching a train, getting to an important appointment on time or finishing the weekend in the top four. West Ham are at the root of all my character defects!

The Hammers last league outing seems like it was ages ago now, interrupted as it was by another tedious international break. World cup qualifiers have become a case of going through motions these days. Designed to ensure the major sponsorship friendly countries have a smooth route through to the finals. It would be astonishing if any of the big name countries fail to qualify.

Anyhow, it has allowed for the disappointment of throwing away a three goal lead to Arsenal to fester in the mind far longer than necessary. An extra two points on the board would put a whole different complexion on the table as West Ham’s visit to Molineux rounds off Matchweek 30. An opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and into the coveted fourth place spot.

Who in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario at the start of the season? But is it an opportunity that will be taken? Can the nerve hold? Or will a promising position once again be kept tantalisingly out of reach – either through an absence of belief, a lack of focus or sense of inferiority? Will we end with another Jim Bowen “Look at what you could have won” moment? In short, when push comes to shove, will West Ham go all Spursy?

Immediately, the third goal went in against Arsenal, something odd happened on the pitch. What should have been a position of dominance morphed spontaneously into a phase of uncertainty. Not the result of tactical change but one born out of apprehension. Granted the third goal finally woke Arsenal up, but West Ham’s mindset changed as well. The passing and movement that had so unsettled the Gunners disappeared, replaced by hopeful balls forward and a willingness to throw away possession. Initiative was surrendered and, once Arsenal got one back, hope and momentum were effectively lost. The baffling substitutions only added to a sense of throwing in the towel. By the end, even coming away with a point looked unlikely.  The ease with which Liverpool despatched a poor Arsenal side at the weekend underlined the frustration felt.

For this evening’s encounter with Wolves, West Ham are able to welcome Pablo Fornals and Arthur Masuaku back to the squad. With all three of the Arsenal goals coming down our left hand side, David Moyes may be tempted to return to a back three rather than allow Aaron Cresswell to cope with the speed of the inconsistent Traore by himself. Despite calls for a Cresswell England return, left back remains a big problem position for the Hammers.

It is unfortunate that Angelo Ogbonna is not yet ready to return. Without the Italian at his side, Craig Dawson has had a bit of a wobble just lately. He and Issa Diop will need to be at their sharpest, even against the shot shy Wolves attack. A hattrick of own goals would be a disaster.

Hopefully, the two-week break will have given Michail Antonio another chance to recharge his batteries. He hasn’t been the same since his last injury and his old spark will be vital for the run-in. The dilemma of having only one striker.

Wolves have had a disappointing season. After two impressive 7th place finishes they have seriously lost their way this season, although sit relatively comfortably in mid-table. The loss of Jimenez has been a big blow as was the departure of Jota. At the same time the powers of midfield general Moutinho appear to be on the wane. I do like what I have seen of Neto and despite sounding like a discount supermarket chain he provides their greatest offensive threat. Traore has the occasional inspirational game but largely flatters to deceive, while Silva has the look of a player totally unsuited to the hurly burly of English football.

What can we expect tonight? Will the enforced break have any unexpected impacts, as it did for Chelsea and West Brom? Will the occasion and the chance to go fourth cause the players to freeze? With a return of just one point from the last two disappointing performances, it is the ideal time to get the show back on the road. It will be character, as well as skill and endeavour, that will determine outcome. As will a positive approach from the manager. Collectively, they must believe they can win. Form suggests they can, but what is in their heads?

When I first drafted this post I was banking on big performances from Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard providing the inspiration for a satisfying 2-0 win. News has since broken that Rice will be missing for an as yet unspecified period of time as the result of a knee injury picked up on England duty. That is a huge concern given that Moyes will no doubt see the likely replacement as Mark Noble. I wish him well and hope he has a blinder but the reality is he is far too slow still to be playing at this level.

Still hoping for the best but the confidence has dropped considerably. COYI!

Moyes Must Avoid Doing Something Stupid Again As West Ham Entertain The Gunners

They practice every day to find some clever balls to play. To score a header or two. And then they go and spoil it all, by doing something stupid like ….. respecting the point!

No sooner had I been presenting the case for David Moyes pragmatism than he went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid with his puzzling team selection at Old Trafford. My argument that his approach was based on realism over caution were made to look well wide of the mark.

Granted there was the enforced absence of Jesse Lingard and the withdrawal through injury of Pablo Fornals and the manager is not blessed with the strongest of squads. But immediately the team-sheet was revealed it had the whiff of waving the white flag about it. What a boost it must have been for the opposition to note the lack of offensive players.

Being prepared to surrender possession has become a relatively common tactic in the Premier League these days, but without a supporting ability to cause damage on the counter, it is futile. When the height of aspirations is hoping to hold out for ninety minutes, it usually ends badly. It was a pale shadow of the spirit of adventure shown a few weeks earlier against a far superior side from the other side of Manchester.

It was frustrating to hear Moyes say after the game that he wouldn’t have done anything differently, even with the benefit of hindsight. Surely, he must have recognised that the team selection was all wrong. That not replacing Lingard with a ball playing midfielder would negate any threat posed by Michail Antonio or Jarrod Bowen. That despite Ben Johnson’s having the makings of a top class defender, he is not cut-out as a wing-back operating on the wrong side. That it is many moons since Mark Noble has operated effectively enough to start at this level.  

Being annoyed by a defeat at Manchester United may reflect how far expectations have come, but more so, it illustrates how far we have to go, especially when you look at the lack of depth on the bench. Should European qualification be achieved, it promises to be a one season wonder unless there is significant strengthening in all positions – and what are the chances of that happening based on past performance?

This weekend, West Ham welcome Arsenal to the London Stadium for the penultimate London derby of the season. The Gunners may not be the same force as during their Wenger heyday, but they have continued to dominate the head-to-head against the Hammers– West Ham having won just three times in the last twenty-six meetings. Even when the Hammers have given a good account of themselves, Arsenal have managed to steal the points in the final minutes.

The visitors are currently on track for their lowest league finish since the last knockings of George Graham. Replacing Wenger has proven almost as difficult as replacing Ferguson at Manchester United, as the Gunners (along with their North London neighbours) slowly but surely slip further behind in the super rich standings. Having initially believed that Arteta might turn out to be an inspired appointment, his team has floundered and lacks any identity. Despite the introduction of several promising youngsters, the team continues to be hamstrung by the inconsistency of big money signings.

There is nothing for West Ham to fear but fear itself. I don’t expect the Hammers to boss possession but do expect to see far more threat as an attacking force. The return of Lingard is important in that respect but better contributions are also required from the other forward players – Antonio, Bowen, Fornals (if fit), Said Benrahma and/ or Manuel Lanzini. I would hope to see a return to a back four and the time is right for Super Tomas Soucek to put and end to his seven-match mini-goal drought.

With only a handful of league games being played this weekend due to FA Cup commitments, a win would see the Hammers go into the international break level on points and games played with Chelsea. That would be some achievement and for all the disappointment of the approach at Old Trafford it has been a phenomenal season, and a phenomenal effort by manager, players and coaches. I fancy a 2-1 win against an opponent who are pinning most of their season’s hopes on Europa League success. COYI!

Theatre Of Impossible Dreams: West Ham To Take A Passing Interest In Second Place

West Ham take a tilt at second placed Manchester United – fighting the unbeatable foe in a quest to reach the unreachable star of Champion’s League qualification

I was listening to a radio discussion in the week on the proposed changes to the Champion’s League – a plan to make the competition a closed shop for an elite group of super rich clubs. A large part of the argument for ‘inevitable’ change being the premise of a ‘huge shift in the way that football is consumed.’ Alas, football has become a product, rather than an experience.

Such discussions highlight again the dangerous path that the game is taking in deviating from its roots and treating the traditional fanbase as secondary to the worldwide TV audience. Greed is prioritising customers who give their money over supporters who give their heart. Supporter loyalty will see them stick with their team through thick and thin – a lifelong commitment. Whereas customers, will simply move on in the event of poor performance – switching allegiances as they might energy providers, either because their favourite player has switched clubs, or they have decided to follow basketball.

Being a supporter is an emotional attachment, and like all emotions they are prone to volatility. A run of defeats and the sky has fallen in. A couple of wins and the sky’s the limit. And I think I am sensing an outbreak of over stimulated expectations at West Ham at the moment.

If many of us had been asked at the start of the season how the Hammers would be faring come the middle of March, then more would have opted for ‘trading blows with the Albions to avoid relegation’ over ‘battling it out with Manchester United and Chelsea for a place in the top four.’   There cannot be many who don’t feel it has been a season of over-achievement so far. Yet there are mutterings in some quarters that we would be doing even better if only the manager wasn’t so cautious.

The case for the prosecution is that there are times when the manager has shown the opposition too much respect or else he has set the team up solely to protect the point. I’m not convinced that either is the case. Aside form the occasional positional tweak, the setup rarely changes. It is all about compact shape, great organisation, hard work and commitment – with the goal threat coming from rapid counter-attacks or set pieces. When it doesn’t come off it is because the best efforts of the opposition meet the limitations of our squad. West Ham’s strength this season is the result organisation and collective endeavour, not individual brilliance – even though there have been many excellent individual contributions.

The danger is that we may getting ahead of ourselves as to what is possible. Like popping in to your local drive-thru burger joint and demanding a patty made from kobe beef, topped with foie gras and black truffles. Possibly, the cook knows how to prepare it, but there is no chance that he has the correct ingredients. He can only make the best burger he can with what’s available.   

Every system/ formation has its weaknesses.  In ours, although we like to break quickly it is rarely in numbers. If the opposition deny the space and press hard surprise and potency are lost. We are just not geared to maintain possession for lengthy periods. That we don’t keep the ball well enough is a common post-match complaint, but it is systemic rather than individual technical deficiencies. Every good pass needs someone available to receive it, and the more options available the better. They is not yet in our repertoire.

A change to the system might be possible but it would likely expose weaknesses elsewhere. It is not the type of a risk that Moyes would take at this stage of the season, even if there is an argument that a win and a defeat is better than two draws. It really isn’t broken, so no need to fix it.

Tomorrow sees a third meeting of the season with the second team in Manchester, both of which have ended in defeat for the Hammers. The game at the London Stadium was particularly disappointing with West Ham comfortably ahead and on-top until the notorious ‘wind of god’ incident allowed the ball to miraculously return to the pitch from several yards out of play. The resulting goal simultaneously knocked the stuffing out of the home side and provided an unexpected boost to the visitors.

Despite the Red Devils sitting second in the Premier League table, they have only impressed sporadically. They are good rather than exceptional and far from an unbeatable foe. They may have only lost four league games all season, but all four have come at home. They are also experiencing twin pressures of injuries and fixture congestion, having surrendered a late equaliser in their Europa League tie on Thursday evening.  There could be far worse times to be playing them.

The non-availability of Jesse Lingard will require Moyes to do some juggling with his forward players. Possibly with Said Benrahma taking over the Lingard role and one of Jarrod Bowen, Ben Johnson or Ryan Fredericks stepping into the vacant slot, depending on the manager’s preferred formation and how he intends to counter the threat of Fernandes and Rashford (if fit).

Most pundits only mention the Hammers in passing when making their top four predictions. But by this stage of the season it is not impossible, even if it is unlikely, for West Ham to grab one of those places. All of the teams involved have tough matches to face.

As long as the team sticks to what it is good at, they are in with a shout. A win and the table will look very interesting, narrowing the gap between the two clubs to three points with a game in hand for the Hammers. West Ham’s odds have now shortened to 3/1 with some bookies for a top four finish and 4/6 for a top six one. It would be no big surprise not to make top four but I will be a little despondent if we slipped out the top six – even if it will still have been a great season.

Finally, I end the article back on an unashamedly emotional theme, West Ham to win 2-0. COYI!

The Road (To Europe) Is Long, With A Many A Winding Turn ….

That Leeds us to who knows where, who knows where. Are we strong, strong enough to carry it off? He ain’t Revie, he’s Bielsa!

In a season notable for its fixture congestion, it is something of a luxury to go a whole nine days without a game. In bygone days it would have been enough for Fat Sam to whisk the squad off for a warm weather jolly to Dubai, but the more pragmatic David Moyes will have wanted to put the break to better use. Recharging the batteries and retuning the engine for what could well be an interesting climax to an unusual campaign.

Since West Ham were squeezed out by Manchester City, despite a spirited and admirable display that was worthy of a point, the majority of Premier League clubs have played three times, resulting in the Hammers slipping from 4th to 7th in the standings. For a while it looked like other results were being kind to us, but recent wins for Manchester United, Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham have seen them putting points on the board at our expense. As an anxious supporter, I sense this may have posed a degree of added pressure to tonight’s performance, but hopefully the dressing room has an in-built immunity to such transient concerns.

With one or two games in hand over those above us (apart from Everton) the competition for a top six place remains open and up for grabs. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before the fat lady sings come the end of May. There are also an intriguing number of head-to-head games still to come between the interested parties – starting with Chelsea vs Everton, scheduled to end in a 1-0 home win immediately before our game kicks-off tonight. More gushing acclaim for Tuchel, the latest football media darling.

Where will it lead to, who knows where? My best guess is that a further twenty-one points would be the minimum requirement for West Ham to be in with a shout of a top four finish, it would certainly secure top six. Seven wins or six wins and three draws should do the trick. Not easy but, equally, not impossible.

How well other teams perform and avoiding injuries will also be contributing factors to the Hammer’s fate. We should all switch allegiances for European matches and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Liverpool continue to stay involved and distracted for as long as possible.

Despite Leicester’s win at the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell away given their spate of injuries and I’m still to be fully convinced by Everton. That the Hammers remain ‘part of the conversation’ (as they say these days) is nothing short of remarkable and more than I could have hoped for back in September. Who might have believed that games away at Manchester United and home to Chelsea, Leicester and Everton would be pivotal in determining European qualification rather than to avoiding relegation.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the Hammers have to negotiate the challenge from Premier League mavericks, Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has become something of a marmite manager among supporters – tactical genius or eccentric oddball? Whatever your opinion he has steered his side to a comfortable mid-table position in their first season back at the top, and provided plenty of entertainment along the way. They are as unpredictable as the Hammer’s sides I remember watching in the 1960s. A far cry from Revie’s Leeds of the same era. It will be interesting to see how they develop next season.

West Ham will be looking for only their second double of the season in tonight’s game. In the reverse fixture at Elland Road, Leeds attacking play was largely impotent, despite taking an early lead, and they are likely to provide a far stiffer test this time around.   

A huge difference compared with more recent seasons is the Hammer’s impressive home form, which is currently third best in the league. A win tonight would put them back into second place, above Tottenham, but still a long way behind Manchester City. A shame that it has had to be achieved in an empty stadium. Having supporters back inside for the final game on May 23 to secure a Champion’s League spot is a beguiling dream to hang on to.

The major injury concern over the past week has been the fitness of Lukasz Fabianski. His welfare is my concern. My fingers are doubly crossed for a safe return between the posts for today’s game, particularly with Darren Randolph also nursing an injury. Although Randolph is a decent enough shot stopper, he has always looked suspect in the air – evidenced, in my opinion, by his failure to claim De Bruyne’s cross that led to Manchester City’s opener the previous weekend.

Moyes has made a habit of springing the odd curve ball in recent team selections and formations. I think it will be a return to a back four tonigh with Jarrod Bowen returning in place of Ben Johnson – but perhaps the manager has other plans. 

It may be a tired pundit’s cliché but there is truth in the axiom that there are no easy games in the Premier League. Not in the sense that you can ever take it anything for granted. Leeds do not provide the compact, massed defence that has so often derailed West Ham in the past but there all action possession based style will present a very different challenge. There will be opportunity for the pace of Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to exploit on the break but the whole team must do their bit in matching the visitor’s energy. It is reassuring that we have come to expect a positive and determined team spirit throughout the side, as well as performances above and beyond the call of duty from the likes of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Craig Dawson.

For a side without a prolific goal-scorer, West Ham have a reasonable return in converting chances – but they do have an inferior goal difference to most of those above us. While it’s great to see the goals shared around, the absence of a 15 – 20 goals a year striker is an obvious vulnerability. The beauty of a natural scorer is in turning a draw into a victory and in turning the screw when you are on top, converting a 2-1 score-line into 4-1. Maybe next season, eh?

Win or draw and West Ham will be back in the top six at the end of the day. A win will see us back in fifth and should Everton manage a draw at Chelsea then it will be a good night’s work all round, with everything set up nicely for the following weekend. West Ham to win 3-1.  

The Pep Stop Boys: Moyes Gets The Band Back Together To Take A Pop At City

Go West Ham! A Hammers performance that brings an end to Manchester City’s long winning streak would be always on my mind.

I was amused to read a number of West Ham supporters on social media urging David Moyes to abandoned his cautious tendencies and “have a go” at Manchester City in today’s early kick-off at the Etihad Stadium.  Now I’m not saying I know exactly what they mean by having a go but if it involves taking the game to the opposition then it would be a reckless recipe for disaster – potentially straying into Ralph Hasenhüttl territory.

There is a danger that we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Moyes understands the strengths and weaknesses of his squad and the Hammers current position in the Premier League reflects that pragmatism. It is based on hard work, organisation and energy – a solid defensive shape supported by rapid counter-attacking and strength at set pieces. It works fine for me and have found myself delighted with the application and team spirit that has been demonstrated this season.

In an ideal world I would love the team to be more expansive, but that’s not where we are. We need to evolve to dominate games against the lesser sides before believing we can do it against the elite. In a game of opinions I can accept that others will see it differently, but this is not a negatively minded West Ham side in my view. It is one playing to their current strengths and acknowledging their limitations.

Much of the case for the prosecution about Moyes cautious outlook goes back to the Liverpool game. Admittedly it was not the Hammers finest recent performance, but Liverpool managed to conjure up their title winning form that day – although, ironically, they have lost all four Premier League games since then. Two weeks after beating West Ham, I sat through their visit to Leicester. Watching the game and looking at the stats afterwards, the games were almost carbon copy of each other, apart from the final score. Liverpool bossed possession 68% – 32% on both occasions, took the lead through Salah midway through the second half and were comfortably controlling the games. West Ham and Leicester completed an identical number of passes and although The Foxes had three more attempts at goal, the Hammers won four more corners and recorded a better passing accuracy. It all unravelled, though, in the final ten minutes at Leicester; the hosts equalised from a free kick and Liverpool (particularly their goalkeeper) simply went to pieces. Such are the fine margins of football which separate Rodgers’ ‘tactical genius’ from Moyes’ ‘lack of ambition’.

Of course, stats can disguise and distract us from nature and nuances of games – none more so than the possession statistic, which is pointless if you don’t make good use of it. I think most Hammers would like to see the team retain the ball retention better and that it remains an area for improvement. Moyes said as much after last week’s win against Tottenham. As I see it, it is a combination of poor individual decision making and not committing enough people forward when possession is won.

Any win over the north London neighbours is warmly appreciated and one that cemented fourth place as well as opening up a nine-point gap over our rivals was particularly sweet. We started well (did we score too-soon?) but seemed to lose momentum with the injury to Tomas Soucek – super Tom demonstrating a level of courage rarely seen in the modern game.

At last, VAR did what it is supposed to be there for by spotting the clear and obvious howler of the linesman’s flag, even if it took an age to do so. Did they rewind back to the half time whistle in the search for an infringement?  So many goals have to be celebrated twice nowadays, and the impromptu band performance was a moment to savour. The final twenty minutes or so was squeaky bottom viewing and not good for the blood pressure. I’m sure there were many like me yelling at the TV as we kept giving the ball back to the visitors and asking them to try again. Resolute defending and good fortune eventually combined to save the day.

An Opta projected final league table in the week (apparently based on running thousands of simulations) showed West Ham finishing in 7th place on 61 points – we had fallen below Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham in their findings. To be honest, I would be a shade disappointed if we finish outside the top six now, despite starting the season hoping for anything better than 17th. I’ll admit to being one of those who were predicting nul points by the end of October. It is said we have a tough run-in, but in fact the remaining fixtures work out as six from the top ten and seven from the bottom ten. I remain hopeful.

Playing each of the top three in the next six games does constitute a tough run, however. And none come tougher than away to Manchester City, who after a sluggish start have become an irresistible force – will West Ham represent the immovable object? . Guardiola has hit upon a plan B that has reined in their former free scoring flamboyance, but tightened up the vulnerable defence significantly. He is an exceptional manager, but one with the luxury of the world’s most expensively assembled (by some distance) squad at his disposal. A squad that includes eleven players costing more than £40 million. Buy a pair of expensive duds at City and it is written off as an accounting error. Do so at West Ham and it stymies the club for years to come.

The only sensible approach today is to constrain and frustrate City, much as West Ham did at the London Stadium back in October, a game that might have been won had the clear and obvious penalty (for a foul on Michail Antonio) been awarded. City are a different proposition these days and it will be a tall order to maintain concentration and resist the relentless City probing throughout ninety minutes. Not going out all guns blazing isn’t the same as not trying to win. On the rare occasions that City have lost at home in the league in the past few seasons it has been the result of a smash and grab mugging. That is the Hammers task today.

On the balance of probabilities West Ham will lose this game nine times out of ten (if not more often) due to the inequality of resources. It is not a game that will define the rest of the season but a moral sapping heavy defeat from a gung-ho approach could do.

It would be a massive achievement to be the side that manages to put a stop to the Manchester City juggernaut. It is implausible to predict a victory but maybe, just maybe, the Hammers can plunder an unlikely draw. As Pep might say (if he were Portuguese) “Se a vida é” – That’s the Way Life Is.  COYI!

Mind The Gap – West Ham Target Nine Point Lead Over Fast Fading Tottenham

It may be tougher at the bottom, but success can bring its own anxieties as confounded Hammer’s fans continue to pinch themselves over phenomenal season.

I have found myself just recently sitting at the computer and staring at the Premier League table for many minutes at a time. Can it really be true? Last season’s ragged and sorry strugglers are loud and proud in fifth position with twenty-four games already played? With a chance (even if it is an outside one) of European qualification? Surely, it’s just a dream?

It should be time to enjoy the moment, but too many years of bad experience won’t let me shake off the feeling that it can’t possibly to last. I get that uneasy feeling whenever things are going well that it’s bound to be followed by something bad happening. It’s a symptom, apparently, of a condition known as cherophobia – although, technically, that is the fear of being happy, which is certainly not true in my case. I couldn’t be more happier if West Ham suddenly embarked on a momentous fourteen game winning streak between now and the end of the season.

The holy grail would undoubtedly be gatecrashing the Champion’s League places. Although quite how a shoestring squad such as ours could possibly negotiate a CL campaign would defy the greatest minds. In an average year, a total of seventy-one points are needed to bag a CL spot – a target that would require the Hammers to up their points per game tally from 1.75 to just over 2 in the remaining games. Sounds like a tall order, but, of course, it depends equally on how other team’s fare. Qualification with sixty-six points has been known in the past.

As football fans, we are never fully satisfied. A circumstance that led me to ponder those what-if moments that have denied us an even greater points haul by now. (For the purposes of this exercise, I will conveniently ignore any instances where the rub of the green actually went our way.) What-if the incompetent officials had noticed the clearance by the Manchester United keeper had gone 10 yards out of play? What-if a few of those fifteen attempts that hit the woodwork had bounced back into the net? What-if the blatant penalty for the foul on Michail Antonio against Manchester City at 1-0 up had been rightfully given? What-if we had started the comeback against Tottenham five minutes earlier and won 4-3?

That brings us nicely to this week’s opponents, and a game where anticipation anxiety is typically at its highest. A contest where you would be tempted to sell at least a small part of your soul in exchange for a positive result. A West Ham win would open up a nine point gap over the one-time north London giants, while injecting ever greater turmoil onto the chaotic reign of Jose Mourinho. The replacement of Pochettino by Mourinho is now looking as inspired as sacking Harry and bringing in Roeder was. The spirit and verve that once typified Pochettino’s Spurs has been thoroughly exorcised to a point where they now rely totally on the goals and assists from Son and Kane. Still a threat but a far more predictable one.

Something that has surprised me with David Moyes in recent games is his willingness to play around with formations and personnel. Even though some of this was forced upon him by injuries and availability, it did demonstrate a greater tactical nous then we might give him credit for. Manager and team have grown in confidence together.

Although Monday night’s game did end with a routine win, the changes against Sheffield United did illustrate that tinkering can sometimes expose hidden weaknesses – like a man uprating the power of his car engine but not upgrading the brakes and suspension at the same time. With Jarrod Bowen occupied elsewhere he was not available to support Vladimir Coufal. As a result Coufal looked unusually exposed at times, allowing the visitors to get in more crosses than might have been comfortable. It was also no surprise that an opponent with a mainly aerial threat would look to isolate Aaron Cresswell as part of back three. A team with more clinical finishers than the Blades (Harry Kane, for example) might well have made a lot more of the headed opportunities that presented themselves.

The Hammers line-up tomorrow will again hinge on the fitness of Antonio. All indications in the media are that he is available and raring to go. His inclusion would see a return to the favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with a toss up between Said Benrahma or Manuel Lanzini as to who partners Jesse Lingard and Bowen in the ‘3’. This would mean an unfortunate demotion to the bench for Ben Johnson who is rapidly becoming a very fine footballer, both defending and going forward, even playing on the wrong foot.

Tottenham will be without several minor players but may welcome back the unsettled Kane. Watch out for wind assisted tumbles in the penalty area.

West Ham have a below average record this season in London derbies – a return of just nine points from seven games played. The game will be a big chance to correct this and give a boost to the pursuit of finishing as top London club for the first time since 1985/86. If the Hammers are to win they must avoid getting caught by a slow start as they did in the return fixture back in October. Big performances will be needed from the likes of Craig Dawson, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Lingard and Antonio, but if they are the scene will be set for another famous victory.

I mentioned earlier the anxiety brought about by cherophobia. This should not, of course, be confused with chorophobia which is, in fact, the fear of dancing. Should my prediction of an impressive 3-1 West Ham victory prove correct, they’ll be dancing in streets of East London tomorrow afternoon.