Moving On Up: West Ham Look To Return To Winning Ways Against Injury Hit Leeds United

Excellent cup wins have propped up indifferent league form in recent weeks. Time for the Hammers to bounce back with an awayday victory at Elland Road.

An opportunity today for West Ham to get back to winning ways in the Premier League as they visit a weakened Leeds United at Elland Road. Having flown out of the traps with emphatic victories over Newcastle and Leicester at the start of the season, league form has since faltered with the Hammers having picked up just two points of the last nine available.  

Indifferent league form has, however, been punctuated by two impressive cup victories: first against Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League; and more recently over Manchester United in the Carabao Cup.

The win at Old Trafford was particularly unexpected. Having missed out on at least a point in the league fixture at the London Stadium three days earlier, an immediate rematch in cup competition looked a daunting prospect. The Red Devils and their expensive strength in depth were clear favourites in what was always going to be a ‘B’ team encounter.  

It is difficult to gauge what effect the win will have on overall confidence given that Jarrod Bowen was the only player the starting eleven who is in contention for a start again today. It can’t have done any harm though, and there really does seem to be a strong sense of togetherness throughout the entire squad.

There has now been the opportunity to see each of summer signings in action, with positive first impressions. Alphonse Areola had a few uncertain moments but looks an ideal long-term replacement for Lukasz Fabianski. Alex Kral had a solid, hardworking debut and can provide decent cover for Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek when needed. Nikola Vlasic has shown great attitude, and some nice touches, but it looks like he needs extra time and work in adapting to the pace and intensity of the Premier League. All can prove to be astute signings and valuable assets even if they are not yet first picks on the team-sheet.

There were also other promising performances at Old Trafford, notably Issa Diop, Ben Johnson and Ryan Fredericks. If Diop can get his progress back on track, he can become the ‘monster’ he was once billed as.  Johnson is a fine prospect although may find few opportunities behind Vladimir Coufal is his more natural right back role. I’m hoping playing him out of position is good for his development. It is a shame Fredericks picked up an injury laying on the goal for Manuel Lanzini (who himself is also starting to look rejuvenated). If only he could put his blistering pace to good use more regularly, he could have achieved so much more. A matter of confidence, I wonder!

For today’s game, the only likely change from last weekend should be the return of Michail Antonio, with Vlasic dropping down to the bench. No doubt in my mind, the team and game plan look far more formidable with Antonio leading the line.

Leeds have a number of injury problems. Llorente, Koch and Bamford are all missing while Raphina, Harrison and Ayling are considered doubtful. Following last season’s heroics, Leeds are so far without a win this term. Could there be a dose of second season syndrome circulating at Elland Road? Possibly, but a team that runs its socks off are sure to come good at some stage.

Matches against weakened sides have not traditionally been a Hammers strong point. West Ham are a very different proposition these days and I’m not sure I can remember a more hardworking, organised, disciplined, and spirited side turning out in the claret and blue. Old anxieties, however, are difficult to shake off and I still find myself judging the team’s ability to self-harm by historic standards. Will we get intimidated travelling anywhere north of Watford Gap?  Is a three-goal lead with ten minutes remaining a big enough cushion? Will we buckle at the merest suggestion of a physical onslaught? A few more seasons of the current therapy and watching a game might even become a low-anxiety enjoyable experience. A good time to be a West Ham fan!    

Can’t help feeling that we will be too strong for Leeds today. The home defence is not the strongest at the best of times but with players missing there should be plenty of gaps for our boys to exploit. A game against Bielsa’s Leeds will never be easy but West Ham to win 3-1. COYI!

David Moyes Claret & Blue Army To Outsmart Ole Gunnar’s All-Star Circus

Buoyed by an impressive midweek performance in Zagreb how will the Hammers shape up against Ronaldo & Co in the absence of the suspended Michail Antonio

It’s back to league action today for West Ham just a few days after an impressive Europa League victory against Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. It was a textbook awayday performance that completely belied the Hammer’s recent inexperience of European competition. Goals from Ant and Dec had put the visitors in firm control of a game where the clean sheet was rarely threatened.

The visit of Manchester United to east London is one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the season. They may be several levels below the standards set under Alex Ferguson on the pitch, but much of their worldwide appeal and glamour has not worn off. If West Ham have any aspirations towards qualifying for the Champion’s League through league position, then today’s visitors are one of the teams they must compete with. In truth, winning the Europa League is a more realistic target.

It is encouraging that many commentators (and opponents) are starting to look at West Ham differently. That perhaps last year’s sixth place wasn’t an aberration after all. But if there is one persistent criticism of David Moyes among pundits, it is that he is too cautious when coming up against the big teams. On the Southampton match commentary, Efan Ekoku, a rather erratic summariser at the best of times, went as far to suggest that had it not been for an overly cautious approach in big games, the Hammers would have comfortably won the two points needed for a top four finish last season. Wishful thinking, quite possibly, but it is difficult to completely dismiss the notion that an inferiority complex has influenced the approach to certain games.

That wasn’t the case in this equivalent fixture last December, though. The Hammers were by far the better team for over an hour, taking a first half lead through Tomas Soucek and looking likely to increase that lead. There was no hint of danger when the visiting keeper desperately kicked for touch in the 65th minute, only for the infamous ‘Wind of God’ to bring the ball back into play from several yards over the line. Pogba equalised in the immediate aftermath, heads dropped at the injustice of divine intervention, and the match ended in an unexpected 3-1 away win.

Today’s major West Ham team news is the absence of the squads one and only striker Michail Antonio due to a one match suspension. With no like for like replacement, Moyes will need to somehow shuffle his resources and come up with a new game plan. The pace and power of Antonio is so fundamental to the way we play that no obvious solution stands out.

If Moyes wants to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation, then he could go with either Jarrod Bowen or Andriy Yarlmolenko as the arrowhead. Bowen had some success in that role last season but was heavily supported by the initial purple patch of Jesse Lingard’s loan spell . Yarmolenko doesn’t work anywhere near hard enough to lead the line effectively or play more than a token ten minutes. Neither have the physical presence to unsettle what can be an uncertain Manchester defence.

Alternatively, Moyes might consider a change of formation – to either 3-5-2 or 4-3-3. When Moyes first arrived, I believed a back three was to be the default setting but it was most probably down to an expedient way of making use of the limited resources available at the time. I’m not really convinced that either Vladimir Coufal or Aaron Cresswell are at their best as wing backs, and Arthur Masuaku lacks enough game time to be thrown into such a high profile contest.

A change to 4-3-3 is the more interesting option. It is a formation that I think Moyes might toy with in selected games anyway – when he wants to be cautious! Either Manuel Lanzini or Alex Kral could fit in alongside the usual double pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, to stiffen the central midfield and pick up opposition runners. It is more likely to be Lanzini given that Kral has yet to step onto the pitch in claret and blue. That would leave a front three from Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Nikola Vlasic to provide an unfamiliar but, what could be, fluid attacking force. It feels attractive but is it too difficult to pull off at short notice?

Whereas West Ham strength is organisation and being greater than the sum of their parts, Manchester United are quite the opposite. It is a team of individuals, seemingly assembled without any grand plan, which can be devastating on its day but who too often blow hot and cold. The squad list looks formidable and yet they are rated some way behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool as credible title contenders. They will regularly win the games they are supposed to but will often fall short when up against the big boys – or playing with the Young Boys!

The signing of Ronaldo is typical of the big name, star studded, glamourous, big money attitude to recruitment. Of course, he has been an exceptional player during a fantastic extended career – and will still score goals – but was that really their top priority, and is it a sensible team building move?

Rarely a day goes by without a headline declaring that Declan Rice is yet another of the final pieces in the Manchester United jigsaw. Many in the media have already guaranteed he will move to Old Trafford. I have no illusions about West Ham being able to match his trophy and financial ambitions, but I hope if/ when he does leave he goes somewhere more sensible. Then again, I would be surprised if Solskjær is still at Old Trafford by next summer – but I had the same thought last year.

This will be an intriguing match. I would fancy a home win strongly if Antonio was playing. It works in our favour that Manchester United will not come to sit back but much depends on how well the counter attack works without our Number 9 fronting it? The visitors have an abundance of attacking talent and we mustn’t allow them to wear us down by defending too deep and squandering possession cheaply. Some big performances are needed and looking forward to Kurt Zouma taking care of Ronaldo.

In the interest of positivity, I will trust that Moyes and the coaching staff have devised a cunning plan B and that the players are able to execute it to perfection. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

We’re Going Where The Sun Shines Brightly: West Ham Kick-Off Their European Adventure Against Dinamo Zagreb

Europa League group stage newbies West Ham start their campaign with a tough awayday to face the Croatian champions. This is one we have to take seriously.

Hammers of a certain age often rank the European Cup Winners Cup (ECWC) semi-final against Eintract Frankfurt among the most exciting nights ever under the Boleyn Ground floodlights. Trailing 2-1 from the first lag, the old ground was rocking with close to 40,000 expectant punters packed in. Heavy rain and a sodden pitch combined to create the ideal conditions for a Trevor Brooking masterclass, as West Ham scored three times to lead 4-2 on aggregate. There was still time for the Germans to pull a goal back, however, but the Hammers survived a customary jittery last few minutes to book their place in the final. Such occasions make for enduring memories and hopefully this season’s European adventure will linger long for a new generation of fans?

European football has changed a lot since those heady days though and this will be the Hammers first participation in a challenging Euro league format. There were opportunities in 2015/16 and 2016/17 but the chance was squandered both times by a complacency in the qualifying/ play-off games. Opponents may come from weaker, less illustrious leagues but it is wrong to assume they wont be wily or streetwise adversaries. Will David Moyes avoid repeating the mistakes of Slaven Bilic?

The draw was very kind one for us. A team from the third pot of seeds could not really have hoped for a friendlier grouping. Although the competition is a trip into the unknown for the club, progression through to the knock-out stage should not be beyond them. As things stand, winning the Europa League is a more realistic route to Champion’s League qualification than finishing in the Premier Leagues top four.

On paper, tonight’s game is the toughest group game that we will face. Dinamo Zagreb are seasoned European campaigners and regular Croatian champions – they currently sit top after seven games. Their participation in the group follows elimination in the Champion’s League play-off round to mystery Moldovan side, FC Sherrif.

I will await with interest to see the side David Moyes has selected for the match. It is the type of game where resting key players would be a risk. It is likely to be a raucous, if not hostile, environment. The dilemma for Moyes is in balancing resources, given how tired the team looked towards the end of the last two Premier League games and the prospect of facing Manchester United on Sunday.

I fully expect there to be a few changes from the team that started on Saturday with Alphonse Areola, Kurt Zouma, Issa Diop, Nikola Vlasic, Alex Kral and Manuel Lanzini all coming into contention. I would hope that Areola, Zouma and Vlasic are all certain starters and that Michail Antoinio continues up front now that he has the weekend off. Of all the leggy looking players, Tomas Soucek looks like he would most benefit from a rest, but I’m not sure how viable that is without weakening the team’s spine. Kral is a possible replacement and there has been talk of Mark Noble – but I would rather see him from the bench at this stage of his career.

My predicted line-up: Areola, Coufal, Diop, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek (or Kral), Bowen, Vlasic, Fornals, Antonio

European football and foreign opposition such as Dinamo Zagreb are unknown quantities as far as we Hammers fans are concerned. The Croatians famously knocked out Tottenham in the knock-out stage of last year’s competition and must fancy their chances. That might be a good thing as it would better suit our counter attacking style. Watching the unimaginative attempts to prise open or get behind an organised Southampton defence at the weekend demonstrated the squad’s shortcomings when in that respect. Perhaps Vlasic will fill that void.

With no form to guide me, my shot in the dark prediction is a battling 2-1 West Ham win to get the European campaign off to a flyer. Best of luck to all the Hammer’s fans heading to the Croatian sunshine. COYI!

New Faces Prepare To Show Star Quality As West Ham Travel To Southampton

Top six, new signings, a better-balanced squad and European football. Can the West Ham feelgood factor maintain momentum into today’s clash at St Mary’s Stadium?

After months of phony rumours and speculation, the transfer window exploded into life at the last minute with a flurry of late deals and a hysterical media frenzy. All those who experienced it will all be able to tell their grandchildren where they when the news broke of which shirt number Cristiano Ronaldo will be wearing at Old Trafford – as Manchester United fans sent house prices rocketing in Croydon just to obtain a CR7 postcode.

After the dust on that blockbuster deal finally settled, it also emerged that West Ham had broken open the piggy bank to make three additional quality signings of their own. Kurt Zouma, Nikola Vlasic and Alex Kral all agreeing on moves to east London. A warm welcome to KZ4, NV11 and AK33. A trick missed, perhaps, with Kral not insisting on the number 47 shirt – as an inspiration to rifle in the occasional goal.

On paper, it looks a very productive window for the club. But only time will tell how well, and how quickly, those players adapt to life in the claret and blue. Zouma, with over 150 EPL appearances already to his name, should be ready and able to make an instant impression. Vlasic and Kral, on the other hand, will need time to demonstrate their transition from the Russian to English leagues.

The squad now has cover in most positions. Alphonse Areola provides competition for Lukasz Fabianski. Kouma increases the complement to four senior centre backs – how will Issa Diop reacts to becoming fourth choice – while Ben Johnson provides cover for both full-backs. Kral offers useful backup to Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, and potentially we will see all three deployed in games against Manchester City and Chelsea. The attacking midfield options are suddenly intriguing with Vlasic adding a different dimension to the blossoming talents of Pablo Fornals, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma.    

If only there was a backup striker, the squad would look comfortably at home as a top six side. Although it will be a challenge to cope with both domestic and European football, there is now a better balance in the squad and a flexibility to vary formation according to circumstances.

The striker situation is, as ever, complicated. David Moyes has stuck to his principles of focusing on quality rather than numbers but uncovering a productive striker on the cheap is a tough assignment – which a quick scan through the list of 50 or so strikers signed by West Ham in the last 10 years illustrates perfectly. It is a task that must now sit at the very top of Rob Newman’s (the club’s new head of recruitment) Todo list.  In the meantime, all hopes will be pinned to the brittle hamstrings of Michail Antonio, a well-deserved Premier League Player of The Month.

It would be no surprise to see Zouma go straight into the starting eleven for today’s trip to Southampton at the expense of Craig Dawson. That is the only probable change I see, barring any late injuries or positive Covid tests. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for a glimpse of Vlasic from the bench.

There has been debate among supporters that the time is now right for Areola to replace Fabianski between the sticks. Areola will inevitably take over the Number One spot at some point during the season, but I doubt that time has come quite yet.

Today’s opponents, Southampton, have experienced an indifferent start to the season. Defeat at Everton on the opening weekend was followed up by a creditable home draw against Manchester United, and a last gasp penalty equaliser at Newcastle.

Not sure that I am totally convinced by Ralph Hasenhüttl despite his obvious passion for the task in hand. Or more specifically at how appropriate/ resilient his narrow 4-2-2-2 formation is for the Premier League. A record to date of 16th, 11th and 15th place finishes is not particularly impressive but with the Saints rich youth production line seemingly run dry maybe it is as good as it gets.

The home side will still be a threat, however. The spearhead of Che Adams and Adam Armstrong may not offer much in the way of aerial threat, but they are both lively, work very hard and come with decent goal-scoring records. Add to that the dead-ball prowess of James Ward-Prowse and the Hammers defence must remain alert. Elsewhere, ex-Stamford Bridge academy player, Tino Livramento, looks exactly the type of exciting prospect that Chelsea will be wanting to buy back some time in the future.

Despite the transfer window being firmly closed, the media have yet to tire of speculation about Declan Rice joining Manchester United. If reports are to be believed, the hierarchy at Old Trafford are continuing to work on a bid that will take Rice up north in the summer – is that the best destination for a player wanting to win things? The bid should be a thing of beauty if they have ten months to work on it.

In the same vein, the talk of a Jesse Lingard move in the opposite direction persists. Strange that Lingard didn’t push for a summer move, but I wonder if his services will still be of interest following the capture of Vlasic.

After today’s game the Hammers set off to Zagreb on their first real European adventure for many years. There then follows a busy run of games interrupted only by more international breaks. It will be great to set that run off with a positive result against a weakened Southampton at St Mary’s. No doubt we will cause them enough problems in attack to win the game provided the players are alert defensively and maintain their compact shape in midfield.  Hasenhüttl has yet to taste victory over West Ham and that run should continue today. West Ham to win 2-0; or 9-0 if the Saints have a player sent off early on.

Pitch Imperfect: Five Takeaways From West Ham’s Lost Points Against Crystal Palace

The perfect start to the season comes to a premature end with below par performances and accusations of an imperfect London Stadium pitch

Party Pooping Palace

Crystal Palace are perennial party poopers on their visits to West Ham and it should be no real surprise that they did it again. In nine visits since their return to the top-flight in 2013/14 the record is four draws, three away wins and two home wins. Despite my natural (probably, arrogant) instinct that the Hammers should easily brush past off their south London neighbours, that is the least probable outcome in recent history. A dominant first half suggested that a third successive win could well be on the cards, but the second half story was very different once the visitors recognised West Ham were well below their best. A single goal lead is always precarious but more so for a side capable of surrendering three goal advantages. In the end Palace were good value for their draw as the game ended in precious points dropped for the Hammers, just as it had on my last ever visit to the Boleyn in April 2016.    

Engine Trouble

The foundation for much of what is good about the current West Ham team is centred on the partnership of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek. Protecting the back line and giving freedom for attacking players to get forward quickly on the break. They have set themselves an exceptionally high bar and unfortunately never quite reached it on Saturday. It may have been a hangover from the exertions of Monday night or a consequence of the newly accused bumpy London Stadium pitch, but both were below their usual standards. Rice with several uncharacteristically poor touches and Soucek rarely getting into advanced positions from open play.  A bad day at the office!

Trading Places

Although it was exactly the same team that played against Leicester, there was a noticeable tweak with Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma swapping primary roles. Fornals who had played more centrally against the Foxes moving wide to the left and Benrahma switching from the left to the centre. The rationale, I suppose, was a defensive one, to provide greater support to the full-backs in cutting off the supply of crosses to Benteke.  It was quite a negative tactical adjustment to make and I felt neither player’s overall game benefitted from the change.  I considered Fornal’s central role against Leicester had been his most influential in a West Ham shirt, but David Moyes had maybe seen it differently and is not convinced by either in the central role. The reason, perhaps, why he remains keen to bring in Lingard and/ or Vlasic before the end of the transfer window.  

Defensive (Claret &) Blues

Both of the conceded goals were extremely poor from West Ham’s point of view. Sometimes goals are the result of individual errors but the two on Saturday were the result of collective failures – just as the two at Newcastle had been. Opponents were allowed to carry the ball too far without challenge, more could have been done to prevent crosses and those crosses had to be dealt with better. The second equaliser demonstrated a particularly poor lack of concentration, coming so soon after Michail Antonio’s splendid strike to restore the lead. The Palace goals did feature two very smart finishes from the impressive Gallagher, it has to be said. Although Craig Dawson was implicated both times, the fault was not his alone. Dawson is a committed and honest player but with obvious limitations at this level. The signing of Kurt Zouma will no doubt limit his first team appearances from now on.  

No Game Changers

The late introduction of Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko served little purpose other than using up a bit of time. Neither has much to offer these days and the fact they are considered to be the best game changing possibilities available says much about the depth of the squad. A degree of sympathy for Lanzini who has never been the same player since suffering serious injury. Yarmolenko, on the other hand, is technically gifted but just not suited to the pace and frenzy of the Premier League. Even his trademark party trick of cutting in from the right and curling one in with his left fell short on this occasion. If there really is intent to bring in additional midfield players before tomorrow’s deadline, it would be no big loss if Yarmolenko and Lanzini were shipped out to balance the books.  

Ratings: Fabianski (6), Coufal (8), Ogbonna (6), Dawson (4), Cresswell (6), Rice (6), Soucek (6), Bowen (7), Benrahma (6), Fornals (7), Antonio (7)

What The Dickens: The Best Of Times On The Pitch But The Worst Of Times In The Transfer Window

Performances on the pitch continue to defy the behind the scenes discontent as West Ham set their sights on a three match winning start to the season by defeating Crystal Palace

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t give a second thought to the league table after just two games played. But life is too short not to make exceptions. And with the Hammers sitting proudly at the top of the table, why not take the time to enjoy with a little smug smile of satisfaction. Even if we know it is only a temporary state of affairs.

Look no further than the fact that Arsenal were top at the same stage last season as a cautionary tale on how bad things can turn out. In fact, seven different clubs led the table last season before Manchester City eventually hit the front to win the title at a canter.

It’s all a bit Jekyll and Hyde at West Ham right now. A club with a split personality swinging between the many good things happening on the pitch and the ongoing turmoil of inaction behind the scenes.

To see the Hammers described in the press as “disciplined and aware, determined and resilient” is unfamiliar territory for seasoned supporters. We may have seen teams with greater individual flair and flamboyance in the past, but the current level of unity, courage, and team spirit has never been as obvious.

The performance against Leicester on Monday was close to perfection. Outstanding organisation and a rigorous compact shape, founded on the formidable Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek partnership, gave the visitors little scope as an offensive threat. Vardy and Maddison were neutralised, our defences were untroubled, and attacking players allowed to flourish.

Michail Antonio rightly received the plaudits for his record breaking goal-scoring exploits, but it was equally pleasing to witness top notch performances from Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen. I would go as far to say it was Fornals best all-round performance in a West Ham shirt – an extra helping of creativity added to his undoubted endeavour and work-rate.

If things are going well on-the-pitch this feels at odds with the usual transfer window shenanigans from the boardroom. To say West Ham have been quiet in the transfer market is a massive understatement. With just three days left until the ceremonial slamming-shut, no permanent signings have yet been made (unless you count the option to buy for Craig Dawson).

While other clubs are able swoop in and sign a player within a few hours of him being linked to a rival, the West Ham hierarchy continue to move at glacial speed – so what chance is there of completing more signings by Tuesday night? There is a fine line between getting a good deal and completely missing the boat.

I would be happy with the signing of Kurt Zouma but will not be counting any chickens until I see him holding the shirt. The move has been going on so long they could make it into a Netflix series. The deal has been off and on so many times it is difficult to keep track – personal terms, payment terms, agent fees, dodgy knees and whether to have pineapple on the take-away pizza they have ordered in. Supposedly the medical has been completed OK, but still minor issues to resolve before pen is put to paper.

Signing Zouma does nothing to resolve the striker debacle, however – although I did read he used to play right-wing. Hmmm? It is seven months since Haller was sold and still no sign of support or backup plan for the clubs one and only injury-prone frontman. It is impossible to read between the lines of what David Moyes has said on the striker search, given that he is notoriously cautious and unwilling to reveal his hand, but the omens don’t feel good. If there was ever an ideal time to invest in the squad this would be it.

Today’s visitors to the London Stadium for an unaccustomed Saturday 3pm kick-off are occasional West Ham party poopers Crystal Palace. It has been a slow start to the season for the Eagles and new manager, Patrick Viera, with just a single point and no goals to show from their two games. From the outside it looks like Viera has a thankless job on his hands in making something of the ageing squad left by Roy Hodgson. Hodgson’s Palace were exceedingly dull but he had them organised well enough to keep relegation out of harms way. They will be banking on there being three even worse teams in the league this time around though.

With each passing season Palace’s talisman, Wilfred Zaha, has become less talismanic. The kryptonite of not getting his move away from Selhurst Park has left him a weaker, irritable, and forlorn figure – to the point where a cardboard cut-out might even do a better job.

As ever, the danger is treating today’s game as a forgone conclusion. It’s fine for us supporters to do so, but the players mustn’t fall into the complacency trap. There is still a difficult job to be done. As much as our rapid counter-attacking style of play has the beating of Leicester these days, it will need to adapt to meet the challenge posed by a team with no intent of bossing possession.  Creating goal-scoring opportunities against a packed defence requires a different level of cunning.

I am tempted to look at the clues 4-2, 4-1, and see a 4-0 demolition as the next in the sequence (I may have been watching too many episodes of Only Connect).  I doubt it will be a rampant display, though, and will settle for a more conservative 2-0 win. Maybe that will be enough to keep us top of the table going into the international break. COYI!

The Joy Of Six: West Ham And Leicester Take An Early Opportunity To Check Each Other’s Balls

Unbeaten starts to the season, Premier League scoring records, frustration at the lack of transfer activity and takeover rumours will echo around a packed London Stadium for this evening’s top-six encounter with Leicester City

Faced with the prospect of buying a new pair of shoes, a man and a woman might approach the task very differently. Our typical man heads off to the High Street, tries on a few pairs for size, then once something is good enough, pays his money and spends the rest of the afternoon in the pub. Our woman, on the other hand, feels obliged to visit every shop likely to be selling shoes (including the designer ones she knows will be too expensive), tries on as many shoes as possible and worries whether they will match her outfit, handbag, and accessories. Realising many hours later that the best pair were the pair from the very first shop, she returns in a panic only to find they have since been sold.

David Moyes search for squad reinforcements feels a lot like the lady’s search for shoes. The notion of the perfect signing having created a transfer window equivalent of the ‘Yips’, a psychological fear of commitment preventing any deals from crossing the line.

Of course, we have little idea what goes on behind the scenes. The manager may have submitted a lengthy list of preferred targets to the Board only to be told that the credit card limit is maxed out and a deal can’t be done. But time is running out now and the thought of trying to make do and mend until Christmas makes as much sense as putting one through your own net in the first minute of every match. The longer we dither, the fewer the options available and the greater the temptation to panic. The equivalent of the last-minute shopper buying an overpriced pair of Chelsea boots at closing time that will simply end up at the back of the wardrobe until the next car boot sale – Ross Barkley or Reuben Loftus-Cheek, spring to mind.

Still Moyes has a fine recent record so far with transfers, and it cannot be an task easy to address the many gaps in the squad with the balance of quality and affordability. As they say, before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.

Today’s game against Leicester promises to be an intriguing affair. Early season matches can often offer unreliable pointers to the season ahead, but both teams got of to a flyer last week as they look to build on their 5th and 6th placed finishes. A scan of the likely starting elevens and it is difficult to separate the two teams. But the visitors have a far superior bench by some distance. A result of astute transfer dealings in recent years.

Barring injuries or sickness, it is impossible to expect any changes to the Hammers starting line-up for the game. Had it not been to waste a few precious seconds, the game at St James’ Park might have concluded with no West Ham substitutions. There is no-one on the bench (apart from Areola) knocking on the door for a first team start. And no impact super sub capable of coming on and changing the course of a game. 

West Ham’s double over Leicester was one of the highlights of last season. The 3-0 win at the King Power was voted by supporters as the outstanding team performance of the season on the club’s official website. The return fixture at the London Stadium was a more nail-biting affair that ended in a narrow 3-2 win. This came during a run of games where the Hammers would race into a three-goal lead and then endeavour to throw it all away.  In both games Moyes matched Rodgers’ formation by going three at the back, with Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku operating as wingbacks. Player availability suggests a return to a back four in both camps tonight, setting up an absorbing midfield contest as a result.

As ever, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be pivotal to any West Ham’s success, creating the space and opportunity for Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen to continue their encouraging early season form. But they face formidable opponents in the form of Ndidi, Tielemans and Maddison. But it is Barnes who particularly worries me. His pace and directness is of a style that often exposes vulnerabilities at the heart of the Hammer’s defence. He will need careful watching.

It was pleasing to see that referees continued to allow more robust challenges for a second week running. Hopefully, this will not be one of the early season initiatives that quickly gets forgotten or reversed because Jürgen or Ole have been complaining about the lack of soft free kicks coming their way. Eliminate exaggerated play acting and the new tactical head injury and it will be just like old times.

Away from the pitch, there has been the amusing distraction of an apparent takeover bid for the club by a shadowy consortium backed by investment firm PAI Capital. Rather than pursue the matter in the Boardroom, the consortium has come up with a dubious plan of courting West Ham fans in public and convincing them that they are the good guys. So far, they have failed miserably on that objective. Although it is not clear what that would have achieved. Difficult to believe that this will lead anywhere.

A win by four goals tonight and the Hammers would end the weekend sitting proudly at the top of the Premier League table. We can all dream, can’t we? A tight game with a single goal separating the two teams though is a more reasonable outcome – nineteen out of thirty non-drawn West Ham games last season were decided by a single goal. Keeping Vardy quiet will again be vital, but the visitors have plenty of other attacking options these days. A hard fought 2-1 win will do for me with Michail Antonio at last overtaking Paolo Di Canio’s record for Premier League goals scored. I’m sure he will be well prepared with a suitable dance and a ‘48’ T Shirt underneath his playing kit.

Whistling A Happy Toon: Five Takeaways From West Ham’s Opening Day Rout At St James’ Park

West Ham swept to victory in a thrilling game away at Newcastle. The lessons learned and player ratings.

That’s Entertainment

It was great to get a Premier League season off to a winning start for a change. Hopefully, not an omen for what transpired after last season’s opener, where with the result reversed the Hammers went on to great things while Newcastle faded into indifference. A fantastic win at a stadium where West Ham rarely bring anything home, but more than anything it was good old-fashioned entertainment. Credit to both teams and the officials for that. A recognition that football is a contact sport where tackling is part of the game. It’s not a foul every time a player goes to ground at the merest suggestion of contact. Six goals and thirty-five goals attempts in an end-to-end thriller was superb value for money. The icing on the cake was that VAR did its job quietly in the background – unobtrusive in correcting obvious errors just as it is supposed to be.  

The Defence Rests

The clean sheet obsession is a relatively new phenomenon in the stat dominated world of football. Give me a competitive 4-2 victory over a cagey 1-0 win any time. Any team showing a sense of adventure will always present occasional chances at the back. Having said defensive competence is expected and the careless play that contributed to both Newcastle play should be avoided. Both times possession was surrendered cheaply close to our own penalty area with poor marking compounding the errors. The first began with poor control from Aaron Cresswell, was assisted by Declan Rice failing to prevent the tricky feet Saint-Maximin from getting to the bye-line, and was completed by Craig Dawson and Vladimir Coufal losing Wilson in the penalty box. The sloppy second started when a combination of Jarrod Bowen and Coufal failed to clear their lines and ended with an unmarked Murphy presented with a free header from a cross that landed on his head.   Both very poor goals to concede!

A Game of Two Halves

In his post-match comments, David Moyes suggested the Hammers had played well throughout ninety minutes. I don’t agree with that. A spark was missing in the first 45 minutes but was thankfully reignited in the second period. At half-time Newcastle were good value for their lead and it looked like they wanted it more in front of a passionate and vocal (but what a great effort from the visiting West Ham supporters) . Rice and Coufal in particular looked completely different players after the break as the Hammers took firm control on the game. Moyes claims he didn’t change things at half-time but there was a discernible change in attitude. Whether it was renewed belief as a result of Said Benrahma’s fine headed equaliser, or the consequence of superior fitness, but the Hammers increasingly looked to be the likelier victors. Even the Oracle Cloud Win Probability Predictor thought so. Once West Ham were ahead it would always be difficult for Newcastle’s counter-attacking tactics to get them back in the game. And talking of counter attacking what a sweet breakaway goal the Hammer’s fourth from Michail Antonio was. In my match preview I pointed out how few goals the Hammers scored last season between the 61st and 75th minutes. How wrong that was this time. West Ham saw out the closing period comfortably and by the 87th minute I was completely relaxed that we wouldn’t be losing this game.  

Spot Kick Conundrum

Penalties are always a matter of opinion. Some are more obvious than others, and while the one given for the foul on Pablo Fornals may have been close to 50/50, it was not a clear and obvious error to award it. The defender (Murphy) stuck out a desperate leg which caused Fornals to go over. You could see Murphy acknowledge his mistake and Fornals attempted to get up again in pursuit of the ball. A reasonable call in my book. Not sure what process led to the decision to nominate Michail Antonio as designated penalty taker, but he looked no more confident with the responsibility than Rice did in the past. I like to see penalties old-school with a decent run-up (at least to the edge of the penalty area) and striking the ball as hard as you can. I’m sure Tomas Soucek would be a better pick, but Cresswell would also be a good call.   

Strong Team, Weak Squad

On the second half showing it is apparent that this is a very decent starting eleven, with tremendous spirit, who are good enough to compete for a place in the top six of the Premier League. But a look at the bench (with I think only had Arthur Masuaku missing) reveals how shallow the squad depth is. It can never be good for a team to effectively pick itself with no competition for places. And that ignores the injuries and suspensions that will inevitably turn up during the course of the season. Additional numbers are badly required in several key positions. A new central defender is needed but not surprisingly the striker situation gets the most attention, and is naturally the most difficult to fill. The 50 or so misfiring strikers that Gold and Sullivan have signed during their tenure at West Ham demonstrates the dilemma facing the club right now. And time is running out fast to solve it.

Ratings: Fabianski (6), Coufal (7), Ogbonna (7), Dawson (6), Creswell (7), Rice (8), Soucek (7), Bowen (8), Benrahma (8), Fornals (7), Antonio (8)

Carry On Lingardless: No Change For Dithering Hammers In Season Opener At Newcastle

It will be a Billy No-New-Team-Mates West Ham who face Newcastle United at St James’ Park on the Premier League’s opening weekend. Will the Hammers avoid a trademark sluggish start to the season?

By most measures, last season was West Ham’s best-ever in the Premier League. Sure there was a 5th place finish in 1998/99 but in terms of games won, points earned and goal difference, the 2020/21 campaign was way ahead and the closest the club have ever been to Champion’s League qualification, missing out by just one more win.

But the dawn of a new season consigns the heroics of the last one to history. The manager starts with credit in the bank but it can be so easily lost in football – as witnessed when Claudio Ranieri was sacked less than a year after winning the title at Leicester. It has to be a huge worry for David Moyes, despite his apparent outward public composure, that he starts the season with an even thinner squad of players available than he had in May – and with both domestic and midweek European competition to deal with.

I have tried to be patient but the apparent disarray with player recruitment has been a major test. Surely the signing of at least a couple of new players is a basic human right for modern day football supporters!

While the transfer window remains open for a further two weeks, the potential for panic buying increases the nearer the deadline gets. Last minute shopping is one thing but doing all your Christmas shopping at the motorway service station on Christmas Eve is sure to end in disappointment. As is buying a striker who has fallen off the back of a lorry from a bloke down the pub – probably closer to David Sullivan’s modus operandi with his favourite agents.

Still, we must put that to one side and prepare to get behind the team for their trip to Newcastle on Sunday. With no new faces (apart from Alphonse Areola) the team selection should be relatively straightforward, subject to injury absences. The same eleven that started against Southampton in May but with Said Benrahma replacing the now departed Jesse Lingard.

Once again, the partnership of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be crucial for a successful Hammer’s season. I can’t help feeling this will Rice’s farewell season in claret and blue. The period he missed towards the tail end of last season – including the defeat away at Newcastle – was instrumental in the Champion’s League charge eventually hitting the buffers. Hopefully, he suffers no hangover from the Euros or distractions from incessant transfer talk.

Soucek was the deserved 2020/21 Hammer of The Year. Joint top scorer and on the pitch for every minute of league action apart for the one missed following the ludicrous sending-off at Craven Cottage. Soucek was also top of the Premier League standings for number of Aerial Duel’s Won and, surprisingly, second in the rankings for Fouls Committed. Meanwhile, Rice was first in the PL standings for Percentage of Successful Dribbles and was second placed for number of Interceptions. An indication of their joint importance to the cause.

In defensive areas, the squad continues to look light in cover for the Centre and Left Back positions. Aaron Cresswell’s experienced something of a renaissance last season and is a deserved starter on the left, but backup is required. A new first choice centre back should be a priority though. Craig Dawson exceeded all expectations when he came into the side last year but, despite his obvious courage and spirit, he is exposed by pacey forwards running at him – as demonstrated by the defeat and red card at St James’ Park in April. Perhaps the Nikola Milenkovic saga will eventually come to a positive series finale.

Numbers are also look short in attacking midfield areas. Benrahma has looked lively in pre-season and should begin the season as a more regular starter along with Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. I’m not convinced though that collectively they offer enough to compensate for the loss of Lingard, who added pace and directness to the Hammer’s counter-attacking options.  I don’t see either Manuel Lanzini or Andriy Yarmolenko in anything other than cameo roles, should they remain at the club.

The ludicrous striker situation is long running and well documented. It would be extreme negligence to enter a busy campaign with complete reliance on Michail Antonio. I am a big fan of Antonio and am look forward to him becoming the Hammer’s All-time Premier League top scorer in the coming weeks. However, everyone knows he is unlikely to go through a whole season injury free. The make-do-and-mend alternative of playing Bowen up top is even less appealing the absence of Lingard.

Newcastle have also failed to register any transfer activity, at time of writing, although there is a chance they will seal a deal for Joe Willock in time for Sunday’s fixture. The threat of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin are well known to West Ham fans and Steve Bruce has yet to drop a point against the Hammers as Newcastle manager – having won all four league fixtures as well as a victory in the EPL Asia Tournament. With a stadium full of passionate home supporter this will be a big game to win. I might even settle for a predicted 2-2 scoring draw!

A repeat of last season’s top six finish will be a huge challenge for a squad that has limited options and a style that will now be more familiar to opponents. Anywhere in the top ten would represent a good result – and, of course, winning the Europa League as a way into the Champion’s League. In the PL it is difficult to see past Manchester City and Chelsea and my final table standings are as follows:  

Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Leeds, West Ham, Everton, Newcastle, Wolves, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Brentford, Burnley, Watford.

It was interesting to see the statistics on goal-scoring times in our league games last season. West Ham goals scored were fairly equally spread in the first four 15 minute segments of games (between 9 and 11 goals in each) but with a sudden drop to just 4 out of 62 goals netted between the 61st and 75th minutes. This was followed by a spree of 17 goals scored in the final 15 minutes (plus added time). The moral is, if you need to pop out to get a beer or use the toilet, do so just after the hour mark. But be aware, this was the second highest segment of the match for goals conceded.

I’m looking forward to the season and hoping that it’s an entertaining and rewarding one for West Ham fans everywhere. Getting off to a good start with a a top performance at Newcastle would be a welcome change. All we’ll need then is a flood of canny deals before the distinctive slamming shut of the transfer window . COYI!

The Fans Are Back, Expectations Are High But West Ham Badly Need Reinforcements

Maintaining momentum in domestic and European competition with a wafer thin squad will be a massive challenge for West Ham. Recruiting wisely in the remainder of the transfer window will be critical to success.

At some point in history ‘News’ evolved from reporting on recent or important events to an entertainment that centred mainly on speculation and opinion. Perhaps transfer news has always existed at the imaginary end of the spectrum, but this year rumours have hit record proportions.

With the transfer window once again extending beyond the start of the season there is little chance of the procession of clickbait headlines disappearing any time soon. Likewise, the anger of fans outraged that the club are considering a bid for whatever is the latest made-up transfer target.  Yet, like the stopped clock or infinite number of monkeys some speculation will eventually turn out to be spot on.

It does seem that the club has at last put a stop to conducting transfer business in public with heroic announcements from the Chairman or leaks put out through favoured sources. Now whether no news is good news or whether it is a sign of an unwillingness to spend any money is a matter of opinion. It has unfortunately (for them) left the usual In-The-Knows with something of a dilemma and they must now resort to putting out vague horoscope-like transfer announcements that can be interpreted multiple ways.

I don’t imagine any manager would choose to wait to the last minute to bring in new signings. It is hardly ideal with the pre-season hugely important for preparation as Premier League teams increasingly become well-drilled units. Even a manager as famously cautious in the transfer market as David Moyes would have preferred to give new players time to settle into the team’s style of play.

Looking through the list of completed Premier League deals, there hasn’t been that much activity given the new season is less than a week away. No doubt the impact of Covid has led to a complicated transfer landscape with cash strapped clubs across the continent staring each other out before agreeing on valuations.

I wish I could have more faith in the owners but the idea that they could scupper any deal for a ha’p’orth of tar is firmly fixed in my mind. But equally it would be wrong pay over the odds from what is a finite transfer pot – only Manchester City and Chelsea can do that! The recent experiences of Anderson, Haller, Yarmolenko and Wilshere – absurd wages and ludicrous transfer fees – are painful reminders of the folly of vanity signings. A transfer strategy based on players with no subsequent re-sale value is not sustainable for a club like ours. That’s the reality for all but a handful of clubs and West Ham’s record on smart transfer trading has been abysmal.

As the new season looms, the already thin first team squad is even lighter than at the end of last season following the departures of Fabian Balbuena and Jesse Lingard.  With Europa League as well as Premier League campaigns to contend with it is inconceivable that reinforcements are not brought in. How else can it compete on numerous fronts with the inevitable injuries and suspensions that come with it. If I were manager, I would be pushing for five of six new arrivals – centre back, left back, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and at least one striker – while understanding there may be a need to prioritise. Ironically, I would probably have risked not signing a backup keeper until next summer – although the recruitment of Alphonse Areola on loan is a decent move.

The Lingard situation has dominated much of the close season speculation. West Ham looked their best last season when he was in the side, even if he did go off the boil towards the end. He offered an energy, dynamism, and directness in the final third not apparent elsewhere in the squad. It is not clear whether the failure to secure a permanent deal is down to the player or his club, but it is very dangerous to put too many eggs in this basket if it means passing up on other options.

Despite a wide range of speculation, the absence of any striker cover remains the elephant in the room. Michail Antonio has looked outstanding in pre-season and his strength and power must be every defender’s nightmare. But everyone must know that his hamstrings are unlikely to last an entire season without careful management. Bringing in backup and support has to be the topmost priority. Decent strikers don’t come cheap, though, and the Hammers have depressingly poor form for searching for quality in the bargain bucket.

Moyes has so far done well with transfers during his time at the club (Jordan Hugill aside) and all hopes are that sensible and well researched recruitment can continue. Striking a balance between what is acceptable quality and what the board are prepared to pay will not be an easy task. If there was to be an equivalent of a dating app for striker recruitment, then I do hope that the manager will be swiping left when Abraham and Origi appear on screen.

It has been interesting to see the club signing several young players over the summer. The assumption is that these have been made with an eye to the future rather than the upcoming season. But I wonder whether this reflects dissatisfaction with the output from the academy. It really has delivered little in the past ten years or so. I would like to see more of Ben Johnson this season (but not a left wing back) but not sure how many others there are knocking on the first team’s door.

Until all the ins and outs are settled it is difficult to know how optimistic to be about the new season. I have no reason to fear a relegation battle, but a repeat of last season’s top six finish looks a huge stretch as things stand. The two smaller north London clubs will be hoping to bounce back, and Villa, Everton and Leeds will all be looking to progress.

A clutch of inspired new signings could change that perspective and perhaps even greater rewards can await now that the Hammers have two potential routes to Champion’s League qualification. Get those cheque books out!