Five Takeaways from West Ham’s thrashing by Manchester United

After all the build up a depressingly disappointing start to the new league season. What went wrong?

Overawed by Potential Champions

There is no doubt that Manchester United are one of the favourites for this season’s Premier League title.  Mourinho has assembled a side that has a pragmatism alongside power and pace that will enable them to grind out results whenever opponents go to Old Trafford to frustrate.  They won’t have many easier days than yesterday’s canter against a feeble and unadventurous West Ham side.  The gulf in class was so great it could have been Premier League versus League 1 in an early round FA Cup tie, although in those circumstances you would have expected the opposition to put up more resistance.  Slaven Bilic may well have selected the best eleven players available to him, as a result of injuries to key players, but it felt that he sent them out with no discernible game plan or belief that they could get anything out of the game.  As has so often been the case in recent seasons it is not the fact that we have lost to a much better side that exasperates and causes concern but the manner in which we have apparently accepted defeat as inevitable .

Repeating Last Season’s Mistakes

It is only one game into the season and so rash judgements should be avoided at least until the transfer window has closed and we have welcomed the respective returns of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio.  However, the underlying worry is that we have simply picked up where we left off last season.  Persistent concerns from last term surrounding levels of fitness, tactics, selection, organisation and motivation continued to surface in pre-season and were apparent once again yesterday.  Better players may have been signed but that is only one part of the equation in creating a team that will perform week in, week out.  The impression given is of a disjointed side with players who are strangers to each other and any sign of cohesion and collective desire is difficult to spot.  Bilic claimed after the match that they had spent three days on the training ground working on defending set pieces and yet the best that they came up with was to have Arthur Masuaku marking Lukaku at a free kick.  Repeating last season’s mistakes gives no cause for optimism that it will be anything other than another disappointing campaign.  The only way to turn things around is by doing things differently; not doing the same things over and over again.

The Problem of Ball Retention and Unforced Errors

A recurring theme in West Ham’s play for some time is how cheaply the ball is given away.  If you game plan is to sit and back and soak up pressure then one assumes there should be some ambition once you get the ball.  If the only tactic is give it back to the opposition straight away and invite them to try again, then sooner or later something will give.  Accepting that Manchester United have better players does not mean that our players should be unable to execute the most basic of football skills; control, pass, move.  In the opening exchanges yesterday the ball was given away repeatedly even when under little pressure and it was one such unforced error by Pedro Obiang that led directly to the first of Lukaku’s goals.  Equally there is not enough movement off the ball to create space or provide options for the player in possession.  Do West Ham have a patent on the 180 degree turn?  It used to be said that West Ham played ‘on their toes’ in anticipation of pass and to occupy opposition defenders; now it is mostly a case of players remaining flat footed until the ball arrives at their feet losing momentum and allowing opponents to re-group.  Our players seem to want to play in little triangles as if it is a training ground practice drill with the result that the opposition is not stretched and attacks are slow and predictable.

Selections and Substitutions

I had expected West Ham to go into the game with three at the back and so was somewhat surprised when the team was announced.  Our full backs are generally better at going forward (and relatively suspect defensively) while the wide midfield players are not known for paying attention to defensive duties.  Having said that, I am not sure that a back three would have led to a different outcome as we are equally vulnerable to attacks at pace through the middle as we are down the flanks. I would not be too critical of Bilic about the substitutions although arguably it resulted in a heavier defeat than might have been the case.  At 2-0 down it was a gamble to bring on an additional forward but at least Diafra Sakho looked lively and the change was an attempt to give some support to Javier Hernandez, who toiled manfully but was largely isolated.

Declan Rice The Only Positive

The only real positive from the game was the thirty minute contribution by Declan Rice.  I had questioned using him in midfield previously but was very impressed with both his maturity and how comfortable he looked on the ball and in the Premier League.  If you are good enough you are old enough.  Of the new signings, Pablo Zabaleta did OK and at least showed commitment, Hernandez ran willingly and demonstrated good touch, Marko Arnautovic blew hot and cold and Joe Hart should maybe have done better for the last goal.  I wonder if they are starting to wonder what they have let themselves in for at West Ham.  Of the others Edmilson Fernandes and Masuaku were particularly disappointing, Obiang had a bad day, Mark Noble tried hard but is well off the pace and I am still left scratching me head at what Andre Ayew is meant to contribute.  I will leave the summing up of our performance to whoscored.com:

Strengths                  Team has no significant strengths

Styles                         Team showed no specific style of play

Matchday 1: West Ham’s Typically Tricky Trip to Old Trafford

West Ham face what is usually a tricky task at the Theatre of Shattered Dreams.

Football is back and at last the weekend routine can return to normal subject to international breaks permitting.  In the last of the weekend’s Matchweek 1 fixtures the Hammers travel north to face Manchester United at Old Trafford.  After last season’s frustrations the slate is wiped clean as Slaven Bilic resumes his place in the hot seat with what looks to be a much improved and better balanced squad.  Time to get behind the manager and team for the highs and lows of what we can only hope will be an exciting, enjoyable and entertaining season.

West Ham do not hold many Premier League records but the highest number of opening day defeats (with ten) is one of them, while today’s opponents are joint leaders in the collection of opening day victories, with sixteen.  Throw in the fact that Jose Mourinho has never, as a manager, lost a season opener or lost a home league match on a Sunday then the omens do not look very promosing.  Still there are always a handful of surprises on the opening weekend and hopefully these were not all used up yesterday.

Head to Head

Of the last twelve meetings between West Ham and Manchester United that wonderful and memorable last game at the Boleyn is the only win that the Hammers have recorded.  The remainder have seen six defeats and five draws.

Old Trafford has never been the happiest hunting ground and despite some notable successes West Ham have only won fourteen times out of seventy visits (nine draws and forty seven defeats).  The most recent victory was on the final day of the Great Escape season (May 2007) and in the twelve encounters since that day the record is lost nine and drawn three.  Both the last two league meetings at Old Trafford have ended in draws including a scoreless one in December 2015 where the Hammers were clearly the better side.

“It’s not ideal playing against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the first game of the season, but on the other hand, it is brilliant and one of the greatest away games in the league.”

Slaven Bilic on the opening day fixture

You have to go back to the early days of the 1986/87 season for the last time that West Ham scored more than one goal at Old Trafford when two goals from Frank McAvennie and another from Alan Devonshire earned a 3-2 win to put West Ham top of the table.  If Javier Hernandez is unsure whether or not to celebrate any goals that he scores then history suggests that he will only need to agonise about it one time.

Team News

Once again West Ham are pace setters on the Physio Room injuries table with several key players not available for selection.  The probable absence of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio are the biggest blows particularly with respect to any attacking aspirations that the Hammers may have.  Cheikhou Kouyate, Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll are all missing and Aaron Creswell is a doubt.

My expectation is that Bilic will start with the back three of Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna and Jose Fonte supported by Pablo Zabaleta and one of Arthur Masuaku or Cresswell as full/ wing backs.  A probable midfield will see Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble at its heart with Marko Arnautovic and Andre Ayew wide and Herndandez a lonely figure up top.

“Everyone is available except the injuries that everybody knows, so the injuries that come from the previous season with surgeries.  Every one of the 22, plus the goalkeepers, that started the pre-season is ready for Premier League match one.”

Jose Mourinho on his fully fit squad

Manchester United have no new injury concerns and will parade a host of expensive new signings including bogey man Romelu Lukaku.

Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is Martin Atkinson from West Yorkshire.  We enjoyed Atkinson’s company four times last season: the home defeat to Watford; away wins to Crystal Palace (where he sent off Cresswell for two alleged yellow card offences) and Middlesbrough; and the away defeat to Arsenal (where he denied the Gunners a penalty or two to prevent an even more comprehensive scoreline).

Prediction

Both Lawro and Paul Merson see the game as a stonewall 2-0 home win for the hosts.  Mourinho’s teams are never flamboyant or packed with flair but rely on strength and relentless pressure to break teams down.  West Ham will likely take several buses to park on the edge of the area and the danger will be giving away too many free-kicks close to goal.  How well Zabaleta deals with the threat of Rashford could be a decisive individual contest.  The shortest odds this afternoon must be for a Lukaku goal and I fear that if one goes in it could lead to several more.  Difficult to see the Hammers fashioning too many quick breakaways but maybe Arnie and the Little Pea can conjure something up.

I would like to think that we can snatch a draw but deep down feel that we could lose by two or three.  It would be nice to get off to a flying start to the season but with three away games on the bounce it will be tough to get many points on the board before the international break.

 

 

Can The Hammers Enjoy a Season in the Sun?

A review of the West Ham and the upcoming 2017/ 18 Premier League by Under The Hammer’s Geoff Hopkins.

As we prepare for the start of another Premier League season I find myself in a similar position to the one that heralded the final year of Fat Sam’s reign.   Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have a manager that can deliver in the long term and yet, regardless of circumstances, I always want the team to win every game, and so could take no pleasure from being proved right about the manager’s limitations.  In fact, I would be more than happy for him to prove me wrong by as much as he likes.  The trouble is I see little to suggest that anything has changed in the management and coaching mindset to address the many problems that we witnessed in team performance and organisation last year.

I understand it is a reasonable argument to put forward that Bilic has had one good season in charge and one poor one; and so deserves a third as an opportunity to prove himself; but it leaves everyone in a rather precarious and uncertain situation of a manger in the final year of his contract where safety first will be the order of the day.

Two years ago when West Ham faced Arsenal away on the opening weekend of the season and came away with a stunning 2-0 victory it seemed we had struck gold with a tactically astute manager playing attractive football at the helm at last.  This was quickly followed up with a run of other unexpected wins against top clubs before performances started to gradually fall away despite the emotion generated from the last season at Upton Park.  In a season where the big clubs largely under-performed the Hammers were inspired by the flair and free-kicks of flawed Frenchman Dimitri Payet.  Yet a system and passion that worked well against elite clubs often failed to deliver, at least on a consistent basis, against the lesser teams where the team lacked shape, pace and penetration.  With poor recruitment the following summer and once Payet had downed tools, the underlying cracks in organisation and tactics were revealed for all to see.  It would not be the first time that a manager had done well in his first season built on a predecessor’s foundation but then faded badly.

The general consensus is that West Ham have had a spectacular summer transfer window.  In contrast to last summer, and the bizarre January recruitment, that may well be the case but it seems premature to pat ourselves on the back too enthusiastically just yet.  Let’s wait and see how the new signings perform before getting too carried away.  Does Zabaleta still have the legs and motivation?  Can Hernandez deliver as a regular lone striker starter?  How consistent will Arnautovic be?  Does it make sense for your first choice keeper to be only on loan?  Will Bilic, given his uncertain position, take the risk of blooding any young players?   We can all speculate but only time will tell for sure.  I would like to believe in my heart that we could be competing for a best of the rest seventh but my head says mid-table at best.

As for the squad itself, it looks stronger on paper when compared to how we know the team performed last season.  But a performing team needs to be more than the sum of its parts and in modern football attack and defence must be conducted as a unit and requires organisation, pace, mobility and fitness in addition to the underlying technical skills.  Too often West Ham teams have a disjointed look with the merest hint of cohesion between the constituent parts of the formation. In a Premier League awash with money every team has good technical players and so how those talents are utilised and integrated becomes even more important and is the true measure of coaching.

In goal, Hart is an upgrade (but not a massive one) on Adrian and if the rumours of Adrian wanting out are true then we could be left with a bit of an embarrassing hole between the sticks.

The defence says old, frail and error prone to me unless it is strengthened before the transfer window closes (and not with Kone!).  Reid is a top quality defender but is not without injury concerns.  Ogbonna has a tendency to switch off and allow opponents too much room, Collins is decent as emergency cover but Fonte looks something of a dud, at least in a back four.  It is a case of wait and see as far as Zabaleta is concerned while Cresswell, Masuaku and Byram are all better when going forward than defending.  Will Rice be given a chance?  Maybe, but most likely as a defensive midfielder from the bench.

The squad is packed with midfield players of one type or another but the optimum combination is difficult to identify.  West Ham rarely dominate a match these days and that is a direct consequence of poor ball retention, options and movement, particularly in the midfield areas.

Any team needs to be solid at the centre of midfield where defensive and pressing responsibilities are key.  Obiang is a class act but Noble, bless his claret and blue cotton socks, is too slow in movement and distribution these days while Kouyate, despite his athleticism, lacks the required discipline and is a poor passer of the ball.  Fernandes is sometimes mentioned as an option but, for me, needs a more attacking role that suits his physique and range of passing.  An additional defensive/ holding midfielder would be another at the top of my priority list.

The realistic attacking midfield options are Lanzini (assuming we keep hold of him), Antonio and Arnautovic backed up by Ayew, Fernandes and possibly new signing Haksabanovic.  I suppose there is also Feghouli and Snodgrass until we hear otherwise.  Hopefully Arnautovic can assist Lanzini in the creativity department but can he help out his full-back when required?  Will Antonio get a long run in his preferred and most effective wide right position or does Bilic have different plans for him?  Will Haksabanovic be given a chance and what exactly is Ayew’s position?

The troublesome striker position now has a potential solution with the recruitment of Hernandez.  On the assumption that he will be the main striker playing up front on his own it will be interesting to see how he adapts.  His goals scored per minutes on the pitch record at Manchester United was impressive and came courtesy of some very clinical finishing off the bench; his role at West Ham will be a whole new challenge for him.  At the moment the only back-up is from perennial sick-notes Carroll and Sakho.  Could a Hernandez/ Carroll partnership work?  Possibly in certain circumstances but taking a player out of a fragile midfield would create its own problems.

I don’t expect a season of struggle but I do foresee an unspectacular one with a disjointed team that relies heavily on set pieces for its goals.  I don’t disagree with Bilic that individual errors need to be eliminated but that is by no means the extent, or even the most important, of the shortcomings.

Mentally, I would include West Ham in a group of teams who should be capable of grabbing seventh spot with the help of a good following wind and good fortune with injuries and refereeing decsions; alongside the likes of Everton, Leicester, Southampton, Newcastle and even Palace.  Everton have lost Lukaku and have the distraction of European Thursday night football, Leicester have bought and retained well, Southampton and Palace have new managers inexperienced in English football and Newcastle need to adapt to life back at the top.  There is a chance but do we have the confidence, desire and discipline to take it?  I really hope we give it a go and can show the same commitment as if we were playing Tottenham every week.

In time honoured fashion I will end with my prediction for the final Premier League table season 2017/18:

1          Manchester United
2          Manchester City
3          Tottenham
4          Arsenal
5          Liverpool
6          Chelsea
7          Everton
8          Leicester
9          Southampton
10       Crystal Palace
11       West Ham
12       Newcastle
13       Watford
14       Bournemouth
15       Stoke
16       Swansea
17       West Bromwich Albion
18       Burnley
19       Huddersfield
20       Brighton

West Ham’s Not Yet Settled Squad and the Homegrown Player Dilemma

With the season starting before the transfer window closes, West Ham have a few extra weeks to get their squad in order.

It seems an oddity to me that the transfer window stays open for a further two weeks after the season has started.  It would be far tidier if they slammed it shut on the eve of the new season so that all of our predictions could be based on the precise knowledge of which players are in each particular team’s squad.  A last minute sensational rabbit out of the hat signing or a bewildering ‘too good an offer to refuse’ departure could well define the season for some clubs, including our own.

As it is, clubs have until the day after the window closes on 31 August to name their twenty five man squads, which, of course, must include eight homegrown players; or to put it another way can only have seventeen foreign players.  The make-up of the actual West Ham squad for the start of the 2017/18 remains pure speculation but, for the sake of argument, I will use that currently listed on Wikipedia (as at 7 August 2017) with the names of the homegrown players underlined:

Reid, Cresswell, Zabaleta, Feghouli, Kouyaté, Carroll, Lanzini, Snodgrass, Adrián, Obiang, Sakho, Noble, Hernández, Collins, Ayew, Ogbonna, Byram, Fonte, Hart, Masuaku, Antonio, Fernandes, Arnautović and Hakšabanović

The Homegrown rule is an odd one as for a player to be qualify he must, regardless of nationality have been registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh FA for a period of three seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday.  According to my interpretation of the rule the above squad (which, by the way, only includes twenty four players) has just seven that qualify as homegrown.  More interestingly, many supporters preferred starting eleven would probably include just one or two homegrown players.

We can reasonably expect there to be changes to the squad before the end of the month with the potential (fingers crossed) departures of Feghouli and Snodgrass, leaving a few extra places available in a squad that remains thin in all key areas; striker, central midfield and centre back.  There have been a few potential recruits linked (Gray, Wilshire) that would qualify as homegrown but the majority of the names mentioned continue to be johnny foreigners. Any shortfall would need to be made up by including at least one qualifying academy player in the named squad, even though technically any number of players under twenty one can be included in the squad without actually being part of the named twenty five.


The signing of Sead Hakšabanović was a surprise addition to the ranks this week and has all the hallmarks of a Tony Henry signing.  Hakšabanović has only recently turned eighteen but has almost fifty appearances under his belt in the top tier of the Swedish league, as well as being a full international for Montenegro.  An attacking midfielder he could, in theory, provide backup to Manuel Lanzini but time will tell whether his youth will once again prove a barrier to selection by manager Slaven Bilic.


Just a few days to go before the 26th Premier League season gets underway.  For the first time there will be three south coast clubs in the competition (it is probably the first time ever in the top flight).  There will be five London clubs, three from the Midlands, five from the North West, one each from Wales and the North East plus two others (Watford and Huddersfield).  In total only nine of the twenty teams are from north of Watford (Professor Google assures me that Swansea is slightly south of Watford) and so the need to travel well to cold and desolate northern wastelands is not as acute as it has been in previous seasons.

For amusement only, here is a selection of cumulative all-time statistics from West Ham’s previous twenty one seasons in the Premier League.

10th in Number of Victories (265; 1st = Manchester United, 604)
3rd in Number of Defeats (332; Everton, 336)
8th in Number of Draws (209; Everton, 277)
10th in Goals Scored (964; Manchester United, 1856)
4th in Goals Conceded (1004; Tottenham, 1231)
12th in Number of Own Goals (32; Everton, 47)
6th in Number of Red Cards (69; Everton, 86)
7th in Number of Yellow Cards (1321; Chelsea, 1536)
10th in Number of Clean Sheets (216; Manchester United, 418)
1st in Number of Penalties Saved (13)
2nd in Clearances Off The Line (63; Sunderland, 66)

West Ham: Friendly Mis-Fire and the Debt Smokescreen

West Ham fail to impress in what turns out to be an attack versus defence friendly in Iceland.

Is the gulf in class between West Ham and Manchester City greater or less than that between ourselves and FC Altona 93?  This thought occurred to me while watching the Hammer’s struggle in their final pre-season friendly yesterday.  Whereas the German fourth division side had been able to produce a spirited display to make a game of it in Hamburg our attempts to compete against City in Reykjavik were disturbingly feeble in comparison.

While I can understand the argument that results do not matter in these friendly matches surely there is some expectation or benefit required from them; or else what is the point?  In what turned out to be an exhibition of attack versus defence what did we learn other than confirmation that there is a tower block of next levels between West Ham and the Premier League elite clubs?   Was the game an essential step in building fitness?  Did we witness tactical experimentation or fine tuning in readiness for next week’s main event?  From what I saw I don’t believe so!

To me our performance had all the hallmarks of so many of last season’s disappointments.  An inability to keep possession for more than two or three passes, minimal movement off the ball, a first instinct to go sideways or backwards, a side that neither attacks nor defends as a unit and players prone to individual errors.

I may be paraphrasing manager Slaven Bilic but I got the impression from his comments that were it not for individual errors then everything would have been alright.  If nothing else changes I think we are in for a mostly unremarkable season, not necessarily a struggle, but where scraping into the top ten would be a reasonable achievement.  There may be an upgrade on personnel in the squad but in terms of the basics of formation, fitness and tactics there continues to be cause for concern.

In mitigation the team was without such influential players as Manuel Lanzini, Michail Antonio and Winston Reid and we were up against a side that traditionally has a storming start to the season.  There was even a harshly disallowed goal from Andre Ayew and, at the final whistle, we had fared no worse than Real Madrid or Tottenham against the same opposition.

If there were positives to be taken it was in the second half performances of Javier Hernandez and Declan Rice.  Hernandez gave an enthusiastic display and looks to have energy, pace and mobility.  We can only hope that Little Pea doesn’t eventually get a little pee’d off by a lack of service and support from his team-mates.  Rice looks a very assured player for one so young but I’m not convinced of the wisdom of using him in midfield; better to see how he would have acquitted himself in his preferred central defensive position.  It could be construed as typical Bilic thinking that centre back and defensive midfield are inter-changeable activities.

An honourable mention also to Joe Hart, not only for some smart saves but also for not shutting up during the whole game in an attempt to organise the wayward defenders in front of him.

It was strange to see two players brought on as 85th minute substitutes in a friendly game but at least wasting a little time may have contributed to keeping the score almost respectable.


There was a spirited defence of the Board and the debt position in some quarters during the last week.  I do not doubt that the debt exists but the club’s position on it seems to be rather selective depending on what point they are trying make at the time.  It reminds me of  those unfathomable logic problems with two doors (one leading to certain death and one to freedom) that are protected by two guards; one who can only tell the truth and one who always lies.  You are only allowed to ask one question.

So, David is it true that you have done a magnificent job in eliminating external debt by replacing it with loans from yourselves while the underlying value of the club appreciates spectacularly?  Or is the fact that you have been unable to reduce the debt (which there is no incentive to do in any case) a reason why the club cannot invest more into new players?

I’m not particularly a Board basher but there has tended to be a disconnect between words and actions from the Chairmen that has led to a sense of mistrust or disbelief on their ambitions for the club.  In a period of extreme revenue growth there is an understandable sense of frustration that our transfer activity, although widely acclaimed (over hyped even), has been relatively modest.  Clearly there is more to football club finances than headline grabbing transfer fees but supporters have yet to see a level of  investment action that matches the fine words of next level ambitions.

10 Man West Ham und die Bananen-skinnen friendly

If goals equal entertainment then an entertaining yet pointless run out against fourth tier German minnows.

A mandatory clause in the Headline Writer’s Code states that whenever a team has a player sent-off then a reference has to be made ’10 Man’ in the article’s heading; even if that dismissal occurs in the third minute of added time or in a meaningless friendly.

It is, of course, highly unusual for anyone to receive a red card in a friendly game where standard practice is to ask the respective manager to replace the offending player.   It requires a particularly officious and over-sensitive referee mit einem sehr kleinen bratwurst to disrupt a friendly game simply for a spot of perceived dissent.  Mind you, it did seem rather out of character for Winston and hopefully it was not a symptom of any deeper attitude problem as a result of recent transfer speculation.

It would be interesting to know the background to how and why this game was arranged as it all seemed somewhat unnecessary with the attitude and effort of the West Ham players suggesting that they weren’t really very bothered.  It offered no contribution to building fitness and there was no cunning tactical experimentation from what I could tell.

The game saw a typically slow start by the Hammers and all three of the conceded goals were sloppy and would have been easily preventable with better organisation.  There were good strikes by Toni Martinez and Andre Ayew even though both were the result of long balls played hopefully forward.  There was, however, a little late encouragement with a lively cameo from Javier Hernandez who really should have scored at least once.

That Altona 93 are twinned with Dulwich Hamlet FC says a lot about their pedigree and aspirations.  They are a regional fourth tier club in the German league system which presents a much tougher road to the top flight than for an equivalent League 2 side in England.  A friendly game or not, a Premier League side should easily have enough of the basic skills and nous to ease past such opposition.  If there was no intention to try why play the game in the first place?  The club have even erased all evidence of the game from the first team fixtures list on the official website.

It was disappointing to learn that two of the young players who had featured prominently in pre-season had been packed off on loan to Bolton Wanderers.  Reece Burke and Josh Cullen will now embark on their third season of loan spells away from the club.  Both have performed well in previous loans as regular starters which is not a common an occurrence for many of the youngsters that West Ham loan out, most of whom end up with bench warming duties and putting the cones out in training.  At least these are not season long loans which means, I believe, that they can be recalled at any time; or in the extreme would be available to return in the January window.    The pattern of using young players in pre-season games and then farming them out is a repeat from previous seasons and a strategy that I really don’t understand.

The pre-season jamboree now moves on to Iceland and will be interesting to look out for Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Eggy Magnússon in the crowd at the Laugardalsvöllur stadium on Friday; that is if they aren’t in prison and can afford a ticket.  My hope is that Manchester City take it easy on us and that we can avoid a confidence sapping drubbing before the real business gets underway the following weekend.

Five West Ham Takeaways from the Betway Cup

Ramping up my personal pre-season preparations with a look back at what we learned from the Betway Cup.

They are only pre-season games but …..

The primary purpose of pre-season friendlies is as preparation for the main event which is now just two weeks away even though an increasing number of teams have started to be use them as commercial revenue generating exercises in far off lands.  Numerous Champions Cup competitions featuring European giants have been spawned to replace what used to be a trip down the road to play against local lower league opposition.  Previously any notion of turning out against other top level sides from the same domestic competition before the Charity Shield had been held would have been vigorously shunned but now overseas exhibitions are now becoming the norm.  Results should still not matter though and although the Betway Cup might have been our best chance of silverware this season, defeat is of much less importance than building fitness and developing cohesion in the squad.   So what has the experience taught us?

Do We Have a Better Balanced Squad?

With the knowledge of hindsight I am confident that we look to be starting the season with a far more balanced squad.  Then again had you asked me that question at the same time last year I would no doubt have answered in the same way; basking as I was in the afterglow of a creditable seventh place finish, expecting more of the same from a happy Payet and without the knowledge of how bad our player recruitment would turn out.  This year’s transfer business feels a lot smarter with welcome in-comings and sensible out-goings.  My assumption is that rumours of Liverpool (and others) sniffing around Manuel Lanzini and the comical £9 million interest by Everton in Winston Reid are no more than wishful thinking on the part of the clubs involved.  Losing either would be a major blow to the make up of the squad.  The full-back situation appears to be more stable, at least for the time being, and the signings of Javier Hernandez and Marka Arnautovic provide better and more dangerous attacking options.  I remain hopeful that our transfer business is not complete and that the lack of pace in central midfield and at the centre of defence can yet be addressed.  The ‘One Out One In’ transfer policy, if it exists, should dictate more signings following Fletcher’s move to Middlesbrough and the imminent departure of Feghouli.

Are there any early signs of tactical changes?

The manager’s preferred style of play is still not clear to me.  Admittedly we have not been able to feature key individuals such as Lanzini, Hernandez, Reid and Michail Antonio in any of the pre-season games but, nevertheless, I would expect a manager to be clear and consistent  as to how he wants to set up his team, with occasional tweaks depending on opposition and available personnel.  The key decision for me surrounds the deployment of Hernandez; will he play in an unfamiliar loan striker role (which in West Ham history has involved chasing long hopeful high balls) or as part of a front two.  If there is a front two how does Bilic also accommodate Lanzini as well as ensuring that the midfield retains a solid defensive base to protect the back-line? A task that requires two defensively minded midfield players in my opinion.   From what I have seen of the pre-season games (only on streams unfortunately) the general level of fitness and stamina looked to be of a higher standard, suggesting that the training camp approach was an excellent decision.  The players also appeared to be more willing to press (rather than retreat) when the opposition had the ball and while recovering and keeping possession were notable improvements using that possession wisely was less impressive.

What do we do with the ball now that we have it?

Giving the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was the absence of the key players that contributed largely to the lack of ideas once in possession.  Even without the retarding influence of Mark Noble the reluctance to move the ball forward quickly remained with the first instinct still being to pass the ball sideways or backwards.  If a team is going to use a slow buildup then it needs players capable of producing unexpected quick bursts to create openings, either individually or through quick inter-passing movements.  In the matches against Bremen movement off the ball was still patchy, particularly in central areas, and the primary tactic was to get the ball out wide when in attacking areas, presumably to aim for the head of a ghostly Andy Carroll.  The approach reminds me of my Sunday League playing days where most goals are the result of defensive error rather than attacking craft.  Pump it forward with the hope that a defender will make a mistake and let the striker in.  It is encouraging that we now have a ‘fox in the box’ but even a fox needs something to feed from.

Give Youth A Chance?

An undoubted positive from the pre-season games has been the encouraging performances of academy players such as Nathan Holland, Declan Rice, Reece Burke and Toni Martinez.  In the last two seasons youth players were used in Europa League fixtures only to disappear off on loan once the season started.  I hope that this doesn’t happen again this time and that the pick of the crop are kept in the squad and introduced gradually and carefully into the first team.  I don’t mean to sit on the bench as an unused substitute for thirteen games or to come on as a ninety second minute time wasting replacement but to be given reasonably regular meaningful run-outs.  I believe that playing regularly in the Premier League 2 competition with the odd ten or fifteen minutes in the first team is better for a player’s development and integration than turning out for Peterboro against Rochdale in a League 1 relegation scrap.  I am not advocating throwing young players in at the deep end but why not use them as backup rather than keep rolling out the same older or under-performing senior squad members?