West Ham and Everton Go First Footying Into 2021

Meet the new year, same as the old year. We won’t get fooled again by false dawns, but a West Ham win at Goodison would mark a bow for the new resolution.

West Ham will complete their third Premier League game of a congested festive schedule when they face Everton at Goodison Park this evening.  Their opponents having the benefit of a yuletide rest following the postponement of their clash with Manchester City as a Covid precaution.

The Hammers go into the game with no win in their last four outings (although they have lost just one of these) while their hosts are looking for a fifth straight win on the bounce.

The omens for today’s game are mixed. When I say mixed, I mean that they almost all point to an Everton win. The exception being the remotest of straws to clutch at, that West Ham have a surprisingly good record on the opening day of new calendar years – six wins, four draws and only two defeats from the last twelve. Apart from that, Everton’s Premier League record against the Hammers is better than it is against any other club. To make matters worse, David Moyes has lost on all four return visits since he left Goodison in 2013.

After the disappointment of a rather fortunate draw at home to Brighton, the point won away at Southampton came as something of a surprise, particularly as the manager attempted to juggle the limited resources available to him. It all conspires to leave us guessing what the starting line-up, and indeed formation, might look like today.

Recalls for the benched Vladimir Coufal and Jarrod Bowen should be guaranteed, but will Craig Dawson’s unexpectedly competent display give him the nod over Fabian Balbuena? Great to see Michail Antonio back in the fold, but will be risked as a starter? Unlikely, given the tone of Motes pre-match press conference. And will it be three (five) or four at the back? What is best way to counter Everton’s traditional strength down the flanks? Even with a fully fit squad, left back continues to be a major cause for concern.

Everton got off to a storming start to the season, faltered somewhat (coincident with Richarlison’s three match suspension) before racing back into top gear, and a top four berth. For today’s game they will again be without Rodriguez (the South American Yarmolenko – one footed and lazy), Digne and Allan. A midfield that includes Iwobi and Davies isn’t the most scary but it is Richarlison that is the danger man – as the main supply line for Calvert-Lewin, he has to be nullified.  Not forgetting, of course, that Sigurdsson has been a frequent thorn in the Hammer’s side.

With the turn of the year we also enter a new transfer window where media fuelled expectations will, no doubt, once again exceed reality. Loan deals would probably be preferred by the owners but West Ham already have the maximum number of domestic loans allowed – so unless Said Benrahma is made permanent or Craig Dawson is sent back (both unlikely) there is no further scope in that direction. International loans are possible but would be subject to new untested post-Brexit visa regulations.

There will be plenty of speculation between now and the window closing but I don’t see funds being made readily available given the relatively comfortable mid-table position at a time that the club pleads poverty. I’m sure everyone would be more than happy to see the back of Pellegrini’s expensive misfits but the best time to offload these will be the summer. Having to sell before you can buy must play havoc with the timing of transfer negotiations.

Josh King continues to be linked with a move to the London Stadium despite having played very little football this season – 30 minutes in total since November 7. Do we need someone who might not be fully match fit until March? January is typically for emergency buys, rather than for long term building. A new left back would be useful though! I’m sure they must have one in Prague or Brentford.

What is there to hope for in 2021? It would be great to have supporters back in the grounds but I doubt this can happen to any significant extent before the end of the season. I would love to see a prolonged run in the FA Cup, can we prioritise that, or will it be sacrificed for the place money that one or two league positions might bring? Can we put an end to, and stop condoning, the outrageous cheating that is diving and taking one for the team? Can we have a common-sense VAR regime that is fit for the game as a spectacle rather than one to suit armchair data analysts? Can commentators stick to telling us what is happening on the pitch rather than trying to show-off their knowledge (it’s not Test Match Special) and can pundits stop describing every ordinary event as brilliant?

Back to today’s game, and we are likely to see a cautious West Ham, at least in the opening exchanges (i.e. the first half). It was positive that Bowen and Coufal were able to get a much needed rest in midweek but the backbone of the team -Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna – have played every league game (maybe every minute?) so far this season (as has Aaron Cresswell). The Hammer’s fortunes will depend greatly on how they can perform again today.  I guess we are stuck with another start for the central defender’s dream, Sebastien Haller, but at least there is the prospect of Antonio from the bench. Full of new year optimism, I am going for a 2-0 win, including that elusive first penalty of the season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thriller With The Villa: West Ham Tilting At Top Five Spot

The world’s two most famous claret-and-blues battle for a place at the business end of the table. Can West Ham spoil Aston Villa’s 100% away record and become the first team to score against them on the road?

Former Coldstream Guard and peddler of Barbican alcoholic-free larger, Lawrie McMenemy, used to say that league tables shouldn’t be published until ten rounds of games had been played. Before that point, the big man reckoned, the table was misleading creating unrealistic expectations at the top and putting too much pressure on managers at the bottom.

Well, we are almost at the point, a quarter of the season has already come and gone, and the Premier League table makes surprising reading. It will not be lost on either of today’s teams that victory would catapult them into the top five. Even if it was only temporary, it could prove a memorable “I was there” moment to tell your grandchildren about. Almost cause for an open top bus parade if only we were in a Tier 1 Covid location.

Something that stands out, for me, in this most unusual of seasons is how away teams have taken the edge on victories – leading 42 to 35 with 19 draws. Liverpool are the only Premier League side yet to lose at home, as well as being the only team to be averaging more that two points per home game. Conversely, four teams are yet to lose on the road, while there are five averaging more than two points per game. Within that roll of top awayday performers are tonight’s opponents, Aston Villa.

Having played just three away games so far, Villa can boast a 100% record and have yet to concede a goal. It is a fascinating state of affairs when you consider they have managed to let in eleven goals across their five home games – more that West Ham have conceded in all nine of their games, home and away.

The home versus away riddle, I suppose, must be a consequence of crowd free stadiums, but it is still not easy to understand. I can see how a passionate crowd can act as an extra player, but does that explain everything? Shouldn’t the home team be better acquainted with (and capable of exploiting) the dimensions of their own pitch? Aren’t pitches prepared to suit the home style of play or to hinder the opposition?

Or is that, despite the absence of crowds, home team’s still feel the need to take the initiative, only to be undone by the counter-attack sucker-punch that is so prevalent in today’s game. There must be something psychological at play here!

Assuming no undisclosed injury problems, I don’t see much change to the Hammer’s starting line-up. The key decision will be to bring back Michail Antonio or stick with Sebastien Haller. Much may hinge on just how confident David Moyes is on Antonio’s return to fitness – too soon to risk him or not?

West Ham managed to stumble across the finishing line in each of the last two games Antonio missed, but he is by far the best fit with the overall Moyes game-plan. Haller is nowhere near as bad as some make-out although he has yet to get near £45m of value. He did OK in the Sheffield game, where a great strike to win the game disguised earlier limitations in the role he was being asked to play. For me, bringing back Antonio is a must. Although their defensive record on the road suggests otherwise, Villa are often wide open at the back, and Antonio is the one best placed to exploit that.

The other selection debate (at least among fans) is Pablo Fornals or Said Benrahma? It is an interesting managerial conundrum. Fornals works his socks off for the team off the ball, but does he do enough on it? Benrahma looks to possess an excellent repertoire of skills and tricks, but can he be relied upon to put in the graft off the ball? I was disappointed not to see Benrahma get another 20 minutes or so last week, particularly when several players were starting to flag in the final quarter. I think we are all keen to see exactly what he can do, but I believe Moyes will keep him up his sleeve for now. He is not ready to fuilly release the brake and go full throttle just yet.

When West Ham played Villa in the final match of last season, the visitor’s determination for survival was enough to earn a deserved draw against their off-colour hosts. The Hammers were unable to get a grip on Jack Grealish and allowed him to run the show. They would be ill-advised to let him do so again this evening.

Grealish is something of a marmite character. Undoubtedly, one of the most skilful ball-players in the league but far too prone to the theatrical dive for my liking. Unfortunately, the game seems in thrall to players who engineer fouls out of nowhere on a regular basis. The irony of Grealish berating a Brighton player for simulation last week was right off the scale. Grealish was, of course, in court this week facing a charge of careless driving – a welcome change from careless diving, I suppose – after pranging several parked cars during a late night lockdown binge. With sentencing due in the next two weeks, perhaps it will be a case of locked down to locked up.

It will be interesting to have a close look at Ollie Watkins. One of the many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer (and a former team-mate of Benrahma) he has made an encouraging start at Villa. He will present a menacing goal threat if the supply line is not curtailed.

The runaway penalty glut has dried up a little in the past two weeks. I had mentioned previously that referees might be given a new directive to stem that particular over zealous tide. The current total sits at 44 awarded, a run rate equivalent to 175 for the entire season.   

I have a feeling that this is a game that could have plenty of goals in it. An interesting clash of styles between Villa’s very open approach and the Hammer’s controlled smash and grab. Normally, whenever we are lured towards the rocks of over optimism (even against our better judgement) it ends in disappointment. We are like that old variety act where chairs are stacked on top of each other. We all know that eventually it will all come crashing down – just not when!

For today though, I will laugh in the face of fate and predict a thrill-a-minute, nail-biting, nerve-jangling, breath-taking 3-2 victory. We might even get a penalty. COYI!

Out On The Wilder, Windy Moyes: Hammers Must Prepare For Weathering Heights

A different test this weekend for the Happy Hammers as they travel to Yorkshire to face a Route 1 aerial onslaught from bottom dwellers, Sheffield United

Football comes and goes these days as frequently as sunshine on a cloudy day. One minute, there are warnings of burn-out due to the hectic schedule and the next it is a week long break for the totally pointless European Zenith Data Systems Nations Cup. Whoever could have thought that would be a good idea in a time of fixture pile-up and a global pandemic?

So where exactly were we before getting so rudely interrupted? That’s right, a stuttering home win against Fulham that saw West Ham on eleven points from eight games, and into 12th place with a goal difference of +4. A satisfactory start in most supporter’s eyes, given the daunting run of games that many of us felt would see the team languishing among the relegation places at this point in the season.

Compared to the same stage last term, the Hammers are one point and five places worse off – although we had, in those opening eight games of 2019/20, played six of the teams who, along with ourselves, would end the campaign in the bottom seven.  Perhaps it is hindsight at work, but my level of confidence is higher now than it was back then – with the proviso that the hard work and attitude is maintained, and that injuries are kept to manageable proportions. There is still no room for complacency

David Moyes has won round many of his doubters, while others remain unconvinced (or refuse to be convinced.) Was it a lucky win against Fulham? Not on the balance of play over 90 minutes it wasn’t, but the pivotal VAR decisions in added time could easily have gone differently. Perhaps the referee’s thought process about Sebastien Haller interfering with play was driven by the fact that he hadn’t done so during the rest of the contest – while Lookman’s bizarre penalty attempt was justice done for the softest penalty award since the last one given against us.

West Ham had created the better chances, but it was not an impressive performance. The same limitations that have prevented West Ham seizing the initiative against ‘lesser’ teams in the past, were all too apparent again. Failure to move the ball quickly enough, getting funnelled into congested cul-de-sacs, lacking the added creative spark and being unable to create space down the wings for crosses. If width is to be provided by the wing backs, then they need to be played into open space far more than they are now. Especially, while Sebastien Haller remains their target. Or is that a health and safety requirement due to the recent concerns over too much heading (which, of course, is a valid issue.)

Fulham were allowed to flood the midfield areas (albeit without posing much of a threat) leaving Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek outnumbered and unusually ineffective. Rice, particularly, was forced too deep and had the look of a backwards/ sideways parody of Mark Noble. He is at his best when driving forward and spreading play – we don’t need any of those Gareth Southgate, possession for the sake of it habits here, thank you!

Today’s game will present a very different challenge against possibly the most direct side in the league (or is that Burnley?) Past Hammers performances against physical opponents desperately seeking points might suggest a difficult afternoon. A trademark slow start that has often followed one of the enforced breaks could be the story of the game. It is vital that manager and team have prepared to weather an early and ‘in your face’ storm from the opposition. Timid away defeats at Burnley in both the of the last two seasons readily spring to mind as a yardstick.

Sheffield United were last season’s surprise package. Chris Wilder did a superb job with limited resources to finish top half, in a season of few goals – just over one per game scored and conceded – and with an admirable ability to come back from behind. They have yet to reproduce that success this time around. The loss of on-loan keeper, Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell to injury have resulted in a leakier defence – and what was a trickle of goals has almost dried up completely – not helped by missing two or three penalties they have been awarded. Brewster may eventually provide the missing cutting edge, but at the moment, the Blades look decidedly blunt.

Moyes will surely stick with his favoured three/ five at the back formation with final selection contingent on injuries and/ or fatigue. I am assuming that Angelo Ogbonna is available to play (it has all been very quiet on his injury) but there could be a recall for Issa Diop, if Fabian Balbuena has not recovered from his arduous trip back from Asuncion (how many connecting flights would that entail?)

Although Michail Antonio has been back in full training, I don’t see him being risked today. He needs to be packed in cotton wool as carefully as possible until there is a credible backup option. And despite his rousing cameo against Fulham, I don’t see Said Benrahma making the starting eleven yet – certainly not in the type of game where hard work and discipline will be paramount requirements. Expect another twenty to thirty minutes of him from the bench.

As ever, the wild card will be whatever grenades VAR throws up with penalty and offside decisions. It is obvious that the relevant rules lack precision, are largely vague and have become more subjective than ever. Just that we now have more than one person responsible for making those judgements. In fact, it appears there are two sets of interpretations depending on whether an incident took place inside or outside the penalty area. I am thinking it could be better entertainment if after any goal, or tackle in the box, the referee runs to the pitch-side and spins the Wheel of Fortune to determine the outcome. It would make about as much sense while at the same time producing great, nail-biting TV drama.

Whatever happens it is going to be a tight affair with few goals. My confidence that we can stop Sheffield United scoring is higher than it is on our ability to break them down at the other end. Could it be our first scoreless draw since September 2019? This is hardly likely to one of those games for the neutral (they must be better things to do on a Sunday afternoon even during lockdown) but will take the Hammers to nick it with the only goal of the game.

Calm After The Storm: More Hard Work Needed To Maintain Hammers Momentum

Having survived the hard start, West Ham must now prove they can also put in strong performances against the teams they are expected to beat.

Even though their team occupy an unspectacular 14th slot in the embryonic Premier League table, West Ham supporters would likely admit to being ‘mostly satisfied’ with how the season has gone so far.

Having lost the opening day ‘winnable’ home game against Newcastle, a return of eight points from the subsequent run of daunting fixtures was as welcome as it was unexpected. Looking back, the two victories against Wolves and Leicester are even more impressive and, were it not for two poor penalty calls (at either end) against Manchester City and Liverpool, the points tally might have looked healthier still.

On average, a typical Premier League season sees the award of somewhere in the region of 80 to 95 penalties. In the seven rounds of games to date, 36 have been  awarded – that is equivalent to almost 200 over the course of an entire season.  Could this be another consequence of empty stadiums? No doubt the referees will spot this trend and issue instructions to cut back as the season unfolds – thus, preventing matters from evening themselves out as we are told they do.

Naturally, the Hammers are one of only four clubs without a penalty to their name. It is worth speculating on what the reasons might be for this: we don’t get bodies into the box frequently enough; our players prefer not to throw themselves to the ground in spectacularly enough fashion; or because refereeing is notoriously inconsistent and always favours the bigger clubs.

For those of us brought up in an era where football was still a contact sport, the contemporary interpretation of what is and isn’t a foul is difficult to comprehend. The law simply describes a foul as a tackle that is careless, reckless or uses excessive force – leaving the rest up to the referee’s discretion. Although it has always been mostly subjective, we now have a situation where the slightest incidental touch is used as a conscious decision for a player to throw himself to the ground as if taken out by a sniper’s bullet.

Salah’s theatrically embellished dive last week deserved not the reward of a penalty but a ban for clear and obvious cheating. Pundits referring to such behaviour as “being cute or smart” does not help. It is cheating plain and simple – a scourge on the beautiful game that should be eliminated through lengthy retrospective bans. Klopp lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes with his post-match defence of Salah and his life-threatening bruise. Impossible to know how the game would have panned out without the penalty, but it gave Liverpool a way back into a game when they had been struggling to find one.

Turning attention to this weekend’s fixture with Fulham which presents a fascinating contrast to what has gone before. It is a game that many would expect us to win with some ease. But with Michail Antonio’s still missing and with the Hammers generally poor success rate against supposedly lesser sides, it would be premature to declare victory before all the goals are counted.

I have watched a few Fulham games this season and they look a little like this year’s Norwich. Preferring to stick with the adventurous passing and possession-based style that earned them promotion, they leave huge gaps at the back as a result.  In normal circumstances, such an approach would play to the Hammer’s counter attacking strengths. Without Antonio, though, it becomes less certain.

If there was ever any doubt, it is now obvious the squad has no like for like replacement for Antonio. Tactical and/ or positional changes are required if either Sebastien Haller or Andriy Yarmolenko are gong to be able to lead the line with any purpose. My assumption is that Moyes will go with Haller again and, if that is the case, I believe two things must happen.

First, Haller needs to be provided with the type of service that suits his aerial ability. As I don’t see how it is possible to play two up top, without compromising overall team shape and structure, the wing backs need to push much further forward and get into more threatening crossing positions. At the same time, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals need to have a greater presence in the box, alert to the second ball. It is a given that Tomas Soucek will already be waiting there.

Second, there needs to be an alternative out-ball other than the long pass up-field for the striker to chase. Haller can’t/ won’t do that and is not equipped to do so. It falls again to Bowen and Fornals to make themselves available immediately possession is won. This is an area where Said Benrahma could turn out to be a valuable asset. I don’t see him starting this week, but hope to see him on the pitch for more than two minutes – twenty to thirty at least.

Fulham will be buoyed by their first win of the season, even if it was against the abysmal West Bromwich Albion. I would love to see Scott Parker keep them up. He was a talented and wholehearted player at West Ham and hands-down wins the managerial Oscars for Best Hairstyle and Costume Design – smart suit, immaculate 1950’s RAF haircut, tie pin and cuff-links.

It’s tempting fate but I’ve never been convinced by Loftus-Cheek (since that dubious penalty he won at Stamford Bridge in March 2016) but Lookman is an exciting, if volatile, talent. And Mitrovic will always be a threat should a defence be intimated by his battering-ram style.

As mentioned, West Ham have long struggled to perform against the teams they are expected to beat. Whether it is an attitude problem or simply a lack of guile and application in breaking down defensively minded or more physical opposition is uncertain. Fulham don’t fit that bill, though. They work hard but otherwise play in an open, attractive style. With Antonio, I would be predicting a straight sets victory. Without him, it is going to depend how well the manager and team adapt to compensate for his absence. It promises to make the match a far tighter affair than it might appear. West Ham to scrape home with a 2-1 win. COYI!