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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it. Can West Ham get results in N17?

After a worst possible start and performance on Saturday, West Ham need to up their game considerably if they are to get a result and chase off the creeping shadow of relegation

As 1980’s pop philosophers Bananarama succinctly put it “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.” Looking back to West Ham’s opening restart efforts on Saturday evening I can only conclude that ‘if that’s the way they intend to do it’ then we are irretrievably doomed to relegation. It has a look of inevitability about it unless something drastic happens. Or unless we are able to rely on Villa and Bournemouth being equally poor.

Sure, Wolves are a particularly good, efficient, if not spectacular, side that cause problems in every game they play, no matter who the opposition is. A stark contrast to the lack of endeavour that characterises David Moyes side on most occasions.  Notable is the success that Nuno has had in integrating his many Portuguese imports into the English game when compared to our own Fun Boy Three (Anderson, Fornals and Lanzini) who might as well have stayed locked down for all the difference they made – Specials they are not!

I feared that we would get a slow and stuttering restart, and that is exactly what happened. No plan, no purpose, no passion – and no points. Yet another performance where the players looked to have little idea what they were supposed to be doing. Moyes had set up for the point and once Wolves had scored it was game over, such was the complete absence of any creativity or goal threat.

Not that you can blame Moyes for the disastrous transfer spending during Manuel Pellegrini’s time at the club. It may be 2020 hindsight but if we had kept Moyes and given him the same transfer budget we wouldn’t be where we are now. That’s not to say we would have been enamoured with the style of football.

As I mentioned before the Wolves game, the dearth of central defensive and striker cover are negligent and damaging for a Premier League club. An extended absence of Angelo Ogbonna and Sebastien Haller will be a massive blow to our prospects, even if neither are exactly world beaters. Will there now be a temptation to rush them back before they are ready? How to keep players fit is another tip we might ask of Nuno.

The big selection conundrum concerns Declan Rice (looking a lot less Irish these days with longer hair and a beard) who is both our best defender and best midfield player. Unless he can be cloned this is a dilemma, although on balance I see his energy and discipline in midfield as the bigger loss. Ogbonna is an acceptable enough replacement in central defence but Fabian Balbuena isn’t – at least not on the evidence of the season to date – where The General has become a general liability. I never thought I would say it but, hurry back, Angelo.

Rice apart, there were few positives coming from the Wolves game although I thought Jeremy Ngakia was one of our better players, particularly when going forward. With no genuine wide players in the side, width has to be provided by the full-backs, even though that makes us (even more) susceptible to the counter attack. With the ongoing uncertainty regarding Ngakia’s future, Moyes may opt to start Ryan Fredericks against his former club. There is no such alternative at left back where Arthur Masuaku’s absence means Aaron Cresswell will continue despite his feeble attempts to handle game-changer Traore on Saturday. Unless, that is, Moyes thinks Ben Johnson is up to playing on his wrong side.

The striker dilemma, should Haller be once again unavailable, is whether Michail Antonio can handle another 90 minutes of football so soon. Antonio made little impact against Wolves, although he had little in the way of support. I read that Felipe Anderson was meant to be playing alongside him in a 4-4-2, but you could have fooled me. The alternative would be to use the-still-recovering-from-injury Andriy Yarmolenko in a striking role. There is, sadly, little news to inspire confidence.

Moyes will no doubt be looking for a midfield shuffle. If Rice has to play centre-back then Mark Noble will need to find the stamina to again partner Tomas Soucek. It is then a  case of picking any three from Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals, Jack Wilshere and Yarmolenko (if he is not playing up front) to make up the numbers. No combination jumps out as ideal.

Whatever the line-up, Moyes will be setting his side out to preserve the point they started with. A fortunate set piece winner being the extent of our ambition. As we saw on Saturday, the drawback of that cunning plan is having no alternative strategy in the event of the opposition scoring.

To compound the negativity surrounding the club right now, both manager and captain have been playing the role of victims in bemoaning the fixture scheduling. Not a good stance to take when courage, diligence and unity are required more than whinging.

Our north London friends have not had the best of seasons, but they may still believe that a Champion’s League place is a possibility – let’s face it they are an eternally credulous bunch. Mourinho is likely to have a full squad to choose from with Kane and Son recovered from pre-lockdown injuries and Alli available after suspension.

Today’s Matchday officials are Craig Pawson (on the pitch) while David Coote is once again on the VAR controls back in Stockley Park.

My own confidence level that this West Ham squad have what it takes to escape relegation has been reset to approaching zero. The adjusted Under The Hammers ‘R’ (for relegation) values (the closer to 1 the more trouble you are in) following the latest round of matches are: Norwich (0.99), Villa (0.96), Bournemouth (0.95), West Ham (0.95), Watford (0.92) and Brighton (0.91).

As for the pundits, their predictions for tonight are Lawro with an expected 2-0 home win; while Charlie Nicholas believes that a sluggish Spurs might be surprised by West Ham’s tenacity, earning the visitors an unlikely 1-1 draw. Controversial stuff, Charlie.

As I recall, the Bananarama girls went on to advise that “it ain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it” is also of equal importance if you want to get results. For a Hammer’s fan there surely cannot be a better place to do ‘it’ than in N17, as indeed happened last season. Can it happen again? Even with the claret and blue spectacles on it is a difficult scenario to imagine I will be hoping for a snatched draw, but fully expect a convincing defeat.

The Wolves Are At The Door: It’s All Kicking Off At West Ham

The post-apocalyptic Premier League era kicks off at the London Stadium with West Ham playing host to high flying Wolves in a whole new ball game.

I will be honest but I never believed this day – the resumption of West Ham’s 2019/20 league campaign – would ever actually happen. Now it is here, I confess to being nervously apprehensive. The immediate fate of our club is to be decided on the outcome of nine relegation threatened matches played over five short weeks. Survival is contingent on the level of readiness and the appetite for a fight – characteristics that have rarely been freely associated with the Hammers for much of their recent history.

Mark Noble says “we’ve worked hard and the boys look ready”. No doubt, other club captains have been saying the same thing. Is it likely that our preparations have been as good as or better than others? Arguably West Ham have technically better players than their relegation rivals, but will David Moyes be able to instil the right levels of motivation, effort and organisation to quickly recover the momentum that he says was building before the shutdown?

It is over three months since West Ham last played – about as long as a normal close season – but with only a few weeks to prepare for battle. Yet unlike a new season which will kick-off again in the same circumstances as the last season ended, this time, so much has changed – it really is a whole new ball game!

Empty echoing cavernous stadiums, atmospheric TV crowd noise, cardboard cutout supporters (aka Arsenal fans), free to air TV, more badges on the shirt than Bear Grylls, nine bottoms on the bench, five available subs and a designated goal celebration zone. I eagerly await the choreographed Tik Tok inspired celebration routines from Michail Antonio. A far cry from the congratulatory pat on the back and manly handshake that Bobby Moore would have expected back in the day.

This new normal will be far more of a squad game than it had been pre-virus – if fitness is to be preserved and niggling injuries avoided (what are the chances?) The squad still has a surplus of midfield players but an absence of suitable cover at the back and up front. Injuries to key players will have significant repercussions.

Today’s starting lineup is difficult to call and contingent upon the availability of Angelo Ogbonna and Noble. Speculation from in-the-know club insiders is that Declan Rice may need to slot in at centre back if Ogbonna is absent – rather than risk the wayward Fabian Balbuena – but can that be possible if Noble is not ready to partner Tomas Soucek in central midfield? Going into the game with just one anchor in midfield would be asking for trouble it needs two from Rice, Soucek and Noble to play that role.

Fingers crossed that we can avoid seeing Noble and Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time, and that we have seen the very last of Carlos Sanchez. It would also be an opportune time for the likes of Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere and Pablo Fornals to earn their corn. I will be intrigued to see how Moyes approaches substitutions, something that he is often reluctant to make use of. Not one after the hour and the other four in the 87th minute I hope.

Back in March the collective endeavour of Antonio, Sebastien Haller and Jarrod Bowen was starting to look promising and I am looking forward to seeing them pick up where they left off today. There is plenty there to cause the visitors problems and, just as importantly, to keep their wing backs occupied when we are not in possession.

Although, I do not know all the background to the Jeremy Ngakia kerfuffle, it has all the hallmarks of a very West Ham cock-up. With justifiable concerns over the fitness of right back alternatives – Ryan Fredericks, Ben Johnson and Pablo Zabaleta – for such an intense run of games, the services of the want-away Ngakia may well be crucial between now and the end of the month.

Today’s opposition, Wolverhampton Wanderers had been experiencing a tremendous season prior to the March shutdown. Seventh in the league and still with an interest in the Europa League, it will be no surprise if Nuno Espirito Santo (the best name in football management) has his players fully fired up for the restart. You will remember that we were originally due to play them on a Sunday afternoon in the wake of an arduous midweek journey to play a Europa League tie in Greece. In my opinion, and in the interests of fairness, they should have been compelled to take an equivalent difficult trek in the days leading up to today’s fixture.

I’m not sure I am totally onboard with the notion that the greatest Wolves threat is posed by Adama Traore, at least not consistently. He alternates between being the master of running the ball out of play at dazzling speed, and spells of being mesmerisingly unplayable – an Antonio with ball control, but without the aerial threat. Of course, it is the West Ham way for players such as these to save their best for games against us.

For me, it is the Portuguese trio of Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota that make Wolves tick and present the greatest danger. Add in Raul Jimenez (a Mexican striker more suited to English football) and our players must take heed of that sage old advice to stay alert. Far too frequently our defenders play like they are statues, and we must ensure that none are toppled today.

The welcome return of football brings with it the vagaries and inconsistency of refereeing decisons. It did not take long for the restart to become embroiled in officiating controversy, with the failure to award a clear goal to Sheffield United at Villa Park on Wednesday evening. I can just about accept the chance in a million occlusion experienced by Hawkeye, but what were the referee and VAR doing? Like someone who relies entirely on GPS to reach their destination, they had no clue what to do when the technology failed them. Technology is meant to ‘assist’ the referee, not take all the decisions for them. Today’s allocation from officialdom are Anthony Taylor (ref) and David Coote (VAR).

Each of today’s four games will have a significant impact on the bottom of the table. With West Ham on third, I wonder if the outcome of events at Watford and Brighton will affect the mood at the London Stadium? Hitting the ground running has never been more important. Lawro thinks West Ham will win (1-0), Charlie Nicholas sees it as one apiece. On this occasion I will be completely ruled by my heart and opt for a 2-0 home win.

Jeux sans spectateurs: Premier League mini-marathon could be knockout blow for West Ham?

Games without spectators may a thing for many months to come. Being able to adapt quickly to new circumstances in the next 6 weeks will be crucial for the Hammer’s survival chances.

Very little has gone to plan during the coronavirus crisi but, if nothing unexpected happens in the coming days, the 2019/20 Premier League season will make its much anticipated restart. Next Wednesday, relegation candidates, Aston Villa, kick off proceedings by playing their game in hand, against Sheffield United, at a spectator-less Villa Park. The Saturday after that, West Ham resume their own campaign, in a punishing schedule that will take in 9 matches over a 36 day period.

The news coming from the club over recent days has been generally positive (not the coronavirus test results, thankfully) and the Hammers are said to be raring to go with an almost injury free squad – although how it will hold up to the demands of such a frenetic schedule is a huge concern. Keeping key players as fit as possible, in what remains an unbalanced squad despite the January recruitment, will be crucial to a successful outcome . The relegation battle will ultimately come to resemble a sudden death knockout affair and the last thing that we need is for David Moyes to have to play jokers.

It would appear that Jeremy Ngakia will be playing no part in the remainder of the season following his (or his agent’s) refusal to agree a contract extension. In mitigation, fellow academy right back graduate (and arguably a better defender) Ben Johnson has now recovered from injury and is available. Elsewhere the situation with outward loanees is that Jordan Hugill will stay at QPR; Nathan Holland has returned from Oxford United; and I cannot find any update on the latest position with Grady Diagana at West Brom.

One player who will be staying in claret and blue for the time being is Tomas Soucek; his loan spell extended until the conclusion of hostilities at the end of July. Although Soucek has only appeared 4 times in a West Ham shirt, he is widely regarded as a much needed and energetic addition to the problematic central midfield area. We must hope he can deliver on that promise.

It will be interesting to see in the next dew weeks how the new match-day experience pans out for both players and spectators alike. To what extent do players rely on a passionate crowd to provide that extra lift and carry them over the line? Or to what degree does spectator frustration seep into player’s minds and create panic? To maintain social distancing (at least outside of the penalty area) stadiums will be split into red, amber and green zones to reflect the limits to be imposed on the maximum numbers of players, coaches, officials and media who can be granted access – previously, stadium zones were known as denial, anger and delusion.

According to reports, the TV viewer will be presented with a range of additional camera angles, backstage access and sound effects designed to distract attention from the eerie echo-ey atmosphere on the pitch. To recreate the full authentic stadium experience, you will need to scatter peanut shells on the floor beneath your feet, and perhaps ask a friend to sit (2 metres) behind you to hurl abuse and shout drunken obscenities.

Taking a look back in history for reassurance, I could only find six competitive games that West Ham have played during the month of June, all during the first two seasons of world war two. This does, of course, include their finest hour (and a half) when the Hammers beat Blackburn Rovers to lift the 1940 Football League War Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Despite the threat of Luftwaffe attacks, and a goalkeeper called Herman, West Ham triumphed with the only goal of the game scored by wing-man Sam Small. Apart from this, the record in June is not impressive, comprising 3 defeats, 2 wins and a draw – with 2 of those defeats coming in home fixtures against the dreaded Millwall.

For the nostalgic, here is a brief film report on the War Cup Final introduced by the legendary Brian Moore.

In accordance with modern algorithmic trends, we have been mining the data, following the science and making stuff up in order to derive the patented Under The Hammers ‘R’ (or relegation) value for the bottom six clubs. Our super computer has been evaluating key performance factors such as previous form, remaining fixtures, player’s birth charts and potential paranormal activity to come up with the chances of Premier League survival. Currently these values (the closer to 1 the more trouble you are in) indicate the following: Norwich (0.98), Villa (0.95), Bournemouth (0.94), West Ham (0.92), Brighton (0.92) and Watford (0.90). All very tight and lots to play for.

One of the greatest risks that West Ham face, given their relatively tricky initial run of games, is the season restarting but then stopping again due to a second wave of infections. Dropping into the bottom three at any time during the next five weeks, not just at the end of the season, presents formidable danger should relegation be decided on positions at the time of suspension.

A phenomenon that could not be controlled during the recent lockdown was an uncontrolled outbreak of highly contagious transfer stories. Those media outlets that rely heavily on transfer speculation recognised long ago that every story generates many, many posting opportunities: making up or repeating the original rumour; cut and pasting outraged and/or ecstatic reaction from Twitter; vehement denial by club insider; eventual report that the target has actually signed for Barcelona. West Ham player recruitment is generally haphazard at the best of times but, in a situation where we don’t know which division we will be playing in, and where the immediate future of football finances is a complete unknown, rumours of multi million pound deals are even more fantastical than usual.

Right now, it is impossible to predict when crowds will be allowed to return to football grounds. Even if it can happen sometime within the next 12 months, restrictions are unlikely to be lifted before the start of next season. Continuing to play games behind closed doors with games shown free-to-air on TV is certain to have significant medium to long term implications for the structure of the game as we know it, at all levels of the pyramid. No-one can know what the new normal will be for football, but it is not going to be the same as it was.

Project Jumpstart: Can West Ham Create The Spark And Energy For A Positive Surge Up The Table, Or Will It Be A Relegation Shocker?

Football’s Coming Home – but this time in an ambulance and driven by a man who is only out to test his eyesight

I had what I consider to be a Nostradamus moment in my preview of the Southampton game on 28 February when I suggested that West Ham’s best hope for avoiding relegation was for the season to declared null and void as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Less that two weeks later the Premier League had called a halt to all matches following revelations that several high profile managers and players had been tested positive for the virus, including Mikel Arteta, whose Arsenal team had faced the Hammers on the previous weekend (7 March). On 23 March, the UK government finally imposed the nationwide lockdown which is tentatively easing today.

I admit that I felt at the time that restarting the season would be impossible but, barring a significant change in circumstances, that is exactly what will happen commencing on 17 June. The restart may be driven by commercial imperatives (getting hold of TV revenues to splurge on inflated transfer fees and wages) and by political distraction (a rare good news story to fill the back pages and social media ) rather than for the integrity of the game, but the latest plan envisages all remaining 92 games being completed during a hectic six week festival of football window.

A key aspect, of course, of the re-start plan is that matches will be played behind closed doors, with the majority of games played at the usual home venue. The exception to the latter is a number of Liverpool games which the police have asked to be hosted at neutral venues. There seems to be twisted logic here for me. Liverpool will eventually and inevitably win the title and when they do their fans will not celebrate in groups of six at a time (nor would the fans of any club, in fact). So rather that they celebrate, and confine the risk, to Liverpool, the authorities want to follow a path that spreads it around the country.

In a second of my visionary moments, I once posted about a time in football’s future when the presence of bothersome fans in stadiums was outlawed and where their role in generating noise and atmosphere was replaced by CGI and sound effects.   Expect to see some experiments in this direction if the ban on spectators is extended beyond this season and when the TV companies find it difficult to generate the appropriate level of hype in the absence of an enthusiastic or frustrated crowd. (If it turns out that I didn’t predict any of this I will simply edit an old blog post to make it look like I did.)

I have already seen one experiment at an event in South Korea where inflatable sex dolls were dotted around the stands in lieu of spectators – something that would seem ideal for our own chairmen, if they need to clear out any old stock not snapped up during the lockdown.

There is another way of looking at it, however. From my brief 45 minutes of an eerily sterile, crowd-free Bundesliga match on TV, it was apparent that without crowd involvement in the ground football is a far less attractive proposition to broadcast on the small screen. Thus, if fans are an essential part of the product then they should be paid to attend matches rather than the other way around.

Those longer in the tooth Hammer’s fans amongst us will recall a European Cup Winners Cup second leg tie in October 1980 against Castilla which West Ham won 5-1 (after extra time) to advance through to the next round of the competition. This was a game that had to be played behind closed doors at Upton Park due to crowd trouble in the first leg in Madrid. Clearly it is a good omen that the club has previous in overcoming home disadvantage.

As a West Ham fan, I admit to being very apprehensive about the restart. Back in early March, I felt the team had started to look more together, despite defeat at Arsenal, and would be more that capable of finishing above three worse sides. Now that tiny slither of momentum has been lost and we are back to square one. The elapsed time since the shutdown is equivalent to a normal close season and yet the players have just three weeks to get match fit. It applies to all teams but with the Hammers being notoriously slow starters, and one of the least energetic teams in the league, it does not bode well. Are we trust that our often complacent players have had the discipline to keep themselves in the best possible shape during the recess? Reports from the Bundesliga indicate a greater incidence of strains and tweaks since their restart. With West Ham’s history of injuries, that is not encouraging sign – especially for a team that relies on the contribution of a few key individuals rather than on collective effort.

“Too slow to catch a cold” was one of my dad’s favourite put-downs when I perched on his shoulders as a boy in the West Enclosure. If the same applies to coronavirus then we can count that as a positive for certain members of our squad.  With no allowances being made for depleted squads due to sickness and injury, it will be a case of all hands on deck for the duration. Are we up to the task?

If, and when, games do re-start, the motivation of mid-table teams will be interesting to watch. Even during a normal season there is a falling away in effort once there is nothing left to play for. Expecting players with no hope of European qualification and no fear of relegation to get back to match fitness, after a three month lay-off, for a handful of games, is a big ask.

Another concern is the situation where the league restarts but is subsequently cancelled in the event of a second wave of the virus. If the intention is to regard the league as complete should this occur (on a pro rate points basis) then it would mean that slipping into the bottom three at any point creates inherent danger – you cannot rely on an easier run in the games to come. Very much like a game of musical chairs!

I have not checked what the current odds are for relegation, but my sense is that, apart from Norwich, each of the bottom six face an equal chance of the drop. There is nothing we can do as fans, no chance to make a difference as the twelfth man in the stands, other than to put our faith in David Moyes to prepare his players properly; to hope the players step up; and that together they dig out the performances needed. Interesting times. Stay Alert, Hammer’s fans.

We’re Gunner Score One More Than You. West Ham Look To Maintain Momentum By Outscoring Arsenal In Saturday’s Derby Game

Can the Hammer’s new found sense of optimism created by last weekend’s three point success against the Saints survive a visit to The Emirates?

Taken in isolation, the renewed sense of optimism following last week’s win against Southampton seems rather misplaced. From being a team that many felt would struggle to pick up any points at all before the clocks went forward, there is now talk of plundering points from each and every game. That includes upcoming fixtures against our three snooty London neighbours, who are nominally part of the big six but not as good as they used to be, or so the theory goes.

There was a time when Arsenal were not just big six, but half of the big two, alongside Manchester United. As with Ferguson at Old Trafford, however, Arsenal have struggled so far to break free from the shadow of former long term manager, Arsene Wenger. Perhaps that is also the Hammers problem, becalmed after the fleeting balmy days of super Johnny Lyall.

In truth, Arsenal problems began midway through the Wenger reign, when he failed to find effective replacements for his dogged no-nonsense central defenders. The strategy of recruiting attacking players from the swankiest showrooms but picking up defenders from the breaker’s yard has persisted to this day.  New manager, Mikel Arteta does seems to have a credible plan, but it is fair to say that his team, with its focus on youth, is very much a work in progress. Will he be given the time to see it through?

It is the Gunner’s sloppiness at the back (although it has improved in recent weeks) that will give the Hammers cause for hope. If West Ham can show the same intent, work rate  and energy levels as they did last week, they will be sure to cause problems. The combination of Michail Antonio, Sebastien Haller and Jarrod Bowen are certainly capable of unsettling the Arsenal back-line. That being said, Arsenal’s attacking players also have more than enough quality to breach the Hammer’s error prone rearguard.

All this supposes that David Moyes is prepared to continue with the more enterprising line-up and style that we saw last Saturday. Any change to the starting line-up would be disappointing as well as unpopular – further ammunition for the claims of negativity. The prospect of two teams endeavouring to outscore each other through attacking bravado and defensive inadequacy would be welcome relief from the spectre of an impending virus pandemic for a couple of hours. An away win can often be the best medicine.

In the continued absence of Tomas Soucek, the weakest link in the West Ham armour will be in central midfield where Mark Noble will struggle to keep pace with those around him. As a consequence, Declan Rice will be forced to play deep, almost as an auxiliary centre back, and be prevented from making forward runs. Rice’s forward surges are an ability that sets him apart from many other holding midfield players in the Premier League – particularly English ones.

One player who will not feature this weekend (or maybe ever again) is former Gunner, Jack Wilshere. It’s a shame that his time as a Hammer has been so dismal but I don’t understand the personal abuse that he frequently gets on social media. I’m sure he would much rather be on the pitch than in the treatment room. It was clearly very foolish of the club to give him such a lengthy contract in the circumstances but that is not his fault..

This week’s referee is Martin Atkinson from West Yorkshire.  Atkinson was previously in charge of the Hammer’s win at Southampton in December last year. On VAR duty will be Kevin Friend. According to the GivemeSport website, West Ham would be six points better off and well clear of the relegation places but for VAR decisions going against them. Wishful thinking probably!

The pundits take differing views this week. Lawro has gone for his favoured 1-1 draw while former Gunner, Charlie Nicholas has opted for a repeat of last season, with a 3-1 home win. Away to Arsenal has not been a happy hunting ground over the years. In fact, the records both home and away to Arsenal are poor. The last victory at The Emirates was, of course, the opening day of the 2015/16 season and West Ham have lost each of the four away meetings to take place since then. I read somewhere that Moyes has never beaten Arsenal in 15 attempts – so the omens are not good. Still how dull following football would be if we couldn’t choose to ignore the facts. With a positive attitude we easily have enough talent available now to make a game of it. That is exactly what we want to see. It is not impossible that we can come away with something from the game and I will go honours even at 2 goals apiece. COYI!

Recovery Position: A Sparkling West Ham Victory Sees Them Climb Out Of The Bottom Three For Now. What Did We Learn?

Everything about Saturday’s performance was just so much better than what’s gone before. What are the takeaways that will help navigate West Ham through the remaining games of the season?

The Wisdom of The Crowd

The wisdom of the crowd concept is that although individual members may not be wiser than a single expert, collectively they are.  It is demonstrated frequently in football where fans often have a more realistic take on the value of a player – no crowd would ever have sanctioned the signing of Carlos Sanchez, for example.  The Crowd largely got that their way on Saturday’s team selection, but with an added bonus of the surprise pairing of Michail Antonio and Sebastien Haller leading the line in an enterprising 4-4-2 formation. Throw in the introduction of Jarrod Bowen, a recall for Pablo Fornals and Jeremy Ngakia keeping his place and suddenly there was a team full of running and purpose. The Crowd had realised ages ago that West Ham were too slow in moving the ball forward, too predictable in opening up defences and hopeless at supporting whoever was the unfortunate lone striker. Amazingly, everything finally come together and delivered a deserved and much needed three points.

The Possession Myth

Despite the fine victory not everybody was happy if social media was to be believed. Those who are invested in their views that David Moyes is a dour, clueless Scot or that Haller is moody, French lump refused to have their opinions changed merely by events. Critics will point out that only having 34% possession in a home game is no cause for celebration. Yet, West Ham were able to outperform the visitors 14-10 on goal attempts. Possession, for the sake of it, is not what it is cracked up to be. On this occasion Moyes got the tactics spot on – by going direct it proved an effective counter to Southampton’s high press. The question, though, of whether this high tempo, hard-working, committed style was a one-off tactic or is to be how we will shape up for the rest of the season is a valid one. It won’t work so spectacularly every week and there is still plenty of work to be done in improving ball retention. Overall though, the change of approach made for a very entertaining, as well as a productive, game.

99% Perspiration

As full debuts go, it could not have gone much better for Jarrod Bowen. It was not just his smartly taken goal, welcome as it was, but also the good work he did in all areas of the pitch. Getting forward quickly to support the strikers; not giving up the chase for loose balls; working hard to regain possession when it was lost; and making a last ditch challenge to deny Bertrand a goal scoring opportunity. He looks just the type of player The Crowd want and love. A good, honest, young professional who is hungry for success and knows that working hard as well as possessing great technique is required. I don’t believe these are attributes that only English players have, but it was a breath of fresh air compared to the complacency shown by some of the big-money signings from overseas in the past. Some may feel that a full debut should have come sooner but, on balance, I think Moyes has handled the situation sensibly, given the nature of the previous two games.

The New Mr West Ham

Watching a re-run of the game on TV yesterday I spotted Declan Rice singing along to Bubbles as the teams walked out onto the pitch at the start of the game. Maybe other players were doing the same but not that I saw. Rice has become the backbone of the West Ham team and it would/ will be a great shame if, and when, he leaves in search of the better things that the Hammers cannot offer. While he is here there is no doubting his commitment to the club and cause. We should appreciate him while we can. If Tomas Soucek were to replace Mark Noble in Saturday’s line-up then it would be a team with a far better balance of ability and athleticism – arguably our strongest eleven, even when everyone is fit. Players such as Noble and Robert Snodgrass can still play a part in the squad but no longer as regular starters. The game is far too quick for them now.

The Race For Relegation

It was another interesting weekend in the battle at the wrong end of the table. West Ham are one of the six teams at greatest risk and as satisfying as the win was, performances like Saturdays need to be sustained if safety is to be assured. With most of the teams involved having ten games remaining it is tempting to compare and contrast run-ins – but this can prove misleading as incentives of opposing clubs change with time  – is home to a relegation threatened Watford an easier game, say, than away to Manchester United if Europa League qualification is the best they can hope for by then? In practice there are only two exceptional teams in the league (Liverpool and Manchester City) and West Ham should now be looking to pick up points in each of their remaining fixtures. The bookmakers favour Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth for the drop but I fancy Brighton to succumb. Survival is not a foregone conclusion, but I am breathing a little easier (despite the threat of coronavirus) after the weekend’s events.

Ratings: Fabianski (7), Ngakia (6), Ogbonna (8), Diop (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (8), Noble (5), Bowen (8), Fornals (8), Antonio (9), Haller (8) Subs: Snodgrass (6), Anderson (n/a)   

West Ham’s Escape Plan Revealed: Start Winning A Few Games Or Rely On The Coronavirus Pandemic

Not yet a ‘must win’ game or ‘we’re down if we lose’ but at home to Southampton is an important obstacle to overcome in the Hammer’s increasingly desperate battle for survival.

Recent events have proven that the world is about as prepared for a global virus pandemic as West Ham are for a Premier League relegation fight. With the level of anxiety rising on both fronts it has led to speculation on the possibility of the football programme being suspended or even abandoned as the consequence of a UK wide lock down on travel and public gatherings.

Imagine the outcry on Merseyside if the season were declared null and void some time in the next few weeks. It is not to be sneezed at! That is assuming there isn’t some footballing equivalent of the Duckworth-Lewis method that would be used to calculate final standings based on Opta Stats – no doubt, precipitating a raft of legal challenges.

For now, such a scenario will need to remain Plan-B, with a continuing focus on preserving Premier League safety through more conventional means – starting with Saturday’s home fixture against Southampton.

There was a notable improvement in the Hammer’s performance against Liverpool on Monday (when compared to the Manchester City game) and had it not been for the rarest of off-days by Lukasz Fabianski, one of the shocks of the season could have been on the cards. It is easy to understand fan’s frustration, though, as to why the same level of effort and commitment cannot be applied in all matches. For some reason the team have found it easier to play against Liverpool than City in both home and away fixtures this season. In the end, we expected zero points from those last two games and that is exactly what we got. More important now, however, is how the team shapes up for Saturday’s game. Will there be some carry over momentum from Anfield or will it be a return to the slow starting, low intensity team that we have been used to in the recent past?

Among the many West Ham weaknesses are an inability to break down hard-working, organised defences and preventing teams hitting us on the break. Southampton will provide a test on both fronts. Not throwing away another lead would also be welcome.

The Saints are 5th in the away table while West Ham sit just one off the bottom in the Premier League home table. Their style is well suited as a smash and grab away team in the modern style; not endowed with a great deal of midfield creativity but direct in rapid counter attacking and dangerous from set pieces -with a red hot striker at the moment in Danny Ings. They are, however, as prone to defensive howlers as the Hammers – as their goals against record (the same as ours) clearly illustrates, although nine of those did come in one game.

The question on all West Ham lips then is how will David Moyes set his team up to exploit Southampton’s weaknesses and deal with their obvious threats? Equally, what level of motivation will we see? Any chance of starting on the front foot, playing with energy and intensity, and giving the crowd something to get behind? The first twenty minutes could well be crucial in setting the tone of the game.

It is very unfortunate that Tomas Soucek is unavailable as he and Declan Rice could have provided a solid foundation in midfield to protect the defence, allowing Mark Noble to sit this one out. I would prefer not to see both Noble and Robert Snodgrass (too old and too slow in combination) on the pitch at the same time but fear that might not now be the case.

Popular opinion is that there should be starts for Jeremy Ngakia, Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen. I would go along with that but difficult to know whether the manager sees it the same way. Moyes reverted to a back four at Anfield but possibly only due to the enforced absence of Arthur Masuaku. It would be foolish to change back again and I am hoping to see an unchanged back line. Key decisions will be a choice between Snodgrass or Fornals and whether Felipe Anderson is considered ready for two games in a week. Opinion is very divided about the clubs two most expensive signings – Anderson and Sebastien Haller. I can’t say either is delivering value for money but would start with Anderson (if fit enough) as he is the one player capable of the unexpected. I don’t see anything but the bench for Haller. This would be my starting eleven but think Moyes will opt for Snodgrass over Fornals for his dead-ball contribution.

lineup

Anthony ‘Red Card’ Taylor from Cheshire is the matchday referee with Stuart Atwell as his virtual buddy in Stockley Park. I was interested to watch Mike Dean coming across as quite human in the Peter Crouch podcast this week – a reminder that refs might not be as incompetent and aloof as they seem in real life. Worth a watch if you have ten minutes to spare.

At time of writing, Lawro has not published his predictions – I expect his default 1-1 setting. Charlie Nicholas, who predicts far too many West Ham wins for his own good, has gone for a 2-1 home win. It would wrong to call games ‘must win’ at this stage of the season but it surely is one of the contests that we would pencil in as winnable. Attitude might well be the match winner. Keep on your toes at all times. Beware the pace of Long and the predatory instincts of Ings. Defend those set pieces properly and make sure Lukasz has his catching gloves on. I can’t see a lot of finesse in midfield from either team and it could end up as a dead-ball contest. I am hoping a fast start can see us get our noses in front. But if we do, can we finally keep it there. It could be a stressful afternoon all round but I will go for 3-1.

The Incapables take on the Invincibles in the Monday night match. West Ham expectations are at an all-time low.

As West Ham visit Anfield for their annual charity giveaway, the big talking point is whether the Hammers will produce a shot on target

When Arsenal embarked on their famous ‘Invincibles’ season in 2003/04, West Ham were taking one of their regular sabbaticals in the Championship – and, thus, unable to put a spoke in the celebratory wheel. With Liverpool now looking a great good bet to emulate Arsenal’s feat, the Hammer’s have a final opportunity to make something of their season by snatching victory and becoming the ultimate party poopers. As long shots go though, this is a lob from well inside your own half.

Coming off the back of the latest disappointing and uncontested defeat to Manchester City, the instinct is to write off this match, get it out of the way with as little damage as possible to the goal difference. Without doubt, the performance at the Etihad was painful, but those supporters seemingly remembering a time when West Ham could come away from any game with an against the odds victory may have their nostalgia filter set too high  – maybe the occasional home win against a title chaser but rarely on the road – and even more rarely in the north-west. A quick reminder that the Hammers have recorded just one victory at Anfield since the mid-1960’s puts tonight’s game into context – and in some of those games we even had a decent team.

It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that tonight’s game will pan out in a similar way to last Wednesdays. We have little to offer in terms of competition to a relentless and ruthless Liverpool side that has only dropped two points all season. Not that this should be an excuse to throw in the towel before a ball has been kicked. We can accept and forgive heroic failure but not unconditional surrender.

David Moyes is doing himself no favours if he wants to earn any supporter sympathy. It is one thing to park the bus, it is yet another to abandon it and set it ablaze. Being content to concede possession is fine, if it provides an opportunity to hurt your opponent on the break – not so smart if you simply give the ball straight back whenever you gain possession. A gulf in class can be understood and tolerated, but it is still 11 against 11 and a team should never appear out-numbered – as West Ham so frequently do. Sadly, a collective lack of pace, and an absence of belief or commitment in individual players will likely prove our downfall once again – both tonight and possibly in the months to come.

It is easy to cherry pick statistics to prove a particular point but if you ignore the promising start to the season (11 points from the first 6 games) it gives you a return of just 13 points from the last 20 league outings – relegation form in any season.  It is all well and good having a run of winnable games on paper to end the season with, but the points still need to be won. Right now, it is not obvious how that is going to happen.

The good news from the weekend was an almost clean losing sweep for our relegation rivals with only Brighton (on the fringes anyway) picking up a point. With Norwich looking a lost cause, there remains a chance that two of Watford, Villa and Bournemouth will continue to struggle and save us from the drop. Watford and Villa were well beaten while Bournemouth fell to a VAR inspired defeat at Burnley – VAR at its finest in turning an apparent equaliser into a penalty at the other end. Not something that would ever happen to Liverpool.

Roly-poly referee, Jonathan Moss from West Yorkshire, will once again be on hand to ensure that most of the decisions go the host’s way. VAR responsibility, for picking up accidental handballs and offside shin pads while ignoring stamping assaults, will fall to Lee Mason. What a farce VAR has become, but at least it gives the commentators something to talk about.

TV pundits, Lawro and Charlie Nicholas, have both opted for a conservative 2-0 home win. The logic, I suppose, is that Liverpool will want to do just enough to ensure victory before calling it a day – game management as it’s known in common parlance. I don’t suppose there is any chance of Liverpool being complacent or over-confident?

It would nice to think that Moyes and his Hammers will make a game of it and give the long-suffering travelling support something to cheer. We did, at least, create a number of chances in the reverse fixture last month, despite being easily outplayed. Perhaps a combination of Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen in the most advanced players can ask a few questions of the Liverpool defence. Perhaps we will abandon the zonal defensive system that has left us so vulnerable from set pieces. Perhaps we won’t line-up as the slowest team in the league. Perhaps there might be a rare start for Pablo Fornals. Who knows what goes through a manager’s mind?

I heard a story many years ago about when Joe Louis was due to fight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight boxing title in 1936. Louis was red-hot favourite and every newspaper correspondent except one tipped him to win. The dissenting voice figured that if Louis won no-one would be interested to remember his tip, but if Schmeling won (which he did) he would be able to dine out on it for years to come. On that basis, I am predicting West Ham to win 1-0 tonight – with a late Liverpool equaliser ruled out by VAR causing Jurgen Klopp to spontaneously combust.

COYI.

Hammers Pledge City Support By Refusing To Compete In The Champion’s League

With a Premier League points deduction mooted for Manchester City, tonight’s storm affected fixture takes on the potential of a relegation six-pointer

The re-scheduled visit of West Ham to Manchester City, previously blown away by Storm Ciara, has now been overshadowed by the fall-out from Storm Mansour. With the Hammers unlikely to be pulling up any trees themselves at the Etihad (or should that be Mansour) stadium this evening, the footballing world has been wetting its collecting pants over the hosts impending ban from European competition.

It is possible that if the UEFA sanctions are sustained, then the Premier League will also be forced to act – with a points deduction that could effectively turn tonight’s encounter into a relegation six pointer.

The Abu Dhabi millions will, no doubt, ensure the story runs and runs through whichever legal avenues they choose to pursue it. City’s owners have, to date, demonstrated a staggering arrogance in their response to the allegations of misrepresenting the true source of sponsorship funds, originally leaked in the German press. Rather than share their apparent ‘irrefutable’ evidence that the charges are incorrect, their defence has appeared to be that supreme wealth puts them above the law – as it would do in their home country.

On the face of it (and from what we know from the leaks), it looks apparent that City broke the rules as they stand. That’s not to say that the rules are necessarily sensible. They do appear drafted to preserve the status quo rather than really addressing any concept of financial fair play – if that means at least creating the semblance of a level playing field. There are also very valid questions as to whether all serially big spending clubs were being judged equally.

Reaction to the ban has been interesting and, for me, has parallels to our own Tevezgate episode – where the majority of West Ham fans felt themselves to be victims while everyone else believed us to be as guilty as hell – breaking another of football’s difficult to understand rules. The outrage form City fans has likewise been seismic.

Year on year, football has become more of a media product and less concerned with the afternoon out for the matchday supporter. The proliferation of streaming services and the involvement of tech giants will only make matters worse over time. The packaging of the product is more important than what is inside the box. Media money is king and the role of those in attendance is mainly to create atmosphere for the cameras – arguably they should be paid as ‘extras’.

The Champion’s League sits at the top of the football money tree. Once the icing on the cake, it has become the cake itself and its participants turned into brands rather than clubs. It is only a matter of time, I think, before CL games are switched to weekends in order to better exploit the global TV audience – a UK evening kick-off is just too inconvenient for the armchair followers in Asia and North America. The Premier League will be forced to shuffle its scheduling to even more annoying times accordingly.

Perhaps we should applaud our own owners for refusing to compete in the Champion’s League – it seems they have the supporter’s interests at heart after all.

I’m joking by the way (about our owners). But it wouldn’t bother me if the ‘elite’ clubs broke away to form a European super league – if resigning from the Premier League was a pre-requisite. We could then return to the sanity of a competitive domestic league that had true financial fair play with fixed squad sizes and a monetary salary cap.  It could still be possible to qualify for a new knock-out European competition – maybe we could call it, the European Cup. Sadly, I don’t really expect any of that to happen.

As for the game itself, nothing has materially changed from when it was originally scheduled. The European ban will be a media talking point (a pleasant relief from VAR) but I don’t see it impacting performances on the pitch. For West Ham, this and the Liverpool game remain damage limitation exercises and coming away from the two games without a substantially worse goal difference may be counted as a success.

David Moyes plan will be one of containment but without any ideas what to do if/ when the defences are eventually breached. From his pre-match comments it sounded like he is reluctant to ‘unleash’ Jarrod Bowen for tonight’s fixture – possibly not wanting to risk him in a game that he believes we will lose anyway.

In theory, legs should be fresh after a two week break but prior experience doesn’t back up that view, where players have returned from breaks more rusty than revived. West Ham are typically slow starters after every break.

Nevertheless, we continue to live in hope and maybe a miracle can occur, despite the body of evidence that would indicate otherwise. If we are to survive, we should be looking to cobble together six points or so between now and the end of March. I don’t see any of them coming here.