Hi Ho Silva Lining: The West Ham Charity Bus Heads For Goodison Park?

What better pick-me-up for an under pressure, besieged manager than to realise that this week’s visitors are registered charity, West Ham United?

An international break can be a long time in football. Go into it on the back of a good run of results and the feelgood factor carries you through the doldrums in no time at all.  Go into it on the back of a massively disappointing home defeat and performance against Crystal Palace, then it leaves too much time to dwell on your team’s shortcomings.

As a reasonably typical and longstanding West Ham supporter I know full well that disappointment is always lurking just around the corner, but that doesn’t make it any easier to handle.  The emotional roller coaster has entered a a steep dive and we need to know whether there is enough energy to get back up again.

The official media stance regarding the Hammers season to date is that they have had a bright start.  If you are comparing it to last season then that is a reasonable assessment.  However, there have now been a number of occasions this season (against not too difficult opposition) where it has looked like we were not trying to win the game.  Arguably that could be seen as a prudent approach for many Premier League awaydays, but to cautiously sit back at home to Palace is not excusable.  Even if the current style of football is nowhere near Big Sam tedious, it still lacks the verve and adventure that we crave.

Tomorrow’s early kick-off at Goodison Park is an opportunity to put things right and prove to doubters like me that the season can deliver more than mid-table stability.  Trips to the north-west are traditionally difficult for the Hammers although, who can forget, a run of four successive defeats at the start of last season was ended at Everton with a surprising 3-1 win just over twelve months ago.  This time the tables have turned, and it is Everton who are the crisis team embroiled in an equally unprofitable run.  Everton’s form has been so bad that they have opened up a four game gap over the Hammers at the top of the Premier League all-time losses table – 370 plays 366.

It may be stuff of legends but if you are lacking goals, points, confidence and are without a number of key players then what better could a manager or supporter hope for than a a visit from docile opponents with a history of bearing gifts.

It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, Manuel Pellegrini makes for the game. Will he put the Palace failure down as a bad day at the office or to his own poor tactical decisions? Change looks necessary in terms of different personnel the options are quite limited.

It is difficult to put your finger on the Pellegrini style of football at West Ham right now.  It tends towards the patient build-up but without the explosive element required to turn that suddenly into goal-scoring opportunities. Quick counter-attacks are rare, although ironically it was a rare one that was the catalyst for Sebastien Haller’s goal two weeks ago.

In fact, overall there are too few players able or willing to play progressively at pace – either through passing or running with the ball.  I have mentioned previously that two of the team’s most creative players (Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko) send too long hugging the touchline, on their wrong foot – this leads to predictability (they will invariably cut inside) while at the same time they deny space for the full backs to run into.

It was a feature of old-style (Greenwood and Lyall) West Ham sides that they played football on their toes – something that the better teams today also demonstrate – in chess terms, it is thinking a few moves ahead. Too often our players are stationery/ flat footed when they receive the ball – get it first before deciding what to do next. This is perfectly illustrated by Ryan Fredericks – a player who has had a good season and possesses blistering pace – yet his is an asset that is rarely used constructively. Openings are simply not being created for him to exploit. It results in crosses put in from very safe areas, twenty-five yards or so from goal, rather than being whipped back from the touchline.

Up front, Haller seems increasingly isolated. He is a useful target man but nobody is close enough to pick up the lay-offs and knock-downs.  I guess that is meant to be Manuel Lanzini’s role but he is usually too far away.  Someone needs to be playing close to and just behind Haller – a better role for Anderson or one for Wilshere?

Collectively, the side lack cohesion and have a tendency to bunch.  That absence of cohesion is also true when possession is lost.  The intent to win the ball back quickly or close down space has improved a little this season but needs to be much better.

Perhaps that two week break has left my glass even more than half empty than usual.  Perhaps a thrilling performance and victory will have it overflowing once again.  I just don’t see it somehow. But they are more than welcome to prove me wrong.

Everton have spent a lot of money over recent years to assemble a very expensive squad.  Unfortunately (for them), they have followed the Manchester United play book by splashing the cash on a string of individuals without any clear idea how they might fit together into a unit. There is much speculation that defeat today will lead to Marco Silva’s dismissal from the Goodison hotseat – he is the clear favourite in the Premier League sack-race stakes.  Lucky for him to have the silver lining of today’s usually amenable visitors.

Paul Tierney (whistle) and Michael Oliver (technology) are the dynamic matchday duo for tomorrow’s game.  Lucky for Tierney that, with it being an early kick-off, he doesn’t have far to travel from his Lancashire home. No doubt VAR will highlight once more the stupidity of the offside rule.  It really is time that assistant referee’s were instructed not to flag for any offside decisions.  When Yarmolenko was incorrectly flagged offside in open play during the Palace game (a clear and obvious error) where was the get out of jail card?

BBC and Sky pundits (Lawro and Charlie Nicholas) both have this down as a 2-1 but with different winners. Lawro says home win, Nicholas says away.  Deep down I think we will lose (as I did last season) but can’t bring myself to predict defeat.  Therefore, I will go get up there on the fence and go for a 1-1 draw. COYI!

 

 

It’s A Fools Game: Takeaways And Player Ratings From West Ham’s Latest Failure To Deliver

Manuel Pellegrini’s cunning plan to lull Palace into a false sense of security by refusing to attack them falls flat at the London Stadium. What did we learn?

Plus ça Change

Owners, managers and players may come and go but there is one thing remains the same at West Ham – the ability to disappoint. To build up expectations, then dash them just us quickly. The tantalising prospect of finishing the day sitting third in the Premier League was still intact at kick-off, courtesy of a last minute penalty winner at Anfield.  The omens felt good.  All that was needed was the right attitude and West Ham would put their workmanlike visitors to the sword.  High energy, high intensity, quick passing and good movement – that is all we needed.  We had seen it in the previous two home matches, so what could possibly go wrong?  We had heard earlier in the afternoon about what it means to be ‘Spursy’ – well, this was classic ‘Hammersy’.  Just when we needed the team to turn up, they collectively went missing.  As fans, we really should know better by now, but blind optimism tricks us into believing it can be different this time.  What fools we are.

A Poor Advert For The Premier League

In truth this was a very poor game and one where most of the uncommitted watching on TV across the world would have sensibly switched off sometime during the opening twenty minutes.  It had the pace of a training match that was being played in excessive heat.  It could easily have been mistaken for a game from a couple of divisions lower in the pyramid.  The onus was on West Ham to dictate the pace of the game but they seemed prepared to coast, confident that victory would emerge through osmosis.  Playing a patient style of football is one thing – this was verging on comatose.

Tactics, What Tactics?

It was impossible to make out what the Hammer’s tactics were meant to be.  Or what instructions the players had been given.  In the first half the entire team were lethargic, sloppy and passive.  Crystal Palace are a dull and predictable team but they did what they had to do.  In the second half there was a marginal improvement but apart from a delightful goal (totally out of character with the rest of the game) there was little joy as players bunched and failed to create space.  It was a team performance lacking motivation and leadership, both on and off the pitch.  There was far too much pointless passing in the middle third that achieved nothing other than allowing the opposition to regroup behind the ball.  The focus of attack was down the flanks but we rarely got behind the Palace defence or delivered anything special into the box.  There was the rare searching pass but no dangerous through balls to a runner or rapid counter attacks (other than for the goal). Only four corners in the entire game says a lot about how lacking in action it was.  If it wasn’t for the VAR controversies, there would be little to remember the game for.

Not A Case Of Missed Chances And Bad Luck

I don’t believe that we lost the game because of bad luck. The VAR decisions, that some might argue went against us, were correct according to the current interpretation of the laws of the game.  That the laws of the game might not be particularly sensible is a different matter altogether.  If anything, VAR has highlighted how ridiculous the offside rule is since the more recent changes.  Just imagine how many wrong decisions are being called in the lower leagues.  Neither do I believe that we lost because we didn’t take our chances.  Other than the Sebastien Haller chance in the first half (was that a bad miss or a great save?) nothing else was clear cut.  More half chances – and few of those are routinely converted.  We lost because we played poorly, lacked conviction and did not have the wit to unlock a disciplined Palace defence.  The enigma is that we have creative players in the squad but the slow and patient system (which I think is what we saw yesterday) stifles that creativity.  We have long struggled to breech stubborn defences and on this showing we are in line for another mid-table season (8th to 10th) – not a top six one.

Credit Rating Downgrade

I have read a few player ratings from yesterday’s match that gave several West Ham players a smattering of 7’s and 8’s for their performances.  Now we all have our own rating definitions but I do wonder what game they were watching.  I saw a team of under performers with Ryan Fredericks probably the pick of the bunch.  Roberto came through without any howlers.  Felipe Anderson had a lot of the ball but equally gave it away cheaply and delivered little.  Manuel Lanzini was anonymous.  Declan Rice was tidy but his afternoon was spoiled by the penalty award.  Mark Noble ran around a lot but apart from one pass he contributed little that was positive.  The rest were much of a muchness, ranking from mediocre to barely competent,

Player Ratings: Roberto (5), Fredericks (6), Diop (5), Ogbonna (6), Cresswell (4), Rice (5), Noble (5), Yarmolenko (5), Lanzini (4), Anderson (5), Haller (5) Subs: Fornals (4), Wilshere (5), Zabaleta (5)

Old Kid In Town: Understudy Roberto Holds The Key To Seeing Off The Eagles And Furthering West Ham’s Ambitions

A buoyant West Ham can finish the day in the top three of the Premier League. But can stand-in keeper Roberto prove his doubters wrong and prevent panic in the Hammer’s defence?

The two elder statesmen of football management will ride their mobility scooters into the London Stadium later today as West Ham contest their first capital derby of the season.  Boasting a combined experience close to 75 years, Manuel Pellegrini and Roy Hodgson might have thought that, by this stage in their lives, they would be more likely sitting on a park bench (like bookends) reminiscing about dubbin, lace up footballs, nailed-on studs and £100 per week footballers.  Instead they will be taking charge once again of another game in the cauldron (© Sky Sports) that is Premier League football.

Crystal Palace have been rather profligate with their managers over the years with Hodgson being the 60th to fill the position (Pellegrini is West Ham’s 17th manager, by comparison).  A scan through the Selhurst Park managerial hall of shame shows many of the usual merry-go-round suspects (Bruce, Francis, Dowie, Warnock (twice), Pulis, Pardew, Allardyce) that suggests an unimaginative approach to recruitment which might represent the limits of their ambition.  The one missing name that prevents a Dinosaur Bingo full-house is that of Mark Hughes – but give it time.

It is fair to say that Hodgson has brought a degree of stability to Palace that makes them unlikely relegation candidates – even if that stability is rather dull and dependable in nature.  The cunning team strategy is to field ten plodders plus Zaha – just like when Le Tissier played for Southampton.  The stats may show that Zaha has little end product but he really doesn’t have much to work with – apart from getting into the box and going quickly to ground.  No wonder he wanted away.  If Palace were a car it would be a VW Beetle or Citroen 2CV – functional and able to chug along forever but lacking style or glamour.

West Ham by comparison are a wheeler-dealer’s custom car project. Although the old policy of collecting old parts from the breaker’s yard has been mostly abandoned, it is still some way from peak performance.  The flared wheel arches, racing seats and rear spoilers may all have been installed; but the important work of upgrading the engine and transmission has been largely overlooked.

Not that it hasn’t been an encouraging start to the season but there are nagging doubts that (given the games that we have played so far) there should be a few more points on the board if a realistic assault on the top six is to be mounted.  I guess clean sheets and unbeaten runs build confidence, but they don’t always result in the bring optimum points haul.  One win and two defeats from the drawn games against Brighton, Villa and Bournemouth would have earned exactly the same number of points.  Would a more adventurous approach have gathered a few extra?  It is no surprise that, as things stand, we are regarded in the media as a team that has enjoyed a better than expected start to the season, rather than being the team most likely to break into the top six (that being Leicester.)

Perhaps I am expecting too much. If you had asked me a few years back, then I would have been more than happy with our current situation.  We are playing a more attractive style of football and have recruited some fine talent; but I can’t help wondering whether there shouldn’t be another enterprising gear in there somewhere.

By far, the biggest talking point of the week for Hammers fans has been in digesting the news of the long term injury sustained by Lukasz Fabianski.  I knew that all those unnecessary pass-backs to the keeper would come to no good – a case of repetitive strain injury arising from all those punts upfield have taken their toll on the keeper’s hip.  Outside of the management team, there has been little confidence shown in the abilities of his replacement, Roberto.  Having confidence in the keeper is a key element of any defensive unit and if jitters are apparent they can quickly become contagious.  If too much attention is being paid to protect the keeper it will be detrimental to the entire team performance.

Roberto’s career has been as a “have gloves, will travel” itinerant. He has played 272 league games in four countries over 15 years.  He can be no Fabianski but he still needs our support.  Maybe a R-O-B-Erto chant to the old Ottowan D-I-S-C-O tune that was once use for Di Canio during his stay at Sheffield Wednesday would do the trick?

Apart from the keeper, the only other likely change should be a recall to the starting eleven for Manuel Lanzini, at the expense of Pablo Fornals.  It would be a good time for Lanzini, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko to start creating some decent chances for the hard working Sebastien Haller.  The Palace defence will be well organised and well drilled and our creative players need to be at their sharpest to find a way through.

Yarmolenko is riding the crest of a wave at the moment and long may it continue.  He is a hard player to pin down in any particular category.  Not really a winger but playing wide on his weaker side should make him predictable but he has the sweetest left foot and rarely wastes a ball.  Perhaps he is a conundrum that also baffles opponents.

Palace will be without set-piece specialist Milivojevic through suspension while defender Sakho is out injured.  Veteran defender Cahill has relegated former West Ham pinup favourite James Tomkins to bench duty but there could be a start for wily ex-Hammer, Cheikhou Kouyate.

Making the long trip south from Northumberland with his whistle is one-time refereeing wonderkid, Michael Oliver.  Agreeing with all his decisions at VAR Central will be Paul Tierney.  I read that since Palace’s return to the Premier League they have been awarded more penalties than any side in the division (I couldn’t see how many of those had been ‘earned’ through Zaha’s tumbling act.)  During that same period, West Ham have conceded more penalties than any other team in the same league.  Make what you will of that particular omen.

Media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas both forecast a home win, by 2-0 and 3-1 respectively.  Barring defensive howlers or calamities, it is difficult to see where the visitors will find goals from, if Jordan Ayew is the best they have to offer.  The game will hinge on the Hammer’s ability to break down Palace’s stubborn resistance.  It is one of those situations where if one goes in there could be several more.  A good day to discover a killer instinct.  A 3-0 win would do for me and depending on what happens at Anfield, it could see West Ham sitting pretty in third place by the end of the day.

Seaside Shuffle: West Ham Can Coast To Victory At Bournemouth And Extend Top Six Stay

Following a disgraceful lack of interest in winning at Oxford, West Ham owe their supporters big time. A committed performance from the strongest eleven can see them return from the South Coast with three points.

You may have heard the story about the scorpion who asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung by the scorpion but is reassured by the scorpion that if it did that, they would both drown. The scorpion climbs onto the frog’s back, but midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it had stung him, to which the scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This would seem to sum up West Ham and their efforts in cup games against lower league opposition.  Never mind the occasional success or the reassurances that they will treat the cups with the utmost seriousness. They just can’t help but resort to complacency and disrespect – it’s in their nature. It is difficult to take the post-match words of apology or embarrassment, from manager or players, seriously. It was not a bad day at the office, it was a case of not really caring whether we won or lost.  The shame was not in losing to Oxford United, it was in the disrespect shown to the fans, especially those that travelled.

It is back to league action today against one of the other teams who meekly surrendered their EFL Cup lace to league opponents.  The lazy reaction is to present today’s clash as one of two clubs looking to bounce back from midweek defeats.  But in the context of today’s game those games were meaningless, having been forfeited with indifference.  Both teams have enjoyed promising starts to the season – good enough, in fact, to earn the billing of an unlikely top six clash. A clear reflection that, to the money men who run the game, each additional league position offers greater value than the glory of a cup run.

There has been much debate in the media about the chances of other clubs breaking up the ‘rich six’ monopoly this year; with much of that debate focusing on the prospects of Leicester and West Ham. I saw a number of West Ham fans on social media peeved that Leicester were generally receiving a better press than the Hammers.  While you could argue that there is little to choose between their respective strongest starting elevens, the Foxes do look to have greater strength in depth. There may be a few household names among the West Ham backups but collectively they tend towards the old and the slow.  Injuries haven’t helped, but it is rare to see any exciting options sitting on the Hammers bench – where Manuel Pellegrini is reluctant to take risks with younger players.

Even today’s opponents look to have better options in reserve. Assuming the Cherries stick with the same eleven that started in last week’s win at Southampton they can attack with some variety.  The power of Solanke and the pace and movement of Wilson and King are sure to unsettle our defence, even with its new found enthusiasm for clean sheets.  The Cherries have a solid, hard working midfield but will be able to call upon the services of Fraser and Lewis Cook from the bench if something different is required.  I really like the look of Cook (who has just returned from a long layoff) and both he, and the injured Brooks, will have big futures ahead of them.

According to Sky Sports, Manuel Lanzini is back in the West Ham squad for today’s game.  If that is true then it would be excellent news, even if he is not a starter – relying on Robert Snodgrass or Carlos Sanchez as game changers from the bench does not inspire any confidence.  It would be no surprise if Pellegrini selected the same side that started in the defeat of Manchester United, except for any enforced change due to the fitness of Ryan Fredericks.  Although Pablo Zabaleta is one of the more able deputies in the squad, I do worry about how well he will handle the pace that Bournemouth have down the flanks.

The whistle and headset referee today is Stuart Attwell from Nuneaton. The VAR-meister waiting to use the offside micrometer and furiously checking back phases of play for technical infringements is Andrew Madley (the older brother of refugee referee Robert ‘Bobby’ Madley).

Pundit wise, we have Lawro predicting a 2-1 home and Charlie Nicholas anticipating a rip-roaring 2-2 draw.  This is a match that typically provides plenty of goals and there are good reasons to believe that the trend could continue today.  Bournemouth’s weakness is their defence which has a tendency to be accident prone – something the Hammers must be ready to take advantage of.  Just eight goals from six games is not an impressive statistic and turning possession into meaningful chances is one of the key areas requiring improvement.  Sebastien Haller is potentially the most competent striker we have had for some years but he needs to be given decent service.

West Ham need everyone on the top of their game and to be in the right frame of mind from the off.  This will be no stroll along the prom but with a determined performance, especially in the middle of the park, they have the quality to extend their unbeaten away record (in the league, at least) and even go on to win the game. Although I have some reservations about how well we can cope with the hosts attacking pace and power, I will back West Ham to exploit the uncertainties in the home defence and come away with a thrilling 3-2 win. COYI.

Out Of The Wilderness: Can Pellegrini Lead Hammers To The Promised Land Of Cup Success?

Some may dream of spires but most West Ham fans will be dreaming of a first trophy win for 40 years.

It is the round of 32 in the Carabao League Cup.  Following this there are just three more matches before booking a date at Wembley (OK, four games if you include the two-legged semi-final).  It is yet another crack at finally ending a forty year famine in the West Ham trophy cabinet.  Several generations of Hammer’s fans have never experienced the joy of cup success.

When the 4th round draw takes place in Milton Keynes later tonight, there will be somewhere between 7 and 14 Premier League balls rattling around in the bowl.  If there are only 7 it will unfortunately mean the Hammers have already  been eliminated but I don’t see that being the case.  There was only one high profile exit from the Tuesday night ties (and a most amusing one at that) and it would be nice to see a few more upsets this evening – just not at Oxford.  And let’s get this one out of the way before we have a good laugh at Tottenham.

West Ham will have to negotiate the hostile Joey Beauchamp Trail on their way to Oxfords’s Kassam Stadium.  Named after the Hammer’s courageous 1994 summer signing, in commemoration of his 58 day West Ham career, it is known to be both treacherous and unforgiving.  Reading Beauchamp’s interview on how the commute made his time at Upton Park a living nightmare was very entertaining.  Apparently, the winger would have gone to the very top of the game if only he had known how to apply for a Young Person’s Railcard. I am looking forward to the Man Versus Wild re-enactment with Bear Grylls on Discovery Channel later in the year.

Tonight will be the fourth time that West Ham have faced Oxford United in the League Cup (1986 (H), 1990 (A) and 2010(H)) with each match going to the way of the home side.  In 1986 and 1990 both teams were playing their football in the same division, while in 2010 it was Premier League against League Two.  In that most recent encounter, Avram Grant’s side only managed to win the game through a scrappy stoppage time winner from Scott Parker.  It was, however, a springboard for an unlikely cup run that included wins against Sunderland, Stoke City and Manchester United before losing out in a two-legged semi-final with Birmingham.  The Hammers have famously never won the League Cup despite a couple of final appearances – something that can’t be said about tonight’s opponents who lifted it during its Milk Cup guise in 1985/86.

As with the majority of other Premier League managers, Manuel Pellegrini will seek to dabble with squad rotation for tonight’s clash.  With things going well in the Premier League and a top six clash with Bournemouth coming up at the weekend, Pellegrini will want to put out a team capable of doing just enough to win in normal time, without the risk of further injuries to key players.  With the League Cup being the most ‘winnable’ of domestic competitions, most fans will be looking for a side that is strong enough to guarantee progression to the next round.  More than anything, we dream of cup success – as we enter the longest barren spell in the club’s senior history (if you ignore the war years).

It will be interesting to see what type of lineup the manager goes for.  Maybe starts for the likes of Roberto, Pablo Zabaleta, Fabian Balbuena, Jack Wilshere, Robert Snodgrass, Carlos Sanchez and Albian Ajeti or the involvement of promising youngsters such as Nathan Holland, Ben Johnson, and Goncarlo Cardoso.  If Holland isn’t in the squad I will eat my hat (if I had one). It will be a difficult balancing act but hopefully Pellegrini is truly prioritising this competition, both in words and in deed.

A top half Premier League side should easily have enough in their locker to see off a mid-table League One side; even away from home with a smattering of fringe squad players – provided that the attitude is right.  These types of games have traditionally been a challenge for the Hammers – facing an opponent who will have nothing to lose.  With the recent bout of optimism around the club can we now start to measure Pellegrini’s West Ham by a different yardstick – one that reflects a far greater level of professionalism? I hope so.   West Ham to win by two clear goals.

There Was Only One United: Takeaways and Ratings From West Ham’s Well Deserved Win Over The Red Devils

In case you missed it, when Manchester United lost on Sunday, the team that beat them was West Ham.

They Are All Looking The Other Way

The problem with beating Manchester United was that all the non-partisan observers wanted to discuss were the shortcomings of the Red Devils and the latest in a long line of managerial crises at Old Trafford.  It happened last season with Jose and now it is happening again with Ole.  Poor old Ole – the only manager in the league whose plans are thwarted by injuries.  By the end of the game, it looked like he was about to burst into tears and scream “It’s not fair”.  What a ludicrous decision it was to appoint him in the first place.  Even at Manuel Pellegrini’s post-match press conference there was little interest from the assembled media in what West Ham could take out from the game and a fourth clean sheet on the bounce.  Only questions regarding his thoughts on the developing situation up in Manchester.  We will need to celebrate this one, a thoroughly deserved victory, quietly by ourselves, while the pundits continue to view everything through the lens of the rich six.  At least more time out of the spotlight might help keep the Hammer’s feet firmly on the ground, allowing the team to build further on their fine start to the season.

An All Round Team Performance

This was a competent, professional performance rather than a spectacular one.  Finally, we appear to be attacking and defending as a team.  Attempting to win the ball back as quickly as possible and denying the space that was previously gifted to opponents by the acre.  Manchester United were not allowed or were unable to create many chances – although Mata was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity equalize at 1-0.  Otherwise, the visitor’s attacking play was mostly channeled wide and generally defended with ease.  There were no major stand-out West Ham performances and everyone played their part.  Declan Rice was again the pick of the midfield for me, but ably assisted by the busy Mark Noble in putting in the midfield graft and yards.  Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna were sound while Ryan Fredericks had maybe his best game in a West Ham shirt (hopefully it is not a serious injury).  Aaron Cresswell defended well and although he was a little wasteful going forward what a peach of a free kick that was for the second goal.

Make A Chance For Me (Come on, give me a break, will you?)

Over the course of the ninety minutes, the Hammers created few clear cut chances of their own.  Other than the two goals, there were only a handful of routine saves to disturb De Gea’s afternoon.  The Andriy Yarmolenko goal was a thing of beauty and seemed rather out of place in a mainly uneventful first half. Yarmolenko is a difficult player to work out.  He has a deft touch, a wonderful left foot – but a right one that is only any use for standing on. Playing wide right, it is obvious that he will want to cut inside yet he still somehow manages to create shooting opportunities.  The pass from Felipe Anderson for the goal was the Brazilian’s best moment of the afternoon.  He is frequently the one player on show likely to produce the unexpected but unfortunately, he had one of those lazy Sunday afternoons.  He could have done better in trying to pick out Sebastien Haller rather than attempt that shot, blocked by De Gea, from the tightest of angles.  Haller must have had a most frustrating afternoon.  He showed some excellent touches and layoffs but most of his work was in the wrong areas of the pitch.  I’m not sure whether he eventually got any touches in the opposition penalty area but he is badly in need of better service if he is to do what he is paid for.  They may be old mantras of mine but more width, the ability to get in behind defences and more incisive passing in the final third all need further work.

Passing The Back

On the topic of mantras, the number of backpasses to the goalkeeper that West Ham players make continues to frustrate. It is not that we use the keeper as an extra defender, building from the back in the style of Manchester City or Liverpool.  The pass back to Lukasz Fabianski is usually as last resort when all other ideas have been exhausted or there are no options available.  I can’t find the stats (and I wasn’t counting) but there must have been close to a dozen backpasses in the first half alone.  When you consider that Fabianski’s pass success rate was below 40%, there has to be a better way of using the ball.  Even a hopeful upfield clearance by the last man would  be just as productive, if not more so.  Outfield players need to take more responsibility in making themselves available.  Perhaps Manuel Lanzini was missed in that respect – being someone who can receive the ball and move forward with purpose.  I thought Pablo Fornals (his replacement) had a steady enough game and getting a full league match under his belt would have done him the world of good.  Plus another promising cameo from Jack Wilshere – a performance that needs to be upgraded to a more prominent role.

Premature Exhilaration – the ANTIVAR movement

It was pleasing to go through an entire match free from the  invasive interference of the poorly implemented eye in the sky VAR system.  Whenever a goal is scored now there is always a thought at the back of your mind that the crazy, crowd celebrations and the carefully choreographed player ones will all be for nothing.  Naturally, I can see the funny side of the disallowed Aurier goal for Tottenham but it was a ludicrous decision.  How could they seriously apply such a spurious level of accuracy to the Son offside from the information available.  Time to go back to the drawing board I think.

Player Ratings: Fabianski (7), Fredericks (7), Diop (7), Ogbonna (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (8), Noble (7), Yarmolenko (7), Fornals (6), Anderson (6), Haller (6). Subs: Wilshere (6), Zabaletta (6), Snodgrass (N/A)

Ole, Ole, Ole! West Ham’s Three Amigos To Put Further Dents In Solskjær’s Season

Despite the Red Devils fall from grace this weekend’s encounter remains one of the season’s highlights. Do West Ham have the swagger, style and attitude to cement their top six ambitions?

True to form, West Ham fluffed their lines at Villa Park on Monday night and failed to put in the performance necessary to claim a spot in the top three.  Or perhaps they were given the wrong script.  One that was a variation on respect the point rather than the promised we’re gonna score one more than you.  Was it one point gained or two points lost?

Following the exuberance of the Norwich victory, it was disappointing that the Hammers showed such little variation in attack.  It was possession for its own sake in safe areas lacking quick breaks, penetration and precious little width.  If Sebastien Haller is to become the striker we have waited so long for, then he needs far better service from those behind him.

So, instead of putting clear daylight between ourselves in 3rd place and the rest of the table , we are at the bringing up the rear of a gaggle of six teams on eight points – including today’s visitors, Manchester United.

The Red Devils are now a pale shadow of the club who have dominated English football for much of the Premier League era.  The post-Ferguson era is playing out much like the post-Busby one did, although they are unlikely to get relegated this time around.  Now on their fourth full-time manager in 6 years, they have the look a fading star who once graced the big stage but now has to be content with the occasional appearance in panto.

It’s not that Manchester United have bad players, they just don’t have enough good ones – certainly not good enough to present the credible title challenge that their followers demand.  They have fallen way, way behind their two north-western neighbours and have no coherent plan to bridge the gap.  They are obsessed with paying over the odds for big names rather than team building.  Ole Gunnar Solskjær looks out of his depth in the Old Trafford hot-seat, like a modern day equivalent of Frank O’Farrell (incidentally the Hammer’s oldest living ex-player who will celebrate his 92nd birthday in a few weeks time).

Despite all the negativity, an encounter with the Red Devils remains one of the highlights of the footballing calendar.  Success is relative and they have a reputation and world-wide following that others can only dream of.  Champion’s League qualification (unless through the Europa League backdoor) looks beyond them once again.  Interesting to compare their odds of a top six finish (2/5) with our own at 5/1, as I don’t see so much between the teams.

Rumours of Champion’s League reform resurfaced again in the week with proposals to change the group stage from four groups of eight to eight groups of four – guaranteeing additional money-spinning games that would ensure the big teams stay well ahead in the revenue generation stakes.  Among further worrying proposals are suggestions that that domestic leagues would need to be reduced in numbers to compensate and that CL games would be moved to the weekend to attract a larger global TV audience – something I predicted some years ago.  Personally, I would prefer if the rich clubs simply packed their bags and left domestic competition altogether.  Perhaps then this could be one of our last meetings with the Manchester club.

Back to more pressing matters and Manuel Pellegrini will have at least one selection decision to make following Arthur Masuaku’s red card on Monday.  Pellegrini is not a risk taker and will likely opt for Aaron Cresswell rather than call in Ben Johnson.  Cresswell has really lost his way in recent times and badly needs to rediscover his mojo.

Elsewhere, there is a general consensus among fans (or at least those active on social media) that Andriy Yarmolenko needs to be benched this weekend after disappointing on Monday – from hero against Norwich to villain against …… Villa.  But in Michail Antonio’s absence what are the options?  We have yet to see what Pablo Fornals is all about and there are questions whether the Three Amigos (he, Manuel Lanzini and Felipe Anderson) are too much of a muchness to mix it up in midfield and effectively unlock defences.  It looks so promising on paper but so far has been unable to deliver.

Jack Wilshere is a player who can offer something different. He is an intelligent footballer adept at progressive passing and switching the focus of attack, but the worry is that more than one of him, Mark Noble or Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time leaves the team exposed for pace.  The situation may be complicated if Lanzini fails a late fitness test all things being equal, my guess is that Pellegrini will go for Fornals to replace Yarmolenko in the starting eleven.

I cannot see there being any further defensive changes (aside from Masuaku) and with two clean sheets in a row we must now be entering uncharted territory.  With the visitors seemingly being awarded a penalty every outing, I will be holding my breath every time Angelo Ogbonna makes a challenge in the box.

Manchester United will be without Pogba and Martial while James faces a fitness test.

This weeks on-field whistle blower is Anthony Taylor from Manchester (hmmm?) while the eye in the sky will be Graham Scott from Oxfordshire.  Even with a low bar set for refereeing competency, Taylor is often picked out for special mention.  Expect at least some degree of controversy during the course of the game.

Our pundit friends are once again united in their predictions and both Lawro and Nicholas have surprisingly gone for a 2-1 home win.  Part of their thinking may be that  the Reds will be tired having also played on Thursday night.  It will interesting to see if that is a factor and whether West Ham will exploit it.  I fully expect the visitors to get a penalty at some stage making a third straight clean sheet unlikely.  I do believe that the Hammers can win the game though, but much will come down to the right attitude.  I am fancying a welcome 3-1 victory.