Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, We Don’t Have A Striker, Will A Midfielder Do?

High flying West Ham take on an apparently doomed Sheffield United in the latest test of their top six ambitions

It seems inconceivable that any of the Premier League’s current bottom three have the remotest hope of escaping relegation – even though only 60% of the season has so far been completed. Not only would it require a massive turnaround in their own form, but also a drastic collapse by one of the sides immediately ahead of them. There must come a time when even the most optimistic of squads realise that survival is a lost cause, even before it is mathematically proven. Usually, this will bring with it a consequential loss of belief and commitment on the pitch – think Norwich when they visited the London Stadium in July. Some of the mid-table teams (Crystal Palace) already look like they are planning their summer holidays.

 Despite Sheffield United sitting fourteen points from safety and being the league’s lowest scorers, I make them the least likely of the three condemned to throw in the towel. The mindset of the manager and squad will ensure that doesn’t happen, at least not yet. So another tough assignment for David Moyes and his West Ham team to negotiate as they endeavour to spend a fourth consecutive week in the top six.

If the relegation places appear nailed on, then recent form and events suggest the title is little more than a one-horse race. While each of the chasing pack performs in fits and starts, Manchester City are suddenly unstoppable. The ‘genius’ of Pep and a bottomless transfer budget have somehow managed to work their magic.

Of the teams with an eye on a European finish, West Ham and Aston Villa are the most improbable, having finished fifth and fourth bottom respectively last season. Both will be relying on a handful of key players staying fit as they attempt to get the better of Everton and Chelsea for the chance of glory.

I clearly haven’t been paying attention with Everton. In my mind they had faded badly after a promising start, and yet remain the most handily placed with a couple of games in hand over their rivals. Chelsea have embarked on a lukewarm streak since the appointment of Tuchel as manager, but in truth they have had such a benign set of fixtures that even Frank would have picked up a few points. The West Ham mission then, should they choose to accept it, is to demonstrate ever more over-achievement, teamwork and determination – and avoid picking up any unwanted injuries and suspensions. It might well come to nothing but it is a pleasant surprise to be in with a shout.

The media has been gushing over Guardiola in recent weeks and pouring effusive praise for his tactical innovation of playing without a recognised striker. Don’t they realise the Hammers have been doing that for most of the past twenty-five years. The club rarely gets the credit it deserves. Just because they failed to designate the string of hapless strikers as ‘False 9’s’. Same as the Hammers being the first side to field a ‘False 1’ by playing Roberto in goal.

Whether a striker will take the field in claret and blue on Monday night depends (as usual) on the fitness of Michail Antonio. By all accounts he is on track to be involved, but will that be as a starter or available from the bench if absolutely needed? My sneaking suspicion is that he will be held in reserve, for use in emergencies only. The crucial Tottenham game next weekend is a more probable target for him. If Antonio is absent then the troika of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma must take responsibility for providing the necessary movement and creating space for others to exploit. It sounds all good in theory, but they will need to raise their passing and decision making game if it is to be the Hammer’s Moyesiola moment.

Elsewhere, the backline will be missing Antonio Ogbonna for the first time this season. His absence leaves Craig Dawson as the mainstay of the defence – an argument that would have been laughed out of court just a few short months ago. A string of outstanding performances has proved many of us doubters wrong. At least with centre backs West Ham have Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena in reserve. Based only on media chatter I guess Diop will get the nod and a chance to show that he is more commanding in the air than we have come to expect.

Other team or position changes are unlikely, and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have to put up with Andriy Yarmolenko or Mark Noble for anything other than late cameos.

The Blades will be without several important players including Sander Berge, Jack O’Connell and George Baldock.

The game is unlikely to be a classic. The neutral might prefer to find a good book or take the opportunity to arrange their CDs into alphabetical order. The long running West Ham conundrum of how to break down a well organised defensive wall will determine the chances of success. Can the passing and movement be slick and incisive enough to find a way through and behind the Blades defence. Relying on lofted crosses and set pieces when faced with a defensive minded opponent is an unconvincing strategy. Past performances might point to a 1-0 win, courtesy of a late Tomas Soucek goal, but better is required if a serious tilt at the top six in this topsy-turvy season is to be kept alive. I know that after the event I would take a 1-0 win but we really need to see more dominant performances from the Hammers in this type of game. Hope never dies even if experience suggests it should. COYI!     

Capital Punishment: Hammering More Nails Into The Cottager’s Coffin

There’s plenty to play for at either of the table as the top team in London visit the one at the bottom. Can West Ham put a further dent in Fulham’s survival chances?

I have to admit to being quite nervous about the Hammers reaction to defeat by Liverpool before they travelled to Villa Park on Wednesday night. After too many years of disappointment, my default setting, when it comes to supporting West Ham, is locked permanently at ‘fear the worst’. That they not only won, but did so with such aplomb, and with one of the most accomplished performances for some time, was mightily impressive. If courage, composure and determination is the new ‘West Ham way’, then it gets my vote!

If the previous Sunday was a reality check for the Hammers, then Wednesday was reality Czech for Villa. The two bargain signings from the Czech Republic has proved to be some of the most inspired transfer business in West Ham history.

Vladimir Coufal handed out a defensive masterclass by completely neutralising the threat of a dejected Jack Grealish. Ably assisted by the surprise inclusion of Ryan Fredericks the message was clear for all, stop Grealish and you stop Villa. Coufal has quickly become a West Ham cult hero. A tough, determined, and resolute master of the full back craft, full of running, skill and experience – and without the reckless tackles than has so often lead similar characters into troubled waters.

Tomas Soucek just gets better and better. Not only part of one of the best defensive midfield partnerships in the league, but also superb in the air at both ends and continuing to weigh in with priceless goals. The man never stops running. Even for the second West Ham goal – a rapid Hammer’s counter-attack – it was Soucek who turned up right on top of the keeper in case the ball was spilled from Jesse Lingard’s shot.  There should also have been a first West Ham penalty of the season when he was clearly (and obviously) tripped in the area by McGinn during the first half. Perhaps VAR had popped out to the toilet.

In truth, there were excellent performance right throughout the team even though, not surprisingly, it was Lingard who grabbed most of the plaudits and headlines with his two-goal debut performance – a first for the Hammers since Tricky Trev did the same against Everton in January 1998. The addition of Lingard brought a much better balance to the West Ham forward play and his level of understanding with those around him was impressive for such a new arrival. Now we wait to see whether that level of performance can be maintained.

The frenetic Premier League programme eases off after this week’s round of games as European competition starts up once again to fill the vacant midweek spots for the seven English clubs still involved. Does having longer breaks between matches offer any advantage to a team looking to sneak up on the rails?  

This weekend it is another London derby with a visit to struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage – our last away derby of the season. Many years ago, West Ham would publish the Unofficial London Championship in the matchday programme, based on the results of the derby matches. In the season to date, despite being top London club, the Hammers would only be midtable if such a competition existed, having already lost to Chelsea and Arsenal. Fulham have been defeated in all three of their home derby matches so far, and will be favourites to make it four in a row tomorrow. The Cottagers are currently on an eleven game winless run in the league and are also winless in their last nineteen top-flight London derbies – those are the kind of statistics that would worry a West Ham fan of old but things are different now ……….. aren’t they?

It does look grim for the three clubs at the bottom of the Premier League table as the teams above them start to pick up wins, appearing to leave Sheffield United, West Brom and Fulham. Of the three, it would be good to see Fulham (and Scott Parker) pull off an unlikely escape – they are, probably, the best placed to do so given current points total and relatively modest negative goal difference. As long as any revival waits another week.

It should be more of the same from West Ham as far as team selection is concerned. Most of us were surprised to see Fredericks named in the starting lineup at Villa Park, but I expect him to make way for Jarrod Bowen tomorrow – unless David Moyes feels that Bowen needs a bit of a longer rest. Other than that, it should be business as usual.

The Fulham danger man will again be the industrious Lookman, although he is unlikely to be taking any more penalties. New signing Maja may make his debut for the hosts following his move from Bordeaux if Parker decides not to stick with the lumbering Mitrovic. Perhaps it’s just me, but I really don’t get what Loftus-Cheek offers. Amazing that he has ten England caps to his name.

Despite their long winless run, Fulham have drawn a good few matches – including games against Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton – and they have not been shipping a lot of goals of late. So we might expect the game to be a tight affair, and one where the Hammers must be alert to an early period of home pressure. West Ham are the form team, though, and should have more than enough quality to add another victory to their impressive 2021 tally. West Ham to win 2-0. COYI!  

We Got Knocked Down, But Can West Ham Get Up Again For Their Visit To Villa Park

Reality called at the weekend with an emphatic defeat to the league champions. The Hammers must now show their character in tonight’s tough Aston Villa test

Ultimately it was a bridge too far. It was meant to big our big moment. Talked up in the media, the final game of a perfect January, a place in the top four beckoning, and facing a jaded, injury ridden opponent struggling to find enough competent defenders. The higher the expectations built, the more disheartening the fall when it came.

It was no disgrace to be outplayed by what turned out to be a very good Liverpool performance, but it was disappointing that West Ham didn’t give a better account of themselves. Where the visitors passing was smart, crisp and incisive, the Hammers were unable to break the press, were funnelled into cul-de-sacs and invention was limited to hopeful first-time flicks.

Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek found themselves outnumbered in midfield and were unable to offer the usual solid foundation to build upon. Not the first time this has happened against an opponent playing 4-3-3, so perhaps a Plan-B is required for such occasions.

As the game progressed, it seemed a scoreless draw was the best we could hope for, but a moment of poor judgement by Aaron Cresswell allowed Salah the gilt edged opportunity needed to put an end to his scoring drought. The goal played out like watching an accident in slow motion. We all knew what Salah was hoping to do and yet he was allowed to execute it without challenge. After that, there was no way back.

In different circumstances, the last two Liverpool goals would have merited a polite round of applause, even from opposition fans. The breakaway goal was a thing of beauty and a more worthy goal of the season contender, in my opinion, than the usual 30-yard pile-driver.

What we need now from West Ham is to see a positive reaction. It is not uncommon, once the momentum of a good run is lost, that it has a debilitating effect on the player’s mentality. The last thing we want is to do a Southampton – and the next few games will be a true test of the player’s character. Bouncebackability as Iain Dowie once termed it.

No surprise that the transfer window came and went without putting a dent in the West Ham war chest. An already skeletal squad ending the day a net one down in its senior player complement (Haller and Snodgrass out; Lingard in). It turns out that the myriad worldwide striker links in the media and the teasing in-the-know insights from ExWHUtealady and others, were all just made-up in someone’s bedroom.

I do understand David Moyes pragmatic position on transfers. Better to spend what limited money might be available in the summer than on a Sullivan-special now. Sullivan loves to parade an exotic name in a misguided attempt to impress and appease the fans. Moyes has done a fantastic job with the resources he has to work with, but progression at the club is constrained by ongoing mismanagement in the boardroom – and the consequences of the big sums wasted by Pellegrini on players patently unsuited to the Premier League.

Perhaps the inactivity will provide an opportunity for selected academy players – Ben Johnson, Jamal Baptiste, Connor Coventry, Nathan Holland, Mipo Odubeko – to stake a claim during the remainder of the season. High time that the ‘Academy of Football’ delivered the goods.

Today’s opponents, Aston Villa, leave me heavily conflicted. They are having a fine season, have invested (mostly) wisely in the squad, play attractive and enterprising football and can boast arguably the most creative midfielder in the country. Yet all those positives are undone by their ever whinging manager, Dean “VAR ate my hamster” Smith, and the unashamed cheating antics of Jack Grealish. The outlandish dive by Grealish in this season’s reverse fixture, conning the referee into awarding a yellow a card to Pablo Fornals, simply has no defence. Any self-respecting sport that was interested in cleaning up its act would find a way to take retrospective action over such incidents.

Tonight, is going to be a tough game. I don’t see many changes to the West Ham line-up except a first glimpse of Jesse Lingard in a West Ham shirt, probably from the bench.  Goals will again prove a problem for the Hammers and any thoughts that Villa are vulnerable at the back are dispelled by their having the second lowest goals against in the league right now. We will do well to come away with a point and I am liking the look of 1-1 draw. COYI!

Fast Rising Hammers Desperate To Be On Top Of The Klopps

Liverpool may have easily seen off one of the capital’s lesser sides in midweek, but it will be much tougher ask against the top team in London.

Another day, another win and the 2021 West Ham juggernaut just kept on rolling with a stylish win over Crystal Palace that was far more convincing than the record books show. For a few days it left the Hammers occupying a Champion’s League spot and starting to attract media attention, much of it focusing on the second coming of the Moyesiah.

In one TV interview, Darren Lewis from the Daily Mirror was asked where he thought West Ham would finish, and replied “definitely top six!” Funnily, I have yet to come across any Hammers fan with such an optimistic view. I’m not claiming scientific sampling on my part, but the consensus tends more towards a 7th or 8th place finish.  Privately, it is great to be in a position to dream of glory, but deep down is the nagging sensation that the wheels are sure to fall off sooner or later.

In a much more competitive Premier League season than normal, West Ham’s fifteen minutes in the media spotlight has followed similar unfamiliar focus on teams outside the rich six including Leicester, Southampton and Villa. While Leicester have continued to set the pace, Southampton and Villa have faded recently after a string of poor results. The true measure of the Hammer’s credentials and progress will be how they recover if and when they experience a similar downturn.

Although West Ham have only failed to score in three Premier League games this season, they are not really scoring enough goals (and are not clinical enough in taking chances) to be a true threat at the top. Any team that has won over half of it’s matches should boast a better goal difference than the current +6. As we saw in the Palace game, a more ruthless attack might have come away with six or seven.

Top quality strikers are difficult to find, though, and its increasingly looking like this transfer window will draw another blank on that ‘score’. Looking at Moyes time at Everton and he had also struggled to uncover any regular and prolific goal-scorers – Yakubu (15) and Saha (13) were the best league returns during his eleven seasons at Goodison. There were, however, good contributions from all over the pitch, notably from the likes of Cahill and Fellaini. Maybe that is by design and is what he is looking to achieve at West Ham. It might certainly be a more productive strategy than panic buying for the sake of it. It does leave a huge dependency though on Michail Antonio’s fitness – Antonio’s importance to the team is much more than just his goals.

With no new striker on the horizon then, the squad did see one new addition during the week with the arrival of Jesse Lingard, on loan for the remainder of the season. Maybe not anyone’s dream signing but he adds competition for places and extra flexibility in attacking areas. I have seen some odd reactions to the signing online, from outrage over his controversial social media presence to concerns that he would be replacing a favourite player in the starting eleven. As I see it, he strengthens and deepens the squad and whether he is a regular starter or is used mainly from the bench will depend on how well he performs. With almost half a season still to go, there will be times when Lingard is called upon and he is an upgrade on Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko in terms of energy and commitment.   

Lingard’s signing was too late to feature in this weekend’s game, but unless any late changes are enforced, David Moyes was never going to change the side that started and performed so excellently at Palace.

Today’s opponents, Liverpool, ended a lean period of results with a win over Tottenham on Thursday night. Reading the reports, it appears the result was either down to the champion’s brilliance or to Tottenham’s abysmally poor showing. Probably somewhere in between.  Liverpool may have easily seen off one of the capital’s lesser sides, but it will be much tougher ask against the top team in London.

Much has been made of the Liverpool injury crisis (welcome to our world) which is either down to bad luck or a cumulative consequence of too many high intensity games in the Klopp style. Whichever way, they do go into tomorrow’s game with a severe shortage of central defenders. Hopefully, this is a weakness that Moyes and team are planning and able to exploit.  

Despite shortages they may have at the back, the visitors are always dangerous and free-scoring in attack – maintaining their position as the league’s highest scorers. Only the highest levels of concentration and discipline will suffice in keeping chances to a minimum. Much of the Liverpool threat comes through the full-backs, and they have caused embarrassment to West Ham in previous games. Essential that space and supply is closed down and shut off for the duration.   

And finally, beware Egyptians falling over in the penalty area. Take note referee Jonathan Moss and VAR pal, Craig Pawson.

The game should prove an intriguing battle. I believe Moyes would be inclined to contain Liverpool and hope to hit them on the break, but too timid an approach might deny the Hammers a rare opportunity to exploit the visitors soft and depleted centre. It is a huge opportunity to reclaim that rightful place in the top four. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

Groundhog Day Part Deux: The Top Four Beckons If West Ham Can Outsmart The Eagles

The cup dream remains intact, but it is now back to league action with a visit to Crystal Palace. Will the Eagles once again thwart the Hammer’s quest for a spell among the league leaders?

In the end it was a thoroughly professional display that eased West Ham past Doncaster Rovers and into the fifth round of the FA Cup. The pre-match banana-skin phobias came to nothing and the introduction of a sprinkling of fringe players failed to deflect the Hammers from their current purposeful stride.

Since last winning the cup in 1980, West Ham have, more often than not, been eliminated by this stage of the competition. That the cup dream is still alive is a bonus, even if a next round encounter with Manchester United does appear a little daunting from here. This year’s fifth round boasts an unusually strong field and with few unexpected early casualties it belies the not taking it seriously mantra. The draw will almost certainly contain twelve Premier League sides (and eight of the current top ten) assuming Tottenham get the better of Wycombe Wanderers this evening. Plenty to do then before making plans for a long-awaited return to Wembley.

It is back to league action tomorrow with a trip to the suburbs to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Games against Palace have taken on a recurring theme of frustration and disappointment just lately. A Groundhog Day sensation whereby victory would have elevated the Hammers to some lofty league position, only for it all to go horribly wrong at the last moment. It happened to Pellegrini’s team in October 2109 and again, just over a month ago, for David Moyes. Tomorrow, a win would take West Ham (at least on a temporary basis) into the Champion’s League places, and with a realistic prospect of being above Liverpool when we play them next Sunday. Can it happen or will Palace once again pee on our chips?

Whenever I have seen of Palace this season they have failed to impress. They are spoken about as possessing more adventure these days, but it has hardly registered in my eyes, apart from a blitzkrieg of a game against a woeful West Brom. Their performance in the drawn game at the London Stadium was one of their better efforts, but since then they have won just one (against Sheffield United) in seven games – a run that includes shipping 7, 3 and 4 goals to Liverpool, Villa and Manchester City, respectively. Although Eze has the makings of a good player, they remain very much a one-man team – take away Zaha and they would be in the thick of a relegation battle. Sadly, it seems that despite missing the Manchester City defeat, Zaha is back available for the game.

Barring any unknown injuries or Covid self-isolations, the West Ham team pretty much picks itself at the moment. The only uncertainty is Pablo Fornals or Manuel Lanzini. I would opt for Fornals but I have a feeling Moyes may think otherwise – and his opinion carries more weight than mine.

I have been increasingly impressed with Said Benrahma. He has been getting progressively better (and contributing more) as his pitch time has increased. His trickery adds a different dimension to the West Ham midfield, and he works hard at the same time. Would, of course, love to see more end product (is he trying too hard to score?) but his willingness to look for the ball and run with it brings back fond memories of Berkovic and Benayoun.

Striker speculation continues to run amok in the media where stories of £30 m+ bids being tabled sit by side with claims of poverty from the boardroom. I sense the chances of anyone new coming in are getting smaller by the day. That there are those at the club who believe we can somehow muddle through with a combination of Andriy Yarmolenko, Mipo Odubeko and Oladapo Afolayan as cover for Michail Antonio. Loan signings might be a possibility if they can be agreed, but West Ham are already at their maximum for domestic loans.

As much as I don’t rate Palace, this won’t be an easy game. Few games are in the Premier League. Some were unimpressed with the Hammer’s performance against Burnley, but see what they went on to do at Anfield. The majority of teams are well organised and will work hard – that has been Palace’s game plan for all of their seasons under Hodgson. I do think, though, that we currently have the right mix of confidence, skill, variety and power to hurt most opponents.

If this game were being played exactly one week later, it would fall on the actual Groundhog Day. This time, though, I feel confident the curse of Crystal Palace will be lifted. West Ham to win 2-0 – and we might even get that elusive first penalty. COYI!

Season In The Sun: West Ham Craving Joy And Fun Of FA Cup Success

Dust down those claret ribbons as Hammers plan to head all guns blazing towards first silverware for over forty years

I’m not sure I like the idea of knowing the next round’s cup opponents before the previous one has been played. It removes a layer of excitement and spontaneity from the equation. Still, it is was it is, and the Hammers have been given a fourth-round tie against Doncaster, which they are expected to win, followed by a fifth-round visit to either Manchester United or Liverpool, where history provides far less room for optimism.

Not that they should fear anyone in their current mood, particularly in a season characterised by a peculiar levelling-up (or is it a levelling-down) in the Premier League. At the halfway stage, West Ham join with Leicester, Everton and Southampton as would-be usurpers, threatening to break the traditional stranglehold of the rich six – at least for the European places, if not the title itself.

Seasons in the sun are rare at West Ham and, where they have occurred, have come in the form of sunny spells rather than prolonged periods of cloudless blue skies. A cluster of cup wins in the 60’s, the excellent side of 1980-82, the boys of 86. All good times but far too short-lived. The most recent good in parts season was 2015/16, where the emotional departure from the Boleyn was married with the match-winning genius of Dimitri Payet. Even then, it was as good as it promised and how quickly it all fell apart afterwards.

At this season’s midpoint, the Hammers have amassed their best ever return of Premier League – what might have been possible with even half of Leicester’s ten penalties? It does feel like an over-achievement, though – but the players and coaches should all give themselves a huge pat on the back, as is appropriate in these socially distanced times. But where does it go from here?  It would seem impossible to maintain the same momentum through the second half of the season with such a small squad of players. Despite all the noise in the media, I’m not picking up any positive vibes about reinforcements coming in – at least the type who can make a difference. The dark clouds of boardroom incompetence may soon be casting their unwelcome shadows over us.

Back to today and it is the magic of FA Cup action at the London Stadium courtesy of a visit from Doncaster Rovers, currently among the frontrunners in League 1 under the management of Darren Moore – but having recently sold arguably their best player, midfielder Ben Whiteman, to Preston North End.

It is completely unfair on my part, but I always think of Doncaster as one of a group of anonymous teams from the lower leagues (like Rochdale, Scunthorpe, Lincoln or Rotherham) who might occasionally get the odd season in the second tier but are more at home bouncing between leagues one and two. As we know for experience, though, that is no barrier to giving the Hammers a very hard time of it in cup games.

Fans of football trivia might be interested to know of Rovers’ claim to fame as one of the teams involved in the world’s longest ever football match – a Division Three North cup replay in 1946 which lasted a grand total of 203 minutes. Coincidently, their opponents that day were Stockport County, who, of course, West Ham defeated in the previous round of this year’s cup.  The Stockport-Doncaster game had been locked at 2-2 after ninety minutes, and followed by a scoreless extra time period of 30 minutes. No penalty shoot-outs back then and the match then entered a ‘next goal’s the winner’ phase. However, there was no further scoring and when the sun went down the game was called off due it being too dark to continue. Doncaster eventually won the second replay 4-0.

The only player I know of who has served both West Ham and Doncaster is Rufus Brevet. Brevet played over 100 times for Rovers at the start of his career before finding his way to East London, via QPR and Fulham. He made 28 appearances for the Hammers (scoring once) between 2003 and 2005.

David Moyes has committed to playing a strong side in the Cup and has said that he wants to win it for Mark Noble. That sounds like it means another start for Michail Antonio (in the absence of there being any other striker available) although fringe players such as Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Fabian Balbuena, Issa Diop, Ryan Fredericks and Ben Johnson might be in line for a start.

Lifting the cup at Wembley would be a fitting climax to Noble’s career, but I can only see it working if he comes on as a late substitute in the final. Teams start to take the cup a lot more seriously from the sixth round onwards – moving closer to their strongest elevens.

Maybe having to play Manchester United or Liverpool in the fifth round isn’t as bad as it might sound, their minds are likely to be engaged elsewhere on league titles and European competition.  Strangely, they will be more concerned about not losing to each other than will about West Ham.

To set up a trip to the north-west, though, we must first see off Doncaster. I would be lying if I said I knew anything about the way they play, but if Whoscored can be relied upon, they are a passing team, good at through balls, favour attacking down the right, take their chances, are proficient at holding onto a lead and at coming back from losing positions. Weaknesses are aerial duels and conceding free-kicks in dangerous positions.

I have to believe that West Ham will win this game, but they will be hoping to achieve it without extending themselves unnecessarily – there are just so many important games on the horizon, starting with a trip to Palace on Tuesday. West Ham to score one or two headed goals and clinch that fifth round trip to the north-west. COYI!

Unexpected Item In The Baggies Area: West Ham Must Quickly Resolve Striker Madness

West Ham carry their good form into another eminently winnable Premier League fixture. But they must resolve the striker situation if the second half of the season is to build on the good work of the first.

Once West Ham have seen off their final new opponent of the 2020/21 Premier League season they will have reached the halfway stage in fine fettle. A third league in a row would propel the Hammers on to a grand total of 32 points from those n-n-n-nineteen games. Not bad for a team who had been so heavily tipped for relegation.

Whether the momentum can be carried forward into the second half of the season will depend massively on two things: keeping clear of serious injuries; and reinforcing the most obvious vulnerabilities in the squad. Thumbing its nose at past performance, the squad has fared so much better than usual as far as injuries are concerned. Whether this is simply down to good fortune, or a consequence of improved fitness training only time will tell.

As for the chances of reinforcements, my glass currently stands at less than half full. David Moyes is right to say that he wants to spend wisely, but surely would be bonkers to enter into the second half of the season with just the one recognised striker – and one we know will not be able to play in every game. But decent strikers don’t come cheap, and anyone good enough is likely to be well outside the owner’s current price range, which is geared more towards buying on the never-never. When I heard Moyes say on a press call that bids had already been submitted I swear he had his fingers crossed behind his back.

The Burnley game was an odd affair, but a welcome three points nonetheless. Going ahead so early appeared to confuse the players, but the visitors were easily contained during the remainder of the first half. It was great to see Angelo Ogbonna and Craig Dawson (ably assisted by Tomas Soucek) refusing to be bullied by the Wood and Barnes frontal assault. The start of the second half (possibly the result of a half time pep talk) saw the Hammers looking to put the game to bed, but when the second goal didn’t come, they gradually retreated deeper and deeper – far too much for comfort. When the commentator mentioned Burnley hadn’t manage to score in the last ten minutes all season, and that neither of their replacement strikers (Vydra and Rodriguez) had netted since the last Ice Age, I naturally feared the worst. Fortunately, the game fizzled out and another 1 – 0 win was chalked onto the board. Competent rather than exciting – but an incredible turnaround over last season.

Today’s game sees the return of Fat Sam to the London Stadium. hoping to retrieve some of the gum that he left still stuck under the manager’s seat. It will also a rapid return for Robert Snodgrass to the London Stadium, but not for Grady Diagana, who is absent injured. Despite their win at Wolverhampton at the weekend the Albion job looks to me like an escape too far for Allardyce.

The Baggies certainly worked hard at Molineux but the victory owed as much to Wolves abysmal showing (and two borderline penalty calls) as it did to any excellence of the visitor’s part. Wolves recent decline is a timely reminder as to the folly of relying too much on one striker. Still, the Baggies will have been boosted by the win as they try to put the division’s worst defensive record behind them.

There need be no debate about the Hammer’s preferred line-up for today. It will be the same again unless injuries or positive tests for Covid intervene. That will mean yet another start for Michail Antonio even if it should not be for the full ninety minutes this time. The ideal scenario would be to be safely ahead at the hour mark and allow for the introduction of Mipo Odubeko. None of the other replacement options look remotely attractive.

On Saturday, Antonio became only the fourth Hammer to reach forty Premier League goals and is now just seven behind Paolo Di Canio, who heads the leader board with forty-seven. Amazing and telling that a club competing in its twenty fifth Premier League campaign has been unable to find a more regular and consistent goal-scorer.

Maybe it should ring alarm bells but I feel confident enough to predict a comfortable West Ham win tonight. Allardyce still has plenty of work to do in organising the rabble left behind by Bilic – just as Moyes had to in his first spell at West Ham. His defence is hesitant and unconvincing while there is little threat up front – set pieces being the greatest danger. I can’t see West Ham being anywhere near as accommodating as Wolves and the Hammer will surely create more than enough chances to run out as 3 – 0 winners. At least one more on the scoresheet for Antonio and his sights can be set on overhauling that Di Canio record by the end of the season. COYI!  

When Huff N Puff Is Not Enough: West Ham Need Greater Cunning To Break Down Burnley

With barer bones than Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, West Ham must rely on Antonio’s hamstrings and a rarely seen spark of creativity to overcome dogged Burnley

Having struggled to eventually get past resolute non-league opponents in the FA Cup, West Ham now pit their wits against a more accomplished, equally resolute, and historically uncompromising Premier League in this afternoon’s encounter at the London Stadium.

Any side that relies heavily on counter attacking for its goals has to have a backup plan for those occasions where the opposition will happily dig in and sit deep – the probable Burnley strategy today. An injection of finesse and guile is required to create penetration and variety – either passing their way through the middle or getting in behind and around the defence.

The added commitment, fitness and organisation that characterises West Ham under David Moyes is commendable but effort is rarely enough on its own to win games. When faced with a massed defence the default tactic is to send in a succession of hopeful crosses from harmless areas of the pitch. This is all too easy to defend against and will not work against a well drilled Burnley backline. The footballing equivalent of a stranded wasp repeatedly bashing its head against a firmly closed window.

The West Ham squad is, by general consensus, short both in numbers and depth of talent. Since the win against Everton two weeks ago, the cupboard has become even barer with the departures of Sebastien Haller and Robert Snodgrass. Neither would have appeared in most supporter’s dream teams but both were regular matchday squad members who offered alternatives from the bench. David Moyes has been putting on a brave face about the strength of the squad, but he must be increasingly frustrated by the lack of resources and options in a congested fixture schedule.

The situation upfront remains the most critical with Michail Antonio, a converted winger with a history of troublesome hamstrings, the only recognised striker. A rational man would consider it preposterous not to fix this in the transfer window but that ignores the short-sighted nature of the West Ham board. GSB – Going Steadily Bonkers or perhaps Going Slowly Broke?

Hopes have suddenly been raised very high for 18-year-old, Mipo Odubeko, following his two-minute cameo at Stockport. He may well be given his Premier League debut today (or unleashed to use modern footballing terminology), if only from the bench. Hopefully, he will fare better than Ashely Fletcher, the last youngster to make the transition to West Ham from the Manchester United academy. Just as well that the club are able to pick up academy graduates from other sides as our own continues to underperform. What was once imagined to be an endless seam of precious talent (giving us Ferdinand, Lampard, Cole, Carrick and Johnson) has turned out to be an unproductive pit. Another casualty of under investment, maybe.

Radical team changes for today’s match would be surprising. Assuming some variation of 4-2-3-1 is deployed, the only area for debate would be who makes up the three. For me, the best balance has to be Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. Perhaps Moyes might consider Manuel Lanzini (rather than Benrahma) but I feel the Algerian needs to get a decent run in the side to build his confidence and make his mark. He is the one player who looks capable of doing something different on the ball, although admittedly decision making needs to improve.

It is surprising how quickly Craig Dawson has cemented his place in most fan’s preferred central defensive partnership. He and Angelo Ogbonna will be in for a very physical battle against the pairing of Wood and Barnes, so an extra helping of pre-match Weetabix might be needed for Dawson to keep his blood sugar levels topped up.

We may again have to rely on Tomas Soucek as the primary goal threat. His well timed runs from deep are a defender’s nightmare. Looking back at those goals against Brighton and Everton I couldn’t make my mind up whether both were really lucky, or whether he perceives time differently from other beings – allowing greater opportunity to react. I can imagine him able to dodge bullets like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. All the more reason to ping those crosses in low and hard from the byline.

Burnley had a rather poor start to the season, but have picked up markedly in recent weeks. They are still on the fringes of the relegation battle (along with Brighton and Newcastle) but it would be a huge surprise to me if they dropped down into the bottom three. Dyche’s pragmatic approach may not be the most exciting but it is effective at picking up points. A fact of modern football and the money involved ensures that clubs with limited resources must prioritise survival over entertainment, or face the consequences. Maybe their manager will get a shot with a bigger budget one day.

The aforementioned Wood and Barnes have always given the Hammers a hard time and it has been rare for this fixture to pass without a Chris Wood’s goal on the scoresheet. Dwight McNeil has also proved to be a regular thorn in the West Ham side, and has recovered from injury just in time to try it on again. At the back, one-time Hammer’s target James Tarkowski and Ben Mee make a formidable pairing that will not be easily daunted by aerial bombardment.

First instinct is that this is a game without too many goals. At least that would comply with the latest lockdown recommendations – fewer goals means fewer celebrations, and less opportunity to spread the Covid.

My guess is that Burnley will be happy to take care of their point, with an option to nick a goal from a set piece if it arises. They rarely score more than one, but once ahead that could be it for our chances. Previous attempts to breach packed defences does not inspire confidence. If West Ham score, though, the complexion of the game would change completely. Whether that would mean the Hammers pressing home their advantage or sitting back and allowing Burnley to regain the initiative is the great uncertainty. As I have a rather chipper outlook right now I will plump for a bonus 3-1 home win.

A Stockport State Of Mind: Hammers Attitude Key to Avoiding Hatter’s Horror

A tricky Monday night trip to the frozen north sees West Ham needing to overcome the Hatters to stay in the hat

It’s FA Cup time again and even though finding enthusiasm the competition each year gets a little harder it retains a special place in the hearts and minds of many supporters. I have had the good fortune to attend three FA Cup finals (and one League Cup final) and the experience of a day out of Wembley is difficult to beat – although one of mine was in Cardiff. It would be a great shame if the current generation of Hammer’s supporters never got to enjoy one – even if it means watching it an empty stadium.

Once it was the greatest event on the domestic sporting calendar, that left the streets eerily quiet as 20 million or more settled down to seven hours of coverage with Frank or Des on Grandstand. A time when you crowded around a transistor radio on Monday afternoon just to be among the first to hear the draw for the next round. Much of that excitement is lost forever.

For clubs like West Ham, though, the Cup is surely one of the best chances of bagging some  silverware. With a favourable draw, winning six games in a row is not an impossible dream. Why then do managers not give the competition the same respect that the fans demand? Is it better to have ‘Finished 9th’ on the managerial CV than ‘FA Cup Winners 2020/21’?

The irony is that it was the big clubs with European obligations who started the trend of fielding weakened teams in the Cup. For reasons unknown, everyone else followed suit as if your managerial standing was diminished by fielding your strongest side. That the top sides had far better reserves to call on seems not to have registered, but the records show that five of the big six (not you, Tottenham) have won 25 of the 28 finals since the start of the Premier League.

If there is any romance left in the Cup it is generally to be found in the 3rd round, where non-league clubs, like today’s opponents, Stockport County, get the opportunity to go toe to toe with the big boys. It is their day and they really have nothing to lose. Jim ‘The Giant Killer’ Gannon will have no problems in motivating his players for a game that might be the highlight of their careers. The question is, will the new found spirit and determination in David Moyes side survive the expected onslaught on a cold winter’s night in Greater Manchester?

As far as I know, despite being on the receiving end of many giant-killing shocks, the Hammers have never lost to a non-league side in the FA Cup – although, it has been a close call on several occasions as I discussed in this post from a few years ago.

Although Stockport are now plying their trade in the National League they have a long history within the Football League pyramid. Originally elected to the league in 1900 they experienced their first ever relegation to non-league in 2011, from which they are now striving to return. Off the top of my head I wasn’t aware of their Hatters nickname – a reference to the town’s hat-making industry.

Since West Ham’s victory at Everton, the already thin squad has become even thinner with the departures of Sebastien Haller and Robert Snodgrass. Haller made his debut from the bench for Ajax last night, while Snodgrass has gone off to face certain relegation under Fat Sam at the Hawthorns. Good luck to them both.

The internet is once again awash with transfer speculation, from the fanciful to the farcical. I doubt whether many of those linked so far would actually qualify under the new visa regulations, which will make picking up bargains from minor European leagues far more difficult in the future. If there is any activity it will typically be a last minute cliff-hanger as Sullivan makes a desperate dive through the closing window with a bunch of IOUs. This leaves our slender hopes of progression even more in the hands of Michail Antonio’s hamstrings. West Ham: the original one-horse club – as already extravagant noises are being made about the possibility of deploying Andriy Yarmolenko or Said Benrahma as a false nine.

Moyes has stated it will be a strong side that he puts out tonight although there are reportedly potential Covid absentees. I’m sure he will also prefer to give some bench-time to a few of his over-worked regulars, including Antonio, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna. A similar approach worked well enough in the early League Cup rounds (against Charlton and Hull City) and should be good enough, technically, to ease past Stockport.

As ever, though, these games rely as much on attitude as they do on footballing ability. Respect the opposition and ensure there is no room for complacency and it should be ok. The 3rd round has already had one shock with Crawley defeating Leeds. Hopefully, that is enough to appease the banana-skin deities leaving passage through to the next round assured. I will go for a 2-0 and the satisfaction of the owners banking the £82,000 winner’s cheque – should be enough to pay for a squad player for a couple of weeks.

Fred Perry, Tess Daly, Norman Foster, Joan Bakewell, Ricky Hatton, Tina From Coronation Street, John Mayall, Captain Darling, Mike Yarwood … your boys are gonna take a hell of a beating!

West Ham and Everton Go First Footying Into 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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