A reflective view on our trip to Manchester United last Sunday

A look back at West Ham’s defeat at Old Trafford now that the dust has settled.

Having let the dust settle for a few days I thought I would review what happened on Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford after a little reflection, rather than all the knee-jerk reactions that I read immediately after the game. It is always amusing (in a perverse way) to read the views of West Ham fans on social media at the end of a match, especially one where we have been heavily beaten.

The two widely diverse reactions mainly consisted on one hand of those who resorted to numerous expletives about the performance of the team and various individuals, and as an alternative view, those who suggested that such opinions are way over the top, and everyone should calm down. Of course we are all entitled to our views, but it does seem to me that many of our supporters only believe that their own view is valid, and anyone who disagrees with it is wrong, or even worse, they are just f****** c***s! But to some extent, that is the way social media operates.

Some are critical of the performance and various individual players, but try to be constructive, and suggest what we need to do to improve. But they are often lambasted with comments such as “the Bilic haters are out in force” (for Bilic you can read the names of some individual players), or “you should get behind the team”, or “West Ham till I die”, or other such comments.

I was on holiday last week in one of my favourite resorts, Camp de Mar on the island of Majorca, and a couple of days before the game I watched a comedian from Liverpool. He began his act by trying to ascertain where most of the audience came from. He asked if there were any Manchester United supporters and there was quite a cheer from parts of the crowd. His next question was to ask what part of London they came from! As I sat down to watch the game in the hotel bar I picked up on quite a few London accents around me, as well as a number of individuals from other parts of the country. When the first goal went in what we already knew was confirmed, and the comedian was proved right. Manchester United do have many fans in the south.

My opinion of the game as a whole is that we were completely over-run by a team that will undoubtedly be challenging for the title this season. They are full of skilful players with power and pace, and many teams are likely to be well beaten by them this season, especially at Old Trafford. The gulf in class between the top six teams in the country (perhaps Everton hope to make it seven) and the rest is vast. Some will point to the Chelsea game and the way they were beaten by Burnley, but Chelsea were in self-destruct mode (a bit like they were the season after Mourinho last won the title), so perhaps they will not be the same force as last season. Nevertheless they still fought back against Burnley despite being outnumbered.

The chances were we were always likely to lose the game, but to stand a chance, we had to be at our best, and preferably have our best team fit and raring to go. Our opponents were able to select their team from a fully fit squad, but we went into the game (as is so often the case) with injuries to key players. Lanzini, Antonio and Kouyate (and perhaps Carroll) are all first choice players, but were all unavailable. I despair at the number of key players that always seem to be missing through injury. Perhaps if they had been without Lukaku, Pogba, Rashford and Matic the result would have been different? But with the depth of their squad perhaps not?

But from my viewpoint the sad fact is that we appeared to go into the game lacking belief that we could win, and were just there to try to hold on for a draw. But I would have hoped for more resistance. Once again though, I’m not sure I understood what our game plan was, and I’m not sure that the players were aware of it either.

When you watch sport on TV these days you are bombarded with a plethora of statistics. This has always been a feature of American sport but it has now translated to these isles. If you watch tennis they show the number of unforced errors made by each player. This statistic is not yet a feature in football, but if it was then our figures would have been alarmingly high in this game. Time and again we gave the ball away to our opponents when not really under pressure.

According to our manager the players spent three days in training in how to deal with our opponent’s set pieces. Whose idea then was it that Masuaku should be the one to mark Lukaku? And talking of free kicks, how do we manage so often to waste them in the opposition half by taking them quickly and backwards, with the ball ending up back with our keeper? And why did it take so long to realise that Hernandez is not effective a lone striker? That’s just not his game, is it? We have four experienced international central defenders at the club. Am I alone in thinking that we need more pace in this area? And do Reid and Ogbonna make an ideal combination?

The Hart knockers (Adrian fan club?) were out in force on social media after the game. I thought Hart did OK. Yes, perhaps he might have saved one of the goals, but not at least three of them as some Adrian fans were suggesting. I like Adrian; he is a decent keeper; but I cannot go overboard about his passion purely in the light of throwing his gloves on the ground to take a penalty against Everton. I thought Zabaleta did OK too. I read some criticism of his pace, but most Premier League defenders would have struggled against Rashford and (later) Martial on the day.

Both of our left backs are perhaps better going forward than defending, as is the case with many full backs these days. I do have a slight preference for Cresswell defensively though, but it’s all a matter of opinion. I am a big fan of Obiang, and the potential of Fernandes, but both seemed well off the pace on Sunday. But the cameo from Rice was excellent with statistics to back it up. The pleasing thing from my point of view was his desire for the ball, and how he looked confident and assured when he had it. I believe a run in the team would be well deserved.

Our attacking play was slow and predictable, as it was for much of last season, and many believe that part of the reason for this is our captain. He has been a great servant for the club, and hopefully will continue to be. He has never been blessed with great pace, but increasingly these days he seems to be running on sand (or in treacle!).

But as many have said; let’s not be too hasty. It was one game against a top class side. Hopefully our injury list will disappear soon and we will have a full squad to pick from. Perhaps there is more to come from this transfer window? The Carvalho saga drags on, and some reports suggest we are after other Sporting Lisbon and Benfica players. I don’t know how effective they would be in the Premier League if any of them arrive? Personally I’d love to see us spend the kind of money that is being talked about (for Carvalho) on Oxlade-Chamberlain, but doubt if it will happen (or that he would necessarily want to come!). I’d take a chance on Wilshere too if he was available at a decent price, despite his injury record. We need more creativity than relying on Lanzini.

It will be important to put in better performances against the other 12 teams who are fighting for an eighth place finish in the Premier League. The gulf between the top seven and the rest is unfortunately too wide (I believe) for us to believe we can finish any higher. I’d love to be proved wrong though.

Triskaidekaphobia in August? Not West Ham!

Unlucky for some but not for the Hammers.

Triskaidekaphobia is a morbid fear of the number 13. The number 13 has many reasons for people to believe it is unlucky. Many relate it back to the “Last Supper”, and there are examples of the bad fortune relating to the number, such as the arrest of the Knights Templar, and Apollo 13. Quite probably there are reasons to believe that almost any number is unlucky, but 13 seems to be the most popular of them, and properties in many roads and blocks of flats often don’t have a number 13.

But 13 has often been a lucky number for West Ham. West Ham have a good record in matches played on the thirteenth of the month, and in the month of August this is a particularly true fact. We have had a number of victories on this date in history, perhaps the most notable that I can recall being a 2-1 win over bitter rivals Tottenham in 1997. Goals from Berkovich and Hartson, two of our players who didn’t always see eye to eye, led to the victory in what was our second match of the 1997-98 season, both resulting in wins.

In fact we have never lost a competitive game played on August 13 in our entire history. So for any superstitious fans, we can thank the TV companies for the re-arrangement of our opening game this season at Old Trafford. Many believe that the odds are stacked against us today, but history shows that we are unbeatable on this date. So if you are looking for a reason to believe we will do well in today’s game this may be it. Let us hope that we keep up this amazing record.

Manchester United versus West Ham Preview

West Ham travel to Old Trafford for their 2017/18 season opener.

So there we have it. The pre-season fixtures have been done and dusted and we now get down to the nitty gritty of the Premier League. Of course because of the World Athletics Championships we face three fixtures away from home to begin with while they put the stadium back together again. In reality though, only one game had to be re-arranged, and that is our second match which is now a visit to the South Coast, instead of a home game against Southampton.

The opener though is just about as tough a game as we can expect, and nothing we’ve seen in pre-season leads me to expect that we can create a surprise here. The bookmakers don’t anticipate an upset, with the home side at odds of between 1/3 and 1/4, and a West Ham win quoted at between 10/1 and 12/1. You can get 4/1 on a drawn game.

Although friendly games very rarely give an indication of the real business to come, our final pre-season game in Iceland against Manchester City demonstrated very clearly the gulf in class between the very top teams, and those, like ourselves, who can really only hope to be contending for an eighth place finish. Our hosts have had an excellent pre-season including a win over City, and their only defeat was a single goal loss to Barcelona.

But you never know. Perhaps a visit to Old Trafford for the first game in the season is as good a time to visit there as any. Mourinho has added to what was already a strong squad, with their big signings of Lindelof, Matic, and our old friend Lukaku, who will be looking for his customary goal against West Ham, although to be fair we stopped him from scoring the last time he played against us for Everton in April.

The opening game can throw up some surprises, however; none more so than our visit to the Emirates the season before last when we shocked everybody with a 2-0 win. Last season we only just lost to Chelsea with a late goal from Costa, who shouldn’t really have still been on the field at the time, and they of course went on to win the league comfortably. But Manchester United began last season well with three straight wins, and every indication is that they might be even stronger contenders to finish at the top this time around.

I am writing this preview a few days in advance, as I will be watching the game in a bar in Camp de Mar in Majorca, and as such I am not sure of the likely make-up of our team, and how many injuries we will have before the season gets underway! I have a feeling that we will go into the game with a defensive 3-5-2 formation, with Fonte, Reid and Ogbonna in front of Hart in goal. Zabaleta and Masuaku could well be the wide (defensive) players in the middle (back?) five, and I would expect that Noble, Obiang and Lanzini will be the others. I would anticipate the two strikers to be Arnautavic and Hernandez. This would not necessarily be my choice of formation, but I am not paid to manage the team. If we do line up in this way then I can see us being on the back foot from the start.

Nevertheless I have dusted down my optimistic hat, and for no logical reason predict a 1-0 win, courtesy of a goal by Hernandez against the club that let him go.

West Ham Ten Years Ago Today

Memories of starting the season full of hope in August 2007 following the ‘great escape’.

Ten years ago on this day, Saturday 11 August 2007, we began our Premier League campaign with a home game against Manchester City. Just a few weeks earlier we had completed the “Great Escape” with a final day win at Old Trafford, and now under the continued management of Alan Curbishley we were embarking upon a new season with high hopes. Although Carlos Tevez had gone to Manchester United, we had made what were considered to be impressive signings in the transfer window, with new recruits Scott Parker, Freddie Llungberg, Julien Faubert, Kieron Dyer, and Craig Bellamy, who became our record signing at the time at £7.5 million. Dean Ashton was about to return after a year out with injury, and many believed a much better season would follow.

Tevez played less than 30 games for us and scored just seven goals but to many he was almost a legend. Of course, the controversy surrounding him joining us meant that we had allegedly broken third-party rules, which led to us paying an initial fine of £5.5 million pounds. Then, eighteen months later, just days before an independent FA arbitration panel was due to meet to consider a claim by Sheffield United that Tevez was instrumental in their relegation, we agreed to settle the claim by paying £30 million in instalments to the Blades. The “Tevez affair” had a profound impact upon the club for years.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, the ex-England manager, had taken over at Manchester City. Their owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, had bankrolled a big spending spree, and they had a host of new, mainly foreign, signings who made their debut that day, along with a keeper making his first appearance, Kasper Schmeichel. Two of their new signings scored the goals which beat us that day. In the first half, Elano ran through our half barely challenged, and then slid the ball across goal for Bianchi to slide in and score from about two feet. And just a couple of minutes from the end, Onuoha ran half the length of the field, evading a couple of half-hearted challenges, and laid the ball back for substitute Geovanni to hit a low drive beyond Robert Green from the edge of the area.

It was generally a rather flat performance for the opening game of the season, and although Zamora, Llungberg, Etherington, and finally Ashton had decent efforts and might have scored, City were good value for their win. After scoring the opening goal they sat back, and were relatively comfortable.

Our team that day was: Green, Spector, A. Ferdinand, Upson, McCartney, Boa Morte, Bowyer, Noble, Llungberg, Bellamy, Zamora.

Mullins and Etherington were introduced as substitutes at half time replacing Bowyer and Boa Morte, and then with just under half an hour remaining, Dean Ashton replaced McCartney.

The poor start to the season led to some changes for the next game which was won at Birmingham with a Mark Noble penalty. We went on to pick up ten points from the four games that followed the opening day defeat, and eventually finished the season in tenth place, which was one place below Manchester City and one above Tottenham.

How the make-up of the Premier League can change in ten years! Eleven of the clubs we faced that season will not be seen at top flight grounds this season. Villa, Blackburn, Portsmouth, Wigan, Bolton, Fulham, Reading, Birmingham, Derby, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland are all now in lower leagues. The only eight clubs that we faced in 2007-08 that we will meet this season, just ten years later are the teams who finished as the top seven last season, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Everton, plus newly promoted Newcastle. It would be hard to bet against those same seven clubs occupying the top seven places again this season, albeit perhaps in a slightly different order.

Ten years on, and I believe  that Mark Noble and Kasper Schmeichel are the only two players who played that day who are still plying their trade in the Premier League.

Dreaming Dreams of a Top Eight Finish for West Ham

Today Under The Hammer’s Richard Bennett looks forward to the new Premier League season.

The 2017-18 season has arrived. Being a bit of a traditionalist, in the past the opening day was always one I looked forward to. All teams in the top flight would kick off at 3pm on the first Saturday, and by 5 o’clock you could see the first league table with all the teams having completed their first game. Of course, because of television that is not now the case, and this season the opening games begin on Friday evening, and continue through until Sunday, when our game at Old Trafford is the last one.

I had to smile when I saw the BBC league table where we were showing in 20th place (because of alphabetical order) before a ball has been kicked. By Saturday evening we will have moved off the bottom provided all the games on Friday and Saturday haven’t ended in draws! And when we kick off we will know what we have to do to be top of the table at the completion of matchday 1, or alternatively what we need to do to avoid being bottom of the pile.

This is written in jest of course, because the league table doesn’t really begin to take shape until at least half a dozen games have been played by each side. But by then, it is important not to be close to the bottom, as psychologically you feel that you are in a relegation scrap from the outset if you are. By the time we reach the third international break early in November, 11 games will have been played, five at home and six away, and by then we will have a good idea how our season will pan out.

By Christmas Day we will have reached the half-way point in the season (19 games played), but unusually we won’t have played all the other 19 teams at this point. The fixtures computer usually (in recent years) arranges it so that we have played them all, but by Christmas we will have played Newcastle home and away, but not played Bournemouth at all. We play them on Boxing Day.

But is it really that difficult to predict the eventual outcome in the Premier League by the end of the season? Last season my co-weblogger Geoff Hopkins and I made a forecast before the first games were played as to where each team would finish at the end. Our predictions were relatively accurate, as we predicted the top six (though not in the correct order), and not one of our finishing positions was more than six places out from the eventual outcome. This was no great achievement because it is not hard to know roughly what will happen before a ball has been kicked. Of course we were all taken by surprise with Leicester the season before, but that was a one-off which is extremely unlikely to happen again. Going back a few years it was much harder to forecast what would happen each season.

The Premier League is actually more open than almost all the other leagues in Europe, in that before the season starts there are likely to be anything up to six teams who may be in contention for the title. Compare that to other countries where the champions will come from perhaps two or three teams at the most.

Nevertheless despite the apparent predictability, Geoff and I will forecast the finishing positions of each team in the Premier League in the form of a friendly competition (see Geoff’s prediction here.). We score 0 points if we get the finishing position spot on, or one point for each position that we are out. Like the quiz Pointless the lowest score wins. Last year our scores were 54-57, so on average we were less than three positions out for each team, confirming the predictability of the league.

Last time I predicted a seventh place finish for West Ham to match the successful season that preceded it. We eventually ended up in 11th, although of course we were only one point behind the eighth placed team. Only six points separated 8th from 17th in the Premier League, so it can be close for the teams vying for the 8th spot, which if it follows last season, will be a competition in itself, because I believe the top seven spots will already be taken. Of course I hope I am wrong, and that our pre-season fixtures are not a true indication of how we will perform. Perhaps we can do a Leicester? If you believe that then the majority of bookmakers will offer you odds of 500-1.

My forecast for 2017-18 is as follows:

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

Betting on a West Ham Title Win: What Are The Chances?

Can West Ham win the Premier League? What are the chances? We take a look at some of the bets being offered by bookmakers for the forthcoming season.

Despite our chairman’s belief that anything can happen we all know that the chances of West Ham winning the Premier League are very close to non-existent. Despite being an optimist when it comes to our team, I know that it would take a miracle for us to emulate the feat of Leicester the season before last. That was a one-off 5000-1 unbelievable occurrence that is never likely to be repeated.

Bookmakers don’t get a lot wrong, and I’ve been looking through the odds quoted by a couple of dozen leading firms as to who will win the title this season. Despite some small variations there is a great deal of consistency in what is being offered. After Leicester’s unlikely success the quoted odds are not really very realistic for the teams outside the elite six, and the generosity of years gone by has been replaced by some ridiculously short figures, when we all know that there are only six teams that can possibly come out on top. I’m surprised that they don’t try to tempt punters to waste their money with figures of at least 10,000/1 or more, which would reflect the likely chances of the “bottom” 13 or 14 teams winning the league.

Manchester City are the clear favourites with every single firm that I looked at. The odds quoted are shorter than 2/1 in every case, which, for a competition of 38 matches is a very short price. Chelsea and Manchester United are vying for second favouritism with both being offered between 3/1 and 4/1 to win. Tottenham come next at much longer odds of between 8/1 and 10/1, with Arsenal and Liverpool each being quoted between 11/1 and 14/1.

Not surprisingly, these are the only six teams given any realistic chance of lifting the title by the bookmakers. Everton are seventh favourites at odds of around 80/1, and then we are in a band of four clubs (along with Leicester, Southampton and Newcastle) being offered at anything between 200/1 and 500/1. The shortest odds I saw for West Ham were 250/1, although if you want to have a fun bet on our team you can shop around and get around 500/1 from a number of firms. Even at those odds, not very realistic!

You can get odds of 1000/1 upwards for the remaining nine teams in the league, with the longest prices that I saw being Burnley and Huddersfield at 3000/1.

If you believe that we can finish in the top four (we did come fairly close the season before last, after all), the odds vary between 25/1 and 80/1, so once again, shop around if you want to place a bet. The elite six are all quoted at around evens or much shorter for a top four place. The odds on us finishing in the top six are generally around 10/1 to 12/1, although I have seen 20/1 quoted, and if you want to bet on us finishing in the top half of the table (top 10), the odds vary between even money and 6/4. Betway quote odds on finishing top of the Premier League if the “big 7” teams are excluded, of 5/1, and this is perhaps the best bet I’ve seen offered.

You can get up to 200/1 on us finishing as the top London club, and up to 500/1 on us topping the Premier League on Christmas Day. Our new signing, Chicarito, is quoted at odds up to 40/1 to finish as the Premier League’s leading goalscorer.

For any real pessimists out there (and you do see some on various social media sites) you can get odds of 10/1 on us being relegated, or even up to 50/1 on us finishing at the very bottom of the league!

Of course, as all of us long standing West Ham fans know, you never really know what to expect of our team, so betting on them can be a precarious business because of their unpredictability. But if you like a bet on a one-off match, which is my personal preference when betting on West Ham, then you can get up to 12/1 on us winning our opening day fixture at Old Trafford, or 4/1 on a draw. For me, these are value bets in comparison to those on offer for the season as a whole.

West Ham: Arrivals, Lineups, Formations and Substitutions

With our new arrivals, what is the best West Ham team for the coming season? Have we now got enough quality players to use impact substitutions to change a game if necessary?

I am old enough to remember the days when football was strictly eleven-a side. Teams would start with 11 players and finish with the same 11 players. If anybody was injured or out of form then that was just tough; there were no substitutes sitting on a bench to replace them. When West Ham won the FA Cup in 1964, the same 11 players started and finished every game in every round, including the Cup Final itself. Those days are long gone.

The ability to use increased numbers of replacements was a gradual one.  In the English leagues in the mid-1960s each side was permitted to use one substitute (just one player was nominated to sit on the bench), but only if a player was injured. This rule was relaxed a couple of years later to allow the substitution for tactical reasons. As time has progressed the number of substitutes that can be used has gradually increased so that now (in competitive matches, as opposed to friendlies) a maximum of three new players can be brought on, out of seven who are sitting waiting for a chance to come on.

As a follower of Rugby Union I have noticed a similar situation, where although 15 players start the game, the squad consists of 23, and I believe all 8 who start on the sidelines can be brought on at some time. If football follows a similar pattern then I can see the day not far off when perhaps five substitutes can be used, and a whole team sits on the side, allowing for tactical substitutions to be made in all positions on the field.

But, even though the game is now 14-a-side, do managers make the best use of the players at their disposal in each game? How can West Ham make better use of players sitting on the bench?

With the new players that have arrived during the current transfer window, many West Ham fans have taken to social media to set out their favoured starting eleven for the new season assuming everybody is fit, which of course is a situation that never seems to happen with our club. I have analysed a number of these, and it would appear that the following 11 players are the ones most nominated (in the manager’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation):

Hart

Zabaleta, Reid, Ogbonna, Masuaku

Obiang, Kouyate,

Antonio, Lanzini, Arnautovic,

Hernandez

Of course not everyone is in agreement, (and the manager himself may be one of those!) and the players closest to appearing in the starting eleven not in this team, would appear to be Cresswell, Noble, and Ayew. So our most recently capped England international, our captain, and our (until recently) record signing would be amongst those sitting on the bench. Other contenders for substitute would be Fonte and Collins at centre-back, Byram at right back, Fernandes in midfield, and the (seemingly) perpetually injured Carroll and Sakho up front. Snodgrass, Feghouli and Fletcher would also come into the equation if they remain with us, together with the young players such as Rice, Burke, Cullen, Quina and Martinez and perhaps others, if they are given a chance.

Of course, at times as last season progressed, we stumbled upon a 3-5-2 formation which had some initial success, and if this formation was deployed, who would be the back three? Even though Zabaleta is a full back by trade, he could perhaps be used alongside Reid and Ogbonna, although perhaps Fonte could come in? No doubt Byram or Antonio would be used as the right wing backs, and Cresswell or Masuaku on the left.

Assuming Obiang, Kouyate and Lanzini are picked whatever the formation, this would leave Hernandez and Arnuatovic as the two up front, with Carroll and Sakho (if fit) being more than useful substitutes, especially the former if a tactical variation was used. However, I personally doubt that we would start with a 3-5-2 formation with the players in the squad now, but it would be good to think that the players could adapt to this (mid-game) if necessary.

Most observers and fans seem to agree that this has been a superb transfer window so far (although some will never be happy, of course), and according to various media we haven’t finished yet. But I doubt if there will be more additions unless some go out of the exit door. But whatever your opinion, we now have much greater pace in attacking positions, allowing for a potentially completely different dimension to our forward play. We have a variety of alternative attacking options, and hopefully we will use substitutions wisely to make full use of them. We now seem to have a squad which will allow us to play with a Plan B, C, D, and I hope that we make full use of all the possibilities to enable us to score more goals.

My concerns for the forthcoming season are diminishing, although we will still rely on Lanzini to make us tick in the middle, and I’m not sure we have anyone to fulfil a similar role if he is out. If only we had another £40-£50 million to splash out on a Sigurdsson or Barkley? Similarly, whilst we have four very experienced international centre backs to choose from, I worry about a lack of pace in that area when facing nimble attacking opposition.

I firmly believe that we now have the players that will enable us to comfortably finish in at least eighth place in the Premier League. It would be good to think that we could challenge for a higher finishing position, and we should hopefully be closer to the top teams than we were last season. It will still be difficult to break into the elite six or seven teams at the top, but you never know.