What are the chances of six in a row for the Hammers?

Crystal Palace stand in the way of West Ham extending their winning run in 2021

It has been well reported that for the first time in our 125 year history West Ham have won the first five games in a calendar year. Three of them have been in the Premier League and two against lower league opposition in the FA Cup, where we have so frequently slipped up in the past. Our win over Doncaster Rovers on Saturday was a professional performance, and gave an opportunity to several fringe players to impress the manager.

For me, Benrahma and Fornals ran the game. I have been very impressed with both, although they have their critics among our fans. My colleague and co-blogger Geoff made a very valid point in his article yesterday regarding Benrahma, suggesting that perhaps he is trying just that that little bit too hard to score. I’m sure it will come and that he will be an impressive addition to our team in the years to come. Against Palace he will come across Eze, another player plucked from the Championship who I believe will make quite an impact in the top flight.

It seems that Palace’s main threat in games, Zaha, will return to the team for this game, as will our old friend Kouyate, although Tompkins will not be facing us this evening. Zaha is an important player for our opponents, contributing to almost half of their goals this season, either as scorer or with assists, and I believe they would struggle without him. Nevertheless he is one of those players, who, despite his unquestionable skills, flatters to deceive too often to make him a really top class player. But along with Eze, they are the two players we need to keep quiet. But our defending as a team is the main reason for our success of late, and hopefully we will frustrate them both.

Despite the success on Saturday, David Moyes will undoubtedly revert to the players that have been the mainstay of our league team in recent games. I would be surprised if our starting line-up is not Fabianski; Coufal, Dawson, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Soucek; Bowen, Benrahma, Fornals; Antonio. It’s surprising how we’ve gone half way through a season with as few injuries as we have had compared to recent times when it has seemed that we’ve always had a number of players unavailable. Perhaps it is down to the increased levels of fitness that has also been very noticeable this term?

CRYWHU2Both Palace and ourselves have a relatively poor record in London derbies lately, although Palace have had the upper hand in head to head fixtures against us in recent times. I thought that they looked quite a good side when the teams met a week before Christmas. Benteke opened the scoring in the first half before Haller’s sensational overhead kick brought the scores level.

Palace haven’t had the best of times since that game, whereas we have gone from strength to strength, and that is probably the reason why the bookmakers make us favourites at around 11/8 to come out on top this evening. Both Palace and the draw are on offer at around 11/5, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a repeat of the same scoreline as the game at the London Stadium a little over a month ago. However, I am hoping that we can collect our eighth clean sheet of the campaign and perhaps score a goal for another win.

One statistic that always bothers me is when I read about the poor recent form of our opposition prior to a game. In fact since that game against us in December, Palace have scored just three goals and conceded fifteen. They haven’t scored since beating Sheffield United 2-0 on 2nd January, and in the season to date they have conceded 33 goals, a total only exceeded by West Brom and Leeds. But I’m going for three more points in a 1-0 win, to make it six victories in a row. What are the chances?

The last 16 of the FA Cup beckons for the Hammers

Doncaster Rovers stand in the way of a fifth round tie at Anfield or Old Trafford

It was a bit like the London bus story. I waited a long time to get a score prediction correct in a West Ham game this season, and then two came along together. I didn’t think the West Brom game would be as straightforward as some were predicting, but without reaching the heights we were good enough to win. It’s the sign of a decent side to win games when not at our best and there have been a few like that recently. But Moyes and the coaching staff seem to have improved the fitness levels of the players, and made us a very hard team to beat, by not easily conceding goals. The Pereira shot was the one defensive blemish in five games, which is so unlike the West Ham we are used to watching.

The final whistle in Tuesday’s game meant that the halfway point in the season was reached with 32 points from 19 games, which must be some sort of record in modern times, certainly as far as in the 25 seasons we have been in the Premier League. The equivalent 19 matches in the last campaign yielded 20 points, so we are 12 up at this point. The 19 league games to come brought 19 points last season, so I wonder if we can improve on that by another 12 points, which would take us up to 63 by the end. That’s exactly what it would take to set a new points record for the club in the Premier League. 63 points last season would have resulted in a fifth placed finish. It’s a big ask, but I’m sure our performances can improve further.

With DON3relegation now a virtual impossibility, will the club just want to push on and attain as high a league position as possible, or will we be making more of an attempt to land a trophy, namely the FA Cup? Looked at from a purely financial viewpoint, each incremental finishing position in the Premier League is worth around £2 million more than the position below it in prize money. The team that wins the FA Cup receives prize money of £1.8 million. It is easy to see why the owners of clubs are more interested in league positions than winning cups.

But it need not be like that. We should be aiming for the double. That is not to say that we are going to win the Premier League, but we should be aiming for as high a finish as possible, whilst at the same time trying our utmost to win the FA Cup. Ask the fans what they would prefer, a visit to Wembley or finishing sixth in the league? OK, so the current pandemic will probably mean that fans will not be at the final, but we’d surely like to win the cup, something we haven’t done for 41 years, wouldn’t we? I know I would.

DON2A place in the fifth round is certainly within our grasp, and that would be followed by a difficult (but not impossible to win) tie at Anfield or Old Trafford. Winning that would put us in the last eight and anything could happen from there. Just two more wins to reach the final and three to win the trophy. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but that should surely be our ambition? An excerpt from today’s match programme shows that Declan Rice agrees with me.

DON1Our opponents today are flying high in League One (4th), just three points from the top and will themselves be aiming for promotion to the Championship. They have won four of their last five league games, so they are in good form. But so are we. We are unbeaten in our last five league games and have collected eleven points in those. Let’s hope that we don’t underestimate lower league opposition as we have done so frequently in the past.

Historically Doncaster have beaten us on more occasions than we have won the encounters. I was at Upton Park the last time we met them in a Championship game in 2012. The game ended 1-1 with Kevin Nolan scoring our goal. Nolan also scored the goal that earned us a 1-0 win earlier that season. The campaign ended well as we were promoted via the play-offs, whilst Doncaster finished bottom and were relegated to League One.

What will happen today? Can we expect another tight affair, as has been the case in our recent games? Can we keep another clean sheet? I’m going for a hat-trick of correct score predictions and looking for a 2-0 win, and a place in Round Five. What are the chances?

Can the Hammers make it five clean sheets in a row?

Big Sam’s Baggies visit the London Stadium

We welcome Big Sam to the London Stadium, once again doing his impersonation of Red Adair, this time trying to save the Baggies from relegation. You have to hand it to him, he hasn’t taken a team from the Premier League down yet, but this could be his toughest challenge yet. Having said that their performance to win 3-2 at Wolves last weekend after coming from behind was a notable achievement, and they will be full of confidence from that as they head into this game.

The final whistle in today’s game will signify the halfway point in the season for us, meaning that a victory would put us on 32 points from 19 games, which must be some sort of record in modern times, certainly as far as in the 25 seasons we have been in the Premier League. And talking of records, our last four competitive games have ended 0-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. How many of you can remember four clean sheets in a row from a West Ham team? I doubt that it has happened in the top flight for many years, but it did happen in our record breaking season of 1985-86, when we finished third and narrowly missed out on being champions. In that season we had a run of five games (four wins and a draw) without conceding a goal before going down 1-0 to Tottenham on Boxing Day. After that game we had a further two 1-0 wins meaning that we only conceded one goal in eight matches.

Going back even further and looking at our record-breaking season in the second tier (1980-81) when we finished as champions by a country mile, we did have a run of six matches where we didn’t concede, as well as two runs of five games, and one of four, all in that same season. But we were exceptional at that time, and only conceded 29 goals in our 42 league games, only losing four times in that campaign.

But I couldn’t find any more examples (perhaps someone will find one or two?) and I think that those highlight the very good performance of the team from a defensive viewpoint. It has of course coincided with the four game central defensive partnership of Ogbonna and Dawson, both of whom have been a revelation, but the team should be congratulated for defending as a whole, and credit must of course go to the management and coaching staff for the work that they have put in to make this happen.

WHUWBA1In history, there was a period in the 1960’s when there were many goals in home matches against West Brom, and I can remember looking forward to the games because we always seemed to beat them and score a hatful. The first time I remember us playing them was in our cup winning season (1963-64) when I saw the game with my dad. It was in November 1963, around the time that President Kennedy was assassinated, and we beat them 4-2. Geoff Hurst scored a couple. It was the first time I can remember seeing Geoff Hurst take a penalty (Johnny Byrne was our regular penalty taker at the time) and he smashed it as hard as he could to the keeper’s right. He always took penalties that way and even though the keepers knew that they couldn’t often get near them (although Gordon Banks famously did in the League Cup semi-final a few years later!). And then there was a “Good Friday” for me at Easter 1965 as for the first time I was allowed to go to Upton Park with friends rather than any adults being with us. I was eleven at the time. Do eleven year-olds go to West Ham on their own these days? It was an even better Friday for Brian Dear as this was the day he scored five goals in a twenty minute spell either side of half time in our 6-1 trouncing of West Brom. I can recall a newspaper headline of the match report that said “Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear!” Brian Dear was a member of our victorious European Cup Winners Cup side just a month later, a game I watched with my dad high up on the Wembley terracing behind the goal where Alan Sealey scored our two goals.

The following January I was there again when we beat West Brom 4-0 with Geoff Hurst again scoring twice, and also in December 1966 when we “only” beat them 3-0. I missed the game in December 1967 when we lost the game by the odd goal in five, but was back again at the beginning of the next season when we put another four past them with a Martin Peters hat trick. This game was sandwiched between putting five past Burnley the previous week and seven past Bolton four days afterwards.

So in six consecutive seasons of home games against West Brom we won five and lost one, scoring 23 goals and conceding 6. Martin Peters scored six times, as did Brian Dear, with five from Geoff Hurst. No wonder I always looked forward to games against them when I was young.

Conversely there was an awful game in February 1973. It was a shocking game to watch. This was summed up neatly by David Miller writing in the Sunday Telegraph who wrote “This wretched display by West Bromwich – hacking, arguing and niggling throughout – will leave few of those present shedding tears at their imminent disappearance into the Second Division.” The referee had a poor game too with Sam Bartram of the Sunday People writing “Referee Kerkhof’s rumbling of the Albion time wasting tactics was one of the few things that he did right all afternoon.”

Effectively the referee added on an additional eight minutes to the second half purely to allow for time wasting, although it felt like he just wanted West Ham to get the winner that they deserved. And we did too with Pop Robson’s late goal clinching a 2-1 victory. Billy Bonds had given us a first half lead that had been cancelled out by Tony Brown’s equaliser in the second half. West Brom were relegated finishing bottom that season. Just deserts from the game I saw!

I have to say that I enjoyed the Amazon Prime coverage of the Burnley game at the weekend. With Gabby Logan holding the programme together, and an excellent commentary team with Ally McCoist surprising me with his insights as co-commentator, and a very good pair of pundits in Matt Upson and Clinton Morrison I thought they provided a refreshing change from the usual fare served up by Sky or BT Sport. I hope that they get more games.

What will happen today? Can we expect another tight affair? Can we keep another clean sheet? Will Robert Snodgrass spoil our run? The Burnley game was the first time in 18 attempts that I’ve correctly predicted the West Ham score this season so what do I know? I’ll go for a 2-1 win with Snodgrass scoring the visitor’s goal. What are the chances?

Can West Ham come out on top in the battle of the Clarets?

Who will have the Claret Blues today?

With a season that began a little over four months ago, we have now played 17 games. After the relegation battles in the last campaign and minimal transfer activity in the summer window, how many of us would have expected that at this stage we would be in the top half of the table, with 26 points, just half a dozen points off third place, and only conceded just 21 goals, the same as Liverpool, Leicester, Everton and Chelsea, and fewer than league leaders Manchester United? And of course into the fourth round of the FA Cup where a relatively straightforward (on paper!) home tie against Doncaster awaits.

WHUBUR1Following the games against Burnley, and then Big Sam’s West Brom on Tuesday we will have reached the halfway point of the season. In the equivalent 19 games last season (substituting the relegated teams with promoted teams) we collected 20 points. We are already six points ahead with two games to come. Two wins would take us to 32 points; a win and a draw to 30, and if we lost these games then of course we would still be on 26. Not bad for the midpoint of the season. An equal points tally in the second half would mean between 52 and 64 points for the whole campaign. This is our 25th season in the Premier League, and the most we’ve managed is 62 when we were seventh in the final season at the Boleyn (2015/16). Next best is 57 when we attained our highest ever Premier League finish of 5th in 1998/9. We average a little over 47 points a season in the Premier League so we are definitely on course for better than average, and potentially for the best ever. Quite a turnaround after last season.

Against Burnley we kick off for the first time this season in a league game at 3pm on a Saturday. Of course the circumstances are very different from normal. As a small boy the first football season that I remember is 1958/9. Today’s opponents were a force in the English game around that time finishing 7th in the top flight (Division 1) that year, and in the following years 1st (yes champions – something we’ve never achieved), 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 12th, 3rd. But by the late 1960s they were in decline compared to the previous few years and regularly in the bottom half, until they were finally relegated in 1970-71. They returned briefly in the 1970s but were once again relegated in 1975-76, beginning a long period of significant decline and very nearly oblivion.

1n 1986/87 they were in the fourth tier and only escaped relegation from the Football League on the last day of the season. Since then they have slowly climbed back up the leagues. After 33 years out of the top flight they returned in 2009/10. They’ve been down again a couple of times since but have returned swiftly under Sean Dyche’s management. This is now their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League but it hasn’t started well. A terrible start saw them with just two points in their first seven games with goalless draws away at West Brom and Brighton. But they have rallied well with 14 points from their last 9 games, beating Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Wolves and Sheffield United to bring them up to 16 points from 16 games to put them 16th in the table. They have scored fewer goals than any other team in the division with just 9. And in 10 of their 16 games there has only been one goal or less scored by both teams added together, including three goalless draws. On that basis we are not looking forward to a high scoring game, although hopefully we can do enough to collect the three points.

Our record against Burnley in history shows that we are very slightly ahead in wins but we have lost the last three conceding six goals in total without scoring ourselves. We’ve also only won once in the last five when we beat them 4-2 in November 2018 with goals from Arnautavic, Anderson 2, and Hernandez. There will be no spectators around this time to stick the corner flag into the centre of the pitch as happened in our 3-0 defeat in March 2018!

In my lifetime I have some good memories of past games against the Clarets. On a warm Monday evening in August 1968 we beat them 5-0, with four goals shared by the two knights, Sir Trev and Sir Geoff, and another from Martin Peters.

There was an exciting 5-3 win in November 2009 when we had five different goalscorers (Collison, Stanislas, Carlton Cole pen, Franco, and Jimenez pen – some interesting names from the past there) and scored two penalties. At one stage midway through the second half we led 5-0. Isn’t it about time we were awarded a penalty this season?

In the FA Cup in 2011 we beat them 5-1 in the fifth round with goals from Hitzlsperger, Carlton Cole 2, Reid, and Sears. However we then went out in the quarter final losing 2-1 at Stoke, having already beaten them twice earlier in the season. This was the Avram Grant year when we were relegated after finishing bottom.

But my favourite of all was, as a ten year old when I turned up with my dad at Upton Park at 11am to queue to get in at midday for the 1964 FA Cup quarter final that kicked off at 3pm (as all games did in those days) on Leap Years Day. We stood very close to the halfway line beneath the West Stand at the very front crushed against the wall and saw a famous 3-2 victory with two goals from Budgie Byrne and another from John Sissons. That was the year of our first FA Cup triumph, after beating Manchester United 3-1 in the semi-final, and then Preston 3-2 in the final.

But talk of all those goals is unlikely to be followed up today when I expect a tight affair. Perhaps 1-0, the same as last season, but this time with us as the victors? What are the chances?

Can West Ham win at Edgeley Park for the first time at the eighth attempt?

Or will this be another game to add to the long list of ignominious FA Cup exits for the Hammers?

How many of you reading this can remember the last time West Ham beat Stockport County? No, me neither. It came in an FA Cup 4th round tie at Upton Park in January 1958. We won the game 3-2 with two goals from Eddie Lewis and another from Vic Keeble. We were in the second tier of English football at the time and finished that season as Champions and were promoted to Division One. Stockport were in the third division. We went out in the next round losing at home to Fulham.

We had actually played them in the FA Cup before way back in 1935. We were in the second tier then, too, and we drew 1-1 at home in a third round tie, and then lost the replay 1-0. Stockport were also then in the third division.

Our record against them in the League Cup is equally poor. In 1972-73 we faced them in the third round. That was one of our better seasons in the top tier, as we finished sixth in Division One. Stockport were a Division Four team at the time but still beat us 2-1 with Clyde Best scoring our goal. Don’t be fooled and think we fielded a weakened side. On that Wednesday evening we had Bonds, Moore, Brooking, Pop Robson and all of our other first team regulars, only making one change from the side that had played (and won) a league game the previous Saturday.

Then in 1996-97 we met them in the fourth round and that was the only time I’ve seen Stockport play. It was at Upton Park and we could only draw 1-1 with Florin Raducioiu scoring our goal. Once again we fielded our “first team” as we did in the replay three weeks later. I can remember watching that game on TV, obviously chosen as the broadcasters could see a potential upset and they weren’t wrong. It was a night to forget for Iain Dowie, as not only did he head a goal (into his own net!) but he also broke his ankle. Julian Dicks scored our goal but we went out of the competition losing the tie 2-1.

An ignominious record in cup ties against Stockport is matched by some poor results in the few league games in which we’ve met them, as we have not very often been in the same division. Our record in away games in the north west at Edgeley Park is played 4, lost 3, and drawn 1, 0-0 back in 1937. So in 7 away visits in the league and cup ties we have lost 6 times and drawn once.

These days Stockport have sunk even lower in the football pyramid and are now in the National League. They are having a decent season and currently sit in fourth place, but some distance behind the runaway leaders, Torquay. In a very tight division they are hoping to get back into the Football League, although it would almost certainly only be via the play-offs.

In modern times teams in the Premier League (and sometimes lower leagues too) don’t treat cup games with the same respect as was once the case. League positions and the money that accompanies them are considered more important than chasing trophies, even though to win a cup only requires a successful run in a handful of games. Stockport on the other hand will almost certainly field a full strength side in a bid to claim a Premier League scalp. The broadcasters see the game as a potential upset too, and the TV cameras will be at Edgeley Park on Monday evening hoping to see one.

In my 60 plus years of following West Ham we have appeared in four FA Cup finals, winning three, and losing (unluckily) once to Liverpool in our last appearance in a penalty shoot out in 2006. Some of the teams who have knocked us out of the competition in those 60 years include Huddersfield (twice), Stoke (twice), Plymouth, Blackburn, Swindon, Sheffield United (twice), Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Hull City, Hereford, QPR (3 times), Newport County, Wrexham (twice), Watford (twice), Birmingham, Torquay, Sunderland, Barnsley, Luton, Grimsby, Swansea, Tranmere, Wigan. Last season we lost at home to West Brom (then in the Championship). It makes grim reading, doesn’t it? I could produce a similar list for teams that have beaten us in League Cup ties in the same period too.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a successful cup run and go back to Wembley? The last time I was there to watch us in an FA Cup Final was in 1980 (when I was 26, 40 years ago) when we famously beat Arsenal 1-0 with Sir Trevor’s header. That was the third time that we had won the trophy. I wasn’t expecting that more than 40 years later we would have not won it again.

Those three triumphs were days to remember and easily recalled all these years later. Our league position is comfortable with (almost certainly) no relegation fears this season. I’d love it if we gave it a good go this time. I’m not holding my breath though. But I reckon we can get through this tie. Let’s hope that we don’t add it to the long list of embarrassing FA Cup exits.

Festival Fixtures Alert – West Ham face the Seagulls, the Saints and the Toffeemen in 125 hours! It’s not fair!

How many times have you read or heard the manager of one of the leading clubs in the Premier League complain about fixture congestion? Or how difficult it is for their big squads of top players having to manage with only three substitutes permitted in each game? Well I haven’t yet heard David Moyes complain about this year’s Christmas schedule, but he damn well should!

I have been having a look at the festive fixtures and don’t believe that any club faces as many games in as short a space of time as West Ham do. With our thin squad it’s going to be a tough ask. All of the 20 teams play their first game of this demanding time over a period of two days on 26th / 27th December. They then play the next round of matches over the following three days, 28th / 29th / 30th. There are no games at all on New Years Eve, and then all the teams play their third festive match over four days 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th January. So three games are crammed into a ten day period for all teams.

But they are not equally spread out for all! A couple of examples – Liverpool play their first game of the three on 27th December, and the last on 4th January – 3 matches in 9 games. Southampton (one of our three opponents in the period) play their first game on 26th December and their last on 4th January – 3 games in 10 days! Conversely West Ham are asked to play on 27th and 29th December and then on 1st January. Our three games are all squeezed into six days! From the kick-off in the first to the end of the third game it will be around 125 hours – that is a little over 5 days.

So we face the teams 17th, 7th and 4th in the table in a period of time that I believe is shorter than any of the other 19 teams in the Premier League. And it’s not as if we don’t have to travel either. The first game is at home in London, then we travel to away games on the South Coast and then finally Merseyside. It’s hardly fair is it? Not a level playing field to quote a popular phrase banded about. And what of our opponents in the second and third fixtures? Well Southampton are second up and they will have an extra day’s rest before facing us after their first game in the period. And Everton will similarly have an additional day without playing after their second match of the three.

I’d like to think that the club will complain about the unfair way we have been treated, but even if we did I doubt that it would get us anywhere. The fixtures are all lined up to satisfy the TV companies, not for the good of the clubs or the players.

14 games have been played so far this season and we have 21 points. When you look at the equivalent 14 fixtures in the last campaign we picked up 13 points from them so we are currently +8. In the three games coming up over the Christmas period, the equivalent fixtures last time yielded 4 points (a draw at home to Brighton, a win at Southampton, and a defeat at Everton). How many will we pick up this time? Three wins would give us nine points, to take us up to 30 for the season, or three defeats would leave us on 21, and into the bottom half of the table. I reckon that given the closeness of the fixtures and the calibre of our opponents, three wins is not likely to be achieved. We would be doing well to match or exceed last season’s equivalent of four points from these games. I’d love it to be more but I just don’t think that we have the squad or the rest time to enable us to achieve more. One win and a draw or two would be quite an achievement given the difficulties we face.

Once the festive fixtures have been completed we have a break from league games to face a game at Stockport County in the FA Cup on 11th January before completing the first half of the season (all 19 teams will have been played) with winnable (on paper) home games against Burnley on 16th January and West Brom three days later on the 19th. So how many points will we have at the halfway stage of the season? It would be good to reach 30 points by then, but that will require at least three wins in the next five games. And we are not always entirely convincing when facing teams that we should perhaps be beating. In the equivalent 19 fixtures last season we accrued 20 points, so we have already exceeded that with another five games to go, but how many points will we collect in these five matches?

I worry about the depth of our squad at times like these when fixtures are congested into a short period. But that is an issue that we knew about during the last close season and little was done to rectify matters at the top level within the club. I wonder if this will be remedied during this mid-season transfer window? I won’t hold my breath as there are difficulties in recruiting quality players at this time of year. Perhaps we can have a look in Prague?  

Do the statistics point to three points for West Ham tonight?

I never cease to be surprised by the vast array of statistics available in football these days. When I was young all that I can remember are league tables and goalscorers. Now absolutely everything is analysed in microscopic detail. Assists is an interesting one and can vary from playing a major part in a goal being scored, to being almost incidental. I suppose they add another element to fantasy football leagues, but really what is the point? Why not give credit to everyone involved in the build up to a goal? A player could go on a mazy dribble beating seven or eight players and then pass to a team mate who mishits a shot badly into the path of another team mate who scores a goal. The one who badly mishits his shot is credited with an assist.

I’ve been looking at a number of statistics in preparation for this game, and there are all sorts of reasons why West Ham should be collecting three points tonight. Firstly, a look at the current form, which is something I wrote about frequently last season when analysing the last five games played by each team. If you think our position in the table (6th) is very good, then you’d be even more impressed if you looked at the form table for the last five games. This puts us second on 12 points, a point behind Manchester United on 13. Even the top three teams can’t match us; Tottenham have 11, Liverpool and Leicester 9 apiece.

We have a positive record against Palace in history and despite losing to them in our last two meetings we are unbeaten against them in the eight before that. We currently have 20 points from 12 games, so a win would take us to 23 from 13. That would be our highest ever total at this stage in the top flight for 37 years, even surpassing the record breaking 1985-86 season.

Apart from our opening day defeat against Newcastle, we have scored in every league game this season. It’s not very often to find West Ham scoring in 11 consecutive matches. David Moyes has never lost a game when facing a team managed by Roy Hodgson and has won 8 of the ten games when managing a team against Crystal Palace.

Palace on the other hand would also have their best start in a top flight season if they beat us, and we have to remember they scored five goals in their last away game (admittedly only against West Brom, but then again Albion drew at Manchester City last night). Jordan Ayew has an interesting record against us. I remember him being sent off for quite unnecessarily elbowing Aaron Cresswell when playing for Aston Villa a few years back, but I see that he has scored more goals against us than against any other team, including the winner in both fixtures last season. But he wasn’t in the starting eleven against Tottenham last weekend with Benteke preferred up front. I would also add that Lanzini has scored four goals in games against Palace; does that mean he should be selected for this match? Are we also the unluckiest team in the Premier League this season? We’ve hit the woodwork on no fewer than nine occasions – more than any other side.

Another statistic from our last game against Leeds was that Haller lost possession of the ball 12 times in the first half. He is infuriating to watch at times, but still retains the potential to score goals. I saw a piece written by our old favourite David Cross praising Haller’s willingness to keep finding positions from which he could score and suggesting that when one or two go in his confidence might improve. Perhaps if that overhead kick had gone in? I don’t know, the jury is still out, but I hope he comes good, as I hope for all our players. He’s not small but doesn’t possess the strength that Antonio does to hold opposition players off and bring others into the game. But that is not his forte.

I was very impressed by the skills displayed by Said Benrahma in his first start for us and believe he can be a major asset to the team. Jarrod Bowen continues to impress as does Soucek, and Declan Rice is playing better than ever. What a change in atmosphere in the (almost) one year since David Moyes came back to the club!

I’ve no idea about team selection although David Moyes is not one to make changes unless forced to do so. But with our recent form why would he? There is a suggestion that a couple of our players are carrying knocks, so we’ll have to wait and see. One of the features of this season for me has been the inability of referees to spot “simulation”. As long as we can keep Zaha quiet and the referee doesn’t fall for any diving antics then I’m confident that we can continue our great run and pick up three points once more. I keep seeing penalties being awarded week after week when watching the Premier League games on TV. It’s about time we were awarded one or two.

I’m going for 2-0 with goals from Benrahma and Haller. What are the chances?

Can West Ham beat Leeds for only the second time this century?

I won’t dwell for too long on the game against Manchester United last Saturday. We outplayed them for 60 minutes, held a 1-0 lead, missed a number of chances that should have put the game out of sight, conceded an equaliser because a linesman wasn’t looking down the touchline but instead looking for offside, and then heads went down and we let in two more goals. The equaliser that shouldn’t have stood changed the course of the game, but in many ways we only have ourselves to blame for failing to increase our lead in the first half. The result meant that the opportunity to climb the table into third place was lost, and by the end of the weekend we would have been fifth had we won. The Equivalent Fixture Analysis figure comparing results this season against the same games last season fell to +10 points following the defeat.

But we didn’t win and it is hoped that lessons will be learned by the players and management. Considering the difficulty of our fixtures in the first 11 games, we ought to be satisfied with 8th place in the League, having won 5 games and drawn twice. A positive goal difference of +4 with 18 scored and 14 conceded is a good return, although we seem to have missed many good goalscoring opportunities, with Pablo Fornals particularly guilty in this respect. Of course we have missed Michail Antonio, and the debate regarding his replacement Haller continues with statistical analysis of his game seeming to contrast with what we see with our eyes. He is not as bad as many fans make out, but we definitely don’t play to his strengths. Personally I like the look of Said Benrahma in the cameo appearances he has made, and surely he should be given the opportunity soon to show what he can do from the start of a game. Whether it will happen in this game I am not sure.

For the twelfth game in a row we do not kick off at 3pm on a Saturday; this time it is a Friday night, which gives us the opportunity to climb into fifth place with a win. My thoughts on our opponents, Leeds, are tainted by the memories of them when I was growing up in the 1960s. Under Don Revie, who managed them for 13 years, they had probably their most successful period, winning a number of trophies and also being there or thereabouts in all the main competitions during that era. They had a reputation for being the bridesmaids, falling just short on several occasions in league and cup; I think they were runners-up in the league about five times in that period.

But I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the way they played, or their win at all costs attitude to the game. I know many who hated them despite them being a dominant force in English football. I guess success often breeds contempt, but my dislike of them was enhanced by the perceived way they achieved their position as one of the best teams around. To me they were highly physical and at times brutal and extremely cynical in style. They had a poor disciplinary record as they bullied and kicked their way to the top.

Our historical record in matches against Leeds is a poor one, especially in more recent history. Of course, we haven’t always been in the same division, with Leeds having only just returned to the top flight after 16 years in the second tier, but the last time we beat them was in November 2000, a 1-0 victory at Elland Road with an unlikely goalscorer – Nigel Winterburn, the only goal he scored for us in 94 appearances. I can remember being at the game at Upton Park in 1998, which was the only other time we have beaten them in the last 38 years; we won 3-0 with goals from Hartson. Abou and Ian Pearce. Our keeper that day was Bernard Lama – remember him? Two substitutes came on in the latter stages of the game, Scott Mean and Manny Omoyinmi – do you remember them? Our record in the last 28 fixtures against Leeds is, Won 2, Drawn 8, Lost 18.

I was also there at a game close to the end of the season in 1982 when we beat them 4-3. That was our first season back in the top division following promotion. I believe Leeds were relegated that year. We were almost invincible at home that season losing just twice in our 21 games, a record we equalled in our record breaking campaign of 1985-86.

There was one game against Leeds that I didn’t see but wish I had been there. On a cold Monday evening in November 1966 we beat the (then mighty) Leeds 7-0 in a League Cup tie after putting six goals past Fulham two days earlier. We then went on to win 4-3 at Tottenham the following Saturday. Geoff Hurst scored 8 goals that week. You’d think that would have been quite a season. But despite scoring 80 goals, we conceded 84, and finished 16th in the league!

I haven’t seen too much of the present Leeds team, but under Bielsa they seem to be a highly energetic and attractive side. They have scored 16 of the 36 goals in their 11 matches, and four wins plus two draws equates to 14 points and 14th in the table. But the league is a tight one so far, and if they win they will be level on points with us. 9 of their 14 points have been achieved away from home with victories at Sheffield United, Villa and Everton. They have only won one of their five home games (4-3 v Fulham), but have drawn against Manchester City and Arsenal. Their two home defeats were 1-0 to Wolves and 4-1 to Leicester. Patrick Bamford has been a surprise to many with 8 goals in the league, exactly half of the teams total so far.

I wonder if there will be any changes to our starting eleven for this game? Our lack of pace on the right hand side of our defence was exposed in the latter stages of the Manchester United game. The manager realised this (but too late) and Johnson was introduced towards the end. Perhaps replacing Balbuena with Diop might go some way towards solving this problem, although Balbuena hasn’t played too badly in his run in the team. Fans on social media often urge changes after a defeat, but I doubt Moyes will make many – that’s not his style either before (or during) games.

Leeds are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at odds of around 6/5. We are about 11/5 with the draw at 5/2. As is often the case, 1-1 is the “favourite” score at 11/2, and unsurprisingly, Bamford is favourite to score the first goal. Despite their league position, I believe this will be a tough game, and a draw would be a good point. We need to match their energy, and if we do this could be a highly entertaining game. My hope is that away victories will continue to outnumber wins for the home sides (for this week anyway!) and we pick up the three points. The players will believe that they are playing for their places and will not want a second consecutive defeat. It would be good to be the fourth team to score four times against Leeds this season; perhaps 4-3 just like the game in 1982? What are the chances?    

2000 fans back in the London Stadium as West Ham aim for a fourth league win in a row

Who would have thought it? A quarter of the season gone, and a difficult ten games at that with seven of last season’s top nine already played, and there we sit in fifth place. It’s been a strange year, we all know that, and football has not been any different, with away teams more successful than ever before. Manchester City are in the bottom half of the table, albeit with a league table so tight that a win with their game in hand would take them into a Champions League place, and Arsenal are 14th, but they are only five points off a top four position themselves. Yes, just six points separate Chelsea in third with Palace who are 15th, and even Tottenham and Liverpool are only two points better off at the very top.

Nevertheless we’ll take fifth for now, and a win this Saturday (early evening) against this week’s opponents Manchester United, would elevate us, albeit briefly into third. To add to the strangeness of this campaign, have we ever gone into the eleventh game of a season having not yet kicked off a league game at 3pm on a Saturday? United themselves are ninth, but if they win the game then they too would rise into the top four, such is the congestion in the league table so far.

We didn’t play particularly well against Villa the other night, yet for the third game in a row we came away with the three points. David Moyes acknowledged that we could play a lot better but he was happy to take the win. I have often written in the past how often we start each half of a game slowly, but this match was certainly an exception. We caught Villa cold with the opening goal within three minutes, and began the second half with a much quicker goal than that. Once again Benrahma provided the assist, and I can see him beginning to play a much more prominent role in the team in the coming games. I read that some people are worried about his ability defensively in a team that Moyes has moulded to defend energetically from the front. Anybody who saw him play for Brentford last season would not be worried on that score. His work rate is excellent and shouldn’t be so easily dismissed because of his attacking qualities.

The main talking points from the Villa game on social media focussed on our relatively poor performance (we can definitely play better), the number of “fouls” we committed as a result of inept officials being tricked by Grealish diving (he is a superb player but he lets himself down by cheating), VAR coming to our rescue (for a change), and Carragher’s post match analysis. As far as the late drama was concerned I would disagree with Carragher’s view. Surely Watkins was already offside when Ogbonna “fouled” him, so the offside, albeit by a fraction of a toenail as drawn by the VAR lines, came first. Anyway, Villa had already been awarded a previous penalty (controversially in my opinion) for a slight tug on a shirt which resulted in a player throwing himself theatrically to the ground. I loved a picture I saw on Instagram where Ogbonna has his arms around Watkins (in true Italian style) and was supposedly saying “I was just trying to keep him onside!”

whumun2Last week I wrote about Equivalent Fixture Analysis, and the win over Villa takes us 13 points ahead of the same games last season (17 this, 4 last). Of course in last season’s fixture against Manchester United at the London Stadium we collected three points in a 2-0 victory, so we need to win again to maintain the 13 points differential. United were playing (and losing) in the Champions League on Wednesday night so let us hope that will have some influence on their energy levels. A lot is written about players having to play too often these days, but I don’t really subscribe to that. Yes the game is faster than it was years ago, but with squad sizes and improved fitness regimes they should cope OK. I suspect that its often a case of managers and coaches getting their excuses in early.

2000 of our fans will be in the London Stadium for the game. I wasn’t successful in the ballot to get a seat. Perhaps next time? It will be interesting to see how much noise they can generate. I wonder if the artificial crowd noise on TV will be turned off or used to supplement the 2000 for the TV viewers?

I’ve no idea if the manager will change the starting line-up or formation this week. Whatever he decides there won’t be many changes because that’s not his style, and three wins in a row tells its own story despite his reservations that we can play a lot better. I’m sure that is right as we haven’t quite reached the levels of performance that we saw against Wolves and Leicester early on. But West Ham in fifth place despite not playing as well as we could? I’ll take that.

The visit of Manchester United is not the daunting one that I remember from my youth. But despite the league positions and the recent history of this fixture, the United reputation makes them strong favourites with the bookmakers. For some reason unknown to me, they are 11/10 favourites to win the game, whereas we are priced at a very appealing 13/5. I’m confident that we’ll do well and win our fourth game in a row by the odd goal. What are the chances?

Ninth plays Seventh as West Ham take on Villa

In the season that finished in July, Villa were the visitors on the final day and needed results to go their way to stay in the top flight. As it was, West Ham put in a rather lacklustre performance, having achieved safety with eleven points from their first six games in the month, and were virtually on the beach by the final game of the strangest season we had ever known, a campaign which lasted 50 weeks with no games played from early in March until late June. The game ended 1-1, and the teams could go away for the shortest of close seasons.

Villa came back with all guns firing, and despite their opening fixture against Manchester City being postponed, at one stage early on they led the league picking up maximum points from their opening four games with wins at home to Sheffield United (1-0), and Liverpool (7-2), as well as away wins at Fulham (3-0) and Leicester (1-0). The wins against Liverpool and Leicester were particularly notable and certainly not expected.

With three of their next four games at home they would have hoped to progress further. But they came down with a bump, losing all three, 3-0 to Leeds, 4-3 to Southampton, and 2-1 to Brighton. I watched that game and thought that they were totally outclassed by the Seagulls who deserved their win. Ironically in between those home fixtures, a visit to London saw them collect three points with an emphatic win at Arsenal.

So in their three away games this season they have nine points, having scored seven goals and yet to concede. Food for thought but not particularly surprising in a season that has seen its fair share of surprise results and victories on the road, possibly due to the absence of spectators in grounds. It will be interesting to see if things change when we start to see fans in the stands from next week, albeit just 2000 in ten of the Premier League grounds that are situated in tier 2. Those clubs in tier 3 cannot have any spectators of course, which some are claiming interferes with the integrity of the competition.

Following our splendid 1-0 win at Sheffield United we climbed to eighth place in the table after just nine games, with virtually a quarter of the season completed. It took our run to 14 points from the last seven games, with just one defeat in that time, the narrow 2-1 defeat at Champions Liverpool. After nine games last season we had 12 points, so we are already two points ahead of the same stage last season. But is that a reasonable comparison? It doesn’t take into account the strength of the opposition in games, and perhaps a better comparison is something called Equivalent Fixture Analysis (EFA) where the results are compared to the equivalent matches that were played last season.

It is not possible to do this exactly because three of the teams that we faced last season, Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth were relegated and replaced by Leeds, West Brom and Fulham. We collected 16 points in games against the three teams that went down, so we need to pick up at least five wins and a draw in the fixtures against the three promoted sides to match that. So far so good with the home win against Fulham.

Equivalent Fixture Analysis of our first nine games shows that we have 14 points against 3 in the same games last season (substituting Fulham for one of the relegated sides). That puts us 11 points up, and projecting forwards, if we can just match last season’s equivalent fixtures from now to the end of the season, we would finish on 50 points, which in the last campaign would have been good enough for 12th place after 38 games. Of course, we hope we can do better than that, and at least maintain the eighth position that we have currently reached. Last time, 57 points were needed for an eighth place finish, and just three more (60) for a top six finish and qualification for Europe.

A number of pundits are beginning to tout us for a potential finish in the top half dozen, and whilst that may be premature, it must be the aim to look upwards, rather than over our shoulders. To reach 60 points we may need to better the equivalent fixtures from last season by 21, so effectively we are already halfway there after just nine games. I’ll be analysing this as the season progresses, and for the time being I have looked ahead to the end of December, after which we will have completed 16 fixtures. Ironically in the seven games until the turn of the year this time (Monday’s game followed by six matches in December), we managed 14 points in the equivalent fixtures last season, a similar record to what we have achieved in the last seven games. So we will be hard pressed to make inroads into the 21 that we need to better from last season to reach my hoped for 60. But even if we just match the results that we achieved last time in these seven games, that would put us on 28 points from 16 games, and still well on course for a potential top six finish. A win against Villa would be two more points gained on the equivalent fixture last season, and put us 13 points up after just ten games.

Of course there is still a lot of football to be played in this strange season, and who knows what will happen? We are talking West Ham after all! Nevertheless I can allow myself to dream of a top six finish can’t I?

It will be interesting to see how David Moyes picks the starting eleven for this game. Following his superb strike which must have given him a lot of confidence, Haller would be extremely disappointed to be left out. His performance in each game shows a small improvement, but we are not playing to his strengths with the way we set up. The manager doesn’t seem to believe in changing a team that is winning and performing well, so can we expect the same line up for this game? It’s hard to imagine that the back five will be changed. Diop must be itching to get back in after his Covid isolation, but Balbuena has taken his chance and performed solidly. Along with Cresswell, who was receiving massive criticism just a few weeks ago, they have made it hard for the manager to leave them out. According to the statistics that I have seen, Cresswell has created more chances than any other defender in the Premier League, and the defence (of which he is part of course) are on top of the “clean sheets league”. Ogbonna has been playing better than ever this season too.

In fact everybody is playing well. The whole team realise that we have a strong bench and cannot afford to let their performance slip. Benrahma must be keen to show what he can do, but while we continue to win he will need to bide his time. I wonder if Antonio will play if he is now fully fit? Some are calling for him to play with Haller, not just one or the other. We have been relatively fortunate so far with a lack of injuries compared to how many we normally seem to have, and long may it continue. But no doubt as the season progresses the numbers will mount, and then most of the squad will get the chance to show what they can do.

We are slight favourites to win the game according to the bookmakers, at around 13/10, with Villa at about 2/1. The favourite score is 1-1 at 5/1, no doubt influenced by the closeness of the teams in the league, and the result in the final game of last season. One intriguing bet that I saw and have taken is for West Ham to win the game, Villa to have the most cards, and West Ham to have the most corners. At 9/1 that’ll do me. An entertaining game, a good performance, and three points. That’ll do me too! What are the chances?