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

I have to admit that I really enjoyed our performance a fortnight ago when we comfortably beat Norwich 2-0 with goals from our new French striker, Sebastien Haller, and the fit again Andriy Yarmolenko. As Norwich pressed forward when they were behind, we managed to create several chances to add to our tally, and in reality should have scored five or six quite easily. We didn’t because our finishing didn’t match our approach play, we were unlucky at times, and Krul in the Norwich goal made some fine saves. Haller finished off a fine attack with a relatively simple finish, whereas Yarmolenko showed great technique with a left-footed volley barely a minute after an early left-footed volley with similar impressive technique had rebounded from an upright.

Two things in particular pleased me about our performance. The first was that we had players who could break and counter attack at pace. In particular our front four (Haller, Lanzini, Anderson and Yarmolenko) didn’t hang around when given the opportunity to attack, and they really impressed me with the way they looked as though they had been playing together for a long time. Added to that, our two full backs, Fredericks and Masuaku, who never get the best press for their defending abilities, also showed great pace when attacking and supporting the front four, and created chances for the others. Masuaku provided the assist for the first goal, but I was impressed with them both.

The second thing to please me was the way that the front four added to the often missing concept of defending as a team. It looked as though they had been working hard in training, and they harried the Norwich players to a greater extent than I can remember our attacking players doing for a while now. They added to the efforts of Rice and Noble who both had fine games. Mark Noble looked rejuvenated, and we all know he is not the fastest player, but he showed that he can still contribute and dominate the midfield when surrounded by players blessed with more pace. Defensive organisation was first class.

Yarmolenko and Lanzini both surprised me with how well they have come back after long lay-offs, Anderson demonstrated his sublime skills throughout the game, and Haller looks to be the most complete forward since the days of Dean Ashton, a player he reminded me of with his style of play.

Norwich played but some nice tippy-tappy football but rarely threatened our goal, mainly due to the way we defended as a team, and their prolific goalscorer Teemu Pukki had barely a kick. I was impressed with Todd Cantwell in the Norwich midfield. The loss of Zimmerman was a blow to the visitors following a heavy challenge from Haller, but in my opinion it wasn’t as bad as Farke was suggesting. The referee didn’t blow for a foul even (which he should have done), but I’ve seen players booked for similar challenges but it certainly didn’t warrant any more than that.

The referee, Paul Tierney, was a poor advert for his profession in my opinion. He waved away three penalty appeals, one of which was so cast iron it was laughable that he didn’t give it. What was even worse is that VAR is now in existence, but somehow the referee working behind the scenes somehow missed it too. It seems to me that after the early (over) use of VAR which should only be used to correct decisions which are clearly and obviously wrong, it has now gone the other way, and they are perhaps under instruction not to get involved at all!

By the end of the weekend the league table (still early days of course) showed us in seventh place with seven points, which is seven more than we had after the first four games heading into the international break a year ago. If we can just match our performance of the last campaign in the remaining 34 matches, then we would finish on 59 points, which last time around would have been enough for a seventh placed finish. Of course I am hoping we can do even better than that but I am not going to get too carried away, despite the fact that we have only lost one league game since unluckily going down 2-1 at Old Trafford on 13th April, winning five and drawing two of the eight games played in that time, only losing (as almost everyone does) to Manchester City.

The two teams we have beaten this season (Watford and Norwich) now sit in the relegation places, and we face the third member of that club on Monday evening when we travel to Villa Park in front of the TV cameras. Villa had an impressive win against Everton (2-0) but were unlucky when their late “equaliser” at Palace was incorrectly ruled out by a referee blowing his whistle for a dive which was subsequently shown to be a clear foul on Grealish. Quite how it can be suggested that our referees are high on the list in the world in terms of their ability is beyond me I’m afraid. I’ve seen little evidence of that this season despite them supposedly getting help from VAR. Villa’s other defeats came on the opening weekend at Tottenham, and then at home to Bournemouth who haven’t pulled up any trees themselves so far this season.

The betting for this match is very even with West Ham the fractional favourites to win at around 6/4, with Villa around 8/5, and the draw about 5/2. A win would see us moving on to ten points from five games, with an average of two per game. This would relate to 76 points over the course of a whole season! Wouldn’t it be good if we were looking at achieving those kind of figures, which of course we won’t, but it’s good to dream isn’t it?

I would anticipate that the manager would start with the same eleven that began against Norwich, but he often throws in a surprise or two, or somebody picks up a late injury which we don’t know about. But I am confident that he won’t change it this time. A point away from home is always good, but I am hoping for three in a narrow victory, perhaps 2-1? I enjoy Monday Night football on TV when we are away from home. But is there a way of keeping the sound of the crowd but removing the commentary and punditry at the same time? I wish there was.

Who Will Cut The Mustard In West Ham Versus Norwich Goalfest?

The Hammers look to build up a head of steam with successive league wins and an improved London Stadium performance.

Last weekend I was able to sit through the Norwich versus Chelsea match immediately prior to own game at Watford.  Both games were remarkably open affairs with all four teams seemingly prepared to throw caution to the wind.  While West Ham weathered the Watford storm at Vicarage Road and finished much the stronger side, Norwich started their game on top but fell away noticeably for most of the second half.

The results left both clubs in the cluster of clubs sitting on four points who will be looking to build on their solid starts to the season.  With only Liverpool boasting a 100% record and only Watford still to register a win the table has an unusual look about it.

Daniel Farke has created an amazing transformation during his two seasons at Norwich taking them from the lower reaches of the Championship to division champions on a shoestring budget.  When you are a newly promoted club and your marquee signing in the transfer window is Sam Byram says it all.  It will be interesting to see how their season pans out compared to big spending Aston Villa – the two clubs had been relegated together at the end of the 2015/16 season.

Much of the early season buzz at Carrow Road has surrounded Teemu Pukki, whose 5 goals from 3 games has him leading the charge for the Golden Boot.  Pukki is an interesting character having experienced an uninspiring early career (including a very mediocre season at Celtic) before kicking on at Brondby and then at Norwich.  From what I have seen he demonstrates excellent movement and will be a handful for whichever central defensive partnership he comes up against at the London Stadium.  If they can keep him away from Delia’s pies it could be a very influential season for the Finn.  Another player to look out for is Todd Cantwell who looks to be an excellent prospect based on his performance against Chelsea, particularly in the first half.  Seems a bit unfair but they also have Spiderman playing in midfield.

Both teams have been involved in EFL Cup ties since last weekend.  West Ham negotiated a tricky visit to South Wales to face Newport County while Norwich crashed out against Crawley Town.  Premier League teams continue to gamble that their much changed teams have enough to edge past lower league opposition.  Manuel Pellegrini won his gamble whereas Farke did not.

All things being equal I would have expected West Ham to start this weekend’s game with same team that was on the pitch once Michail Antonio replaced Andriy Yarmolenko.  However, an injury to the unlucky Antonio has sidelined him for a while.  The options would be to persevere with Yarmolenko or call in one of Pablo Fornals, Robert Snodgrass or Jack Wilshere.  My concern that more than one of Mark Noble, Snodgrass and Wilshere at any one time reduces the average pace to snail level.  I can’t begin to guess what Pellegrini will go for.

West Ham will have plenty of opportunity to show their attacking qualities but they will also have many Norwich attacks to repel.  The Canaries like to get their full-backs forward to provide width and this could easily expose the Hammers lack of numbers in those areas if the attacking wide men do not put in a defensive shift.

When the two teams met in 2015/16 season both games ended in 2-2 draws – Cheikou Kouyate scoring an injury equaliser at Upton Park and the Hammers coming back from two goals down at Carrow Road.

This weeks real and virtual referees are Paul Tierney and Andre Marriner respectively.  An interesting aspect of VAR is that it hasn’t really overturned many actual decisions made by referees.  Rather it has become a mechanism to review each goal for technical infringements and as a backstop offside checker.  It can’t be long before offside is totally automated, just like the goal-line technology, with the referee receiving a ‘beep’ in his ear each time a forward strays offside.  After all it is a simple case of applying and measuring clearly defined rules – there is no subjectivity to it as with handball.

Everyone will be expecting the game to be a high scoring extravaganza.  I was considering opting for a 7-5 home win to claim the record for the highest scoring Premier League game (Portsmouth 7 Reading 4 in 2007) but instead will go against the flow and predict West Ham to win 1-0.

West Ham are visited by the Canaries this weekend. Who will be singing on Saturday evening?

I’ll start with a couple of quiz questions. Question One – Name the only two teams that didn’t manage to win one of their first three Premier League games this season? Answer – Watford are one, the other team are Wolves. Question Two – Name the four teams in the Premier League that haven’t lost a game this season? Answer – Liverpool and Manchester City (inevitably), Leicester, and Wolves (again). So Wolves haven’t won a game and neither have they lost one. Is it better to win one and lose two games, or to draw three in a row? Of course the goals scored, and goals conceded, makes that question difficult to answer in respect of league position, but psychologically which would you prefer? The reality is that the points attained are the same in both scenarios.

The early league table after just three matches is an interesting one. Of course it doesn’t mean a lot yet, but the team in fifth place is on four points, whereas the team in 19th place is on three points. Close then. After our opening day 0-5 reverse with two away games to follow, most of us would have been happy to be one of the teams sitting on four points at this stage, albeit at the bottom end of those because of our goal difference. Ten teams have the won one, drawn one and lost one tag, and on paper I guess we’d like to believe that we can move up to seven points after this weekend’s fixture, the last before the international break! The season has barely started and we are having an international break already. For those who don’t like to see such disruption to the domestic fixtures I’ll remind you of the breaks to come. After this one (7 September) we have the second break on 12 October, the third on 16 November, this season also sees a winter break in February 2020, and then a final international break on 28 March. I’m not a fan of these continual breaks to the season, but it looks like they are here to stay.

One paper I read described Norwich as a breath of fresh air, and if they meant by that there are a lot of goals in their games (at both ends) then it is a fair description. After an opening 4-1 defeat at Liverpool, they beat Newcastle 3-1 before going down 3-2 to Chelsea last weekend. 14 goals in three games exceeds any other team in the division, and in Mr Pukki they have the leading goalscorer in the Premier League with five goals, an excellent outcome for those who (like me) selected him in their Fantasy Football squads. The goals have been well taken, and we will do well to keep him quiet on Saturday. Our own Mr. Haller opened his account with two well taken strikes at Watford as well, so with 25 goals scored in the six games involving Norwich or West Ham this season, we can look forward to an open, entertaining game. From the West Ham viewpoint, the “naturally gifted midfielders” who merely jogged back leaving our defence exposed when Watford scored their goal last week, must add the need to defend to their repertoire, rather than thinking solely of attack.

Of course it makes for an attractive game when both teams eschew their defensive responsibilities, but if we wish to progress then this is one aspect of our game (which those of us who follow West Ham have known for ages!) that must improve. We were very fortunate when Hughes somehow contrived to miss the target from about a yard out, and if we’d gone 2-1 behind then the outcome might have been very different. But he did miss, and Haller’s well-taken two goals meant a well-deserved first win of the season. I thought that the introduction of Antonio was a key factor in the win, and surely he had done enough to start this weekend? Until the game at Newport of course! The injury jinx is beginning again. Yarmolenko will take time to get up to speed after his long lay-off, and at this stage of the season he needs to be eased in gently. Personally I cannot understand how or why Ogbonna is keeping Balbuena out of the team either, but for some reason that is the case.

The TV people believed that we were an obvious choice for an upset in the League Cup last Tuesday, and that is why we were chosen for the televised game. Sorry TV, but we spoiled your fun as for once we didn’t lose to a “giant-killer” as we have done so many times in the past sixty years I have been following the team. But until Jack Wilshere scored we always looked as though we may concede a goal. It was as interesting as ever to read some West Ham forums after the game to get a diversity of views of our fans. Of course it’s a game of opinions, but some of our fans have some wildly differing views which provide me with some amusement.

“A professional performance.” “We were c**p.” “Never in doubt.” “Lucky to win.” “Sanchez was our man of the match.” “Sanchez is dog****”. “Roberto looked a good keeper.” “Heaven help us if Fab gets injured.” – Just eight excerpts to demonstrate my point.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the Watford game, but in the end it was a highly entertaining open match. I am looking forward to the Norwich game, however, and even have a bit of a soft spot for them. But only when they are playing other teams of course. My prediction – I reckon we’ll come out on top of a highly entertaining, high scoring game, 4-3.

A Newport State Of Mind: The Fans Expect, Can Pellegrini Deliver?

A whole bunch of banana skins with potential have been seen heading for South Wales tonight. A strong West Ham side with the right attitude will be needed to keep them away.

West Ham enter the Carabao Cup fray this evening with a second round tie against League 2 Newport County at their Rodney Parade stadium.  Arguably, the League Cup is the most winnable competition for teams outside of the rich six, but it remains a feat that has been beyond the Hammers during its 50-odd year history.

Many supporters would happily trade a few Premier League positions for a decent cup run but owners and coaches have tended to take a different view – unless you go all the way the financial reward is not high.  Nevertheless, apart from those with a realistic shout at a top four finish (or those concurrently committed to European competition) it is difficult to understand why the competition would not be taken with utmost seriousness.

With a long history of embarrassing cup exits to lower league team under their belts, including the recent memory of an FA Cup exit to AFC Wimbledon last season, West Ham would be foolish to take tonight’s game lightly.  In truth, the team fielded at Wimbledon should have easily been good enough to win the match and so attitude and proper preparation is equally important.

The most recent meeting with Newport County was one of those cup shocks when the Welsh side beat a John Lyall West Ham team that included Trevor Brooking, Billy Bonds, Alan Devonshire and Alvin Martin, That was a 1979 FA Cup third round tie at Newport’s old Somerton Park ground which Lyall regarded as one of his worst nights of his managerial career.  The Hammers famously won the FA Cup in the following season while Newport went on to win the Welsh Cup in the same year.  Both teams made it through to the Quarter Finals of the 1980/ 81 European Cup Winner’s Cup where they were each eliminated by the eventual finalists.

Things took a turn for the worse after that for Newport and they were forced to go out of business in 1989.  The club was reformed and embarked on a nomadic existence around the lower leagues before regaining league status in 2010.  Under current manager, Mike Flynn, they have recorded some notable cup upsets including wins over Leeds, Leicester and Middlesbrough and earning a creditable draw at Wembley against Tottenham, before losing in a replay.  They are unbeaten in this season’s League 2 campaign and will go into tonight’s game with little to fear and nothing to lose.

This will be no easy ride for Manuel Pellegrini’s side.  He may well want to rest a few who might be carrying knocks or try out a number of fringe or youth players but there is no room for complacency.  Maybe it will be an opportunity for recent signings Albian Ajeti and Gonçalo Cardoso to play a part; or perhaps some of Ben Johnson, Conor Coventry and Nathan Holland will be included in the squad.  Pellegrini cannot afford to make too many changes or take anything for granted.  A committed, disciplined and professional performance is required if further embarrassment is to be avoided.

It will be a tough test.  The TV executives obviously sensed the chance of an upset by selecting the tie for live broadcast.  I can’t see there being many goals but am hoping that, in the end, West Ham’s extra class will ultimately prevail over Newport’s determination.

Last Among Equals: Haller Brace Earns West Ham First Win – Takeaways And Player Ratings

The embryonic league table has an unusually condensed look to it. What can we learn from the Hammers first win of the season that sees them joining a host of ten clubs sitting on four points?

The Will Of The People

Looking back at the game from the final whistle, West Ham looked to be worthy winners.  Despite Watford’s greater shot count, the Hammers were the more creative and carried the greater goal threat throughout 90 minutes.  It was a remarkably open game from the start with neither side concerning themselves too much about the art of defending.  Great to watch in many ways and would fit many observer’s definition of the West Ham way.  As usual, West Ham surrendered possession easily and allowed Gerard Deulofeu far too much space and time.  Fortunately, on this occasion, he was unable to deliver much in the way of end product to round off his trickery.  The pivotal moment in the match was the glaring miss by Will Hughes just before the second half drinks break.  I have seen worse misses (when players have the ball under control) but had he converted, as he should, the rest of the game would have played out differently. West Ham grew and Watford faded from that point on.

The Return Of The Skipper

Mark Noble made a welcome return to the West Ham midfield for his first appearance of the season.  On the 15th anniversary of his West Ham debut, it was fitting that he was able to get on the scoresheet early when converting a 3rd minute penalty – following a definite foul on Manuel Lanzini but which didn’t warrant the Argentinian’s theatrical interpretation.  The goal takes Noble up to 43 Premier League goals (25 from the spot), now only 4 behind West Ham’s leading PL scorer, Paolo Di Canio.  Otherwise, he had a steady rather than a spectacular game; perhaps not surprising after a longish lay-off and curtailed pre-season.  Despite his shortcomings, he remains the best option available to play alongside Declan Rice.  The captain was seen lambasting his forward colleagues for making no attempt to track back in the lead up to Watford equaliser but his remonstrations did little to change behaviour for the rest of the game.  As I have mentioned previously, the defensive responsibilities of forward players must be enforced on the training ground, not by the captain on the pitch.

Haller Off The Mark

It was great to see Sebastien Haller grab two goals to open his West Ham account.  Have we finally got ourselves a real striker; one who is also prepared to work hard for the team?  His second goal was particularly pleasing, and hopefully the first of many to celebrate throughout the season.  Interesting to read that he didn’t feel that he had the greatest of games himself.  Maybe he would liked to have contributed more in open play but that will come once greater understanding is developed with those around him.  There was a lovely piece of improvisation in the first half when Andriy Yarmolenko headed back across goal, but his backheel flick didn’t have sufficient power to worry the Watford keeper.  Apparently, when Haller scored he caused West Ham to become the first club to reach the milestone of 150 different goalscorers in the Premier League.  Seems we are great at sharing  the goals around – just not that many from any individual player.

Masterful Substitution?

Depending which way you look at it, the decision to start with Yarmolenko rather than Michail Antonio was either a shocking selection or a tactical masterstroke.  Yarmolenko is clearly a talented footballer, with a great touch, but a long injury absence has meant he has yet to prove himself in the rigours of the English game.  Having both Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson playing on the wing of their weaker foot is an odd tactic; preventing full use of the pitch as they invariably cut back inside rather than attempting to get behind the defence.  The one time that Anderson got to the bye-line (following excellent work from Arthur Masuaku) ended up with the cross for the first Haller goal.  Once Antonio was introduced, his power and direct approach added a whole host of problems for the Watford defence – he made a real match-winning difference.  The debate will no-doubt continue as to whether the poor defensive shape is down to personnel or the way that Manuel Pellegrini sets up the team.  Could Masuaku or Angelo Ogbonna have done better to prevent the Andre Gray goal, or was the damage done when the 4 forward players made no attempt to win back possession?

An Unusual League Table

League tables this early in the season are fairly meaningless but it is interesting to see so many clubs with identical 1-1-1 won, drawn and lost records, sitting on 4 points.  The heavy opening day defeat to Manchester City means that West Ham are last of the clutch of the 10 teams in that position (technically tied last with Chelsea with whom we also have an identical goals for and against).  A little different this season is that after 3 games, only Liverpool have a 100% win record and that only 4 teams remain unbeaten, including Wolves in 15th place.  No surprise that Liverpool and Manchester City occupy the top two positions and there is nothing to suggest that the league will be anything other than a predictable two horse race.  Defeats for Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham (very ordinary when the want-away Eriksen is not in their side and no doubt Pochettino is already dusting off his CV) must give encouragement to any teams who is organised and talented enough to chase a top six place come the end of the season.  If West Ham are to be one of them they cannot afford to be so open in the middle of the park.

Player Ratings

Fabianski (7), Fredericks (6), Ogbonna (6), Diop (7), Masuaku (7), Rice (8), Noble (7), Anderson (6), Lanzini (7), Yarmolenko (5), Haller (8) Subs: Antonio (8), Fornals (6), Sanchez (6)

Saturday Night’s Alright: West Ham Must Come Out Fighting To Secure Elusive August Win

Another slow start to the season for West Ham. Manuel Pellegrini asks for patience but where are the signs of improvement?

With an unlikely August Bank Holiday heatwave on the cards, authorities have issued an Amber Alert warning with a forecast of high pressure, soaring temperatures and raging thirsts.  If anything, it sounds like a typical August match day afternoon for hot-under-the-collar West Ham supporters, as the Hammers seek to register a first league win from ten attempts in the opening month of the season – the last August success being the first ever game at the London Stadium in 2016.  To make matters worse, the Met Office are advising those at risk to avoid self-medication with copious quantities of alcohol.

Today’s encounter against Watford at Vicarage Road brings together two of the Premier League’s eight winless clubs.  Both will have pencilled in the fixture as another opportunity to kick-start their seasons.

Manuel Pellegrini has urged supporters to be patient as he searches for to find the right blend from a squad that appears very talented on paper but has failed to deliver yet on the pitch.  It is difficult to know, though, what level of tweaking in formation and personnel the manager has in mind.  After all, he has only effectively brought in two new players – one a direct replacement for the departed Arnautovic and an additional attacking midfielder.  Given that he is firmly rooted in his 4-1-1-3-1 formation, and there was no new recruitment in defensive areas, his options look somewhat limited.

The elephant in the room remains central midfield where, despite 80% of supporters (made up statistic) regarding further defence minded resources as a priority, the manager and coaches did not agree.  Unless there is an ideal free agent out there somewhere, we are stuck with what we have got for the time being – which is a choice of Mark Noble, Jack Wilshere or Robert Snodgrass to fill the gap.  Not a great deal of pace between them, but at least all are meant to be fit and available to play today.

I am sure we all love the skipper for the commitment he has given the club during his long career – he made his first West Ham appearance 15 years ago today.  However, his contribution to the team reaches mythical proportions whenever he has a period of absence.  Many will cite his leadership abilities but there have been just as many feeble performances when he is in the team as when he isn’t.  Having said that, I would still have him as pick of the available bunch for that role.

As to the more advanced positions, the challenge is to select three from Manuel Lanzini, Felipe Anderson, Pablo Fornals, Michail Antonio, Jack Wilshere and Robert Snodgrass to form an effective unit behind (the hopefully fit again) Sebastien Haller.  Of the Three Amigos (Lanzini, Anderson and Fornals), Manuel Lanzini has to be a definite starter and one of the others has to give way as collectively they are too similar and do not offer enough physically.  I think Pellegrini will stick with Anderson if he is considered fully fit.  Antonio has been one or our better players so far this season and would feel himself very unlucky to be on the bench again.  If I were picking the team I would be looking at Wilshere as a candidate for a more advanced role.  He is at his most dangerous there either picking out a killer pass or pulling off a quick one-two.  Whether his body is up to the challenge is another matter.  I don’t see Pellegrini going with that though and would guess at the following starting eleven:

WATWHU3

At the back, all fingers and toes have been kept cross since last weekend that Fabian Balbuena will be back in place of Angelo Ogbonna.  I don’t foresee any change to Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku at full-back who are also needed to provide width in attacking situations.

As important as who is selected to play will be evidence of a better overall tactical effort and level of commitment.  This is my biggest gripe with Pellegrini right now.  It is quite clear that we offer opponents wide open spaces to attack either through the middle of midfield and down the flanks; while the supposed creativity to fashion goalscoring opportunities at the other end has been poor.  What are they doing on the training ground to address these deficiencies?  Yes, it is early season but I have yet to see any other team in the league that is slower, less compact or as careless in possession.  It shouldn’t be a case of looking for a leader on the pitch to stick to a plan, it should be something that is drilled into the players at Rush Green.

Having read reports online from the U23’s winning start to the season they have been playing a high intensity, pressing game and have even arranged additional matches to sharpen fitness.  This is all very admirable but at the same time rather odd in that it is so different from how the first team plays.  Modern football is fast, athletic and physical; all are ranking below average for the Hammers from current available evidence.

Watford, like the town itself, are pointless and goalless.  Manager, Javi Gracia, might have to give up any thoughts of collecting his Watford long service award unless he can remedy the long barren run that goes back to their FA Cup semi-final win.  What better opportunity, however, for a team down on its luck and looking for a boost in confidence than to come up against West Ham.  And remember, Watford have won more Premier League matches against West Ham than they have against any other team.

Today, the Hornets will be missing talisman striker (and their own leader) Troy Deeney but have several very exciting players in their ranks including Roberto Pereyra, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Gerard Deulofeu (a frequent thorn in West Ham’s side).  Great things are also expected from the pacey Ismaila Sarr, who could well make his debut this afternoon.

Today’s on-pitch referee is Chris Kavanagh from Manchester while his video counterpart is Jarred Gillett who is apparently from Australian where he has been VAR-ing since 2017.  What are the chances of a match free from VAR controversy?

Our favourite TV pundits are united this week with both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas predicting a 2-1 Watford win.  I did dream in the week that West Ham won the game 2-1 but before you dash off to the bookies to cash in on my premonition I should tell you that the goalscorers were Jack Wilshere and Paul Kitson – perhaps it was a West Ham Invalids XI.  I am struggling to find any optimism for a positive outcome from the game.  Having predicted two wins so far this season, it is time for caution.  We always find Watford to be tough opponents and even without Deeney they may prove too physical for our rather lightweight and fragile outfit.  In the circumstances, coming away with a point would be a decent outcome: 2-2!

West Ham visit bottom of the table Watford. Can we win our first game of the season or will we be stung by the Hornets?

There’s something about games against Watford that I don’t really like. Perhaps it is my memory of games against them in recent times where our record is not as good as I would like it to be. Perhaps it is the way they play. Perhaps I still haven’t got over 2016-17 when we led 2-0 in our first season at the London Stadium and then gifted the game to them 4-2 with some defensive howlers. I can’t really put my finger on it for certain, but it is never a game that I particularly look forward to.

I recall last season when they visited us at the London Stadium shortly before Christmas. We dominated the game but Balbuena gave away a penalty after half an hour, and injured himself seriously in the process. I remember Deeney slamming the penalty into the net, going to the corner flag and punching it, and taunting our fans, which led to a chorus of boos and expletives aimed in his direction. I don’t think he is the most popular of players! Foster, in the Watford goal, played a blinder, Antonio had two headers against the woodwork, and then Deloufeu wrapped the game up a few minutes before the end. Before the game we were level on 24 points with them (having given them a 12 point start in the first four games of the season), but their victory took them up to 7th in the table, whilst we fell to 12th.

We had to wait until the final game of the season for the return fixture. Before the game, Watford were on 50 points and we had 48. Of course, the match was just six days before the FA Cup Final where they were due to be thrashed by Manchester City, although they didn’t know it at the time! Perhaps they weren’t fully committed to our game, and we duly ran out 4-1 winners.

There were some odd goals in the game, Noble scoring with his left foot from open play, and then Lanzini scoring a header, both very rare occurrences. We led 2-0 at half-time but straight from the re-start Deloufeu pulled a goal back. But two minutes later Holebas was sent off for a fairly innocuous foul on Antonio when he was clean through on goal, a punishment that would have meant him missing the Cup Final, had it not been subsequently rescinded. With around 20 minutes to go Arnautavic scored his last goal for West Ham before Mark Noble wrapped the game up with a late penalty. The result meant that we leapfrogged the Hornets to claim 10th place and a top half finish. Ironically the season before we had finished 13th while they were 14th just a point behind. So our records in the past two seasons have been fairly similar.

Moving on to this weekend’s game, then we go into the fixture just one point apart once again. After the thrashing from Manchester City we collected our first point last week with an uninspiring draw at Brighton, who had surprisingly beaten Watford 3-0 at Vicarage Road on the opening day. Watford themselves left Goodison Park in their second game with a 1-0 defeat, meaning that they prop up the table with nil points. Of course it is early days, and the league table will change in the weeks to come no doubt. Having said that, most of the usual sides are already filling most of the top places after just two games.

I have written about VAR and some of the rule changes in previous articles and will no doubt return to them in later ones. Without returning to those subjects in detail this week, suffice to say we actually benefited from VAR last week when a Brighton goal was ruled out by an offside decision which was only marginally more offside than Sterling was the week before. Still, offside is offside, and based on the current rules, which I don’t agree with by the way (as I described at length last week) then VAR meant that the correct decision was reached, which enabled us to hold on for a point, and not join Watford at the foot of the table.

And what about the new handball rule? Is it right that if a forward accidentally handles it in the opposing penalty area in the lead up to a goal then the goal is disallowed? While on the other hand the boot is on the other foot if a defender accidentally handles the ball in his own penalty area, then it is not a penalty. Crazy I reckon, and I’ll return to this topic in later articles too. What it meant was that Spurs gained an unjust point. And from that match did you see the foul on Rodri which was one of those cast-iron penalties that surely VAR would have spotted? But nothing happened. Amazing!

VAR, the system that was supposed to put an end to controversy is creating more controversy than ever! I read somewhere this week that the officials behind the implementation of VAR reckon it will take ten years before the issues surrounding VAR are sorted out! Ten years! Ten years! Get a move on. I’ve already nailed my colours to the mast saying that I am strongly in favour of the VAR system, but they are really making a hash of the implementation aren’t they, not helped by the other ridiculous changes (mainly handball) to the laws?

Returning to this week’s visit to Watford then I would expect the game between these two out of form teams to feature as the final game on Match of the Day (again! – come on MOTD I want to go to bed earlier!). I’m hoping that we do enough to win, but one thing is for sure. Watford have yet to score a goal this season, and that is just the kind of statistic where teams know it will end because they are facing West Ham in their next game. Providing our manager doesn’t come up with another team selection that baffled so many of us last week, then with the return from injury of our expensive signings, I reckon we can repeat last season’s result at Watford, albeit in a much closer game. The bookmakers have Watford as even money favourites to win the game, with a West Ham win, or the draw, both in the region of 5/2. Let’s hope they have got it wrong.