West Ham Face Manchester United In Sixth Place Six Pointer Show Down

A pivotal game as two of the wannabe Champions League qualifiers slug it out at Old Trafford

A week is a long time in football. Last weekend I felt quite bullish about West Ham’s prospects of being in the mix for a top four finish. But all of sudden we look like the outsiders among that chasing pack of Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and ourselves. And that is without looking over the shoulder to see Wolves coming up fast on the rails.

If I was deceptively seduced by a run of three wins against Watford, Palace, and Norwich, the performance last Sunday against Leeds was a timely reality check. In an almost action replay of the Southampton loss, we clawed our way back into the game twice, only to invite the visitors to score again rather than seize the initiative. A team with dreams of the top four (or even the top six) cannot afford to regularly drop points to bottom half opponents such as Brentford, Southampton, Palace, and Leeds.

In truth, it feels like the team peaked in the win over Liverpool, even if victory over Chelsea came after that. It’s not that the effort isn’t still there but the swagger and belief look to have gone. The team have gone stale to my mind, desperately needing fresh ingredients to liven things up.

Ironically, given the emphasis by most supporters on striker reinforcement, the problem has not been scoring goals, but in conceding them. No team below West Ham in the table has scored more, but only Leicester in the top half have let more in. Today’s opponents joining the Hammers on thirty goals conceded.

The injuries to Angelo Ogbonna and Kurt Zouma have certainly been a major factor in the defensive malaise.  While the backup of Craig Dawson and Issa Diop felt sound enough in theory (and coped admirably in the Europe games) they are weak as a Premier League pairing. Has that vulnerability rubbed off to others in the team? For Vladimir Coufal and Aaron Cresswell also had stinkers last Sunday.

As usual the January transfer window has swollen in the cold weather and won’t open properly – our manager bashing his head against the glass like a frustrated bluebottle. A can of WD40 will hopefully fix the problem for the remaining days. It’s not really a surprise that the nature of the window condenses all activity into the final hours. Selling and buying clubs try not to be the first to blink in the run up to the Manic Monday one-day sale. Maybe Jesse Lingard will finally turn up at the London Stadium – it would never have happened before today’s game.

I sort of understand David Moyes attitude on transfers although he does have a reputation for being overly cautious. There are only finite funds, and any incoming players mustn’t be the type to upset the very happy camp that has been created. At this time of year, we also need players who can make an immediate contribution on the pitch. Not ones who require six months to adapt and settle into the pace of the Premier League. Despite a flurry of late summer business, Zouma is the only regular addition to last year’s preferred eleven. The same shouldn’t be allowed to happen again.

There is speculation that Zouma will return today although that might just be wishful thinking. The hosts strength is their attacking prowess and West Ham will need to show greater defensive resilience if they are to get anything from the game. Zouma’s return would be at the expense of Diop and there could well be another defensive change at right back. Coufal has been below par for some time and would be lucky to retain his place over Ben Johnson – Johnson the better defender in my opinion.

Tomas Soucek should also return to his rightful place alongside Declan Rice, a partnership will be pivotal to any Hammer’s success. It may mean a more forward role for Manuel Lanzini who will be in competition with Pablo Fornals and Nikola Vlasic to play in the attacking midfield three along with Jarrod Bowen. After a promising show against Norwich, Vlasic was another to have a shocker against Leeds. Michail Antonio completes the line-up and it would be a good day for him to rediscover his early season touch.

Is there any chance of more imaginative use of substitutions from Moyes? I wouldn’t hold your breath. I don’t know anything about Xhaka yellow cards but fareastbettingscams.com have an 83rd minute Yarmolenko substitution as odds-on. Why else would you bring him on?

Manchester United have a litany of reported injury and other absences. The unlikely list of possible doubts includes Pogba, Ronaldo, Cavani, McTominay, Sancho, Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka, and Shaw. Expect at least half of them to be ready and available.

The Ralf Rangnick revolution has never really got going at Old Trafford. Early optimism having given way to yet another false dawn with an increasingly petulant squad. They really have wasted a ton of money over the years on a bunch of overpriced prima donnas, reinforcing to some extent Moyes policy of paying attention to the character of new signings.

I’ll admit to not be very confident about today’s game, although the mood will improve if I see Zouma’s name on the teamsheet. The league cup win at Old Trafford in September was a distraction from a winless streak that goes all the way back to the great escape of May 2007. Another slow start could prove disastrous – an early home goal potentially opening the floodgates. On the other hand, it is the type of game that better suits our counter attacking preference – as long as we can keep it tight at the back. Lacking any true conviction, my prediction for what is a very unpredictable match (if that makes any sense) is 2–2. COYI!    

Can West Ham return to winning ways with the visit to Old Trafford?

After three successive wins in the Premier League game number 22 proved to be a copy of game number 18 from just three weeks before. 3-2 home defeats to teams in the lower half of the table (Southampton and then Leeds) may prove to be costly in the final reckoning next May in our quest once again to infiltrate the top four. Of course there is still a long way to go, but the results this week from the teams chasing us has moved them ominously closer to our current points total and they have games in hand. But if a Premier League season was the London Marathon then we have only just crossed Tower Bridge. There is still a long way to go to reach the Mall.

Although we have retained fourth place for now with 37 points from 22 games, the chasing pack have had games postponed and, as a result will be able to play those with refreshed teams, perhaps even bolstered by recruits in the transfer window later in the season. We, on the other hand have fulfilled our fixtures without resorting to asking for games to be called off. I do wonder if some of the teams have pulled a bit of a fast one here? I reckon they’ve got away with it too. But what can you do? We’ve just got to get on with it.

The top of the table now has three distinct sections. Manchester City are already virtually assured of being champions with an almost unassailable 11 point lead over Liverpool, who are jockeying with a Chelsea team that have faltered in recent weeks for second place. Then another gap before us in fourth but Tottenham now only trail us by one point and have three games in hand, Arsenal are a further point away with two games in hand, as are Manchester United with one game in hand. Perhaps even Wolves in eighth place will feel they are in contention as they trail us by six points but have played two games fewer. The games where this cluster of five clubs play each other take on added significance beginning with this Saturday’s game at Old Trafford. We face Wolves at the London Stadium before the end of February too.

Our points per game average still has us on course to reach 64 points by the end of the campaign (just one fewer than last season). The disappointment of home defeats to Brentford, Southampton and Leeds are water under the bridge now, and we need to look ahead, get players back from injury and COVID (especially Zouma and Soucek), Benrahma back from AFCON, and perhaps there is a chance for the players to regroup, take a breath, and perhaps regain a little of form that has been lost through tiredness or whatever? It’s good to see academy players on the bench. Wouldn’t it be good to see them on the pitch when (late) substitutions are made rather than the predictable Yarmolenko or Masuaku who (to me) add very little when they are introduced?

I wonder if there will be any recruitment before the end of the window to add a little freshness to the squad? I won’t hold my breath on that one – we’ll just have to wait and see. There’s an industry that has built up on social media and you can read about so many players that we are apparently interested in. 99 per cent of it is total rubbish. I am just hoping for a last day surprise or two that will add to the mix of very good players that we already have.

After the Manchester United game we don’t face league opposition again until Tuesday 8th February when Watford are the visitors to the London Stadium (It’s Round 4 of the FA Cup next weekend at Kidderminster). It would be great to come away from Old Trafford with a win but avoiding defeat and picking up a point against one of our rivals near the top would be a more than useful result.

As one might expect we are the outsiders with the bookmakers with the home side slightly odds on to win the game. The draw is priced around 14/5, and an away win at around 3/1. I’ll go for a 1-1 draw. What are the chances?  

Bullseye Bowen Braced For Back to Back Bonanza As West Ham Face Leeds Once Again

Super, smashing West Ham aim to stay on target against Leeds to show Arsenal and Tottenham what they could have won.

First there was the tactical foul and now we get the tactical postponement. Clubs hoodwinking officials to get games called off until the circumstances are looking better for them to play – taking one for the shareholders, as it were!

The latest miscreants are Arsenal who have pulled out of the scheduled north London due to a Covid epidemic sweeping through the Emirates – and infecting one player. A virus of convenience that will allow the game to be rescheduled at a time when injured players, those away at the AFCON, and any additional January signings are available to play. There is great deal of irony that it is Tottenham complaining about the postponement, given they were early adopters of the Covid get-out clause. It’s the equivalent of Fernandinho campaigning against the professional foul.

A raft of postponements has produced an unbalanced Premier League table with some clubs now having racked up three or four games in hand. While the Hammers will be fully up-to-date at the end of Matchweek 22, their other fourth place rivals remain well behind the curve.

Putting on my claret and blue tinted spectacles for a few moments. Imagine a West Ham victory today which would take them to 40 points from 22 games – safe at last! By comparison: Arsenal have 35 from 20; Tottenham 33 from 18; and Manchester United 32 from 20. A pessimistic view would be that games in hand might be won allowing both North London clubs to leapfrog the Hammers and push us down to 6th. Of course, that can’t actually happen when they are due to play each other.

In reality, though, the teams in our mini-group are averaging around 1.75 points per game, making points in the bank all the more attractive. A return of 1.75 ppg would bring Arsenal up to 39, Tottenham to 40 and Manchester United to 36. All very close and encouraging – and that ignores the extent of the wobbles that might be breaking out at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, now that the title has turned into a predictable one-horse race.

For any of that to make sense, West Ham must play their part and brush past Leeds at the London Stadium this afternoon. The scenario where you play a team in the league immediately after you have knocked them out the cup usually worries me. It is one of those unwritten football superstitions, like a striker returning to score against his old club, where the beaten cup-side exacts revenge on their erstwhile victors. Hopefully, shoehorning the Norwich game in between will have served to break the curse.

It was a fairly routine win over Norwich which could and should have been more convincing. I didn’t think the visitors were as hopeless as some naysayers have claimed. They played some neat football in central areas but were let down by lapses at the back and a lack of a cutting edge up front. You can see why they are struggling although yesterday’s win over Everton would have given them a much needed boost.

Jarrod Bowen is the man of the moment at West Ham and his brace of goals added to a growing reputation both inside and outside the club. There is much to admire in the skill, effort, and energy he brings to the team. He is a player who never gives up and never hides – whether it is chasing back or getting forward to create goalscoring opportunities. A better goal return with less shots of him, head in his hands, after another near miss would be a perfect bonus. I am looking forward to more of his goals today.

I was also impressed with the fluidity showed by the attacking midfield trio of Bowen, Pablo Fornals, and Nikola Vlasic. It looked a lot less rigid than previous combinations with plenty of positional interchange. It will be interesting to see how it works against better sides than Norwich.        

Also encouraging was the selection of academy players sitting on the bench in midweek. Just a shame that none were brought on once the second goal was scored.  What was the point of a few more minutes of Yarmo? From watching U23 highlights online I have been impressed by the contribution of one of the benchwarmers, Pierre Ekwah. Looks to me that he is destined for a big future in the game. Having said that, I have been wrong about academy players many times in the past!

Leeds are hovering above relegation danger but don’t look to be in any real trouble. A bad run of injuries has made it a disappointing season for the Yorkshire club after their thrill-a-minute return to the top-flight in 2020/21. They continue to have a lengthy injury list and will be without several key injured players, as well as having Llorente absent due to suspension. It is possible that Bamford may return from injury although reports are mixed on that likelihood. The biggest threat to the Hammer’s defence will again be posed by the runs of Raphina.

Marcelo Bielsa is regarded as something of a guru inside football, but I do wonder whether his style of play has a limited shelf life unless he is open to adapt and refine. It will also be a question on David Moyes mind as opponents become familiar with the Hammers strengths of rapid counter attacking and set pieces. The guile to break through massed defences is still below par, although that is unlikely to be a worry for this afternoon.

The West Ham line-up will likely be much the same as it was in midweek. There are mooted returns for Tomas Soucek and Kurt Zouma but they may be put on hold until next week at Old Trafford. This makes the Hammers way too strong for a weakened Leeds with West Ham going on to win 3-1. COYI!   

Can West Ham extend their winning sequence when Leeds visit the London Stadium for the second time in a week?

When I write these articles for Under The Hammers I often refer to current form and relate this to the last five league games played by the sides in the Premier League. The positions in the league table don’t always reflect the latest five games, but at the moment they are a very good guide, although Chelsea’s recent glut of draws (4 in the last 5 games) puts them at the bottom in respect of the current form of the top 7 in the league, despite remaining unbeaten in those matches.

What I’ve done is divided the league table into three sections; the top 7, the middle 7, and the bottom 6, and looked at the points that each team has accrued in the last 5 fixtures. The present position in the league appears in brackets, although this can be a little misleading in view of the disparity in numbers of games played following the postponements for COVID in the last few weeks.

Top 7: Manchester City 15 (1); Arsenal 12 (5); Tottenham 11 (6); Manchester United 10 (7); West Ham 9 (4); Liverpool 8 (3); Chelsea 7 (2)

Middle 7: Brighton 8 (9); Southampton 8 (11); Wolves 7 (8); Leicester 7 (10); Palace 7 (12); Brentford 6 (13); Villa 6 (14)

Bottom 6: Everton 4 (15); Leeds 4 (16); Newcastle 4 (19); Burnley 2 (18); Watford 0 (17); Norwich 0 (20)

The situation can change of course, but at the moment it looks as though the top 7 will fill the top 7 places at the end of the season, the ‘middle’ seven will finish between 8th and 14th, and the bottom 6 will stay there. Current form doesn’t indicate a great deal of change from that.

Leeds are the visitors for the second weekend running after we comfortably beat them 2-0 in the FA Cup third round last Sunday. We followed this up with a fairly straightforward 2-0 win over bottom club Norwich in midweek to make it three league wins in a row, to keep up our challenge at the top. We’ve now won four games in a row in all competitions since the unfortunate 2-3 reverse against Southampton on Boxing Day, and Leeds didn’t show too much last week to suggest that they can stop us making it five if we are anywhere near our best. The interesting thing is that I don’t believe that we have been playing that well in those games, but we have still been winning. That’s the sign of a good team I reckon.

If Zouma has recovered from his injury I would expect him to take his place in the team straight away, replacing Diop, who to me has looked half a yard off the pace in recent games. Assuming Soucek is still out I would expect the starting eleven to be Fabianski; Coufal, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell; Rice, Lanzini; Bowen, Fornals, Vlasic; Antonio.

If Soucek returns then who would miss out? Vlasic has impressed me in recent games and I would expect him to retain his place. Similarly Lanzini who appears rejuvenated as of late, and of course Bowen is the man of the moment, so perhaps Fornals would be the one to drop out, although he, like Johnson at full back has done little wrong to be out of the starting eleven.

The transfer rumour mill continues apace but nothing concrete yet, and I don’t tend to believe anything until I see the incoming player holding up the claret and blue shirt and crossing his arms. We all know what areas need strengthening if we are to maintain our challenge in the Premier League, the FA Cup and Europe. David Moyes knows and the board do too, and I believe (hope) that they will support him if the right players are identified.

We’ve scored 13 goals (2,4,3,2,2) and conceded 6 (3,1,2,0,0) in our five games played since Christmas, an average of almost four goals scored by the two teams in every game in that period. I see little reason why our recent record cannot be maintained and look forward to our third 2-0 win in a week in this game.

The West Ham games to follow Sunday’s game against Leeds are:

Saturday 22 January – Away v Manchester United

Saturday 5 February – Away v Kidderminster (FA Cup Round 4)

Tuesday 8 February – Home v Watford

Sunday 13 February – Away v Leicester

Saturday 19 February – Home v Newcastle

Saturday 26 February – Home v Wolves  

I wonder how well we will do, and what position we will be in at the end of February with the European fixtures kicking in again in March? The game at Old Trafford is an important one against one of our key rivals at the top, and then three of our next four league games are at home. Those league games are all winnable but who knows how we will do?

The FA Cup game at Kidderminster comes 50 years to the day after that famous giant killing with John Motson’s Match of the Day commentary recorded for posterity when Hereford upset Newcastle 2-1 on Saturday 5th February 1972. Of course we put paid to the giant killers in the next round when we beat them (but only after a replay), but 2 years later Hereford were once again giant killers when they knocked us out of the FA Cup in 1974! I wonder if they will wheel John Motson out of retirement to commentate on our game at Kidderminster?

It’s interesting to note that all English Premier League clubs will have a week off at the end of January (despite the backlog in fixtures) for a new national team break that FIFA has created specially to help clear the backlog of World Cup qualifying games outside Europe. There will be no Premier League games after the weekend of January 22/23 until they resume with midweek games on February 8. This pause in fixtures is being taken despite European national teams not playing. The Premier League have confirmed that they will not allow league games to take place during the break despite the domestic backlog. Surely this will increase the backlog later on in the season? Or am I missing something?

The Top Four Beckons Again: West Ham To Extend New Year Winning Ways By Clipping Canary’s Wings

Games don’t come much easier than this on paper. But Hammers must avoid complacency to see off the challenge of struggling Norwich on the London Stadium pitch.

It is odd that West Ham have been selected as one of only a handful of clubs to play a re-arranged fixture in the immediate aftermath of the FA Cup weekend. Not sure who has the final say in agreeing to these revised schedules but I can’t believe that David Moyes will be too chuffed that the game against Norwich has been shoehorned in between two testing Leeds fixtures. After all, this was our only cancelled match while others have three or four yet to fit in. Moyes will be fuming rather than buzzing, as the headlines like to say.

That said, a win today would put us right back into the top four, albeit having played extra games over rivals: Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. The bookmaker’s have the Hammers as clear outsiders from that group for finishing top four at the end of the season. That is no surprise, and it is probably no bad thing to fly just below the radar. The final placings may well be heavily influenced by what each club does in the remaining days of the transfer window. While I would back our ‘best’ eleven against those of the competition, our reserve depth is the weakest by some distance.

Hopes for early additions to the squad have been well and truly managed during the early days of January. Only Newcastle have been willing to spend recklessly and indiscriminately so far. That doesn’t stop the rumours coming thick and fast, though, as we have been linked with a host of new players.

We have all become transfer news clickaholics to some degree. We know we shouldn’t do it, but surely having one last look at the latest link won’t hurt, will it? As long as it is treated as entertainment, you are on safe ground. It really is pointless having a meltdown at the club about a transfer target that has been made-up by some bloke on the internet.  That way madness lies!

We just need to put our trust in those in charge. To believe that the bid-preparation team at the London Stadium are working overtime. The manager’s wish-list by their side and the keys to the transfer war-chest hanging on the hook by the door. In the coming days, swoops will be made, cash will be splashed and resolve will be tested. Targets will be prised away as wantaway strikers are snapped up with long-term deals penned before they are torpedoed by other clubs.

It has been the ritual of transfer windows since ancient times. As Shakespeare wrote in his short unpublished play, West Hamlet, “thee hamm’rs might not but maketh a raid f’r that gent who hast issu’d a cometh and getteth me plea, lest thine mast’rstroke be scupp’r’d by the hotspur

On paper, at home to Norwich has to be the easiest game on the entire fixture list, although nothing can be taken for granted. Prior to their weekend FA Cup win at Charlton the Canaries had lost five consecutive league games, conceding fourteen and scoring none in the process. Their last point was a 1-1 draw with ten-man Newcastle at the beginning of December.

The change of manager from Daniel Farke to Dean Smith has made little difference to results. A desire to play enterprising football without being prepared to invest in the squad is a hopeless rinse and repeat strategy. It is very difficult to see them escaping relegation this year even if one from themselves, Newcastle, Burnley, and Watford will ultimately survive. It would be no surprise, though, if they yo-yoed back up again for the 2023/24 season.

As is normal these days, final team selection is left to the mercy of positive Covid tests. West Ham will again be without injured defenders Angelo Ogbonna, Kurt Zouma and Aaron Creswell, although the latter two are reportedly on the cusp of a return. Said Benrahma is also missing in action at AFCON having come on as an 83rd minute substitute, and missed a ‘golden opportunity’, in Algeria’s scoreless draw with Sierra Leone yesterday. However, Vladimir Coufal may well be available again, as is Pablo Fornals.

I’ve a feeling Moyes will stick with Nikola Vlasic rather than recall Fornals. Vlasic has started to show some decent touches lately and looks to have developed a good understanding with Manuel Lanzini. Could there finally be a league start for Alphonse Areola? He deserves a chance even if Lukas Fabianski has done little wrong. Areola does look to command his box better. I doubt Moyes will go for it, though, and my predicted line-up: Fabianski, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Vlasic, Antonio.

Norwich have a number of injury and sickness concerns including highly rated Chelsea loanee, Billy Gilmour and the out if favour, Todd Cantwell – Cantwell looked to be a real prospect on Norwich’s previous foray in the top flight but his start has faded and is now angling for a move elsewhere.

West Ham completed the double over Norwich in the 2019/20 season and the same should be expected this time around. Complacency is the biggest danger. Moyes must ensure the team are well prepared and do not make one of their occasional sluggish starts. All being well, I foresee a comfortable 3-0 win. COYI!  

West Ham’s FA Cup Wilderness Years And The Meaning Of Life: The Answer Is 42

It’s FA Cup weekend as West Ham face Leeds as hopeful fans dust off the claret ribbons and dream of parading along Wembley Way in May

Third round day in the FA Cup has long been one of the most eagerly anticipated dates in the footballing calendar. A day when top tier teams enter the mother of all cup competitions. A chance for lower league sides to pull off a shock win and for those clubs who rarely feature among the honours to dream of finals and silverware.

In its 150-year history, forty-three different clubs have won the FA Cup. Arsenal and Manchester United lead the way with fourteen and twelve wins respectively. West Ham are sixteenth in the list of all time winners with three wins to their name, the same as Sheffield Wednesday and one behind Bolton, Wolverhampton and Sheffield United. Two more wins and we catch up with The Wanderers, who have held the trophy five times.

I have been fortunate enough to attend two victorious Wembley finals (1975 and 1980) and a thrilling but ultimately unsuccessful one in Cardiff (2006). The wins have given meaning to a long and often frustrating West Ham supporting life. The most recent win is forty-two years ago now. It was a wonderfully sunny Saturday in May 1980 when the Hammers triumphed over Arsenal through Trevor Brooking’s early headed goal. It remains the last time a team from outside of the top division won the competition.

In the years since that momentous achievement, West Ham’s record for FA Cup exits is as follows: 3rd round (12 times), 4th round (12), 5th round (7), 6th round (8), semi-final (1) and final (1). In the last ten seasons they have only made it as far as the 6th round on one occasion (2016). During those ten years, the Hammers have been eliminated by Manchester United three times and by Manchester City and AFC Wimbledon once each. The Wimbledon defeat one of the regular banana skins that have come the Hammer’s way – Hereford, Grimsby, Torquay, Wrexham and Tranmere among others.

The cup has been increasingly dominated by just 5 big clubs (not you, Tottenham) in recent years. In the Premier League era, only Everton, Portsmouth, Wigan, and Leicester have interrupted that dominance with a single win apiece.  

No chance of a giant-killing this weekend however as West Ham face an all Premier League clash with Leeds United. Although the Hammers record in top tier FA Cup encounters is not impressive, having won just one of their last nineteen.

This is the first time the two teams have met in an FA Cup tie since 1930, when the Hammers ran out 4-1 winners at Upton Park, all four goals scored by Vic Watson. Watson must have enjoyed facing Leeds as the previous season, he had scored six times in an 8-2 first division rampage. What we could achieve with someone like West Ham’s all-time leading scorer in today’s side.

Leeds fans have to go back even further back for an FA Cup final win. Their one and only success being the centenary final, fifty years ago, in 1972 – coincidentally, also a 1-0 win against Arsenal with Allan Clarke netting the only goal.

The big unknown, as ever in modern cup competition, is how the two managers approach the game. How to balance the supporter’s love of a cracking cup run with the demands and rewards of Premier League success. A situation made more intriguing by the fact that the teams meet again in the league next Sunday. An additional challenge for David Moyes being the re-arranged game against Norwich on Wednesday evening.

West Ham will once again be without Kurt Zouma, Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell, while Said Benrahma is now away at the AFCON. There will perhaps be starts for Mark Noble, Nikola Vlasic, Alphonse Areola and maybe one or two of the academy hopefuls by way of rotation. Leeds also have a lengthy list of absentees and although Patrick Bamford is close to a return, he is unlikely to be risked in the cup game.

There will be no replays in the 3rd or 4th rounds this season with games going straight to extra time and penalties, if needed. VAR will feature in all games played at Premier League stadiums. The referee is Stuart Atwell while Peter Bankes is at mission control, Stockley Park.

Until the teams are known predicting the outcome is even more of a lottery than normal. I will go for 3-3 after extra time and West Ham to win on penalties. COYI!

The Sparkle Is Back As West Ham Prepare For New Year Fireworks At Selhurst Park

Declan Rice returns to bolster West Ham’s position in the Premier League top six. Let’s hope there is no New Year’s hangover – and no more dodgy VAR decisions

It was fantastic to see West Ham get back to winning ways on Tuesday, even if it was against a woefully disorganised Watford outfit. The Hornet’s generosity with space in midfield space and an accomplished performance from Mark Noble was more than enough to compensate for the absence of Declan Rice. It is difficult to understand what Ranieri is attempting to do at Vicarage Road, but he might not want to unpack all his belongings just yet. For such an experienced manager his team’s approach was naïve and shambolic.

Unfortunately, erratic officiating once again played a far too dominant role in proceedings. Darren England and Jonathan Moss are the latest candidates in a long line of festive comedy double acts. How the challenge by Tomas Soucek prior to Jarrod Bowen ‘goal’ was deemed to be a clear and obvious error, I’ll never know – and how far back in play are they supposed to go in the search of a misdemeanour? And how the referee initially gave a corner after the keeper’s foul on Bowen was baffling. The most comical decision of the night, however, was the foul given against Michail Antonio when he was shoved by the Watford defender into one of his teammates.

The quality of refereeing in the Premier League continues its downward trend. It is a clear and obvious problem for the authorities to address. To be fair, who in their right mind would want to become a referee given the abuse they are likely to get when starting out at grass roots level. Perhaps, it’s why only those with psychopathic tendencies make it all the way through. Why we end up with those who crave the limelight; when good refereeing should be mostly about going unnoticed.

The victory at Watford increased the Hammer’s final tally of league wins in 2021 to 22. A record year by all accounts, and providing a 53.7 win percentage in the league and 54.7% in all competitions. Well done to the manager and players!

In the long held tradition of new year lists, here are my top three bubbling moments of 2021:

  • The pulsating and nail biting 3-2 home win against Liverpool to end their unbeaten run and lifted us into third place in the table
  • The 3-1 swaggering away victory at Aston Villa on Jesse Lingard’s debut
  • The 4-1 win over Leicester in August which hinted that the previous season might not just be a flash in the pan

The most depressing or frustrating moments:

  • The disappointing 3-2 defeat at Newcastle in April – Craig Dawson’s reckless sending off and recovering from a two-goal deficit only to be suckered by a late Newcastle winner
  • Defeat at home to a newly promoted agricultural Brentford side, courtesy of a poorly defended last-minute header from an unnecessarily conceded free-kick  
  • The late Noble substitution and last gasp penalty miss that gifted Manchester United all three points in September
David Squires – The Guardian

My top players of 2021 – Rice, Soucek and Bowen

There has been a changing the guard at today’s opponents Crystal Palace as the ageing legs and dull mediocrity of Roy Hodgson’s legacy starts to be dismantled. How the noisy (some might say irritating) Holmesdale Ultras managed to get so excited by the football equivalent of elevator music is both astonishing and to their credit.

Under the guidance of Patrick Viera, the Eagles (or Glaziers as I used to know them) are slowly transitioning into a more youthful and enterprising unit.  It has allowed them to establish a comfortable mid-table position and become less reliant on former talisman, William Zaha – who now spend most of the game disputing everything and getting increasingly angry.

Viera still has a tough job on his hands if the team are to become anything more than perennial survivors. There is plenty of dead or dying wood to shift (Ward, Tomkins, Kouyate, Ayew and Benteke) while it must be a worry that his best player is on loan from Chelsea. Gallagher was man of the match in the return fixture earlier in the season and one of few opponents who has manage to disrupt Declan Rice’s ascendency.

As with all games these days, final line-ups will be subject to results of late Covid tests. Today will also be the last opportunity before selected players pack their bags and set off for the African Cup of Nations. West Ham will lose Said Benrahma while Palace will go without Zaha, Kouyate and Ayew.

All being the well, the single West Ham change from the team that started in midweek will be the return of Rice at the expense of Noble. It will be interesting to see how the Rice/ Soucek dynamic plays out after the Czech’s more influential and advanced role at Vicarage Road. If David Moyes can achieve optimum balance between Rice’s forward drives and Soucek’s late runs, it would prove formidable.

This is a game that usually has plenty of goals in it. The last time the Hammers failed to score against Palace was 16 games ago – Fat Sam’s West Ham going down 1-0 at Upton Park in April 2014. In the 15 matches since there have been a total of 50 goals scored. It wouldn’t be any great surprise to see the new year’s honours being shared today, but with my optimistic hat on will go for a 2-1 away win. If that does happen, it will be only the host’s second home defeat of the season. COYI!

Mid-term report as West Ham make a trip to the Palace

If the season had gone to plan with no postponements due to COVID then Boxing Day should have signalled the mid-point of the Premier League season. However the fixture at home to Norwich on 18 December was called off, so we didn’t complete our 19th game of the 38 match season until last Tuesday when we comprehensively beat (what I thought was) a poor Watford team by four goals to one, our third win by that score in the first half of the season.

Normally one would expect that in the first half of the season a team would play against all the other 19 teams first and then play the reverse fixtures in the final 19 games. This season that hasn’t happened, partly because of the postponement of the Norwich game, but also because the fixtures scheduler arranged for us to play against Southampton twice before we faced Watford. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this (perhaps something to do with Christmas?) but the fairest way for a season to be arranged is surely to play all 19 opponents first and then start again with the reverse 19 matches. In years gone by it wasn’t always the case, but in recent seasons it has. In any event we have reached the halfway stage having played nine games at home and ten away, though we have yet to face two games against bottom club Norwich.

We enter 2022 in a very creditable fifth place in the table, although two teams below us could go above us if they won games in hand (Tottenham and Manchester United). Nevertheless with the injuries that have piled up in key positions in the past month, most of us would have been more than happy to have reached the mid-point of the season where we are.

On the basis of league table positions alone, we have faced much tougher fixtures at home than when on our travels. The nine teams we have played at the London Stadium are currently in the following positions in the league (2,3,6,7,9,10,11,13,14) which has an average of 8th. Ironically we have managed famous victories against four of the five highest placed visitors, but on the other hand have failed to beat the four lowest placed teams with draws against those in 10th and 11th, and home defeats against those in 13th and 14th. Our home record is therefore 4 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats.

Our travels have taken us generally to teams lower in the league at this stage (1,4,8,12,13,15,16,17,18,19) which has an average of 12th. We have lost the 3 games against the teams in the top half, but are unbeaten against the 7 teams we have faced from the bottom half of the table (5 wins and 2 draws). Our overall away record is therefore 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats.

Of course the second half of the season will be in reverse with tougher fixtures away from home and easier games at home based upon the current standings. Of the remaining 10 games at home, 6 of them are against the current bottom 6 teams, and only Manchester City and Arsenal are from the top 7. What we must do is match last season’s performances against the weaker teams. I would like to think that we could win up to 8 of these games, and then it would depend upon our performances away from home to see our final finishing position. 31 points from the second half of the season to match the 31 from the opening 19 games would result in 62 points, which is exactly what Tottenham managed last season finishing 7th. We finished 6th of course with 65. So much will depend on the injury situation (particularly in defence positions), whether we can pick up two or three exciting acquisitions in the forthcoming transfer window, winning home games against teams below us in the table, picking up valuable points on our travels, and the unknown effect that COVID might have in the next few months of the season.

Exciting times ahead – my prediction is for 34 points from our remaining 19 games to end the season on 65 points, an exact match of last time, and hopefully a place in the top 6 once again.

Of course I’ve only looked at the league so far, and in a week’s time we will begin our FA Cup campaign at home to Leeds. We have to wait until March for our resumption in the last 16 of the Europa League. I hope that we can go a long way in both of these competitions too. We performed so well in the EFL Cup with very difficult draws, and the loss to Tottenham came at a time when injuries had hit us hard.

Transfer rumours are already underway. I’d like to see a couple of left sided defenders (perhaps a left back and a centre back comfortable on the left) both with pace. For me the pace is important.  And also an out and out goalscorer would be more than useful; in fact a necessity if we are to maintain our challenge on all fronts. Personally I’m happy with the players we have in midfield. I wonder if it will be possible to unearth the players we need in these difficult times? We seem to have a very promising crop of Academy players at the moment, and we can hope that one or more will break through too at the top level.

Which brings me to the game against Palace. First time around the game ended 2-2 at the London Stadium in our third game of the season in August. The impressive loan signing from Chelsea, Gallagher, scored twice as Palace came from behind in that game. They have had a decent start to the season and sit comfortably in mid-table. Their highlight was an unexpected 2-0 win at Manchester City who are once again having an excellent season on top by 8 points at this stage.

Palace are one of the teams where the draws column exceeds both wins and losses. Their figure of 8 draws is equal to Burnley and Newcastle and exceeded by only Brighton and Southampton with 9. They have a decent goalscoring record with 27 goals putting them equal 7th in the Premier League at this stage. They haven’t failed to score at home since being held to a goalless draw against Brentford in August.

I have a feeling that they will struggle when the African Nations Cup comes around in January as a number of key players will be lost to that competition. But that’s in the future and their current form of 7 points from their last 5 games is equivalent to our own.

We are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at around 13/10, with Palace at 2/1 and the draw about 12/5. A 2-2 draw to match the reverse fixture is around 14/1, but my forecast, a 2-1 Hammers win comes in at around 17/2. These are the games we would love to win to maintain our challenge for the top 6. What are the chances? A Happy New Year to all readers of Under The Hammers; let’s hope for three points for a great start to 2022!

Hesitant Hammers Hoping For Upset In Hornet’s Nest: Moyes Won’t Be Buzzing

Can West Ham arrest their recent slump against an injury hit and rusty Watford? Or will Dennis prove too much of a menace for the tentative Hammer’s defenders?

Football has long been a game of binary emotions. A run of victories and it’s euphoria. Consecutive losses and it’s a disaster with calls for heads to roll. Our view of individual players lurches from world-class to rubbish over the course of a few weeks. Managers are either buzzing or fuming and supporters can swing effortlessly from ecstasy or outrage in the time it takes to post on Twitter.

There’s no doubt that West Ham are having a major wobble right now. On cloud nine after defeating Liverpool, the team has never really recovered from the international break that followed it. The sparkle and swagger that was shaped during a four-game winning run mysteriously disappeared, even if there was a win over Chelsea in the interim.

The Boxing Day game was arguably the worst West Ham performance for many months, particularly in the first half. It was an odd team selection by David Moyes although his decisions not to name Ben Johnson and Michail Antonio in the starting line-up may have been due to fitness concerns. I think many of us were stunned that Arthur Masuaku had kept his place at left back. But the Hammers recent woes are not all down to Arthur’s erratic interpretation of full-back play. We have seen equally poor performances from Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma. Even the usually reliable Vladimir Coufal has been well below par.

There have read various online theories about the Hammer’s downturn. From doom merchants proclaiming that Moyes has lost the dressing room as opponents have rumbled his dinosaur tactics. To pundits suggesting it has been a Europa League inspired burn-out. Personally, I think it is almost entirely down to the successive injuries suffered by Angelo Ogbonna, Kurt Zouma and Aaron Cresswell. That and the inadequate depth in the squad, other than as emergency cover, that has shattered the confidence and created indecision in our play. Any team that relies on Andriy Yarmolenko as its impact substitution is going to be found wanting.

Which direction the season goes from here will be dictated by how quickly the wounded recover, and what reinforcements (if any) arrive during the transfer window. If I were the manager, I would be banging on the boardroom door for an additional centre back, left back, attacking midfielder and striker. I would want players ready to hit the ground running and I would want them as soon as the window opens, not in the final hours before it closes. It is a strange idea that a player might spend the first year of a three-year contract just to settle in.

As we reach the final game of the calendar year, we should not forget that 2021 has been a very positive period for the Hammers. In 40 Premier League games, there have been 21 wins and seven draws earning a total of 70 points with a goal difference of 19. It is a tremendous achievement given the relatively modest resources. Maybe the return can be improved further after the Watford fixture.

The added dilemma for Moyes today is the one match ban picked up by Declan Rice following a clumsy and unnecessary challenge against Southampton. I believe Moyes will opt for Mark Noble as Rice’s replacement given that Alex Kral has yet to experience a single Premier league minute. He may well get the final 15 or 20 today, though. Johnson must replace Masuaku as the only probable change at the back. In the midfield attacking positions I imagine we will see Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini and Said Benrahma. While Nikoli Vlasic was no worse than Fornals or Benrahma on Sunday it is still difficult to see what his game is all about. He did look fitter and stronger this time, but I have yet to see what attributes he has to justify the large transfer fee?

Watford have not played since losing at Brentford on December 10 – West Ham have played four games since then. They have several players still missing through injuries and Covid including the potentially dangerous Sarr.  The Hornet’s most impressive player this season has been Dennis with seven goals and a handful of assists to his name in the Premier League. There is also King who can potentially be just as irritating to West Ham as a Hornet as he was during his earlier career. The makeshift Hammer’s defence will need to remain on full alert.

Until recently, my opinion was that VAR was having a far better season. Though it now seems not to have been happy with its much lower profile. I still don’t get how the Dawson foul was a penalty against Southampton. Dermot Gallagher says it was a good call as the foul continued into the box. That’s a new interpretation on me and I look forward to seeing similar and consistent awards in the future. Would it have been given to an away side at Anfield, for example? Added to the other Dawson incident at Molineux and the Coufal penalty against Arsenal, and we see that VAR has done us few favours.

West Ham need a win, any sort of win, to begin rebuilding confidence. On paper a visit to an injury hit Watford is as good a time as any to turn the corner. Watford have looked a poor side and have lost their last four league games. There is little likelihood of Ranieri qualifying for a long service award at Vicarage Road – although he will see this as a winnable game. West Ham of old were the ideal opponents to put an end your winless streak against – as Southampton did on Sunday.  Hopefully, we won’t fall back into those bad old ways.

A scrappy 2-0 win will do for me. COYI!

Wish We Was At Home For Christmas? Injury Hit Hammers Hoping To Nick It Against Saints

There’s Boxing Day fare at last at the London Stadium. Who will shake off the Christmas hangover first as West Ham take on Southampton?

They have become a collector’s item in recent years, but finally West Ham prepare to host their first Boxing Day home game since 2013 when they face Southampton at the London Stadium this afternoon. It will be an opportunity for the Hammers to reinvigorate a faltering injury-hit spell that has exposed the inadequate squad depth that most of were already aware of.

In the Boxing Day fixture of 2013, West Ham took a second half lead through Carlton Cole against high-flying Arsenal only to concede three times as the north Londoners ran out 3-1 winners. A defeat that left the Hammers struggling in 19th place in the table. The two-goal hero for the visitors that day was Theo Walcott who may well feature in the visitor’s line-up today. The West Ham team, under the management of seasonal ‘jovial’ fat-man Sam Allardyce, was as follows: Adrian, McCartney, Tomkins, Collins (Rat), O’Brien (Demel), Jarvis, Nolan, Noble (Taylor), Diame, J Cole, C Cole

For a West Ham Boxing Day victory, we must go back a further four years to 2009. With the elf-like Gianfranco Zola in the hot seat, West Ham beat bottom of the table Portsmouth by two goals to nil – an Alessandro Diamanti penalty and a late header by nobody’s favourite Czech, Radoslav Kovac. The Hammers all-star line-up was: Green, Faubert, Tomkins, Upson, Ilunga, Collison, Kovac, Parker, Diamanti (Behrami), Noble (Jimenez), Franco (Nouble)

Today will be the fourth time West Ham have come up against Saints on Boxing Day. In 1983, a goal by Danny Wallace was enough to give Southampton (who would finish the season as runners-up to Liverpool) the points at Upton Park against John Lyall’s rebuilt side: Parkes, Stewart, Lampard (Donald), Walford, Martin, Devonshire, Orr, Cottee, Whitton, Brooking, Dickens

In 1968, it was honours even at The Dell when two goals by Geoff Hurst (one from the spot) was enough to earn a 2-2 draw for Ron Greenwood’s side: Ferguson, Bonds, J Charles, Cushley, Stephenson, Moore, Redknapp, Boyce, Hurst, Lindsay, Peters

The only West Ham Boxing Day win came in a 1935 Division 2 clash at The Dell with the Hammers winning 4-2. The game was a return fixture with the two sides having played out a no-score draw at Upton Park on the previous day.

Injuries will play a key part in today’s game. The long-term absences of Angelo Ogbonna and Kurt Zouma are well documented but mystery surrounds the fitness of Aaron Cresswell’s back. Internet rumours suggest that he will be missing for some time and is certainly not likely to feature today. One positive coming out of Wednesday’s Carabao cup exit, however, was that Vladimir Coufal was able to serve his one match suspension. He and Ben Johnson will fill the full-back slots with Craig Dawson and Issa Diop filling in between. A defence that was once as hard to crack as a Brazil nut now looks highly vulnerable. An uncertainty that appears to permeate throughout the team.

Sadly, the Covid virus and all its variants have not issued a Christmas truce and the number of players missing the game through positive tests will not be known until the teams are announced. Michail Antonio is a reported non-starter and the social distancing enforced by his absence of goal celebrations might yet turn out to be a positive if he has not infected any team-mates. Several online previews are predicting Andriy Yarmolenko to lead the line in Antonio’s absence. I hope that is not the case and that Jarrod Bowen is given the job following an impressive midweek performance – we need Dasher rather than Prancer! This would allow only a second Premier league start for Nikoli Vlasic.

The visitors also have injury concerns of their own. Adams and both the Armstrongs have been long term absentees while Forster may return in place of Caballero in goal. Chelsea loanee Broja is a likely starter having shown that his running can unsettle the Hammer’s backline when he came on as substitute in the game at St Mary’s in September.     

The game might easily be billed as the out-of-form derby. West Ham have just one win from the last six fixtures while Southampton have not tasted victory in any of their last six. The Hammers have won the last four home games against Saints, scoring three times on each occasion. A repeat would be most welcome if momentum is to be regained. It is needed to boost the top six ambitions that many of us have now developed. It was perhaps inevitable that the hectic schedule would eventually reveal just how thin the squad is for a team hoping to compete for honours. It was very bad luck to lose two quality centre backs but everyone knew about the lack of cover at striker and left back. Both need to be addressed early in the transfer window if the season is not to fizzle out with the new year fireworks.

Today, I think we will scrape through 2-1. COYI!