Nobody Said It Was Eze: West Ham Momentum To See Off Workmanlike Crystal Palace

A chance to leapfrog Chelsea and reclaim their place in the top six is the target for the buoyant Hammers as they entertain a competent but uninspiring Eagles at the London Stadium

It was immensely satisfying to see West Ham come away from Elland Road with three points at the weekend. Away wins in the north against energetic opponents have rarely formed part of Hammer’s folklore. One of the most pleasing outcomes of the season so far.

Despite a creditable run now of excellent performances my default setting, when things are going well, is still that it is only a matter of time before the wheels eventually fall off. Conceding an early penalty, twice-taken would easily have knocked the stuffing out of West Ham of old – making the gutsy comeback all the more impressive. Interesting that VAR can detect a keeper a few millimetres off his line but not a ball that is two metres out of play.

If there was any criticism from last week’s game, it was that the score-line should have been even more conclusive. According to Sky Sports, we have had more shots on goal in the last five games than any other team in the division. A higher conversion ratio would be lovely.

It was an honest and enjoyable game to watch, without any of the cheating and diving that so often taints Premier League games. Full credit to both teams for that. I like Bielsa’s approach to the game which makes for entertaining viewing. I don’t believe it is a myth surrounding him, as some have suggested. I’m sure they will survive the season with plenty to spare, and return even stronger next year. Managing a promoted team and becoming established at the top level is not an easy task.

I’ll admit that David Moyes surprised me with his team selection for the game. I expected an attempted like for like swap when news broke that Arthur Masuaku would be side-lined for several weeks. Reverting to four at the back was the last thing I expected, but it worked a treat. Amazing what confidence can do for a player’s performance and Aaron Creswell slipped back into the left back role as if it was 2015 all over again.   

The added bonus in the game was the full debut of Said Benrahma and his Playmobil hair style. What a player he looked on that evidence. He excelled both going forward and in fulfilling his brief to cancel out the threat from Kalvin Phillips.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of the same from him in coming weeks, providing the outlet in midfield that has been missing for so long, and the enticing ability to run directly at defences. 

I’m fairly certain that it will be the same starting eleven once more for tonight’s game with Crystal Palace. Frustrating as his is, I don’t see any viable way of leaving Sebastien Haller out until Michail Antonio’s return. Haller has represented extremely poor value for money, but he is not as bad or as disinterested as some make out – we have had far worse. Suggestions of playing Benrahma in the striker role just seems plain crazy – putting him in a position he is not cut out for, while at the same time removing his threat from midfield.   

By historical standards, the Hammers have been relatively ‘lucky’ with injuries this season, perhaps a reflection of improved overall fitness levels. This is just as well, really, given there is little to get excited about on our bench. Some honest pros but no game changers or exciting prospects that can be used for reliable squad rotation. The danger of player burn-out or exhaustion is a real one as the season unfolds if no further recruitment is forthcoming.

With the January transfer window just around the corner, there are two possible approaches the owners can take. One, spend some money to strengthen the weaker areas of the squad with a view to sustaining a European challenge. Two, rest on their laurels now that relegation appears to be the most remote of dangers and keep their hands in their pockets. I wonder which one it is likely to be?

Player trading under the new post-Brexit foreign transfer rules agreed between the FA and Home Office will bring about changes to player recruitment. It will be interesting to see how these pan out in reality, but no surprise if they end up favouring those richer clubs able to afford signing established internationals.

Squad rotation is not such a big issue for Roy Hodgson at Palace as with the exception of Zaha (and now Eze) most of his squad are much or a muchness. Whenever, I have seen them this season they have looked fairly ordinary, but then something has happened to turn the game in their favour – the Bamford VAR offside vs Leeds, and the red card vs Albion, for example. Last weekend, Spurs looked like they would run away with the game but a trademark Mourinho lack of adventure, once they had gone ahead, allowed Palace to rescue a point courtesy of a Loris goalkeeping error.

In the past it has been a case of stop Zaha and stop Palace, but the signing of Eze has added a different dimension, both from open play and set pieces. Eze was one of many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer, and it will be interesting to see him on the same pitch as Benrahma.

I am relying on another Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek masterclass to steer the Hammers to victory, leapfrogging Chelsea in the Premier League table. It will be refreshing to look down upon Chelsea for a change when we face them next week.

Of course, we have been here before with Palace. Last season a win would have seen Pellegrini’s team climb into third place, but despite taking the lead they contrived to lose 2-1. Instead, it was the beginning of the end for the Chilean with a return of just seven points from twelve games.

I’m feeling supremely confident today and more than ready for an early Christmas present. The Irons to romp home as seasonal 3-0 winners.  

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?

West Ham Aim To Bite The Legs Of Not So Dirty Leeds

Moyes West Ham look to bounce back from last week’s defeat as they take on Bielsa’s much admired and far more cuddly Leeds United – no longer everyone’s most hated team.

Dirty and Leeds are two words in the English language that effortlessly belong to each other, like heavy traffic, rich history or strong coffee. Collocations they are called. There are also others that we have become intimately acquainted with over the past few years: white elephant; broken promise; and expensive flop, to name a few.

The dirty Leeds tag goes back a long way, to the Don Revie side of the 1960s and 70s, but it has been difficult to shift, at least in my mind – similar perhaps to the concept of the ‘West Ham way’ under Greenwood and Lyall. So entrenched was the dislike of Leeds that their financial woes and fall into the third tier of English football during the noughties was largely greeted with a sense of schadenfreude.

Revie’s Leeds team contained had some exceptionally talented individuals, but their playing style was often characterised by bone-crunching tackles and unrestricted thuggery. It was a perfect fit with the stereotypical view of the typical no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and was eminently successful – delivering a clutch of league titles as well as domestic and European cups.

Quite what the temperamental modern-day footballer would make of the game back then – shuddering challenges, quagmire pitches, lambchop sideburns, jumpers for goalposts – can only be imagined. Along with the terraces, such agricultural tactics were consigned to football’s history many years ago, as the game rebranded from full bloodied confrontation to slick TV friendly marketing event. No doubt, many of the changes were out of necessity and for the better, but by no means all of them.

Just as we have seen the demise of the tackle from behind and the pass back to the keeper, there is now a possibility that there will come a time when heading the ball is also prohibited. It seems implausible right now but could it happen? The physical side of contact sports is under increasing scrutiny and the recent focus on ex-players with brain disease, together with the threat of litigation, might well lead to changes in the rules. A further VAR check for accidental head-ball after each goal is scored, perhaps.

Moving on to tonight’s game, and West Ham will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of the Manchester United defeat last Saturday. Looking eminently comfortable and good for another win during the first hour of the game, everything changed when the ‘wind of God’ turned a wild clearance that had clearly gone out of touch into an assist for the assister. The Hammers earlier profligacy, their decision (by then) to sit back and protect the lead, and the introduction of Bruno, all leading to our eventual downfall. When the equaliser went in, all momentum was with the visitors.

With Michail Antonio once again absent tonight it will be a sub-optimal West Ham who take on Leeds at Elland Road. With our best starting eleven, there could, at least, be a hope of challenge the top six – but on a depth of squad basis, we are no better than mid-table. I wonder what the January sales will bring, if anything?

When I originally drafted this article the only potential change I could see for this evening was the popular call from supporters to start with Said Benrahma in place of Pablo Fornals. A test of David Moyes attitude to risk. Fornals to provide the off-the-ball hard work to counter the energy of Leeds; or Benrahma to offer the absent creative spark that could test the vulnerable and further weakened home defence. With Fornals proving so ineffective on the ball in recent games, I expected Benrahma starting to be the only change. However, the news that Arthur Masuaku is now unavailable raises a new set of questions.

I don’t envisage Moyes tinkereing with the formation even though the current setup does have a lopsided look. The pairing of Aaron Cresswell and Masuaku had compensated well for the absence of a specialist left back – but with Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena operating mostly in the centre, it exposes an over-worked Vladimir Coufal on the right. While Jarrod Bowen offers excellent support it is not his primary role. It compromises his attacking threat, especially in the latter stages of games, when he is clearly exhausted. To my mind, Ben Johnson as a replacement for Arthur feels like the least disruptive option.

Elsewhere, I see no alternative to Sebastien Haller continuing to deputise for Antonio.

Leeds under Bielsa are this season’s maverick side, and the best equipped of the three promoted teams to prosper. El Loco is one of the game’s characters and his high-octane style of play is geared to providing goals and entertainment. It is a far cry from the Revie days and quite possibly the most flamboyant thing to come out of Yorkshire since its eponymous pudding. Leeds have something of a defensive injury crisis at the moment, but we can be certain that whoever plays, will not be lacking in effort.

Patrick Bamford is key to the Leeds attacking threat, not just for his goals but also for his movement and ability to create space for others. In his various loan spells from Chelsea as a youngster, it looked like he had the makings of a top class talent, before apparently losing his way at Middlesbrough. He has now found a perfect niche in the Leeds setup and will be a real danger today.

The game will be another big test for Moyes team. Leeds with a hard press, quick counters, lots of movement, width and direct passing will require his team to have extra high levels of concentration. The hosts have weaknesses at the back, but do West Ham have the tools to exploit that by striking on the break? Without Antonio, out-ball options are limited, and they may struggle to break the press often enough and quickly enough. Instinctively, this should be a high scoring game, but I believe it will be tighter than that. It will be an interesting clash of styles that I’m finding difficult to call. Maybe a 1-1 draw!    

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?    

Great Expectations: West Ham Can Nearly Reach The Sky With Win Against The Red Devils

The prospect of a fourth straight win and the chance to gate-crash the top three beckons for an upbeat West Ham when they take on Manchester United this afternoon.

I have never been convinced that, as pundits, ex-footballers offer any greater or significant  insight on players or games than the average knowledgeable fan. What they do know, however, is all the little cheats, wrinkles and tricks of the trade that players will try to dishonestly gain advantage. For that reason, there should be a big effort to encourage them into refereeing, rather than leaving it to naïve amateurs like Peter Bankes, who was nominally in charge of Monday’s win over Aston Villa. If that also meant a few less pundits on the TV, then even better news.

The exaggerated diving and cheating of Grealish, mainly, but also Trezeguet was farcical and indefensible. Even more disturbing is that the authorities seem to have no appetite to sort it out. When Trezeguet had a penalty chalked off for a blatant dive against Brighton where was the card for simulation? It is telling that the Villa antics were ridiculed only on social media, not in the mainstream, where it is simply shrugged off with a smile or as an accepted part of the game. In my mind, cheating is a far greater blight on the beautiful game than missing the occasional offside toes, or an accidental handball in the build up to a goal.

West Ham were clearly second best against Villa but were able to snatch a win to make it three in a row and fifth place in the table with seventeen points. The Hammers have not wholly convinced in that run of games and, although they were the better team in games against Fulham and Sheffield United, victory over Villa was down to the visitor’s below average finishing – karma at work.

Today’s meeting with Manchester United sees both teams searching for their fourth league win in a row. A West Ham victory would elevate them, at least temporarily, into the top three. Seasoned supporters will recognise such a scenario as ripe for disappointment.

It is a football phenomenon where a period of over-achievement so often leads to heightened and unrealistic expectations. As a wise man once said: “Good is not good, when better is expected.” David Moyes has moulded a team with great attitude and unparalleled (for West Ham) discipline and organisation. It has brought a measure of pragmatic stability, so sorely lacking during ten years of erratic and short-term decision making at the club.

The rapid transformation from pre-season relegation favourites to the top six has led to supporters wanting more. Expectation that lesser teams should be effortlessly brushed aside and a desire for the present balance between adventure and pragmatism to be relaxed in favour of the former. Cautious fellow that he is, Moyes is unlikely to veer far from his more realistic well trodden path – steady improvement and low risk consolidation.

What that means for the approach to today’s game depends once again on Michail Antonio’s hamstrings. A fully fit Antonio would cause havoc against the cumbersome Manchester United backline. If, as seems likely, he is not available then too many high balls to Sebastien Haller would play directly to the strength of the world’s most overvalued defender, Harry Maguire.

If Haller does play, it would present a more compelling case in support of a popular start for Said Benrahma, in place of Pablo Fornals. Personally, though, I don’t see that happening. No doubt Benrahama would offer a more creative attacking option but I sense Moyes doesn’t feel he is yet ready for the physical demands of the Premier League, or to provide the defensive energy and backup required.

Perhaps the manager will surprise me, but I think Haller for Antonio will be the only probable change. Against a team who have made a habit this season of late goal surges, sensible use of substitute resources will be essential today.

Manchester United are a club haunted by historic expectations. Something that has proved a graveyard for several managers since the retirement of Ferguson. In fact, I’m surprised that Solskjaer has lasted as long as he has. He might well be able to qualify for Europe on a consistent basis, but is unlikely to ever do better than that. Surely, not good enough for one of the leading brands in world football.

Like most of his predecessors Solskjaer has attempted to throw money at the problem, but without any discernible pattern to his spending. They have very good individual players but lack true cohesion. In terms of their own season, it may well be that today’s game is seen as of secondary in importance to Tuesday’s Champion’s League group decider against RB Leipzig.

West Ham have a decent record against the Red Devils in recent years. To extend that run they will need to take control of the midfield. One of the weaknesses of the Moyes favoured formation is that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek are prone to getting outnumbered in the centre of midfield. It happened against Villa, and also to a lesser extent against Fulham. Teams that prefer to attack mainly through the centre, as Manchester United do, are well placed to exploit that weakness.

My thoughts on how the game might play out are muddled. The Hammer’s with a record of forever blowing the rare opportunity to gate-crash the very top of the table. The visitors possibly preoccupied with a Champion’s League exit.

In many ways we are at our best against the bigger teams. But to take all three points will require a strong performance right from kick off to the seventh minute of added time. I’d love to be able to predict another win but feel, this time, we may have to settle for a draw.

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?

The Thriller With The Villa: West Ham Tilting At Top Five Spot

The world’s two most famous claret-and-blues battle for a place at the business end of the table. Can West Ham spoil Aston Villa’s 100% away record and become the first team to score against them on the road?

Former Coldstream Guard and peddler of Barbican alcoholic-free larger, Lawrie McMenemy, used to say that league tables shouldn’t be published until ten rounds of games had been played. Before that point, the big man reckoned, the table was misleading creating unrealistic expectations at the top and putting too much pressure on managers at the bottom.

Well, we are almost at the point, a quarter of the season has already come and gone, and the Premier League table makes surprising reading. It will not be lost on either of today’s teams that victory would catapult them into the top five. Even if it was only temporary, it could prove a memorable “I was there” moment to tell your grandchildren about. Almost cause for an open top bus parade if only we were in a Tier 1 Covid location.

Something that stands out, for me, in this most unusual of seasons is how away teams have taken the edge on victories – leading 42 to 35 with 19 draws. Liverpool are the only Premier League side yet to lose at home, as well as being the only team to be averaging more that two points per home game. Conversely, four teams are yet to lose on the road, while there are five averaging more than two points per game. Within that roll of top awayday performers are tonight’s opponents, Aston Villa.

Having played just three away games so far, Villa can boast a 100% record and have yet to concede a goal. It is a fascinating state of affairs when you consider they have managed to let in eleven goals across their five home games – more that West Ham have conceded in all nine of their games, home and away.

The home versus away riddle, I suppose, must be a consequence of crowd free stadiums, but it is still not easy to understand. I can see how a passionate crowd can act as an extra player, but does that explain everything? Shouldn’t the home team be better acquainted with (and capable of exploiting) the dimensions of their own pitch? Aren’t pitches prepared to suit the home style of play or to hinder the opposition?

Or is that, despite the absence of crowds, home team’s still feel the need to take the initiative, only to be undone by the counter-attack sucker-punch that is so prevalent in today’s game. There must be something psychological at play here!

Assuming no undisclosed injury problems, I don’t see much change to the Hammer’s starting line-up. The key decision will be to bring back Michail Antonio or stick with Sebastien Haller. Much may hinge on just how confident David Moyes is on Antonio’s return to fitness – too soon to risk him or not?

West Ham managed to stumble across the finishing line in each of the last two games Antonio missed, but he is by far the best fit with the overall Moyes game-plan. Haller is nowhere near as bad as some make-out although he has yet to get near £45m of value. He did OK in the Sheffield game, where a great strike to win the game disguised earlier limitations in the role he was being asked to play. For me, bringing back Antonio is a must. Although their defensive record on the road suggests otherwise, Villa are often wide open at the back, and Antonio is the one best placed to exploit that.

The other selection debate (at least among fans) is Pablo Fornals or Said Benrahma? It is an interesting managerial conundrum. Fornals works his socks off for the team off the ball, but does he do enough on it? Benrahma looks to possess an excellent repertoire of skills and tricks, but can he be relied upon to put in the graft off the ball? I was disappointed not to see Benrahma get another 20 minutes or so last week, particularly when several players were starting to flag in the final quarter. I think we are all keen to see exactly what he can do, but I believe Moyes will keep him up his sleeve for now. He is not ready to fuilly release the brake and go full throttle just yet.

When West Ham played Villa in the final match of last season, the visitor’s determination for survival was enough to earn a deserved draw against their off-colour hosts. The Hammers were unable to get a grip on Jack Grealish and allowed him to run the show. They would be ill-advised to let him do so again this evening.

Grealish is something of a marmite character. Undoubtedly, one of the most skilful ball-players in the league but far too prone to the theatrical dive for my liking. Unfortunately, the game seems in thrall to players who engineer fouls out of nowhere on a regular basis. The irony of Grealish berating a Brighton player for simulation last week was right off the scale. Grealish was, of course, in court this week facing a charge of careless driving – a welcome change from careless diving, I suppose – after pranging several parked cars during a late night lockdown binge. With sentencing due in the next two weeks, perhaps it will be a case of locked down to locked up.

It will be interesting to have a close look at Ollie Watkins. One of the many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer (and a former team-mate of Benrahma) he has made an encouraging start at Villa. He will present a menacing goal threat if the supply line is not curtailed.

The runaway penalty glut has dried up a little in the past two weeks. I had mentioned previously that referees might be given a new directive to stem that particular over zealous tide. The current total sits at 44 awarded, a run rate equivalent to 175 for the entire season.   

I have a feeling that this is a game that could have plenty of goals in it. An interesting clash of styles between Villa’s very open approach and the Hammer’s controlled smash and grab. Normally, whenever we are lured towards the rocks of over optimism (even against our better judgement) it ends in disappointment. We are like that old variety act where chairs are stacked on top of each other. We all know that eventually it will all come crashing down – just not when!

For today though, I will laugh in the face of fate and predict a thrill-a-minute, nail-biting, nerve-jangling, breath-taking 3-2 victory. We might even get a penalty. COYI!

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?

Out On The Wilder, Windy Moyes: Hammers Must Prepare For Weathering Heights

A different test this weekend for the Happy Hammers as they travel to Yorkshire to face a Route 1 aerial onslaught from bottom dwellers, Sheffield United

Football comes and goes these days as frequently as sunshine on a cloudy day. One minute, there are warnings of burn-out due to the hectic schedule and the next it is a week long break for the totally pointless European Zenith Data Systems Nations Cup. Whoever could have thought that would be a good idea in a time of fixture pile-up and a global pandemic?

So where exactly were we before getting so rudely interrupted? That’s right, a stuttering home win against Fulham that saw West Ham on eleven points from eight games, and into 12th place with a goal difference of +4. A satisfactory start in most supporter’s eyes, given the daunting run of games that many of us felt would see the team languishing among the relegation places at this point in the season.

Compared to the same stage last term, the Hammers are one point and five places worse off – although we had, in those opening eight games of 2019/20, played six of the teams who, along with ourselves, would end the campaign in the bottom seven.  Perhaps it is hindsight at work, but my level of confidence is higher now than it was back then – with the proviso that the hard work and attitude is maintained, and that injuries are kept to manageable proportions. There is still no room for complacency

David Moyes has won round many of his doubters, while others remain unconvinced (or refuse to be convinced.) Was it a lucky win against Fulham? Not on the balance of play over 90 minutes it wasn’t, but the pivotal VAR decisions in added time could easily have gone differently. Perhaps the referee’s thought process about Sebastien Haller interfering with play was driven by the fact that he hadn’t done so during the rest of the contest – while Lookman’s bizarre penalty attempt was justice done for the softest penalty award since the last one given against us.

West Ham had created the better chances, but it was not an impressive performance. The same limitations that have prevented West Ham seizing the initiative against ‘lesser’ teams in the past, were all too apparent again. Failure to move the ball quickly enough, getting funnelled into congested cul-de-sacs, lacking the added creative spark and being unable to create space down the wings for crosses. If width is to be provided by the wing backs, then they need to be played into open space far more than they are now. Especially, while Sebastien Haller remains their target. Or is that a health and safety requirement due to the recent concerns over too much heading (which, of course, is a valid issue.)

Fulham were allowed to flood the midfield areas (albeit without posing much of a threat) leaving Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek outnumbered and unusually ineffective. Rice, particularly, was forced too deep and had the look of a backwards/ sideways parody of Mark Noble. He is at his best when driving forward and spreading play – we don’t need any of those Gareth Southgate, possession for the sake of it habits here, thank you!

Today’s game will present a very different challenge against possibly the most direct side in the league (or is that Burnley?) Past Hammers performances against physical opponents desperately seeking points might suggest a difficult afternoon. A trademark slow start that has often followed one of the enforced breaks could be the story of the game. It is vital that manager and team have prepared to weather an early and ‘in your face’ storm from the opposition. Timid away defeats at Burnley in both the of the last two seasons readily spring to mind as a yardstick.

Sheffield United were last season’s surprise package. Chris Wilder did a superb job with limited resources to finish top half, in a season of few goals – just over one per game scored and conceded – and with an admirable ability to come back from behind. They have yet to reproduce that success this time around. The loss of on-loan keeper, Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell to injury have resulted in a leakier defence – and what was a trickle of goals has almost dried up completely – not helped by missing two or three penalties they have been awarded. Brewster may eventually provide the missing cutting edge, but at the moment, the Blades look decidedly blunt.

Moyes will surely stick with his favoured three/ five at the back formation with final selection contingent on injuries and/ or fatigue. I am assuming that Angelo Ogbonna is available to play (it has all been very quiet on his injury) but there could be a recall for Issa Diop, if Fabian Balbuena has not recovered from his arduous trip back from Asuncion (how many connecting flights would that entail?)

Although Michail Antonio has been back in full training, I don’t see him being risked today. He needs to be packed in cotton wool as carefully as possible until there is a credible backup option. And despite his rousing cameo against Fulham, I don’t see Said Benrahma making the starting eleven yet – certainly not in the type of game where hard work and discipline will be paramount requirements. Expect another twenty to thirty minutes of him from the bench.

As ever, the wild card will be whatever grenades VAR throws up with penalty and offside decisions. It is obvious that the relevant rules lack precision, are largely vague and have become more subjective than ever. Just that we now have more than one person responsible for making those judgements. In fact, it appears there are two sets of interpretations depending on whether an incident took place inside or outside the penalty area. I am thinking it could be better entertainment if after any goal, or tackle in the box, the referee runs to the pitch-side and spins the Wheel of Fortune to determine the outcome. It would make about as much sense while at the same time producing great, nail-biting TV drama.

Whatever happens it is going to be a tight affair with few goals. My confidence that we can stop Sheffield United scoring is higher than it is on our ability to break them down at the other end. Could it be our first scoreless draw since September 2019? This is hardly likely to one of those games for the neutral (they must be better things to do on a Sunday afternoon even during lockdown) but will take the Hammers to nick it with the only goal of the game.

Can West Ham extend Sheffield United’s Second Season Syndrome Misery?

When Sheffield United began the 2019-20 Premier League season they were the favourites of many (including the bookmakers) to make an immediate return to the Championship at the end of the campaign. As we now know that didn’t happen, and they finished in the top half of the table in a very creditable ninth place, surprising a lot of teams along the way. This season has been a very different story, and they have collected just one point from their opening eight games. That came in a disappointing (for them) 1-1 draw at home against lowly Fulham. But that is exactly how our game against the Cottagers could easily have ended a fortnight ago! What a finish to a football match that was!

It got me thinking about the offside rule and also the law re fouls, and for a bit of lockdown reading I read through two of the laws of the game issued by the International Football Association Board through FIFA and also the FA. “Interesting” stuff and easy to see why they raise such controversy and discussion. Scott Parker was unhappy regarding our goal with Haller in an offside position, but was he committing an offence? The relevant point from the law (Law 11) is that a player can be penalised for offside if he is making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball. Parker’s point was that Haller affected the header of his defender which fell to Benrahma who very cleverly laid the ball for Soucek to calmly score. It becomes a subjective decision for the referee and is not a black and white situation. After the game David Moyes described the guidance as “not a good rule.” Scott Parker said that despite all the technical help we get, nobody really understands the rule in respect of interference. I agree with both of them. Fortunately for us, it fell our way this time (for a change!) and the goal stood.

Another aspect of the offside rule that continues to cause controversy is where you have offsides by a fraction of a centimetre, by a nose or an armpit, for example. A very simple change to the rule, as championed by Arsene Wenger earlier this year, was that if any part of an attacker’s body that can score a goal is in line with the last defender, they are not offside, even if other parts of the attacker’s body are in front. Effectively it would mean you have to have daylight between an attacking player and a defender for an offside offence to be committed. This would mean that more goals will stand as currently three times as many goals are being disallowed as reinstated following the VAR check, largely due to very marginal offside decisions. As DelBoy would say “you know it makes sense.” But have we heard any more about the proposal?

I am no fan of Leeds but the goal disallowed by VAR for offside scored by Patrick Bamford was a terrible decision in my view.  

Patrick Bamford Offside?

In my opinion we also have to try to remember why the offside rule was introduced many years before we were all born. It was to prevent goal hanging. Perhaps they should also restrict offside to the final 18 yards at each end of the pitch, instead of half the field? It would also stretch the play too, potentially making the game more entertaining.

And even after our goal in the 91st minute it almost went wrong when a penalty was awarded against us for the “foul” by Benrahma. In this case the referee seemed to decide that our player tackled or challenged the Fulham player and was careless showing a lack of attention when making the challenge (from Law 12). Once again a very subjective situation for the referee and not too dissimilar from Masuaku’s challenge on Salah; on both occasions the referee was (in my opinion) fooled by the “theatrical” plunge to the ground. But a penalty it was, although justice was done thanks to Lookman’s appalling attempt at the Panenka. How ridiculous was that? If you are taking a penalty just follow the approach taken by Geoff Hurst, Julian Dicks, Ray Stewart, or Mark Noble, my favourite penalty takers in my time following the team. Why try to chip the ball into the goal?

More lockdown reading; I’ve been looking through the Premier League statistics regarding penalty kicks. I have my own views about penalty kicks being awarded, as I think they are given far too easily. I believe that they should only be awarded if a goal looks likely when an offence is committed, otherwise it should just be a direct free kick even if it is in the penalty area. Too many are awarded (in my opinion) when there is no real goal threat. Around 83% of penalties are scored, so in most cases they lead to a goal whether the award is justified or not. Usually the home team get around 61% of penalty awards and the away team 39%. This season so far it has been very different. Of the 41 penalties so far, only 19 have been for the home side, and 22 for the away team. Perhaps the absence of home fans putting pressure on officials is a factor? Of the 41 awarded it doesn’t pay to be a team that begins with W – Wolves, West Brom and ourselves have yet to be given one. Claret and blue shirts doesn’t fare much better – Burnley are the only other team not to yet have one, and Villa have only been awarded one. Leicester top this table with 8! I wonder why? The most ever awarded in a complete Premier League season is just 106. We are on course to smash that total this time – at the current rate the final total will be approaching 200!

So we won the game against Fulham, and just about deserved to do so. The three points puts us into twelfth position in the table after eight games with 11 points, a very good return from a difficult run of fixtures. Sheffield United can also claim that they have faced many tough opponents with their home defeats when facing Wolves, Leeds and Manchester City, and away losses at Villa, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Five of those seven defeats have been by the odd goal. So we should not be complacent in this game. The Blades are not world beaters but potentially a better side than the table would suggest.

Last season we drew 1-1 in the home game against Sheffield United, and in the corresponding game at Bramall Lane we also scored a late equaliser to make it 1-1, before being “robbed” of the goal by one of the worst examples of how the handball rule was interpreted when the ball brushed Rice’s arm in the build-up. In theory they have made changes to the handball rule (also covered in Law 12) this season, but having read the Law (I know how to enjoy myself!) I can see why the officials’ job is so difficult when trying to interpret it. It still needs work to make it fairer and easier to understand.

I really can’t see any need to change the team unless Antonio is fit, in which case I would have him in the side straight away. The general consensus was that Haller had an improved game against Fulham, but the system we play doesn’t suit him. Personally if Antonio is not yet ready to return I would even consider replacing him with Benrahma, but I think the manager will stick with Haller. Unlike a number of fans on social media I am a big fan of Fornals (although not in front of goal!). I think he adds so much energy to our midfield in addition to being a threat in the creation of goalscoring chances. According to many, his place is the most under threat from Benrahma. I reckon that our Algerian recruit will be a terrific asset but it may be a little while before he commands a place in the starting eleven. But once there I don’t believe he will easily be left out.

It looks as though the use of five substitutes rule is likely to be re-introduced, which makes the game a little like rugby union in that respect. With a fully fit squad we have enough players to come off the bench and make a difference in games. But as the season progresses, too many injuries and the squad would begin to look a little thin. It’s good to read that Dawson has made a positive impact in training, and alongside Diop we seem to have decent cover at centre back at present. I’m looking forward to the game which kicks off at 2pm on Sunday. Have we had a 3pm Saturday kick off yet? I find it interesting to note that we are favourites to win an away game for the first time in ages. We are around 7/5 to win the game with the Blades around 2/1. I don’t think that this will be an easy game but hopefully the confidence gained from such a promising start to the season will enable us to (at least) pick up a draw. I’ll go for a win by the odd goal. What are the chances?