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

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

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

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

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was clean through on goal, a punishment that would have meant him missing the Cup Final, had it not been subsequently rescinded.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

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

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

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

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

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

West Ham Are All At Sea But Escape With A Stolen Point: Takeaways And Player Ratings

Another colourless and uninspired performance that was saved by a very lucky point. Can we expect any lessons to be learned or will it be rinse and repeat?

A Bounce-back-ability Failure

Any hope that the disappointing opening day defeat to Manchester City would be consigned to history by a storming performance at Brighton was firmly laid to rest on Saturday afternoon.  This was another dismal showing by West Ham, even though they managed to both salvage (steal) a point and prevent Glen Murray from scoring.  Following a similar pattern from the previous week, the Hammer’s started brightly but could only keep it up for less than 20 minutes; by which time they either ran out of puff, ideas or interest.  Despite bossing possession during that period they didn’t get anywhere close to threatening the Brighton goal.  West Ham have no divine right to beat teams such as Brighton but we should at least expect a better effort.  It was fortunate that the hosts were not as clinical as their win at Watford the previous weekend had suggested, otherwise another heavy defeat would have been on the cards.

Wot No Tactics!

Attempting to describe the West Ham tactics for this game would challenge the most creative spin doctor.  Admittedly, the absence of the clubs two most expensive acquisitions, Sebastien Haller and Felipe Anderson, were a major blow but five changes to the starting eleven came as a huge surprise.  It was revealed after the game that Haller and Anderson were never in contention for selection – but that this fact had been kept a secret to prevent Brighton planning accordingly.  The idea that opponents might understand the West Ham tactics when our own players seem to have no idea is an interesting one.  It is likley repetitive to labour the point about lack of options/ weaknesses in central midfield, but these are fundamental to the problems of poor organisation, defensive frailty and maintaining possession.  Whereas most teams endeavour to create space and switch play across the park, the Hammers appear set on heading into congested cul-de-sacs.  Apart from the occasional foray down the left wing there was little success in getting beyond and behind the Brighton defence.  For reasons unknown, Ryan Fredericks looks to be scared to leave his own half.  All in all, a very lucky point from a below par performance.

Oggy, Oggy, Oggy, Out, Out, Out

My heart sank when I heard the lineup an hour before kick-off.  It is bad enough when Angelo Ogbonna has to play as an emergency stand-in but for him to be selected as a conscious decision when there are other options available is an abomination.  It’s a shame because he always comes across as a really nice guy – just not a very good footballer.  Granted, The General has not looked at his best since the summer and his participation in the Copa America but he doesn’t need to be firing on cylinders to better Ogbonna.  The goal that was eventually disallowed thanks to the intervention of VAR was a typical Ogbonna moment.  Having been beaten in the air, his attempt at retrieving the situation involved ambling in the general direction of the Brighton player chasing the ball and allowing him all the time in the world to cross.  He was also implicated, if not solely responsible, for the Brighton equaliser.  Issa Diop looked to have won the initial tussle with Murray but failed to put the ball away to safety.  One again, Ogbonna made only a token attempt to close down the scorer, Trossard as the ball ran free.  It’s enough to make one nostalgic for those James Collins last ditch, body on the line, blocks of old.

You’ve Been VARred.

We have long believed that West Ham were champions of the bad refereeing decision and the early days of VAR have gone some way to vindicating this view.  Two games and two goals against disallowed.  Perhaps teams with the shakiest defences are certain to be major beneficiaries, simply as a consequence of the volume of opposition attacks involved.  The goal checking process is having a weird effect on games as goal celebrations and preparation to re-start have all taken place before decision comes through – particularly confusing for those inside the ground.  The disallowed added-time Manchester City goal against Tottenham was perhaps the perfect example of VAR’s detrimental impact on the spontaneity of the game.  However, rather than have VAR take all the blame, it is the decision to introduce a new rule that disallows any goal that might have involved ball to hand contact, regardless of intention, that needs to be looked at.  If a corner hit a defender’s arm, then an attackers, before a third person slotted home, what would the decision be – goal, no-goal or penalty?  Back to our own game and there were some claims of a possible penalty for a foul on Antonio but apparently this was not deemed worthy of review – even though such incidents were originally the driver for VAR introduction.

Old Dogs And New Tricks

If someone had taken a survey, I would have ticked the Mostly Satisfied box when assessing Manuel Pellegrini’s first season at West Ham – as I had been with Slaven Bilic’s first season a few years prior.  There was a breath of fresh air on the pitch after the dour fare offered by David Moyes, and it felt like a new, more professional and considered approach to player recruitment might be on the horizon.  There was still work to be done of course: weaknesses to be addressed; errors to be eradicated; and missing pieces of the jigsaw to be discovered.  From what we have seen to date, however, there are serious question-marks as to the actual direction of travel and the likely extent of any progress.  It is very early in the season for drastic changes but it is disturbing that fitness, shape and organisation continue to look well below average for a team who believe they are on the up.  There is a new breed of manager in the Premier League now where the emphasis is on high energy levels, compact shape and fluidity of formation.  What worked in the olden days for Pellegrini (and Hodgson maybe) may no longer be appropriate or relevant?  It is not a problem of age but an apparent reluctance to adapt to changing circumstances.  Failure to address his side’s poor all-round defensive performance will prove pivotal to the way the season unfolds.

The Ratings

Supporters often like to cherry-pick stats from sources such Whoscored to support whatever particular point they are attempting to prove.  It is interesting that, according to that website’s rating algorithm, our top performers on Saturday were (in order): Lanzini, Snodgrass, Masuaku, Diop, Ogbonna and Hernandez.  Would you agree?  Probably not!

I was struck though by one statistic on Whoscored and that was a Lukasz Fabianski’s pass success rate of 18% (compare this to Alissons 80% for Liverpool over the course of last season).  I don’t see this as the fault of Fabianski who continues to perform miracles between the sticks.  It is rather a reflection of the collective failure of the team to take individual responsibility and to provide the movement which creates opportunities to pass into .  Too many hurried back passes and too few options to build from the back remain an ongoing feature of our game.

Aside from Fabianski,  Manuel Lanzini and Declan Rice both had encouraging games but  there were few others who earned their corn this week.  These are my ratings:

Fabianski (7), Fredericks (5), Diop (5), Ogbonna (4), Masuaku (6), Rice (7), Wilshere (4), Snodgrass (6), Lanzini (7), Fornals (5), Hernandez (5) Subs: Antonio (6), Yarmolenko (5), Sanchez (5)

Time For West Ham’s Three Amigos To Step Up And Make Brighton Rock?

Once again West Ham’s plans are once again hampered by injury concerns but now is time for key players to live up to their reputations and kick-off the Hammer’s season for real.

It is safe to assume that the average football supporter experiences a far greater roller coaster of emotional volatility than do the players and coaching staff.  While we have had a week of festering after the early season optimism was so mercilessly crushed last weekend, we must hope that on the training ground there has been a more measured reaction to resolving problems. After all, very few people would have expected there to be any points on the board from our opener although most would have expected fewer entries in the goals against column.

To a certain extent the scale of last week’s defeat was overshadowed by debate of the tactical fouling employed by Manchester City.  With Manuel Pellegrini voicing his displeasure at the City tactics it brought to mind shades of Ron Greenwood, whose gentlemanly approach had him avoid the tough tackling enforcers favoured by many of his management contemporaries.  In truth, successful teams always have their tougher, darker side and even if the game has moved on from the outright thuggery of Revie’s dirty Leeds, a hard, uncompromising edge is still required to consistently bring home the trophies.  Like Greenwood, perhaps Pellegrini is just too nice.

West Ham’s woes aside, the Premier League season kicked off with a great deal of enthusiasm.  Word is that a new breed of managers with new sets of ideas are going to be breath of fresh air, at least in the lower reaches of table.  Farewell, the dour, attritional tactics of Allardyce, Pulis, Hughes and Hughton; welcome, the daring and enterprise of Farke, Wilder, Hasenhüttl, Smith and Potter.  The latter, of course, is now at the helm of today’s opponents, Brighton and Hove Albion.  Only time will tell whether the brave new spirit of adventure survives beyond the barren depths of winter – or whatever the modern day equivalent of a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke is.

The Seagulls were the surprise package of the opening weekend with an emphatic 3-0 away win against a muddled Watford side.  Brighton’s expansive style was a far cry from what had been served up under Chris Hughton – but which did ensure Premier League safety for two consecutive seasons.  By all accounts Graham Potter prefers a fluid and flexible formation that switches between 3, 4 or 5 at the back; something which will provide an interesting contrast to Pellegrini’s more predictable (tried but not fully tested) set-up.

Just a week into the season and the perennial injury jinx may have already have raised its ugly head.  Depending on what you read, there may or may not be concerns with the fitness of Felipe Anderson, Sebastien Haller, Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmolenko for today’s game.  Old-timers Mark Noble and Winston Reid are definitely unavailable.

The prospect of the Three Amigos (Anderson along with Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals) forming a mesmerizing attacking midfield alliance seemed to promise so much just a week or so ago.  These are players with big reputations, hefty price tags and fat wallets who need to step up to be more than mere supporting parts.  With good fortune it can start today but maybe injuries will force us to wait a little longer to see if it can work in practice.  Will it reinvent West Ham as a team of rapid movement, quick passing and smart interplay or will it once more be all icing and no cake?  I have a lingering concern that exciting as the trio could be it lacks anyone with a cool head and range of passing to take the game by the scruff of the neck and pull the necessary strings.  It is Wilshere that is probably best suited to such a role but not if his freedom is curtailed by having to fill the problem area in central midfield alongside Declan Rice.  The sad thing is that with Noble injured there is no credible alternative to replace him if it was decided to deploy Wilshere further forward.

For a team that has just conceded five goals in a home match we are only likely to see one change in defence where Arthur Masuaku is likely to step in for the hapless Aaron Cresswell.  Since Cresswell’s England call-up a few years ago his form has dropped off significantly, apart from a brief spell as part of a back three under David Moyes.  Perhaps he only looked good at left back when he had Payet to set up perfect overlapping and crossing opportunities.

Injuries permitting here is how I think Pellegrini will line up:

BRIWHU3

If Haller is really not available, I hope we don’t have to put up with another 60 minutes or so of Javier Hernandez wandering about forlornly to no effect.  Best option in my opinion would be for Michail Antonio to come in to lead the line.  I thought he was very unfortunate to be hauled off at half-time last week.  You know what you are going to get with Antonio – someone with pace, power and muscle who will unsettle defenders.  His lack of finesse doesn’t make him a good fit for a the softly, softly, tippy-tappy style.  Alternatives are Yarmolenko or Albian Ajeti although I don’t see Pellegrini opting for either of these two as a starter.

On the subject of Ajeti, I think if I was a twin and my parents called by brother Adonis it might leave me with an inferiority complex.  A little like “Hi, I’m Brian and this is my twin brother, Thor!”  Maybe Albian also has a significant meaning in Albanian that I am missing.  I am certainly looking forward to seeing him play.

Today’s Physical Assistant Referee is Anthony Taylor from Manchester while the person making all the important decisions will be his Virtual counterpart tucked away underneath the stands.  My blogging partner made some excellent points yesterday in his article about how VAR looks to be exceeding its original brief of righting the wrongs of clear and obvious mistakes.  TV pundits were unanimous in hailing VAR as an overwhelming success although to me this is from the perspective of football as business rather than as an entertainment.  While it cannot be said that VAR got anything wrong last week the danger is that it will spoil the matchday experience for the paying customers in the ground.  Fans will be unable to fully celebrate any goal until it receives official confirmation several minutes later.

For the record, today’s Virtual Assistant Referee’s name is Bond, Darren Bond – Dr No Goal, You Only Score Twice, Dive Another Day and so on.

On this week’s pundit watch we have Lawro back on his favourite fence with a 1-1 draw while Charlie Nicholas fancies West Ham to sneak a 1-0 away win.  As we all know, the Hammers will need to score at least twice to win making allowance for the customary Glen Murray goal.  I have a feeling there could well plenty of goals this afternoon, especially if the promised West Ham attacking creativity gets itself into gear and the defence remains as characteristically charitable.  My optimistic prediction is for a 4-2 away win, although this can only come about through a significant upgrade in resilience and commitment; ensuring that we are not out-fought, out-thought and out-maneuvered by what will be an enthusiastic opponent. COYI!

What can West Ham expect when they visit the AMEX to meet our bogey team, the flying Seagulls of Brighton?

Let’s get Manchester City out of the way first. We held our own for about 25 minutes or so, but once they scored it was all over. We didn’t play particularly well after that opening period, but by their standards neither did they, despite the scoreline. It was disappointing to see the goals go in, but I am afraid we won’t be the last team to be on the end of a spanking from the champions. They are just too good for the Premier League, which is no longer a competition that the majority of teams have any chance of winning. Just take a look at the bookmakers’ odds which reflect the fact that only two teams can win, with four outsiders and 14 no-hopers. Leicester? That was just a fluke of circumstances and will not happen again.

Moving on to VAR, then I am a fan and like to see correct decisions. But they still haven’t got it right have they? It’s there to correct clear and obvious errors in respect of goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity. But they are taking it further which should not happen. And it’s not the fault of VAR that Sterling’s shoulder was offside by 1.57 mm or some other ridiculously small margin. The fault lies with the offside rule itself. If any part of your body that can touch the ball legally is beyond the defender, no matter by how much, then you are offside. But let’s take a step back here. Why was the offside rule introduced all those years ago before any of us were born? To stop the concept of goal hanging, that’s why. So how can somebody be goal hanging if they are in an offside position anywhere in the opponents half of the field? It is a nonsense. Let’s bring some common sense to this. The offside rule should only exist for anyone in the penalty area only. And if any legal part of their body is level with a defender then I don’t believe they should not be ruled offside. Let’s give the advantage to attackers. It would also bring an end to a lot of controversy, and stretch the play on the pitch, which I believe would be a good thing.

And while I am on the subject of rules / laws, then I’ll return to the topic I raised last week. Timekeeping! The time added on by the referee last week was nowhere near sufficient to make up for the time spent or wasted in goals celebrations, injuries, VAR stoppages, and substitutions. OK so last week it didn’t matter and possibly saved us from further punishment. Perhaps Mike Dean was acting like a boxing referee by stopping the contest to save us from further punishment. But in some games, that time could be vital. Just look back at my comments last week. We need an independent timekeeper to control the stadium clock and stop it when the ball is not in play. We are being short-changed and teams will continually cheat by timewasting if they can get away with it.

Another subject I raised last week was goalkeepers moving for penalties. When Fabianski saved the first penalty against City he clearly moved off his line before the ball was kicked. Yet that wasn’t the reason for the re-take. That was because of encroachment by Rice, who then cleared the ball after the first save. I just happened to watch the penalty shoot-out of the Super Cup game this week and was pleased for our old friend Adrian who became an instant hero for Liverpool with his save when the fifth Chelsea penalty was taken. I wasn’t surprised by the love-in on West Ham social media that followed because Adrian was a popular guy, despite his shortcomings as a goalkeeper. But the rules were not followed. Very clearly he moved off his line before the kick was taken. Why are referees unable to see this? Some will and some won’t and that will lead to continued inconsistency.

Now to Brighton. The Seagulls are flying. They really are a bogey team for us in recent times. Have we beaten them since that glorious day in the sunshine when Ricardo Vaz Te ran wild with wonder goals, bullet shots, overhead kicks etc., and we beat them 6-0? Certainly in the last couple of seasons we haven’t done ourselves justice in this fixture, and I’m hoping that we rectify this and show a reaction after the City game last weekend. Brighton surprised most of us last weekend running out comfortable 3-0 winners at Watford. I doubt that they won any game by three goals last season, and there certainly seems to be a change in philosophy from their new manager. Now that they produce league tables after one game (which is a bit nonsensical really but obviously it is there to meet a demand), we are facing a team occupying a Champions League place, after meeting the champions last week. Let’s hope we can put an end to this miserable run against the Seagulls and pick up our first win of the season.

I see today (Thursday) that our new record signing (together with last season’s record signing) are both potential doubts for the game due to injury. We’ve started early this season haven’t we? Nothing we can do but hope that their replacements put in a performance. I just hope Hernandez is not one of them (to me he is one of the most over-rated players I’ve seen in a claret and blue shirt). We’ll have to wait and see. Perhaps Ajeti and Fornals will be given starting opportunities? Or possibly Antonio will be the one out and out striker? Whatever happens in terms of team selection, I just hope that the players and coaches have been working on the concept of defending as a team this week.

The other potential change I guess is Masuaku for Cresswell. Our captain of last week is unfortunately a shadow of the player who was Hammer of the Year not that long ago and selected for England too. Every player rating I saw for the game was unanimous – he was our worst player. I’m not sure that Arthur is the answer (especially in a defensive sense) and perhaps the highly rated youngster Ben Johnson will be given a chance sooner rather than later.

Considering last week’s results you would have thought that Brighton would be strong favourites to beat us, especially in view of their recent record against us. However, that is not the case, although they are marginal favourites to pick up the three points. I’m confident that we will win though, and expect a high scoring game, perhaps a 3-2 or 4-3 victory in our favour to kick-start our season. If we want to progress then fixtures such as these are ones that we should start winning, or at the very least we should be avoiding defeat.

West Ham Star Men On Mission To Eclipse Blue Moon

We’re gonna score one more than you! Have new look West Ham got the pizazz to cause an opening day upset against the reigning Premier League champions?

The big day has arrived.  It’s time to fish out the lucky underwear, try to retrace those superstitious morning routines and then head out for your preferred match-day refreshment.  Peak pre-season optimism will continue up until the team sheets are revealed, at which point pre-match tension (PMT) will kick-in with the realisation of just how strong today’s opponents are.

I was trying to remember back as a young supporter, looking forward to a new season following Ron Greenwood’s West Ham, whether I ever believed the Hammers were in  with a chance of winning the league.  Even then my expectations probably weren’t that high, but now a title challenge is well beyond the realms of possibility.  So what am I looking for – why bother?

For me a successful season is one where we look committed and are competing in every game – both league and cup.  We would be trading blows with the monied elite and making sure they know they have been in a game.  We should look to entertain but not be intimidated by the more physical opponents, whose priority to is contain and spoil.  We should be in with a shout (or be part of the conversation in modern footballing parlance) of European qualification right until the final weekend and be prepared to embark on barnstorming cup runs.  Not a lot to ask is it?

The pundits are always talking up the Premier League as an excitingly competitive pursuit but really it is most predictable, at least for the present moment.  There may be a big six when it comes to counting the money and overseas following but only two teams  have any real hope of lifting the trophy.  Manchester City will resume their long running weekend leapfrogging contest with Liverpool before finally recording their third title on the trot in the closing weeks.  Then there will be a gap to Tottenham in third place followed by a bigger gap to Arsenal in fourth.  After that the placings might get a little more interesting this time around, with clubs including ourselves, Everton, Wolves and Leicester fancying their chances of muscling in ahead of potentially distressed Chelsea and Manchester United sides.  Not that there is much hope of ever breaking into the top six longer term (not without significant outside investment) but it would nevertheless be amazing as a one-off event.

I was relatively pleased with the transfer window recruitment although only time will tell how well the new players adapt to life in the Premier League.  It was good to see signings in the right age profile rather than more of the traditional practice of boosting retirement funds for fading superstars.  Like many supporters I would have liked to have seen more but appreciate there are constraints.  It is strange how so many fans saw reinforcements in defensive midfield and at full-back as close season priorities and yet these have been left untouched by Manuel Pellegrini and his team.  A clear indication of where his football philosophy lies.  We have no option but to trust the manager but pre-season did nothing to allay the fears concerning wide open spaces left for opponents to exploit in midfield and on the flanks.

Today will be Manchester City’s 5th visit to the London Stadium with a record that reads played 4, won 4, goals scored 17, and goals conceded 1.  Guardiola has created a formidable team that pose a threat all across the pitch.  They weren’t so bad when Pellegrini was at the helm but are now fitter, more compact and more together.  They are also highly professional and even their most gifted of their players is prepared to do his bit defensively even if this involves a niggly, cynical foul to thwart an opposition breakaway.  A slight tug of the shirt or minor body check in the opposition half rarely receives more than a finger wagging censure from referees.

The Sky Blues were relatively restrained (for them) in the transfer window spending a mere £130m for Rodri (a Fernandinho replacement) and Cancelo (another expensive full-back).  It is without doubt the strongest squad in the league although today they will be without Sane and Mendy.

For the Hammers, the pre-season friendlies have offered a good indication of how they might line-up with the attack minded quartet of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Sebastien Haller looking to cause City problems.  The anticipation of some excellent movement, passing and interplay between the forward players is quite mouthwatering.

Declan Rice will adopt his usual defensive midfield role leaving Jack Wilshere (in the absence of Mark Noble) as the remaining midfield option.  If he stays fit, Wilshere can be a magnificent asset this season but playing in a more withdrawn position may not be conducive for his best work to be on view.

At the back, I am hoping to see the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership return to its optimum level of cohesion following an uncertain pre-season.  The full-back pairing is most likely to be Ryan Fredericks and Aaron Cresswell.  I doubt that we will see so much of Pablo Zabaleta’s weary legs this season and although I believed Pellegrini preferred Arthur Masuaku on the left, he didn’t feature a great deal in pre-season.  Incidentally, it was Cresswell who netted the Hammers only London Stadium goal against City and he will probably skipper the side today.

It goes without saying that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with Lukas Fabianski being passed fit to start in goal.

WHUMCI4

Is this a team that can cause an upset?  I don’t think we can rely on complacency or rustiness from the opposition and so it must be down to a cunning and perfectly executed game plan.  Strangely, the weakness in central midfield might not be as important in a game like this where we will be forced to defend deep with most players behind the ball for long periods anyway.  We do now have players able to cause problems on the break provided that focus, shape and discipline can be maintained throughout.  It is not a game where we will boss the possession stats!

Mike Dean is today’s referee and there is a huge likelihood that we will get to witness a controversial VAR incident or two at first hand.  But will it be to rule out Aguero’s last minute equaliser for offside or to confirm that Diop’s boot lace was sufficient to send Sterling tumbling in the box?  In theory, I welcome VAR but am worried about its execution.  I can envisage multiple incidents every game with players surrounding referees and making TV shaped gestures with their hands.

Lawro returns to the BBC with a 2-1 away win for Manchester City while punditry duties at Sky seem to have transferred to Charlie Nicholas who opts for a 3-0 away win.  At least both predicted outcomes would keep us off the bottom of the table after Norwich’s defeat at Liverpool last night.  Personally, I am going for broke, keeping everything crossed and predicting a 2-1 West Ham home win.  COYI!

What can West Ham expect in season 2019-20?

We begin our fourth campaign in the London Stadium, and our eighth consecutive season in the top flight with a game against possibly the toughest opponents of all, the champions Manchester City.

The Premier League comprises 20 clubs. Like in so many other major leagues there are very few of the teams that can realistically hope to come out on top at the end of the season. Perhaps six think they have a chance, although there are probably only two at the most who could be champions. The “elite” six teams, the ones with by far the greatest revenues, they were the ones that finished in the top six places last season, and according to most, will do so again this time, and possibly for the foreseeable future with the way that money is distributed within the league.

The aim of the remaining 14 is twofold, firstly not to be involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table ensuring that they remain a Premier League team, and secondly (in some cases) to try to threaten the top six and break their stranglehold. Based on the evidence of last season the chances of doing the second one would seem to be remote. I’d like to think that all teams would be trying to win one of the two domestic cup competitions but sadly, their importance is in decline as far as the clubs themselves are concerned, although perhaps not in the eyes of fans, who love to see our team involved in a cup run.

A quick reminder of the table last season shows City and Liverpool way ahead with 98 and 97 points, with Chelsea 25 points adrift on 72 in third, a point clear of Tottenham (71), and then Arsenal 70. A very poor Manchester United team trailed on 66, but they were still 9 points clear of the best of the rest (Wolves on 57). I would expect the four clubs who finished outside the top six but in the top half of the table (Wolves, Everton, Leicester and West Ham) to be the ones with aspirations to get closer to the elite but is it a realistic thought? I’d love to think so but I doubt it.

Of course the start that a club gets to the season often (although not always) sets the tone for what follows. I am aware that the fixtures computer arranges the fixtures randomly (with some input from clubs and police etc.), but what odds would you have got six years ago that West Ham would face an opening day fixture against each one of the elite six in the six seasons that followed? Very long I’ll wager, although when the fifth one came up last season I said at the time that next season I reckon it will be Manchester City (if we survived in the top flight of course!)

The one game of the previous five opening day games that we won (2-0 at Arsenal) coincided with one of our best ever seasons in the top flight, although those with a good memory will recall that we then went on to lose our first two home games that season, 2-1 to eventual champions Leicester, and 4-3 to Bournemouth.

Last season of course we had an abysmal start, losing our first four games and propping up the league at that point. Ironically, Watford had a dream start and had 12 points after their first four fixtures, so it was pleasing that we recovered well to finish in tenth place, just in the top half of the table, and incidentally two points clear of Watford in 11th.

Our opponents today won 32 of their 38 games in the league (as well as winning both domestic cup competitions, including the demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final) so will be formidable opposition. I suppose facing them in the opening game is as good a time as any, but personally I will just be looking for a good performance, and hope that the players begin to gel together.

Unlike many on social media I like to refrain from commenting in advance on players arriving until I’ve seen how they settle and trust that the players in our team and squad are ones that the manager and his team want there. But on the face of it, the two big signings, Haller and Fornals would appear to be excellent acquisitions, and the return to fitness of Lanzini, Wilshere and Yarmolenko is like adding three new players as well. It would appear that we will have the capability of creating lots of chances, and hopefully we will score a lot of goals. Unlike many observers, I don’t believe that we have bad players in defensive positions; on the contrary I am generally happy. What I think we don’t do well is defend as a team, and in this I mean everyone on the pitch. I’d like to see the manager appoint a first class defensive coach, but he will run the team and coaching (quite rightly) as he thinks fit. I did read that one or two of the top teams even have throw-in coaches! You might laugh but if you analyse how often we lose possession of the ball from our throw-ins (one of the few statistics I haven’t yet seen!) you’d agree that it would be a good thing.

Of course there are new things for us to see this season. The introduction of VAR is something I have personally advocated for years. Going back to the book I published in 2016, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I made many references as to how I would like to see it used to ensure that we got the correct decisions more often, especially in relation to offside. I’m not entirely happy with some of the ways it is being used however, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed it in action in the Premier League. I’ve seen some (tongue in cheek?) comments suggesting that we’ll all be home much later, and that the classified results will now be moved to Match of the Day!

There are a number of rule changes being introduced too. Some of them are minor, and some will be more influential on games, for example the change to handball. Once again I’ll wait to see it in action before commenting, although early examples, such as in the Women’s World Cup, showed some potential teething troubles and inconsistency. I was not happy to read that the head of referees is suggesting that the Premier League will have its own interpretation of the new handball law, but once again I’ll wait and see. Surely consistency is what we want, whether or not we agree with the interpretation of the laws?

I welcome the fact that goalkeepers should have at least one foot on the goal line when the kick is taken, but hasn’t that always been the case? The problem has occurred with referees and linesmen having an inability or lack of desire to penalise goalkeepers moving off their lines before the penalty is taken (or encroachment for that matter). I suppose with VAR we can expect a rise in the number of penalties, so let’s see how consistent the officials can be.

A lot of the minor changes are just tinkering, and the one big change I’d love to see implemented is the correct timing of games, and the correct amount of time added on for injuries, goal celebrations, time wasting etc. The referee already has a lot to think about, and this could be taken out of his hands with the introduction of a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock, and stopping the time when these things happen, as happens in Rugby Union for example. Am I the only person who can see how this could totally eliminate the concept of time wasting?

When the opposing team scores and goes off to celebrate with their fans (especially at our stadium!) make a note of when the goal goes in and when play resumes. The amount of time will surprise you. See how much time is added for substitutions from when the decision is made to change a player up to the resumption of play. And don’t get me going on how long goalkeepers take to take a goal kick when their team is winning. And referees never add it on. They just seem to add a token time to reflect stoppages which bears little relation to how much actual time is lost. And one thing I don’t understand. If a referee stops his watch at any time how does he know how long he has stopped it for? The only way is to have another (stopwatch) and start that when he stops the main watch, and then stop the stopwatch when he starts his main watch again! Doesn’t a referee have enough to think about without faffing about with watches? I repeat; a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock would put an end to it all. I’ll return to this hobbyhorse as the season progresses.

Anyway, enjoy the game. I’d love to see an upset, although doubt that it will happen. On paper of course the fixtures for the rest of August are easier, so don’t get too upset if the result is not great, as long as we put in a good performance. We won’t face Manchester City every week!

2018-19 – Was this a campaign for West Ham to move to the next level, or one to consolidate under a new regime?

A new manager, new backroom staff, many new players, and hope for a better season. But was it enough to move on to the next level? How accurate were the bookmakers in predicting how this season would end?

So many people begin so many sentences with the word “so” these days. I was thinking this when trying to evaluate the season that is coming to an end today, as the phrase that came into my head was “so so”! So what does “so so” actually mean? Neither very good nor very bad, middling, all right, respectable, satisfactory, indifferent, mediocre, ordinary, passable, run of the mill, adequate, acceptable, tolerable, moderate, modest, unexceptional, OK, undistinguished? Have I got it right or am I being too harsh?

At times the football we have played has been very good, especially with victories over some top teams. We managed to beat three of the elite top six teams, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham, and drew with both Chelsea and Liverpool, two games that with better luck and better officials we could easily have won. Only Manchester City of the top teams were just too good.

Of the five teams that have been chasing that seventh spot for much of the season, we have held our own with equal points in games against Everton and Leicester. Wolves, like Manchester City, were just too good for us in both games, and we suffered a home defeat to Watford. That game put an end to a four match winning run in December which gave us high hopes of chasing a European place. It also resulted in an injury to the General when giving away the penalty for Watford’s opening goal. In my opinion that was a key factor in many performances that followed in that his partnership with Diop was broken, and we never quite looked the same at the back. Can we balance the books against the Hornets today? If so, a top half finish is achieved, but if not then we are consigned to the bottom half of the table.

Disappointingly, we only picked up one point in the four games against Bournemouth and Brighton, and suffered away defeats at Burnley and Cardiff where our performances were definitely unacceptable. Once again I don’t believe that we got the points we might have done due to some dubious refereeing decisions and poor line calls that robbed us, whereas very few close calls went in our favour. I very much welcome the use of VAR next season which hopefully will eliminate some of these diabolical errors.

When writing this piece today I had a look back at my first article this season written shortly before the season began. The next part is an extract that shows how predictable the Premier League has become.

But can we reach the “next level”? What exactly is the “next level”? If you study the odds on offer among the vast array of bookmakers throughout the country then there is a certain similarity of where they all believe clubs will finish in the Premier League. Not surprisingly, Manchester City are odds on to retain the title and Liverpool are clear second favourites at 4/1. Then come Manchester United 7/1, Chelsea 12/1, Tottenham 14/1 and Arsenal 25/1. So that’s the top six sorted. Same as last time, the same top six elite, the clubs with the biggest revenues will fill the top six places again. As predictable as ever according to the odds makers.

Following hot on the heels of the top six, well not exactly on the heels but trailing behind at a distance, bookmakers have four clubs all priced in the region of 250/1 to fill places 7-10. Those clubs are (in no particular order, because the order varies from bookmaker to bookmaker) Everton, Wolves, Leicester, and West Ham. So we are well fancied to finish in the top half, and even as high as seventh place, but will not realistically be challenging the elite six. I suppose you could call that the next level?

As a matter of interest the next four clubs are priced generally in the 500/1 to 750/1 bracket – Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Burnley. And finally the bottom six in the betting market at odds of between 750/1 up to 2000/1 are Bournemouth, Brighton, Fulham, Watford, Huddersfield and Cardiff.

Of course the aim of all fourteen clubs that make up the “also-rans” in the Premier League should be to break into the top six, but unfortunately the aim of many is to secure at least seventeenth place for a return visit next season. I’d like to think that our goal is to consolidate a position comfortably in the top half of the table, with a target of finishing in seventh place, and hopefully finishing as close to the top six as possible. If you believe that we can force our way into the elite group then you can get odds of between 9/1 and 12/1 to achieve this. Now that really would be the “next level”!

The bookmakers were spot on with the top six teams, although not exactly in the correct order. The four teams they predicted to chase the top six was a good shout too, as was the four to follow them. And they were very accurate in that their forecast of the bottom six had the bottom four teams in it. The only teams that really outperformed the bookmakers’ odds were Watford (significantly), and to a lesser extent Bournemouth. Manchester United underperformed their odds, but in reality the bookmakers virtually knew the outcome before the season began. Of course there is always the chance of a few unlikely results but I’m afraid the Premier League has become much too predictable.

The Championship on the other hand, whilst not being of quite the same quality, is a much more open competition each season, and in many ways more enjoyable as a result. You would have got long odds on Norwich and Sheffield United gaining automatic promotion. Not many would have predicted that before the season began. The holy grail for all teams is to be in the Premier League because of the money involved, but does that mean entertainment for the fans?

When West Ham have been playing away this season I have often gone along to Ram Meadow, the home ground of my local club, Bury Town. They play in step four of non-league football in the Bostik Isthmian League North and finished the season in sixth place just outside the play-offs. Incidentally Julian Dicks is the boss of the team that finished fifth, Heybridge Swifts. I can honestly say that, although the football was obviously not on the same level as the Premier League, the entertainment on offer matched what I saw at the London Stadium this season. That does not mean that I am about to bring an end to over sixty years of going along to watch West Ham, as I have already renewed my season ticket for next season. I will go along and hope that we can improve and move on to “the next level”.