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?

In a match with a history of goals, can West Ham maintain their excellent record against Fulham?

A trip down memory lane as we preview Fulham’s visit to take on the Hammers at the London Stadium

Saturday 3rd February 1968. 52 years ago. It was two days before my fourteenth birthday. A morning game playing for the school under 14s was followed by a trip to Upton Park in the afternoon. We took the District Line train from Barking to Upton Park shortly after noon, bought our programme (6d – 2.5p), and our hot dogs (1 shilling – 5p) outside, before heading into the ground when the gates opened to take up our places on the “big step” about halfway back slightly to the left of the goal in the North Bank. A group of us congregated there for the home games. I can’t remember for sure how much it cost to get in. I think it was 2 shillings (10p) for Juniors, but it might have been double that?

We were expecting to win the game against Fulham who were bottom of the league and looked like they would be going down. To be fair, we weren’t world beaters at the time ourselves and sat in sixteenth place. We had been 20th in November, and 19th at Christmas, but a run of five wins in six games had seen us climb the table and begin to alleviate any fears of relegation.

The West Ham team that day was full of many players who were, or would become club legends. In goal we had Bobby Ferguson who had joined us at the beginning of the season for a world record fee (for a goalkeeper) of £65,000. He was never quite the keeper that we expected, a great shot stopper but not so great at crosses. However, he went on to appear 277 times for the club over a number of years.

The full backs were two youngsters. Billy Bonds who had signed in the close season for £50,000 from Charlton, a transfer which would turn out to be probably our best ever, and a young Frank Lampard who had made his debut the previous November. They would go on to become West Ham legends and the two players who made the most appearances in a claret and blue shirt, 799 and 670 respectively. The centre backs in our 4-3-3 formation were England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore who was of course our most famous player of all time, and who made the third most appearances in our shirt (647), and John Cushley, a centre half signed that season from Scotland who never really made it with us.

The three summer signings, Ferguson, Cushley & Bonds were made to strengthen the defence following a season (1966-67) where we had conceded 84 goals. We had scored 80, so it was obvious that we made the purchases to strengthen the weakest part of the team (current administration take note!). That season had ended poorly, and was one of the examples often quoted of West Ham coming down with the lights after Christmas. On December 27th we sat in 7th place in the table, but only won four games in the remainder of the campaign (including three in a five day spell over Easter). We were still 10th with just eight games remaining, but just one point in those final fixtures, three goals scored, and 19 conceded, led to a finishing position of 16th (out of 22 in those days).

Back to the Fulham game that day, and in midfield we had three club legends, Sir Trevor (4th most appearances for the club), Martin Peters, another England World Cup winner, and Ronnie Boyce who had scored the winning goal for us in the 1964 Cup Final. They played 643, 364, and 341 times for us.

Up front another legend and scorer of the hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final, Geoff Hurst, who scored 249 goals in his 503 appearances for the club, Brian Dear, who was bang in form and had scored 9 goals in the 7 games before the Fulham game, and a tricky left winger John Sissons who turned out on 213 occasions for us.

What a team that was, and yet we were struggling to make an impact in the top flight, rarely finishing in the top half of the table. It was hard to believe that we lost more games than we won with those players in 1967-68. In our 42 games that season we won 14, drew 10, and lost 18. In fact we lost 8 of our home games, a number only beaten by the two clubs who were relegated that season, Fulham and Sheffield United. We scored 73 goals and conceded 69, so a positive goal difference which was helped by the game that day against Fulham. At least the season was a bit of an improvement on the one before and we eventually finished 12th, with a better finish this time, only losing two of our final 11 games.

We won the match 7-2, with goals from Brooking (2), Hurst (2), Moore, Dear and Peters. The 11 players who played that day went on to play a total of 4,564 games for the club, and scored 660 goals for us between them. The world has changed in more ways than one, and football has changed too. I wonder if we look back in years to come at the 11 players who will start the game against Fulham this time around, and total up their appearances and goals. Of course it won’t come anywhere close to those legends I watched as a young teenager. I wonder how many of today’s team will be remembered as legends of the club?

The current restrictions mean that I am unable to be at the London Stadium for this game but I’ll be paying my £14.95 and tuning in to the TV to see if we can manage another 7-2 victory. We go into this game in 14th place, while Fulham sit just above the relegation places in 17th. Our position does not really reflect our fine performances in a number of games in this season so far, it is more a reflection of the strength of the opposition we have faced in our opening 7 games. All 7 teams we have played are in the top 11 of the league at this early stage of the campaign, including the top three. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of our supporters have been generally pleased with our start, and would have bitten off your hand for 8 points from the opening seven games.

We now have the opportunity to put more points on the board in the next 12 games against lesser opposition (on paper) that will take us up to the halfway point of the season on 16th January, later than usual this time. But to do this we will need to maintain the form that we have shown so far, and find a different way to play in the absence of Antonio, whose form was a key factor in the opening six games – he was missed in last week’s game at Liverpool. An interesting statistic that I saw was that we have only won one of our last 12 Premier League games when Antonio has not been in the side. That emphasises the proof of his importance to the team, and the need to find a system that suits when he is not there.

I have no doubt that Haller will be given another opportunity to replace him in the starting eleven, but he really needs a player alongside to bring out the best in him. That would go against the system that has been successful this season so far, so it will be interesting to see if David Moyes and the coaching staff have come up with a suitable plan. Perhaps one to consider for this game against Fulham who seem to be a “keep possession side” would be to play without a recognised centre forward and flood the midfield, in a 4-6-0 formation? Whatever is decided I hope we see more of Said Benrahma than the two minutes he was given at Anfield.

In a season of more goals than usual, it is hard to imagine that the game can possibly end up goalless, especially as we have only kept two clean sheets in the 13 Premier League home games in David Moyes’ second time in charge, and Fulham haven’t kept a clean sheet in any of their last 15 Premier League fixtures against us. It would be great to see a repeat of the 7-2 that I remember so fondly from my teenage years. But games don’t end 7-2 these days do they? Oh, hold on a minute, what was the score in the Aston Villa v Liverpool game just a few short weeks ago?

In the season before our 7-2 win we beat Fulham 6-1 with our World Cup winning goalscorers netting all the goals (Hurst 4, Peters 2). I was at Upton Park that day too before going home for fireworks in the evening to follow the fireworks in the afternoon. The date was 5th November 1966. 6-1 would be a great score too.

On the exact anniversary of today’s game – two days later on 7th November 1966 – 54 years ago today – we had an evening game at home in the fourth round of the League Cup when we faced the mighty (at the time) Leeds United. We did even better than we did against Fulham, beating Leeds (with all their first team playing – players weren’t rested for the Cup games in those days) 7-0, with hat-tricks from Hurst and Sissons and a goal from Peters.

So what do I fancy today, the first game in the second lockdown, and the last game before the second international break? 7-2? 6-1? 7-0? So many times in the past we have failed to beat “lesser” teams that we would expect to beat. I’d just like to see an entertaining game, a good strong performance, a comfortable victory and the three points that would enable us to start to climb the table. What are the chances?

Calm After The Storm: More Hard Work Needed To Maintain Hammers Momentum

Having survived the hard start, West Ham must now prove they can also put in strong performances against the teams they are expected to beat.

Even though their team occupy an unspectacular 14th slot in the embryonic Premier League table, West Ham supporters would likely admit to being ‘mostly satisfied’ with how the season has gone so far.

Having lost the opening day ‘winnable’ home game against Newcastle, a return of eight points from the subsequent run of daunting fixtures was as welcome as it was unexpected. Looking back, the two victories against Wolves and Leicester are even more impressive and, were it not for two poor penalty calls (at either end) against Manchester City and Liverpool, the points tally might have looked healthier still.

On average, a typical Premier League season sees the award of somewhere in the region of 80 to 95 penalties. In the seven rounds of games to date, 36 have been  awarded – that is equivalent to almost 200 over the course of an entire season.  Could this be another consequence of empty stadiums? No doubt the referees will spot this trend and issue instructions to cut back as the season unfolds – thus, preventing matters from evening themselves out as we are told they do.

Naturally, the Hammers are one of only four clubs without a penalty to their name. It is worth speculating on what the reasons might be for this: we don’t get bodies into the box frequently enough; our players prefer not to throw themselves to the ground in spectacularly enough fashion; or because refereeing is notoriously inconsistent and always favours the bigger clubs.

For those of us brought up in an era where football was still a contact sport, the contemporary interpretation of what is and isn’t a foul is difficult to comprehend. The law simply describes a foul as a tackle that is careless, reckless or uses excessive force – leaving the rest up to the referee’s discretion. Although it has always been mostly subjective, we now have a situation where the slightest incidental touch is used as a conscious decision for a player to throw himself to the ground as if taken out by a sniper’s bullet.

Salah’s theatrically embellished dive last week deserved not the reward of a penalty but a ban for clear and obvious cheating. Pundits referring to such behaviour as “being cute or smart” does not help. It is cheating plain and simple – a scourge on the beautiful game that should be eliminated through lengthy retrospective bans. Klopp lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes with his post-match defence of Salah and his life-threatening bruise. Impossible to know how the game would have panned out without the penalty, but it gave Liverpool a way back into a game when they had been struggling to find one.

Turning attention to this weekend’s fixture with Fulham which presents a fascinating contrast to what has gone before. It is a game that many would expect us to win with some ease. But with Michail Antonio’s still missing and with the Hammers generally poor success rate against supposedly lesser sides, it would be premature to declare victory before all the goals are counted.

I have watched a few Fulham games this season and they look a little like this year’s Norwich. Preferring to stick with the adventurous passing and possession-based style that earned them promotion, they leave huge gaps at the back as a result.  In normal circumstances, such an approach would play to the Hammer’s counter attacking strengths. Without Antonio, though, it becomes less certain.

If there was ever any doubt, it is now obvious the squad has no like for like replacement for Antonio. Tactical and/ or positional changes are required if either Sebastien Haller or Andriy Yarmolenko are gong to be able to lead the line with any purpose. My assumption is that Moyes will go with Haller again and, if that is the case, I believe two things must happen.

First, Haller needs to be provided with the type of service that suits his aerial ability. As I don’t see how it is possible to play two up top, without compromising overall team shape and structure, the wing backs need to push much further forward and get into more threatening crossing positions. At the same time, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals need to have a greater presence in the box, alert to the second ball. It is a given that Tomas Soucek will already be waiting there.

Second, there needs to be an alternative out-ball other than the long pass up-field for the striker to chase. Haller can’t/ won’t do that and is not equipped to do so. It falls again to Bowen and Fornals to make themselves available immediately possession is won. This is an area where Said Benrahma could turn out to be a valuable asset. I don’t see him starting this week, but hope to see him on the pitch for more than two minutes – twenty to thirty at least.

Fulham will be buoyed by their first win of the season, even if it was against the abysmal West Bromwich Albion. I would love to see Scott Parker keep them up. He was a talented and wholehearted player at West Ham and hands-down wins the managerial Oscars for Best Hairstyle and Costume Design – smart suit, immaculate 1950’s RAF haircut, tie pin and cuff-links.

It’s tempting fate but I’ve never been convinced by Loftus-Cheek (since that dubious penalty he won at Stamford Bridge in March 2016) but Lookman is an exciting, if volatile, talent. And Mitrovic will always be a threat should a defence be intimated by his battering-ram style.

As mentioned, West Ham have long struggled to perform against the teams they are expected to beat. Whether it is an attitude problem or simply a lack of guile and application in breaking down defensively minded or more physical opposition is uncertain. Fulham don’t fit that bill, though. They work hard but otherwise play in an open, attractive style. With Antonio, I would be predicting a straight sets victory. Without him, it is going to depend how well the manager and team adapt to compensate for his absence. It promises to make the match a far tighter affair than it might appear. West Ham to scrape home with a 2-1 win. COYI!

West Ham are facing Liverpool at Anfield on Halloween. Can we expect trick or treat?

It doesn’t come much tougher does it? Liverpool, the reigning premier League Champions, who in the season that ended a little over three months ago, finished 18 points clear of Manchester City, who themselves were 15 points ahead of third placed Manchester United, are unbeatable aren’t they? Just a few days ago they were made to work hard but completed a comeback win against Sheffield United to extend their unbeaten Premier League run at Anfield to 62 games, so what chance do we have? They were also not at their best against FC Midtjylland, the Danish champions, in their Champions League game in midweek and could easily have conceded an equaliser before wrapping up the win in time added on. And who can forget the 7-2 drubbing they took at Aston Villa? But as the 62 game unbeaten run shows, at Anfield they are exceptionally hard to beat.

As West Ham fans we know this only too well – we couldn’t manage it from September 1963 (at about the time Gerry and the Pacemakers were recording their soon to be number one – You’ll Never Walk Alone) right through to the end of August 2015 until we thumped them 3-0 on their ground in front of a shocked home crowd, with goals from Lanzini, Noble and Sakho. Despite only having 33% possession (not untypical at Anfield) we matched them in all areas that day and displayed excellent counter attacking, and fully deserved our victory. Slaven Bilic came out with an excellent quote after the game “we parked the bus, but we didn’t put the handbrake on”. We even did the double over them that season with a 2-0 win in the return fixture at Upton Park with goals from Antonio and Carroll.

Do you remember the game there in February last season? When Wijnaldum scored the opening goal in the first ten minutes it seemed that we would be in for a long night, but Diop equalised within a couple of minutes, and we held on for 1-1 at half time. Fornals replaced Soucek early in the second half and hadn’t been on the field long when he put us into the lead. Unfortunately Fabianski chose this game to be probably his worst in our goal, and was badly at fault as Salah and then Mane scored to clinch a 3-2 home win.

2019-20 was a strange season of course due to the lockdown because of the pandemic, which meant that the last game was played a full 50 weeks after the first, the longest Premier League season ever. It was a strange season for West Ham too, with a very good beginning and end but with a lengthy poor spell in between. There was a certain symmetry in the campaign with us picking up 12 points in the first seven games (W3, D3, L1), and 12 points in the last seven games (W3, D3, L1). If only we could have maintained a similar record in the 24 games in between where we only amassed 15 points (W4,D3, L17)! An average of 12 points every 7 games would equate to 65 points in a whole season. That would have been good enough for a fifth placed finish last season. We’re not at that point yet but that is the level of consistency we must be aiming for.

The match at Anfield is our seventh of this new season, and with 8 points so far we will be unable to match the 12 points that we had after 7 matches last time, even if we do win the game. Nevertheless, I maintain that the start to this campaign is greatly superior to the last in view of the opposition we have faced. Not only has the quality of our football been a massive improvement, but the confidence and belief is evident for all to see, and much credit must go to our manager and coaching staff for the effect they have had in turning around the club.

We all knew that it would be a difficult start when we saw the fixtures schedule. But I wonder how many of us looked at those opening seven games and worked out how many points we picked up in the equivalent fixtures last season? How many points do you think we collected from home games against Newcastle, Wolves and Manchester City, and away trips to Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool? Those seven games yielded zero points, in which we scored five times and conceded 20. With Liverpool to come we are already 8 points better off than we were last time when matching up the equivalent fixtures with 12 goals scored and 8 against. Even if we only picked up similar points to last season in the other games, we would finish with 47 points. But I expect much more than that, and a top half finish.  

But to achieve that we need to avoid injuries to the key players in our squad, which is a little thin in some areas. Michail Antonio has probably been the most in-form striker in the whole of the Premier League since football resumed after the lockdown, and his importance to West Ham, and the playing system that has evolved this season, is massive. He is a crucial cog in the system and the team. As an example, there was a massive difference in the performance of the team when he had to go off against Manchester City to be replaced by Haller. Haller is not a bad player, but he just doesn’t fit into the system we play, and arguably never has in his time with us. As Antonio is unable to play then we need to replace him with someone of a similar type, but we haven’t got anybody like that. The alternative will be to adopt a new approach and jettison the system that has been so successful so far.

Perhaps we might consider 4-4-2 with similar personnel? That system would have drawbacks of course. A back four of Coufal, Balbuena, Ogbonna, and Cresswell in front of Fabianski. A midfield 4 of Soucek, Rice, Fornals and Masuaku, with Haller and Bowen up front? Or perhaps a place for Lanzini, Yarmolenko or Snodgrass or maybe even Benrahma if they believe he is ready? What about Noble or Coventry? Possibly even adopting what they call the false 9 with no traditional strikers, and flooding the midfield with 6 players and excluding Haller from the starting eleven?

Do we need extra pace at the back? Almost certainly yes, but would Fredericks, Diop or Dawson get a look in? Or even Ashby who is considered to be a great prospect? Perhaps Diop’s pace would be an alternative to Balbuena? Balbuena hasn’t done too much wrong in his return to the team due to Diop’s self-isolation, but speed could be important when facing Liverpool’s attack. However, I doubt that Moyes will tinker with the players at the back, but who knows? It’s all speculation but we shouldn’t go to Anfield to roll over. We must take this new found confidence and belief into the game and give it a go. Wouldn’t it be great to come away extending our unbeaten league run to five games? It will be difficult but Liverpool themselves have their injury concerns over a number of players and certainly miss Van Dijk at the back. It’s a real shame that Antonio is not available to exploit this.  

Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers don’t think we have much chance and quote odds of around 7/1 for us to pick up three points. Even the draw at 4/1 is a long shot. But our draw against Manchester City last weekend ruined many accumulators. Can we do it again? In this season of surprise results I am hoping for another one.    

Hamstrings and Shoestrings: Chances Of A West Ham Upset At Liverpool Torn Apart By Antonio Injury

It didn’t need Mystic Meg to predict that there would be injuries at West Ham, making the usual short-sighted penny pinching by the Board all the more unpalatable.

We all knew it was going to happen, it was only a case of just when. Still, the reports that Michail Antonio could be out for anywhere up to 4 or 6 weeks have come as an unwelcome blow, as West Ham prepare for their annual outing to Anfield. And potentially it will be an even more significant blow in the run of easier games that follow the Liverpool one.  

It had taken a while, but David Moyes hit upon a system that worked for him and suited the players available. A hard-working, disciplined, compact unit, capable of quick counterattacking – a system that made best use of what there was to work with, and compensated for its deficiencies. In the recent run of games, it had proved both effective and entertaining.

That system, though, relies heavily on a strong, athletic, mobile, and pacey presence upfront. In the past it had been Arnautovic, now it is Antonio. Very few would be inclined to describe Sebastien Haller in similar terms. But with the Board failing to spend the money required to recruit a suitable backup (to a problem that anyone could have predicted) there are limited options in a shoestring squad. The lack of ambition/ intelligence/ interest/ investment/ foresight/ self-awareness (*delete as applicable) strikes again.

It is fair to say that Haller has (to date) represented poor value for money at West Ham. The poisoned chalice of disappointment that goes with being the clubs record signing is in safe hands, just as it had with Felipe Anderson before him. Whether the fault lies with the players or is a consequence of absurd random recruitment practices is one to debate. It is easy to argue that neither Haller nor Anderson looks particularly interested in a West Ham shirt but a large part of the problem could be not being suited to English football or the style of football being played.

In the case of Haller, it is clear that to thrive he needs someone to play alongside him – and to receive more crosses into the box. Without reverting to a back four (and the defensive vulnerabilities that would involved) it is difficult to see how the team can be set up to provide that support. Whether such a one-dimensional player is worth £40-odd million is a valid question to ask, though.

Some suggest that Andriy Yarmolenko would be a better option, but I don’t see it myself – certainly not if his (almost) disastrous cameo last weekend is anything to go by. And pushing Jarrod Bowen further forward is not only ineffective, but weakens the team elsewhere.  It is a side that needs to work tirelessly when we don’t have the ball – which is almost 60% of the time – and Bowen provides a vital contribution in that endeavour.

With Moyes prioritising a clean sheet over goals scored, I believe he will go with a straight Haller for Antonio swap – it’s as near like-for-like as it gets. The out-ball will be the problem, though, and the Hammers will need to find different options for keeping the ball when they win it. Could that be Said Behrama? Possibly, but would be unlike Moyes to be make such an adventurous a move.

Elsewhere, I might be tempted to bring in Issa Diop for Fabian Balbuena. Not that the latter has done much wrong in recent games but because Diop may handle the pace of the Liverpool front three and provide cover for the threat from the Liverpool full-backs better.  

The long term absence of Van Dyke’s quality is a massive blow to the home side’s hopes of retaining the title – but the Antonio absence makes their job far more straightforward this weekend – even if other injuries mean they are struggling to find two specialist centre-backs. They have far greater depth than we do.

There is a Pavlovian response among a section of West Ham supporters to detest anything and everything to do with Liverpool (Football Club). Personally, I don’t get that. They are just another north-west club who beats us on a regular basis. They were worthy champions last season, by some distance, and have an excellent manager in Jurgen Klopp. It is a side very much in his image.

Their US owners are, however, one of the leading protagonists in the Big Picture money and power grab that has recently been exposed. It is yet another nail in the coffin of the ordinary matchday supporter in the search for an even greater share of the TV revenues.  The move towards a European super league has been brewing for some time and the proposals to organise it as a closed shop illustrate perfectly why sport and business are uncomfortable bedfellows. I have long believed that European games will eventually be switched to weekends to capture a bigger worldwide TV audience.

Personally, I would say let them have their super league, provided that resigning from domestic competition is a condition of the breakaway circus. Of course, that isn’t what they want. They want cake, to eat it and then have a second helping – with B teams competing in the lower tiers of the pyramid. More games for their customers to enjoy!

An oddity from last weekend’s hard-earned point at home to Manchester City was how little was made of the penalty incident where Garcia challenged Antonio in the area, completely missed the ball and sent the striker sprawling. Not worthy of VAR review apparently, whereas had it occurred at the other end, we would have been seeing it on repeat from every angle. In fact, anywhere else on the pitch and a foul would have been given. Isn’t this what VAR is meant to be for? Clear and obvious situations where the referee was poorly positioned to make penalty calls – rather than analysing offsides to the nearest millimetre.

Add in Gundogan escaping a yellow card for his cynical attempted foul on Declan Rice and it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I’ve never understood why a professional foul should dealt with differently depending on where on the pitch it occurs. Hardly a match goes by without someone ‘taking one for the team.’ It is revered in the pundit fraternity as some kind of heroic or selfless act rather than the intentional cheating tactic it has become. Time it was dealt with more harshly – a 10-minute stint in the sin bin, perhaps.

Talking of TV coverage, why do commentators continue to talk about players scoring in front of The Kop or the Stretford End when the stadiums are completely empty? It all seems rather pointless in the circumstances!

If West Ham are to extend their unbeaten run to five games it will require all the resilience shown in the Man City performance, another slice of the good fortune experienced at Tottenham and for VAR to be on its best behaviour. If each of those can be mysteriously aligned, there could be a point in it for us. On the other hand …….   

The Latest West Ham Bubble: How High Will It Fly?

A remarkable turnaround in performance and results sees the Hammers tipped for better days. But is it yet another false dawn waiting to be eclipsed by injuries and Boardroom interference?

Just five games into the new season and already it is the Year of the Comeback for West Ham. From weakest link to strongest link, the ugly duckling has blossomed into a beautiful swan. The shocking opening day defeat at home to Newcastle has been consigned to history following two excellent wins and a phoenix-like rise from the ashes in the last ten at the Tottenham stadium. Add in the rehabilitation of Manuel Lanzini with that stunning last gasp pearler on Sunday afternoon and the transformation is complete.

The emotional roller coaster ride is a huge part of football’s enjoyment for the committed fan – all doom and gloom one week, and on cloud nine the next. In the aftermath of last weekend, a mainstream and social media trend has been the suggestion that David Moyes is building something special at West Ham. It is tempting to jump on board the unexpected wave of optimism bandwagon (and long may it last) but I think many of us know that lack of cover in key positions is just waiting to trip us up. Like the circus performer spinning plates on poles, once one starts to wobble, the whole lot could come crashing down.

The manager, coaches and players deserve tremendous credit for what has been achieved in recent weeks – especially in the context of the toxic atmosphere that infests the club’s off-field activities. Who would bet against a fine run up to Christmas being derailed by further transfer treachery in January? As someone who was originally ambivalent on the appointment of Moyes he has earned my respect.

It has been some time since we have witnessed such a well-organized, disciplined and committed group of players, working so hard for each other. Is it sustainable? How will they react to the inevitable setbacks that will arise in the coming weeks? More importantly, how will they adapt to any long-term absences?

What has also been pleasing is the quality of the football being played. This isn’t an Allardyce (or Hodgson) style – football by attrition, hoping to nick a goal from a set piece, and then out up the barricades. We have seen a quick and incisive counter attacking team, which I, for one, have found highly entertaining. Only the most fervent anti-Moyes campaigner could refuse to acknowledge his contribution to performances over the last few weeks.

Despite the understandable euphoria at the Tottenham comeback we should not overlook the obvious in that opening 15 or 20 minutes. The compact shape, that had worked so well against Wolves and Leicester, had been left behind in the dressing room. The threat of Son’s pace and Kane’s deeper lying role should not have been a surprise, and it was disappointing that it took three goals to react to it. But it was testimony to the team’s new spirit that they kept plugging away to earn a memorable point. It was a remarkable match!

This is it! This is why, despite Sullivan this, Gold that and Brady the other, we keep coming back! Amazing!

The Guardian Minute By Minute Match Blog

The lessons learned from that first half experience will be vital if the Hammer’s are to compete with today’s opponents.  Although Manchester City go into the game in the lower half of the table, they are most people’s favourites to regain the Premier League title, particularly in light of the Van Dyke injury. Their strength is undoubtedly the no expense spared resources available to the manager. As ever, they have invested heavily in the squad but I do wonder if Guardiola has put too much faith in outright flair, at the expense of the blended efficiency that he inherited with players such as Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Silva and De Bruyne.

De Bruyne and Fernandinho are two players who (hopefully) might be absent today, along with Jesus, Mendy, Laporte and Ake. As we have learned, it is dangerous to rub hands at the thought of a weakened opponent (remember the penultimate game at Upton Park against Swansea?) and City are better equipped than most to deal with injuries. I don’t see Guardiola rushing anyone not fully fit back for this game – with a packed league and European schedule coming up.

Could this be a window of opportunity for West Ham to put an end to their terrible recent run against the visitors?

Injuries permitting the Hammers should line up just as they did at Tottenham. I see no reason to fix what isn’t broken, and there is now an additional option from the bench in Said Benrhama. I have no expectation that Moyes will throw him straight into the fray, and it might be several weeks of substitute appearances before the manager considers the Algerian for a start. Following their cameo performances at Tottenham, Benrhama will face stiff competition from Andriy Yarmolenko and Lanzini for the position of first change. Yarmo is the most enigmatic character to me. He has a great touch, is an accomplished finisher and has the sweetest of left feet (he also looks to be one of the squad’s real characters) but how to fit him into a system that is built around pace and tireless work-rate?

To get anything from the game every West Ham player will need to be at the top of their game. We are looking far more secure defensively down our left-hand side now, with Aaron Cresswell, Arthur Masuaku and Pablo Fornals combining well to track runs and limit supply. If anything, despite the introduction of Vladimir Coufal and the hard work of Jarrod Bowen, we have looked more open on the right, as neither Angelo Ogbonna nor Fabian Balbuena is offering consistent additional cover. Perhaps Issa Diop’s extra pace would be an option in place of Balbuena, but it would be harsh to leave out the Paraguayan at this stage.  Cresswell, in particular, has been given a new lease of life as part of a back three. The new setup has given him the space and opportunity to deliver the telling crosses that has made him our assist supremo – back to the days where he had Payet creating space for him.

If West Ham are to taste success today, much will be down to the dependables: the pairing of Declan Rice and Thomas Soucek in the centre of midfield; the energy of Michail Antonio up front; and the safe hands of Lukasz Fabianski between the posts. Rice and Soucek must be alert from the very start to Aguero dropping deep and the runs of Sterling, just as they ultimately got to grips with Kane and Son last weekend.

 VAR has been up to its tricks again recently and continues its campaign of interference in the flow of the game. The flawed interpretation of clear and obvious errors is clearly and obviously wrong. How the seven match officials involved collectively managed to miss Pickfords assault on Van Dyke defies logic. And the Mane offside decision at end was to a degree of precision that is impossible to justify. It may be true that you are either offside or you are not, but can anyone guarantee with 100% certainty of where everyone was at the exact moment the ball was played? We are dealing in millimetres here. Maybe players will start to paint their extremities with the camouflage paint that motorists use to confuse traffic cameras.

Apparently, West Ham last scored three or more goals in four consecutive league games back in September 1928. Spookily, the run of games 92 years ago started with a 4-0 home win, was followed by a 3-0 away win and then a 3-3 away draw. The fourth of the sequence was a 4-1 home win. Looks like a pattern that is too good to ignore to me. With a West Ham 4-1 win at an attractive 125/1, it is where my two shillings will be going. Possibly with an extra shilling on a Hammer’s title win at 500/1.

Students of the Hammers won’t be surprised to hear that although that 4-1 in 1928 put them top of the league, they would eventually finish the season in the bottom six. Never mind Spursy – that’s West Hammy!