Can West Ham win at Carrow Road for the first time since 1973?

I can add little to my co-blogger Geoff’s summary of the midweek game at home to Burnley. I had the feeling early on that it just wasn’t going to be our day when Pope (surely England’s best custodian?) pulled off two saves in quick succession from Soucek and then Antonio. And when he used his feet to save when Haller looked bound to score with his first touch after coming on, it was confirmed in my mind that we weren’t going to score. From that point on we ran out of ideas, and we needed some new bodies on the pitch towards the end to try to salvage a point. Unfortunately our manager didn’t seem to agree. I despair sometimes at his use (non-use?) of substitutes and throwing on Ajeti with a few minutes to go was too little and much too late. Burnley are a well-drilled organised team who can retain a 1-0 lead better than most. Even with a depleted team everyone knows their jobs, and they could easily contain our attacking ideas (non-ideas?) which mainly consisted of high balls into the box for them to head away with ease.

We are fortunate that Norwich are as good as down (albeit not mathematically yet), and that neither Bournemouth or Villa can seem to win a game of football. For me, Brighton are absolutely safe (again not mathematically), so it comes down to two out of Bournemouth, Villa, Watford and ourselves to join Norwich in the Championship next season. This round of fixtures could be more important than many think.

We have a poor record away at Carrow Road which is emphasised by the fact that Pop Robson scored the winner the last time we won there. And Pop Robson is now 74 years old! He scored the winning goal in a 1-0 victory on 10 February 1973, over 47 years ago! We finished sixth that season whilst Norwich narrowly escaped relegation. The following season (1973-74) he scored again in a 2-2 draw in Norfolk. That season the Canaries finished bottom and were relegated (together with Manchester United) while we finished fifth from bottom, the same positions that the two clubs now occupy. Seventeen winless games is a shocking record, and failure to halt that poor run could be significant in the relegation tussle. As eight of the last 13 games between the sides have ended in draws, and the away side has not won any of the last 11 Premier League encounters, history would seem to be pointing us towards a drawn game, perhaps 2-2 again? Apparently Norwich are the only side in the top 5 European leagues to fail to claim a single point when they have fallen behind in a game, so scoring the first goal would be good for us. But hold on a minute, haven’t we dropped 24 points from winning positions, more than any other team in the Premier League?

Despite the teams near the bottom failing to pick up many points since the re-start, they have an opportunity with this weekend’s fixtures. Watford could win at home to Newcastle, and both Bournemouth and Villa have home games against Leicester and Palace respectively. Should they win those, and if we go down at Norwich then the cushion of safety that was beginning to appear would disappear and we would be back in trouble. That is the worst case scenario but I still don’t think we will go down even if that does happen. I’m normally very optimistic, but if it happens like that this weekend, then our last two home games against Watford and Villa will take on added significance.

After being a Tottenham and Manchester United fan the other evening (for one night only), this weekend I’ll be supporting Newcastle, Palace and Leicester. With four games to go the table shows both ourselves and Watford on 31 points (with goal differences of -19 and -22 respectively), Bournemouth on 28 (-27), and Villa on 27 (-29). Our goal difference is healthy at the moment compared to the others and effectively is worth an additional point.

Whatever happens we won’t be in the bottom three with three games to go. But with the wrong results from our viewpoint we could be by the time that we play our next game at home to Watford next Friday evening. Having said that, even if both Bournemouth and Villa win on Sunday I would like to think that they will lose in the next round of fixtures when they travel to away games at Manchester City and Everton respectively. Let’s hope that we can break the Carrow Road jinx, win comfortably, and as a result move one step closer to safety. It won’t be as easy as that and I’ll be happy with any kind of win, however ugly. Perhaps 2-1? Even a repeat of the 1973-4 2-2 scoreline would edge us a further point towards safety.

The Wacky Relegation Races Continue: West Ham Seek Survival As Best Of The Worst

West Ham remain outsiders for relegation but without big changes it is only putting off the inevitable. Points from Norwich will provide breathing space but survival will be down to the inadequacies of others.

After an encouraging 4 point haul from consecutive games with Chelsea and Newcastle, the stage was set for West Ham to all but confirm their Premier League status against a much weakened Burnley on Wednesday evening. Alas, it was not to be and the visitors ended up leaving the London Stadium with a comfortable three points.

The manner of defeat perfectly illustrated the Hammer’s shortcomings which, even if relegation is avoided this season, will require extensive surgery to avoid a repeat next time around. While Burnley resembled a well-oiled machine with a structure, discipline and work ethic that compensated for their missing personnel, West Ham look like a collection of wayward individuals who have been bound together by sticky tape and string.

In fact, Burnley came with little ambition but when they get their noses in front, they are a very difficult team to breakdown. Not that there weren’t decent chances – some fine saves by Pope early on as well as two glaring misses by Michail Antonio and Sebastien Haller. Frustratingly, the home side had run out of ideas well before the final the whistle. The Hammers seemed convinced that hopeful high balls into the area were the route to success despite all the available evidence that Burnley’s defence would simply nod these away with ease. The manager didn’t see fit to change things and without any creative spark it was all so predictable. Plan B as far as it went was to bypass midfield completely.

Oh for the sorcery of a Devo, Berkovic, Benayoun or Payet right now! I guess that might have been Manuel Lanzini, but his injury has well and truly done for him. And quite why Jack Wilshere hasn’t been given an opportunity since the re-start is baffling. Indeed, David Moyes whole approach to substitutes is baffling, especially in the current circumstances with games come around every three or four days. The manager seems incapable of thinking on his feet and when things are going wrong, he is the last to see it.

We can all make mistakes and my assertion prior to the game that a starting place for Andriy Yarmolenko was justified saw me lured by Absent Player Paradox – that sense that the powers of an injured player increase exponentially in proportion to the time that he has been missing. Compounded by two promising cameo performances, it soon became clear that as a starter he really is too slow and too reliant on circus tricks and flicks. Similar exaggerated expectations are now starting to build over the possible return of Robert Snodgrass.

As is so often the case, the goal conceded to Burnley was a catalogue of collective incompetence. Yarmolenko went missing in action, failing to support his full-back; Ryan Fredericks was poorly positioned to prevent the cross; and Aaron Cresswell’s attempt to win the ball was even less than half-hearted. Even Lukasz Fabianski might have done better.

For some bizarre reason, successive West Ham managers have considered competent full-backs as an optional extra. The old Sunday park football concept of that’s where you play your worst footballers – the kid who turns up each week to cut up the half-time oranges. The current duo simply don’t cut the mustard and only one – depending on which side Jarrod Bowen is playing – gets consistent support from his wide midfield partner. The question is, are there any better alternatives – Ben Johnson or Arthur Masuaku?

The weekend trip to Norwich is the second of the supposed winnable games that will ensure top flight survival. Thankfully, Bournemouth and Aston Villa continue to show little sign of life and if safety is reached it will be by default, as it was in the Zola season. The record at Carrow Road is not a good one. For the last league win you need to go back to February 1973 when a Pop Robson goal was enough to give a West Ham side (containing Bonds, Moore, and Brooking) a narrow victory. The seventeen league games since then have resulted in nine defeats and eight draws.

Norwich are effectively relegated, but a West Ham win today will seal their fate mathematically. They may see the game as a last hurrah! The Canaries do pass the ball well but overall lack both pace going forward and a cutting edge – although the same could be said about the Hammers (apart from the passing the ball well bit). The home side’s form has been terrible, having lost each of their last six matches, yet anyone viewing this game is a ‘gimme’ may be in for a surprise.

I have said before that you cannot hold David Moyes responsible for the many weaknesses in the West Ham squad but, after 15 games or so in charge, he should have done far better on organisation, teamwork and fitness. His two signings, Bowen and Tomas Soucek, have been among the best performers in recent games and along with Fabianski, Antonio and Declan Rice at least look as though they belong in the Premier League. A good manager is paid to make the most of what he has got – to create a style of play that overcomes the weaknesses in the squad. This is where Moyes has fallen short.

What changes can and will be made this weekend is anyone’s guess. A return for Mark Noble? Arthur Masuaku on the left of midfield? Another chance for Lanzini as playmaker? An opportunity for Wilshere to prove his fitness? More game time for Haller who might even look like he is interested this time? Time to put some trust in Ben Johnson? There are options, just not too many obvious ones!

Following on from VAR duty on Wednesday, Kevin Friend has been given the whistle while Simon Hooper will be on patrol at Stockley Park. The eye in the sky was called upon twice in the week: correctly ruling out a second Burnley goal for a genuine offside; and confirming that is should only be yellow card only for Tarkowski’s challenge on Bowen – that one could easily have gone either way.

When in doubt or he can’t be bothered, Lawro always falls back on a 1-1 scoreline, as he does on this occasion. At time of writing, Charlie Nicholas has not unveiled his crstal ball. West Ham often serve up their better performances for those times when I am the least confident – and this is definitely one of those times. My sense is that Norwich will start brightly but easily run out of steam if they do not get any immediate reward. If the Hammers keep their shape and concentration during the initial exchanges they can grow into the game and exploit the Canaries frailty defending crosses. This will by no means be a classic, but I will stick my neck out for a 2-1 away win.

All Change At Stratford: Moyes Must Mix Things Up To Banish Burnley Bogey

The visit of a no-nonsense Burnley to the London Stadium presents West Ham with a different set of problems to the last two games. What change will David Moyes make to rise to the challenge.

With four points earned from the last two games, the Hammers are running ahead of the re-start expectations of many battle-hardened supporters. The next three fixtures, starting with today’s claret derby with Burnley, were the ones seen to be the passport to Premier League survival. A return of five points or more from those games should be enough to avoid a final day relegation play-off reckoning  with remaining claret club member, Aston Villa.

The win over Chelsea and a point against the Toons has helped us to breathe more easily, but nothing should yet be taken for granted. There might be an effective five-point cushion (if you take goal difference into account) over close rivals, Villa and Bournemouth, but there is still plenty to play for.

After a cautious first half display at St James’ Park, despite the early goal, there was a sense of disappointment at the failure to come away with all three points. West Ham looked comfortably in control after half-time, and yet allowed Newcastle to equalise with their only meaningful attack of the second period. Collective defensive failures, lapses in concentration and vulnerability down our left side continue to cost dear. It is now fourteen matches since the Hammers last kept a clean sheet – on New Year’s Day against Bournemouth – and the points lost from winning positions continue to mount.

While West Ham can be encouraged by their last two performances recent encounters with Burnley have not often ended well. As far as kettles of fish are concerned, this is a very different one to those previous two games. Burnley are a well organised, hard working and physical outfit. They will defend in numbers and will not be susceptible to the rapid breaks that benefited West Ham against Chelsea and Newcastle. The guile and finesse required to break down organised defences and team’s prepared to intimidate are not historic West Ham strong points. It might be tempting to select an unchanged team, but today’s challenge requires a very different approach.

At the back, there are few obvious options available to plug the alarming gaps in what is the fourth worst defence in the division. Pushing Declan Rice back weakens the midfield more that it strengthens the defence, and the return or either Fabian Balbuena or Arthur Masuaku adds no added confidence that things would be better. Although central midfield has looked defensively more solid since the recruitment of Tomas Soucek, the flanks remain a weak spot – particularly down the left hand side. Jarrod Bowen has done a great job of tracking back on the right and a similar level of support is badly needed on the left. That isn’t going to be provided by Manuel Lanzini but can anyone else do better – Andriy Yarmolenko, Pablo Fornals or Masuaku?

Further forward, it is doubtful that Sebastien Haller is ready to return, and so line-leading responsibilities once again fall to the broad shoulders of Michail Antonio. Antonio has performed admirably in this role recently, but I do fear burn-out or injury, especially given Moyes strange reluctance to deploy all his full substitution entitlement.

As for unpicking defences, the squad is short on creativity – it lacks anyone likely to come up with the unpredictable. Jack Wilshere is arguably the most able to do so, but has been been given insufficient pitch time to single him out as a starter.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Moyes plan is to bring back Mark Noble, as partner to Rice in defensive midfield, and push Soucek further forward to offer a greater aerial presence – a tactic that suited and worked for him in his Everton days. That would still leave a problem wide on the left of midfield. Yarmolenko has earned a start but with both him and Bowen preferring to play on the right, will one be able to effectively switch flanks? Of the two, switching Bowen would be the sensible choice, but it would require Yarmo to up his tracking back efforts in support of Ryan Fredericks. Alternatively, Moyes may opt for Masuaku in a wide midfield role as he has done in the past, but I don’t think he will go for this. Whichever way the team selection pans out, I sense it will be bench time once again for Fornals and Lanzini.

Burnley have enjoyed a decent season once again although are likely to miss out on Europa League qualification. Manager Sean Dyche has seen his stock rise in recent years and he now sits atop the rankings of plucky British managers, despite strong competition from newcomer Chris Wilder. The fall from grace of long-time leader and former golden boy, Eddie Howe, illustrates the conundrum facing managers at those clubs punching above their weight – when is the right time to jump ship out before the inevitable relegation and damaged reputation occurs

Dyche is, to date, undefeated in his managerial confrontations with Moyes (three wins and two draws) although their competitive relationship goes back to playing days in the mid 1990’s, slugging it out in League 2 in the colours of Chesterfield and Preston respectively.

The Clarets are experiencing something of an injury crisis at the moment and will be without influential captain, Ben Mee as well as midfielder Jack Cork and chief bully, Ashley Barnes.  Worryingly, Barnes strike partner Chris Woods, who has scored in each of his five outings for Burnley against West Ham, is back from injury and likely to start. Dwight McNeil is another danger and been tormentor-in-chief in recent games against the Hammers.

Matchday officials today are Michael Oliver on the pitch and Kevin Friend on VAR. There was nothing contentious from the officials at Newcastle on Sunday and will be hoping for more of the same today.

Both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas have this down as a Hammer’s win at 2-0 and 2-1 respectively. Their rationale being West Ham’s greater need and Burnley’s growing injury problems. The biggest barriers I see to a West Ham win are being able to break down the visitors resolute and determined defence – not for nothing is Nick Pope in the running for the Golden Glove award – and getting suckered by the visitors big guns on a set piece. Still as a fan of claret, I want my glass to be, at least, half-full and will go for a welcome 3-1 home win. This is a game that usually has goals in it.

Hammering Out A Toon: As The Pubs Re-open West Ham Head Up For A North-East Knees Up

A midweek win has transformed West Ham from an ugly duckling to a beautiful world-beating swan. Can West Ham justify our implausible new found optimism with a back-to-back win at Newcastle?

The past week has witnessed a massive TV make-over show style transformation at West Ham. From a ragged, unloved, down at heel, ugly duckling of a side to a beautiful swan, as the Hammers gracefully swept past an astonished Chelsea at the London Stadium.

Talk Sport presenter and Chelsea supporter, Andy Jacobs (the unfunny Sid Little half of the Hawksbee and Jacobs double act) received a lot of stick for his on-air rant on the Hammer’s performance and his desire to see them relegated – but he had a valid point. How can a team that has performed so badly and carelessly for most of the season, suddenly pull out a committed performance such as that?

As a brief reality check for seasoned Hammers, the last time that West Ham completed a league double over Chelsea, in the 2002/03 season, it all ended in tears and relegation. In an eerie coincidence, the scorelines were also the same (although in the reverse fixtures) and achieved under the guidance of different managers (Roeder and Sir Trev on that occasion.) Just worth bearing in mind!

Today at Newcastle, we will get a chance to observe the make-over show epilogue, that bit when they return a week or so later to see whether the ‘made-over’ has managed to maintain their new and improved glamorous persona, or has slumped back into their customary shabby ways. What do we think might happen?

In his article yesterday, my blogging partner, Richard Bennett, admitted to having a soft spot for today’s opponents. What I would add to that, is a sense that our fortunes are somehow inexplicably entwined, as if by some mysterious external force. Both are massively under-performing clubs, with fantastically loyal support, that should never get relegated, but regularly do. Clubs hamstrung by dodgy, arrogant owners with little feel for football or what it takes to run a professional football club and who lack even the merest hint of imagination when appointing managers. Football clubs don’t do twinnings, but if they did West Ham would be twinned with Newcastle – partners in adversity, in much the same way that Coventry is twinned with Dresden, in recognition of their shared devastation during WW2. Success has been a stranger in both East London and Tyneside for far too long, aside from both sides belonging to a select group of proud Intertoto Cup winners!

Consequently, this fixture is often an unpredictable one. The last ten encounters have produced four wins and six defeats for the Hammers. You need to go back to St James’ Park in August 20113 for the last drawn game – a goalless grim stalemate, according to the Sporting Life, as Alan Pardew faced off with Sam Allardyce. This time around it is Steve Bruce versus David Moyes, each with over 900 games under their respective managerial belts (as you would expect, Bruce’s belt is the larger of the two) but with little to show for it, apart from Moyes 2013 Community Shield win.

Takeover fever also surrounds both clubs, although, as far as West Ham are concerned, it might simply be wishful thinking. A Saudi takeover at Newcastle has been bubbling under for some months while in London there are renewed murmurings of a Tripp Smith consortium. Whenever, I see consortium mentioned Tony Cottee immediately springs to mind and the ones that he has supposedly been trying to put together for the last twenty years. Give me a filthy rich, single minded, megalomaniac over a consortium any day. How conflicted we are as football supporters. Principles, morals and money laundering are easily trumped by success!

I see no reason to make any changes today from the team that started on Wednesday (unless there are enforced changes) as Moyes is likely to adopt the same defend in numbers, forgo possession and break quickly approach to the game. The potential return of Mark Noble, Sebastien (the cheques in the post) Haller and Arthur Masuaku should make it no further than the bench. I would again look to use Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere as substitutes, as they continue their respective roads to recovery. There are decent options on the bench.

For Newcastle, Shelvey and Ritchie have historically caused problems in games against West Ham but it is the mercurial Saint Maximin who worries me the most. Pace down the flanks is one of the Hammer’s principle Achilles body parts. Ryan Fredericks needs to be on his toes and Jarrod Bowen will have plenty of tracking back responsibility.  Apart from that, there is also the scores-against-his-old-club threat posed by Big Andy.

VAR has had an horrific week even by its own low standards. The disallowed Michail Antonio goal was bad enough but the Lucas Moura handball was possibly the most laughable yet. It’s not often I agree with Mourinho but his assertion that the principal refereeing decisions are now made by a guy hidden way in a Stockley Park bunker is difficult to argue with. You would have thought that only a government could take a good idea and implement it so badly – but never underestimate the incompetence of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited. Today’s deliberating duo are Craig Pawson (whistle) and Simon Hooper (mouse).

Returning to the Chelsea game it also looked as if their players were not sufficiently socially distanced (according to this season’s new guidelines) from our wall for the Willian equaliser. Did that get reviewed?

So, what might happen today? According to the pundits: closet Hammer’s fan Charlie Nicholas is predicting a 2-1 away win; while Lawro had adopted his default 1-1 fence sitting position. Prior to the re-start I had expected Newcastle to be one of those teams whose minds were more on an air-bridge to Mediterranean sunshine than empty football stadiums. From their efforts to date it seems I was wrong – although perhaps it was thoughts of FA Cup glory (now thwarted) that had spurred them on. Results yesterday were again favourable meaning that any additional points would be most welcome. Maybe the boys can sneak away with all three, but I think that just the one is more likely: 2-2!

Wednesday Wonderland for West Ham, but will it be a Super Sunday at Newcastle?

Was that an enjoyable finish to a game of football or what? On Wednesday night I enjoyed the ending of a game of football more than I have done in ages. When you have supported West Ham for as long as I have (back to the late 1950s) you can probably recall so many occasions when a game of football involving our team has had a dramatic finale. And in the vast majority of those we have been left shaking our heads in disbelief as a late goal has either stopped us from winning a game, or turned a draw into a defeat. And how many times in recent years have teams broken away at pace to score an important late goal against us? Well just for once tonight it was the other way round.

How important was Andriy Yarmolenko’s goal for West Ham? That single goal turned one point into three and gave us a small cushion ahead of our close rivals in the relegation stakes. We are now three points above the drop zone with a superior goal difference over the others involved. But despite only having 29% possession and facing a talented Chelsea team, that goal and the win it produced will (I hope) give everyone at the club massive confidence for the six games to come. You only have to look at the league table and the fixtures remaining to see why bookmakers’ odds, that had us not much better than even money to be relegated before the game, have now changed dramatically. If you still think we will go down you can get odds of 7/1 or bigger, and to stay up we are now quoted at around 1/16.

For me, the whole team, including the substitutes of course, played well. The commitment of the players against a team pushing for a Champions League place was admirable. As the game was drawing to a close I was pleased with the point we were about to get, but the joy of that breakaway winner will stay with me. And fine goal that it was, especially given the importance, it wasn’t even our best goal on the night. That was our second goal. Watch it back if you get a chance. How many West Ham players touched the ball in the build-up? I think I’ve got it right in saying that every outfield player was involved. Goals such as these rarely win goal of the season competitions (that is usually reserved for dramatic overhead kicks or volleys) but for me, this was our best goal of the season. After several viewings I think I’ve got it – Fredericks to Soucek to Diop to Ogbonna to Cresswell to Lanzini to Rice to Lanzini to Rice to Fornals to Rice to Antonio (penalty?) to Fornals to Bowen and finally swept home by the tireless Antonio (my man of the match but so many in contention).

I’m pleased I don’t have to say too much about that ridiculous three and a half minute VAR fiasco where Jonathan Moss, who has been involved in so many controversial decisions against us in the past few years, once again made my blood boil. But we won the game in the end so I’ll forget it for now. Until we come across the same official.

The games come thick and fast now, so how many of our players are fit to play against Newcastle? I was a Newcastle fan the other night when they played at Bournemouth. Actually I quite like Newcastle anyway, more so than many of the other clubs in the Premier League, so even without wanting Bournemouth to lose that game, I was pleased they won so convincingly. My prediction before the resumption was for Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth to go down and I see no reason to change my mind now. The bookmakers now have those three as strong favourites to be relegated with Norwich 1/100, Bournemouth 1/8 and Villa 1/4.

Apparently three of our injured players are back in contention for selection in this game, Noble, Masuaku and Haller. Will there be any changes in the starting eleven? I’ve really no idea, although normally I like to see the same players involved in such a confidence boosting victory retained. But the Chelsea game may have taken more out of the team than we know and there is little chance for a rest prior to the game.

Perhaps Haller will be recalled to play alongside Antonio in attack? If so, whose place would he take? Despite Lanzini’s improved performance the other night, both he, and to some extent Fornals give the ball away too much for my liking. Wilshere has a habit of finding team mates when he has the ball which is a good thing. Of course Yarmalenko made a strong case in his cameo for inclusion, but perhaps a place on the bench with greater trust in bringing him on will be what will happen? In all of this Anderson seems to be the forgotten man. Is there a way back for him? Not at the moment I would suspect.

And I haven’t even mentioned Noble. Before the Chelsea game I thought it would be good for him to sit it out, and as it turned he was injured anyway. I see him playing a part in the games to come, but more often from the bench would be my thinking. Rice did an excellent job as captain, cajoling and encouraging all around him, whilst delivering another imperious performance in midfield. I’m not sure whether or not there is any chance of him still being with us next season, but by giving him the captain’s armband and telling him that the team will be built around him, might be our only remote chance of him staying. I’m afraid that the owners’ eyes might light up if a substantial offer is received for him though.

The thing about being a West Ham fan is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get from one game to another. I hope we don’t see a reaction whereby the players think that the job is done and we are safe. The intensity and commitment from the Chelsea match needs to be maintained for the rest of the campaign, and must continue at least until we are sure of playing Premier League football next season. Perhaps this game will come too soon? Newcastle, despite playing on the same evening, didn’t really have to get out of second gear to beat a poor Bournemouth side, whereas we needed to be in top gear throughout.

So what will happen? I’d like another win of course, but we may need to settle for a draw in this one. With Bournemouth playing at Manchester United, Watford at Chelsea, and Villa at Liverpool in this round of matches, I suspect that a draw might prove to be a good outcome. I’m sure Messrs. Lampard and Klopp will demand better performances from their players after the midweek defeats, and surely Manchester United will thrash Bournemouth?

Remember The Alamo: West Ham Plan Heroic Defence To Hold Off Second Chelsea Siege

The battle of the struggling stragglers in the Premier League survival stakes sees West Ham banking on a second lightning strike to secure an unlikely double against high flying Chelsea

Someone mentioned to me in the week that Liverpool had already won this season’s Premier League, although I couldn’t find any mention of it in the media. If true, then well done to them. They were the best team by some distance; and congratulations to Adrian, who becomes another in the long line of ex-Hammers to pick up a league winners medal after having left the club – Adrian, Johnson, Ferdinand, Gale, Cole, Carrick, Lampard, and Ince. That’s almost a full team now!

Tonight, the focus switches again to football’s equivalent of a slow bicycle race, as three of the frantic five relegation candidates take to the field in an attempt to belatedly put some extra points on the board. In the last thirty games combined, the five stragglers have managed just three wins and four draws between them – thirteen points out of a possible ninety.  There is often a mad scramble for the final relegation place, but in this unusual season it is distinguished by mass collective incompetence at the bottom. DLLWLLL may look like the name of a place in Wales but, sadly, it is the Hammers current form. We are indeed fortunate to others that escape is still feasible.

Tonight’s match with Chelsea is one of the toughest (along with the trip to Old Trafford) West Ham’s remaining fixtures. Both those clubs are at the top of the form table, have reacted positively in the early re-start games and will be looking confidently at a top four finish. A win tonight will move the visitors up into third place. I must admit to being surprised at how well Lampard Junior has done in his first term as Premier League manager. I think he can become a top manager but thought this job had come far too early for him. The glimmer of hope is that I said exactly the same thing back in November, when the teams last met. And we know how that turned out. A game notable for David Martin’s heroic debut, a fine Aaron Cresswell goal and zero fouls committed by Chelsea.

It will, no doubt, be another highly cautious approach from David Moyes tonight. A backs to the wall, deep defensive act of attrition. This is partly due to Moyes risk averse character but also partly due to the rag-tag of resources at his disposal, particularly in offensive areas. The task could be likened to defending the Alamo with broken guns and no ammunition.

Reading through Moyes virtual programme notes gives us a clue to how he is thinking. My takeaway from his goals from everywhere plea is that he expects attempts from free kicks or corners to be the extent of our ambition. I know the manager has to say positive things but to suggest that our downfall has been due to not taking the chances that came is a bit of a stretch. Moyes is not able to play the too tired card tonight as Chelsea have played twice since the Hammers last had a game. Perhaps he will claim we are rusty – or maybe we really will be geared up it, after a week off to re-charge the batteries. Tonight has all the hallmarks of a game that the manager wants to get out of the way quickly without too much damage. But I would like to think Moyes has a more cunning plan for the run of winnable fixtures to follow aside from hoping that our luck will change.

The good news on the team selection front is the probable return of Angelo Ogbonna. He is one of the names along with Lukasz Fabianski, Issa Diop, Declan Rice, Michail Antonio, Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen that you would want pre-printed on the team-sheet. After that it is a case of pick and mix.

The bare bones full-back option will likely default to the uninspiring pairing of Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks, now that Ngakia has packed his bags. Ben Johnson looks to be one of the several fringe players (along with Ajeti and Silva) that Moyes doesn’t trust (for whatever reason!) while Arthur Masuaku remains absent injured. According to Moyes, Masuaku is back ‘on the grass’ which leads me think ‘so, that’s what they’re smoking in the West Ham treatment room.’

Also confined to the sidelines is the club’s only striker, Sebastien Haller. I expect either Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko will be asked to play that lonely role up front. It might be worth giving Yarmolenko a try. There is little to lose and he is remarkably predictable when played in a wider role, no matter how sweet his left foot is. And I much prefer Antonio in a position where he can run with the ball at his feet. He is not a hold it up up player.

I guess from the manager’s comments that we will once again see Mark Noble starting if only for his (apparent) leadership qualities. It is a nice idea but ‘love’ for the club on its own doesn’t get you any points and Nobles best playing days are some way behind him. From another ‘it can’t be any worse’ perspective, giving pitch time to Jack Wilshere has to be a gamble worth taking sooner or later.  Pablo Fornals has demonstrated enough endeavour to be given another chance, but ideally not stuck out on the wing – he works hard enough but doesn’t have the pace. Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini only get on the bench because there are extra spaces available now.

Throw that all into the mix and my preferred starting eleven would be:

Fabianski
Johnson, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell
Rice, Soucek
Bowen, Fornals (or Wilshere), Antonio
Yarmolenko

The officials for tonight’s game are Martin Atkinson out on the pitch with Jonathan Moss struggling to fit behind the desk at VAR central. Time for those poor decisions that are meant to balance out over the course of a season to start doing so.

A mixed bag from the TV pundits. Lawro has woken up from his celebratory Anfield hangover to predict a 1-0 away win, whereas Charlie Nicholas again shows a soft spot for the Hammers by tipping them to earn a 1-1 draw.

If West Ham are to come away with anything from this game it will require massive performances from their key players – while the others must try not to do anything stupid. Chelsea have been on a good run of results without ever being convincing. They do not find it easy to penetrate packed defences but the threat will always be there if we keep gifting them the ball.

There is sure to be plenty of focus on Declan Rice in the light of the repeated transfer speculation and perhaps a thought at the back of his mind is that Champion’s League football is a possibility next season. The idea that Declan might soon be added to that list of ex-Hammer league winners is a depressing one – at least for us.

The Moyes sit back, soak up the pressure and hope for a breakaway philosophy is a long shot – might it just work? I doubt it, but you never can tell. We will need to be razor sharp, but I suspect that a draw is the best a fan get.

What West Ham would give for a repeat of the score at Stamford Bridge earlier this season!

When we kick off at 8.15 pm on July 1st we may or may not be in the bottom three. Even if we are I stand by my assertion from my last blog article that we will not be relegated this season. Nothing that we have done on the field since the return after lockdown backs up my confidence. It is the form (or lack of it) from our rivals in the relegation stakes that makes me believe we will be OK.

Brighton (on 33 points) will almost certainly be OK thanks to their win against Arsenal and draw at Leicester. They have had (by a long way) the best results of the bottom six since resumption and still have seven games left to add to their tally. Four of their next five games look tough on paper (Man. Utd., Liverpool, Man City, and away at Southampton who have surprised me considering how poor they looked at the London Stadium shortly before the season was held up), but in between they play at Norwich, and then finish with games against Newcastle and Burnley. They should be fine.

Watford (on 28 points) now only have six games to play, two (out of their next three) of which don’t look too bad on paper at home to Norwich and Newcastle. Their toughest games should be at Chelsea and Arsenal and at home to Man. City. Of course they face us on July 15 which will be an important six-pointer. They have not looked that great so far, but I think they’ll be OK.

West Ham (on 27 points and outside the bottom three on goal difference only) will, after this home game against Chelsea (more on this later), face five teams currently in the bottom half of the table in our final six games, the only exception being the away trip to Old Trafford for the penultimate game of the season. Newcastle and Norwich (both away) plus three games at home to Burnley, Watford, and Villa are crucial games for us to pick up the necessary points for survival.

Bournemouth (also on 27 points) have a home game against Newcastle that kicks off just two and a quarter hours before our game against Chelsea. This surely is their best chance to move out of the bottom three, because their final six games will see them face Man.Utd, Spurs, Leicester, Man.City, Southampton, and Everton. I don’t see them picking up many more points from those.

Villa (also on 27 points) now only have six games to play, the first five of which are against Liverpool, Man.Utd, Palace, Everton, and Arsenal, before coming to the London Stadium on the last day of the season. Surely they won’t be collecting much from those games without a massive reversal of form.

Norwich (on 21 points) look doomed, although they won’t be the poorest team to have ever been relegated from the top flight. If they can hang on to their better players they will have a good chance of bouncing back.

So that’s my summary of what I think will happen. We won’t pull up any trees in the run-in, but if we still manage to go down now by failing to pick up enough points from the remaining games, then we will well and truly deserve it. And if we did happen to go down I would fear for our chances of bouncing back as quickly as we have done after previous relegations.

Of course we won 1-0 at Chelsea shortly before the end of 2019 in a game remembered for David Martin’s debut clean sheet, and his emotional reunion with his dad Alvin in the stands. Despite our win, we also scored another goal that was chalked off as a result of it “accidentally” touching Antonio’s arm, one of two goals denied to us this season by accidental handball both picked up by VAR. It’s a silly rule anyway in the sense that accidental handball by a defender in his own penalty area does not result in a penalty kick being awarded against him, so why are attacking teams penalised in this way? And don’t get me going about the VAR failure to spot the handball which led to Tottenham’s first goal against us!

As for team selection in this game then of course our keeper picks himself, but it will be interesting to see whether Ogbonna (who is now apparently fit) is recalled in place of Balbuena, who only looks a shadow of the player he was in his first season with us. And talking of players not at the same level as in the past, Cresswell now looks too slow, and seems to dwell on the ball in possession. It wasn’t that long ago that he won an England cap, but now he worries me, and we look especially vulnerable against teams attacking us on that flank.

Rice has been our standout player once again, and I’d like to see him line up alongside Soucek in a defensive midfield position. Of course there has been so much to admire about Mark Noble over the years, and much as I like him, the pace of the game just seems a little too quick now, especially against the top teams. He still has a part to play in this run-in but I’d like him to sit out this one.

Our attacking has been generally poor and we haven’t scored since Leap Years Day when we comprehensively put three goals past Southampton. Bowen and Antonio both scored on that day, and seem to me to be the only two attacking players who have shown any semblance of form in our last two games. Bowen continues to look impressive whilst Antonio has looked OK but is not a centre forward and certainly shouldn’t play up front on his own.

Beyond those two I don’t really know! Anderson and Lanzini have both looked so poor to me, and whilst I can see some potential in Fornals, he hasn’t looked that great in the last two games and certainly not in front of goal, spurning two excellent chances to score. Who else is there? Wilshere has apparently been very impressive in training, and should surely be given a chance to do it in games? If he could recapture some semblance of past form then there is a chance he could unlock some defences, but there must be a reason he hasn’t been given a chance yet in a team playing poorly? Yarmolenko has the highest ratio of goals to minutes played this season, but he has been inconsistent and Moyes doesn’t appear to rate him, nor does the manager seem to trust the inexperienced Xande Silva, nor Ajeti, who despite being an international footballer has not been given many minutes to prove himself.

Of course Haller apparently has a hip injury that is keeping him out. There are some scandalous conspiracy theories going around that suggest he isn’t playing because we will be selling him in the summer, and apparently one more appearance would trigger a hefty payment to Eintracht Frankfurt, the club from whom we bought him. That would be ridiculous! So my team for this game (but definitely not the manager’s selection) would be: Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Johnson; Rice, Soucek, Wilshere; Yarmolenko, Antonio, Bowen.

In the remaining games I’d like to see our manager make better use of substitutes, both in terms of who, and the timing. We are allowed to use up to five, and surely it makes sense to do so, especially if you are behind in a game?

I watched some of the FA Cup game between Leicester and Chelsea at the weekend and I was surprised at how poor Chelsea were, especially in the first half. But Lampard has laid into them deeming so many of their players’ performances unacceptable, and I would be surprised if they didn’t improve markedly when they face us. And talking of the FA Cup, an interesting fact. Teams are supposedly weakened in this competition these days, but the four semi-finalists, are four of the so-called elite six in this country, and in fact each of them has won the trophy in the last four seasons.

What do I expect from this game? Based on what I’ve seen in the last couple of games, I expect to be beaten, think that we could possibly snatch a draw, but hope for an unlikely win, the same as we managed at Stamford Bridge in November. What are the chances?

Hammers’ Limitations Exposed At Tottenham but we are still outside bottom three! Just!

I have written frequently about West Ham’s limitations and there is no need to continue with them here. We were second best to a Tottenham side that had more attacking ideas than we did, but nevertheless we were unfortunate to go behind when VAR once again failed to do its job in spotting that the ball came off an attacking arm before the unfortunate Soucek deflected the ball into his own net. Apparently our manager is in trouble for remarks he made about the VAR referee, but I find it absolutely incredible that the handball was not seen. When you think back to our game at Sheffield United and the decision that went against us there when the ball brushed Declan Rice’s arm in the build-up to an equaliser, you have to say that we haven’t had the benefit of dodgy decisions this season, despite VAR being there to correct them. The second Tottenham goal came as a result of us pushing forward when Kane broke away to score, although in all honesty, we rarely looked like scoring.

Yes the lively Bowen was unlucky with his shot that came back off the post, but for the second game running Fornals missed by a mile when he should have scored with a little composure. Antonio also managed to balloon one over the bar when leaning back as he was clear on goal. But apart from Bowen and Rice, who was once again magnificent, few of our players finished this game with much credit. The manager was also culpable in my view for the way he set us up, and his poor choices and timing of substitutions.

Yet we are still outside the bottom three. But only just! Two tough games to go against Chelsea and Manchester United, who have both resumed after lockdown in good form, but five games remaining that we can certainly get something from against Newcastle, Burnley, Norwich, Watford and a potential last day decider against Aston Villa. Three of those are at home, although in the current circumstances home advantage is not really what it was beforehand. And if we don’t get the results then of course we deserve to go down anyway.

Unlike so many on social media I don’t believe that we will be relegated. Brighton may have done enough to pull away, and their odds on being relegated are now a fairly longshot at 14/1. Norwich are 1/50 to go down and it will take a miracle for them to survive, so it looks like it will be two from Villa, Bournemouth, Watford and ourselves to join them. Despite our shortcomings, I still believe that looking at the games remaining we will have enough to save ourselves. I agree with the bookmakers in that Villa (2/9) and Bournemouth (2/5) will go down because of the difficulty of their fixtures. Our relegation odds are 11/8 and Watford are 5/2.

Liverpool were deservedly confirmed as champions today when Chelsea defeated Manchester City although it was inevitable wasn’t it? They won it with seven games to spare, although by clinching it on June 25th it must be the latest date by a long way. The race for European places is still in force which will keep some of the top teams interested in the remaining games, and I’m confident that they will all be doing their utmost to gain the necessary points. Once again the tussle to stay up will produce the most interesting football for the remainder of the season.

We will need to improve in the remaining seven games, and I believe we will. But I am afraid that next season will be another of the same unless there are radical changes at the club. And I’m not confident of that.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it. Can West Ham get results in N17?

After a worst possible start and performance on Saturday, West Ham need to up their game considerably if they are to get a result and chase off the creeping shadow of relegation

As 1980’s pop philosophers Bananarama succinctly put it “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.” Looking back to West Ham’s opening restart efforts on Saturday evening I can only conclude that ‘if that’s the way they intend to do it’ then we are irretrievably doomed to relegation. It has a look of inevitability about it unless something drastic happens. Or unless we are able to rely on Villa and Bournemouth being equally poor.

Sure, Wolves are a particularly good, efficient, if not spectacular, side that cause problems in every game they play, no matter who the opposition is. A stark contrast to the lack of endeavour that characterises David Moyes side on most occasions.  Notable is the success that Nuno has had in integrating his many Portuguese imports into the English game when compared to our own Fun Boy Three (Anderson, Fornals and Lanzini) who might as well have stayed locked down for all the difference they made – Specials they are not!

I feared that we would get a slow and stuttering restart, and that is exactly what happened. No plan, no purpose, no passion – and no points. Yet another performance where the players looked to have little idea what they were supposed to be doing. Moyes had set up for the point and once Wolves had scored it was game over, such was the complete absence of any creativity or goal threat.

Not that you can blame Moyes for the disastrous transfer spending during Manuel Pellegrini’s time at the club. It may be 2020 hindsight but if we had kept Moyes and given him the same transfer budget we wouldn’t be where we are now. That’s not to say we would have been enamoured with the style of football.

As I mentioned before the Wolves game, the dearth of central defensive and striker cover are negligent and damaging for a Premier League club. An extended absence of Angelo Ogbonna and Sebastien Haller will be a massive blow to our prospects, even if neither are exactly world beaters. Will there now be a temptation to rush them back before they are ready? How to keep players fit is another tip we might ask of Nuno.

The big selection conundrum concerns Declan Rice (looking a lot less Irish these days with longer hair and a beard) who is both our best defender and best midfield player. Unless he can be cloned this is a dilemma, although on balance I see his energy and discipline in midfield as the bigger loss. Ogbonna is an acceptable enough replacement in central defence but Fabian Balbuena isn’t – at least not on the evidence of the season to date – where The General has become a general liability. I never thought I would say it but, hurry back, Angelo.

Rice apart, there were few positives coming from the Wolves game although I thought Jeremy Ngakia was one of our better players, particularly when going forward. With no genuine wide players in the side, width has to be provided by the full-backs, even though that makes us (even more) susceptible to the counter attack. With the ongoing uncertainty regarding Ngakia’s future, Moyes may opt to start Ryan Fredericks against his former club. There is no such alternative at left back where Arthur Masuaku’s absence means Aaron Cresswell will continue despite his feeble attempts to handle game-changer Traore on Saturday. Unless, that is, Moyes thinks Ben Johnson is up to playing on his wrong side.

The striker dilemma, should Haller be once again unavailable, is whether Michail Antonio can handle another 90 minutes of football so soon. Antonio made little impact against Wolves, although he had little in the way of support. I read that Felipe Anderson was meant to be playing alongside him in a 4-4-2, but you could have fooled me. The alternative would be to use the-still-recovering-from-injury Andriy Yarmolenko in a striking role. There is, sadly, little news to inspire confidence.

Moyes will no doubt be looking for a midfield shuffle. If Rice has to play centre-back then Mark Noble will need to find the stamina to again partner Tomas Soucek. It is then a  case of picking any three from Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals, Jack Wilshere and Yarmolenko (if he is not playing up front) to make up the numbers. No combination jumps out as ideal.

Whatever the line-up, Moyes will be setting his side out to preserve the point they started with. A fortunate set piece winner being the extent of our ambition. As we saw on Saturday, the drawback of that cunning plan is having no alternative strategy in the event of the opposition scoring.

To compound the negativity surrounding the club right now, both manager and captain have been playing the role of victims in bemoaning the fixture scheduling. Not a good stance to take when courage, diligence and unity are required more than whinging.

Our north London friends have not had the best of seasons, but they may still believe that a Champion’s League place is a possibility – let’s face it they are an eternally credulous bunch. Mourinho is likely to have a full squad to choose from with Kane and Son recovered from pre-lockdown injuries and Alli available after suspension.

Today’s Matchday officials are Craig Pawson (on the pitch) while David Coote is once again on the VAR controls back in Stockley Park.

My own confidence level that this West Ham squad have what it takes to escape relegation has been reset to approaching zero. The adjusted Under The Hammers ‘R’ (for relegation) values (the closer to 1 the more trouble you are in) following the latest round of matches are: Norwich (0.99), Villa (0.96), Bournemouth (0.95), West Ham (0.95), Watford (0.92) and Brighton (0.91).

As for the pundits, their predictions for tonight are Lawro with an expected 2-0 home win; while Charlie Nicholas believes that a sluggish Spurs might be surprised by West Ham’s tenacity, earning the visitors an unlikely 1-1 draw. Controversial stuff, Charlie.

As I recall, the Bananarama girls went on to advise that “it ain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it” is also of equal importance if you want to get results. For a Hammer’s fan there surely cannot be a better place to do ‘it’ than in N17, as indeed happened last season. Can it happen again? Even with the claret and blue spectacles on it is a difficult scenario to imagine I will be hoping for a snatched draw, but fully expect a convincing defeat.

The Wolves Are At The Door: It’s All Kicking Off At West Ham

The post-apocalyptic Premier League era kicks off at the London Stadium with West Ham playing host to high flying Wolves in a whole new ball game.

I will be honest but I never believed this day – the resumption of West Ham’s 2019/20 league campaign – would ever actually happen. Now it is here, I confess to being nervously apprehensive. The immediate fate of our club is to be decided on the outcome of nine relegation threatened matches played over five short weeks. Survival is contingent on the level of readiness and the appetite for a fight – characteristics that have rarely been freely associated with the Hammers for much of their recent history.

Mark Noble says “we’ve worked hard and the boys look ready”. No doubt, other club captains have been saying the same thing. Is it likely that our preparations have been as good as or better than others? Arguably West Ham have technically better players than their relegation rivals, but will David Moyes be able to instil the right levels of motivation, effort and organisation to quickly recover the momentum that he says was building before the shutdown?

It is over three months since West Ham last played – about as long as a normal close season – but with only a few weeks to prepare for battle. Yet unlike a new season which will kick-off again in the same circumstances as the last season ended, this time, so much has changed – it really is a whole new ball game!

Empty echoing cavernous stadiums, atmospheric TV crowd noise, cardboard cutout supporters (aka Arsenal fans), free to air TV, more badges on the shirt than Bear Grylls, nine bottoms on the bench, five available subs and a designated goal celebration zone. I eagerly await the choreographed Tik Tok inspired celebration routines from Michail Antonio. A far cry from the congratulatory pat on the back and manly handshake that Bobby Moore would have expected back in the day.

This new normal will be far more of a squad game than it had been pre-virus – if fitness is to be preserved and niggling injuries avoided (what are the chances?) The squad still has a surplus of midfield players but an absence of suitable cover at the back and up front. Injuries to key players will have significant repercussions.

Today’s starting lineup is difficult to call and contingent upon the availability of Angelo Ogbonna and Noble. Speculation from in-the-know club insiders is that Declan Rice may need to slot in at centre back if Ogbonna is absent – rather than risk the wayward Fabian Balbuena – but can that be possible if Noble is not ready to partner Tomas Soucek in central midfield? Going into the game with just one anchor in midfield would be asking for trouble it needs two from Rice, Soucek and Noble to play that role.

Fingers crossed that we can avoid seeing Noble and Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time, and that we have seen the very last of Carlos Sanchez. It would also be an opportune time for the likes of Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere and Pablo Fornals to earn their corn. I will be intrigued to see how Moyes approaches substitutions, something that he is often reluctant to make use of. Not one after the hour and the other four in the 87th minute I hope.

Back in March the collective endeavour of Antonio, Sebastien Haller and Jarrod Bowen was starting to look promising and I am looking forward to seeing them pick up where they left off today. There is plenty there to cause the visitors problems and, just as importantly, to keep their wing backs occupied when we are not in possession.

Although, I do not know all the background to the Jeremy Ngakia kerfuffle, it has all the hallmarks of a very West Ham cock-up. With justifiable concerns over the fitness of right back alternatives – Ryan Fredericks, Ben Johnson and Pablo Zabaleta – for such an intense run of games, the services of the want-away Ngakia may well be crucial between now and the end of the month.

Today’s opposition, Wolverhampton Wanderers had been experiencing a tremendous season prior to the March shutdown. Seventh in the league and still with an interest in the Europa League, it will be no surprise if Nuno Espirito Santo (the best name in football management) has his players fully fired up for the restart. You will remember that we were originally due to play them on a Sunday afternoon in the wake of an arduous midweek journey to play a Europa League tie in Greece. In my opinion, and in the interests of fairness, they should have been compelled to take an equivalent difficult trek in the days leading up to today’s fixture.

I’m not sure I am totally onboard with the notion that the greatest Wolves threat is posed by Adama Traore, at least not consistently. He alternates between being the master of running the ball out of play at dazzling speed, and spells of being mesmerisingly unplayable – an Antonio with ball control, but without the aerial threat. Of course, it is the West Ham way for players such as these to save their best for games against us.

For me, it is the Portuguese trio of Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota that make Wolves tick and present the greatest danger. Add in Raul Jimenez (a Mexican striker more suited to English football) and our players must take heed of that sage old advice to stay alert. Far too frequently our defenders play like they are statues, and we must ensure that none are toppled today.

The welcome return of football brings with it the vagaries and inconsistency of refereeing decisons. It did not take long for the restart to become embroiled in officiating controversy, with the failure to award a clear goal to Sheffield United at Villa Park on Wednesday evening. I can just about accept the chance in a million occlusion experienced by Hawkeye, but what were the referee and VAR doing? Like someone who relies entirely on GPS to reach their destination, they had no clue what to do when the technology failed them. Technology is meant to ‘assist’ the referee, not take all the decisions for them. Today’s allocation from officialdom are Anthony Taylor (ref) and David Coote (VAR).

Each of today’s four games will have a significant impact on the bottom of the table. With West Ham on third, I wonder if the outcome of events at Watford and Brighton will affect the mood at the London Stadium? Hitting the ground running has never been more important. Lawro thinks West Ham will win (1-0), Charlie Nicholas sees it as one apiece. On this occasion I will be completely ruled by my heart and opt for a 2-0 home win.