Can West Ham and Leicester make Twenty-First Century Premier League History?

In the past twenty years, six football clubs have dominated English football. The “elite six”, certainly in terms of revenue generated, have almost always been at the top of the Premier League by the end of each season. The notable exception was Leicester City, today’s opponents, who surprised us all five years ago when they finished as champions. But Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham have continued to outshine others at the summit.

In fact at this stage of the season with eight games remaining (the position we have reached now) it is almost 20 years since there have been two non “elite six” clubs occupying places in the top four at the same time. Those two teams were Newcastle and Everton who were third and fourth respectively as the 2002-03 season approached the end. But come the end of the season, there has never been more than one team outside of these six in the top four. In the season in question Newcastle held on to third but Everton faded to seventh by the finish.

So we are already making some history with both Leicester and ourselves in the top four and fighting to finish there hoping to claim a Champions League place by the end of May. But can we both be there at the end? Leicester are certainly favourites as they are in third place, four points ahead of ourselves in fourth. But Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton are all waiting in the wings for either of us to slip up. It certainly makes the run-in more interesting, and even more so than usual because we are not accustomed to be in this position at this time.

I have been looking at some other statistics and noticed that we have had the majority of possession of the ball in just four of the thirty games we’ve played. Our success has been based upon being solid defensively (despite conceding five in our last two games), and excellent when counter attacking, superbly demonstrated in the Wolves game.

In view of our recent bad luck in respect of injuries through the spine of the team, Mark Noble will almost certainly play today. He is no Declan Rice, but the manager trusts him (at lot more than many on social media do too), and it will be quite an achievement as he plays his 400th game in the Premier League, quite a feat in the modern era. He will become only the eighth player to reach this milestone for the same club. Can you name the other seven? They all played international football and for teams that won either the Premier League or Champions League, whilst Mark Noble has played throughout in a team more used to being at the other end of the table, and although often touted, never quite made the England team at senior level, although he won many caps at younger ages. I’ll reveal the names of the seven at the end of this article.

There have been some great games against Leicester throughout my time following West Ham, and in fact two of them made it into the top 20 games I’ve seen when I wrote my book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford. The first one I’ll recall was on Boxing Day in 1967. I watched the game from my seat in B Block in the old West Stand at Upton Park. It kicked off at 11am (yes, there were morning games in those days), and by 11.15 we were 2-0 down. But the very first goal that I can remember a very young Trevor Brooking scoring, plus a superb hat trick from one of my favourite West Ham goalscorers, Brian Dear, ensured a great win in a very entertaining game. But the undoubted man of the match was a very young (17 year old?) teenager playing in the Leicester goal who had an unbelievable game and was destined to become a star in the future – Peter Shilton.

Now that game was 53 years ago and yet 17 of the 22 teams in Division One at that time are in the Premier League this season showing that, in many ways, not much changes in football. So there are only three teams that are currently in the Premier League who weren’t in the top flight in 1967-68, and there are five teams who were in Division One at the time, but who are now in lower divisions. I’ll challenge you to name them and I’ll reveal the answers at the end of the article. Ironically the two teams that were relegated that season were Sheffield United and Fulham.

When we met Leicester on that Boxing Day we were 20th in the league and in a relegation tussle (although only two were relegated in those days). By the end of the season we had rallied somewhat and finally finished 12th; Leicester were 13th. Incidentally we visited Filbert Street four days later and won the game again, with the identical score, 4-2, with goals from Dear 2, Brooking and Sissons.

Another great game against Leicester came in the following season. On 16th November 1968 we were 7th in the table, having won our two previous home games 8-0 v Sunderland and 4-3 v Queens Park Rangers. It was amazing that we were that high in the table considering we had a run of 9 winless games from early September to mid October. There were a few memorable games in that 1968/69 season and this one came a fortnight after the QPR game. I watched from the North Bank and, apart from being an exciting game it also included my all time favourite goal scored by Martin Peters. When I met Martin almost 40 years later at a book signing I asked him to sign the programme for that game, as well as his autobiography. And what a lovely man he was, although he had no recollection of the game. The goal was a fantastic move started by Ferguson in goal, the ball rolled out to Peters, then to Charles, then to Sissons, and finally a fantastic unstoppable volley by Peters who had run the length of the pitch virtually to get on the end of it. You can see the last part of the goal on YouTube from where Sissons crosses it, but unfortunately not the whole move. From our position on the North Bank we had a super view of the finish.

So what will happen in today’s unlikely potential Champions League six-pointer? Two managers, having great seasons, both having been previously sacked by “elite six” clubs, and both looking to add to their case for becoming the manager of the season and taking their respective clubs into the Champions League. Unfortunately our relatively injury-free season (especially by West Ham standards) is now beginning to show the limitations of our squad with both Rice and Antonio being added to Ogbonna on the treatment table.

But we are still in with a very good chance of our highest ever Premier League placing and I’d like to see both clubs playing today ending in the top four, at the expense of “elite six” clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. It was massively disappointing to see Liverpool come from behind to snatch a late winner against Villa yesterday. And then Chelsea rolled over Palace with ease too. Let’s hope that Manchester United can win at Tottenham later today. But yesterday’s results make today’s game even more important and three points would be invaluable in our quest for a top four finish.

Our run-in is not the toughest, and home games against Leicester, Chelsea and Everton (perhaps the three hardest games on paper) could be crucial. We have the second best home record in the Premier League (after Manchester City who surprisingly went down yesterday) so why not claim a place in the top four. We can still do it.

The answers to the questions posed earlier: The seven players who have played 400 games in the Premier League for one club: Giggs, Scholes, Gary Neville, Carragher, Gerrard, Lampard and Terry.

The three teams currently in the Premier League who were not in the top flight in 1967-68 are Brighton, Palace and Aston Villa. The five teams who were in Division One in 1967-68 but are not in the premier league now are: Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Stoke, Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry.

Let us hope for a win today to complete another double this season. What are the chances? 

West Ham Jockey For Top Four Place With Leicester Pivot

A crunch encounter in the race for the top four. But will the handicap of missing players impede the Hammers as they approach the final turn?

Following the entertaining win at Wolverhampton on Monday evening, David Moyes briefly referred to entering the final furlong of the Premier League race, then quickly corrected himself. With 20% of the season still to play, he was right to do so. If the league was a three-mile chase, then there would still be five furlongs to run – complete with a couple of tricky to overcome, including this weekend’s crunch encounter with Leicester City.

In a historical context, six pointers between these two clubs, this late in the season, would be taking place at the other end of the table. Not looking to gate-crash the elite’s Champion’s League qualification party.  A Hammers win and it drags the Foxes back into the field of five clubs chasing two places. Whereas a Leicester success puts them firmly in the driving seat for third place.

As things stand, the visitors are four points better off. Both have experienced eight defeats but Leicester have recorded two more wins (while the Hammers were drawing). The game sees the league’s second-best home record come up against the league’s second-best away record. Something’s gotta give!

Moyes was also correct in saying that West Ham sitting fourth in the table is not a fluke. They are there on merit and thanks largely to an amazing resilience that has been injected into the team. There have been many exceptional individual performances, but the major strength in the side is collective discipline, organisation, and teamwork. It is a rare occurrence for the West Ham whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Football hipsters may drone on about false nines, double pivots, half spaces, inverted wingbacks, expected goals, transitions, and so on ………….. but it is hard work, effort and energy that have provided the foundation for exponential improvement.

The other unusual feature of West Ham’s season (or at least it was to about a week ago) has been a better than expected experience with injuries. There have been isolated setbacks, but were negotiated successfully despite the thinness of the squad. But suddenly there is an epidemic. No-one can accuse this team of being spineless but we do now look like a team without a spine, the result of the simultaneous absence of Declan Rice, Angelo Ogbonna, and Michail Antonio.

I’m sure I am not alone in fearing that these injuries will be our undoing. Perhaps the manager has a cunning plan but with no radical options available, Moyes is unlikely to stray far from what (and who) he knows and trusts.

I can’t see any change from the defence line-up that started against Wolves despite the vulnerability that has crept in and seen five goals conceded in the last two games. That will mean Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku featuring again as wing backs and providing width going forward. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the ageing legs of Mark Noble alongside Tomas Soucek in the midfield ‘double pivot’. Several creative suggestions have been mooted online including moving Issa Diop, Said Benrahma or Coufal into that role, but even if I coul dbe convinced they might work, Moyes certainly wouldn’t go for any of them. My particular concern with Noble in this game is picking up yellow cards for poorly timed tackles on James Madison, another player who likes to go to ground rather too easily.

That leaves a front three of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. They provide enough threat to cause problems to an uncertain Leicester defence, but only if the rest of the team realise that none of them is Antonio. A very different level of service will be required.

The Foxes went through their own mini-injury crisis recently, but have come through it relatively unscathed and without the predicted fall off in performances. Of the key players only Harvey Barnes remains side-lined. They famously faltered in the home straight last season and will be eager not to do so yet again. Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans present a formidable partnership in defensive midfield while Kelechi Iheanacho has been the surprise pick lately as Jamie Vardy’s partner in attack. Linked with the Hammers before his move to Leicester in 2017 he has yet to deliver on his early promise and price tag.

Leicester have developed into much more of a possession-based side than the one that won the title in 2015/16. Back then they averaged just over 42% possession compared to 53% so far this season. By comparison, West Ham are averaging 41% this term. This provides a good indicator of how tomorrow’s match will pan out – containment and strike on the break.

The Foxes have yet to taste defeat at the London Stadium. At full strength I would give the Hammers every chance of changing that. The worries for me are not being able to adapt to the absence of Antonio and the lack of pace in defensive midfield. These tip the scales in Leicester’s favour but I think we’ll still manage to get a draw out of it. COYI!

West Ham Must Stay Positive Or Top Four Will Be Out Of Reach: No Time To Be Crying Wolves

Out of reach, so far, we never had the start. Out of reach, couldn’t see, Top Four’s ever meant to be. Who dares, wins, Mr Moyes!

If someone were to analyse my dreams, they might reach the conclusion that frustration is the common and recurring theme. Invariably, I am attempting to achieve or reach some goal or target and am unable to do so – whether it is catching a train, getting to an important appointment on time or finishing the weekend in the top four. West Ham are at the root of all my character defects!

The Hammers last league outing seems like it was ages ago now, interrupted as it was by another tedious international break. World cup qualifiers have become a case of going through motions these days. Designed to ensure the major sponsorship friendly countries have a smooth route through to the finals. It would be astonishing if any of the big name countries fail to qualify.

Anyhow, it has allowed for the disappointment of throwing away a three goal lead to Arsenal to fester in the mind far longer than necessary. An extra two points on the board would put a whole different complexion on the table as West Ham’s visit to Molineux rounds off Matchweek 30. An opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and into the coveted fourth place spot.

Who in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario at the start of the season? But is it an opportunity that will be taken? Can the nerve hold? Or will a promising position once again be kept tantalisingly out of reach – either through an absence of belief, a lack of focus or sense of inferiority? Will we end with another Jim Bowen “Look at what you could have won” moment? In short, when push comes to shove, will West Ham go all Spursy?

Immediately, the third goal went in against Arsenal, something odd happened on the pitch. What should have been a position of dominance morphed spontaneously into a phase of uncertainty. Not the result of tactical change but one born out of apprehension. Granted the third goal finally woke Arsenal up, but West Ham’s mindset changed as well. The passing and movement that had so unsettled the Gunners disappeared, replaced by hopeful balls forward and a willingness to throw away possession. Initiative was surrendered and, once Arsenal got one back, hope and momentum were effectively lost. The baffling substitutions only added to a sense of throwing in the towel. By the end, even coming away with a point looked unlikely.  The ease with which Liverpool despatched a poor Arsenal side at the weekend underlined the frustration felt.

For this evening’s encounter with Wolves, West Ham are able to welcome Pablo Fornals and Arthur Masuaku back to the squad. With all three of the Arsenal goals coming down our left hand side, David Moyes may be tempted to return to a back three rather than allow Aaron Cresswell to cope with the speed of the inconsistent Traore by himself. Despite calls for a Cresswell England return, left back remains a big problem position for the Hammers.

It is unfortunate that Angelo Ogbonna is not yet ready to return. Without the Italian at his side, Craig Dawson has had a bit of a wobble just lately. He and Issa Diop will need to be at their sharpest, even against the shot shy Wolves attack. A hattrick of own goals would be a disaster.

Hopefully, the two-week break will have given Michail Antonio another chance to recharge his batteries. He hasn’t been the same since his last injury and his old spark will be vital for the run-in. The dilemma of having only one striker.

Wolves have had a disappointing season. After two impressive 7th place finishes they have seriously lost their way this season, although sit relatively comfortably in mid-table. The loss of Jimenez has been a big blow as was the departure of Jota. At the same time the powers of midfield general Moutinho appear to be on the wane. I do like what I have seen of Neto and despite sounding like a discount supermarket chain he provides their greatest offensive threat. Traore has the occasional inspirational game but largely flatters to deceive, while Silva has the look of a player totally unsuited to the hurly burly of English football.

What can we expect tonight? Will the enforced break have any unexpected impacts, as it did for Chelsea and West Brom? Will the occasion and the chance to go fourth cause the players to freeze? With a return of just one point from the last two disappointing performances, it is the ideal time to get the show back on the road. It will be character, as well as skill and endeavour, that will determine outcome. As will a positive approach from the manager. Collectively, they must believe they can win. Form suggests they can, but what is in their heads?

When I first drafted this post I was banking on big performances from Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard providing the inspiration for a satisfying 2-0 win. News has since broken that Rice will be missing for an as yet unspecified period of time as the result of a knee injury picked up on England duty. That is a huge concern given that Moyes will no doubt see the likely replacement as Mark Noble. I wish him well and hope he has a blinder but the reality is he is far too slow still to be playing at this level.

Still hoping for the best but the confidence has dropped considerably. COYI!

The win against Wolves early on kick-started West Ham’s season. Can it be repeated as European qualification still beckons?

March 2020. A world bracing itself for a potential pandemic as talk of coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China gets louder and louder. Pictures in Britain emerge of hospitals struggling in Italy and Spain, and cases begin to emerge closer to home. As a nation not much changes at first. We are urged to wash our hands religiously but not much else to combat the spread of the disease. Sport continues as normal.

On March 7th West Ham play their 29th game of the season against Arsenal. We lose 1-0. It has been a difficult campaign. It started brightly enough despite a 5-0 loss at home to Manchester City on the opening day. With half a dozen games gone we sat in fifth place in the table. Expectations were high for a good season ahead.

Before 2019 is out it has all gone wrong. Following a home defeat to Leicester City after Christmas, with exactly half of the season completed, Pellegrini is sacked and David Moyes is appointed in time for the home game on New Years Day against Bournemouth. We are in a relegation tussle. Three wins and two draws in the opening six games of the season have been followed by just two wins and two draws in the next 13 games. We are now 17th in the league occupying the position immediately above the bottom three.

Move forward to March 7th 2020. Following the defeat to Arsenal our record now reads: Played 29, Won 7, Drawn 6, Lost 16. With a goal difference of minus 15 we are 16th in the table. David Moyes has had 10 games in charge so far. We’ve won 2, drawn 2, and lost 6. Our situation has barely improved. We are still in a relegation tussle.

Life continues as normal in Britain. As fears of the spread of the pandemic continue to grow and calls for action are made, the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival goes ahead and Liverpool entertain Atletico Madrid with thousands of supporters travelling from Spain to support their team. Personally I went horse racing to a relatively small meeting at Huntingdon on Wednesday 11th March. There was no talk of social distancing at the time, merely bigger queues in the toilets with extended hand washing times!

The season was suspended following a decision on 13 March 2020 by the Premier League to suspend the league after a number of players and other club staff became ill due to the pandemic. I had already decided against attending the Wolves fixture. National lockdown in Britain came in the following week. The initial suspension was until 4 April, which was then extended. The FA then agreed to extend the season indefinitely, past the scheduled end date of 1 June. During the lockdown West Ham were awaiting decisions on their fate in case football did not resume. Although we were 16th in the league there were differing ways of calculating which clubs would be relegated using varying complicated formulae.  

The season eventually resumed on 19 June, with West Ham playing their first match since suspension the following day, losing 2-0 at home to Wolves. More than three months had elapsed between games 29 and 30. All matches from this date were played behind closed doors with no paying supporters. Following this defeat we now dropped to 17th with just eight games to go. A defeat at Tottenham in game 31 didn’t help, but wins against Chelsea, Norwich and Watford and draws against Newcastle, Manchester United and Villa were enough to ensure a place in the Premier League for season 2020-21.

Fast forward to this season, and nobody expected us to be where we are now. Our 29th game was once again against Arsenal. We can all remember what happened a fortnight ago when we relinquished a three goal lead to draw the game. But, following Chelsea’s unlikely defeat at home to West Brom on Saturday, qualification for the Champions League via a top four finish is still in our own hands, although Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton are all still well in the mix. Manchester United and Leicester are well placed to finish second and third but aren’t there yet.

Our record after the Arsenal game is a big contrast to that after the same game last season. This time – Played 29, Won 14, Drawn 7, Lost 8, Goal Difference +10. Twice as many games won, and half the number of defeats. Plus a goal difference turnaround of 25. That is some improvement and great credit to the manager, coaching staff, and of course the players.

Wolves are in the bottom half of the table this time around, but the game will still be a difficult one, as will the following match against Leicester. Perhaps these two matches will define our fate, but there will still be a lot of football to be played. In the seven matches that follow on from there we face two of our rivals at the top, Chelsea and Everton, but also have some winnable games (on paper of course) against bottom-half teams Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton, West Brom and Southampton.

It’s quite a coincidence that the 29th and 30th games of the season are against Arsenal and Wolves for two years running. There is even a gap between the fixtures, although the two week international break this time doesn’t compare to the three months interval last time around.

I don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four but we’re still in with a shout and that’s great. Even if we fade a little from here and finish as low as eighth it would still be a good season and a massive improvement on the last few years, albeit a slightly disappointing end. The wins against Wolves and Leicester early on really kick-started this season for us and were followed by the dramatic comeback against Tottenham, and then holding champions-elect Manchester City to a draw.

Six points from these two difficult fixtures to achieve the double over both teams would be quite an achievement. What are the chances? 

A message for West Ham – “Don’t show Arsenal too much respect”

Following on from my colleague Geoff’s excellent article, I have to agree with many of his comments regarding David Moyes. I’ll start by saying that, against the expectations of many fans, Moyes has done a superb job in the short time he has been at West Ham. In his first spell he did what was asked of him and kept us up. He was very unlucky to be replaced by the totally unsuitable Manuel Pellegrini, and then he came back only 15 months ago with the task again of keeping us in the Premier League. And once again he achieved it and this time was given another season to show his credentials. And boy has he done that, whatever the outcome between now and the end of the season.

I read that, provided he managed a finish of 13th or above, West Ham would take up an option of a further year on his contract. In many ways that demonstrates the lack of ambition of the owners, but I would have thought that they would by now have offered him something decent, perhaps three years or more to give him the chance to build on what he has started here, and to prevent him being taken by a club with greater ambition. When Neil Lennon left Celtic, it would have been tempting for him to return to a club he was associated with as a player. I am not sure whether or not he was approached, but he stated that he was committed to West Ham as he believes he can build something here. I’d love to see him given the backing of the owners, who have yet to really back up the ambition they promised a few years back.

As I said, he has done a fine job in a relatively short time. Backed up by an excellent coaching staff, our defending has been outstanding (in West Ham terms particularly), the organisation has matched this too, especially with set pieces in both a defensive sense, where we have conceded very few goals from set plays, and from the attacking point of view where we lead the Premier League in goals scored in this way. He has recognised the need for pace and athleticism in top class football and is looking to build a squad of young, hungry, pacy players, to be with us for longer than the short term marquee buys that have been favoured in the past.

His recruits have generally been successful with our Czech imports two of the stand out buys in the Premier League, and both Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma young enough to build upon excellent potential. But perhaps the masterstroke that so many fans were critical of was the signing of Craig Dawson. It’s a shame that Ogbonna got injured when he did because they were forming an excellent partnership. To be fair, Diop has come in and done a sound job, but the Dawson / Ogbonna partnership was really beginning to look something special. I saw the England squad announced this week and one of the defenders was Coady of Wolves. Who would you like to see in the heart of your defence, Coady or Dawson? I know who I would choose.

In West Ham terms to be a mid-table side and not involved in the relegation dogfight would have been a success this season, and yet David Moyes and the coaching staff have achieved far more. Our daunting fixtures at the beginning of the season could have seen us struggling from the outset, but after an inauspicious start at home to Newcastle, that didn’t happen, and it was turned around very quickly with a fine performance (albeit unlucky defeat) away at today’s visitors Arsenal, and then followed by excellent victories at home to Wolves and away at Leicester, which set the tone for the season that has followed.

But, and here comes the but, there is one criticism that has been levelled at David Moyes throughout his managerial career. He was appointed as Everton manager 19 years ago this week. He has managed in the top flight for almost all of the time since. And yet, he has failed to win a single away game at Manchester United (where we so meekly surrendered last week), or at Liverpool, or at Arsenal, or at Chelsea. Now they have all been successful sides in the last 19 years and you would think that not many managers have won at those away grounds. But more have done so than you might think. The list of managers that have won games at Old Trafford is quite extensive, and includes those with previous Hammers connections such as Allardyce, Curbishley, Pardew, Steve Clarke, and Pellegrini as well as bosses such as Warnock, Hodgson, Dyche, Chris Wilder, Alex Neil, Darren Moore, Tim Sherwood and many others.

In the past 20 years or so, Chelsea, of the teams mentioned, have had a successful home record, but many managers have won there too, including Eddie Howe, whose Bournemouth team has been victors at Stamford Bridge three times, Allardyce and Pardew twice each (both with different teams), also Harry Redknapp and Glenn Roeder. But not David Moyes.

Is it just coincidence or does David Moyes instil too much respect for our opponents when visiting these grounds? Our defensive set up last week was condemned universally, and yet even with hindsight Moyes believes he did the right thing with his selection. I find this hard to believe. In my opinion we set up like an Italian team of the 1960s to play for a goalless draw and to hope perhaps to snatch a goal with a breakaway. Had we succeeded it would probably be considered the right thing to do. But once we conceded a goal (unusually and disappointingly defending a corner) it took a while to change, but when Lanzini and Benrahma were introduced we gave them a bit of a game, but it was too late.

As manager David Moyes must be allowed to do things his way. It is just a small criticism, but if we are ever going to sustain a challenge to move to the next level, then we need to be just a little more positive than we were at Old Trafford, and at other top teams too. I’m not saying let’s abandon all the organisation that he has introduced and should be commended for. But we need to have more players on the pitch who are capable of attacking our opponent’s goal. Michail Antonio’s body language seemed to sum it up for me. I don’t think he appreciated our approach to this game.

The statistics don’t lie. No wins as a manager at Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal in 19 years sums it up for me. I’m not for one moment advocating that David Moyes should go. I’m a big fan and hope he is given the opportunity to build and stabilise our club as a top ten team for years to come. I’d just like to see a little more positivity when facing the big clubs.

What about today? I’m hoping that Arsenal’s European game this week will have had an impact, plus we have an opportunity to reflect upon and reverse last weekend’s result. And talking of reversal I’ll predict a reversal of the early season score at the Emirates with a 2-1 West Ham win. Astonishingly to me, Arsenal are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game. I’ve got 2/1 on three points for us, and 9/1 on a 2-1 win for a team hopefully inspired by the return of at least a couple of Lingard, Fornals, Benrahma and Lanzini to the starting line-up. What are the chances?   

Moyes Must Avoid Doing Something Stupid Again As West Ham Entertain The Gunners

They practice every day to find some clever balls to play. To score a header or two. And then they go and spoil it all, by doing something stupid like ….. respecting the point!

No sooner had I been presenting the case for David Moyes pragmatism than he went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid with his puzzling team selection at Old Trafford. My argument that his approach was based on realism over caution were made to look well wide of the mark.

Granted there was the enforced absence of Jesse Lingard and the withdrawal through injury of Pablo Fornals and the manager is not blessed with the strongest of squads. But immediately the team-sheet was revealed it had the whiff of waving the white flag about it. What a boost it must have been for the opposition to note the lack of offensive players.

Being prepared to surrender possession has become a relatively common tactic in the Premier League these days, but without a supporting ability to cause damage on the counter, it is futile. When the height of aspirations is hoping to hold out for ninety minutes, it usually ends badly. It was a pale shadow of the spirit of adventure shown a few weeks earlier against a far superior side from the other side of Manchester.

It was frustrating to hear Moyes say after the game that he wouldn’t have done anything differently, even with the benefit of hindsight. Surely, he must have recognised that the team selection was all wrong. That not replacing Lingard with a ball playing midfielder would negate any threat posed by Michail Antonio or Jarrod Bowen. That despite Ben Johnson’s having the makings of a top class defender, he is not cut-out as a wing-back operating on the wrong side. That it is many moons since Mark Noble has operated effectively enough to start at this level.  

Being annoyed by a defeat at Manchester United may reflect how far expectations have come, but more so, it illustrates how far we have to go, especially when you look at the lack of depth on the bench. Should European qualification be achieved, it promises to be a one season wonder unless there is significant strengthening in all positions – and what are the chances of that happening based on past performance?

This weekend, West Ham welcome Arsenal to the London Stadium for the penultimate London derby of the season. The Gunners may not be the same force as during their Wenger heyday, but they have continued to dominate the head-to-head against the Hammers– West Ham having won just three times in the last twenty-six meetings. Even when the Hammers have given a good account of themselves, Arsenal have managed to steal the points in the final minutes.

The visitors are currently on track for their lowest league finish since the last knockings of George Graham. Replacing Wenger has proven almost as difficult as replacing Ferguson at Manchester United, as the Gunners (along with their North London neighbours) slowly but surely slip further behind in the super rich standings. Having initially believed that Arteta might turn out to be an inspired appointment, his team has floundered and lacks any identity. Despite the introduction of several promising youngsters, the team continues to be hamstrung by the inconsistency of big money signings.

There is nothing for West Ham to fear but fear itself. I don’t expect the Hammers to boss possession but do expect to see far more threat as an attacking force. The return of Lingard is important in that respect but better contributions are also required from the other forward players – Antonio, Bowen, Fornals (if fit), Said Benrahma and/ or Manuel Lanzini. I would hope to see a return to a back four and the time is right for Super Tomas Soucek to put and end to his seven-match mini-goal drought.

With only a handful of league games being played this weekend due to FA Cup commitments, a win would see the Hammers go into the international break level on points and games played with Chelsea. That would be some achievement and for all the disappointment of the approach at Old Trafford it has been a phenomenal season, and a phenomenal effort by manager, players and coaches. I fancy a 2-1 win against an opponent who are pinning most of their season’s hopes on Europa League success. COYI!

West Ham visit Old Trafford, but fans will be keeping an eye on results elsewhere too.

When you reach this stage of the season with less than a dozen games to go, then as a West Ham fan you start paying even closer attention to other games that are being played, especially those of the teams that are around us in the league table. On many occasions in past seasons the purpose has been to see if they are picking up points in the desperate scramble to avoid relegation. But this time around it is very different. We are interested from the point of view of finishing as high as possible in the table, perhaps qualifying for a place in Europe next season, and possibly even (whisper it quietly) a place in the Champions League.

Normally that would mean finishing in the top four, and most pundits are writing us off in that respect, believing that our wonderful run so far will come to an end before we reach the season’s finish. They may well be right but I hope not. How good would it be to prove them wrong? With a limited squad we have performed way beyond all expectations of even our most ardent supporters, and there is no reason why we cannot go all the way if all the cards fall in our favour, and results elsewhere help too.

Of course this season finishing in the top four might not even be enough to qualify for the Champions League. If there are two English teams that win either the Champions League or the Europa League, and they finish outside the top four in the Premier League then they would qualify for next season’s elite European competition alongside the teams that finish in the top three. There is a maximum of five places for any one country in the Champions League, and winning the previous season’s European tournaments takes precedence over league positions.

And this scenario could still happen. In the Europa League, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have all reached the last 16, and if one of them should go on to win it and finish outside the Premier League top 4 they would qualify for next season’s Champions League. For this reason West Ham fans will be rooting for Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan in the second legs on Thursday this week. But both Arsenal and Tottenham hold two goal leads from the first leg and are favourites to progress.

Similarly in the Champions League, Liverpool have already reached the last eight, and both Chelsea and Manchester City are well placed to join them, holding leads before their forthcoming home legs this week. I think we can disregard Manchester City in the Premier League as they will win it comfortably but we must hope that they, or one of the other foreign teams such as Bayern, PSG win the Champions League to prevent Liverpool and Chelsea from qualifying by the back door if they finish outside the domestic top four.

Of course none of this will matter if we don’t do the job ourselves in the league so we must continue to aim for as high a finish as possible, hopefully in the top three. Now this may well be beyond us but it is nice to think that it is still a possibility, and even still in our own hands with just eleven games to go. And the league results have been kind to us so far this weekend. Leeds holding Chelsea to a draw was a good result for us, and Burnley’s unexpected win at Everton was an even better one. This means that we go into today’s fixture (probably) still in fifth place just three points adrift of Chelsea with two games in hand, and two points ahead of Everton with a game in hand over them too. We could do with Sheffield United surprising Leicester today, but I can’t realistically see that happening, plus it would be good if Arsenal beat Tottenham, something I always hope for, and Wolves beat Liverpool on Monday night. Draws in those games wouldn’t be the worst results for us either. 

Apparently Manchester United are weakened by injuries for today’s game, and we must also hope that they want to hold themselves back a little for their return leg against AC Milan this week. We will be without Lingard of course, but I expect to see Benrahma in the number 10 role behind Antonio with Fornals and Bowen providing the other two attacking midfield roles. The back four pick themselves at the moment; Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell, as do Rice and Soucek in midfield. The only possible variation to this may mean a slightly more defensive line-up with Johnson replacing Bowen, who hasn’t looked at his best recently, in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Noble could even come into the equation but I’d prefer to see him held back and brought on in the last five minutes to help preserve our 2-0 lead! So my predictions are West Ham to win 2-0, Leicester to draw 2-2 with Sheffield United, Arsenal to beat Tottenham 2-1, and then Wolves to beat Liverpool 1-0 on Monday. I’m not hoping for too much am I? What are the chances?

Theatre Of Impossible Dreams: West Ham To Take A Passing Interest In Second Place

West Ham take a tilt at second placed Manchester United – fighting the unbeatable foe in a quest to reach the unreachable star of Champion’s League qualification

I was listening to a radio discussion in the week on the proposed changes to the Champion’s League – a plan to make the competition a closed shop for an elite group of super rich clubs. A large part of the argument for ‘inevitable’ change being the premise of a ‘huge shift in the way that football is consumed.’ Alas, football has become a product, rather than an experience.

Such discussions highlight again the dangerous path that the game is taking in deviating from its roots and treating the traditional fanbase as secondary to the worldwide TV audience. Greed is prioritising customers who give their money over supporters who give their heart. Supporter loyalty will see them stick with their team through thick and thin – a lifelong commitment. Whereas customers, will simply move on in the event of poor performance – switching allegiances as they might energy providers, either because their favourite player has switched clubs, or they have decided to follow basketball.

Being a supporter is an emotional attachment, and like all emotions they are prone to volatility. A run of defeats and the sky has fallen in. A couple of wins and the sky’s the limit. And I think I am sensing an outbreak of over stimulated expectations at West Ham at the moment.

If many of us had been asked at the start of the season how the Hammers would be faring come the middle of March, then more would have opted for ‘trading blows with the Albions to avoid relegation’ over ‘battling it out with Manchester United and Chelsea for a place in the top four.’   There cannot be many who don’t feel it has been a season of over-achievement so far. Yet there are mutterings in some quarters that we would be doing even better if only the manager wasn’t so cautious.

The case for the prosecution is that there are times when the manager has shown the opposition too much respect or else he has set the team up solely to protect the point. I’m not convinced that either is the case. Aside form the occasional positional tweak, the setup rarely changes. It is all about compact shape, great organisation, hard work and commitment – with the goal threat coming from rapid counter-attacks or set pieces. When it doesn’t come off it is because the best efforts of the opposition meet the limitations of our squad. West Ham’s strength this season is the result organisation and collective endeavour, not individual brilliance – even though there have been many excellent individual contributions.

The danger is that we may getting ahead of ourselves as to what is possible. Like popping in to your local drive-thru burger joint and demanding a patty made from kobe beef, topped with foie gras and black truffles. Possibly, the cook knows how to prepare it, but there is no chance that he has the correct ingredients. He can only make the best burger he can with what’s available.   

Every system/ formation has its weaknesses.  In ours, although we like to break quickly it is rarely in numbers. If the opposition deny the space and press hard surprise and potency are lost. We are just not geared to maintain possession for lengthy periods. That we don’t keep the ball well enough is a common post-match complaint, but it is systemic rather than individual technical deficiencies. Every good pass needs someone available to receive it, and the more options available the better. They is not yet in our repertoire.

A change to the system might be possible but it would likely expose weaknesses elsewhere. It is not the type of a risk that Moyes would take at this stage of the season, even if there is an argument that a win and a defeat is better than two draws. It really isn’t broken, so no need to fix it.

Tomorrow sees a third meeting of the season with the second team in Manchester, both of which have ended in defeat for the Hammers. The game at the London Stadium was particularly disappointing with West Ham comfortably ahead and on-top until the notorious ‘wind of god’ incident allowed the ball to miraculously return to the pitch from several yards out of play. The resulting goal simultaneously knocked the stuffing out of the home side and provided an unexpected boost to the visitors.

Despite the Red Devils sitting second in the Premier League table, they have only impressed sporadically. They are good rather than exceptional and far from an unbeatable foe. They may have only lost four league games all season, but all four have come at home. They are also experiencing twin pressures of injuries and fixture congestion, having surrendered a late equaliser in their Europa League tie on Thursday evening.  There could be far worse times to be playing them.

The non-availability of Jesse Lingard will require Moyes to do some juggling with his forward players. Possibly with Said Benrahma taking over the Lingard role and one of Jarrod Bowen, Ben Johnson or Ryan Fredericks stepping into the vacant slot, depending on the manager’s preferred formation and how he intends to counter the threat of Fernandes and Rashford (if fit).

Most pundits only mention the Hammers in passing when making their top four predictions. But by this stage of the season it is not impossible, even if it is unlikely, for West Ham to grab one of those places. All of the teams involved have tough matches to face.

As long as the team sticks to what it is good at, they are in with a shout. A win and the table will look very interesting, narrowing the gap between the two clubs to three points with a game in hand for the Hammers. West Ham’s odds have now shortened to 3/1 with some bookies for a top four finish and 4/6 for a top six one. It would be no big surprise not to make top four but I will be a little despondent if we slipped out the top six – even if it will still have been a great season.

Finally, I end the article back on an unashamedly emotional theme, West Ham to win 2-0. COYI!

The Road (To Europe) Is Long, With A Many A Winding Turn ….

That Leeds us to who knows where, who knows where. Are we strong, strong enough to carry it off? He ain’t Revie, he’s Bielsa!

In a season notable for its fixture congestion, it is something of a luxury to go a whole nine days without a game. In bygone days it would have been enough for Fat Sam to whisk the squad off for a warm weather jolly to Dubai, but the more pragmatic David Moyes will have wanted to put the break to better use. Recharging the batteries and retuning the engine for what could well be an interesting climax to an unusual campaign.

Since West Ham were squeezed out by Manchester City, despite a spirited and admirable display that was worthy of a point, the majority of Premier League clubs have played three times, resulting in the Hammers slipping from 4th to 7th in the standings. For a while it looked like other results were being kind to us, but recent wins for Manchester United, Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham have seen them putting points on the board at our expense. As an anxious supporter, I sense this may have posed a degree of added pressure to tonight’s performance, but hopefully the dressing room has an in-built immunity to such transient concerns.

With one or two games in hand over those above us (apart from Everton) the competition for a top six place remains open and up for grabs. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before the fat lady sings come the end of May. There are also an intriguing number of head-to-head games still to come between the interested parties – starting with Chelsea vs Everton, scheduled to end in a 1-0 home win immediately before our game kicks-off tonight. More gushing acclaim for Tuchel, the latest football media darling.

Where will it lead to, who knows where? My best guess is that a further twenty-one points would be the minimum requirement for West Ham to be in with a shout of a top four finish, it would certainly secure top six. Seven wins or six wins and three draws should do the trick. Not easy but, equally, not impossible.

How well other teams perform and avoiding injuries will also be contributing factors to the Hammer’s fate. We should all switch allegiances for European matches and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Liverpool continue to stay involved and distracted for as long as possible.

Despite Leicester’s win at the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell away given their spate of injuries and I’m still to be fully convinced by Everton. That the Hammers remain ‘part of the conversation’ (as they say these days) is nothing short of remarkable and more than I could have hoped for back in September. Who might have believed that games away at Manchester United and home to Chelsea, Leicester and Everton would be pivotal in determining European qualification rather than to avoiding relegation.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the Hammers have to negotiate the challenge from Premier League mavericks, Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has become something of a marmite manager among supporters – tactical genius or eccentric oddball? Whatever your opinion he has steered his side to a comfortable mid-table position in their first season back at the top, and provided plenty of entertainment along the way. They are as unpredictable as the Hammer’s sides I remember watching in the 1960s. A far cry from Revie’s Leeds of the same era. It will be interesting to see how they develop next season.

West Ham will be looking for only their second double of the season in tonight’s game. In the reverse fixture at Elland Road, Leeds attacking play was largely impotent, despite taking an early lead, and they are likely to provide a far stiffer test this time around.   

A huge difference compared with more recent seasons is the Hammer’s impressive home form, which is currently third best in the league. A win tonight would put them back into second place, above Tottenham, but still a long way behind Manchester City. A shame that it has had to be achieved in an empty stadium. Having supporters back inside for the final game on May 23 to secure a Champion’s League spot is a beguiling dream to hang on to.

The major injury concern over the past week has been the fitness of Lukasz Fabianski. His welfare is my concern. My fingers are doubly crossed for a safe return between the posts for today’s game, particularly with Darren Randolph also nursing an injury. Although Randolph is a decent enough shot stopper, he has always looked suspect in the air – evidenced, in my opinion, by his failure to claim De Bruyne’s cross that led to Manchester City’s opener the previous weekend.

Moyes has made a habit of springing the odd curve ball in recent team selections and formations. I think it will be a return to a back four tonigh with Jarrod Bowen returning in place of Ben Johnson – but perhaps the manager has other plans. 

It may be a tired pundit’s cliché but there is truth in the axiom that there are no easy games in the Premier League. Not in the sense that you can ever take it anything for granted. Leeds do not provide the compact, massed defence that has so often derailed West Ham in the past but there all action possession based style will present a very different challenge. There will be opportunity for the pace of Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to exploit on the break but the whole team must do their bit in matching the visitor’s energy. It is reassuring that we have come to expect a positive and determined team spirit throughout the side, as well as performances above and beyond the call of duty from the likes of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Craig Dawson.

For a side without a prolific goal-scorer, West Ham have a reasonable return in converting chances – but they do have an inferior goal difference to most of those above us. While it’s great to see the goals shared around, the absence of a 15 – 20 goals a year striker is an obvious vulnerability. The beauty of a natural scorer is in turning a draw into a victory and in turning the screw when you are on top, converting a 2-1 score-line into 4-1. Maybe next season, eh?

Win or draw and West Ham will be back in the top six at the end of the day. A win will see us back in fifth and should Everton manage a draw at Chelsea then it will be a good night’s work all round, with everything set up nicely for the following weekend. West Ham to win 3-1.  

Can West Ham complete the league double over Leeds for the first time in 67 years?

Arriving back from my three miles Sunday morning walk in the late winter sunshine I sat down to watch some football. West Brom v Newcastle wasn’t the most exciting prospect in advance of the game but I sat through most of it, although I was increasingly distracted by the Sunday newspapers. If there has been a more boring game of football in the Premier League this season I missed it. Here I witnessed two teams play out a game of football that was almost totally bereft of any quality. Two teams that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Championship next season if this was anything to go by. If only we could be facing Newcastle now instead of in the first game of the season.

After lunch, I was about to begin to write this article when I thought I would catch the first few minutes of the Liverpool v Fulham game. I stayed for the whole of the first half to witness an energetic and inventive Fulham side totally outplay a seemingly dispirited Liverpool team and take an interval lead with a late goal. On the evidence of that half I can easily see Fulham escape the drop that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. As we saw when we visited Craven Cottage recently they are a good footballing side that just lacked something in the final third. On the other hand Liverpool, after a 68 game unbeaten run at Anfield had lost five home games on the trot and this was looking as it could have been the sixth. It was hard to recognise them as the team that had played so well at the London Stadium a few weeks ago, and highlighted again to me the unnecessary (too much) respect that we gave to them in that game.

In this season of matches that just keep coming relentlessly, it seems a long time ago now that we put up such an excellent performance against the champions elect Manchester City. City are really streets ahead of all the other teams in the Premier League (and possibly Europe – we shall see), but we became another victim of their long winning run, despite matching them for shots and shots on target. We could have even ended that sequence of wins with the final move of the game which ended with Diop heading wide. City have such a depth of quality players in almost every position it would not surprise me to see them win every competition they are in this season.

While we have had this comparatively inactive period, the other teams around us hoping for a finish in a European qualifying place in the league have played, sometimes more than once, and the results have not been particularly good from our point of view. Wins for Everton, Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham have pushed us down the table without us playing, and now we are the ones with the games in hand over most of them. So many of those wins could easily have been draws, but as often appears to be the case, luck, refereeing decisions and VAR reviews seem to favour top teams in so many games.

Tonight we face Leeds, who must be relatively pleased with their season so far, after their return to the top flight after so many years out of it. They sit comfortably in mid-table with 35 points from their 26 games, unlike the other promoted teams (Fulham and West Brom) who are involved in the relegation scrap at the bottom.

The statistics for their season so far indicate a poor side from a defensive viewpoint, with only West Brom (56), and Sheffield United (45) having conceded more league goals than Leeds (44). They have lost half (13) of their games too, with only Sheffield United (22), West Brom (16), and Newcastle (14) having lost more.

Conversely they have won 11 games, which is more than the teams below them in the league, and they are ranked fifth in goals scored (44), with only City (56), Man United (53), Leicester (48) and Liverpool (47) having found the opposition net more. The above statistics point to their dearth of draws (just 2 in their 26 games), which include no draws at all away from home, a league low unmatched by the rest of the teams. Does this mean that this game will not end in a draw, or perhaps a draw is due for them?

The game at Anfield is now over and Fulham have won the game to ensure that Brighton and Newcastle will be looking anxiously over their shoulders. The usual punditry is underway with analysis of Liverpool’s vertical decline taking precedence over the credit that should be given to Fulham for their excellent victory borne out of splendid organisation. But we get used to that. Who would have thought that with just a dozen games of the season to go we would be two points ahead of Liverpool with two games in hand?  

Looking at our head to head record against Leeds it doesn’t make for very good reading. In the last 38 years we have faced them 29 times, and only beaten them on three occasions, of which only one was at home when we won 3-0 in March 1998 (that’s 23 years ago now) with goals from Hartson, Abou and Ian Pearce. We won at Elland Road a couple of seasons later when Nigel Winterburn scored the only goal of the game. Of course in December we won at Elland Road after conceding an early penalty, when Soucek and Ogbonna scored our goals in a 2-1 win.

The last time we completed a league double over them was on the day after I was born (I am now 67!) when we beat them 5-2 at Upton Park, after winning at Elland Road earlier that season. We were both Division Two sides at the time. The last time we did a double over them in the top division goes back over 90 years. So it would be the first time for many years if we win the game this evening.

But purely based on current form we are strong favourites to win the game. Only Manchester City have collected more league points in this calendar year than we have, and we have won four of our last five home league games. Leeds on the other hand have lost three of their last four league games, and have an abysmal record in London, losing all four games in the capital this season.

But in their 13 away league games they have scored in 11 of them. In fact they have found the net 24 times away from home but conceded 27, winning six times and losing seven. The 87 goals scored in Leeds 26 games this season suggests that a goalless draw is highly unlikely, with five goals or more coming in almost a third of their matches.

Despite current form pointers suggesting a home win we are not as strong favourites with the bookmakers as you might have thought. Odds of around 21/20 for a West Ham victory look inviting, as does a West Ham win with both teams to score at 5/2. As is often the case with the bookies the favourite correct score is 1-1 despite Leeds not having drawn an away game this season, but I quite fancy 2-1 to repeat the Elland Road win (15/2) or even 3-1 (14/1). What are the chances?

 P.S. Writers Curse – of course, after extolling the virtues of Manchester City, their long winning and unbeaten runs came to an unexpected end when their nearest neighbours beat them. Just a blip I reckon that will spur them on for the rest of the season.