Dreaming Dreams of a Top Eight Finish for West Ham

Today Under The Hammer’s Richard Bennett looks forward to the new Premier League season.

The 2017-18 season has arrived. Being a bit of a traditionalist, in the past the opening day was always one I looked forward to. All teams in the top flight would kick off at 3pm on the first Saturday, and by 5 o’clock you could see the first league table with all the teams having completed their first game. Of course, because of television that is not now the case, and this season the opening games begin on Friday evening, and continue through until Sunday, when our game at Old Trafford is the last one.

I had to smile when I saw the BBC league table where we were showing in 20th place (because of alphabetical order) before a ball has been kicked. By Saturday evening we will have moved off the bottom provided all the games on Friday and Saturday haven’t ended in draws! And when we kick off we will know what we have to do to be top of the table at the completion of matchday 1, or alternatively what we need to do to avoid being bottom of the pile.

This is written in jest of course, because the league table doesn’t really begin to take shape until at least half a dozen games have been played by each side. But by then, it is important not to be close to the bottom, as psychologically you feel that you are in a relegation scrap from the outset if you are. By the time we reach the third international break early in November, 11 games will have been played, five at home and six away, and by then we will have a good idea how our season will pan out.

By Christmas Day we will have reached the half-way point in the season (19 games played), but unusually we won’t have played all the other 19 teams at this point. The fixtures computer usually (in recent years) arranges it so that we have played them all, but by Christmas we will have played Newcastle home and away, but not played Bournemouth at all. We play them on Boxing Day.

But is it really that difficult to predict the eventual outcome in the Premier League by the end of the season? Last season my co-weblogger Geoff Hopkins and I made a forecast before the first games were played as to where each team would finish at the end. Our predictions were relatively accurate, as we predicted the top six (though not in the correct order), and not one of our finishing positions was more than six places out from the eventual outcome. This was no great achievement because it is not hard to know roughly what will happen before a ball has been kicked. Of course we were all taken by surprise with Leicester the season before, but that was a one-off which is extremely unlikely to happen again. Going back a few years it was much harder to forecast what would happen each season.

The Premier League is actually more open than almost all the other leagues in Europe, in that before the season starts there are likely to be anything up to six teams who may be in contention for the title. Compare that to other countries where the champions will come from perhaps two or three teams at the most.

Nevertheless despite the apparent predictability, Geoff and I will forecast the finishing positions of each team in the Premier League in the form of a friendly competition (see Geoff’s prediction here.). We score 0 points if we get the finishing position spot on, or one point for each position that we are out. Like the quiz Pointless the lowest score wins. Last year our scores were 54-57, so on average we were less than three positions out for each team, confirming the predictability of the league.

Last time I predicted a seventh place finish for West Ham to match the successful season that preceded it. We eventually ended up in 11th, although of course we were only one point behind the eighth placed team. Only six points separated 8th from 17th in the Premier League, so it can be close for the teams vying for the 8th spot, which if it follows last season, will be a competition in itself, because I believe the top seven spots will already be taken. Of course I hope I am wrong, and that our pre-season fixtures are not a true indication of how we will perform. Perhaps we can do a Leicester? If you believe that then the majority of bookmakers will offer you odds of 500-1.

My forecast for 2017-18 is as follows:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Manchester United
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham
  6. Liverpool
  7. Everton
  8. West Ham
  9. Leicester
  10. Newcastle
  11. Crystal Palace
  12. West Brom
  13. Bournemouth
  14. Southampton
  15. Swansea
  16. Stoke
  17. Burnley
  18. Brighton
  19. Huddersfield
  20. Watford

Can The Hammers Enjoy a Season in the Sun?

A review of the West Ham and the upcoming 2017/ 18 Premier League by Under The Hammer’s Geoff Hopkins.

As we prepare for the start of another Premier League season I find myself in a similar position to the one that heralded the final year of Fat Sam’s reign.   Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have a manager that can deliver in the long term and yet, regardless of circumstances, I always want the team to win every game, and so could take no pleasure from being proved right about the manager’s limitations.  In fact, I would be more than happy for him to prove me wrong by as much as he likes.  The trouble is I see little to suggest that anything has changed in the management and coaching mindset to address the many problems that we witnessed in team performance and organisation last year.

I understand it is a reasonable argument to put forward that Bilic has had one good season in charge and one poor one; and so deserves a third as an opportunity to prove himself; but it leaves everyone in a rather precarious and uncertain situation of a manger in the final year of his contract where safety first will be the order of the day.

Two years ago when West Ham faced Arsenal away on the opening weekend of the season and came away with a stunning 2-0 victory it seemed we had struck gold with a tactically astute manager playing attractive football at the helm at last.  This was quickly followed up with a run of other unexpected wins against top clubs before performances started to gradually fall away despite the emotion generated from the last season at Upton Park.  In a season where the big clubs largely under-performed the Hammers were inspired by the flair and free-kicks of flawed Frenchman Dimitri Payet.  Yet a system and passion that worked well against elite clubs often failed to deliver, at least on a consistent basis, against the lesser teams where the team lacked shape, pace and penetration.  With poor recruitment the following summer and once Payet had downed tools, the underlying cracks in organisation and tactics were revealed for all to see.  It would not be the first time that a manager had done well in his first season built on a predecessor’s foundation but then faded badly.

The general consensus is that West Ham have had a spectacular summer transfer window.  In contrast to last summer, and the bizarre January recruitment, that may well be the case but it seems premature to pat ourselves on the back too enthusiastically just yet.  Let’s wait and see how the new signings perform before getting too carried away.  Does Zabaleta still have the legs and motivation?  Can Hernandez deliver as a regular lone striker starter?  How consistent will Arnautovic be?  Does it make sense for your first choice keeper to be only on loan?  Will Bilic, given his uncertain position, take the risk of blooding any young players?   We can all speculate but only time will tell for sure.  I would like to believe in my heart that we could be competing for a best of the rest seventh but my head says mid-table at best.

As for the squad itself, it looks stronger on paper when compared to how we know the team performed last season.  But a performing team needs to be more than the sum of its parts and in modern football attack and defence must be conducted as a unit and requires organisation, pace, mobility and fitness in addition to the underlying technical skills.  Too often West Ham teams have a disjointed look with the merest hint of cohesion between the constituent parts of the formation. In a Premier League awash with money every team has good technical players and so how those talents are utilised and integrated becomes even more important and is the true measure of coaching.

In goal, Hart is an upgrade (but not a massive one) on Adrian and if the rumours of Adrian wanting out are true then we could be left with a bit of an embarrassing hole between the sticks.

The defence says old, frail and error prone to me unless it is strengthened before the transfer window closes (and not with Kone!).  Reid is a top quality defender but is not without injury concerns.  Ogbonna has a tendency to switch off and allow opponents too much room, Collins is decent as emergency cover but Fonte looks something of a dud, at least in a back four.  It is a case of wait and see as far as Zabaleta is concerned while Cresswell, Masuaku and Byram are all better when going forward than defending.  Will Rice be given a chance?  Maybe, but most likely as a defensive midfielder from the bench.

The squad is packed with midfield players of one type or another but the optimum combination is difficult to identify.  West Ham rarely dominate a match these days and that is a direct consequence of poor ball retention, options and movement, particularly in the midfield areas.

Any team needs to be solid at the centre of midfield where defensive and pressing responsibilities are key.  Obiang is a class act but Noble, bless his claret and blue cotton socks, is too slow in movement and distribution these days while Kouyate, despite his athleticism, lacks the required discipline and is a poor passer of the ball.  Fernandes is sometimes mentioned as an option but, for me, needs a more attacking role that suits his physique and range of passing.  An additional defensive/ holding midfielder would be another at the top of my priority list.

The realistic attacking midfield options are Lanzini (assuming we keep hold of him), Antonio and Arnautovic backed up by Ayew, Fernandes and possibly new signing Haksabanovic.  I suppose there is also Feghouli and Snodgrass until we hear otherwise.  Hopefully Arnautovic can assist Lanzini in the creativity department but can he help out his full-back when required?  Will Antonio get a long run in his preferred and most effective wide right position or does Bilic have different plans for him?  Will Haksabanovic be given a chance and what exactly is Ayew’s position?

The troublesome striker position now has a potential solution with the recruitment of Hernandez.  On the assumption that he will be the main striker playing up front on his own it will be interesting to see how he adapts.  His goals scored per minutes on the pitch record at Manchester United was impressive and came courtesy of some very clinical finishing off the bench; his role at West Ham will be a whole new challenge for him.  At the moment the only back-up is from perennial sick-notes Carroll and Sakho.  Could a Hernandez/ Carroll partnership work?  Possibly in certain circumstances but taking a player out of a fragile midfield would create its own problems.

I don’t expect a season of struggle but I do foresee an unspectacular one with a disjointed team that relies heavily on set pieces for its goals.  I don’t disagree with Bilic that individual errors need to be eliminated but that is by no means the extent, or even the most important, of the shortcomings.

Mentally, I would include West Ham in a group of teams who should be capable of grabbing seventh spot with the help of a good following wind and good fortune with injuries and refereeing decsions; alongside the likes of Everton, Leicester, Southampton, Newcastle and even Palace.  Everton have lost Lukaku and have the distraction of European Thursday night football, Leicester have bought and retained well, Southampton and Palace have new managers inexperienced in English football and Newcastle need to adapt to life back at the top.  There is a chance but do we have the confidence, desire and discipline to take it?  I really hope we give it a go and can show the same commitment as if we were playing Tottenham every week.

In time honoured fashion I will end with my prediction for the final Premier League table season 2017/18:

1          Manchester United
2          Manchester City
3          Tottenham
4          Arsenal
5          Liverpool
6          Chelsea
7          Everton
8          Leicester
9          Southampton
10       Crystal Palace
11       West Ham
12       Newcastle
13       Watford
14       Bournemouth
15       Stoke
16       Swansea
17       West Bromwich Albion
18       Burnley
19       Huddersfield
20       Brighton

Lawro Challenge: The Final Countdown

It’s hats off to Lawro as he sneaks over the line in the conclusion to our season long challenge.

Lawro Crystal BallSo it seems that Lawro is not the hopeless tipster that we believed him to be.  At least he was good enough to see off both Rich and Geoff in our season long Lawro Challenge.  If it were not for his obsession with Liverpool he would almost look insightful.

In the final week of the challenge, Rich scored 11 points, Geoff 7 points, and Lawro 9 points. At one point, around mid-way through the second half of all the games, if no further goals had been scored then Rich would have made up the 8 point deficit on Lawro and the challenge would have ended as a tie. But as West Ham know to their cost, games are played for 90 minutes, and as further goals went in Lawro fought back to end up the winner by six points.

In this challenge we awarded one point for a correct result, and a further two points (making three in total) if the score prediction was spot on. Although Rich predicted more correct results than Lawro, he didn’t do as well in forecasting the correct scores.

Final Table

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 37 weeks

283

230

291

Score in week 38

11

7

9

Total after 38 weeks

294

237

300

The Lawro Challenge – Week 38 – The Conclusion

Lawro has the pomagne on ice while Rich needs snookers if he is to prevent the BBC pundit from snaffling the predictor challenge.

Lawro Crystal BallIn Week 37, Rich scored 10 points, Geoff 6 points, and Lawro 10 points. Lawro has retained his 8 point lead as we move into the final set of games for the season.

He now looks a shoe-in to win the challenge although it is not mathematically certain yet.

In this challenge we award one point for a correct result, and a further two points (making three in total) if the score prediction is spot on, so there are still 30 points up for grabs.

We now proceed to week 38, the final week of the Premier League season.

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 36 weeks

273

224

281

Score in week 37

10

6

10

Total after 37 weeks

283

230

291

 

 

 

 

Predictions – Week 38

 

 

 

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Sunday

 

 

 

Arsenal v Everton

1-0

3-0

2-0

Burnley v West Ham

2-1

3-1

2-0

Chelsea v Sunderland

4-0

4-1

3-0

Hull v Tottenham

0-3

1-3

0-2

Leicester v Bournemouth

3-2

2-2

2-0

Liverpool v Middlesbrough

3-0

4-0

2-0

Man United v Palace

2-0

0-1

1-1

Southampton v Stoke

2-0

1-0

1-2

Swansea v West Brom

2-0

2-0

2-1

Watford v Man City

0-4

0-2

0-3

The Lawro Challenge – Week 37

Will Lawro hold his nerve to claim the title as football’s Nostradamus in the penultimate round of match predictions?

Lawro Crystal BallIn Week 36, Geoff took the honours once again. Rich scored 7 points, Geoff 10 points, and Lawro 8 points. Lawro now has an 8 point lead with just two weeks of the season to go. How different could it have been if Chelsea had scored a fourth goal against Middlesbrough which looked likely? Lawro’s lead would have been cut to four points as a result. He now looks a certainty to win the challenge unless Rich can forecast some correct scores to bridge the gap this week, ensuring an exciting finish in the last week of the season.

In this challenge we award one point for a correct result, and a further two points (making three in total) if the score prediction is spot on.

We now proceed to week 37.

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 35 weeks

266

214

273

Score in week 36

7

10

8

Total after 36 weeks

273

224

281

 

 

 

 

Predictions – Week 37

 

 

 

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Friday

 

 

 

Everton v Watford

3-0

3-1

2-0

West Brom v Chelsea

0-1

1-2

0-2

Saturday

 

 

 

Man City v Leicester

3-1

3-2

2-0

Bournemouth v Burnley

2-1

0-0

1-1

Middlesbrough v Southampton

0-0

2-0

1-2

Sunderland v Swansea

1-2

1-1

1-1

Stoke v Arsenal

1-1

0-1

0-2

Sunday

 

 

 

Palace v Hull

2-1

1-0

1-1

West Ham v Liverpool

2-1

3-3

1-1

Tottenham v Man United

0-0

2-0

2-1

The Lawro Challenge – Week 36

Tension mounts as the two horse Lawro challenge race enters the final furlong.

Lawro Crystal BallIn Week 35, Geoff took the honours. Rich scored 3 points, Geoff 4 points, and Lawro 2 points. By some distance this was our poorest week for predicting the scores / results of Premier League games in the whole season, and demonstrated the unpredictability of some of the games in the top flight. Although Rich has forecast the most correct results, Lawro has been spot on with a greater number of correct scores. We now have just three weeks to go and Lawro has a 7 point lead. Can he be caught?

In this challenge we award one point for a correct result, and a further two points (making three in total) if the score prediction is spot on.

We now proceed to week 36.

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 34 weeks

263

210

271

Score in week 35

3

4

2

Total after 35 weeks

266

214

273

 

 

 

 

Predictions – Week 36

 

 

 

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Friday

 

 

 

West Ham v Tottenham

1-1

1-5

0-2

Saturday

 

 

 

Man City v Palace

2-0

2-1

3-0

Bournemouth v Stoke

2-1

0-0

1-1

Burnley v West Brom

1-1

1-0

1-1

Hull v Sunderland

3-0

1-1

2-0

Leicester v Watford

3-0

3-0

2-0

Swansea v Everton

2-1

2-2

2-1

Sunday

 

 

 

Liverpool v Southampton

2-1

1-1

2-0

Arsenal v Man. United

0-0

2-0

1-1

Monday

 

 

 

Chelsea v Middlesbrough

4-0

2-0

3-0

The Lawro Challenge – Week 35

As the season and our prediction challenge gets close to a climax it is still all to play for.

Lawro Crystal BallIn Week 34, Rich scored 7 points, Geoff 6 points, and Lawro 3 points. This means that Lawro’s lead has been cut to 8 points. With just four weeks remaining and the finishing line coming into view can a jittery Lawro retain his position at the top?  The contest is becoming almost as exciting as the scoring in Eurovision.

It is amusing that some folks take Lawro’s predictions to heart (see this post on the Claret & Hugh web blog).  It is only a bit of fun and about as serious as your daily horoscope.  In an inconsistent season results have been notoriously difficult to predict.

In this challenge we award one point for a correct result, and a further two points (making three in total) if the score prediction is spot on.

Now is the time to proceed to week 35.

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Total after 33 weeks

256

204

268

Score in week 34

7

6

3

Total after 34 weeks

263

210

271

 

 

 

 

Predictions – Week 35

 

 

 

 

Rich

Geoff

Lawro

Saturday

 

 

 

Southampton v Hull

1-1

1-2

2-0

Stoke v West Ham

1-0

0-1

2-0

Sunderland v Bournemouth

2-1

0-2

1-1

West Brom v Leicester

2-2

1-1

2-1

Palace v Burnley

2-0

1-2

2-1

Sunday

 

 

 

Man U v Swansea

2-1

3-0

2-0

Everton v Chelsea

1-1

0-0

0-2

Middlesbrough v Man City

0-3

1-3

0-2

Tottenham v Arsenal

2-1

4-2

1-1

Monday

 

 

 

Watford v Liverpool

1-3

2-3

1-2