The David Moyes Doom Spiral: Is There Any Way Back From The Brink?

As with politics, almost all managerial careers in football end in failure. Are these the final days of David Moyes reign at West Ham or will he launch a counter-offensive as his side take on Leicester City?

It’s been a bad week, so far, at the London Stadium. Quite possibly the limpest performance of the season against Crystal Palace was followed by an ignominious exit from the Carabao Cup at the hands of Blackburn Rovers reserves.

The once muted murmurings surrounding the future of David Moyes in the West Ham hot seat has incrementally risen towards a disturbing crescendo. What was once a small hardcore of supporters ideologically opposed to his appointment in the first place, has grown to an increasing number of Remainers progressively move across into the Leave camp. Is the Grim Reaper of football gaffers heading in his directio?

I’ve never considered Moyes credit with the club was about saving us from relegation. In many ways he is an odd choice to pick as a firefighter in that his brand is more about building effort, stability, and organisation than the spirit and passion demanded of relegation battles. Instead, it is the consecutive top seven Premier League finishes and the ensuing European campaigns that have caused his spell as manager to stand out.

By almost all measures, the 2020/21 season was West Ham’s most spectacular Premier League effort ever.  For the period coinciding with Jesse Lingard’s loan spell there was a swagger and fluidity on display that was as thrilling to watch as it was effective in winning matches. But for the injury to Declan Rice on England duty there would surely have been an excellent chance of Champions League qualification.

Sadly, those heights have not been repeated and today look as far away as ever. Moyes was bewitched by what Lingard added to the team and his transfer strategy became obsessed with a permanent deal. By the time it was obvious that Lingard would stay at Old Trafford no alternatives had been lined up with similar strengths. Aside from Kurt Zouma, the summer 2021 transfer window was a disaster. I don’t go along with the view that Nikola Vlasic was not given a chance by Moyes or was played out of position. He simply didn’t have the attributes for the intensity and physical nature of English league football. He failed at West Ham, just as he had failed at Everton. He is much better suited to the Italian game.

Despite everything, the following season still showed a creditable outcome. Seventh place in the Premier League and a Europa Cup semi-final was certainly an above average West Ham season. Cracks were starting to show in the league though, as form flatlined dramatically after Christmas. In mitigation the demands of Thursday – Sunday football should not be underestimated. Not just from the perspective of player fatigue in a small squad, but also due to the limited time that is left available for match preparation.

The huge mistake of the 2021/22 season was not strengthening in the winter transfer window. The Lingard fixation continued to dominate thinking and the opportunity to boost the squad by bringing in new blood was lost. By the second half of the season, there was a sense that West Ham were no longer a surprise package, the tactics were one dimensional and opposition coaches found them easy to counter. The team were becoming stale and despite raising their game for impressive European performances against Sevilla and Lyon, a rot had set in.

That brings us finally to this season, which has been a shocker by any definition. Significant amounts of money were spent on transfers, even if most of the business was completed too late in the day to start the season well prepared. Overall, the summer signings looked decent enough on paper and the squad had a far stronger look to it. But that added strength has failed to materialise on the pitch – and will continue to do so while the manager insists on stubbornly sticking to the same tactics, just with different names on the shirts. Where Moyes initial success was understandably pragmatic – getting the best from limited resources – he has lately been attempting to shoehorn more talented players into the same style, even though it clearly doesn’t suit them.

No matter how encouraging the summer purchases appear to be, the types of players that weren’t signed are equally pertinent. Despite the drawn out and ultimately fruitless pursuit of Lingard, no-one with similar attributes (which clearly were a Moyes priority) was eventually brought into the squad. Further, no left back was signed even though a long-term replacement for Aaron Cresswell had been apparent for many, many months. The last-minute signing of Emerson as the left sided defensive backup has every hallmark of a panic buy.

Received wisdom is that integrating a host of new players into a team will always a challenge. I cannot argue with that. It is the reason why bringing in a few in January or doing the summer business early would have made clear sense. Indeed, I think many would cut the manager some slack if it looked like a more progressive, less passive style was evolving. But it hasn’t, it is more of the same. The style has remained the same, and perversely the execution has become worse. It is an unfortunate fact of modern footballing life that standing still means going backwards

The negative approach of defending deep and in numbers, the poor passing and ball retention, and the dearth of movement and fluidity through the middle, all continue to be alarmingly apparent. With everyone behind the ball, who is there left to pass to? The imbalance between hard work and flair has created a side that is pedestrian, and which expects its attacking players to spend more time focused on defence, than threatening the opponent’s goal.

The only player in the squad capable of running with the ball (and having it under control) is Declan Rice. None of the other attack minded players have either the ability or the pace to do so reliably – only Moyes believes Manuel Lanzini can still offer this. The upshot is there is no obvious out-ball to relieve pressure or to build attacks when possession is won, a further contributing factor to poor ball retention. There just seem to be so many structural faults in the side right now, and no plan to address them.

To make matters even worse, notoriously slow starts have been added to the matchday playbook. Are the first half of games written off – hoping, perhaps, to snatch something late on with the energy conserved in the first forty-five minutes? This has happened far too frequently, in too many games, for it not to be an intentional tactic.

Clearly, it is not my decision whether the manager stays or goes. That is down to the board. Previously, they have waited and waited before pulling the trigger, but there are now obvious parallels to the last days of Bilic and Pellegrini. Although loyalty is an admirable quality, the question the board members must ask themselves is: “does Moyes have what it takes to turn things around?” It’s not a simple question of fighting for survival – surely finishing anywhere in the bottom half would be regarded as serious failure after the investment that has been made. It is about having the right man in place for the longer-term development of the club. A man with progressive ideas who is not stuck with outdated ways. I would be quite happy for Moyes to prove he can do it, but to my mind, it would require a scale of conversion rarely seen outside of road trips to Damascus.

I have read elsewhere that those inside the game believe it would be madness for West Ham to sack Moyes. It’s a valid point of view to take if you are looking from a distance only at past performance. The pundit community mostly operates as a mutual back-slapping fraternity insulated from supporters who might consider entertainment just as important as results. The common pundit line is one of players letting down the manager – which does raise the question as to whether the level of solidarity in the dressing room has decayed since the departure of Mark Noble?

Timing is the other issue that the Board must consider. The imminent break for the World Cup feels like the perfect opportunity for a club thinking of a managerial change to make a move. It allows the new man time to settle in, work on new ideas and prepare for any adjustments required in the transfer window. Is it an opportunity too good to be missed?

Whatever the Board’s current inclination – and noises to date are that they are in support of Moyes – today’s game against Leicester will be an nervous affair. It will not be lost on the opposition that another frustrating start by the home side is likely to produce a toxic atmosphere inside the stadium. It will be in their interests to play on that.

Brendan Rodgers is another manager who has struggled of late in his attempts to evolve to a more possession based style of play. For a few seasons the Foxes were the team most likely to disrupt the ‘big six’ but have lost their recently way due to financial difficulties and player departures. Signs of recovery have started to show after a dreadful start to the season, and they have conceded just one goal in the last five league outings. They certainly carry enough of a threat – in the form of James Madison, Youri Tielemans and Harvey Barnes – to worry a hesitant and accident prone Hammers.

Despite everything, I cannot join those hoping that a West Ham defeat will lead to a change of manager. I will always want them to win every game they play and will not cross that line today. But I’m not sure what to expect. A new mindset from Moyes? A more front-foot approach from the team? Or another slow start and an uprising in the stands? The finger nails will be taking a battering. COYI?

Can West Ham win four successive home Premier League games for the first time in more than 20 years?

29 May 2004 is a date I always remember. Even though it is more than 18 years ago I cannot forget the long drive home from Cardiff after Palace had beaten us 1-0 in the Playoff final. It was a game I was convinced we would win to return to the Premier League but it was not to be. Fortunately we had a better result in the Playoffs the following season beating Preston 1-0. We did get relegated once again a few years later but only spent one season down before Sam Allardyce brought us back once again via the Playoffs beating Blackpool 2-1 at Wembley.

We’ve retained our place in the top flight since 2012 and Palace were promoted a season later and we’ve faced each other regularly since then. In those 9 seasons (18 games) we have won 7, Palace 5, and there have been six draws, so fairly evenly balanced.

There has been a certain symmetry to the results in that time. For example in 2013-14 Palace won both games 1-0. The following season we won one each with the away side winning 3-1 in both games.

In 2015-16, the final season at Upton Park we again won away 3-1 before drawing 2-2 at home in one of the final games. I will always remember that match for Payet’s wonder free kick.

In the next three seasons we were unbeaten against Palace winning three and drawing three before Palace won both games by a 2-1 score line in 2019-20.

The last two seasons have seen us drawing the home games 1-1 and 2-2, but winning away 3-2 both times. Our last meeting was on New Years Day when we led 3-0 at half time and held the lead until the 83rd minute. Two late Palace goals made for a closer finish than should have been the case.

If we win this game then it will be our fourth successive home Premier League win. That hasn’t happened for more than 20 years. If we look at all competitive fixtures then a win would be our seventh in a row and that hasn’t happened for 23 years.

David Moyes has only lost once as a manager in 14 games v Palace, and The Eagles have a poor away record in the Premier League this season, and also in Vieira’s time as their manager. I also noted that Zaha hasn’t scored a goal or registered an assist in any of his seven away games against us.

Going back to consecutive wins, what a great performance in the Europa Conference League where we have won eight games in a row, including six in the league, the only team to achieve a 100 per cent record in the competition. Perhaps not the strongest group but you can only beat teams up against you and we have done so with a largely second team, emphasising the improved strength of our squad. It was good to see so many Academy players given an opportunity.

For today’s game my preferred starting lineup would be:

Areola; Kehrer, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell; Rice, Downes; Paqueta; Bowen, Antonio, Benrahma.

I wouldn’t mind if Aguerd was in the team; he has looked impressive in the games he has played but perhaps Moyes doesn’t believe he is quite ready yet. It seems that Dawson may be on his way soon, and Aguerd will take his place alongside Zouma (who was excellent last week) in the centre of our defence.

I suspect my lineup won’t happen as the manager will almost certainly find a place for Soucek (definitely), Fornals (probably), and Scamacca (quite probably).

Every statistic points to a West Ham win, and as we often score three against these opponents I’ll go for 3-1, especially as both teams seem to score in these fixtures. 

In Like Flynn: Changing The Guard For The Visit Of Palace

Will David Moyes stick with caution and his old favourites or adopt the spirit of adventure and enterprise that his players can now offer?

Thursday evening’s game against FCSB turned out to be a far more entertaining spectacle than originally anticipated. Even the manager and coaches on the West Ham bench seemed surprised how well their scratch Hammer’s XI had performed. Who knew that fluidity, movement, passing the ball through the middle and early purposeful delivery from the flanks could reap such rewards?

The performances of Oliver Scarles, in particular, but also Divin Mubama generated plenty of welcome and well-deserved praise for the youngsters. As ever the club were not slow to jump on the bandwagon extolling the virtues of the ‘Academy of Football’. Yet reality tells a different story. Of an academy whose output has been sporadic at best since that golden age around the turn of the century. Hopefully, a bumper crop is on the way and it would be great to see at least two youngsters on every bench, who are given experience at every opportunity.

There can be no argument as to the effectiveness of our Europa Conference campaign to date. The group may not have offered the sternest of tests, but games still need to be won. And six out six ain’t bad! The competition now represents the most direct path to a first major title since 1980 – and a third consecutive season of European football. The most significant obstacle on the way will undoubtedly be Villareal – currently joint favourites alongside West Ham to lift the trophy in early June. Avoiding them until Prague would be good!

If you look at current UEFA coefficients, there are six clubs remaining in the Conference ranked higher than West Ham. The Hammers have climbed to 48th in the overall rankings – not bad going for a side that has only competed in two of the five seasons that qualify for points. The six higher ranked clubs being: Villareal (18th), Basel (34th), Braga (35th), Lazio (38th), and AZ Alkmaar (44th).

There is a long break now until the 9 March 2023 before the first leg of the Round of Sixteen kicks-off and we will not know who the opponents will be until 24 February. With three of their teams remaining in the hat, probability dictates that a trip to Turkey could well be on the cards.

Europe has added a lustre to an otherwise muted season for David Moyes and his team. Many appreciate the Moyesiah’s fine work since his second coming and the fact that we can realistically talk of three consecutive seasons of European football is testament enough to that. But it is clear that his approach is becoming stale. Change is needed but is happening far too slowly now that his team are no longer an unknown quantity. It really has to be time to throw off the caution both in personnel and tactics and introduce a measure of adventure into the game plan.

There is amazing consistency in the preferred side and formation that I see suggested online by significant numbers of West Ham fans. It is along the lines of: Areola – Kehrer, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell – Downes, Rice, Paqueta – Bowen, Scamacca, Benrahma (or Antonio). Can they all be wrong? Time to give it a try? I think so!

It would be a travesty if Flynn Downes does not start in his natural position, alongside Declan Rice tomorrow. Some games might need the extra height that Tomas Soucek brings as auxiliary defensive cover – this is not one of them. Downes has much more to his game; full of energy, strong in the tackle, plays on his toes, and moves the ball quickly and accurately. Every side needs a handful of players with such no-nonsense attributes. He could also prove to be the perfect foil for Lucas Paqueta, creating the space required for the Brazilian to flourish.      

West Ham go into tomorrow’s home fixture against Crystal Palace as the lowest placed of the seven London clubs. I doubt any of us expected that after thirteen games; or that the Hammers would have lost over half of the league matches played. Two wins from the two matches remaining before the break would paint a healthier picture but we will start the game no more than three points off the relegation places.

Crystal Palace sit two points better off than the Hammers, having played one game less. Their record of won four, lost four, drawn four typifies a mixed bag of fortunes and results – they have yet to win away this term. In fact, their position closely mirrors a typical Palace season, (since their return to the topflight in 2013) which usually sees them finishing in a narrow band between 10th and 14th.

Current manager Patrick Viera is the Eagles eighth since their Premier League return. His illustrious career as one of the Premier League’s finest midfild players gives him an aura that has yet to translate to managerial success.  Admittedly he inherited an ageing squad from Roy Hodgson but while he has attempted to address that, results on the pitch have yet to show much improvement. It is said that Viera has adopted a more possession based approach, yet the stats show them marginally behind West Ham on that measure.

For the eighth season running, Wilfried Zaha will pose the greatest Palace threat, unless it is one of those afternoons where he gets wound up and spends the entire ninety minutes complaining – an early encounter with Craig Dawson might do the trick. Elsewhere Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise are capable of providing dangerous but inconsistent moments, while old warhorse Jordan Ayew will spend his time looking for trouble and scowling angrily at anyone who crosses his path.

It’s been four seasons since West Ham last beat Crystal Palace at home. So, high time that authority was exerted and the natural order of things restored. A 3-1 home win. COYI!

West Ham Head To Old Trafford On Sunday: Can They Find A North-West Passage To Victory?

The cities of Manchester and Liverpool have never been happy hunting grounds for West Ham. Can they break the hoodoo at Manchester United or will they yet again be north-west passengers?

The midweek Europa Conference game against Silkeborg ended in the type of unexceptional victory that has become commonplace in the late stage group games. West Ham were all but assured of top spot prior to kick-off and the visitors would have been aware that next week’s home fixture against Anderlecht was their key to progressing in the competition. The game really should have been more of a stroll for the Hammers but once their finishing was about as convincing as a politician’s promise.

Still. it was good to get a first competitive glimpse of Nayef Aguerd. Without being tested it provided an encouraging teaser for we might expect from a speedy, ball-playing central defender. There was also an accomplished performance from Conor Coventry. He may be some way down the defensive midfield pecking order – unless David Moyes fancies picking four of them together at some point – but he is now firm favourite for the tidiest haircut since Scott Parker award.

I can’t help thinking the club is going a little over the top with their seven home wins on the trot marketing campaign, especially when considering the quality offered by much of the opposition. I suppose they were games that needed to be won, though. As for the Conference, we can now look forward to the most pointless match ever held for next week’s trip to Bucharest. Are we allowed to field the Under 13’s?

Sunday sees a return to league action against another of the sides enjoying the rigours of Thursday – Sunday football. Manchester United have now guaranteed group qualification but must triumph at Real Sociedad next week to avoid the play-off round lottery in the Europa League.

Trips to Old Trafford may not be as fruitless for West Ham as they are to Anfield, but there’s not much in it. The Hammers have returned with all the points on just six occasions since 1958; just twice in the Premier League era with the last time being the great escape in the final game of the 2006/7 season. With an equally dismal record against Manchester City, and even Everton proving a regular bogey side, trips to the north-west rarely turn out well. Since the Hammers most recent return to the Premier League they have lost 31 of 42 league matches played in Manchester and Liverpool (won six and drawn five). Indeed it is a record that has been passed down from manager to manager.

Although facing the Red Devils is nowhere near as daunting as it once was, it should be pointed out that Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have already been beaten this season at Old Trafford. The home side may not yet be credible title challengers but they will certainly be in the mix for a top four finish.

Then there are the lurking perils of VAR. If you cast your mind back to the equivalent fixture last season, the home side won the game with the last kick of the game. Despite a strong suspicion that Cavani was offside before he played in Rashford to score, the goal was expediently awarded with indecent haste. No three or four minutes of line and angle drawing at Stockley Park on this occasion – the players were back in the dressing room by then.    

I have run the numbers and the eXpected VAR balls up ratio (xVAR) comes out as 1.9 : 0.2. This week our fate is in the hands, whistle and mouse of Chris Kavanagh (referee) and Paul Tierney (VAR). The current standard, consistency and subjective nature of officiating reminded me of playing football over the park as kids – with the legendary jumpers for goalposts. If you shouted ‘post’ or ‘over’ quickly and loudly enough, it was often all that was needed to get a goal chalked off!

I think most West Ham supporters expect a further dose of David Moyes cautious medicine tomorrow.  Initiative will be surrendered, opposition will be shown too much respect, defending will be as deep as possible, all in the hope of scoring on the break. His well-known inferiority complex preferring to hang on passively rather than forcefully targeting the host’s weaknesses.

With Lucas Paqueta again nursing his mysterious shoulder injury, Moyes may well persist with the unusual defensive midfield triumvirate of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, and Flynn Downes that featured against Bournemouth. It screams lack of creativity and ambition but may just work if the three selected further forward are predominantly attack minded players – e.g. three from Said Benrahma, Gianluca Scamacca, Jarrod Bowen, and Michail Antonio. At the rear the much-missed Craig Dawson is adding weight to the axiom that West Ham injuries always take longer to heal than originally anticipated. Dawson partnering Kurt Zouma in the centre with Thilo Kehrer and Aaron Cresswell as full-backs provides a solid enough backline.

The hosts may make several change to the team that shot three past Sheriff in midweek, with frequent West Ham irritant Rashford replacing the increasingly petulant Ronaldo. As usual the Red Devils have a surfeit of attacking talent but invariably look shaky at the back. If only West Ham could bring their clinical shooting boots with them.

Interviewed after the Silkeborg game, Aguerd (very good English) said the team set out to win every game. Is that true, does he believe it, or hasn’t he been around long enough to know differently? Observation and experience suggest the first priority is not to lose every game. Who knows, perhaps the spots on the leopard can be purposefully re-arranged this weekend? More probable, I think, is a goal apiece draw. COYI!

West Ham Versus Bournemouth: All The Things You Don’t Need To Know

All eyes will be on David Moyes as he cherry picks his West Ham side to face Bournemouth at the London Stadium

In a period of rampant fixture congestion prior to the Qatar World Cup it feels perverse to ask a team involved in midweek European competition to play their weekend fixture late on a Monday night. Once a big deal in the early days of live televised football, the glamour of the Monday night match has waned to become the home of fixtures with minority appeal. A perfect example of after the Lord Mayor’s show, but still preferable to the Friday night slot.

The weekend’s games have seen the Hammers left floundering in 17th place of the Premier League standings, teetering just above the dotted line of doom. As ever, the curse of VAR continued to infect the once beautiful game. When it comes to the poor standard of refereeing, a problem shared is a problem doubled. On-pitch and off-field officials compound each other’s flawed judgements and mistakes. The probability of error is being added rather than multiplied.

If the technology were being applied correctly, there would be a move towards greater consistency, not away from it. A penalty awarded for Chelsea but denied for Arsenal in almost identical circumsatances, just as the judo throw on Tomas Soucek also went unnoticed at Southampton. Haaland being allowed to use power and strength to barge through defenders, while Michail Antonio is regularly penalised for doing exactly the same.

Add to that the two-to-three-minute delay at Manchester City (as the game went on around them) before the ludicrous award of a ‘clear and obvious’ home penalty especially with a strong suspicion that Silva had engineered the tackle in the first place.

Although bizarre VAR decisions have played a supporting part in West Ham’s stuttering start to the season, both manager and team have struggled to look anywhere close to convincing. While a plea of misfortune could be entered for points dropped in games against Forest, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool, little evidence exists that the Hammers can reprise the exploits of the last two seasons.

If I were asked to summarise this season’s performances to date, it would be a team that is over-cautious, too willing to concede possession, poor at passing, and weak at finishing. But do the statistics bear that out?

I think the reason Moyes team appears overly cautious is the reliance on a low block and the lack of pressing higher up the pitch. The Hammers score low on number of presses, especially in the attacking third – preferring to retreat to the edge of their own area. Creating a disciplined compact defensive shape was one of Moyes tactical victories in stopping the rot left by Pellegrini. The culture persists today and only four teams in the Premier League have conceded fewer goals this season. But compact in defence can easily become congested in possession if there is not good movement. It is difficult to validate this from publicly available stats, but observation suggest a lack of fluidity, few third man runs, and a dearth of passing opportunities that feature in the play of most successful sides.

Possession stats have risen a little in the past few weeks, up now to 44% and higher than five other clubs in the division. Surprisingly, the Hammers are mid-table when it comes to passing accuracy, roughly equal to Newcastle. But when looking at the progressive distance of those passes, it shows them slipping down the table – suggesting a higher proportion of passes that are short or go sideways and backward. What is not clear to me is whether a below par passing game is down to individual player weaknesses or to match tactics which stymie a fluent passing game – which is the chicken and which is the egg?

Interestingly, West Ham sit eighth in terms of total number of shots but are well down the rankings for shots on target (and of course, goals scored). In fact, only Wolves have a worse record for percentage of shots on targets. West Ham’s 25% of shots on target is strikingly unfavourable compared to the 38% achieved by both Arsenal and Tottenham. What is the opposite of clinical?

I’ve had a long held soft spot for tonight’s visitors dating back to their time as a plucky lower league side. For some years, I lived on the south coast but the association started even before that, when I attended a Bournemouth versus Luton game in 1969 during a family holiday. It was first professional game I had gone to that didn’t feature West Ham. The battle of the Supermacs – Ted MacDougall for the hosts and Malcolm Macdonald for the visitors – ended as a 1-0 away win. The club has also had a strong West Ham connection over the years with John Bond, Trevor Hartley, Harry Redknapp, Kevin Bond, Jimmy Quinn, Scott Parker and now Gary O’Neil all spending time in the Cherry’s manager’s seat.

I half expected Bournemouth to fade back into lower league obscurity following their 2020 relegation, so full credit to them for making it back to the big time and putting together a creditable start to the current campaign, despite early season hammerings by Manchester City, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Since O’Neil took charge, the Cherrys have won two, drawn four and lost just once.

According to most reports, West Ham will be without Nayef Aguerd and Lucas Paqueta tonight and doubts continue with the fitness of Craig Dawson and Maxwell Cornet. That suggests a continuation of the Kurt Zouma / Thilo Kehrer centre-back pairing – assuming Angelo Ogbonna is not consider a credible starter these days – with either Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back. I am hoping that Paqueta’s absence means a rare start for Said Benrahma to offer at least a hint of guile, and that Flynn Downes gets another chance to impress following his fine performance at Anfield. My concern again would be a midfield top-heavy with defensive minded players unable to provide the level of support required by the front players. We are, after all playing at home – against Bournemouth!

A home win today would bounce West Ham into the top half of the table – onto page one of Teletext, as it was. Defeat would leave them mired in a congested mob of clubs looking nervously downwards. There is a lot to play for and it is a time to boldly go for it. Maybe time for an extended look at Gianluca Scamacca and Michail Antonio as a joint attacking force. We can dream!

Apparently, the Hammers have built a reputation as Monday night masters, having won their last five fixtures on that particular graveyard shift – who keeps tabs on this sort of thing? I will be surprised and disappointed if they don’t make it six in a row. But what we do know, is that they will make hard work of it. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

Can West Ham make it five home wins in a row for the first time in more than ten years?

How many of us (West Ham fans) would have thought at the start of the season that when it came to the fixture at home to Bournemouth, just a week from the end of October, with the World Cup looming up next month, and with almost one-third of the season completed, that we would be sitting below them in the Premier League table? West Ham, with a sixth and seventh place finish in the top-flight in the last two seasons versus a newly promoted Bournemouth side. Surely, with what was believed to be a very successful summer transfer window, with the recruitment of current internationals (German and Italian defenders, a Brazilian midfielder, and an Italian centre forward), we would be maintaining our challenge to the top teams, whereas our south coast opponents would be languishing towards the bottom?

Yet here we are with 11 points from 11 games whereas the Cherries are two points in advance of us, both of us having won three of our opening games, but they have drawn four and lost four, whereas we have drawn two and lost six. In fact, all three of the promoted teams have done relatively well (so far) with Fulham sitting in the top half of the table, Bournemouth amongst a cluster of mid-table clubs, and even Forest, despite sitting in the bottom three, beating our midweek conquerors Liverpool at the City Ground on Saturday.

After beginning this campaign with a 2-0 home win over Aston Villa, Bournemouth then lost three games in a row conceding four at Manchester City, three at home to Arsenal, and then a record-equalling nine at Liverpool. Sixteen goals conceded without a single goal scored meant cheerio Scott Parker, and since then Gary O’Neill has been in caretaker charge.

He began with a goalless draw against Wolves, an excellent 3-2 comeback win at Forest after being two down at half-time, a creditable 1-1 draw at Newcastle, another goalless draw at home to Brentford, a 2-1 home win against Leicester, and then a 2-2 draw at Fulham. Two wins and four draws in his first six games in charge, an excellent CV if he was hoping for a permanent appointment, was then spoiled by an (unexpected?) 0-1 reverse at home to fellow south coasters Southampton in midweek. Nevertheless, the midfielder, who spent two and a half years at Upton Park, turning out 48 times for the Hammers around ten years ago, has steadied the ship, and must be a contender for the role in the longer term if he can keep them away from the bottom.

This is our seventh season at the London Stadium. Do you remember our very first Premier League game here in August 2016? On a sunny Saturday afternoon Bournemouth were the visitors and we ran out 1-0 winners when Michail Antonio headed a very late far post winner. But we haven’t had it all our own way against the Cherries in top-flight games, and in fact they lead 4-3 in wins in Premier League matches.

We head into this game (our 85th Premier League match on a Monday, more than any other team I read) with 12 fewer points than at this stage last season (11 compared to 23) after 11 games. In our first 11 games last season we had won 7, drawn 2, and lost 2, so we are some way behind where we were last time around, and have some catching up to do if we are to equal the seventh-place finish in 2021-22.

Our recent home form has been good, winning our last four competitive games. We haven’t won five in a row at home for more than ten years now. Much is made of David Moyes’ poor record as a manager against the big boys, but conversely he has never lost a game in charge against Bournemouth. Is that a good or a bad sign?

I wonder what starting eleven he will select for this game? Is Aguerd ready for consideration yet? He must be close now, but they are hoping to give him a couple of under 23 games first I read. Perhaps Cornet and Dawson will be ready after their recent injuries, although it seems unlikely that Paqueta will be risked unless he is 100%. One player I definitely want to see is Flynn Downes. He has impressed me immensely in the games where he has been given the chance, he adds some solidity to our midfield, and enables Declan Rice to go forward more, something he did superbly in his man of the match performance at Anfield in midweek.

A win would equalise our top-flight record of wins against our visitors, but more importantly we would leapfrog them in the table. Yesterday’s results meant that we slipped down to seventeenth in the table, but it is so congested that a win would take us into the top half (10th) with 14 points, just two points adrift of eighth-place Liverpool, and four below Fulham in seventh.

This game won’t be as easy as some might predict, but I reckon we’ll do enough to achieve that fifth competitive home win in a row. 3-1? What are the chances?

Hammers Have Hope In Their Hearts For Annual Anfield Altercation

Will the dreams be tossed and blown or will they fade and die as West Ham make the annual pointless trip up north to play Liverpool

According to popular wisdom: “it is better to travel in hope than to arrive”. That has certainly been the case for West Ham visits to Liverpool in the past. A contest that has seen the visitors accumulate a paltry three away wins in ninety-nine years of competition. Recent experience provides no greater comfort with a run of five straight defeats since the Hammers last came away with a point in December 2016. Famously, a 50+ year hoodoo had been broken the previous season – but that was not to be start of a new era and the fixture continues to carry the hallmarks of a contractual obligation.

The ‘travel in hope’ quotation is said to have been coined by by Robert Louis Stevenson. Quite appropriate then that it would require a monstrous Jekyll and Hyde type transformation from last weekend’s respective performances for the visitors to improve on their sad record.

Following Liverpool’s stuttering start to the season, where their problem has been far too many drawn games, it was a shock to see them stifle and defeat a free-scoring Manchester City side, who I had earmarked as potential Invincibles material. Perhaps they were fortunate that Haaland had gone ‘off the boil’ by extending his goal drought to a whole match! Still it was a far more energetic and purposeful performance by the hosts in which the only straw clutching hope is that it may have taken a lot out of them – and resulted in one or two more injuries.

True to form, VAR once again found itself at the centre of attention when it went into overdrive to disallow what might heve been Manchester City’s opener. Had Haaland pulled Fabinho’s force with sufficient grippage (is that a word?) ; did Haaland subsequently kick the ball out of Alissons hands; if not, should that have constituted a new phase of play; does anyone understand the rules; do they make them up as they go along? Suffice to say, we shouldn’t expect any favours from the VAR team this evening.

As for the Hammers, it was a case of two points dropped at St Marys Stadium on Sunday. The absence of four recognised central defenders from the West Ham line-up set the scene for the game with David Moyes opting for an unusual all-full-back back three of Ben Johnson, Thilo Kehrer, and Aaron Cresswell. As I have written before, my aversion to playing three at the back is not that it is negative, but because there’s no-one in the squad capable of playing effectively as wing-backs. Vladimir Coufal and Emerson went on to prove that point perfectly. Sad to see that Coufal received abuse on social media. Whatever the shortcomings or poor form of various players, I don’t see any that are not giving 100%.

The makeshift defence started like a group of strangers and although understanding steadily improved, the Hammers found themselves a goal down by then. It was a goal conceded in bizarre circumstances when hapless referee, Peter Bankes, body checked Jarrod Bowen to present Perraud with a shooting opportunity. Bankes, and his VAR minder, would later go on to miss a penalty area judo throw on Tomas Soucek – the type of challenge that was penalised at every other ground over the weekend.

If the starting line-up that Moyes opted for could be seen as understandable in the circumstances, his substitutions were once more beyond perplexing. His team had been well on top for most of the game. Possession, goal attempts and corner kicks were off the scale, and Southampton had given up any pretence of trying to score. Only one team were capable of going on to win the game. Surely, time to give it a real go – an opportunity to see Giancarlo Scamacca and Michail Antonio terrorise the Saints defence for the final ten or fifteen minutes? But no, that’s just what they would have expected us to do. Far better to take off your biggest goal threats and tamely play out the remaining minutes to bank the point. A lovely goal by Declan Rice, by the way!

This week’s episode of Centre Back Crisis season 2 is the subject of conflicting reports. Wishful thinking says that at least one of Kurt Zouma and Craig Dawson should be available to play, while past performance indicates that recoveries always take longer than anticipated from the West Ham sickbay. It’s good news that Nayef Aguerd is nearing first team action and it can’t come soon enough. Relying on the ageing bodies of Dawson and Angelo Ogbonna in a packed programme of fixtures is never going to end well.

Even in perfect conditions, a trip to Anfield is a daunting task for West Ham. Having to play the same defence that took the field at Southampton would bring the pessimism level down several more notches. A silver lining is that Liverpool have their own injury problems, except they are still able to throw the combined talents of Salah, Firmino and Nunez at our depleted defences. The confirmed team news will be viewed with interest. If Antonio is preferred to Scamacca it will be obvious what sort of evening we are in for. An ultra-low block with hopeful punts up-field as the one and only outlet.

Perhaps Moyes will pull a surprise for once. But his record and deference against the ‘big six’ is well known. Over the past two seasons of relative West Ham success, his teams have lost sixteen of twenty-four games played against the ‘elite’. Away from home the record is poor in the extreme: played twelve, won none, drawn one, and lost eleven. Only Manuel Lanzini’s very last minute strike at Tottenham preventing an outright whitewash.

In the interests of travelling hopefully though, perhaps there’s an outside chance we can escape with a point. COYI!

Are Upbeat West Ham Ready To Exploit The Irregular Rhythm Of The Saints?

Despite the winning mentality building at West Ham out of recent league and European exploits it will be a tough test on the south coast against under pressure Southampton

When asked what he thought about football, a wise man once said: “It’s a funny old game.” It’s a fascinating insight and one that is particularly pertinent when it comes to football management. How else can you explain why anyone would want to give Steve Bruce a job?

Very few managers these days ever get to win a trophy – such is the financial dominance of a small group of powerful clubs. In the past ten seasons, the three major English honours have been shared by just five clubs (sorry, Tottenham) on all but four occasions – Leicester’s league title in 2016 and FA Cup win in 2020, Wigan’s FA Cup in 2013, and Swansea’s League Cup, also in the same year. In the last five seasons, Manchester City have won nine of the fifteen prizes on offer.

For anyone managing outside the richest clubs, success is purely relative. Trying to keep the owners and supporters happy (in that order) by maximising prize money and steering clear of relegation. Buried somewhere in their priority list is a precarious balance between expectations, results and entertainment.  

Just a few weeks ago, the ominous rasp of knives being sharpened might well have haunted David Moyes dreams. But a run of six wins from seven games (in all competitions) has been enough to silence his band of critics for now. A strong enough position to see off at least another two or three Prime Ministers.

Although the Hammer’s league position still leaves much to be desired, securing another feast of post-Christmas European football adds further credit to the manager’s account. In truth, a Premier League side not being able to qualify from a Europa Conference group must be regarded as a monumental failure (sorry, again Tottenham). Still, doing so with two games to spare, and using a largely second-string set of players, could not have gone any better.

This week, by complete coincidence, I came across a critique of Jose Mourinho’s management style by Spanish journalist, Diego Torres. Not a huge fan of the Special One, Torres distilled Mourinho’s footballing philosophy into the following principles:

  • The game is won by the team who commit fewer errors.
  • Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
  • Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
  • Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake
  • Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
  • Whoever has the ball has fear.
  • Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.

While it would be harsh to tar Moyes with precisley the same brush, there are certainly familiar themes – which become more visible as better players are brought into the club. When Moyes first arrived he did an amazing job of getting the best from the limited resources he had available. But as the value of his squad increases, he needs to demonstrate more variety in his game plan. The cycle of defend deep, break quickly, and score from set pieces cannot repeat indefinitely. The squad now has players that can add creativity to the energy and organisation, but there needs to be more freedom, less inhibition, greater adventure, improved fluidity and movement; and less respect for opponent’s reputations.

The transition is not an easy one, but there can be no linear path in football for clubs like ours. Without a preception of success, improvement, and momentum, the better players will move on, and it will be back to square one. See Leicester City for details.

Today, West Ham travel to the south coast to meet floundering Southampton. A string of four consecutive defeats, including reverses against Wolves, Villa, and Everton has seen the Saints slip alarmingly down the table and propelled Ralph Hasenhuttl to frontrunner in the managerial sack race, currently neck and neck with Steven Gerrard at Villa. A good time for West Ham to play them or will we see a survival mode response from the home side?

If there were to be an armchair poll of supporter’s preferred West Ham line-ups, my instinct is that it would show a strong desire for Alphonse Areola to replace Lucasz Fabianski, Flynn Downes to replace Tomas Soucek, and anyone (Michail Antonio, Said Benrahma or Maxwell Cornet) to replace Pablo Fornals. It is certainly what I have been longing to see, although none of that is likely to happen today.

Moyes has spoken highly of Downes in recent weeks but appears set on bringing him on minute by minute in the league. Last weekend Downes doubled his Premier League minutes from one to two; a rate that doesn’t suggest a stunningly rapid development plan. Surely, he must be given a twenty to thirty minute shift before too long.

The persistence with Fornals is the perfect example of Moyes’ aversion to risk. Preferring to employ him as an auxiliary defender rather than fielding a more attack minded player. I doubt any other side in the league plays with fewer players who are primarilyy focus on offense. The lack of options and movement that this creates contributes significantly to the below average level of ball retention.

Fans will remember that West Ham and Southampton were promoted from the Championship together in 2011/12. In the twenty league matches played since, West Ham have won ten, Southampton five, and there have been five draws – four of them goalless affairs at St Marys. The Saints did, however, run out comfortable winners when the teams last met in the fifth round of the 2021/22 FA Cup.

The current Southampton side is full of busy players but they are short of true quality, aside from the dead ball expertise of Ward-Prowse. That said, I am not as confident as others that the game presents something of a ‘gimme’ for the Hammers. Much will depend on two factors: one, whether the Hammers can find enough fit central defenders to start the game following injuries sustained in midweek; and two, whether they can shake off the characteristic slow start that has tended to follow previous midweek European outings.

I would love to predict a third league win on the bounce. One day we may get to see a West Ham romp inspired by the burgeoning skills of Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta. It could be today but equally I can easily see the spoils being shared. COYI!

West Ham at Southampton, the Anderlecht game, and thoughts on VAR, offside and handball.

Did you read Geoff’s excellent article in Under The Hammers on Thursday prior to the European game against Anderlecht? In it he described how it never ceases to amaze him how much of a pigs-ear officials have made of implementing VAR, and how the beauty of football is it’s simplicity. He went on to discuss the meal that the VAR review system made of last Sunday’s game against Fulham. For once all three West Ham goals stood following review, but they took an absolute age, didn’t they, taking the spontaneity out of celebrating a goal scored?

I’ll put my cards on the table here and say that I am a fan of the concept of VAR. But, and this is a massive but, only if it is used as it was surely intended, to highlight to the referee that he has blundered by not seeing something that has resulted in a clear and obvious error.

Goals are checked for offside, but it seems to take an age to draw the lines, and in the end it often comes down to a toe being in an offside position or not. I’d personally like to see a change to the offside law. It was originally introduced to prevent goal-hanging more than 100 years ago and this made sense at the time, and not to decide whether a player had a toe (or any other part of the body that can touch the ball legally) in an offside position anywhere in the opponent’s half. Surely it would be simple enough to change the law such that if any part of the attacker’s body is in line with any part of the defender’s body then the attacker is onside? It would take literally seconds to confirm this.

Perhaps even more controversially, how ridiculous that you can be offside anywhere in the opponent’s half? Why not extend the line of the penalty area and only give offside decisions in the final 18 yards of the pitch? This would mean that the game would be stretched over a greater area. You can’t be goal-hanging 50 yards from the goal! Perhaps this idea of mine is a step too far, but at least I understand that technology is advancing to an extent that cameras will soon be able to identify offside automatically without the need for linesmen, or assistant referees as they are now called. Perhaps that will enable them to concentrate on assisting the referee more? Is that something we would want them to do?

But even more contentious than offside in the modern game is the concept of handball. I was interested to read an article by Mike Dean in his column in the Daily Mail this week where he talks about handballs being the hardest part of being an official. “Give me a tackle, a trip, a push, some grappling in the box or an offside any day of the week” he says.

But going back to Geoff’s point about football being a simple game, why can’t we make the handball law much more straightforward? Dean goes on to discuss what the officials have to consider when assessing handball. “Did the ball strike the player on the red zone (below the shirt sleeve) or the green zone which I assume to be above the shirt sleeve? I wonder how they assess this if players are wearing long sleeves? What was the proximity of the player to where the ball was struck from? Did they have time to react? Was it deliberate? Was their arm in an unnatural position or was it naturally a consequence of his body shape an movement? How can you be sure what position is natural for the arm from one individual to another? Was there a clear movement of the arm to make the body bigger?”

He goes on to say that “handballs have always been a talking point and they remain so to this day regardless of the introduction of VAR.”

Dean’s comments lifted from his article are in bold italics in the paragraphs above. No wonder it takes so long to come to a conclusion! Once again I have what I think is a simple solution. Just leave it to the referee to decide if a player deliberately uses his hand / arm to gain an advantage. If so, then penalise him. So many handball decisions seem to be given where there is no intent. Of course the decision of the referee will be a subjective one – these are often not clear-cut, but even after looking at a multitude of camera angles, it seems to me that it is impossible to decide whether all of the points that Dean raises for handball decisions lead to a clear conclusion. Pundits analysing the decisions on TV have varying opinions. Yes, VAR can intervene if the referee has made a clear and obvious error, but let’s keep it simple. Only intervene if the referee has missed something clear and obvious. Just have one criteria. Was it deliberate or not? And that’s the end of it.

The result of the Anderlecht game was not really a reflection of the 90 minutes. At 2-0 the team concentrated on possession rather than adding to the lead, then towards the end Ben Johnson made a clumsy challenge in the penalty area which led to an unnecessary few uncomfortable minutes to see the victory out. Once again a good performance from a number of players that haven’t been in the starting eleven in league games. Once again, Flynn Downes demonstrated his midfield potential and must surely get more minutes in the near future.

Southampton are the opponents this weekend. In my start of season predictions I forecast them to be one of the three clubs to be relegated this season, and nothing I’ve seen so far has made me change my mind on this. Three Midlands clubs (Leicester, Forest and Wolves) currently occupy the relegation places with Southampton immediately above them.

Their seven points all came in the opening month of the season, drawing at home to Leeds, winning at Leicester, and at home to Chelsea. In September they lost at Wolves and Villa, and in October so far they were soundly beaten (as so many are) by Manchester City and then last weekend lost at home to Everton.

We have yet to reach the heights of the last two campaigns this season, but our form contrasts with our south coast opponents. Where their game appears to be deteriorating with four consecutive league defeats, our form has slowly improved after not such a good start with six wins in our last seven games, two in the league and four in Europe. The European campaign has been promising without being outstanding, and we have (almost) already won the group with two games to spare.

I’d like to think that we’ll beat Southampton easily, but you never can be sure of how it will go on a Sunday following a Thursday game. 2-0 perhaps? What are the chances?

There’s Only One F In Stratford: West Ham Entertain The Cottagers At The London Stadium

Two wins, two clean sheets and the luxury of selection dilemmas might finally put a smile on David Moyes face

A week is a long time in football. Two wins and two clean sheets in five days have transformed David Moyes demeanour and medium term outlook beyond his wildest expectations. Gone was the startled Scooby Doo look of panic that was a constant during his time at Sunderland, to be replaced by the smug satisfaction of a man who had just found a can of Irn-Bru in the mini-bar of his Brussels hotel room.

Having made nine changes to his side for the midweek game at Anderlecht, the Hammers put in a professional performance to take control of the game, even if needed the introduction of Declan Rice, Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta to finally seal the victory. An impressive trinity to be able to summon from the bench.

I’m already viewing the title of Group B champions as a done deal, and have started to look at which teams could potentially block the path to the final. Of those in the Conference itself, Villareal pose the greatest threat, followed by Koln and Fiorentina, though neither have made impressive starts in their respective groups. More of a problem are the clubs dropping down from the Europa League. Clearly, we wouldn’t want to face either of the English clubs – given previous inferiority complexes shown against Arsenal and Manchester United – and thankfully neither are likely to end up eliminated. Of the sides currently sitting third in their Europa groups, Roma and Lazio would be the greatest worries and best avoided. I’m all in favour of the clearest and easiest route possible to the final in Prague.

Standing in the way on back-to-back West Ham Premier League wins this weekend are newly promoted Fulham. The Cottagers have made a decent start back in the top flight and currently sit in ninth place with eleven points – having recorded wins at home to Brentford and Brighton and away at Forest. But a home victory today would lift the Hammers to within a single point of the visitors.

The Fulham gig has seen the resurrection of Portuguese manager, Marco Silva. Once the rising star among young Premier League coaches, Silva floundered, as many have before and since, in the graveyard of managerial ambitions that is Goodison Park. Eyebrows were raised when he replaced Scott Parker at Craven Cottage, but a barnstorming run to last season’s Championship title has represented a remarkable rebound in his stock.

A large part of Fulham’s resurgence has been to contribution and goals of Mitrovic. This time around he has offered far more than the typical blunt instrument impact of previous campaigns. Fortunately for West Ham, the Serb is a highly probable non-starter today.

The visitors were soundly beaten by Newcastle at Craven Cottage last time out when the early dismissal of Chalobah did little to help their cause. Chalobah’s ensuing suspension may herald an interesting return of Issa Diop to the London Stadium.

Moyes has a handful of selection dilemmas for the game which will test his loyalty to the established order. Has Alphonse Areola finally earned the inevitable upgrade to number one, Number One status? Who gets the nod between Emerson and Aaron Cresswell for the problematic left-back slot? Has Flynn Downes done enough to show he can be a Premier League starter in preference to Tomas Soucek?

I can’t see Moyes leaving out either Lukasz Fabianski or Soucek. Both had decent enough games last weekend against Wolves meaning the midweek heroics of Areola and Downes will likley go unrewarded. Fabianski will need either injury or serious howlers to lose his place.

It is ridiculous that Downes has just one minute (and no touches) of Premier League football to his name – in the season opener against Manchester City. The value of committed, no-nonsense players like Downes and Craig Dawson who make a real nuisance of themselves is hugley under-rated. If Downes doesn’t get a start he must be given at least twenty minutes or so to demonstrate he can cut it at this level.

It’s a toss-up for me at left back as I’ve yet to be convinced by Emerson’s defensive prowess. The problem with Cresswell’s rapidly waning powers, however, is that his presence almost guarantees the inclusion of the under-performing Pablo Fornals to baby-sit as a supplementary full-back. It’s the structural problem with the way that Moyes sets up in that our wide attacking players are given way too much defensive responsibility (well beyond the need to track back in response to an emerging threat). The consequuence is that out-ball options once possession is regained are severely limited.

Far better if the more advanced players are deployed further up the pitch to launch offensive actions and ensure the main striker does not get isolated. It was once said that it requires surgery to get a joke into a Scotsman’s head. Possibly harsh, but a similar procedure might be necessary if Moyes is to be persuaded that Scamacca and Michail Antonio can prosper together in the same side.

Scamacca is now the clear and obvious first choice frontman. He has demonstrated a predatory nose for goal and there are signs of promising understandings developing with both Jarrod Bowen and Paqueta. But Antonio still has much to offer – he is our leading all-time Premier League scorer after all. But as a striker, he gravitates towards the wings too much anyway, so why not play him there in a reprise of his earlier days at the club?

West Ham can boast an excellent record against Fulham over the years and in recent history with the Hammers having won three and drawn one of the last four meetings. Even so, both games in the 2020/21 Fulham relegation season were close run things and but for Lookman’s comical last minute penalty would have ended all square.

The absence of Mitrovic would be a huge blow to the visitors. Despite their promising start to the season they still have one of the worst defensive records in the divion. But West Ham’s profligacy in front of goal must improve if they are to advantage. A 2-0 win for the home side. COYI!