Mind The Watford Gap: A Welcome Break To An Average West Ham Season

West Ham and Watford go through the motions in their final Premier League game of the season at Vicarage Road. Can a third straight win add a little gloss to the Hammer’s campaign and allow them to slip into the top half of the table?

If the weekend Premier League fixtures were a music festival then the West Ham game would be scheduled for a small tent behind the portable toilet cubicles.  There will only be one act on the main stage and that is to know where the make-believe helicopters need to deliver this year’s league trophy.  The title going down to the wire is a marketing dream for the Premier League and they are sure to wring every ounce of tension out of it.

It would be fitting in the final match in the pre-VAR refereeing era if the title were to be decided by a monumental blunder by officials that gifted the title to Liverpool.  Having seen Fabinho’s outlandish dive at Newcastle last week, whatever happened to the ruling about gaining an advantage through deception that saw Manuel Lanzini receive a retrospective suspension a few years ago?

Turning attention to more mundane matters and West Ham end their 2018/19 campaign by travelling to the edge of the known world to meet the club that is almost but not quite in London.  Inside the M25 and on the London Underground, maybe, but certainly not a London club!  Nevertheless, the Hornets have enjoyed a commendable season and may potentially not sack their manager even if they lose the upcoming FA Cup Final.

It might be safe to assume that the Watford team will have at least one eye on next week’s Wembley appointment with a mostly meaningless end of season commitment against West Ham being viewed as an inconvenience.  Even if the financial rewards to the club (from an extra league position or two) are not much different from winning the cup, there is no comparison when it comes down to the glory and kudos to be had from bagging a trophy.

I can remember Watford’s previous cup final appearance (in 1984) being a very disappointing effort and they will want to do a lot better this time around.  Not that their task is an easy one and they will almost certainly lose against a rampant Manchester City side who could be looking to complete a domestic treble.  As Elton might have said: “I guess that’s why that call it the blues!”

Despite the Wembley distraction, Watford showed tremendous commitment in their game at Chelsea last weekend.  They bossed the first half during which time Deulofeu, Pereyra and Doucoure all looked threatening; they would have been disappointed that the scores were still level at the break.  They subsequently ran out of steam and it would not be a surprise if Javi Gracia rested a few of his key players this weekend to keep them fresh and injury free.

West Ham’s final league position is now confirmed as somewhere between 9th and 12th.  Interestingly the Hammers are closer in points to Chelsea in third place than Chelsea are to second place Liverpool. The worst-case scenario will happen in the event of defeat on Sunday and Palace winning at home against Bournemouth.  It would be most disheartening if the Hammers ended the season below the south Londoners once more.  The most favourable outcome will occur should the Hammers win at Watford and Leicester lose at home to Chelsea – now that Chelsea’s Champion’s League qualification is sealed this seems unlikely!  That leaves today’s game as a nail-biting 10th/ 11th place play-off scenario in which our boys must endeavour to bridge the Watford gap!

A West Ham win today would be three in a row and a decent note on which to end the season.  It would providing a gloss that leaves behind a lingering sense of optimism to carry us through the empty summer weekends.  I have to admit that when last week’s team-sheet was announced I feared the worst; only to be pleasantly surprised by an efficient and buoyant performance, albeit against a side content to sit back and reflect on having preserved their Premier League status the previous weekend.  The surprise absence of two of our best outfield players was a worry.  What had Declan Rice and Felipe Anderson been doing together to get struck down with a mystery virus?  Was this a Bishop and Morley scenario all over again?

At the beginning of the season I had backed Marko Arnautovic to break Paolo Di Canio’s Premier League West Ham goal-scoring record.  With just seven needed today to equal that milestone (both for him and Felipe Anderson) it seems that the search for a reliable and consistent goal-scorer enters another summer!

It is difficult to see any surprise team changes for the game and there are several players in the match-day squad who we will probably never see again in a West Ham shirt – farewell and good luck to them!  After today’s game we can concentrate fully on the important business of transfer speculation and the size or otherwise of Manuel Pellegrini’s supposed war-chest.  Will it be spending to stand still or is incremental improvement season by season really possible?

Chris Kavanagh from Lancashire gets the whistle for this week’s game in what will be his sixth Hammer’s appointment of the season – won one, lost two, drawn two.

A difference of opinion with pundits this week with Lawro firmly on the fence at 1-1 and Paul Merson confident that the Hornets minds will be elsewhere allowing West Ham to ease home with a 3-1 win.  For me, it is important to keep the faith and hope that we can creep back into the top half with a sneaky 2-1 success.

I heard there were some games played in a minor midweek competition for teams not good enough to win their domestic leagues which ended in wins for both Liverpool and Tottenham.  Is there any way that neither of them can end up winning in the final?  Perhaps a thought to dwell on is that when Tottenham became the first English team to win a European trophy in 1963, the Hammers followed suit two years later.  That could be a history worth repeating!

Southampton are the visitors to the London Stadium as we sing Auld Lang Syne at the last home game of the season

Before we visited White Hart Lane (is it still called that?) last weekend the headline of my blog was “West Ham visit White Hart Lane to collect three points”. I didn’t end the headline with a question mark, I was just going back to the future after a trip in my DeLorean to tell you what was about to happen. As if it wasn’t enough to be the first team to win at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, to complete a double of firsts at Tottenham was a very satisfying experience to say the least.

Our points haul against top six teams this season has been impressive compared to what usually happens, so it is a pity that so many points have been lost against the more mediocre sides in the Premier League, leaving us four points (and an inferior goal difference) away from achieving a finish in the top half of the table.

Seventh place was certainly achievable, but some indifferent performances at times has meant that unless we win both of our remaining games, and one of Everton, Watford or Leicester lose both of theirs then we will be confined to a bottom half finish, certainly below what should be expected for a club with our resources. It will be interesting to see what happens in the summer in an attempt to improve the squad and push on upwards towards a seventh place finish. That doesn’t seem to be much of an ambition, but in reality I can’t see any of the top six elite failing to finish in the top six once again next time.

I was reminiscing with a fellow fan recently and telling him about one of my favourite seasons in the sixty plus years I have been following West Ham, and this was one of the less remembered seasons as there was no trophy at the end (well there usually isn’t is there?), although we finished in a highly satisfactory eighth place in Division One, just a point below our visitors today, Southampton, and the team we beat last week, Tottenham.

WHUSOU2Recently an article in the Daily Telegraph brought to my attention that there have been fewer draws this season in the Premier League than in any other season since it began in 1992, and also that 0-0 draws are also at an all-time low. This reminded me of the 1968-69 season when our record at the end read “Played 42, Won 13, Lost 11, Drew 18! Goals for 66, Against 50, Points 44” (only two points for a win then, of course). By drawing 18 of our 42 games (43%) we missed out on an even higher finish, when we could easily have finished at least sixth. No team managed as many draws as we did, although Tottenham came close with 17. In fact for virtually the whole season we were in the top six, and even topped the division at one stage, before a dismal run at the end (failing to win any of our last nine league games), cost us dearly.

The reason I remember the season so fondly was for the excellent start, especially where we scored 18 goals in a four game winning run, including a 7, 5 and 4. We then went on a nine game winless run, although six of those games were drawn. This sequence included a goalless draw at home to Southampton on October 5. The lack of goals was surprising in view of the attacking talent on show for both sides including Brooking, Hurst, Peters and Sissons on our side, and Paine, Channon and Ron Davies for the visitors.

Ron Davies was a Welsh prolific scoring old-fashioned centre forward, strong in the air, who played for Southampton for the biggest period of his career, although he also played many games for Norwich. He averaged more than a goal every other game in his time for those two clubs, and often edged out Geoff Hurst when polls were taken (as they often were in football publications of the time, such as Football Monthly etc.) of the strongest British team that could be selected.

The return game at the Dell also ended in a draw, with four goals shared by the two aforementioned centre forwards, Hurst and Davies. As is often the case for West Ham, just turning one of those draws into a win would have secured a position two places higher in the final league table. We had a similar outcome in 2011-12 in the Championship, when a defeat and a draw in the two games against Southampton meant that we lost out to them on automatic promotion to the Premier League. Having said that, I wouldn’t have missed the day out at Wembley, when we defeated Blackpool in the Play-Off Final, for anything.

When we drew 0-0 against Southampton on October 5, which was then followed by away defeats at Burnley and Leeds, little did we know that we were about to witness four consecutive home games that were amongst the most memorable I can remember at Upton Park. On October 19 we thrashed Sunderland 8-0, although I can remember the crowd getting restless in the early stages as it took us around half an hour to score the first goal (which Geoff Hurst readily admitted he punched into the net). This was the first of his six goals, the only time in my life I’ve ever witnessed a double hat-trick in professional football.

On November 2 QPR were the visitors and this was a superb match eventually ending 4-3 to us, after the visitors had fought back from being behind. The match featured the goal by Bobby Moore where he ran from the half-way line and unleashed a terrific shot into the top corner from 20 yards (this is one of the goals we see on the big screens in the build-up to games at the London Stadium). This goal was number 8 in my list of all-time favourite West Ham goals but it was bettered in the same game by a superb move finished off with a stunning volley by Harry Redknapp, which was the third best West Ham goal I’ve ever seen.

The next home game was a 4-0 demolition of Leicester City which included the best goal I have ever seen. It included another brilliant move started by Bobby Ferguson in goal which culminated in a wonderful volley by Martin Peters. Then two weeks later on 30 November we were treated to two examples of moving the training ground into a game, with two expertly executed near-post goals, one with Peters crossing for Hurst, and the other with Hurst crossing for Peters, virtual replicas of the England winner versus Argentina in the 1966 World Cup quarter final 1-0 win, only this time from the other wing. This was the last game that we won in 1968 with another inconsistent spell which included the 2-2 draw away at Southampton on Boxing Day. 1968-69 was a memorable season in many ways with some great games and some not-so-great games. I wonder how many seasons that we can apply that theory to inconsistent West Ham?

We have a positive historical record in games against Southampton, and since we both returned to the top flight in 2012, there have been 13 games. We have won six, Southampton four, and three have been drawn. Hernandez, Arnautavic and Anderson have scored two goals each in the last three fixtures against them, but our top goalscorer in those games, who will certainly play in this game, is the captain Mark Noble. He has scored four goals against them, and I fancy him adding another in this one. In those 13 games there have been 10 different scores with draws of 0-0 and 1-1, West Ham wins of 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 and 3-0, and Southampton wins of 1-0, 3-0, 3-1 and 3-2.

If you fancy Mark Noble to score the first goal of the game, and a score we haven’t seen in recent times, perhaps 4-2, then you can get odds of 600/1 on that unlikely event. That will be my fun bet in this game. The odds are identical for the same score with Mark Noble scoring the last goal of the game. Considering we won our last game away at Tottenham, the odds on us winning this game of 5/4 appear on the generous side, although Southampton themselves have done reasonably well since their new manager took charge. However as we have lost only one of our last eight home Premier League games, and Southampton have won only one of their last six away Premier League games, then statistically, these facts allied to past history point to a West Ham win. Having said that, previous records don’t mean a lot when applied to West Ham!

If you wanted a double on West Ham to beat Southampton, and West Ham Ladies to win their FA Cup final in 90 minutes, you can get odds of 19/1. The Ladies start as massive underdogs against a City side almost as dominating in their own way as their male equivalent. Having said that the odds of 15/2 on West Ham Ladies winning the final in 90 minutes are about the same as those on West Ham winning at Tottenham last week! And we know what happened there.

After The Lord Mayor’s Show? Record Breaking Hammers To Turn Up For End Of Season Party?

The season’s last hurrah at the London Stadium but will West Ham bring the energy and commitment from their famous win at Tottenham into a more mundane appointment with Southampton?

Except when the spectre of relegation is looming large, the final home game of the season will often have a party atmosphere about it – like the last day of school before breaking up for the long summer holidays.  The quality and urgency of the football, however, can take on a decidedly pre-season friendly feel – and that’s even before allowing for West Ham’s infamous inconsistency.

Last weekend’s superb win at Tottenham was an historic one.  When a record is claimed by being faster, higher or further there is always potential for it to be broken.  When you record a first, though, it will stand forever!  Overall it was a very good performance but one that was competent in the first half and excellent in the second.  In the opening exchanges, those trademark gaps between defence and midfield and midfield and attack were all too apparent.  Opposition forwards were given too much space to operate in fromt of the defence and Marko Arnautovic was an isolated figure up front.  Then after the break, everything changed.  Arnautovic finally came back to life, Michail Antonio started to cause panic in the Tottenham defence and the likes of Mark Noble, Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku put in their best performances for some time.  It was also great to see the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership reunited and along with Lucas Fabianski they were excellent throughout, and largely responsible for keeping the scores level at the break.

Tomorrow’s opponents, Southampton, secured their Premier League safety last weekend as their point against Bournemouth and other results did just enough.  Following the appointment of Ralph Hasenhuttl, to organise the shambles bequeathed by Mark Hughes, it was always likely they would have enough quality to stay up.  How they react to the pressure being lifted also adds to the uncertainty of this weekend’s spectacle.  It is a chance for West Ham to complete a rare league double and maybe fifty points is still achievable if sufficient motivation is evidenced.  As welcome as the win at Tottenham was, only being pumped up for the occasional game is not really acceptable.  Finishing in the bottom half, if that is what eventually happens, would remain a disappointing outcome.

Once again, the weekend’s Premier League fixtures are strewn over an extended four day period with the West Ham game one of only two Saturday 3pm starts.  It will be ironic, therefore, if all the important issues are resolved in advance of the hoped for climactic Matchday 38 finale.  Cardiff will almost certainly confirm their relegation on Saturday and when Liverpool fail to beat Newcastle on Saturday evening it will effectively hand the title to Manchester City.  The media will only have the thrilling fourth place finish to fuel their final day frenzy.

Despite reports that both Manuel Lanzini and Samir Nasri are available for this week’s game it would be a major surprise if either appeared in the starting eleven.  I cannot see any changes being made from the team that started at Tottenham.

This week’s referee is Stuart Atwell from Warwickshire making his fourth West Ham appearance of the season.  The previous three encounters all ended in defeat for the Hammers – at home to Bournemouth and Tottenham (League Cup) and away at Manchester City.

Both of the featured pundits are predicting a Hammer’s home win; Paul Merson a thrilling 3-2 knockabout and Lawro a predictable 2-0 stroll.  West Ham have generally struggled against the type of high energy football that Hasenhuttl likes to play and will need to carry over that second half intensity from their last game.  Southampton, though, have a few injury problems at the back and the manager may choose to rotate his squad now that safety has been achieved.  A high scoring topsy-turvy end-of-season affair is not unthinkable and I will put my money on an exuberant 4-2 home win.

Finally, I have never watched a ladies football match either live or on TV but I guess, by default, I am a West Ham fan for the women’s game as well.  Accordingly, I would like to wish the West Ham Ladies the very best of luck in their Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley against Manchester City tomorrow afternoon.  Obviously hoping for a Hammer’s win but most importantly that it is an exciting and memorable day for all concerned.  A remarkable achievement already to have reached the competition final.

Don’t Mention The VAR. West Ham Set To Battle Spurs And Dodgy Refereeing At The Daniel Levy Stadium

Will the run of poor decisions by match officials continue as West Ham visit the North London Diving Academy?

As the frenzied excitement of the Premier League title race builds towards a crescendo, West Ham’s season shuffles forwards to the one match capable of putting a superficial gloss onto an otherwise unmemorable campaign.  A win against the Tottenham Hotspurs, while become the first visiting team to triumph at the Daniel Levy stadium (thus completing a North London double), would at least provide something to look back on in the years to come.

The failure to build on a strong start against Leicester last week, compounded by a collective loss of concentration in the final minutes, effectively consigned West Ham to a bottom half finish for 2018/19.  The final tally will be at the lower end of the 43 to 52 points range with a resulting league position somewhere between 11th and 14th.  Ending the season below Crystal Palace and Newcastle is not now an unthinkable outcome.  But for the purple patch at the end of 2018, events could have turned out to be much more uncomfortable.

Manuel Pellegrini maintains that West Ham are a team in transition – a state of affairs that has existed for the best part of 50 years.  Agreed, the style of football has shown an improvement from recent seasons but little else has changed.  Fitness levels, effort, intensity, pace, guile, cohesion and organisation all fall short of that required to perform well at the top level.  There should be a strong relationship between a club’s revenues and its league position and by that measure this has been a collective underachievement.  Further transition will require significant change – and that will not come cheaply!

Today’s game will be overshadowed by the host’s scheduled midweek appointment in the Champion’s League semi-final.  How did that happen?  The sooner that Mauricio Pochettino goes on to manage a proper big club the better.  Of course, Tottenham still need points to make sure of a top four finish this season but Tuesday will certainly be on the player’s minds.  Can West Ham take advantage of that uncertainty or will they turn out to be compliant opponents just as they were in the League Cup clash earlier in the year?

It is unlikely that Pellegrini will do anything radical with his team selection – it would be out of character. Rather, we can expect him to have another shuffle of the usual suspects to fill the starting berths.  Surely it is well past the time to bring back Issa Diop to reform his partnership with Fabian Balbuena.  Will it be Pablo Zabaleta or Ryan Fredericks; Arthur Masuaku or Aaron Cresswell?  Are there any new options available in midfield that would be a little less ponderous?  Can Felipe Anderson play more than a second half cameo? Will Jack Wilshere make a contribution without further injury?

The long running selection dilemma exists upfront where West Ham are one of a handful of club where no player has yet to reach double figures for Premier League goals.  Does Lucas Perez earn a start following his goal scoring exploits as substitute last weekend? Is Javier Hernandez fit again?  Should we just give up with Marko Arnautovic?  Who knows what the manager will be thinking?  I just get the sense that I will once again be disappointed when I hear the team announced an hour before kickoff!

There is a reasonable case to bemoan how refereeing decisions have gone against the Hammers in recent games.  With the North London Diving Academy having some of the league’s most accomplished exponents of going to ground at the slightest change in air pressure, we must rely on Anthony Taylor keeping his wits about him today.  Or perhaps this will be the day that all the injustices of the past evens itself out before the introduction of VAR – the Hammers scoring four offside goals and earning three penalties.

Both Lawro and Paul Merson believe Tottenham will just do enough and come away with a 2-1 victory.  Theirs is a compelling scenario.  West Ham start with enterprise, Spurs score from a set piece and then a penalty, take their foot off the pedal with Tuesday on their minds with the Hammers scoring a late consolation.  I will predict a somewhat more optimistic outcome on the basis that both sides might happily settle for a draw – rare as that is for the hosts.

West Ham visit White Hart Lane to collect three points

If you are a football fan and follow West Ham, and if you are old enough, cast your mind back to May 1981 almost 38 years ago. If you aren’t old enough then you will have missed a significant change in English football. The 1980-81 season was just drawing to a close and ended with Aston Villa as Division One champions on 60 points, and Ipswich Town runners-up with 56 points. The Premier League was still more than a decade away, and in those days the four divisions of English football were called, very logically, Divisions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

60 points I hear you say. How could they have possibly finished as champions with such a low number of points? The answer is that 1980-81 was the final season in English football where, if you won a game you picked up only two points.

West Ham finished that season as champions of Division 2, the season after they were the last team from the second tier of English football to win the FA Cup when they beat high-flying Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley on May 10 1980 with Trevor Brooking’s infamous diving header. We ran away with the Division 2 Championship by 13 points (a massive margin when there were only 2 points for a win). We won 19 and drew 1 of our 21 home games, whilst away from home we won 9 and drew 9. That means we lost just four league games in the season and had a record points haul of 66. We also reached the final of the League Cup, unluckily losing a replay to Liverpool, and reached the quarter-final of the European Cup Winners Cup before losing to Dinamo Tbilisi.

It’s hardly surprising that we ran away with the Division 2 title when you look at the calibre of footballers on our books. We had probably the best team ever playing at that level, either before or since, with “international quality” players including Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds, Alvin Martin, Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Paul Goddard and David Cross, all of whom barely missed a game meaning that we could field almost unchanged line-ups every week. In addition to those we had Pat Holland, Jimmy Neighbour, and the only ever-present outfield player Geoff Pike. In many ways, although we were only in the second tier, it was one of the best ever teams I’ve seen in my 60 years of following the club, and I’d love to see a similar quality throughout the team now.

So, following that record breaking season we moved into Division One and began with a home game against Brighton enjoying one of their rare forays into the top flight. The excitement of our return was quickly forgotten though as we struggled to impress in a 1-1 draw with Ray Stewart scoring a penalty as all we had to show from the game. However this all changed just four days later as we crushed our North London neighbours 4-0 at White Hart Lane. The game was a personal triumph for David Cross who had scored 33 goals in all competitions in our promotion season, including 22 in the league. He bagged all four goals in the game which will also be remembered for the very first time we collected three points in a match.

This was just the start of a terrific run where we remained unbeaten until mid-October, and led the first division for much of September. It was December before we lost our second game that season, and another record breaking campaign was on the cards. However in typical West Ham fashion we were unable to retain our consistency throughout a whole season and eventually finished 9th. We only lost two of our 21 home games that season which was fewer than any other team (Liverpool the champions lost 4) but our away form let us down with 10 defeats. However we will never forget that wonderful result at Tottenham and our very first three point haul in a game of football.

So why did the “powers that be” decide to make a change to award three points for a win instead of two? After all two points for a win had been in existence for over 100 years, and it seemed quite logical too. It stemmed from the days of challenge matches where two teams competed for a prize pot with the winner taking all, and if it was a draw the spoils were split equally. This principle went unchallenged for a century but by 1980 football was in serious trouble. Crowds had almost halved from their 1950s heyday and something needed to be done to bring them back. So why had attendances dwindled so much? Many blamed the recession which gave the footballing public a stricter sense of priorities. The increased cost of admission, getting to a match, and the continuing issue of crowd violence all played its part. But the football authorities believed that dull play was considered to be the key problem, and they set up a working party under the chairmanship of Jimmy Hill, an influential football figure in the latter half of the twentieth century, to try to resolve the problem. Their suggestion, which still operates today, was to increase the reward for a win to three points.

Many people accepted that this change would stop teams “settling for a draw” and believed that they would go all out for a win to collect additional points. It was felt that this would reduce the number of drawn games as a result. Some had other views though and Arsenal manager Terry Neill suggested that a team who went one goal up would want to sit on their lead more than they might have before the points for a win increase. Certainly, Arsenal became famous for their 1-0 wins for many years to follow.

But I would question the decision to increase points for a win, and the theory that drawn games are necessarily dull just because no team has won the game. Rugby Union, for example, in an attempt to improve the game as a spectacle, awards additional points for tries scored. Might it have benefitted football if instead they had awarded additional points for goals scored to reward attacking (and hence entertaining) play?

The irony is that in the season that followed the introduction of three points for a win there were more draws than the previous season and fewer goals scored in the top flight! And there is little evidence that three points for a win has changed the mindset of teams or the eventual outcome of titles (although Blackburn Rovers wouldn’t have been champions in the mid-1990s if two points for a win still existed).

Nevertheless all West Ham fans of a certain age will always remember our first three point haul. What chance of a repeat this weekend? A win of any kind would be welcome, but a win of that magnitude has never been repeated, and bookmakers’ will offer you virtually any odds you care to ask for to see another 4-0 victory at Tottenham.

Leicester visit the London Stadium. Does anyone want to finish seventh this season?

Wonders will never cease. We kick off at 3pm on a Saturday. How many times does that happen in a season? I haven’t checked the numbers but it seems to me that it happens fewer times as each season goes by. Perhaps today was always destined to be a 3pm Saturday kick off as in many ways (if you disregard the dubious honour of the chase for seventh place in the Premier League) this was always going to be a game that didn’t involve the top or bottom. Of course seventh place could mean a place in Europe in the Europa League, but as Arsenal and Chelsea have found out this season after progressing to the semi-finals of this competition, it means even fewer Saturday 3pm starts.

It wouldn’t have taken much more for us still to be in contention for a seventh place finish this season, and I suppose mathematically it is still possible. But Leicester, Wolves, Watford, Everton and ourselves have all demonstrated an inconsistency of performance that shows why we are all so far behind the elite six at the top of the table. I thought that Everton looked destined for the honour after their recent run. They looked as good in our last home game as we were woeful. But then last week they went down to Fulham who haven’t won a game for ages.

Leicester currently hold the position, but the four teams realistically likely to finish seventh are only separated by one point, and both Watford and Wolves have a game in hand. But with all the teams faltering to some extent, any team that can put together a winning run could get there, even ourselves, although this doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it would have seemed more likely if VAR had been in operation at Old Trafford last weekend. Once again we witnessed a “bigger” team getting the benefit of close calls. It never seems to happen the other way round, especially at grounds like Old Trafford where officials seem to me to give disproportionate numbers of close decisions to the home team. I haven’t looked at the statistics but I reckon Manchester United have been awarded more spot kicks than most this season. We totally outplayed United in my opinion, and deserved all three points but thanks mainly to the officials it wasn’t to be.

VAR came into its own in midweek when I believe it helped to get the decisions correct in a big game in another part of Manchester. As a long term advocate of the use of video replays I was pleased to see it used to good effect. Of course, many West Ham (and Arsenal) fans would have preferred it not to be the case when Sterling’s “winner” in time added on turned out not to be a legitimate goal because Aguero was offside in the build-up. But leaving loyalties aside, I for one am pleased that VAR is beginning to prove itself, and look forward to it next season. It could be improved if, as in rugby union, the referees were “miked up” to explain what was happening.

So, on to today. It seems that Nasri is once again unavailable due to injury, and Lanzini likewise, making a dent in the creative capability in our midfield. But apparently Wilshere is fit again so perhaps he will come in and start to show why we bought him. Hernandez is also unavailable because he couldn’t train this week with a problem with his ear.

I had given up predicting the team our manager would select but I’ll have another go this week.

Fabianski, Fredericks, Balbuena, Ogbonna, Masuaku, Rice, Noble, Snodgrass, Antonio, Arnautavic, Anderson. How many will I get right this time?

With thanks to the Daily Telegraph I see that there hasn’t been a draw in the Premier League for about a month (34 matches). And 0-0 games are at their lowest level with just one in twenty games ending goalless. It seems that teams aren’t happy to “settle for a point” these days. What will happen in the match today? Our last but one game was a 4-3 thriller, and of course there was a similar scoreline in midweek in Manchester. Perhaps another one today? The odds on that are around 80/1, with a West Ham win at about 2/1, and a West Ham win with both teams to score around 4/1.

Make Do And Mend Hammers Take On The Smarter Investors From Leicester

As a long and disjointed West Ham season takes another stuttering step towards a disappointing and lingering end, is there any enthusiasm left in the locker to make an holiday afternoon of it?

The race to avoid seventh place hots up at the London Stadium this afternoon as West Ham host Leicester City, the team currently holding pole position in the polite scramble for a possible Europa Cup berth.  The Hammers recent poor run has effectively ruled them out of contention but we live in a world of mathematical possibilities.  Considering recent performances, it wouldn’t come as any surprise if our boys failed to add anything further to the current points tally – finishing with 42 points in a lowly 13th or 14th position.  Perhaps acceptable considering the slow start to the season but disappointing given the turnaround by the end of the year.

In fairness, the Hammers were easily the better team last week’s game at Old Trafford and it was only shocking refereeing that denied all three points.  It would be nice to think that such injustice will disappear in a post VAR world but we will have to wait and see how playing field levelling it is in practice.  Although I welcome VAR in principle I do wonder what impact its implementation will have on the continuity of the game.  It is not a stretch to imagine every significant decision being challenged by furious players and managers demanding that the referee consult VAR.  TV will love it as it introduces additional cliff hangers into their coverage, to be milked (and sponsored) to the extreme.  During the week I watched highlights of the Juventus – Ajax game and almost half the coverage was taken up with pending VAR decisions.  Bringing simplicity and clarity back into the game, particularly for offside and handball offences, would be especially welcome for me.  Perhaps AI can provide a better solution for catching offside under the current rules than the linesman can, and should replace him/ her altogether.

It is impossible to know what to expect from West Ham today.  The only half decent performance in recent weeks was the one at Old Trafford, tellingly against an opposition that were prepared to concede time and space for the Hammers to play.  Leicester are unlikely to repeat the favour; especially if they have done their homework and identified how difficult we find it to cope with energetic teams playing with high intensity.  With the season almost at an end it would be refreshing if Manuel Pellegrini mixed things up a little and maybe tried different options to preserve the team’s shape.  There is a longish list of players who surely have no future at the club beyond this season, so why not have at least three or four youngsters included in the match-day squad instead – even if they are not to be starters.  If reports that both Manuel Lanzini and Samir Nasri are unavailable are true then it leaves a big guileless hole in the attacking midfield areas.

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I think most of us were moderately pleased with last year’s summer transfer activity but it hasn’t really worked out to plan – notably due to long term injuries to Andriy Yarmolenko (unfortunate), Jack Wilshere (not unexpected) and Carlos Sanchez.  The signing of Lukasz Fabianski was inspired, Felipe Anderson is an exceptional talent that needs greater consistency, Fabian Balbuena was a steal (sorely missed during his absence) and Issa Diop has had a great first season (and should be back in the starting eleven now).  There are plenty of rumours already regarding upcoming transfers but we will have to wait and see what the size and nature of the investment is going to be.  I know it is speculation but I wince every time I see a link to players approaching or past 30 years old.  If there is any ambition it won’t be achieved through maintaining that ‘make do and mend’ policy.  Does anyone can remember the Johnny Cash song One Piece At A Time; that is how I perceive our team building approach over the years – collect together random pieces and hope that they somehow fit together.

Up at Leicester they seem to have been much smarter investors.  It is three years since their fairy-tale Premier League win and they now boast an almost entirely new team having cashed in on Kante, Mahrez and Drinkwater.  With a third new manager in as many years they have put together an energetic young squad that puts them in a far better position for the future than our own crop of players.  Naturally, the rich clubs will be circling with their eyes on Maddison, Chilwell, Maguire and Tielemans to supplement their Champion’s League benches, but it is not a bad position to be in.  Still with today being the easiest of their four remaining matches I don’t see the Foxes hanging on to 7th place, where they may be overtaken by each of Wolves, Watford and Everton.

There is a difference of opinion between the pundits today with Lawro predicting a 2-1 home win and Merson opting for a 1-3 away success.  Personally, I don’t believe we will get anything out of the game with Ndidi, Maddison and Tielemans able to dominate the midfield and create sufficient goalscoring opportunities for Vardy & Co to do the damage against an overworked Fabianski.  The other three clubs competing for 7th have all visited the London Stadium and won rather comfortably with moderately aggressive and committed performances.  That is also the most probable outcome from today – sad to say, but the game has the look of a 2-0 home defeat about it.