Seven games played, four points!

A review of the season to date as we go into the second international break of the season.

The first four home games of the season have been played. Bournemouth, Watford, Southampton, and finally Middlesbrough. Three games away at Chelsea, Manchester City and WBA. Before the season began, when we looked at the seven games that the fixtures computer gave us in the run-up to the second international break, how many points were we hoping for at this stage? If we were going to be making a realistic challenge towards the top, as we did last year, then I would have said a minimum of 11, and possibly anything up to 15, based on those games.

So our return of 4 is way below expectations, puts us into the relegation places, and leaves us with a fight to climb the table from this point. Our only realistic aim in the league this season is to obtain a comfortable mid-table position. Even at this early stage it would be unrealistic to even contemplate the possibility of a finishing position similar to that attained last year. Last season we had 20 points after 11 games, so we can measure ourselves against that position after the four games that come up following the resumption after this international break.

Those four games are away at Palace, who currently sit eighth in the table, and Everton who are fifth, both of whom have had good starts to the season. With our current form we wouldn’t expect to get anything out of those two games, but we really need to start to win away from home. Last season we won both of those away games, scoring three goals in each, and we must really be hoping for a repeat, however unlikely it seems at the moment.

Our run of “relatively easy” home games, you know the ones that look easier on paper, continues with the visits of Sunderland and Stoke who occupy the bottom two places in the table after seven games, with neither having managed a win yet. Of course these are games where we often don’t perform as well as we should, and in the comparative fixtures last season we only scored one goal (in the 1-0 victory over Sunderland, the Stoke game being an entertaining 0-0 draw).

So who knows what this year will bring? To bring us up to the level of averaging a point a game (which is something we need to do as soon as possible) then we would need 7 points from the four games between this break and the next, and this is the minimum that we must hope for. Because even if we have 11 points after 11 games, our next four fixtures are away games at Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool, and a home game against Arsenal, four of the teams currently occupying the top six places in the league.

We then return to four of the easier games on paper against teams currently in the bottom half, with home matches against Burnley and Hull, and visits to Swansea and Leicester. At that point we will be exactly half way through the season, having played 19 games, including every other team once, by 31 December. We really need to have at least 19 points by then, giving us an average of a point a game. Even with this tally we would still be in a lowly position, so let’s hope we are above that level.

Last season only the three clubs who were relegated didn’t achieve a point a game. Newcastle, who finished third from bottom had 37 points and were relegated, Sunderland just escaped with 39 points. Even a point a game is no guarantee against going down, so we must really start to improve very quickly if we don’t want to be in that position.

The Middlesbrough game was an improvement defensively, although in a creative attacking sense there is a lot more needed. Let us hope with the return to fitness of more players, and a nearly full squad to choose from, that we can start to climb the table sooner rather than later. Once teams become embroiled in the relegation dogfight, then psychologically it becomes more difficult as fear of losing inhibits performances.

On paper, when you look at our squad of players, then most people would say we are too good to go down. But that’s what they said in 2002-03. In the 2001-02 season we finished seventh, and hopes were high for the following season. But we finished third from bottom and were relegated.

Last season we also finished seventh, and hopes were high for a repeat performance this time. Let’s hope we don’t get an exact repeat of what happened following our seventh place finish in 2003!

West Ham 1 v 1 Middlesbrough Part 2

Continuing the review of the Middlesbrough game, and the season to date, as we go into the second international break of the season.

Part Two – Pedro Obiang

From the very first time I saw Pedro Obiang pull on a claret and blue shirt last season I thought that he was just the sort of player we needed to play in front of our back four. I have always liked the all-action mobile player in that position, doing the job that Makelele used to for Chelsea, that Kante did for Leicester’s title winning team last season, and to an extent like Scott Parker did for us a few seasons back.

Every time I watched him last season I thought he did a good job, but he had few opportunities, starting around a dozen games, and coming on as a substitute even more times to try to help to close out a game that we were winning, such as the 2-1 victory over Chelsea. It must have seemed strange to him as he appeared from the bench in one season more times than he did thoroughout his time at Sampdoria.

I thought he was particularly impressive in the early season victories away at Liverpool and Manchester City, both FA Cup games against Liverpool, and especially in the home victory over Tottenham which was the beginning of the end of their title hopes. Oxford, playing in a similar role in the opening game of last season at the Emirates was equally effective.

However, the manager’s views appear to differ from my own, as evidenced by the restricted opportunities given to Obiang and Oxford in that role. This season he has started with Nordtveit filling that position, which, on the evidence to date, surprises me.

Anybody who has read my writing will know that I have championed the inclusion of Obiang in the side, and so I was pleased to see him selected to start against Middlesbrough. And I thought he was our man of the match notwithstanding Payet’s wonder goal.

What is there not to like about Pedro Obiang? He is massively reliable, consistent, composed, and provides a shield in front of the defence that has not been seen this season. He is quick, athletic, strong in the tackle, has good distribution, and for me he should be one of the first names on the team sheet.

I have written before about my reservations for statistics in football, but despite this I felt compelled to look up Pedro’s numbers for Saturday’s game to confirm my thoughts of his effectiveness. His figures for successful tackling, interceptions, clearances, and blocks made him the best West Ham player from a defensive viewpoint. In possession he made more passes than any one of our team, with greater accuracy than most. A touch map on the West Ham website that I saw shows his all-over- the-pitch, and all-round contribution in an outstanding performance both statistically, and to the naked eye.

Surely he did enough to show the manager that we need a player in this role, and that he should be first choice to fill the position. Statistically, too, our results have been better when he has been included in the team, compared to when he hasn’t been on the pitch. I may be wrong but I think that we have only lost one league match in the past twelve months when Pedro Obiang has been involved (either starting or as a substitute), and he only featured for part of that game (the 2-1 away defeat at Newcastle in February). You’ll find that the games we did lose he wasn’t involved. A co-incidence?

Trust the stats Slav! We want to see more of Pedro Obiang.

West Ham 1 v 1 Middlesbrough

A review of the Middlesbrough game, and the season to date, as we go into the second international break of the season

Part One – I Was There

What makes a great goal? Goals can be scored in a variety of ways. A spectacular volley, a long range screamer, a team goal scored as a culmination of a number of passes, a mazy dribble where a player goes past a number of defenders before slotting the ball home, a deflection, an element of luck, a tap in; these are just some of the ways that a goal can be scored. A goal can seem greater if it is scored in an important match, or if it is a critical goal in a close match, as opposed to say one of the goals scored in a one-sided game.

And, after Saturday I will add a further enhancement. To actually be there when the goal is scored rather than just seeing it on TV adds to the greatness of the goal for the person viewing it. But however it is scored doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day, every one counts as a goal; you don’t get anything extra based on the degree of difficulty.

When I wrote my book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, at the end of last season, I devoted a chapter to describing the great West Ham goals that I could recall. My favourite one of all time was scored by Martin Peters v Leicester in November 1968. I stood on the North Bank behind the goal that it went in. It was a length of the field move from the goalkeeper, and culminated in a spectacular volley.

I also loved a goal I witnessed on Boxing Day 2001. We had a corner at the North Bank end taken by Sebastian Schemmel. He played the ball in the air to Joe Cole standing near the corner of the penalty area on the same side that the corner was taken. With two touches and masterful ball control, without the ball touching the ground, Joe volleyed the ball to the opposite side about ten yards from goal just beyond the six yard box. Trevor Sinclair took off and with an acrobatic scissor kick blasted the ball into the corner of the net.

Trevor scored many spectacular goals. He scored the goal of the season (and possibly the most spectacular of all time) for QPR v Barnsley before he joined us. And he scored many for us as well, including a magnificent volley against Charlton on Boxing Day again, in the year 2000.

On Saturday Dimitri Payet added to the list of great goals I have witnessed when, starting close to the touchline, he dribbled around five Middlesbrough defenders, and calmly put the ball in the net. It wasn’t just the incredible skill involved though; to some extent it was the importance of the goal. Coming on the back of four straight defeats we really needed to win this game. And although we didn’t do so, at least we stopped the rot and picked up a point against one of the teams in the lower reaches of the table.

The atmosphere in the stadium was tremendous throughout the game, and I suspect that the decibel level reached when we saw the ball nestled in the net was as high as anything I have ever experienced at a football match. I actually lost my voice on Saturday evening. But a goal is a goal. It just counts as one goal.

Around five minutes earlier, Middlesbrough had a corner which was headed straight in. To concede goals in this manner should not happen in my opinion, and if Mark Noble is meant to cover the post, then at least he should be in front of the line and not behind it. Goal line technology went against us here because I suspect that the referee and linesman, both of whom had poor games in my opinion, didn’t realise that the ball had crossed the line.

It is a goal that should not have happened but it did. I hate it when we concede a goal in this way. But it counts as one goal, just as Payet’s wonderful effort does. Those of us who were there will remember Payet’s goal for a long time, but I suspect we won’t remember the Middlesbrough one.

West Ham 1 v 0 Accrington Stanley

Between A Rock and A Hard Place.

Before the game against Accrington Stanley, Slaven Bilic found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He was in a predicament, a quandary, he was on the horns of a dilemma, between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whichever way you look at it he couldn’t really win. All managers in this position cannot win.

Should he select the best possible team to try to ensure a comfortable victory and boost the confidence of players that have lost four games in a row? Or should he give all the fringe players in the squad the opportunity to stake their claim for a place in the team? If we won the game easily then, well, that is what you should expect at home to a mid-table league two side. But, if the unthinkable should happen, and we went out of the competition that gives us the best possible chance of winning a trophy, then he would be slaughtered by the media, the fans, and possibly his employers, too. You have to remember too that he knew that before this game it would only take five wins for us to lift the EFL cup, and qualify for Europe for the third season in a row.

As it turned out he chose a team close to the second option with only Nordtveit, Ogbonna, Masuaku, and Zaza in the starting eleven of the team who started the last game at the Hawthorns. None of the retained four played well at the weekend, and Masuaku had one of the worst games in the history of West Ham defenders, and there have been some candidates for this honour over the years. If we’d had an alternative fit left back I’m sure he would have been included. I read one tongue-in-cheek article today suggesting that Dicks and Bilic should dig out their boots and play. What is perhaps surprising is that two renowned defenders from our past cannot seem to coach our present defenders.

Having chosen the fringe player option I particularly liked the pairing of Obiang and Edimilson, making his debut along with the experienced Arbeloa. The surprising omission from my point of view was that of Oxford. If ever there was an opportunity to give this brilliant prospect some game time then surely this was it. I hope that he doesn’t get too disillusioned with his lack of opportunities. You never know how much to believe in what you read in the media nowadays, but I would hate to see him leave us, as he must be one of the brightest up and coming talents in the game.

The joint-chairmen today issued a lengthy statement acknowledging some of the issues surrounding the stadium in respect of the three s’s, segregation, stewarding and standing, although the latter was cleverly referred to as “appropriate grouping of likeminded supporters”! This game was not the one to test if any improvement has been made in any of these areas. That will come when we get back towards a full stadium at the weekend. Only 39,877 were present to witness yet another dismal performance. Note the attendance ending in “77” yet again.

This report of the game hasn’t so far mentioned anything that happened. That is mainly because very little did actually happen! Shades of visiting minnows in cup competitions in the past came to mind. Why do we seem to find it so difficult to see off teams that we should be beating comfortably? After a totally lacklustre first half, anybody visiting from planet Mars, could not distinguish which team were Premier League and which were League Two.

Lanzini and Payet were introduced at the beginning of the second half to replace the ineffective Feghouli and Tore and the game livened up a little. Later in the half Antonio replaced Calleri, but despite getting well on top as the League Two side tired we were still unable to break them down. As extra time approached Masuaku left the field on a stretcher, and we were down to ten men. Six additional minutes were signalled by the fourth official, and a shot from Obiang brought a magnificent save from the keeper.

As extra time beckoned (which is what extra time does!)we were awarded a free kick in a central position 25 yards from goal and up stepped the imperious Dimitri Payet to score yet another trademark goal in the 96th minute to take us into Round 4. Accrington Stanley put up a brave performance and restricted us to just four shots on target.

But if you are going to be beaten then to lose to a moment of brilliance is perhaps the best way. It might have been a different story if we had to face extra time with just ten men, but Payet ensured that it didn’t happen.

The draw for Round Four took place shortly after the end of the game, and of the ten Premier League teams left in the competition, eight have been drawn to face each other with some mouth-watering ties. We are at home to Chelsea.

  • West Ham v Chelsea
  • Man Utd v Man City
  • Arsenal v Reading
  • Liverpool v Tottenham
  • Bristol City v Hull
  • Leeds v Norwich
  • Newcastle v Preston
  • Southampton v Sunderland