From A Jack To A King, Tomori Never Comes And Felipe Flops Off To Porto

With a lost weekend of international kickabouts interrupting the fledgling season, we take a backward glance to check on what has happened so far.

Isn’t Life Strange?

I think we can all agree that we are currently living through the strangest of times, and the early season Premier League results have been no exception to that rule. Whether a consequence of empty stadiums or the truncated nature of the summer break (particularly for those involved in Europe) the early rounds of matches have thrown up a succession of surprises. Who would have expected West Ham’s superb win at Leicester to be immediately and comprehensively overshadowed by the Liverpool and Manchester United games that followed it?

We have reached the first international kickabout weekend with exactly 10% of the leagues 380 scheduled games completed. Of course, it’s early doors (© Big Ron) but several interesting comparisons with previous seasons are emerging:

    • Goals scored per game is 3.79 compared to 2.72 for 2019/20 and 2.82 in 2018/19
    • Only 3 games (8%) have been drawn – 24% in 2019/20; 19% in 2018/19
    • There have been 16 home wins (42%) – 45% (2019/20); 47% (2018/19)
    • There have been 19 away wins (50%) – 31% (2019/20); 34% (2018/19

Maybe, the forces of equilibrium will return but on the evidence to date, it could be a memorable season for upsets as the usual suspects stumble. At the top of the table, Everton look best placed to gate crash the party, while neither Manchester United nor Chelsea look anywhere near convincing – expect some managerial changes there before too long. It pains me to even think it, but I can see T*tt*nh*m making a serious bid for glory this year. Unlike Leicester, who rely too much on Vardy, they have goals from all over the place. Our next match, in north London, will be a huge test.

At the bottom, the early runners in the relegation stakes are West Brom (red hot favourites), Fulham, Sheffield United and Burnley. Fulham have made some interesting signings (Lookman and Loftus-Cheek) which could give them fresh hope while I have a sneaking feeling that the lack of imagination at Palace will cause them to struggle big-time this year.

There’s Something Happening Here, But What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

I can’t lie but after the Newcastle game I had expected West Ham to reach this break with “nul points” on the board. Yet stunning victories, at home to Wolves and away at Leicester, have painted a very different complexion on to the season. Anguish has turned to astonishment. Where did that committed, well organised, hard-working, disciplined, skilful and quick breaking football suddenly come from?  How reassuring to be finally playing to a system – and one that suits the players available?  And all achieved despite the best efforts of the Board to create turmoil, despondency, and ill-feeling around the club. Full credit to the players and coaching staff for maintaining their dignity in such circumstances.

The Achilles heel, though, is a paper thin squad that threatens multiple single points of failure in the cohesion and stability of the team. In a West Ham context, Archilles has vulnerabilities in the knee, groin and hamstrings, as well as the heel. An injury to any one of Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna and even Arthur Masuaku and the wheels could easily fall off. David Moyes is often criticised for his reluctant use of substitutes but I wouldn’t have wanted any of last Sunday’s bench on the field until we were safely 3-0 up with less than 5 minutes to go.

The bubble could so easily burst and the Hammers dragged into the relegation fray. Clearly the squad needs greater depth but whoever is brought must be able to fit the system. Players picked by the manager – not special offers or clearance items touted by favoured agents.  

Around The Transfer Window In 80 Days

They may have slammed the international transfer window shut last Monday night, but it immediately bounced back open to allow Premier League clubs to trade with those below them in the pyramid – until next Friday. When it does finally close it will have been after 81 days of potential deals. Despite being linked with several squads worth of new recruits the Hammers went beyond the ‘preparing a deal’ and ‘weighing up options’ stage just once, to sign Vladimir Coufal. A last minute, desperate sounding attempt  to secure the loan signing of Fikayo Tomori fell through leaving West Ham with even fewer resources as Felipe Anderson took his floundering to Porto, and space was cleared on the treatment table by finally paying off Jack Wilshere.

I’m not sure that a player who can’t get a place in Chelsea’s defence is any great loss. But then again nor would one who can’t get into Watford’s. I sincerely hope that the stories about Craig Dawson are just another humorous fabrication. Off all the players mentioned in recent days I am most encouraged by the prospect of Josh King. He is much closer to an Antonio alternative than anyone else we have, and can perform in wide areas up front as well. That doesn’t mean other defensive reinforcements aren’t also badly needed.  Experience suggests that with the window open for another 6 days, any moves will be again be left to the very last minute in another stunning display of Sullivan’s failed brinkmanship.

When the window finally does close, there will be just 80 days until it re-opens – and the madness can start all over again!       

Not All Goals Are Created Equal

I have always found the recent trend to obsess on football statistics as interesting rather than meaningful. I’m sure there are very talented performance analysts at the more professionally run clubs who perform a pivotal role in assessing individual players at a far more granular level than we get presented with on TV and the internet. Apart from goals scored, the rest bear little relation to the outcome of a match. One stat that always bewilders, but which the pundits love is the Assist. Always giving credit to the last person to touch the ball before the goal-scorer seems a nonsense to me. Just looking at our previous two games throws up several examples of how inconsistent a players contribution to a goal might be.

On Sunday, you could imagine Aaron Creswell studiously working out his angles, velocity, wind speed and trajectory before executing his sublime cross for Antonio to convert. An obvious assist in anyone’s eyes. Later in the same half, he executed a clearance plucked directly from the Ginger Collins box of tactical punts. There was no intent and the fact that Fornals anticipated it, then controlled and dispatched it with aplomb was all down the Spaniard. A week earlier, there was no assist given for Cresswell because Soucek’s header from his corner happened to hit a defender on the way in – a consequence of the dubious goals rule, not the acuuracy of Cresswell’s corner. Equally, there was also no assist credited to Bowen’s second goal, as Fornal’s goal creating shot had hit the post before he netted the rebound.  

Dear Santa, New Owners For Christmas Please

Interesting (and excited) to read the continued speculation that the Gold and Sullivan era could soon be coming to an inglorious end. Their relationship with the fans has broken down so badly that recovery is impossible. Most fans don’t want them around and I wonder why, at their stage in life, they would want to stick around. If it is just a matter of agreeing price then hopefully something might happen in the coming weeks. I can’t say there has ever been a time where West Ham have been blessed with likeable, ambitious, level-headed or visionary owners but the loyalty of the support deserves better. Nothing is yet known on the identity of any supposed bidder but it couldn’t be any worse, could it?

Jeux sans spectateurs: Premier League mini-marathon could be knockout blow for West Ham?

Games without spectators may a thing for many months to come. Being able to adapt quickly to new circumstances in the next 6 weeks will be crucial for the Hammer’s survival chances.

Very little has gone to plan during the coronavirus crisi but, if nothing unexpected happens in the coming days, the 2019/20 Premier League season will make its much anticipated restart. Next Wednesday, relegation candidates, Aston Villa, kick off proceedings by playing their game in hand, against Sheffield United, at a spectator-less Villa Park. The Saturday after that, West Ham resume their own campaign, in a punishing schedule that will take in 9 matches over a 36 day period.

The news coming from the club over recent days has been generally positive (not the coronavirus test results, thankfully) and the Hammers are said to be raring to go with an almost injury free squad – although how it will hold up to the demands of such a frenetic schedule is a huge concern. Keeping key players as fit as possible, in what remains an unbalanced squad despite the January recruitment, will be crucial to a successful outcome . The relegation battle will ultimately come to resemble a sudden death knockout affair and the last thing that we need is for David Moyes to have to play jokers.

It would appear that Jeremy Ngakia will be playing no part in the remainder of the season following his (or his agent’s) refusal to agree a contract extension. In mitigation, fellow academy right back graduate (and arguably a better defender) Ben Johnson has now recovered from injury and is available. Elsewhere the situation with outward loanees is that Jordan Hugill will stay at QPR; Nathan Holland has returned from Oxford United; and I cannot find any update on the latest position with Grady Diagana at West Brom.

One player who will be staying in claret and blue for the time being is Tomas Soucek; his loan spell extended until the conclusion of hostilities at the end of July. Although Soucek has only appeared 4 times in a West Ham shirt, he is widely regarded as a much needed and energetic addition to the problematic central midfield area. We must hope he can deliver on that promise.

It will be interesting to see in the next dew weeks how the new match-day experience pans out for both players and spectators alike. To what extent do players rely on a passionate crowd to provide that extra lift and carry them over the line? Or to what degree does spectator frustration seep into player’s minds and create panic? To maintain social distancing (at least outside of the penalty area) stadiums will be split into red, amber and green zones to reflect the limits to be imposed on the maximum numbers of players, coaches, officials and media who can be granted access – previously, stadium zones were known as denial, anger and delusion.

According to reports, the TV viewer will be presented with a range of additional camera angles, backstage access and sound effects designed to distract attention from the eerie echo-ey atmosphere on the pitch. To recreate the full authentic stadium experience, you will need to scatter peanut shells on the floor beneath your feet, and perhaps ask a friend to sit (2 metres) behind you to hurl abuse and shout drunken obscenities.

Taking a look back in history for reassurance, I could only find six competitive games that West Ham have played during the month of June, all during the first two seasons of world war two. This does, of course, include their finest hour (and a half) when the Hammers beat Blackburn Rovers to lift the 1940 Football League War Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Despite the threat of Luftwaffe attacks, and a goalkeeper called Herman, West Ham triumphed with the only goal of the game scored by wing-man Sam Small. Apart from this, the record in June is not impressive, comprising 3 defeats, 2 wins and a draw – with 2 of those defeats coming in home fixtures against the dreaded Millwall.

For the nostalgic, here is a brief film report on the War Cup Final introduced by the legendary Brian Moore.

In accordance with modern algorithmic trends, we have been mining the data, following the science and making stuff up in order to derive the patented Under The Hammers ‘R’ (or relegation) value for the bottom six clubs. Our super computer has been evaluating key performance factors such as previous form, remaining fixtures, player’s birth charts and potential paranormal activity to come up with the chances of Premier League survival. Currently these values (the closer to 1 the more trouble you are in) indicate the following: Norwich (0.98), Villa (0.95), Bournemouth (0.94), West Ham (0.92), Brighton (0.92) and Watford (0.90). All very tight and lots to play for.

One of the greatest risks that West Ham face, given their relatively tricky initial run of games, is the season restarting but then stopping again due to a second wave of infections. Dropping into the bottom three at any time during the next five weeks, not just at the end of the season, presents formidable danger should relegation be decided on positions at the time of suspension.

A phenomenon that could not be controlled during the recent lockdown was an uncontrolled outbreak of highly contagious transfer stories. Those media outlets that rely heavily on transfer speculation recognised long ago that every story generates many, many posting opportunities: making up or repeating the original rumour; cut and pasting outraged and/or ecstatic reaction from Twitter; vehement denial by club insider; eventual report that the target has actually signed for Barcelona. West Ham player recruitment is generally haphazard at the best of times but, in a situation where we don’t know which division we will be playing in, and where the immediate future of football finances is a complete unknown, rumours of multi million pound deals are even more fantastical than usual.

Right now, it is impossible to predict when crowds will be allowed to return to football grounds. Even if it can happen sometime within the next 12 months, restrictions are unlikely to be lifted before the start of next season. Continuing to play games behind closed doors with games shown free-to-air on TV is certain to have significant medium to long term implications for the structure of the game as we know it, at all levels of the pyramid. No-one can know what the new normal will be for football, but it is not going to be the same as it was.

Football Is Back – can West Ham avoid the drop?

My last article in this blog was written on March 7, almost three months ago. We were about to face Arsenal, but I was eulogising about our performance against Southampton describing it as one of the most enjoyable visits to the London Stadium this season. The 3-1 victory was well deserved and in my opinion a fair reflection of the game despite the visitors having the lion’s share of possession which can be a very misleading statistic. As I wrote at the time, no points are awarded for having the ball; only the result counts.

I also wrote that it seems likely to me (not the boldest of predictions!) that the three relegation slots will be occupied by three of the six teams currently propping up the table. Nothing has changed there of course, although quite how the different clubs play their remaining games in empty stadiums after such a long lay-off is difficult to predict. Much may depend on the motivation of the teams that they are facing. Perhaps the ideal fixtures will be those against mid-table sides with little to play for.

One day in the future there will be a review (well there will be many reviews!) of the effect of Covid-19 on life in this country during this period (which is still a long way from being over of course), and sport will be one of the topics looked at closely. Many have criticised the decision to hold the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival in March, Liverpool’s game against Atletico Madrid, and England v Wales in the Six Nations rugby, the last major events to take place prior to the lockdown. Many feel that lockdown came too late.

Football was closed down when Mikel Arteta was tested positive for coronavirus on March 13, just a few days after our last game at Arsenal, but before the “nationwide lockdown” came into force. Football announced its own lockdown before the Government did. The official death toll in the UK at that time stood at 11. Now the figure is approaching 40,000 it is felt that it is time to resume. Many people throughout the land will lament the return of the national game, and will question the decision to bring it back. Those people who have lost love ones may not share the delight of those who cannot wait for the festival of football due to begin in a couple of weeks’ time. It is a difficult balancing act, as in so many decisions in life at the moment, and one which has its supporters on both sides of the argument.

Of course football behind closed doors is not quite the same product as when the fans, who are the lifeblood of the game, fill the stadiums every week. I share my co-blogger Geoff’s dismay at watching the German product when it got underway, although I guess we will be a little more interested when watching the team we support, despite the lack of atmosphere. Of course every game that remains in the season can be viewed on TV, with many free-to-air, a demand made by the Culture Secretary. I did read that we could use the red button to switch on artificial crowd noise generated by the broadcasters. I remain wary of that, although apparently early attempts at doing this at some foreign venues (Australian Rugby League, for example) have been reported upon favourably.

As our games come up I will resume the regular blogging of games played and previews of forthcoming ones. This far ahead I haven’t really got a clue what will happen. I made some fun predictions using a variety of differing methods in my last article, but much of that has gone out of the window now. At least we have a fit squad (although Ogbonna, Cresswell, and Antonio were late in starting, it would appear that all are now in full training) and many will be needed if the predicted muscle strain-type injuries arise with many games being played in a short period of time. We had three players sidelined by injuries when the season came to a halt, and all three (Fredericks, Yarmolenko and Wilshere) are also now back in training.

Of course, if the Premier League hadn’t restarted we would have retained our top flight status by the skin of our teeth, that is, purely on goal difference. That is because the decision has been made that three teams will be relegated, and if necessary a points per game calculation will be used. So, if anything happens between now and the restart to abandon plans to resume the season, then we are guaranteed a place in the Premier League for the season that follows.

What is worrying is that something may happen at any time once the games have restarted that could abandon the season at that point. For that reason all the clubs involved in the relegation tussle will be anxious to pick up points in the early games to ensure that they are not in the bottom three (on a points per game basis) at any time should the curtain suddenly fall.

Of course West Ham are notoriously slow starters, and therefore it is hoped that the team are ready to fire from the outset. On paper, our opening three fixtures are particularly tough. Although two of them are at “home”, the advantage of home games may perhaps be diminished by the empty stadiums. And we don’t have the best home record anyway! David Moyes has staged sessions at the London Stadium to prepare the players for playing in front of the empty stands, including full matches involving the whole squad.

In the opening three games we face Wolves, Chelsea and Tottenham who are all involved in the race to qualify for European places, so no easy games there against sides with little to play for! In addition, we also have a visit to Old Trafford in the penultimate game of the season, and they too are likely to still be involved in trying to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

We play three of our rivals that are involved in the bottom six (Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa are three of the final four games, all fighting for their lives), and just two games against sides who would appear to be comfortably mid-table, Burnley and Newcastle. Many observers may believe that Norwich are already down, and although they are red hot favourites for the drop, they still have the opportunity to save themselves with games against Watford, Southampton, Brighton, Burnley and ourselves, all potentially winnable matches. It could be that our final match of the season against Villa at the London Stadium might be crucial.

Although Brighton currently have the most points of the bottom six teams, perhaps on paper they face the toughest run-in, so it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. I’ll stick my neck out at this point and predict relegation for Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, with Brighton finishing just above them, and Watford and ourselves pulling clear. That prediction may well change more than once as the season draws to a close!

Stay alert everyone!

Project Jumpstart: Can West Ham Create The Spark And Energy For A Positive Surge Up The Table, Or Will It Be A Relegation Shocker?

Football’s Coming Home – but this time in an ambulance and driven by a man who is only out to test his eyesight

I had what I consider to be a Nostradamus moment in my preview of the Southampton game on 28 February when I suggested that West Ham’s best hope for avoiding relegation was for the season to declared null and void as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Less that two weeks later the Premier League had called a halt to all matches following revelations that several high profile managers and players had been tested positive for the virus, including Mikel Arteta, whose Arsenal team had faced the Hammers on the previous weekend (7 March). On 23 March, the UK government finally imposed the nationwide lockdown which is tentatively easing today.

I admit that I felt at the time that restarting the season would be impossible but, barring a significant change in circumstances, that is exactly what will happen commencing on 17 June. The restart may be driven by commercial imperatives (getting hold of TV revenues to splurge on inflated transfer fees and wages) and by political distraction (a rare good news story to fill the back pages and social media ) rather than for the integrity of the game, but the latest plan envisages all remaining 92 games being completed during a hectic six week festival of football window.

A key aspect, of course, of the re-start plan is that matches will be played behind closed doors, with the majority of games played at the usual home venue. The exception to the latter is a number of Liverpool games which the police have asked to be hosted at neutral venues. There seems to be twisted logic here for me. Liverpool will eventually and inevitably win the title and when they do their fans will not celebrate in groups of six at a time (nor would the fans of any club, in fact). So rather that they celebrate, and confine the risk, to Liverpool, the authorities want to follow a path that spreads it around the country.

In a second of my visionary moments, I once posted about a time in football’s future when the presence of bothersome fans in stadiums was outlawed and where their role in generating noise and atmosphere was replaced by CGI and sound effects.   Expect to see some experiments in this direction if the ban on spectators is extended beyond this season and when the TV companies find it difficult to generate the appropriate level of hype in the absence of an enthusiastic or frustrated crowd. (If it turns out that I didn’t predict any of this I will simply edit an old blog post to make it look like I did.)

I have already seen one experiment at an event in South Korea where inflatable sex dolls were dotted around the stands in lieu of spectators – something that would seem ideal for our own chairmen, if they need to clear out any old stock not snapped up during the lockdown.

There is another way of looking at it, however. From my brief 45 minutes of an eerily sterile, crowd-free Bundesliga match on TV, it was apparent that without crowd involvement in the ground football is a far less attractive proposition to broadcast on the small screen. Thus, if fans are an essential part of the product then they should be paid to attend matches rather than the other way around.

Those longer in the tooth Hammer’s fans amongst us will recall a European Cup Winners Cup second leg tie in October 1980 against Castilla which West Ham won 5-1 (after extra time) to advance through to the next round of the competition. This was a game that had to be played behind closed doors at Upton Park due to crowd trouble in the first leg in Madrid. Clearly it is a good omen that the club has previous in overcoming home disadvantage.

As a West Ham fan, I admit to being very apprehensive about the restart. Back in early March, I felt the team had started to look more together, despite defeat at Arsenal, and would be more that capable of finishing above three worse sides. Now that tiny slither of momentum has been lost and we are back to square one. The elapsed time since the shutdown is equivalent to a normal close season and yet the players have just three weeks to get match fit. It applies to all teams but with the Hammers being notoriously slow starters, and one of the least energetic teams in the league, it does not bode well. Are we trust that our often complacent players have had the discipline to keep themselves in the best possible shape during the recess? Reports from the Bundesliga indicate a greater incidence of strains and tweaks since their restart. With West Ham’s history of injuries, that is not encouraging sign – especially for a team that relies on the contribution of a few key individuals rather than on collective effort.

“Too slow to catch a cold” was one of my dad’s favourite put-downs when I perched on his shoulders as a boy in the West Enclosure. If the same applies to coronavirus then we can count that as a positive for certain members of our squad.  With no allowances being made for depleted squads due to sickness and injury, it will be a case of all hands on deck for the duration. Are we up to the task?

If, and when, games do re-start, the motivation of mid-table teams will be interesting to watch. Even during a normal season there is a falling away in effort once there is nothing left to play for. Expecting players with no hope of European qualification and no fear of relegation to get back to match fitness, after a three month lay-off, for a handful of games, is a big ask.

Another concern is the situation where the league restarts but is subsequently cancelled in the event of a second wave of the virus. If the intention is to regard the league as complete should this occur (on a pro rate points basis) then it would mean that slipping into the bottom three at any point creates inherent danger – you cannot rely on an easier run in the games to come. Very much like a game of musical chairs!

I have not checked what the current odds are for relegation, but my sense is that, apart from Norwich, each of the bottom six face an equal chance of the drop. There is nothing we can do as fans, no chance to make a difference as the twelfth man in the stands, other than to put our faith in David Moyes to prepare his players properly; to hope the players step up; and that together they dig out the performances needed. Interesting times. Stay Alert, Hammer’s fans.

What can West Ham expect in season 2019-20?

We begin our fourth campaign in the London Stadium, and our eighth consecutive season in the top flight with a game against possibly the toughest opponents of all, the champions Manchester City.

The Premier League comprises 20 clubs. Like in so many other major leagues there are very few of the teams that can realistically hope to come out on top at the end of the season. Perhaps six think they have a chance, although there are probably only two at the most who could be champions. The “elite” six teams, the ones with by far the greatest revenues, they were the ones that finished in the top six places last season, and according to most, will do so again this time, and possibly for the foreseeable future with the way that money is distributed within the league.

The aim of the remaining 14 is twofold, firstly not to be involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table ensuring that they remain a Premier League team, and secondly (in some cases) to try to threaten the top six and break their stranglehold. Based on the evidence of last season the chances of doing the second one would seem to be remote. I’d like to think that all teams would be trying to win one of the two domestic cup competitions but sadly, their importance is in decline as far as the clubs themselves are concerned, although perhaps not in the eyes of fans, who love to see our team involved in a cup run.

A quick reminder of the table last season shows City and Liverpool way ahead with 98 and 97 points, with Chelsea 25 points adrift on 72 in third, a point clear of Tottenham (71), and then Arsenal 70. A very poor Manchester United team trailed on 66, but they were still 9 points clear of the best of the rest (Wolves on 57). I would expect the four clubs who finished outside the top six but in the top half of the table (Wolves, Everton, Leicester and West Ham) to be the ones with aspirations to get closer to the elite but is it a realistic thought? I’d love to think so but I doubt it.

Of course the start that a club gets to the season often (although not always) sets the tone for what follows. I am aware that the fixtures computer arranges the fixtures randomly (with some input from clubs and police etc.), but what odds would you have got six years ago that West Ham would face an opening day fixture against each one of the elite six in the six seasons that followed? Very long I’ll wager, although when the fifth one came up last season I said at the time that next season I reckon it will be Manchester City (if we survived in the top flight of course!)

The one game of the previous five opening day games that we won (2-0 at Arsenal) coincided with one of our best ever seasons in the top flight, although those with a good memory will recall that we then went on to lose our first two home games that season, 2-1 to eventual champions Leicester, and 4-3 to Bournemouth.

Last season of course we had an abysmal start, losing our first four games and propping up the league at that point. Ironically, Watford had a dream start and had 12 points after their first four fixtures, so it was pleasing that we recovered well to finish in tenth place, just in the top half of the table, and incidentally two points clear of Watford in 11th.

Our opponents today won 32 of their 38 games in the league (as well as winning both domestic cup competitions, including the demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final) so will be formidable opposition. I suppose facing them in the opening game is as good a time as any, but personally I will just be looking for a good performance, and hope that the players begin to gel together.

Unlike many on social media I like to refrain from commenting in advance on players arriving until I’ve seen how they settle and trust that the players in our team and squad are ones that the manager and his team want there. But on the face of it, the two big signings, Haller and Fornals would appear to be excellent acquisitions, and the return to fitness of Lanzini, Wilshere and Yarmolenko is like adding three new players as well. It would appear that we will have the capability of creating lots of chances, and hopefully we will score a lot of goals. Unlike many observers, I don’t believe that we have bad players in defensive positions; on the contrary I am generally happy. What I think we don’t do well is defend as a team, and in this I mean everyone on the pitch. I’d like to see the manager appoint a first class defensive coach, but he will run the team and coaching (quite rightly) as he thinks fit. I did read that one or two of the top teams even have throw-in coaches! You might laugh but if you analyse how often we lose possession of the ball from our throw-ins (one of the few statistics I haven’t yet seen!) you’d agree that it would be a good thing.

Of course there are new things for us to see this season. The introduction of VAR is something I have personally advocated for years. Going back to the book I published in 2016, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I made many references as to how I would like to see it used to ensure that we got the correct decisions more often, especially in relation to offside. I’m not entirely happy with some of the ways it is being used however, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed it in action in the Premier League. I’ve seen some (tongue in cheek?) comments suggesting that we’ll all be home much later, and that the classified results will now be moved to Match of the Day!

There are a number of rule changes being introduced too. Some of them are minor, and some will be more influential on games, for example the change to handball. Once again I’ll wait to see it in action before commenting, although early examples, such as in the Women’s World Cup, showed some potential teething troubles and inconsistency. I was not happy to read that the head of referees is suggesting that the Premier League will have its own interpretation of the new handball law, but once again I’ll wait and see. Surely consistency is what we want, whether or not we agree with the interpretation of the laws?

I welcome the fact that goalkeepers should have at least one foot on the goal line when the kick is taken, but hasn’t that always been the case? The problem has occurred with referees and linesmen having an inability or lack of desire to penalise goalkeepers moving off their lines before the penalty is taken (or encroachment for that matter). I suppose with VAR we can expect a rise in the number of penalties, so let’s see how consistent the officials can be.

A lot of the minor changes are just tinkering, and the one big change I’d love to see implemented is the correct timing of games, and the correct amount of time added on for injuries, goal celebrations, time wasting etc. The referee already has a lot to think about, and this could be taken out of his hands with the introduction of a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock, and stopping the time when these things happen, as happens in Rugby Union for example. Am I the only person who can see how this could totally eliminate the concept of time wasting?

When the opposing team scores and goes off to celebrate with their fans (especially at our stadium!) make a note of when the goal goes in and when play resumes. The amount of time will surprise you. See how much time is added for substitutions from when the decision is made to change a player up to the resumption of play. And don’t get me going on how long goalkeepers take to take a goal kick when their team is winning. And referees never add it on. They just seem to add a token time to reflect stoppages which bears little relation to how much actual time is lost. And one thing I don’t understand. If a referee stops his watch at any time how does he know how long he has stopped it for? The only way is to have another (stopwatch) and start that when he stops the main watch, and then stop the stopwatch when he starts his main watch again! Doesn’t a referee have enough to think about without faffing about with watches? I repeat; a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock would put an end to it all. I’ll return to this hobbyhorse as the season progresses.

Anyway, enjoy the game. I’d love to see an upset, although doubt that it will happen. On paper of course the fixtures for the rest of August are easier, so don’t get too upset if the result is not great, as long as we put in a good performance. We won’t face Manchester City every week!

How High Can They Fly: What Would Represent A Season Of Success For Gung-Ho Hammers?

As the new Premier League season approaches can Manuel Pellegrini get the best from his array of talented attacking players, or will defensive lapses continue to plague the Hammers?

All of a sudden a new Premier League season is almost upon us.  Just one more week to reach peak optimism before the reality of an opening weekend clash with Champions Manchester City kicks in.

Although you can never be certain how well new players will adapt to the English league, the signings of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals look to be exciting acquisitions; and with the return from injury of Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmalenko there are many good reasons to expect an above average season for the Hammers.  Not that ‘average’ sets a particularly high bar at West Ham where, in 21 years of competing in a 20 team Premier League, the average finishing position lies between 11th and 12th.

Only the most pessimistic supporter will be contemplating involvement in a relegation battle, but just how much higher can those bubbles fly?  In those same 21 seasons, a top ten finish has only been achieved on 7 occasions, with a high-water mark of 5th in 1998/99.

It is difficult to see beyond a third consecutive Manchester City title with Liverpool and Tottenham in their wake.  Perhaps a high-spending Arsenal will be reinvigorated, if they can sort out their defence, but Manchester United and Chelsea are likely to be well off the pace under their rookie, panic measure, ex-player managers.  There is certainly an opportunity for other clubs to take advantage and having a tilt at the lower reaches of the top six – and a gaggle of clubs including Everton, Wolves, Leicester and West Ham might all think that they are in with a shout of a break-out season.

It goes without saying that to win football games you need to outscore the opposition.  Yet there are different approaches in trying to achieve this.  There are too many recent bad memories of bus parking managers preferring to strangle the life out of the game in the hope of snatching a goal in a breakaway or from a set piece.  Manuel Pellegrini’s approach, on the other hand, is looking more and more to be the polar opposite – all out cavalier attacking and fingers crossed that it works out at the back.  It promises to be exciting, but can it be successful given that free-flowing football is the more difficult style to sustain over a long season?

In the past few years, West Ham have saved their best performances for matches against the better sides, while struggling against those set on attrition, spoiling and denying space.  A perfect example was the recent Asia Trophy game in Shanghai where Newcastle put an extra man in midfield and the Hammers created few meaningful chances as a result.  Admittedly, it was only a friendly and there were several key players missing from the Hammer’s lineup, but it is a lingering concern – as is the amount of space that is left vacant in front of the defence.   While it is great to see West Ham give the top teams a run for their money, the season will ultimately be defined by how well they perform against the remainder – that is where the majority of points lie.

Although there is still a week of the transfer week to go, the noises coming out of the club is that there is little cash left to splash.  Maybe there will be last minute surprises if the owners can be persuaded that they have yet to do enough to push beyond their survival comfort zone.  If there is any true ambition, or dreams of nights of European football, then spending just enough to stand still is a misplaced strategy.  Apart from attacking midfielders, the squad remains very vulnerable to injuries in several key areas – notably the fitness of Lukas Fabianski, Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop, Declan Rice and Haller.  It is not as if West Ham are strangers to long term injuries.

I prefer to think that West Ham are suspect at defending rather than in defence.  The weaknesses are as much about team shape and cohesion as it is about individual players.  When possession is lost we are slow to reform into a compact shape and thus allow opponents far too much time and space to mount counter-attacks both in central areas and on the flanks – a feature of all three goals conceded to Hertha Berlin during the week .  The defence plays very narrow, relies on a tricky offside trap and with only one defensive midfielder it is no surprise that Fabianski is the busiest keeper in the league.  I wonder if his agent has considered negotiating a productivity bonus – as he won’t be picking up many clean sheet payments?

On paper, the attacking midfield resources available to Pellegrini are awesome.  Individually, it is packed with talent and we can only hope that he has the instruction sheet on how to assemble them together into an effective unit.  I would like to see a lot more width from the midfield and a greater willingness to get behind defences than we have seen in recent years.  Apart from Robert Snodgrass (who is unlikely to be first choice) decent delivery into the box has been in short supply. Relying mainly on the full-backs for width, as a number of other sides do, would only make us more susceptible to the counter attack.

I am expecting great things from Haller leading the line.  He looks to have all of the attributes to do so effectively.  Can he be the player to finally beat Paolo Di Canio’s record of 16 West Ham goals in a Premier League season – or even become the first to reach 20?  I would like to think so, but then again I tipped Arnautovic to do the same last season!  Backup striker remains a big problem and with Javier Hernandez looking to be even more of a spent force (a Mexican has-bean) it may well fall to a rejuvenated Michail Antonio to provide support.

If striker and defensive midfield reinforcements arrive during the next week then I would be delighted.  Although the squad lacks depth it does now include a number of very talented players.  Sadly, the better ones will not stick around for very long if the team doesn’t progress beyond its average mid-table position.  It might be all well and good to pocket £200m in player sales next summer but not if their replacements are the modern day equivalents of Rigobert Song and Titi Camara.

I can see it being a very interesting season.  Lots of entertainment but with the usual frustrations where we fail to compete against the more resolute and uncompromising (physical) opponents.  Somewhere between 5th and 7th would exceed expectations; whereas below 9th would constitute a failure to progress.  Or perhaps this will be the season to put an end to 40 years of hurt; to finally lift another piece of cup silverware.

I am probably, once again, expecting too much!

El Hokey Cokey! All the “Ins” and “Outs” will be good moves by Pellegrini?

With a new season appearing on the horizon, do West Ham have a clear 2020 vision; or will it just continue to muddle along?

Between the finale of the last Premier League season and the start of the new one was a total of 90 days.  We have now spent 40 of those days in the wilderness and there are just 50 more before it all kicks off again.  In two weeks’ time West Ham return to training and the pre-season preparations build on from there.

The 2019/20 season the Premier League sees the introduction of a mid-season break in the middle of February (although it is staggered over two weekends) and along with 4 international breaks (3 before Christmas) plus those annoying getting knocked out of the cup early breaks, it promises to be another disjointed campaign.

The fixture list was, course, published last week and controversially West Ham yet again have to play each of the other 19 teams home and away.  With its sense of the absurd, though, the fixtures computer has come up with a sixth consecutive opening day encounter with a top six side for West Ham – on this occasion completing the full set against reigning champions Manchester City.  For a welcome change, however, the Hammers find themselves at home on both the opening and closing weekends – an end of season clash against Aston Villa coming just one week before a long awaited return visit to Wembley for the FA Cup Final, perhaps!  Still no sign of a home Boxing Day match though; clashing as it would with the start of the post Christmas sales at Westfield.

With less than 50 shopping days until the slamming of the transfer window, the speculation industry is at full throttle.  To date there have been more outs than ins as the Hammers embark on one of their periodic dead-wood clearance sales – the hope this time around is that we don’t then start collecting more!  Moore than just a club for one last payday!

I have tried to avoid wasting too much time following transfer news on the basis that the majority is made up nonsense.  Rumours have become more of a device for generating internet traffic than sharing credible news.  Instead, my time-wasting has been focused on watching old Youtube videos of West Ham greatest goals – an enjoyable claret and blue tinted way of viewing the past.  One thing that struck me was the contribution from either Eyal Berkovic or Yossi Benayoun to many of the sweeter attacking moments.  Both had only fleeting Hammer’s careers but were the type of player that has been sadly missing for much of the interim period.  Now I can build up my hopes that Pablo Fornals will be the player to fill that gap.

The recruitment of Fornals came as something of a surprise as I believed another attacking midfielder would not be top of the club’s priorities.  I can only assume that there is a fair bit of business still to be done as we remain very light in attack, short of numbers in holding midfield and lacking a defensively competent left full-back.

Not surprisingly the performances of Declan Rice and Issa Diop have caught the attention of the circling richer clubs – both are young players who put creditable Premier League mileage under their belts last season.  As long as West Ham remain a mid-tier club, the best players will always be at risk of big money bids from sides offering European competition.  Ultimately, every player has a price but I would like to think that both players will realise that another season (at least) in the Hammers first team is beneficial to their long term development.  Even worse than losing either player would be taking any washed up Old Trafford cast-offs in part-exchange.  Beyond that, any hope of holding on to players such as Rice and Diop (and potentially Fornals) requires significant progress on the pitch and why further recruitment is so vital – players who will be challenging for a starting position, not as back up.

The pursuit of Maxi Gomez is becoming the summer’s long running blockbuster transfer saga.  Past performance suggests that it will eventually fizzle out to nothing – but something needs to be done urgently to supplement the club’s meagre striking options – which otherwise will be down to one gloomy pot-hunting Austrian who may still prefer to take his sulking elsewhere.  Talk that Gomez was looking for assurances that he would be first choice would seem to be an odd deal breaker – would any manager give such as assurance?  Only performance on the pitch can guarantee selection!

Overall, I feel quietly optimistic over what is happening this close season.  Much of the deadwood has been shifted and I would expect/ prefer several more to follow (Obiang, Ogbonna, Sanchez, Hernandez), the Sullivan’s have maintained commendable radio silence and player recruitment looks to be focusing on younger (mainly Hispanic) players.  Plenty of opportunity for it to all go horribly wrong but so far so good!

Everything Is Average Nowadays: A Typically Inconsistent West Ham Season

The 2018/19 Premier League season was close to average for West Ham. Slightly below where we might have expected to finish but slightly better than we have typically done in the past.

The 2018/19 season finally ended on a positive note with West Ham recording a third successive win that allowed them to sneak into the top half of the table at the expense of Watford.  Better than anticipated a few weeks ago but no open topped bus parade! A first run of back to back victories since December allows us to go into the summer break with an unexpected sense of optimism.

The general consensus in the media was that it was a good first season in charge for Manuel Pellegrini and but for a disastrous start (and the usual collection of dubious refereeing decisions) it could have been even better.  In truth, pundits don’t pay detailed attention to clubs outside of the ‘big six’ and their views are often superficial and patronising.  Which players from the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Wolves or Everton could attract interest from the elite is the usual extent of their insight.

The exciting last day finish together with the dominance of English clubs in the European finals has reignited claims that the Premier League is both the best in the world and the most competitive.  It certainly has the best players money can buy but, in reality, it is largely predictable.  If you rank and compare finishing positions with the revenues of each club you will find a very high level of correlation.  In any year there will be over-achievers (Wolves, Watford) and under-achievers (Manchester United, Southampton) but the majority of clubs finished the 2018/19 season within two places of what their revenue ranking would suggest.  My research suggests that West Ham are 8th highest revenue earners suggesting that a 10th place finish is just below average.  Of course, it is not just about having money – you need to use it and use it wisely!

Looking at West Ham’s performance against their Premier League history you might conclude that it was a slightly above average season.  The following table shows how this season compares with the average for the 21 seasons in which the Hammers have competed since the Premier League was reduced to 38 matches (eagle eyed observers will note that points does not tally with the results for the average season – this is due to rounding) :

P W D L F A W D L F A Pts
Average 38 8 5 6 28 24 4 5 10 19 31 47
2018/19 38 9 4 6 32 27 6 3 10 20 28 52

The 9 home wins was the best return since the move to the London Stadium.  The last time West Ham won more than 9 games at home during a season, however, was back in 2001/02 (12) while the most successful season was 13 home wins in 1997/98.  That same season also saw the fewest home defeats (2) with the worst being 9 in both 2006/07 and 2010/11.

Away from home, 6 victories is towards the top end of West Ham’s on-the-road achievements and has only been bettered in 2005/06 and 2015/16.  However, the move away from the cautious ‘respect the point’ philosophy saw a below average number of away draws.

Aside from the record points haul of 62 in 2015/16, this year’s total was the highest since 2005/06 and the 7th highest out of the 21 seasons reviewed.  The 2015/16 season is famously the only Premier League one where West Ham have finished with a positive goal difference and this season’s total (-3) was in the top six outcomes and bettered the 21 season average of -9.

If goals are what you like then the best teams to follow in 2018/19 season would have been Bournemouth (126), Arsenal (124) and Manchester United (119).  West Ham matches saw 107 goals awarded – ranking in 10th position.

Most would agree that the style of football has improved significantly this season, even though a shocking inconsistency has frequently overshadowed this.  Excellent performances in matches against top sides were balanced out by some shockers with struggling sides.

In summary, there are enough positive signs to believe that Pellegrini is moving the club in the right direction but recognising there is plenty of work to do and plenty of additional investment necessary if the club is to consistently achieve its expected position of 7th or 8th.  Unfortunately, any progress beyond that (unless there is another collective top six blip as happened in 2015/16) would require massive external investment – the idea of a next level without that happening is really wishful thinking.

That leaves us with looking forward with interest at how the summer player recruitment and sales pan out.  How much money can be made available, can we hold on to our better players and will the club be able to make further astute signings that suit Pellegrini’s style of play and ensure that relegation battles are a thing of the past?

2018-19 – Was this a campaign for West Ham to move to the next level, or one to consolidate under a new regime?

A new manager, new backroom staff, many new players, and hope for a better season. But was it enough to move on to the next level? How accurate were the bookmakers in predicting how this season would end?

So many people begin so many sentences with the word “so” these days. I was thinking this when trying to evaluate the season that is coming to an end today, as the phrase that came into my head was “so so”! So what does “so so” actually mean? Neither very good nor very bad, middling, all right, respectable, satisfactory, indifferent, mediocre, ordinary, passable, run of the mill, adequate, acceptable, tolerable, moderate, modest, unexceptional, OK, undistinguished? Have I got it right or am I being too harsh?

At times the football we have played has been very good, especially with victories over some top teams. We managed to beat three of the elite top six teams, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham, and drew with both Chelsea and Liverpool, two games that with better luck and better officials we could easily have won. Only Manchester City of the top teams were just too good.

Of the five teams that have been chasing that seventh spot for much of the season, we have held our own with equal points in games against Everton and Leicester. Wolves, like Manchester City, were just too good for us in both games, and we suffered a home defeat to Watford. That game put an end to a four match winning run in December which gave us high hopes of chasing a European place. It also resulted in an injury to the General when giving away the penalty for Watford’s opening goal. In my opinion that was a key factor in many performances that followed in that his partnership with Diop was broken, and we never quite looked the same at the back. Can we balance the books against the Hornets today? If so, a top half finish is achieved, but if not then we are consigned to the bottom half of the table.

Disappointingly, we only picked up one point in the four games against Bournemouth and Brighton, and suffered away defeats at Burnley and Cardiff where our performances were definitely unacceptable. Once again I don’t believe that we got the points we might have done due to some dubious refereeing decisions and poor line calls that robbed us, whereas very few close calls went in our favour. I very much welcome the use of VAR next season which hopefully will eliminate some of these diabolical errors.

When writing this piece today I had a look back at my first article this season written shortly before the season began. The next part is an extract that shows how predictable the Premier League has become.

But can we reach the “next level”? What exactly is the “next level”? If you study the odds on offer among the vast array of bookmakers throughout the country then there is a certain similarity of where they all believe clubs will finish in the Premier League. Not surprisingly, Manchester City are odds on to retain the title and Liverpool are clear second favourites at 4/1. Then come Manchester United 7/1, Chelsea 12/1, Tottenham 14/1 and Arsenal 25/1. So that’s the top six sorted. Same as last time, the same top six elite, the clubs with the biggest revenues will fill the top six places again. As predictable as ever according to the odds makers.

Following hot on the heels of the top six, well not exactly on the heels but trailing behind at a distance, bookmakers have four clubs all priced in the region of 250/1 to fill places 7-10. Those clubs are (in no particular order, because the order varies from bookmaker to bookmaker) Everton, Wolves, Leicester, and West Ham. So we are well fancied to finish in the top half, and even as high as seventh place, but will not realistically be challenging the elite six. I suppose you could call that the next level?

As a matter of interest the next four clubs are priced generally in the 500/1 to 750/1 bracket – Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Burnley. And finally the bottom six in the betting market at odds of between 750/1 up to 2000/1 are Bournemouth, Brighton, Fulham, Watford, Huddersfield and Cardiff.

Of course the aim of all fourteen clubs that make up the “also-rans” in the Premier League should be to break into the top six, but unfortunately the aim of many is to secure at least seventeenth place for a return visit next season. I’d like to think that our goal is to consolidate a position comfortably in the top half of the table, with a target of finishing in seventh place, and hopefully finishing as close to the top six as possible. If you believe that we can force our way into the elite group then you can get odds of between 9/1 and 12/1 to achieve this. Now that really would be the “next level”!

The bookmakers were spot on with the top six teams, although not exactly in the correct order. The four teams they predicted to chase the top six was a good shout too, as was the four to follow them. And they were very accurate in that their forecast of the bottom six had the bottom four teams in it. The only teams that really outperformed the bookmakers’ odds were Watford (significantly), and to a lesser extent Bournemouth. Manchester United underperformed their odds, but in reality the bookmakers virtually knew the outcome before the season began. Of course there is always the chance of a few unlikely results but I’m afraid the Premier League has become much too predictable.

The Championship on the other hand, whilst not being of quite the same quality, is a much more open competition each season, and in many ways more enjoyable as a result. You would have got long odds on Norwich and Sheffield United gaining automatic promotion. Not many would have predicted that before the season began. The holy grail for all teams is to be in the Premier League because of the money involved, but does that mean entertainment for the fans?

When West Ham have been playing away this season I have often gone along to Ram Meadow, the home ground of my local club, Bury Town. They play in step four of non-league football in the Bostik Isthmian League North and finished the season in sixth place just outside the play-offs. Incidentally Julian Dicks is the boss of the team that finished fifth, Heybridge Swifts. I can honestly say that, although the football was obviously not on the same level as the Premier League, the entertainment on offer matched what I saw at the London Stadium this season. That does not mean that I am about to bring an end to over sixty years of going along to watch West Ham, as I have already renewed my season ticket for next season. I will go along and hope that we can improve and move on to “the next level”.

West Ham in August

What does history tell us about the games West Ham play in the month of August? How important is it to get off to a good start? We look at a few seasons from the past to see if they give us a clue, mainly concentrating on those with an eight at the start such as 1958-59, 1968-69, right up to the present 2018-2019.

As August moves into September, summer begins to turn into autumn, and schoolchildren prepare for a new year at school. The new football season is already underway and, although the league tables mean little at this stage, we begin to get a feel for how the next nine months are likely to unfold. In just a couple of months I will be “celebrating” (if that is the right word) sixty years of following West Ham. My first visit to Upton Park was in November 1958, and my interest in following the team had already begun as that season had got underway in August. Promotion had been achieved the previous May when we finished at the top of Division Two and our return to Division One would be our first season in the top flight since we were relegated in 1932. That disastrous season (1931-32) had begun so well with winning the two games played in the month of August to take us into third place in the league. It ended with losing our last seven games, only picking up one point in our last ten matches and plummeting to the very foot of the table.

So after more than a quarter of a century outside of the elite, we began season 1958-59 with high hopes. There were three games to be played in the month of August, beginning with an away fixture at Portsmouth, followed two days later when we welcomed the champions from the previous season (Wolves), and then a home game against Aston Villa. Three games in a week and we won them all. The 2-0 win over Wolves (who would go on to be league champions again) was particularly satisfying, although the 7-2 slaughter of Aston Villa meant that we finished the month with nine points and eleven goals from the first three games. Incredibly we were only second in the league. An excellent season followed with a final league position of sixth. John Dick was my first favourite player and he ended the season as top scorer with 27 league goals (out of the 85 league goals scored by the team). We were fun to watch as we conceded 70 that season too.

Moving forward ten years to one of my favourite ever seasons (1968-69), we played seven league games in the month of August. Fifty years ago. This was the era of Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds and Brooking. The Beach Boys topped the music charts with Do It Again as the first month of the season drew to a close. We’d won five and drawn one of these fixtures, including wins of 5-0 and 4-0 to sit third in the league. We were just about to play our opening league cup game that season where we despatched Bolton 7-2. Despite remaining unbeaten throughout September we couldn’t keep it up but still finished eighth at the end of May. More draws than any other team in the division (18) and failure to win any of our last nine games stopped us from finishing higher.

Jumping ahead another ten years and 1978-79 finds us in Division Two after relegation the previous May. We still had Bonds and Brooking, together with Cross, Devonshire, Lampard (snr) and Pop Robson. Two wins and a draw from the league matches in August put us second in the league, but an inconsistent season followed and we finished fifth, just missing out on promotion, despite the strength of the team.

After our last major trophy winning the FA Cup in 1980 as a second division team, and a record-breaking promotion winning season that followed, we remained in the top flight for a few years but in 1988-89 we finished next to bottom and were relegated once again. Only one league match was played in August that season and we lost it 4-0. Moving ahead ten years again and 1998-99 had three August games, and again we were unbeaten with one win and two draws. And finally ten years ago in 2008-09 we won three of our four August games (two of them by a 4-1 scoreline) to lie fourth in the table.

This season has bucked the general ten year trend in that we have lost all three league games and sit at the foot of the table. I’ve looked back through (my) living memory and find that in the last sixty years our league position at the end of August is better than where we finish up in May roughly half of the time, and not as good as the final league position the other half. One thing is for certain; our final league position next May cannot be any worse than where we are now!

On eleven occasions in the past sixty years we have been in the top three at the end of August, and in two of those we have been top (1983-83, 1989-90). But some of our best ever seasons have not started particularly auspiciously. In our record breaking promotion season of 1980-81 we were seventh at the end of August, before running away with Division Two by the end. And two other second division promotion seasons (1990-91 and 1992-93) found us in 14th and 18th respectively at the end of the first month before the final finishing position of second. In our best ever season (1985-86) when we finished third in the table and came close to becoming champions for the only time, we were languishing in 17th by 31 August.

What does all this prove? To borrow and amend a financial phrase, past performance in the month of August is not necessarily indicative of future results throughout the remainder of the season. So don’t press the panic button yet as hopefully there is still plenty to be optimistic about for this season!