West Ham’s season so far – poor performances, poor decisions or bad luck? Can we turn it around before the World Cup interrupts the season again in mid-November?

If you’ve been away to a remote island for the past couple of months and missed the beginning of the season then a quick glance at the Premier League table will tell you all you need to know about West Ham’s start to the 2022-23 campaign. Or will it?

Certainly it’s not ideal to be occupying a place in the bottom three at any stage, although only seven games in gives you the opportunity to put matters right by next May.

But after two consecutive seasons of qualifying for European football by virtue of a top 6/7 league position we have already given the rest of the teams a head start and made it difficult to achieve the feat for a third successive year.

So what has gone wrong? Why have we only collected four points from the opening seven games? For much of the time the players on show have not reached the levels achieved in the previous two campaigns either individually or collectively. For me, Fabianski, Coufal, Cresswell, Fornals, Lanzini, Benrahma, Soucek and Bowen all fall into that category to some extent and even Rice has not performed at the top of his game, but we can’t expect him to do it all! From reading social media I know that some will agree and some will differ with my assessment.

Our new recruits look good on paper with lots of international footballers, but have they been given sufficient opportunity yet to show what they are capable of? And have we bought the right players to blend together to become a top seven Premier League club? 

Many fans believe that the manager has continued to select out of form players that have done it in the past whilst being reluctant to throw new recruits into the fray claiming they are not yet ready. New signings at other clubs seem to hit the ground running!

So many poor decisions all round have contributed to our league position. Things might have been different if officials had not ruled out (controversially) Benrahma’s goal when Antonio was blocked, not the other way round surely? Or the failure of the referee to send Forest down to 10 men with the deliberate hand ball? Or Rice’s decision to take the penalty kick? Added to the bad luck hitting the inside of the woodwork twice and we could easily have collected 3 points from the opener at Forest.

It goes on. Poor finishing towards the end of the Tottenham game meant only one point when it could have, perhaps should have, been three. There’s no way Chilwell would have scored Chelsea’s opening goal If Fabianski had not left his line at the post. The refereeing decision to deny our late equaliser has been well documented and 99 per cent of people believe it was wrong. We should have had one, and possibly three points from that game too.

True, the luck did go our way in the Villa game with the deflected goal, but the inside of a post denied us a point at Everton in an uninspired performance from both sides. There was no way we would have beaten Harland-inspired Manchester City, and as usual we performed abysmally against Brighton and deserved absolutely nothing from that game which is exactly what we got.

In a parallel universe we might have had ten or twelve points from those first seven games, but the fact is we have just four points and sit in the bottom three.

In a season interrupted by a World Cup in November/ December the powers that be decided that there should still be an early international break. The additional interruption caused by the decision to postpone football matches following the sad death of the Queen will only add to the congestion later on, but I wonder if this will work in our favour in the long run?

I wonder if the lack of games recently in a period when we haven’t been playing well will give us a chance to regroup? Will our costly defensive signing Aguerd be back soon? Will the manager give Cornet more game time? Will Downes (who was my man of the match in his only start in a European game) at last be given an opportunity to show what he is capable of? Is it time for Areola to replace Fabianski? What influence will the European schedule (Thursday- Sunday) have? Can we start to retain possession of the ball more? Will bad luck convert to good fortune in the upcoming games? These and so many other questions will be answered in the next few weeks.

Wolves on Saturday, followed by Fulham, Southampton, Liverpool, Bournemouth and Manchester United are the six league games in October. They are followed by Palace and Leicester in early November. And then we break again for the World Cup. Five of the eight are at home. 

By mid November we will have played 15 games (8 at home). We could still have four points at that stage! If that were the case we would be in deep trouble. We could have won eight games in a row and have 28 points and be challenging near the top.

More realistically I reckon we would need to have picked up at least 16 points from the next eight games to be back on course for a potential top 7 finish.Can we do it? What are the chances? 

West Ham – the season so far

We certainly didn’t hope to be at the bottom of the Premier League table after three games with no points and no goals, the only team in the top flight with that unenviable record. An opening day fixture against champions Manchester City was always likely to end in defeat despite our excellent 2-2 draw with them at the tail end of last season. In reality, despite the massive City possession statistics, new signing Erling Haaland was the real difference between the teams. Without his contribution we might have held on for another draw.

The second game at newly-promoted Forest was always going to be more difficult than many might have expected. We didn’t play particularly well but, in my opinion we were extremely unlucky not to win the game. Twice hitting the underside of the bar only to see the ball bounce down on the goal-line, a poor penalty miss inexplicably taken by our captain when surely there are better penalty takers in the team, and a goal chalked off after VAR had intervened suggesting that Antonio had impeded the defender (when surely it was the other way round?), were compounded with a Forest goal a result of poor defending, lucky bounce off the knee, and an inability to retrieve the situation in the second half.

And for some reason we just cannot beat Brighton. This was our eleventh attempt at doing so since they were promoted to the Premier League, but poor defending gifted them two goals and we were unable to break them down. When we did their keeper was good enough to repel our efforts. The Seagulls are a team that are underestimated by many and have developed into quite a force in the top flight. In Graham Potter I think they have one of the best managers around.

Perhaps injuries and poor fitness of some players, especially central defenders has contributed to our current plight? Perhaps trying to integrate new players into the squad is a factor? We continue to make signings that look very good on paper but it does take time for new players to bed in at a club. To be fair the new acquisitions have not really been in the team, or certainly the starting eleven in the league games to date. Perhaps it is continuing to select players who were not performing too well in the latter part of last season? Perhaps it is the reluctance to introduce substitutes until much later in the game than many fans would like to see to enable them to have a positive influence on the games? Perhaps too many players are just out of form? Perhaps a mixture of all of those factors plus others? Whatever the reasons we haven’t made the start to the new season that we would hope for.

Everybody has opinions, but the manager is the one whose job depends on making the right decisions. I have my reservations about some of the ones he makes, but two seasons of sixth / seventh place finishes after taking over at the club in a perilous position facing relegation, and qualification and (almost) success in Europe, should not be discounted because of three games. There’s a long way to go. If I remember correctly Pellegrini was manager when we lost the first four games a few seasons back and we still finished tenth in that campaign.

Given the fluidity of positions on a football pitch in modern times it is difficult to categorise players but forgive me and humour me in attempting to do so with our current squad. I’ll highlight 23 and for the purposes of this I’ll ignore our up and coming prospects such as Ashby, although I hope that the manager does not continue to ignore them. By my reckoning we have 3 international goalkeepers (Fabianski, Areola, Randolph) and now 7 international defenders (Cresswell, Zouma, Coufal, Ogbonna, Kehrer, Aguerd, Palmieri). We have 4 international midfielders (Fornals, Lanzini, Soucek, Rice) and 5 forwards with full international caps (Scamacca, Antonio, Cornet, Bowen, Benrahma). By my reckoning that makes 19 full international footballers out of a squad of 23 (so far). Even the four other players in the first team squad have some international recognition (Ben Johnson U-21, Conor Coventry (U-21 Ireland), Flynn Downes (U-20) and Craig Dawson has 15 U-21 caps and 3 Great Britain Olympic caps). Just 5 of the outfield 20 players are aged 30 or over (Creswell, Coufal, Dawson, Ogbonna and Antonio).

We all have differing opinions but I truly believe that we have a squad of footballers well capable of challenging for a place in the top 8 (hopefully higher) in the Premier League, in the cups, and in Europe. At least the first European hurdle was easily completed on Thursday evening with the 6-1 aggregate win over Viborg. We now move on to the league stage.

It is the job of the manager and coaches to mould the squad and produce results enabling those results to be achieved. Failure to do so will put his and their jobs in jeopardy. He has produced the goods in the past two seasons with what I believe was an inferior squad. I’m not at all upset by any of the players that have departed and believe that they have been replaced by footballers of a better quality. The manager and coaches now need to earn their money and produce teams week in and week out that have a method (and alternatives) of playing that will achieve the results that I believe a squad of that ability should be able to.

I’d also like to think that we haven’t finished adding to the squad. There are 3 players that I would be delighted if we signed one or more of them. A true consistently-proven goalscoring midfielder such as the Belgian, Vanaken, would be a tremendous signing, and Moyes has admitted we’ve put in a bid for him. Apparently our bid and Club Brugge’s valuation are some way apart and I wonder if it will happen?

I’d also like to see some real pace down the flanks and there are two players I like that would provide this. One is Sarr from Watford who I really like, but the other would be a controversial one and many will disagree with me. The other one is Adama Traore from Wolves. He has frightening pace and the potential to be a world beater, but his potential has never been realised mainly because there is little or no end-product from him. I’m sure he could be bought for a song and then it would be the job of the manager and coaches once again to turn massive potential into a top player. I honestly believe he would be worth taking a chance on if he can be acquired for a knock-down fee, and then we can see whether he can be coached into really achieving what I reckon he could be capable of. I wonder if we’ll see any of the three of them, or even Paquet (from Lyons) or Maitland-Niles (from Arsenal), both quality players that have been supposedly linked with us.

So there we are. That’s my view of the start we have made and what I believe we are capable of. My views are not shared by many on social media and that’s fair enough. We are all entitled to our opinions.

Matchday 4 of the Premier League season arrives this weekend and we are at Villa Park. That game is closely followed by fixtures against Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle. We could have 12 points after 7 games. We might still have zero. Or of course we could be somewhere in between. How many points do you think we’ll have? It’s time for the players, manager and coaches to really start earning their money, and for the team to start climbing the table.   

The Premier League Champions visit the London Stadium for the season opener. Is this the ideal time for West Ham to entertain Manchester City?

It seems like only yesterday when season 2021-22 drew to a close. It has barely rained since then! Of course being a year divisible by two we would normally expect a major competition in the summer break, and this time around it would have been the World Cup. But that is not the case as due to temperatures in Qatar the 2022 tournament is being played in the weeks leading up to Christmas which will have a big impact on the 2022-23 season. We’ll get the mid-season break that so many campaign for but with a difference in that many of the leading players will not be resting but exerting themselves in the heat of the Middle East.

We did have a tournament to watch though and I have to say I enjoyed it immensely, especially the climax last Sunday. Euro 2022 for women filled our football gap and the Lionesses did us proud with their excellent victory over the Germans. It remains to be seen whether the legacy of the competition will be a higher profile for the women’s game at the top level, although I’m sure it will lead to greater participation of girls at junior levels.

Anyway, it’s back to the Premier League with West Ham entertaining the champions Manchester City in the opening fixture which will be televised this Sunday, 4.30 pm kick off. What with TV plus our involvement in the Europa Conference League on Thursdays, it will be some time before we get to see a Saturday 3pm kick off at the London Stadium. Is the first game of the season the best time to be playing the team that are odds-on favourites to finish on top again? Perhaps it is. They took a while to get into their stride last season, and we gave them a good game in the 2-2 draw towards the end. I’ll begin this season’s match predictions by going for another 2-2 this time.

It has been the usual summer in respect of speculation regarding incoming (and outgoing) players at the club, and at the time of writing I remain to be convinced that the squad will be anything other than paper thin once again. But I fervently hope to be proved wrong. Nayef Aguerd seems to be a good acquisition but we know what happened in the friendly at Rangers, and following his operation it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing him for a while, possibly not until after the mid-season World Cup?

Gianluca Scamacca too is an international footballer and we’ve been crying out for ages for a top-class number 9 (who I understand will be wearing number 7). I am hopeful that he will turn out to be one of our better buys. Some of our forward purchases in the past decade (or even longer) have not really been up to scratch have they?  The last high profile Italian international centre forward (Zaza) joined us on loan from Juventus at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, our first at the London Stadium. He played eight times and didn’t find the net once before he was shipped off to Valencia, and then ended up at Torino. In 145 games since leaving us he has scored 35 goals, around 1 in 4. I’m hoping that Scamacca has a much better strike rate than that.

Flynn Downes is an interesting one and comes highly regarded by those who have seen him performing at Championship Level. But can he do it in the Premier League? And will he get the chance? With our injury record then the answer to the second question is probably yes. Bowen made the step up to the top level from the Championship so let’s hope Downes can do the same. I reckon he’ll shine if given the opportunity, but it’s wait and see. Areola made his move permanent (like so many it seemed to take ages to get it ‘over the line’) but he was already here last season and was proven at top level. It can’t be long before he becomes the league custodian and Fabianski the Cup one can it?

At the time of writing that seems to be the total of incoming players, but will the squad be strong enough to challenge for the top six as well as have another good European and domestic cup campaign? We are famous for adding players as the new season gets underway and when the window is about to slam shut so there could be more, but as it stands we would still appear to be light. Perhaps some of the Academy players who have done so well at their level in recent times will make the breakthrough? It would be great if they do, but they need to be given the chance to prove themselves.

Traditionally before the season commences I predict the finishing positions next May. It would be great if we could improve on last season’s 7th, and with Chelsea and Manchester United in some form of transition perhaps we can, although it will be difficult without further top-class investment. I reckon both North London clubs will have good seasons although I hope I’m wrong with my prediction for third place! So here I go for 2022-23:

1. Manchester City, 2. Liverpool, 3. Tottenham, 4. Arsenal, 5. Chelsea, 6. Manchester United, 7. West Ham, 8. Newcastle, 9. Brighton, 10. Wolves, 11. Aston Villa, 12. Leicester, 13. Crystal Palace, 14. Everton, 15. Brentford, 16. Fulham, 17. Leeds, 18. Southampton, 19. Nottingham Forest, 20. Bournemouth

With the new season approaching fast and expectations high, West Ham must surely need additions to the squad

I’m not really sure how many times we’ve faced the Geordies in our opening game. I do remember one season in particular, and that was back in 1973/74. We had ended the previous season in sixth place, one of our best ever top division finishing positions, and hopes were high for the new campaign. But that first game at Upton Park was a massive disappointment, which was exacerbated by a friend from Newcastle joining me at the game. We went down 2-1 with ex-Newcastle player Pop Robson scoring our goal.

Of course, we met them in the first game of last season too, but that ended in disappointment as well, as we went down 2-0. Having finished 16th the season before and then losing the opener at home to a side who were not particularly expected to do well led to doom and gloom amongst our fans, expecting a long hard campaign ahead. But of course that didn’t turn out to be the case and we made one of our best ever improvements from one season to the next, climbing ten places to finish sixth, narrowly missing out on a top four finish, but still qualifying for the Europa League.

The programme covers for the opening games of the season in 1973/74 and 2020/21(note the difference in the cost – 5p in 1973 and £3.50 in 2020

Just as in 1973-74 we begin a new season having finished sixth in the one just ended, with high hopes for the one that lies ahead. The rise from 16th to 6th must be one of the biggest improvements by any side, in the Premier League era at least. Of course Leicester went from narrowly avoiding relegation to finish as champions a few seasons back, but not many can have managed a jump of ten places, a rise that was most unexpected, but most welcome to those of us who, at the start of the campaign, would have settled for a mid-table finish, and not being involved in a relegation tussle.

So much of this was down to David Moyes and the coaching staff (as well as the players of course) People forget that when Moyes arrived at Everton in 2002 they were a bit like us, often fighting the drop. When he left there eleven years later they had finished in the top eight for seven consecutive seasons. He has achieved a top six finish in his first full season. That should buy him time to try to consolidate the club as one that will hopefully continue with top half finishes in the years to come, but that will only be possible if he is backed by the owners.

I can look back to 1984/85, in the days before the Premier League when, just like the season before last, we finished 16th. We narrowly avoided relegation by two points back then. The following campaign was our best ever in the top flight when we ended third, and only just failed to finish as champions. That should have been the time to invest in the team to push on but we failed to do so. In the two seasons that followed we finished 15th and 16th, and then we were relegated a season later. A lesson to be learned perhaps?    

It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. Last time I predicted a tenth place finish for us, which I thought was optimistic given the season that we had before. Of course we performed much better than I expected.

This time around I’ll be even more optimistic than last time, especially considering the added Europa League fixtures and a relatively small squad: 1. Manchester City, 2. Chelsea, 3. Manchester United, 4. Liverpool, 5. Leicester, 6. West Ham, 7. Arsenal, 8. Leeds, 9. Everton, 10. Tottenham, 11. Aston Villa, 12. Brighton, 13. Wolves, 14. Newcastle, 15. Southampton, 16. Burnley, 17. Norwich, 18. Watford, 19. Crystal Palace, 20. Brentford

But with just a few days to go before the new Premier League season gets underway we don’t appear to be much closer to adding reinforcements to the squad, which surely is absolutely necessary in view of the additional fixtures as well as the fact that the squad was thin last season too.

I was speaking to a Fulham supporter today who told me just how good their keeper was. It was a good piece of business to get him and puts pressure on Fabianski that didn’t exist before. It makes a change for us to be planning for the future, but it is imperative that reinforcements in other positions arrive too, sooner rather than later.

Of course the pandemic has meant that most clubs are in the same boat with the notable exceptions of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, but our transfer policy in the past has been a cause for concern, and I just hope that there are negotiations going on behind the scenes to land additional quality footballers at the club.

Our pre-season has been excellent with many of our players hitting the ground running. And with a largely fully fit squad I expect a good start to the campaign. But this can only last as long as injuries to key players don’t start to mount up. For me the most important area is in attacking positions with an over reliance on the hamstrings of Michail Antonio not giving up, and lack of cover for if he is out. We’ll have to see how things develop in the days ahead. Perhaps there is a lot of activity that we are unaware of? What are the chances?              

The Fans Are Back, Expectations Are High But West Ham Badly Need Reinforcements

Maintaining momentum in domestic and European competition with a wafer thin squad will be a massive challenge for West Ham. Recruiting wisely in the remainder of the transfer window will be critical to success.

At some point in history ‘News’ evolved from reporting on recent or important events to an entertainment that centred mainly on speculation and opinion. Perhaps transfer news has always existed at the imaginary end of the spectrum, but this year rumours have hit record proportions.

With the transfer window once again extending beyond the start of the season there is little chance of the procession of clickbait headlines disappearing any time soon. Likewise, the anger of fans outraged that the club are considering a bid for whatever is the latest made-up transfer target.  Yet, like the stopped clock or infinite number of monkeys some speculation will eventually turn out to be spot on.

It does seem that the club has at last put a stop to conducting transfer business in public with heroic announcements from the Chairman or leaks put out through favoured sources. Now whether no news is good news or whether it is a sign of an unwillingness to spend any money is a matter of opinion. It has unfortunately (for them) left the usual In-The-Knows with something of a dilemma and they must now resort to putting out vague horoscope-like transfer announcements that can be interpreted multiple ways.

I don’t imagine any manager would choose to wait to the last minute to bring in new signings. It is hardly ideal with the pre-season hugely important for preparation as Premier League teams increasingly become well-drilled units. Even a manager as famously cautious in the transfer market as David Moyes would have preferred to give new players time to settle into the team’s style of play.

Looking through the list of completed Premier League deals, there hasn’t been that much activity given the new season is less than a week away. No doubt the impact of Covid has led to a complicated transfer landscape with cash strapped clubs across the continent staring each other out before agreeing on valuations.

I wish I could have more faith in the owners but the idea that they could scupper any deal for a ha’p’orth of tar is firmly fixed in my mind. But equally it would be wrong pay over the odds from what is a finite transfer pot – only Manchester City and Chelsea can do that! The recent experiences of Anderson, Haller, Yarmolenko and Wilshere – absurd wages and ludicrous transfer fees – are painful reminders of the folly of vanity signings. A transfer strategy based on players with no subsequent re-sale value is not sustainable for a club like ours. That’s the reality for all but a handful of clubs and West Ham’s record on smart transfer trading has been abysmal.

As the new season looms, the already thin first team squad is even lighter than at the end of last season following the departures of Fabian Balbuena and Jesse Lingard.  With Europa League as well as Premier League campaigns to contend with it is inconceivable that reinforcements are not brought in. How else can it compete on numerous fronts with the inevitable injuries and suspensions that come with it. If I were manager, I would be pushing for five of six new arrivals – centre back, left back, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and at least one striker – while understanding there may be a need to prioritise. Ironically, I would probably have risked not signing a backup keeper until next summer – although the recruitment of Alphonse Areola on loan is a decent move.

The Lingard situation has dominated much of the close season speculation. West Ham looked their best last season when he was in the side, even if he did go off the boil towards the end. He offered an energy, dynamism, and directness in the final third not apparent elsewhere in the squad. It is not clear whether the failure to secure a permanent deal is down to the player or his club, but it is very dangerous to put too many eggs in this basket if it means passing up on other options.

Despite a wide range of speculation, the absence of any striker cover remains the elephant in the room. Michail Antonio has looked outstanding in pre-season and his strength and power must be every defender’s nightmare. But everyone must know that his hamstrings are unlikely to last an entire season without careful management. Bringing in backup and support has to be the topmost priority. Decent strikers don’t come cheap, though, and the Hammers have depressingly poor form for searching for quality in the bargain bucket.

Moyes has so far done well with transfers during his time at the club (Jordan Hugill aside) and all hopes are that sensible and well researched recruitment can continue. Striking a balance between what is acceptable quality and what the board are prepared to pay will not be an easy task. If there was to be an equivalent of a dating app for striker recruitment, then I do hope that the manager will be swiping left when Abraham and Origi appear on screen.

It has been interesting to see the club signing several young players over the summer. The assumption is that these have been made with an eye to the future rather than the upcoming season. But I wonder whether this reflects dissatisfaction with the output from the academy. It really has delivered little in the past ten years or so. I would like to see more of Ben Johnson this season (but not a left wing back) but not sure how many others there are knocking on the first team’s door.

Until all the ins and outs are settled it is difficult to know how optimistic to be about the new season. I have no reason to fear a relegation battle, but a repeat of last season’s top six finish looks a huge stretch as things stand. The two smaller north London clubs will be hoping to bounce back, and Villa, Everton and Leeds will all be looking to progress.

A clutch of inspired new signings could change that perspective and perhaps even greater rewards can await now that the Hammers have two potential routes to Champion’s League qualification. Get those cheque books out!

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!