Two of the Premier League’s Top Six Go Head to Head on the South Coast

OK, so I know we are only six games into the new season. Nevertheless, how good is it to see three teams who are not members of the “elite six” occupying places in the top six of the Premier League even at this early stage? And if one of the two teams meeting at the Vitality Stadium (still known to some fans as Dean Court) emerges as the winner of this Saturday’s game then they are guaranteed a place in the top half dozen for another week at least, and potentially a place in the top two! Well that’s unlikely as I can’t see Manchester City tripping up at Goodison Park, but a third place beckons (at least in the short term) as neither Leicester nor Arsenal, who currently occupy third and fourth, play until Sunday or Monday. Let us hope we can keep our excellent run in the league going with another win to enable us to look down on the majority of teams in the top flight. But it won’t be easy!

Bournemouth are now an established Premier League side. Few would have predicted when they were promoted as champions of the Championship in 2014-15 that they would last long at this level, but they’ve proved the doubters wrong, and under the excellent leadership of Eddie Howe they are now embarking on their fifth consecutive season in the top division. In a game dominated by money it is refreshing to see a side who must rank fairly low in the Premier League revenue or turnover tables doing so well. I hope that it continues for them but not today!

Their start to the season is an interesting one in that both teams in their matches have scored in each of their six league games to date, an interesting statistic for anybody who likes to bet on the “both teams to score market”. Ironically they played at home to Forest Green Rovers in the second round of the Carabao Cup and this ended in a goalless draw (which Bournemouth then won 3-0 on penalties). But they too suffered an indignity in this competition on Wednesday night, but more of that later.

I can’t see this game ending without goals. In the four seasons that the two teams have met since Bournemouth’s promotion there have been 30 goals, giving us an average of almost four goals a game. Bournemouth have won four of those games and West Ham two with two draws. However many of you may recall Boxing Day 2017 when we were robbed of victory in the last minute by a Callum Wilson goal that was both offside and handball that the referee chose to ignore. If only VAR had existed then……

Another interesting feature of Bournemouth’s start to this season is the fact that four of their six games have ended with a 3-1 scoreline – the last four league games they have played in fact! 3-1 defeats to Manchester City and Leicester have been followed by 3-1 wins over Everton and Southampton. We can therefore eliminate 3-1 as a potential scoreline for this game, as to be involved in five consecutive league games ending in a score of 3-1 just will not happen.

I greatly enjoyed the game last weekend when we comfortably beat Manchester United, but I have to say I was not impressed with the TV coverage in the aftermath which I watched upon my return home from the match, nor did I take kindly to the radio, nor the newspaper coverage that followed a day later. Unfortunately the media are only really interested in the “elite six” that I mentioned previously, and cannot give credit where it is due to others who may beat one of that number. It was all about where Manchester United are failing and little mention of what we are doing right. But we have to ignore it really. Just as when a pundit makes a negative prediction about a forthcoming West Ham game, and you read on the internet, “West Ham fans will not want to hear what x is predicting about this game.” Poppycock we don’t care what x thinks. We should ignore it. It does not matter. What does matter is what actually happens on the pitch. It’s just a shame that the quality of punditry is just so poor and biased now, and frequently lacking in any form of neutrality. I can relate back to quality views on football, such as the ITV panel for the 1970 World Cup, when you really wanted to hear their views. Perhaps football punditry on TV began as a result of the panel in 1970? The modern equivalent is very poor in comparison.

As I sat in my seat last weekend and looked around me, I wondered how many of the people in the stadium were lucky enough, as I was, to see West Ham win trophies in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Our trophy cabinet may not be the largest but it was great to be there to see us win FA Cups, and a European trophy. But since 1980 what have we won? Of course there was the two bob cup, and we were desperately unlucky in the 1981 League Cup Final and the 2006 Cup Final, but we have achieved nothing to provide any reason for buying a bigger cabinet. We’ve seen some great football at times but wouldn’t it be great to see us add to the honours board? Of course the Carabao Cup provides the best chance of doing this, but despite coming close in the past, it is a trophy that we have never won.

I was really hoping that this time around we would be taking this competition seriously and doing our best to give the fans the chance of seeing us lift a trophy once more. As I looked around last week it occurred to me that probably only a relatively small proportion of the 57,000 West Ham fans there had been lucky enough to witness our past successes, and wouldn’t it be great to win something again? I have lost count of the number of times we have fallen to lesser teams from lower divisions, who may not have the skills but more than make up for it in desire and commitment. I was really hoping that this season would be different. But alas no. Our efforts in games such as this week are disrespectful to the fans, and incredibly so to those who travelled to support the team in Oxford on a September night.

Quite frankly I am appalled that we have done this once again. It is almost beyond belief that we can sink to such depths after the euphoria of the win over Manchester United. It is the West Ham way of course. Beat a top team then lose to a lowly team. I’ve watched it happen for more than 60 years but it doesn’t get any easier to comprehend. Shocks happen in football of course. But it is not really a shock when a “giant-killing act is performed on West Ham. It is almost the expected outcome. Despite not being a big fan of match statistics, just take a look at the shots, and shots on target count for this match. Together with the scoreline they tell the sorry tale of our capitulation once again at the hands of a team two divisions below us.

But wait! Am I falling into the same trap? Concentrating on the failings of the beaten team and not giving due credit to the victors. Without seeing the game but based on reports that I’ve read I suspect that Oxford were fully deserving of their emphatic win based on the shots that they had, and the number of those shots that were on target. Apart from the scoreline, they showed a desire to win the game, a desire to compete, and a desire to be in the next round of the Carabao Cup. It must be one of the best weeks in the history of Oxford United, a 6-0 win away at Lincoln last weekend followed by the scalp of a top six Premier League team. What could be better? Ten unanswered goals in half a week is quite an achievement and is to be congratulated. Well done Oxford for a fine performance and excellent win.

Our manager was quoted after the game with the words “nobody expected this.” Mmmmm. Not exactly expected, but not entirely a surprise either if you are old enough to remember Huddersfield 1960, Darlington 1961, Plymouth 1962, Rotherham 1963, Swindon 1967, Huddersfield 1968, Mansfield 1969, Middlesbrough 1970, Blackpool 1971, Huddersfield 1972, Stockport 1973, Hull City 1973, Hereford 1974, Swindon 1979, Newport County 1979, Wrexham 1981, Watford 1982, Torquay 1990, Oxford 1991, Crewe 1993, Grimsby 1996, Stockport 1997, Wrexham 1997, Northampton 1999, Swansea 1999, Tranmere 2000, Sheffield Wednesday 2001, Chesterfield 2007, Watford 2007, Watford 2009, Middlesbrough 2009, Aldershot 2012, Sheffield Wednesday 2012, Nottingham Forest 2014, Sheffield United 2015, Wigan 2018, AFC Wimbledon 2019. It doesn’t make good reading does it? And I’m not even sure that the list includes every embarrassing exit from the league cup or FA Cup either!

Pellegrini also said “It is very easy to say we played very badly, but they played very well too.” Also “Mentally the players were not prepared to give the 100% that they needed to give in this kind of game. I cannot find a reason.” One newspaper I read giving marks out of ten gave Zabaleta, Balbuena, Diop, Sanchez scores of 2, Masuaku 2.5, Roberto, Snodgrass and Holland 3. Noble top scored with 5 for his 20 minute “cameo” at the end?

So where do we go from here? Well Bournemouth also bowed out of the competition losing 2-0 at Burton Albion, in a game thrice halted by floodlight failure, but resolved each time. So both teams let down their fans in a competition that they could have gone far in, if they’d had the inclination to field full strength sides and matched the desire to win of their League 1 opponents. Hopefully we can win. Any score will do, but it definitely won’t be 3-1!

Out Of The Wilderness: Can Pellegrini Lead Hammers To The Promised Land Of Cup Success?

Some may dream of spires but most West Ham fans will be dreaming of a first trophy win for 40 years.

It is the round of 32 in the Carabao League Cup.  Following this there are just three more matches before booking a date at Wembley (OK, four games if you include the two-legged semi-final).  It is yet another crack at finally ending a forty year famine in the West Ham trophy cabinet.  Several generations of Hammer’s fans have never experienced the joy of cup success.

When the 4th round draw takes place in Milton Keynes later tonight, there will be somewhere between 7 and 14 Premier League balls rattling around in the bowl.  If there are only 7 it will unfortunately mean the Hammers have already  been eliminated but I don’t see that being the case.  There was only one high profile exit from the Tuesday night ties (and a most amusing one at that) and it would be nice to see a few more upsets this evening – just not at Oxford.  And let’s get this one out of the way before we have a good laugh at Tottenham.

West Ham will have to negotiate the hostile Joey Beauchamp Trail on their way to Oxfords’s Kassam Stadium.  Named after the Hammer’s courageous 1994 summer signing, in commemoration of his 58 day West Ham career, it is known to be both treacherous and unforgiving.  Reading Beauchamp’s interview on how the commute made his time at Upton Park a living nightmare was very entertaining.  Apparently, the winger would have gone to the very top of the game if only he had known how to apply for a Young Person’s Railcard. I am looking forward to the Man Versus Wild re-enactment with Bear Grylls on Discovery Channel later in the year.

Tonight will be the fourth time that West Ham have faced Oxford United in the League Cup (1986 (H), 1990 (A) and 2010(H)) with each match going to the way of the home side.  In 1986 and 1990 both teams were playing their football in the same division, while in 2010 it was Premier League against League Two.  In that most recent encounter, Avram Grant’s side only managed to win the game through a scrappy stoppage time winner from Scott Parker.  It was, however, a springboard for an unlikely cup run that included wins against Sunderland, Stoke City and Manchester United before losing out in a two-legged semi-final with Birmingham.  The Hammers have famously never won the League Cup despite a couple of final appearances – something that can’t be said about tonight’s opponents who lifted it during its Milk Cup guise in 1985/86.

As with the majority of other Premier League managers, Manuel Pellegrini will seek to dabble with squad rotation for tonight’s clash.  With things going well in the Premier League and a top six clash with Bournemouth coming up at the weekend, Pellegrini will want to put out a team capable of doing just enough to win in normal time, without the risk of further injuries to key players.  With the League Cup being the most ‘winnable’ of domestic competitions, most fans will be looking for a side that is strong enough to guarantee progression to the next round.  More than anything, we dream of cup success – as we enter the longest barren spell in the club’s senior history (if you ignore the war years).

It will be interesting to see what type of lineup the manager goes for.  Maybe starts for the likes of Roberto, Pablo Zabaleta, Fabian Balbuena, Jack Wilshere, Robert Snodgrass, Carlos Sanchez and Albian Ajeti or the involvement of promising youngsters such as Nathan Holland, Ben Johnson, and Goncarlo Cardoso.  If Holland isn’t in the squad I will eat my hat (if I had one). It will be a difficult balancing act but hopefully Pellegrini is truly prioritising this competition, both in words and in deed.

A top half Premier League side should easily have enough in their locker to see off a mid-table League One side; even away from home with a smattering of fringe squad players – provided that the attitude is right.  These types of games have traditionally been a challenge for the Hammers – facing an opponent who will have nothing to lose.  With the recent bout of optimism around the club can we now start to measure Pellegrini’s West Ham by a different yardstick – one that reflects a far greater level of professionalism? I hope so.   West Ham to win by two clear goals.

There Was Only One United: Takeaways and Ratings From West Ham’s Well Deserved Win Over The Red Devils

In case you missed it, when Manchester United lost on Sunday, the team that beat them was West Ham.

They Are All Looking The Other Way

The problem with beating Manchester United was that all the non-partisan observers wanted to discuss were the shortcomings of the Red Devils and the latest in a long line of managerial crises at Old Trafford.  It happened last season with Jose and now it is happening again with Ole.  Poor old Ole – the only manager in the league whose plans are thwarted by injuries.  By the end of the game, it looked like he was about to burst into tears and scream “It’s not fair”.  What a ludicrous decision it was to appoint him in the first place.  Even at Manuel Pellegrini’s post-match press conference there was little interest from the assembled media in what West Ham could take out from the game and a fourth clean sheet on the bounce.  Only questions regarding his thoughts on the developing situation up in Manchester.  We will need to celebrate this one, a thoroughly deserved victory, quietly by ourselves, while the pundits continue to view everything through the lens of the rich six.  At least more time out of the spotlight might help keep the Hammer’s feet firmly on the ground, allowing the team to build further on their fine start to the season.

An All Round Team Performance

This was a competent, professional performance rather than a spectacular one.  Finally, we appear to be attacking and defending as a team.  Attempting to win the ball back as quickly as possible and denying the space that was previously gifted to opponents by the acre.  Manchester United were not allowed or were unable to create many chances – although Mata was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity equalize at 1-0.  Otherwise, the visitor’s attacking play was mostly channeled wide and generally defended with ease.  There were no major stand-out West Ham performances and everyone played their part.  Declan Rice was again the pick of the midfield for me, but ably assisted by the busy Mark Noble in putting in the midfield graft and yards.  Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna were sound while Ryan Fredericks had maybe his best game in a West Ham shirt (hopefully it is not a serious injury).  Aaron Cresswell defended well and although he was a little wasteful going forward what a peach of a free kick that was for the second goal.

Make A Chance For Me (Come on, give me a break, will you?)

Over the course of the ninety minutes, the Hammers created few clear cut chances of their own.  Other than the two goals, there were only a handful of routine saves to disturb De Gea’s afternoon.  The Andriy Yarmolenko goal was a thing of beauty and seemed rather out of place in a mainly uneventful first half. Yarmolenko is a difficult player to work out.  He has a deft touch, a wonderful left foot – but a right one that is only any use for standing on. Playing wide right, it is obvious that he will want to cut inside yet he still somehow manages to create shooting opportunities.  The pass from Felipe Anderson for the goal was the Brazilian’s best moment of the afternoon.  He is frequently the one player on show likely to produce the unexpected but unfortunately, he had one of those lazy Sunday afternoons.  He could have done better in trying to pick out Sebastien Haller rather than attempt that shot, blocked by De Gea, from the tightest of angles.  Haller must have had a most frustrating afternoon.  He showed some excellent touches and layoffs but most of his work was in the wrong areas of the pitch.  I’m not sure whether he eventually got any touches in the opposition penalty area but he is badly in need of better service if he is to do what he is paid for.  They may be old mantras of mine but more width, the ability to get in behind defences and more incisive passing in the final third all need further work.

Passing The Back

On the topic of mantras, the number of backpasses to the goalkeeper that West Ham players make continues to frustrate. It is not that we use the keeper as an extra defender, building from the back in the style of Manchester City or Liverpool.  The pass back to Lukasz Fabianski is usually as last resort when all other ideas have been exhausted or there are no options available.  I can’t find the stats (and I wasn’t counting) but there must have been close to a dozen backpasses in the first half alone.  When you consider that Fabianski’s pass success rate was below 40%, there has to be a better way of using the ball.  Even a hopeful upfield clearance by the last man would  be just as productive, if not more so.  Outfield players need to take more responsibility in making themselves available.  Perhaps Manuel Lanzini was missed in that respect – being someone who can receive the ball and move forward with purpose.  I thought Pablo Fornals (his replacement) had a steady enough game and getting a full league match under his belt would have done him the world of good.  Plus another promising cameo from Jack Wilshere – a performance that needs to be upgraded to a more prominent role.

Premature Exhilaration – the ANTIVAR movement

It was pleasing to go through an entire match free from the  invasive interference of the poorly implemented eye in the sky VAR system.  Whenever a goal is scored now there is always a thought at the back of your mind that the crazy, crowd celebrations and the carefully choreographed player ones will all be for nothing.  Naturally, I can see the funny side of the disallowed Aurier goal for Tottenham but it was a ludicrous decision.  How could they seriously apply such a spurious level of accuracy to the Son offside from the information available.  Time to go back to the drawing board I think.

Player Ratings: Fabianski (7), Fredericks (7), Diop (7), Ogbonna (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (8), Noble (7), Yarmolenko (7), Fornals (6), Anderson (6), Haller (6). Subs: Wilshere (6), Zabaletta (6), Snodgrass (N/A)

Ole, Ole, Ole! West Ham’s Three Amigos To Put Further Dents In Solskjær’s Season

Despite the Red Devils fall from grace this weekend’s encounter remains one of the season’s highlights. Do West Ham have the swagger, style and attitude to cement their top six ambitions?

True to form, West Ham fluffed their lines at Villa Park on Monday night and failed to put in the performance necessary to claim a spot in the top three.  Or perhaps they were given the wrong script.  One that was a variation on respect the point rather than the promised we’re gonna score one more than you.  Was it one point gained or two points lost?

Following the exuberance of the Norwich victory, it was disappointing that the Hammers showed such little variation in attack.  It was possession for its own sake in safe areas lacking quick breaks, penetration and precious little width.  If Sebastien Haller is to become the striker we have waited so long for, then he needs far better service from those behind him.

So, instead of putting clear daylight between ourselves in 3rd place and the rest of the table , we are at the bringing up the rear of a gaggle of six teams on eight points – including today’s visitors, Manchester United.

The Red Devils are now a pale shadow of the club who have dominated English football for much of the Premier League era.  The post-Ferguson era is playing out much like the post-Busby one did, although they are unlikely to get relegated this time around.  Now on their fourth full-time manager in 6 years, they have the look a fading star who once graced the big stage but now has to be content with the occasional appearance in panto.

It’s not that Manchester United have bad players, they just don’t have enough good ones – certainly not good enough to present the credible title challenge that their followers demand.  They have fallen way, way behind their two north-western neighbours and have no coherent plan to bridge the gap.  They are obsessed with paying over the odds for big names rather than team building.  Ole Gunnar Solskjær looks out of his depth in the Old Trafford hot-seat, like a modern day equivalent of Frank O’Farrell (incidentally the Hammer’s oldest living ex-player who will celebrate his 92nd birthday in a few weeks time).

Despite all the negativity, an encounter with the Red Devils remains one of the highlights of the footballing calendar.  Success is relative and they have a reputation and world-wide following that others can only dream of.  Champion’s League qualification (unless through the Europa League backdoor) looks beyond them once again.  Interesting to compare their odds of a top six finish (2/5) with our own at 5/1, as I don’t see so much between the teams.

Rumours of Champion’s League reform resurfaced again in the week with proposals to change the group stage from four groups of eight to eight groups of four – guaranteeing additional money-spinning games that would ensure the big teams stay well ahead in the revenue generation stakes.  Among further worrying proposals are suggestions that that domestic leagues would need to be reduced in numbers to compensate and that CL games would be moved to the weekend to attract a larger global TV audience – something I predicted some years ago.  Personally, I would prefer if the rich clubs simply packed their bags and left domestic competition altogether.  Perhaps then this could be one of our last meetings with the Manchester club.

Back to more pressing matters and Manuel Pellegrini will have at least one selection decision to make following Arthur Masuaku’s red card on Monday.  Pellegrini is not a risk taker and will likely opt for Aaron Cresswell rather than call in Ben Johnson.  Cresswell has really lost his way in recent times and badly needs to rediscover his mojo.

Elsewhere, there is a general consensus among fans (or at least those active on social media) that Andriy Yarmolenko needs to be benched this weekend after disappointing on Monday – from hero against Norwich to villain against …… Villa.  But in Michail Antonio’s absence what are the options?  We have yet to see what Pablo Fornals is all about and there are questions whether the Three Amigos (he, Manuel Lanzini and Felipe Anderson) are too much of a muchness to mix it up in midfield and effectively unlock defences.  It looks so promising on paper but so far has been unable to deliver.

Jack Wilshere is a player who can offer something different. He is an intelligent footballer adept at progressive passing and switching the focus of attack, but the worry is that more than one of him, Mark Noble or Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time leaves the team exposed for pace.  The situation may be complicated if Lanzini fails a late fitness test all things being equal, my guess is that Pellegrini will go for Fornals to replace Yarmolenko in the starting eleven.

I cannot see there being any further defensive changes (aside from Masuaku) and with two clean sheets in a row we must now be entering uncharted territory.  With the visitors seemingly being awarded a penalty every outing, I will be holding my breath every time Angelo Ogbonna makes a challenge in the box.

Manchester United will be without Pogba and Martial while James faces a fitness test.

This weeks on-field whistle blower is Anthony Taylor from Manchester (hmmm?) while the eye in the sky will be Graham Scott from Oxfordshire.  Even with a low bar set for refereeing competency, Taylor is often picked out for special mention.  Expect at least some degree of controversy during the course of the game.

Our pundit friends are once again united in their predictions and both Lawro and Nicholas have surprisingly gone for a 2-1 home win.  Part of their thinking may be that  the Reds will be tired having also played on Thursday night.  It will interesting to see if that is a factor and whether West Ham will exploit it.  I fully expect the visitors to get a penalty at some stage making a third straight clean sheet unlikely.  I do believe that the Hammers can win the game though, but much will come down to the right attitude.  I am fancying a welcome 3-1 victory.

WHU Take Me Up To The Higher Ground. Nose Bleed Time As Hammers Target Top Three

Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results. Can West Ham Shake Off Stage Fright To Triumph At Villa Park?

Confidence high, on a good run of form, coming up against a side still trying to find their feet in the Premier League, who are short of goals and strikers, who didn’t have the most impressive home record even in their Championship season; and with the prospect that a win will rocket them into 3rd place (or mathematically 2nd even) in the Premier League standings.  What could possibly go wrong?  If history has taught us anything with West Ham it that the proximity of disappointment is inversely proportional to degree of optimism.  Or will the new look Hammers finally manage to throw off that age-old gypsy curse that has held them back over the years?  It’s not the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand!

The international break creates a vacuum in social media frenzy of club football coverage, in which two things happen.  One is that supporters are left to dwell on events  that immediately preceded the break – without another quick fix, pessimism deepens while optimism soars.  West Ham ended with a swashbuckling victory against Champion-slayers Norwich City that rounded off a strong run of positive results following the disastrous opening day defeat.  The law of unrealistic expectations has been allowed to flourish in this void and elevated the Hammers from erratic write-offs to realistic top six finishers.  While I hope this can be so, I sense that it’s a little too early to get completely carried away.  You can only beat what is in front of you but the fixture computer has kindly presented an unusually benign start to the season – with the one challenging fixture ending in the traditional white-flag moment against Manchester City.  Still, if the game by game improvement we have seen since can be sustained it will result in an interesting and entertaining season.

The second feature of the international breaks has been the viral outbreak of punditry where any ex-player not talented enough to go into coaching is desperate to share a controversial opinion or two to anyone willing to stand the next round.  I have never believed that, as a general population, ex-players have greater insight into the game than many supporters – but their spread has become pervasive and as difficult to get rid of as Japanese knotweed.  It makes me nostalgic for the days when ex-players simply became pub landlords or went out to sell insurance.

Over the past two weeks, a procession of pundits have been volunteering their views on the prowess of Declan Rice and declaring when he should move to Manchester United and for what price.  How dare they?  He is not the first of our current players who have been described recently as ‘too good for West Ham’, with the list variably extending to Manuel Lanzini, Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop and Sebastien Haller.  Of course, if they had said ‘too good for an underachieving mid-table outfit’ then they may have a valid point.  It is a conundrum for any aspiring top six pretender.  If you don’t show progress and ambition then you will not hold on to your prized assets.

Prior to the current round of games, I came across a presentation from a chap at Opta which showed West Ham in second place (to Manchester City) as far as ‘Expected Goals’ were concerned.  Now I’m not really sure what an ‘Expected Goal’ is but it is good to see us up at the top.  As we hadn’t scored as many actual goals as the ‘Expected Goals’ tally I assume we are better at creating chances than at converting them.  On the flip side, the Hammers ranked poorly on ‘Expected Goals Against’ where we had also conceded fewer actual goals than the stats suggested.  The upshot was that West Ham were higher up the table than they should have been statistically.  Make of that what you will!

Today’s team pretty much selects itself and, barring any late breaking injuries, it should be the same that started last time out.  The front four can cause plenty of problems for the Villa defence but they must not forget their defensive responsibilities.  Watching Liverpool at the weekend it was noticeable how prepared Salah and Mane were to regain possession once the ball had been lost – even if it meant sprinting back to their own penalty area.  Rice and Mark Noble will need to keep their wits about them to cope with the midfield threat of Grealish and McGinn and that contest could well be pivotal to the outcome of the game. Although Angelo Ogbonna has done enough to keep his place ahead of Fabian Balbuena I can’t get rid of that nagging sensation that he is overdue one of his calamity moments.

It is good to see Aston Villa back in the top flight.  England’s second city needs to be represented in the Premier League but it could well be a tricky season for the Villains.  They have invested heavily in the squad and will be expecting to see a return in the points column sooner rather than later if Dean Smith is not to become ‘at risk’ in the manager’s sack race.  As so often with newly promoted clubs it is goals that are difficult to come by and in Villa’s case the situation has been hampered by injuries and suspension.

Today’s referee is the preening Mike Dean from The Wirral, with VAR duties down to Martin Atkinson.  VAR continues to divide opinion as to how it impacts the flow of the game and remains very reluctant to reverse the on-field decisions of referees – the Haller non-penalty against Norwich being a perfect example.

Returning to the world of punditry both Lawro (BBC) and Charlie Nicholas (Sky) have the game down as a 2-1 home win.  There was a strange comment from Nicholas suggesting that West Ham were ‘predictable’ – something which I would have thought was the polar opposite of reality.  I would still like to see more width in our attacking play but there is plenty of flair.  And I would still like to see Nathan Holland given some minutes on the pitch.  It seems odd that for all his promise he still only has one sub appearance, in a September 2017 League Cup tie, to his name.

As Captain Sensible would say “You gotta have a dream” and so I will risk my 5 shillings this week on a third consecutive West Ham league win.  Resist the early Villa energy before seizing the advantage with a controlled 2-0 victory.  The resultant league table can become my screensaver for the remainder of the season.  COYI.

Can West Ham come out on top in the Battle of the Clarets?

I have to admit that I really enjoyed our performance a fortnight ago when we comfortably beat Norwich 2-0 with goals from our new French striker, Sebastien Haller, and the fit again Andriy Yarmolenko. As Norwich pressed forward when they were behind, we managed to create several chances to add to our tally, and in reality should have scored five or six quite easily. We didn’t because our finishing didn’t match our approach play, we were unlucky at times, and Krul in the Norwich goal made some fine saves. Haller finished off a fine attack with a relatively simple finish, whereas Yarmolenko showed great technique with a left-footed volley barely a minute after an early left-footed volley with similar impressive technique had rebounded from an upright.

Two things in particular pleased me about our performance. The first was that we had players who could break and counter attack at pace. In particular our front four (Haller, Lanzini, Anderson and Yarmolenko) didn’t hang around when given the opportunity to attack, and they really impressed me with the way they looked as though they had been playing together for a long time. Added to that, our two full backs, Fredericks and Masuaku, who never get the best press for their defending abilities, also showed great pace when attacking and supporting the front four, and created chances for the others. Masuaku provided the assist for the first goal, but I was impressed with them both.

The second thing to please me was the way that the front four added to the often missing concept of defending as a team. It looked as though they had been working hard in training, and they harried the Norwich players to a greater extent than I can remember our attacking players doing for a while now. They added to the efforts of Rice and Noble who both had fine games. Mark Noble looked rejuvenated, and we all know he is not the fastest player, but he showed that he can still contribute and dominate the midfield when surrounded by players blessed with more pace. Defensive organisation was first class.

Yarmolenko and Lanzini both surprised me with how well they have come back after long lay-offs, Anderson demonstrated his sublime skills throughout the game, and Haller looks to be the most complete forward since the days of Dean Ashton, a player he reminded me of with his style of play.

Norwich played but some nice tippy-tappy football but rarely threatened our goal, mainly due to the way we defended as a team, and their prolific goalscorer Teemu Pukki had barely a kick. I was impressed with Todd Cantwell in the Norwich midfield. The loss of Zimmerman was a blow to the visitors following a heavy challenge from Haller, but in my opinion it wasn’t as bad as Farke was suggesting. The referee didn’t blow for a foul even (which he should have done), but I’ve seen players booked for similar challenges but it certainly didn’t warrant any more than that.

The referee, Paul Tierney, was a poor advert for his profession in my opinion. He waved away three penalty appeals, one of which was so cast iron it was laughable that he didn’t give it. What was even worse is that VAR is now in existence, but somehow the referee working behind the scenes somehow missed it too. It seems to me that after the early (over) use of VAR which should only be used to correct decisions which are clearly and obviously wrong, it has now gone the other way, and they are perhaps under instruction not to get involved at all!

By the end of the weekend the league table (still early days of course) showed us in seventh place with seven points, which is seven more than we had after the first four games heading into the international break a year ago. If we can just match our performance of the last campaign in the remaining 34 matches, then we would finish on 59 points, which last time around would have been enough for a seventh placed finish. Of course I am hoping we can do even better than that but I am not going to get too carried away, despite the fact that we have only lost one league game since unluckily going down 2-1 at Old Trafford on 13th April, winning five and drawing two of the eight games played in that time, only losing (as almost everyone does) to Manchester City.

The two teams we have beaten this season (Watford and Norwich) now sit in the relegation places, and we face the third member of that club on Monday evening when we travel to Villa Park in front of the TV cameras. Villa had an impressive win against Everton (2-0) but were unlucky when their late “equaliser” at Palace was incorrectly ruled out by a referee blowing his whistle for a dive which was subsequently shown to be a clear foul on Grealish. Quite how it can be suggested that our referees are high on the list in the world in terms of their ability is beyond me I’m afraid. I’ve seen little evidence of that this season despite them supposedly getting help from VAR. Villa’s other defeats came on the opening weekend at Tottenham, and then at home to Bournemouth who haven’t pulled up any trees themselves so far this season.

The betting for this match is very even with West Ham the fractional favourites to win at around 6/4, with Villa around 8/5, and the draw about 5/2. A win would see us moving on to ten points from five games, with an average of two per game. This would relate to 76 points over the course of a whole season! Wouldn’t it be good if we were looking at achieving those kind of figures, which of course we won’t, but it’s good to dream isn’t it?

I would anticipate that the manager would start with the same eleven that began against Norwich, but he often throws in a surprise or two, or somebody picks up a late injury which we don’t know about. But I am confident that he won’t change it this time. A point away from home is always good, but I am hoping for three in a narrow victory, perhaps 2-1? I enjoy Monday Night football on TV when we are away from home. But is there a way of keeping the sound of the crowd but removing the commentary and punditry at the same time? I wish there was.

Who Will Cut The Mustard In West Ham Versus Norwich Goalfest?

The Hammers look to build up a head of steam with successive league wins and an improved London Stadium performance.

Last weekend I was able to sit through the Norwich versus Chelsea match immediately prior to own game at Watford.  Both games were remarkably open affairs with all four teams seemingly prepared to throw caution to the wind.  While West Ham weathered the Watford storm at Vicarage Road and finished much the stronger side, Norwich started their game on top but fell away noticeably for most of the second half.

The results left both clubs in the cluster of clubs sitting on four points who will be looking to build on their solid starts to the season.  With only Liverpool boasting a 100% record and only Watford still to register a win the table has an unusual look about it.

Daniel Farke has created an amazing transformation during his two seasons at Norwich taking them from the lower reaches of the Championship to division champions on a shoestring budget.  When you are a newly promoted club and your marquee signing in the transfer window is Sam Byram says it all.  It will be interesting to see how their season pans out compared to big spending Aston Villa – the two clubs had been relegated together at the end of the 2015/16 season.

Much of the early season buzz at Carrow Road has surrounded Teemu Pukki, whose 5 goals from 3 games has him leading the charge for the Golden Boot.  Pukki is an interesting character having experienced an uninspiring early career (including a very mediocre season at Celtic) before kicking on at Brondby and then at Norwich.  From what I have seen he demonstrates excellent movement and will be a handful for whichever central defensive partnership he comes up against at the London Stadium.  If they can keep him away from Delia’s pies it could be a very influential season for the Finn.  Another player to look out for is Todd Cantwell who looks to be an excellent prospect based on his performance against Chelsea, particularly in the first half.  Seems a bit unfair but they also have Spiderman playing in midfield.

Both teams have been involved in EFL Cup ties since last weekend.  West Ham negotiated a tricky visit to South Wales to face Newport County while Norwich crashed out against Crawley Town.  Premier League teams continue to gamble that their much changed teams have enough to edge past lower league opposition.  Manuel Pellegrini won his gamble whereas Farke did not.

All things being equal I would have expected West Ham to start this weekend’s game with same team that was on the pitch once Michail Antonio replaced Andriy Yarmolenko.  However, an injury to the unlucky Antonio has sidelined him for a while.  The options would be to persevere with Yarmolenko or call in one of Pablo Fornals, Robert Snodgrass or Jack Wilshere.  My concern that more than one of Mark Noble, Snodgrass and Wilshere at any one time reduces the average pace to snail level.  I can’t begin to guess what Pellegrini will go for.

West Ham will have plenty of opportunity to show their attacking qualities but they will also have many Norwich attacks to repel.  The Canaries like to get their full-backs forward to provide width and this could easily expose the Hammers lack of numbers in those areas if the attacking wide men do not put in a defensive shift.

When the two teams met in 2015/16 season both games ended in 2-2 draws – Cheikou Kouyate scoring an injury equaliser at Upton Park and the Hammers coming back from two goals down at Carrow Road.

This weeks real and virtual referees are Paul Tierney and Andre Marriner respectively.  An interesting aspect of VAR is that it hasn’t really overturned many actual decisions made by referees.  Rather it has become a mechanism to review each goal for technical infringements and as a backstop offside checker.  It can’t be long before offside is totally automated, just like the goal-line technology, with the referee receiving a ‘beep’ in his ear each time a forward strays offside.  After all it is a simple case of applying and measuring clearly defined rules – there is no subjectivity to it as with handball.

Everyone will be expecting the game to be a high scoring extravaganza.  I was considering opting for a 7-5 home win to claim the record for the highest scoring Premier League game (Portsmouth 7 Reading 4 in 2007) but instead will go against the flow and predict West Ham to win 1-0.