The Wolves Are At The Door: It’s All Kicking Off At West Ham

The post-apocalyptic Premier League era kicks off at the London Stadium with West Ham playing host to high flying Wolves in a whole new ball game.

I will be honest but I never believed this day – the resumption of West Ham’s 2019/20 league campaign – would ever actually happen. Now it is here, I confess to being nervously apprehensive. The immediate fate of our club is to be decided on the outcome of nine relegation threatened matches played over five short weeks. Survival is contingent on the level of readiness and the appetite for a fight – characteristics that have rarely been freely associated with the Hammers for much of their recent history.

Mark Noble says “we’ve worked hard and the boys look ready”. No doubt, other club captains have been saying the same thing. Is it likely that our preparations have been as good as or better than others? Arguably West Ham have technically better players than their relegation rivals, but will David Moyes be able to instil the right levels of motivation, effort and organisation to quickly recover the momentum that he says was building before the shutdown?

It is over three months since West Ham last played – about as long as a normal close season – but with only a few weeks to prepare for battle. Yet unlike a new season which will kick-off again in the same circumstances as the last season ended, this time, so much has changed – it really is a whole new ball game!

Empty echoing cavernous stadiums, atmospheric TV crowd noise, cardboard cutout supporters (aka Arsenal fans), free to air TV, more badges on the shirt than Bear Grylls, nine bottoms on the bench, five available subs and a designated goal celebration zone. I eagerly await the choreographed Tik Tok inspired celebration routines from Michail Antonio. A far cry from the congratulatory pat on the back and manly handshake that Bobby Moore would have expected back in the day.

This new normal will be far more of a squad game than it had been pre-virus – if fitness is to be preserved and niggling injuries avoided (what are the chances?) The squad still has a surplus of midfield players but an absence of suitable cover at the back and up front. Injuries to key players will have significant repercussions.

Today’s starting lineup is difficult to call and contingent upon the availability of Angelo Ogbonna and Noble. Speculation from in-the-know club insiders is that Declan Rice may need to slot in at centre back if Ogbonna is absent – rather than risk the wayward Fabian Balbuena – but can that be possible if Noble is not ready to partner Tomas Soucek in central midfield? Going into the game with just one anchor in midfield would be asking for trouble it needs two from Rice, Soucek and Noble to play that role.

Fingers crossed that we can avoid seeing Noble and Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time, and that we have seen the very last of Carlos Sanchez. It would also be an opportune time for the likes of Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere and Pablo Fornals to earn their corn. I will be intrigued to see how Moyes approaches substitutions, something that he is often reluctant to make use of. Not one after the hour and the other four in the 87th minute I hope.

Back in March the collective endeavour of Antonio, Sebastien Haller and Jarrod Bowen was starting to look promising and I am looking forward to seeing them pick up where they left off today. There is plenty there to cause the visitors problems and, just as importantly, to keep their wing backs occupied when we are not in possession.

Although, I do not know all the background to the Jeremy Ngakia kerfuffle, it has all the hallmarks of a very West Ham cock-up. With justifiable concerns over the fitness of right back alternatives – Ryan Fredericks, Ben Johnson and Pablo Zabaleta – for such an intense run of games, the services of the want-away Ngakia may well be crucial between now and the end of the month.

Today’s opposition, Wolverhampton Wanderers had been experiencing a tremendous season prior to the March shutdown. Seventh in the league and still with an interest in the Europa League, it will be no surprise if Nuno Espirito Santo (the best name in football management) has his players fully fired up for the restart. You will remember that we were originally due to play them on a Sunday afternoon in the wake of an arduous midweek journey to play a Europa League tie in Greece. In my opinion, and in the interests of fairness, they should have been compelled to take an equivalent difficult trek in the days leading up to today’s fixture.

I’m not sure I am totally onboard with the notion that the greatest Wolves threat is posed by Adama Traore, at least not consistently. He alternates between being the master of running the ball out of play at dazzling speed, and spells of being mesmerisingly unplayable – an Antonio with ball control, but without the aerial threat. Of course, it is the West Ham way for players such as these to save their best for games against us.

For me, it is the Portuguese trio of Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota that make Wolves tick and present the greatest danger. Add in Raul Jimenez (a Mexican striker more suited to English football) and our players must take heed of that sage old advice to stay alert. Far too frequently our defenders play like they are statues, and we must ensure that none are toppled today.

The welcome return of football brings with it the vagaries and inconsistency of refereeing decisons. It did not take long for the restart to become embroiled in officiating controversy, with the failure to award a clear goal to Sheffield United at Villa Park on Wednesday evening. I can just about accept the chance in a million occlusion experienced by Hawkeye, but what were the referee and VAR doing? Like someone who relies entirely on GPS to reach their destination, they had no clue what to do when the technology failed them. Technology is meant to ‘assist’ the referee, not take all the decisions for them. Today’s allocation from officialdom are Anthony Taylor (ref) and David Coote (VAR).

Each of today’s four games will have a significant impact on the bottom of the table. With West Ham on third, I wonder if the outcome of events at Watford and Brighton will affect the mood at the London Stadium? Hitting the ground running has never been more important. Lawro thinks West Ham will win (1-0), Charlie Nicholas sees it as one apiece. On this occasion I will be completely ruled by my heart and opt for a 2-0 home win.

It’s All Coming Back To Me: Football, Controversy And West Ham

West Ham entertain Wolves at an almost deserted London Stadium. Who can possibly predict the outcome?

More than 100 days have elapsed since we last played a Premier League game. When I write these articles I like to predict the outcome. But what evidence have we got to go on? I have to admit I haven’t got a clue what to expect.

I tuned in to watch the Aston Villa v Sheffield United game on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t a football match that I would normally have any interest in viewing, but I guess I had a token interest as Villa are one of our rivals in the relegation stakes. I don’t particularly like Sheffield United, but this was a game I wanted them to win.

I juggled between watching on Sky Sports Main Event with the artificial crowd noise, and the alternative where you could hear a few shouts in the echoing stadium to see which I preferred. I had a slight preference for the crowd noise which sounded like it was straight from the FIFA computer game. Perhaps it is. Whoever operates this got rather over excited however by turning up over enthusiastic crowd noise for pathetic attempts on goal which were nowhere close.

When I switched to the lack of crowd sound, the first thing I heard was a player (I think from Sheffield United) shouting at his teammates about “flipping second balls”. And then came the defining moment of the game. The young Villa keeper was pushed into his own net. We didn’t need Hawkeye, VAR or an assistant referee or linesman to tell us that the ball had crossed the line. But inexplicably a goal was not given. I thought that perhaps Michael Oliver had accidentally put on his Mickey Mouse watch instead of the Hawkeye one? His wrist didn’t “buzz” and the keeper cleared the ball as if nothing had happened.

Apparently the goal-line sensor failed to register and Hawkeye later apologised. The seven goal-line cameras surrounding the goal were supposedly occluded by the keeper, the defenders and the post. So where was VAR when it could have stepped up to the plate? The VAR referee was possibly asleep due to the lack of any excitement in the game when he clearly needed to tell Oliver to stop the game and look at it on the monitor. And surely linesmen should use their eyes and not rely purely on technology? Social distancing went out of the window as the Blades players demanded to know why the goal was not given.

In lockdown we’ve become familiar with new technology such as Zoom. It’s a pity the technology failed us by not zooming in on the goal! Apparently it was the first time in over 9000 games that it had failed. What a joke! I couldn’t really care less about Sheffield United possibly missing out on a European place, but one of the teams at the bottom (even ourselves) could possibly be relegated on goal difference and Villa could stay up. Of course there are many dodgy decisions in the course of a season and you don’t get relegated on the strength of one of them. But if we go down by the narrowest of margins I’ll remember this game.

But enough of that, what will happen when we face Wolves? We actually have a positive historical record against them, but we have lost the most recent fixtures. Looking at the bookmakers odds, Wolves are favourites to win the game, based I suppose on the season to date, but the favourite in the correct score market is the one that I’ll predict, and that is a 1-1 draw. I have to admit that I have nothing really to go on but a point wouldn’t be the worst outcome for us in this first game back, although naturally I’d prefer three.

One Wolves player I worry about is Adama Traore, who with his pace can cause us massive problems down the flanks. He has always had great pace but in the earlier part of his career he flattered to deceive, except when playing against us. However in more recent times he seems to have added an end product to his game and he is possibly the player we should fear. Ironically when the game was originally scheduled to be played I seem to recall he was injured.

Wolves are seventh in the league and the seventh highest scoring team. We are not far behind as far as scoring goals is concerned in tenth, but the fact that only Southampton, Norwich and Villa have conceded more goals than we have is the main reason we sit sixteenth in the table, out of the relegation zone on goal difference alone.

Current form doesn’t really apply because of the enforced break, but looking at the last five matches played by the bottom six teams, Brighton, Watford, Norwich, Bournemouth and ourselves all have four points from those games, and Villa have one. Southampton and Newcastle would appear at the moment to be out of the scrap, but I’m hoping that with some poor early results, they too can be dragged into it.

It seems that we are virtually injury-free and David Moyes has a full squad to choose from. Of course we have different rules and five substitutes can be utilised out of nine sitting suitably spaced out on the sidelines. I’ve no real idea what the starting line-up will be but it would be good to think back to the Southampton game and the attack made up of Haller, supported by Antonio and Bowen, who looked very threatening. I’m sure that Anderson will have a key role in the remaining matches, perhaps coming on later in games as teams could be tiring due to lack of match practice and the potential heat of games played in June and July. Fornals and Wilshere can also play important roles in unlocking opposing defences, and I hope that Yarmolenko can play his part too.

So here goes, I’ll predict an attacking starting line-up, although whether the manager will prefer to be more cautious I don’t know.

Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Noble; Soucek; Antonio, Haller, Bowen.

As I said earlier I’ll predict 1-1 but hope for better. In case something untoward happens and the season is curtailed early as a result it is important that we don’t lose and fall into the bottom three. This weekend, of our key rivals, Norwich have a very winnable game at home to Southampton, Watford beat Liverpool in their last home game so won’t be perturbed by facing Leicester, Brighton haven’t won for ages but are at home and face a very average looking Arsenal team, Bournemouth are at home to a possibly disinterested mid-table Palace, and Villa are also at home against Chelsea. I have written this article prior to any of those games being played so don’t know the outcome. Let’s hope that the results go our way, and we can hit the ground running.

Football Is Back. Controversy Is Back. West Ham are Back

West Ham entertain Wolves at an almost deserted London Stadium. Who can possibly predict the outcome?

More than 100 days have elapsed since we last played a Premier League game. When I write these articles I like to predict the outcome. But what evidence have we got to go on? I have to admit I haven’t got a clue what to expect.

I tuned in to watch the Aston Villa v Sheffield United game on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t a football match that I would normally have any interest in viewing, but I guess I had a token interest as Villa are one of our rivals in the relegation stakes. I don’t particularly like Sheffield United, but this was a game I wanted them to win.

I juggled between watching on Sky Sports Main Event with the artificial crowd noise, and the alternative where you could hear a few shouts in the echoing stadium to see which I preferred. I had a slight preference for the crowd noise which sounded like it was straight from the FIFA computer game. Perhaps it is. Whoever operates this got rather over excited however by turning up over enthusiastic crowd noise for pathetic attempts on goal which were nowhere close.

When I switched to the lack of crowd sound, the first thing I heard was a player (I think from Sheffield United) shouting at his teammates about “f***ing second balls”. And then came the defining moment of the game. The young Villa keeper was pushed into his own net. We didn’t need Hawkeye, VAR or an assistant referee or linesman to tell us that the ball had crossed the line. But inexplicably a goal was not given. I thought that perhaps Michael Oliver had accidentally put on his Mickey Mouse watch instead of the Hawkeye one? His wrist didn’t “buzz” and the keeper cleared the ball as if nothing had happened.

Apparently the goal-line sensor failed to register and Hawkeye later apologised. The seven goal-line cameras surrounding the goal were supposedly occluded by the keeper, the defenders and the post. So where was VAR when it could have stepped up to the plate? The VAR referee was possibly asleep due to the lack of any excitement in the game when he clearly needed to tell Oliver to stop the game and look at it on the monitor. And surely linesmen should use their eyes and not rely purely on technology? Social distancing went out of the window as the Blades players demanded to know why the goal was not given.

In lockdown we’ve become familiar with new technology such as Zoom. It’s a pity the technology failed us by not zooming in on the goal! Apparently it was the first time in over 9000 games that it had failed. What a joke! I couldn’t really care less about Sheffield United possibly missing out on a European place, but one of the teams at the bottom (even ourselves) could possibly be relegated on goal difference and Villa could stay up. Of course there are many dodgy decisions in the course of a season and you don’t get relegated on the strength of one of them. But if we go down by the narrowest of margins I’ll remember this game.

But enough of that, what will happen when we face Wolves? We actually have a positive historical record against them, but we have lost the most recent fixtures. Looking at the bookmakers odds, Wolves are favourites to win the game, based I suppose on the season to date, but the favourite in the correct score market is the one that I’ll predict, and that is a 1-1 draw. I have to admit that I have nothing really to go on but a point wouldn’t be the worst outcome for us in this first game back, although naturally I’d prefer three.

One Wolves player I worry about is Adama Traore, who with his pace can cause us massive problems down the flanks. He has always had great pace but in the earlier part of his career he flattered to deceive, except when playing against us. However in more recent times he seems to have added an end product to his game and he is possibly the player we should fear. Ironically when the game was originally scheduled to be played I seem to recall he was injured.

Wolves are seventh in the league and the seventh highest scoring team. We are not far behind as far as scoring goals is concerned in tenth, but the fact that only Southampton, Norwich and Villa have conceded more goals than we have is the main reason we sit sixteenth in the table, out of the relegation zone on goal difference alone.

Current form doesn’t really apply because of the enforced break, but looking at the last five matches played by the bottom six teams, Brighton, Watford, Norwich, Bournemouth and ourselves all have four points from those games, and Villa have one. Southampton and Newcastle would appear at the moment to be out of the scrap, but I’m hoping that with some poor early results, they too can be dragged into it.

It seems that we are virtually injury-free and David Moyes has a full squad to choose from. Of course we have different rules and five substitutes can be utilised out of nine sitting suitably spaced out on the sidelines. I’ve no real idea what the starting line-up will be but it would be good to think back to the Southampton game and the attack made up of Haller, supported by Antonio and Bowen, who looked very threatening. I’m sure that Anderson will have a key role in the remaining matches, perhaps coming on later in games as teams could be tiring due to lack of match practice and the potential heat of games played in June and July. Fornals and Wilshere can also play important roles in unlocking opposing defences, and I hope that Yarmolenko can play his part too.

So here goes, I’ll predict an attacking starting line-up, although whether the manager will prefer to be more cautious I don’t know.

Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Noble; Soucek; Antonio, Haller, Bowen.

As I said earlier I’ll predict 1-1 but hope for better. In case something untoward happens and the season is curtailed early as a result it is important that we don’t lose and fall into the bottom three. This weekend, of our key rivals, Norwich have a very winnable game at home to Southampton, Watford beat Liverpool in their last home game so won’t be perturbed by facing Leicester, Brighton haven’t won for ages but are at home and face a very average looking Arsenal team, Bournemouth are at home to a possibly disinterested mid-table Palace, and Villa are also at home against Chelsea. I have written this article prior to any of those games being played so don’t know the outcome. Let’s hope that the results go our way, and we can hit the ground running.

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.

Can West Ham end their run of consecutive defeats away from home?

The game against Southampton last Saturday was one of the most enjoyable visits to the London Stadium this season. The 3-1 victory was well deserved and a fair reflection of the game despite the visitors having the lion’s share of possession which can be a very misleading statistic. No points are awarded for having the ball; only the result counts. We had more shots, plus more shots on target, and this led to more goals and a very welcome three points. With some of the other teams at the foot of the table also picking up points the relegation battle is intensifying with just ten games of the season to play (Villa have eleven).

It still seems likely to me that the three relegation slots will be occupied by three of the six teams currently propping up the table, although Newcastle, who are just above the bottom half dozen, could still play a part with a poor run, especially if some of the lower teams collect more than a point a game average in the run-in.

It is at this stage of a season when you are involved in the skirmish to avoid the drop into the Championship that you start to look at the remaining fixtures for your club, and also for the others in contention, to assess your chances of staying up. I keep hearing pundits saying that West Ham have a tough set of fixtures until the end of the season so I thought I’d compare them to those of our competitors at the foot of the table.

Of course there is no scientific way to work out what will happen, and there are so many variables. But for a bit of fun the first assessment I made was to look at the current league positions of all the clubs that we still have to face and give each match a score based upon the degree of difficulty. So, for example, a fixture v Liverpool would score 1, Man. City 2 etc., down to Norwich 20. Therefore based on current league positions it would give an indicator of the difficulty of matches outstanding. This made interesting reading. The score for Villa had a proportional adjustment as they have 11 games remaining.

Newcastle 116, West Ham 111, Norwich 105, Watford 103, Brighton 83, Villa 82, Bournemouth 74.

Using this formula, it would suggest that Bournemouth, Villa and Brighton have the toughest run-in. Bournemouth and Villa already occupy relegation slots so would appear to be in the greatest danger, along with Norwich who still have points to make up. However this doesn’t take into account fixtures against teams who may be in a prominent league position but have little to play for. These may be easier games than those against clubs at the bottom fighting for their lives.

So, how many games do the bottom seven clubs have against teams who are also in the bottom seven? Are these games tougher or easier? Certainly getting three points in these games in some ways is more important because it means that the opposition (who are the key rivals) don’t get any.

Newcastle 5, West Ham 4, Norwich 3, Watford 3, Brighton 2, Villa 2, Bournemouth 1

And will the FA Cup have any influence? Both Norwich and Newcastle are still involved at this stage. Will their involvement hinder or improve their chances of avoiding the drop?

Liverpool and Manchester City are way ahead of the rest of the league, so games against those two sides might be the toughest of all. But they might not if those teams relax because of positions already certain or involvement in Europe. Newcastle, Brighton, and Bournemouth still have to face both clubs. Watford, Villa and Norwich still have an outstanding fixture against one of them, whereas West Ham don’t have to face either in their final ten games. Sometimes, fixtures against mid-table sides with little to play for are the ones that you want in the last few games of the season.

So what does all this prove? Well, nothing really I just had a look for a bit of fun. Of course, as I said there are still so many variables in the remainder of the season and I haven’t even mentioned coronavirus yet.

One interesting fact is that the bottom 7 all have away games this weekend, and I believe the following weekend they will all be at home. Based on league positions alone then Bournemouth would appear to have the hardest game at Liverpool (1st), Villa are at Leicester (3rd), Brighton are at Wolves (6th), Norwich at Sheffield United (8th), West Ham at Arsenal (10th), Watford at Palace (12th), and Newcastle at Southampton (13th). I guess that we would all be happy with one point, and any team that picks up a win would gain an important advantage over the others.

The current form table (last 5 matches) has Bournemouth 7pts, West Ham, Watford, Villa and Norwich all 4 points, Newcastle and Brighton 3 points. Newcastle and Brighton are the only teams not to have won at least one game in the last five, but conversely they have more points currently than the other 5.

Current relegation odds vary slightly from bookmaker to bookmaker, but the following are average figures. Norwich 1/12, Villa 4/7, Bournemouth 8/11, West Ham 7/4, Brighton 9/4, Watford 3/1, and Newcastle 6/1.

So, having looked through all this, what do I think will happen? Lots can happen in the weeks ahead, but my feeling at this stage is that Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth will be playing Championship football next season, and apart from those, Brighton will be very involved in the scrap to survive. In my opinion West Ham and Watford will pull away from trouble, and Newcastle probably have enough points in the bag already. But we can never be sure with our team though, can we? I’ll probably need to review my prediction soon!

Arsenal are not the team they once were and are no longer anywhere near the invincibles of a few years ago. However we should not underestimate them, as although they do have defensive frailties, they are more than capable of scoring goals. My spies tell me that Tomas Soucek has made an excellent recovery from his injured hip and is likely to play a part. Will the manager keep the same team that played so well to defeat Southampton last week? Or will he revert to a more defensive formation? We have lost our last five Premier League games away from home, so I suppose we should be grateful if we can get anything at all from this game. It’s about time we won another away game. Perhaps we can sneak it 2-1?

After collecting from a 90/1 bet on West Ham last weekend, I’ll give the bookmakers a chance to get some of their money back! The bets I quite like the look of for this game are:

West Ham to win the game – 9/2;

West Ham to win 2-1 – 16/1;

West Ham to win 2-1 with Bowen scoring the first goal as he did last week – 110/1;

West Ham to win with both teams to score with both Antonio and Bowen on the scoresheet and Ogbonna to receive a card – 150/1.

All longshots but a bit of fun to add to my enjoyment of the game (I hope!)

We’re Gunner Score One More Than You. West Ham Look To Maintain Momentum By Outscoring Arsenal In Saturday’s Derby Game

Can the Hammer’s new found sense of optimism created by last weekend’s three point success against the Saints survive a visit to The Emirates?

Taken in isolation, the renewed sense of optimism following last week’s win against Southampton seems rather misplaced. From being a team that many felt would struggle to pick up any points at all before the clocks went forward, there is now talk of plundering points from each and every game. That includes upcoming fixtures against our three snooty London neighbours, who are nominally part of the big six but not as good as they used to be, or so the theory goes.

There was a time when Arsenal were not just big six, but half of the big two, alongside Manchester United. As with Ferguson at Old Trafford, however, Arsenal have struggled so far to break free from the shadow of former long term manager, Arsene Wenger. Perhaps that is also the Hammers problem, becalmed after the fleeting balmy days of super Johnny Lyall.

In truth, Arsenal problems began midway through the Wenger reign, when he failed to find effective replacements for his dogged no-nonsense central defenders. The strategy of recruiting attacking players from the swankiest showrooms but picking up defenders from the breaker’s yard has persisted to this day.  New manager, Mikel Arteta does seems to have a credible plan, but it is fair to say that his team, with its focus on youth, is very much a work in progress. Will he be given the time to see it through?

It is the Gunner’s sloppiness at the back (although it has improved in recent weeks) that will give the Hammers cause for hope. If West Ham can show the same intent, work rate  and energy levels as they did last week, they will be sure to cause problems. The combination of Michail Antonio, Sebastien Haller and Jarrod Bowen are certainly capable of unsettling the Arsenal back-line. That being said, Arsenal’s attacking players also have more than enough quality to breach the Hammer’s error prone rearguard.

All this supposes that David Moyes is prepared to continue with the more enterprising line-up and style that we saw last Saturday. Any change to the starting line-up would be disappointing as well as unpopular – further ammunition for the claims of negativity. The prospect of two teams endeavouring to outscore each other through attacking bravado and defensive inadequacy would be welcome relief from the spectre of an impending virus pandemic for a couple of hours. An away win can often be the best medicine.

In the continued absence of Tomas Soucek, the weakest link in the West Ham armour will be in central midfield where Mark Noble will struggle to keep pace with those around him. As a consequence, Declan Rice will be forced to play deep, almost as an auxiliary centre back, and be prevented from making forward runs. Rice’s forward surges are an ability that sets him apart from many other holding midfield players in the Premier League – particularly English ones.

One player who will not feature this weekend (or maybe ever again) is former Gunner, Jack Wilshere. It’s a shame that his time as a Hammer has been so dismal but I don’t understand the personal abuse that he frequently gets on social media. I’m sure he would much rather be on the pitch than in the treatment room. It was clearly very foolish of the club to give him such a lengthy contract in the circumstances but that is not his fault..

This week’s referee is Martin Atkinson from West Yorkshire.  Atkinson was previously in charge of the Hammer’s win at Southampton in December last year. On VAR duty will be Kevin Friend. According to the GivemeSport website, West Ham would be six points better off and well clear of the relegation places but for VAR decisions going against them. Wishful thinking probably!

The pundits take differing views this week. Lawro has gone for his favoured 1-1 draw while former Gunner, Charlie Nicholas has opted for a repeat of last season, with a 3-1 home win. Away to Arsenal has not been a happy hunting ground over the years. In fact, the records both home and away to Arsenal are poor. The last victory at The Emirates was, of course, the opening day of the 2015/16 season and West Ham have lost each of the four away meetings to take place since then. I read somewhere that Moyes has never beaten Arsenal in 15 attempts – so the omens are not good. Still how dull following football would be if we couldn’t choose to ignore the facts. With a positive attitude we easily have enough talent available now to make a game of it. That is exactly what we want to see. It is not impossible that we can come away with something from the game and I will go honours even at 2 goals apiece. COYI!

Recovery Position: A Sparkling West Ham Victory Sees Them Climb Out Of The Bottom Three For Now. What Did We Learn?

Everything about Saturday’s performance was just so much better than what’s gone before. What are the takeaways that will help navigate West Ham through the remaining games of the season?

The Wisdom of The Crowd

The wisdom of the crowd concept is that although individual members may not be wiser than a single expert, collectively they are.  It is demonstrated frequently in football where fans often have a more realistic take on the value of a player – no crowd would ever have sanctioned the signing of Carlos Sanchez, for example.  The Crowd largely got that their way on Saturday’s team selection, but with an added bonus of the surprise pairing of Michail Antonio and Sebastien Haller leading the line in an enterprising 4-4-2 formation. Throw in the introduction of Jarrod Bowen, a recall for Pablo Fornals and Jeremy Ngakia keeping his place and suddenly there was a team full of running and purpose. The Crowd had realised ages ago that West Ham were too slow in moving the ball forward, too predictable in opening up defences and hopeless at supporting whoever was the unfortunate lone striker. Amazingly, everything finally come together and delivered a deserved and much needed three points.

The Possession Myth

Despite the fine victory not everybody was happy if social media was to be believed. Those who are invested in their views that David Moyes is a dour, clueless Scot or that Haller is moody, French lump refused to have their opinions changed merely by events. Critics will point out that only having 34% possession in a home game is no cause for celebration. Yet, West Ham were able to outperform the visitors 14-10 on goal attempts. Possession, for the sake of it, is not what it is cracked up to be. On this occasion Moyes got the tactics spot on – by going direct it proved an effective counter to Southampton’s high press. The question, though, of whether this high tempo, hard-working, committed style was a one-off tactic or is to be how we will shape up for the rest of the season is a valid one. It won’t work so spectacularly every week and there is still plenty of work to be done in improving ball retention. Overall though, the change of approach made for a very entertaining, as well as a productive, game.

99% Perspiration

As full debuts go, it could not have gone much better for Jarrod Bowen. It was not just his smartly taken goal, welcome as it was, but also the good work he did in all areas of the pitch. Getting forward quickly to support the strikers; not giving up the chase for loose balls; working hard to regain possession when it was lost; and making a last ditch challenge to deny Bertrand a goal scoring opportunity. He looks just the type of player The Crowd want and love. A good, honest, young professional who is hungry for success and knows that working hard as well as possessing great technique is required. I don’t believe these are attributes that only English players have, but it was a breath of fresh air compared to the complacency shown by some of the big-money signings from overseas in the past. Some may feel that a full debut should have come sooner but, on balance, I think Moyes has handled the situation sensibly, given the nature of the previous two games.

The New Mr West Ham

Watching a re-run of the game on TV yesterday I spotted Declan Rice singing along to Bubbles as the teams walked out onto the pitch at the start of the game. Maybe other players were doing the same but not that I saw. Rice has become the backbone of the West Ham team and it would/ will be a great shame if, and when, he leaves in search of the better things that the Hammers cannot offer. While he is here there is no doubting his commitment to the club and cause. We should appreciate him while we can. If Tomas Soucek were to replace Mark Noble in Saturday’s line-up then it would be a team with a far better balance of ability and athleticism – arguably our strongest eleven, even when everyone is fit. Players such as Noble and Robert Snodgrass can still play a part in the squad but no longer as regular starters. The game is far too quick for them now.

The Race For Relegation

It was another interesting weekend in the battle at the wrong end of the table. West Ham are one of the six teams at greatest risk and as satisfying as the win was, performances like Saturdays need to be sustained if safety is to be assured. With most of the teams involved having ten games remaining it is tempting to compare and contrast run-ins – but this can prove misleading as incentives of opposing clubs change with time  – is home to a relegation threatened Watford an easier game, say, than away to Manchester United if Europa League qualification is the best they can hope for by then? In practice there are only two exceptional teams in the league (Liverpool and Manchester City) and West Ham should now be looking to pick up points in each of their remaining fixtures. The bookmakers favour Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth for the drop but I fancy Brighton to succumb. Survival is not a foregone conclusion, but I am breathing a little easier (despite the threat of coronavirus) after the weekend’s events.

Ratings: Fabianski (7), Ngakia (6), Ogbonna (8), Diop (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (8), Noble (5), Bowen (8), Fornals (8), Antonio (9), Haller (8) Subs: Snodgrass (6), Anderson (n/a)   

Not quite “must win” yet for West Ham as they face Southampton, but it will be if they don’t start picking up points soon

Two teams that gained promotion from the Championship at the same time (in the 2011-12 season) meet today. Whilst Southampton gained automatic promotion by finishing as runners-up to champions Reading, we, of course, came up the “fun way” defeating Blackpool in the play-off final at Wembley. Both clubs have consolidated within the Premier League in the seven completed seasons since that promotion and have similar records. We have finished above them on three occasions whereas they have been above us four times. Of course we have both flirted with relegation at times, although our lowest finishing position has been 13th, whereas today’s opponents have finished closer to the trap door with final positions of 14th, 16th and 17th.

Our best finishes have been 7th and twice finishing 10th, whereas Southampton had a purple patch from season 2013-14 onwards when ending up 8th, 7th, 6th and 8th in consecutive seasons. Even when we had that marvellous last season at Upton Park finishing 7th, they pipped us to end up one place and one point above us. Southampton have picked up 341 points in those 7 seasons (average 49) compared to our 334 (average 48).

If you calculate the average finishing position in those 7 campaigns then we both have identical results, showing an average of 11th. The head to head record in the period matches the all-time historical record with West Ham winning more games than our South Coast opponents. In the 15 games since promotion, West Ham have won 8 to Southampton’s 4 with 3 drawn games. We have won the last 4 meetings – until then the records were equally matched. The record when we have been the home side reads won 5 and lost 2 in 7 meetings, scoring 16 goals and conceding 9.

After a few games this season it looked like we were going to overtake Southampton in the comparisons since promotion. We started the season well and Southampton were languishing close to the bottom. However our form had slumped by the time we visited Southampton a few days before Christmas, and both managers were under pressure. On that day we won 1-0 with a goal from Sebastien Haller to relieve the pressure building on Manuel Pellegrini, whereas our opponents remained in the relegation zone.

But following that day Southampton’s season took off collecting 16 points from the next seven games to climb into the top half of the table. They haven’t kept up that pace in the last few games, but nevertheless they sit in a comfortable 12th place in the table on 34 points, 10 clear of ourselves – of course we are in the danger zone in 18th.

We are at that stage of the season now with just eleven games to go when games such as these are almost “must win” fixtures for us. It is not quite critical yet, and a win would see us leapfrog Aston Villa (who play in the Carabao Cup Final this weekend), and could see us move above Bournemouth if they fail to beat an out of form Chelsea side. That would be a boost.

There are currently 5 teams that are not averaging a point a game, and Brighton in addition are just above that figure. It seems likely that the three relegated teams will come from those six unless one of the teams immediately above has a disastrous run (similar to the one we have had!). 37 or 38 points could mean safety and that would probably mean four wins and a couple of draws. There are no guarantees of course but that might be enough. It’s sad though isn’t it when a season that started brightly has come to this. My prediction at this point sees us escaping the drop with Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth going down. But in reality, all of the bottom six teams have a number of difficult games, and it could be very different.

Bookmakers generally have 7 clubs in the mix for relegation, with current odds of about 1/20 Norwich (virtually already down), Villa 8/13, Bournemouth 10/11, West Ham 5/4, Watford 7/5, Brighton 11/2, Newcastle 6/1.

Even Brighton supporters, despite their points cushion at the moment, cannot feel comfortable, especially if they fail to beat Palace tomorrow, as their March and April fixtures are against Wolves, Arsenal, Leicester, Man United, Norwich, Liverpool, and Man City.

We can take heart from our visit to Anfield even though we took no points. Despite the obvious gulf in class we came closer to defeating them than most teams have this season in the Premier League. It’s a shame that our usual saviour Fabianski chose the game to have possibly his worst outing since joining us. He was obviously at fault for the second goal, and didn’t cover himself in glory for the other two either. But that’s water under the bridge now, so let us hope that normal goalkeeping service is resumed today.

I wonder what team we will see today. My selection would be:

Fabianski; Ngakia, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Snodgrass; Fornals, Anderson, Bowen; Antonio.

I am not sure Noble is up to two games in close succession and have gone for Snodgrass in a central midfield role for this game, with his dead ball delivery an important factor in my choice. Such a shame about the injury to Soucek – I thought he was looking like exactly the player we needed in midfield. I doubt that Mr Moyes will agree with my choice, but we can all play football manager when it comes to team selection.

I started this article by talking about the relative merits of the two clubs since promotion in 2012. In our first meeting in the Premier League following promotion, we comfortably beat Southampton 4-1 with a couple of goals from Mark Noble, one from Kevin Nolan, and a mazy dribble and finish from Modibo Maiga (remember him?). Adam Lallana scored for the Saints. If you go back to the very first meeting between the two teams at our ground in April 1900, the score that day was Thames Ironworks 4 Southampton 1.

What chance a repeat of the 4-1 win today? We’ll all be going home happy if we win by any score.