Where Does It Go From Here?

The devil sent his advocate to keep me awake last night and this is what he told me.

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Deep down the football supporter is generally an optimistic creature even if this is concealed under a self preservation fear the worst, hope for the best cloak. Most West Ham fans with any mileage on the clock will have experienced disappointment, false dawns and exasperation on numerous occasions but even allowing for this only the most pessimistic would have predicted such a woeful start to the current season.

Notwithstanding the emotional and operational issues with the move from Upton Park to the new stadium; forgetting that, for the second season running, we were eliminated in Europa League qualification by an obscure Romanian side now anchored to the bottom of Group E; it is the fact that we sit third from bottom of the Premier League that is the primary concern.  All else will soon enough be a part of history whereas (dare we say it) relegation would be a disaster; and the signs are not good so far.  A benign set of opening fixtures having seen us concede more goals than any other team (only Stoke having a worse goal difference) and with no striker yet having found the net.

Men in sharp suits often remind us that “Past Performance is Not Necessarily Indicative of Future Results” and maybe we can take some comfort from that, but it will take some significant changes on the pitch to drag us out of the current rut. You cannot say, with any honesty, that we are playing well but not getting the results. In general we have got what we deserved; possibly even more when you consider the slightly fortunate Bournemouth victory. Leaking goals at one end and no strikers at the other can only end one way with the only crumb that there might be three teams worse than us.

On paper our squad looks reasonably strong. On the pitch it lacks balance and hasn’t been improved by the summer signings. There have been comments made before and after the last game that overseas players may need time to adjust to the Premier League. There may be some truth in this from the point of view of a player delivering maximum performance but it is a forlorn hope to expect a Morris Marina (or a Vauxhall Zaza) to suddenly turn into a Rolls Royce. It may have taken Bergkamp a while to start scoring regularly but he wasn’t playing like a donkey (that was Tony Adams) before it happened.

For some reason fans are often able to make better and quicker judgements about players than coaches. From the assorted duds that have shown up at West Ham each transfer window I don’t recall ever being surprised by an ugly duckling turning into a swan. On that basis I am happy to predict that none of Zaza, Tore and Calleri are potential Premier League players and accordingly see no benefit in playing them in preference to an untried youngster. My assertion is that they could be no worse.

So far in this season’s League games we have used 23 players in total with 20 different players in the starting line-up. Only Sunderland have used more players (25 and 22). Of the 77 starting berths 18 have been filled by new arrivals comprising Masuaku (5), Nordtveit (4), Zaza and Tore (3 each), Fletcher, Arbeloa and Ayew (1 each). With a fully available squad you would imagine only Ayew to be a probable starting candidate; in retrospect the outcome of the summer transfer business was very poor although maybe there was some good potential that was recruited at the same time.

Without new creativity or goal threat and other sides getting wise to how we play (i.e. the reliance on Payet and crosses) we have to find a way to adapt if performances are to be improved. There is some hope from returning players. We have missed Cresswell as an attacking option, Carroll is an upgrade to Zaza even though he is not the complete answer, Sakho is a better all-round option as a lone striker due to mobility and workrate (but has other issues), and Ayew looked good at Swansea. It is rumoured that Cresswell, Carroll and Sakho are all possibles for the next game at Crystal Palace.

Oddly I do not see the defence as a massive problem despite some stupid individual mistakes that we have witnessed this season. Don’t play players out of position all the time and provide better midfield cover, especially if the full-backs are expected to push forward, and it should be competent enough.

The centre of midfield is the bigger conundrum for me at present. On paper there are plenty of options competing for 3 places (assuming Payet and Antonio are the preferred wide players). Hopefully Obiang will now get a chance as the much needed defensive midfielder but after that it becomes difficult. The Noble – Kouyate partnership seems to be a large part of the problem and on current form neither deserves a place. For all his commitment Noble is too slow both in movement and thought and with a tendency to go sideways and backwards rather than forwards.  Kouyate can be great for the occasional surging burst forward but it is not enough and his passing skills are very limited. It is the deficiencies in central midfield that dictate our low tempo, low penetration style and its resultant predictability; Dimitri Payet apart. To mix things up I would like to see Lanzini and Fernandes given the opportunity to show what they can do.

It is only 7 games in and not yet a crisis but swift and decisive action is required to stop the rot. Carrying on regardless with more of the same and hoping it will be better is a foolish and short-sighted strategy.

Seven games played, four points!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Ham 1 v 1 Middlesbrough Part 2

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

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Part Two – Pedro Obiang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week in Hammer’s History

A trawl through the week 3 – 9 October in Hammer’s history.

This Week Hammers HistoryThe week 3 – 9 October in West Ham history is another that has seen many Football League Cup matches since its inception in the 1960/ 61 season. My perception is that this is a competition that West Ham usually fare badly in and one where we are invariably eliminated on a proverbial damp Tuesday night somewhere up north by a lower league side. It was a surprise, therefore, to see that the week has witnessed far more League Cup successes than failures including a creditable 3-1 away victory over Arsenal in 1966 (Hurst 2, Peters) as well as comfortable wins against the likes of Darlington (1975), Southend (1979), Bristol City (1984), Swansea (1985), Preston (1986), Bradford City (1991), Chesterfield (1993) and Walsall (1994).

That is not to say that there have not been embarrassing exits and these include a straight 2-1 defeat away to Stockport County in 1972 and two legged defeats to Barnsley (1987) and Crewe (1992). Against Barnsley a goalless draw in the away leg was followed by a 2-5 home hammering at home while the Crewe tie saw a goalless home draw followed by an emphatic 2-0 away defeat.

Notable League fixtures have included a 4 goal haul for Vic Keeble in an exciting 6-3 victory over Blackburn Rovers in our first season back in the First Division in 1958 as well as the one and only Steve Potts goal in the 7-1 demolition of Hull in 1990. A victory over Liverpool is always welcome and in 1982 goals from Alvin Martin, Geoff Pike and Sandy Clarke (remember him?) helped the Hammers run out 3-1 winners and climb into second spot in the league.

The 6 October 2013 was the date of the famous Ravel Morrison goal in the surprise 3-0 win at White Hart Lane; what a player we thought we had on that day. Many of us believed going into the game that we would be on the wrong end of a hammering; a team who had yet to score an away goal against a buoyant Tottenham side. A chance to re-live the 3 goals in 13 second half minutes below:

This week’s featured game is from 3 October 1999 where two goals from Paolo Di Canio gave West Ham victory over high flying Arsenal at Upton Park. It was Arsenal who bossed the early stages of the match and went close to opening the scoring on several occasions with Bergkamp, Henry and Suker causing problems for the West Ham defence. On 29 minutes, however, PDC set off on a mazy run from inside his own half. It was not the most elegant of dribbles and there was a touch on pinballing before the ball broke wide to Trevor Sinclair. Sinclair’s initially shot was blocked but his cross broke to Paolo who slotted home to make it 1-0. On 72 minutes Di Canio got on the end of a Paulo Wanchope header, flicked the ball over the head of a confused Martin Keown and fired past Seaman for 2-0.

The two goal advantage didn’t last long, however, as Arsenal pulled one back when Steve Lomas set up Davor Suker (one of the many duds that we subsequently took off Arsenal’s hands) to make it 2-1. The remaining minutes was mostly Arsenal pressure and desperate West Ham defending and, although there was still time for Patrick Viera and Marc-Vivien Foe (RIP) to get sent off for second bookable offences, there were no further goals. Viera’s sending off sparked a mini melee which ended with him pushing and then spitting in the face of Neil Ruddock. A win for the Hammers in front of just over 26,000 supporters saw them end the day in 9th place.

Hislop, Potts, Ruddock, Stimac, Sinclair, Lomas, Lampard, Foe, Moncur (Margas), Di Canio, Wanchope (Kitson).

This time it is not much of a week for Hammer’s birthdays:

3 October Clive Charles (d 2003)
7 October Jermaine Defoe (34)
8 October Paul Hilton (57)
9 October Frank O’Farrell (89)

West Ham 1 v 1 Middlesbrough

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

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Part One – I Was There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things From West Ham v Boro

What are we to deduce from the latest West Ham travails against Boro?

5 Things WHUSlav Loves to Try Out New Positions

New father Slaven Bilic can’t resist trying out a new position. This time we had Antonio playing the role of lone striker, Ogbonna moved to left back and Tore……….,well Tore was also on the pitch somewhere although it wasn’t totally clear what he was supposed to be doing. To be fair Antonio made as good a fist at his new role than any of the specialists employed so far this year, and at least brought some energy to the party. Also Ogbonna was good enough defensively at left back although was unable to offer much going forward. The re-shuffle saw Byram return, albeit temporarily, at right back with Abeloa joining Lanzini on the bench.

Tempo and Approach

Of all the Premier League football I have seen this season no other team plays with such a slow tempo as do West Ham. I am never too bothered about possession statistics but if you are conceding possession then the response needs to be pace and movement. We have not demonstrated either of these attributes except maybe in very short bursts. To me it is impossible to deduce what style of play we are actually aiming for. Our two most dangerous players Payet and Antonio are generally out wide leaving no creativity in the central areas with a huge gap behind the lone striker. It improved to some extent when Lanzini came on but even then we failed to exploit the momentum following Payet’s wonderful equaliser.  We clearly didn’t bring the kitchen sink in the move from Upton Park.

You Have Scored One with No Passes

I have not looked to see what the statistics were for pass completion. They might be quite good but all passes are not created equal. My guess is that our most common combinations are Noble back to Collins and Collins to the opposition. For a team who have centre backs with such poor distribution it is ironic that we use them so frequently as the springboard for our attacks. Not that it is entirely their fault as their are few options available by either the central midfield players or static frontmen.  Years ago Ron Greenwood used to say that West Ham play on their toes; this is definitely not the case at the moment. Several times what looked like promising attacking positions ended up with the ball back with Adrian. Even free kicks around the half way line end up going backwards. It is a very strange tactic. I don’t recall from the game any sequence of quick passing that engineered an opening or a half chance; even against one of the weakest sides in the division.  The ability to pick out players in space is well below standard and, as for the kick for touch from the kick-off, that was straight from the Graham Taylor coaching manual..

At Last a Defensive Midfielder

I was pleased to see Pedro Obiang start. Partly because I don’t believe he has been given much of a chance since he was signed and partly because we have desperately needed a dedicated defensive midfield player. I though he acquitted himself pretty well performing better both with and without the ball than anything we have seen fro Nordtveit. Although it was only Boro, the defence looked more solid yesterday apart from the lapse at the corner; whose idea was that goal-line technology? I hope Obiang gets a run in the team with possibly Fernandes coming in to provide some spark in a more attacking central midfield role.

A Chance Would a Fine Thing

If you ever played Sunday morning park football you may remember that a high percentage of goals were the result of the hopeful ball forward where either the defender misjudged it or the striker muscled him out of the way. Like a cruder version of Leicester tactics and the game plan that we now seem to have adopted but without players of the right quality. I still can’t see a future for Zaza but, in mitigation, the way we are playing is never going to suit his style; even Dennis Bergkamp would have struggled. We created no chances from open play and had to rely on a stunning solo goal to salvage something. OK, so Noble was unlucky to hit the bar, Antonio should have done better when he did muscle his way through but other than that there were just a few pointless long range balloon shots. The Boro keeper could have brought a book along to keep himself occupied. Carroll might be an upgrade on Zaza but our best hope is for both Ayew and Sakho to return physically and mentally prepared.

I Wouldn’t Bet On It 11 – Let’s Have Another Go at Goals Galore

What to do with all the loose change from down the back of the sofa?

Fancy A BetLast week we tried out the Betfred “Goals Galore” bonus coupon that pays fixed odds based on both teams scoring at least one goal in a match. Depending upon the number of games you choose, fixed odds are paid at varying rates. On their Goals Galore Bonus coupon, which we tried, they pay 9/2 for 3 correct, 9/1 for 4 correct, and 16/1 for 5 correct, going right up to 5000/1 for 15 correct.

We selected the following games:

Bournemouth v Everton
Brighton v Barnsley
Bolton v Bradford
QPR v Birmingham
Fulham v Bristol City

It would have been difficult to have made worse selections! Despite both teams scoring in 31 out of the 46 games in the four English Leagues we only managed to select one match where both teams scored (at QPR), and even managed to select the only 0-0 draw out of all the games (at Bolton).

But we’ll have another go at this and try two batches of four games, each at 9-1, and then all eight games at 100-1. So we need both teams to score in the following games:

Group One:
West Ham v Middlesbrough
Leeds v Barnsley
Preston v Villa
Sheffield W v Brighton

Group Two:
Reading v Derby
Rotherham v Newcastle
Bury v Scunthorpe
Chesterfield v Bradford C

One point stake on each group, and one point stake on all eight games. Total 3 points.

And to finish I am convinced that West Ham will end their poor run in the game against Middlesbrough, so I’ll stake 5 points at 11/10 on a victory for us.

The balance at the start of the day was 111.1, so with a total of 8 points staked we are now down to 103.1. If everything goes our way today (a very long shot) we could win 131.5 points, but we’ll be up on the day with a West Ham victory on its own.

What are the chances?