The Hammers Are Back: A Breath Of Fresh Air Or A Bad Dose Of Qatarrh?

The road to recovery is meant to start here. To do so the tortoise must beat the hare and David Moyes must shatter his shocking record away to top six sides.

West Ham return to Premier League action today in aspirational ‘turn things around’ mode as they make the short, and historically fruitless, trip across London to face league leaders Arsenal.

The Hammers entered the World Cup break with a bleak run of tame home defeats that saw them lose to Crystal Palace, Leicester, and Blackburn Rovers. Many believed it was a sequence that would see the end of David Moyes, but the board have decided to stick with him, in the hope of a miraculous upturn in fortunes. What fresh ideas they seen in performances to date can only be speculated upon. Yet they seem convinced he is the man to throw off his hard-wired caution and lead a charge back to the European table?

The worry for me is that we are entering a period of uncertainty and paralysis. The manager on life support hoping to survive day-to-day by scraping enough points to stay out of the bottom three and avoiding any embarrassing thrashings. It is a recipe for greater caution, not for a renewed sense of adventure that might get the best out of the expensive new signings.

How the six-week break will impact matters is impossible to tell. Some had the chance to take relaxed winter holidays while others experienced the thrills and heartache of representing their countries in Qatar. How will the World Cup hangover play out – not just for West Ham but for all teams?

Unlike the COVID break in 2020 there will have been no opportunity to work as group on fixing the many things that have been going badly. There was no obvious new approach on show in the recent friendly matches. And you will remember that West Ham lost the first two games when post-COVID matches resumed in June 2020.

The task that faces the Hammers today is a daunting one, regardless of their poor record in this fixture. Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the table having played eight of their fourteen games away from home. At The Emirates, they have won six out six. Conversely, West Ham have just one win and one draw to show from seven matches played on the road. The game will be a contest where pace and fluidity meets slow and predictable. Mismatches don’t come much bigger than this!

Moyes has selection dilemmas both front and back today. The roll call of injured and doubtful players includes Kurt Zouma, Nayef Aguerd, Aaron Cresswell, Maxwell Cornet, Michail Antonio and Gianluca Scamacca. If I were to be cynical, I’d suggest Moyes already has this down as a home win, and will not risk anyone who is not fully fit. His tactics will be driven by damage limitation, holding on to the point if that is at all possible.

On the other hand, the Gunners will be close to full strength apart from the missing Jesus who was injured in Qatar. I have mixed feelings about Arsenal. It is a club punching above its weight which at times can be a joy to watch. But under Arteta they are too fond of the dark arts for my liking. Expect at least one penalty with Saka and Martinelli going to ground faster than a paranoid fox.

I fully expect Moyes to play with a back five today – with the makeshift set of players that are at his disposal. It will be sitting deep and hoping to snatch a goal from a set piece. Moyes will have been making careful notes when Japan beat Spain in Qatar with less than 18% possession. A shot on target will be a momentous event.

I am conflicted right now. I never want West Ham to lose any game but equally don’t see any future scenario where the Hammers are a competitive and entertaining outfit under the current manager. Let’s not forget his abysmal managerial away record against top six sides.

Boxing Day success for the Hammers seems implausible. It would require David to slay Goliath, the tortoise to beat the hare, and Jack Reacher to fight off five hoodlums in the bar room parking lot – all rolled into one. Hats off to Moyes if he can pull something out of the fire but even the Moyesiah wouldn’t have chosen Arsenal away at Christmas as the starting point for his resurrection.

It is difficult to see any other outcome other than a comfortable defeat. I really hope that’s not the case but it’s what history and reality suggests. COYI!

It’s Good To Be Back! Domestic Football Resumes when West Ham visit the Emirates Stadium

It seems strange doesn’t it? Domestic football resumes after a month-long break for a winter World Cup. That’s something we’ve not experienced before, although the Covid break not so long ago was an interruption to the Premier League season too.

When I was young I (many years ago) I loved to watch international football but in recent years the friendly games have become virtually meaningless to me with unlimited substitutions disrupting matches. I’ve always enjoyed the tournaments though. The first one I remember (though not in detail) was the 1962 World Cup, and then of course the never to be forgotten 1966 one.

Despite my misgivings around this World Cup on a number of levels I watched a lot of the games and really enjoyed many of them, especially the upsets. Any one of a number of teams could have won the tournament – so much depends on penalties these days, which to some extent are a bit of a lottery. Thinking back to some of the early World Cups that I remember (1966 and 1970 in particular) I cannot remember any of the knockout games still being level after extra-time. Penalty shoot-outs didn’t exist at the time. What would have happened? Replays? I just can’t remember how the games would have been decided if games finished level. But I don’t think any did – none that I can remember anyway.

It was interesting to listen to Micah Richards and his disbelief when Gary Lineker told him that there were no substitutes back then. He was telling him about the 1966 final when the eleven players that started played all 120 minutes. Richards couldn’t believe that no substitutes could be brought on in those days. Obviously not a student of the history of the game. It’s a different game now, isn’t it?

I’m not sure I agree with the widely held belief that this was the greatest World Cup final ever. For 80 minutes France didn’t really turn up and it was very one-sided. Yes, the last ten minutes and extra time produced plenty of drama. For me the best final ever remains the 1970 one watching the great Brazil team of that era. I guess that was a bit one-sided too but still my favourite.

So now the Premier League resumes on Boxing Day and we face one of the more difficult games straight away, at league leaders Arsenal. But perhaps this is the best time to play them? It’s a bit like the first day of the season. I remember well the opening day of the 2015-16 season (our last at the Boleyn) when we travelled to the Emirates Stadium and came away with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Kouyate and Zarate. That game was famous for the debut of 16 years-old Reece Oxford. What a talent and prospect he seemed. What a waste.

That was one of only two occasions in the last thirty meetings between the teams when we have collected the three points, the other being in January 2019 when Declan Rice scored his (first?) goal for us in a 1-0 victory at the London Stadium.

We’ve never beaten Arsenal on Boxing Day either in the past. The only two games that I can recall are a 1-0 defeat on 26th December 1998 when Marc Overmars scored the only goal of the game very early on. And then 15 years to the day later we lost to them at Upton Park when Carlton Cole gave us an early second-half lead, but two goals from Walcott and one from Podolski in the last quarter of the game wrapped up the points for the Gunners.

My earliest recollections of Christmas games are good though, beginning with two wins over Tottenham at Christmas 1958, home and away on December 25th and 26th – yes we did play on Christmas Day then! In the week immediately before and after Christmas there was a 4-4 draw and a 4-3 win over Forest in 1962, a 5-5 draw at Chelsea and two 4-1 wins over Blackpool in 1966, a 2-1 win over Tottenham and two 4-2 wins over Leicester in 1967, a 2-0 win over Tottenham in 1969, a 1-0 defeat of Tottenham in 1971, a 2-2 draw with Tottenham in 1972, a 4-2 win over Chelsea in 1973, and a 1-1 draw with Tottenham in 1974.

How many times have we played Tottenham in the Christmas period and beaten them?! They did beat us twice in 1960 on their way to doing the double that year but I’ve forgotten them. I’ve also neglected to mention Boxing Day 1963 when we lost 8-2 at home to Blackburn, although we did beat them at Ewood Park two days later (3-1).

So lots of good memories from my young days of Christmas games. Will this be another? To be honest I haven’t got a clue how we will fare this Monday. If the game had been played without the enforced break, then based on the form this season so far I wouldn’t have fancied our chances too highly. But now, who knows?

Our website has been talking up our unbeaten run in the three friendlies played in the past couple of weeks. Better than nothing I suppose but I’ve always felt that pre-season games were never a true indication of what would happen when the real stuff starts. And in a way this is no different to the start of the season.

I reckon we might surprise the league leaders. I hope so anyway. What are the chances?

It’s A Game Of Four Halves: But Is Today Gunner Prove A Distraction For West Ham?

Another pesky London derby gets in the way of Europa League business with the visit of Arsenal to the London Stadium. How will David Moyes balance his priorities?

In the end West Ham – Eintracht Frankfurt: The Sequel didn’t live up to the high standard set by the original. If Occam had a philosophical razor for football matches it might suggest the higher expectations are raised, the deeper the depression when they are not satisfied – at least, as far as West Ham are concerned. But it now opens up an even greater and more memorable achievement if the one-goal deficit can be overturned in the away leg next Thursday.

After all, the situation at what is effectively half-time in the tie, is exactly the same as it was 46 years ago. If Jarrod Bowen’s spectacular effort had levelled the score in the dying minutes, we would still need to win in Frankfurt to go through to the final. And even if the Hammers were taking a slender lead to Germany, there would still be the fears and anxieties of sitting back too much to hold on to the lead. Sure, it will be an uphill battle, but all is not lost. They are not unbeatable and neither of the previous rounds followed the same pattern in both legs.

There was widespread agreement that Thursday’s performance fell well short of what was needed. Only a few players came close to their usual standard. Stage fright, perhaps with the weight of expectation or occasion holding them back? Most definitely a lack of quality in the final third but isn’t that something we hear most weeks? What I didn’t see, though, was a lack of effort, as some suggested in comments I read online.

Conceding such an early goal certainly set the tone on proceedings. The defence were all over the place for that one, collectively dragged across to the right hand side and leaving a huge space in behind on the left. Despite the equaliser, West Ham were unable to build on it and impose themselves on the match. That was the disappointment and control of the midfield areas will need to improve in the return.

No doubt, the second coming of the Moyesiah has seen a MASSIVE improvement in the Hammer’s fortunes.  But we have to accept it is an improvement built around getting the absolute best out of a small and committed group of players. It would be great to have a Plan B when the going gets tough, but we simply don’t have the players to do that. We are very good at making the most of our strengths – breakaways or set pieces – but limited beyond that.

Time has yet to tell whether the improvement we have seen on the pitch can develop into genuine progress throughout the club. By which, I mean a platform that can be sustained beyond the current group of players. To achieve that requires better facilities, a productive academy and forward-looking player recruitment. The summer transfer window may provide pointers to whether an appetite exists to both upgrade and deepen the strength of the squad.  

With a fully fit squad, one of the greatest limitations is creativity in attacking midfield. Someone to pull the strings and offer a different dimension in unpicking tight defences. None of the options – Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma, or Manuel Lanzini – fit the bill. If Nikola Vlasic was meant to be the answer, we asked the wrong question.

The most sparkling period of football during the last memorable two years was when Jesse Lingard was doing just that last winter – although I no longer see him as the long term solution. Someone like Martin Odegaard from today’s visitors has the ideal attributes. He is the one individual who has provided the spark for Arsenal’s assault on the top four – as well as sparking their revival from three goals down in today’s corresponding fixture last year.

The Gunners are now firm favourites for the final top four place. It would be fantastic to put a spoke in their bid but maybe a Pyrrhic victory if it opened the door to Tottenham. Much will depend on the north London derby to be played on May 12.

The Hammers Premier League aspirations remain complicated. The Europa League is clearly the bigger prize but putting all the eggs in that basket would be costly if qualification from domestic league position is sacrificed as a result. Fortunately, Wolves have been eager to help out on that score. Yet, the possibility of finishing above Manchester United in sixth remains in our own hands, at least in theory.

The question then, is how will David Moyes set his priorities for today and Thursday? The team selection against Chelsea almost did enough to preserve the point it had started with, but Craig Dawson’s dismissal was a blow, both then and now. Will Kurt Zouma be fit enough to start or is that a risk too far for Thursday? Do Michail Antonio or Tomas Soucek need a rest? I suspect it will be a similar approach to the Chelsea game with a back three of Zouma, Ben Johnson and Aaron Cresswell, and further outings for Mark Noble and Andriy Yarmolenko.

Arsenal have some exciting young talent to call upon and their pace down the flanks has to be a concern for Moyes. They don’t have the deepest of squads and will miss the injured Tierney and Partey, while Xhaka is always one challenge away from a red card. They were quite fortunate to beat Manchester United last week and owed much of their victory to Fernandes stupidity with his spot kick.

It is difficult to like the Gunners under the management of Lego-haired supremo Mikel Arteta (or is it Duplo hair?) They are too taken with the dark arts of whinging, diving, and simulation to be admired. The tolerance of referees to cheating and simulation continues to cast a dark shadow on the game. The professional dive and the professional head injury are just as distasteful as the professional foul invented by Willie Young

As the game is another that is difficult to call, I dug out my Ouija board to get this week’s prediction. According to the spirit world, it’s West Ham to win 3-1 with goals from Vlasic, Yarmolenko and Masuaku. COYI!

Moyes Must Find A New Tune On The Old Fiddle To Shake Arsenal Disharmony

West Ham head to one of their unhappiest hunting grounds in search of London derby points. Can they come away with a rare victory?

A sure sign that West Ham are outsiders in the Premier League elite club was the failure to collect a get out of jail free decision when Craig Dawson was chopped down in the penalty area at Turf Moor on Sunday. No penalty goal bonus was to come our way on a weekend where Liverpool, Chelsea, and both Manchester clubs were each awarded soft spot kicks to guide them home.

The idea that there is context to a foul – he wouldn’t have reached the ball, or he didn’t have it under control – is a bizarre and undocumented concept as far as the laws of the game are concerned. Interpretations that only seem to apply inside the penalty area, on the subjective whim of officials, and in the eyes of prattling pundits.

It was difficult to assess the Hammer’s performance at Burnley. It was neither terrible nor good. Apart from a few shaky moments in the last ten minutes, the makeshift defence looked sound enough. Craig Dawson is, in many ways, the ideal centre back to resist the physical challenge of blunt instrument attackers such as Woods or Lukaku. It is against nippy and mobile opponents where he looks less assured. Elsewhere, we were treated to phases of neat passing and movement, except that all the the ideas fizzled out the closer we got to the Burnley goal.

This may be a season too far for the Clarets. Their time at the top table may well have run its course unless Dyche is allowed to refresh his squad during the transfer window. From early on the impression was they would be happy to finish with the point they started with. Setting out to frustrate the Hammers with a lack of adventure that allowed few opportunities for trademark West Ham counter-attacks (plan A). As one of the taller teams in the league, the hosts were also rarely troubled at set pieces (plan B).

In fairness, breaking down a well organised defence is not easy. It was why Manchester City and Liverpool had needed generous penalty gifts to get past Wolves and Aston Villa respectively. But the ability to create something special or perform the unexpected is in short supply in the West Ham squad. It can’t always be left to Declan Rice, who was once again head and shoulders above any other player on the pitch.

The inability to prise open packed defences (plan C) has already proved costly in points lost this season. There is no clear, obvious or quick fix to the problem and we must accept the squad does have limitations. It is still performing way above expectations. A creative attacking midfield player (or number 10, if you like) and a forward with true striker instincts are the undeniable missing pieces.

Tonight’s opponents Arsenal have made a good recovery after a very poor start to the season – although they continue to be inconsistent, particularly away from the Emirates. At home they have won their last four league games without conceding although each of these were against bottom six opposition (Leeds, Watford, Newcastle and Southampton). Although Mikel Arteta is now in his third season as manager, the team remains a work in progress. How long he will be given to turn matters around will be interesting. Arsenal doesn’t strike you as a particularly happy or together club/ squad and the latest Aubameyang disciplinary spat will only add to that disharmony. Another season without Europe may be the final blow for Arteta.

The Gunners are another of the sides who neither score nor concede many goals. They have several bright attacking players. Smith-Rowe is highly thought of (although I’m yet to be convinced) and Saka can cause havoc when given too much room. It is Odegaard, however, who poses the biggest threat for me. He was the spark that inspired Arsenal to claw their way back from three goals down at the London Stadium in March and will need to be closely shadowed. At the back, the hosts are bigger and stronger these days but somehow still fragile under pressure – more Vulnerables than Invincibles.

There is rarely too much to debate when it comes to the probable West Ham line-up. There are not that many options for David Moyes to ponder and he tends to stay loyal to a small group of players anyway. At some stage, Alphonse Areola will replace Lukas Fabianski, but don’t see that happening yet. If Aaron Cresswell is fit (fingers crossed) he will return at left back to keep an eye on Saka. Otherwise, it will be as you were in defence. Then it is a case of which three out of Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma play behind Michail Antonio. Of course, all that is subject to no positive Covid tests being revealed.  

The Hammers have a terrible record away at Arsenal. Even when playing well, they have come away empty handed. It is now just one win (2015/16) in fourteen visits and I believe David Moyes has a similarly dismal record in his managerial career. It would be an ideal time to put those things right tonight. It will be a very different game from Sunday. With Arsenal likely to be on the front foot, there should be the space available to exploit on the break. We are much better equipped to deal with team looking to attack.

I sense an opportunity for Michail Antonio to rediscover his scoring boots in a 2-0 win. COYI!

Recent results have not generally been great for the Hammers at Arsenal. What will happen when these two teams in the top six clash on Wednesday night?

With just five points from our last five games it is perhaps surprising that West Ham are clinging on to fourth place in the Premier League table. The latest disappointment was the goalless draw at Burnley on Sunday. I write “disappointment” because, although in years gone by we would always have been happy with a point from a trip up north, we now hope (and expect perhaps) for three to maintain a challenge towards the top of the table. It was disappointing too in that we were the much better side creating all the chances, but came across a goalkeeper in Nick Pope determined to impress the watching England manager with some excellent saves from Diop, Benrahma and Bowen. And on a weekend where all the top clubs won games with the help of (in some cases) very soft penalty awards there was also a contentious incident where McNeil appeared to foul Dawson in the Burnley area but referee Scott did not award one and the referee on VAR duty (surprisingly to me, although I am biased) decided not to intervene.

Scoring goals is a bit of an issue away from home at the moment and Michail Antonio hasn’t managed to score in his last eight appearances. But he is not alone, and although he is perhaps expected to be our leading scorer others must chip in too. Although we have only managed one goal in our last three Premier games on our travels it is perhaps just a blip; after all if the league table was produced based on goals scored in this season to date we would be in fourth place by that measure too. I guess the disappointment comes from the cracking start to the season where we picked up 13 points from our first five away games with four wins and a draw, and this has been followed by just one point and one goal from the next three games away from the London Stadium.

Part of the reason for us retaining fourth place is down to the fact that the team who were closest to us just a few games ago (Wednesday’s opponents Arsenal) have had a relatively poor run too with just six points from their last five games (only one better than us) and have dropped a place in the table with Manchester United under new management having a resurgence and now just a point behind us. Manchester City and Liverpool are undoubtedly the form teams with a maximum 15 points from their last five league games, but they are followed (with a bit of a gap) by Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United who all have ten points from their last five, although Tottenham now have two games in hand over us and trail us by only three points.

Wednesday’s game is an important one for both ourselves and the Gunners in the quest to finish fourth – the top three will undoubtedly be the top three at the end of the season, such is their lead over the chasing pack and their consistency. Of course they can be beaten in odd games, as we have showed against both Liverpool and Chelsea, but over the course of a season those three will finish a long way clear I reckon.

Will last Sunday’s starting eleven be the same again against Arsenal? Perhaps yes, although I wonder if Fornals will return in place of Benrahma for this one? I’m not sure if any of the fringe players have done enough to make a compelling case to start. Vlasic is possibly the closest, but is he a better bet than Benrahma or Fornals? I’m not convinced but perhaps if he gets a chance of a run in the team at some stage he can show why we paid such a lot of money for him. I believe that Areola looks a great long-term prospect and once he gets his chance to be a starter in league games it may be difficult for Fabianski to get his place back. He has been an excellent goalkeeper for us but could he have done better with some of the goals we have conceded this season? And as modern keepers go, is his distribution perhaps a little below par at times?

The bookmakers have done their research based on past performances and Arsenal are favourites to win the game at odds of around 11/10. We are about 23/10 with the draw priced at around 5/2. A Bobby Zamora goal at the Emirates was enough for us to seal a 1-0 win in April 2007 which was the third win in a row against Arsenal, and enabled us to complete the double over them that season. But we have faced them on 28 occasions home and away since then and we have beaten them just twice, a 2-0 win on their patch on the opening day of the 2015-16 season (Kouyate and Zarate were the goalscorers that day), and 1-0 at the London Stadium in January 2019 with a goal from Declan Rice, his very first for us. There have been two 3-3 draws in those 28 games. What are the chances of a similar score tomorrow?