Hammers Hoping To Upset The Clarets And Stop The Fat Lady From Singing Too Early

Injuries remain a concern but Moyes playing with a full deck can keep the European dream alive until the final day of the season

In an unusual turn of events, the weekend’s Super Sunday was thrown into disarray by a pitch invasion at an empty Old Trafford. Unexpected as it was, it is perhaps not surprising that something like this has happened. Authorities do not like it when the hoi polloi take direct action, but if complaints are persistently ignored, then frustrations will eventually boil over. Incidents of violence should not be condoned, but that is not the main story here. The continued hijacking of the national game by mega business interests, sovereign states and private equity funds cannot proceed unchecked. The aborted ESL plans have brought the issue to a head and must be addressed before the next inevitable power grab raises its ugly head.

What the fall-out from the postponement will be can only be speculated on. A deathly silence remains on the sanctions yet to be applied to the sordid six for their original breach of Premier League rules. Given that rulings generally work against the interest of West Ham, I expect Liverpool to be awarded last night’s match as a walkover with Manchester United docked just enough points not to threaten their top four status.

It was interesting to hear David Moyes raise the issue of the Hammer’s treatment by referees and the league in the wake of the Fabian Balbuena red card debacle. Having had five of the last straight red cards overturned should be raising alarm bells, even at the FA. It’s a while since I studied probability, but if we assume the likelihood of a card being overturned is 10%, then five out of eight equates to a seven in a million chance of being random. Perhaps I have worked that out wrong, but said with enough confidence, people will believe it!

I was quite surprised at the number of pundits coming out in support of the referee’s decision. Too many basing their opinion incorrectly, it seems, on selected slow-motion replays of the point of contact, just as the ref had done. Do all the ex-players not good enough to coach now take up punditry? Having a controversial opinion online has no downsides, it appears.

Each time the authorities introduce rule change to address perceived problems in the game they manage to make things worse, or more inconsistent. Football is the world’s most popular sport due to its simplicity. Having different rules to punish offences depending where on the pitch they occur defies that simplicity. Cynical fouls and handballs are perfect examples.

Christensen was allowed to escape a yellow card for an early cynical foul on Tomas Soucek in the game last week because it was in the Hammer’s half. Leaving him free to repeat the crime on Jesse Lingard later on to take his ‘one for the team’. It is not selfless sacrifice it is cheating.

Elsewhere, Azpilicueta was deemed not to have handled the ball because he was as a defender, whereas Callum Wilson (as an attacker) was earlier penalised for a similar accidental play when scoring the first equaliser for Newcastle against Liverpool?  Cynical (or tactical) fouls like diving and acting are not part of the game and should be dealt with severely and consistently, wherever they occur.

As for the 3D line measurements coming out for VAR offside decisions, why not just simplify matters, until a complete review of the offside law is completed, by taking account of feet only and ignoring other body parts?

The one late Sunday game that did go ahead yesterday saw West Ham drop down to sixth and swapping places with Tottenham. A little more pressure added to the Hammers as they prepare for their visit to Burnley.

Injuries will play a major part in the concluding weeks of the Hammer’s excellent season. The current situation is far from clear with different reports suggesting Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell, Arther Masuaku and Michail Antonio are either all available or all still knee deep in the treatment room. With Moyes preferring to play his cards close to chest, we have no way of knowing whether he has a full deck (or Dec) or not. Having Rice and Cresswell back at Burnley would be a huge bonus. Without having any inside knowledge I am doubtful that we will see much of Antonio and Masuaku for the rest of the season.

The captain (and by that, I mean Rice) in particular, has been sorely missed in the past two games for his drive, energy and leadership in every area of the pitch. His influence cannot be overestimated. In his absence, Mark Noble has tried hard but nowadays plays so deep it would be no surprise to see him run out with a miner’s lamp and a canary. Ironically, there are rumours that Noble is also on the injured list. Both missing would be perplexing.

Getting the Balbuena red card rescinded was something of an academic exercise in that we are unlikely to see any more of him in a West Ham shirt. The damage of that poor decision was done on the day, not by any subsequent suspension. Craig Dawson will be back tonight (from his own suspension) and is the ideal man to stand-up to the physical challenge of Chris Wood, as he did in the home fixture last January. All other changes will depend on what the injury situation finally reveals.

Burnley produced the stand-out result from last weekend when they beat Wolves 4-0, effectively making themselves safe from lingering relegation worries.  As well as Burnley played, Wolves were truly dreadful – one of the most incompetent performances I have seen for some time. The Clarets have some useful players and more importantly a tremendous team spirit. Pope is a top class keeper, Wood and McNeil are always dangerous, Vydra is starting to look a handful and the Tarkowski/ Mee partnership doesn’t give too much away in the air. Certainly no pushovers wo were never realistic relegation candidates!

Only desperate TV executives and commentators continue to hang on to the belief that the Premier League title and the relegation places are yet to be decided. Outcomes are usually obvious well before mathematical certainty confirms them to be so. Those wanting final day drama may be banking on a West Ham resurgence to ensure there is at least one issue in the balance. It will be a damp squib Sleepy Sunday if they are left cutting from match to match to check on the race for seventh.

Burnley are one of the few teams in the Premier League who rank below West Ham in terms of possession, touches and passes completed this season. With both teams averaging around 41% possession, where the ball go for the rest of the game?

It is fascinating how few touches players actually have during a game. According to the stats, West Ham players have totalled just under 17,500 touches in 33 games this season: the equivalent of 48 touches per player per game. Or around £1,000 per touch per week.

With a full complement available, this is a game that West Ham can win. Jarrod Bowen and Lingard carry enough pace, movement, and threat to compensate for the loss of Antonio, but only if the midfield foundation is solid. Without Rice the midfield platform looks shaky and Bowen gets drawn too much into defensive duties – leading the line and chasing back very soon begin to take its toll.

As ever, width on the left hand side is a problem. Ryan Fredericks and/ or Ben Johnson filling in again on their wrong foot is just not good enough in this league. Better contributions are also needed from Pablo Fornals (ineffective in the last two games) and Said Benrahma (ineffective for most of the season). It is a game that has to be won to keep the dreams alive. The TV guys may also need a West Ham win to generate season ending excitement. Otherwise, the fat lady may just as well sing her song and toddle off home for an early bath.

Claret and Blue Derby – the first of Five Cup Finals for West Ham

It’s that time of year for Cup Finals. Manchester City won their first trophy of the season beating Tottenham in the Carabao Cup Final last weekend, and the month of May will bring us the FA Cup Final and European Finals too. But for West Ham, we face Five Cup Finals of our own in our bid to achieve a top four finish for the first time in the Premier League. Of course we will not match the success of the 1985-86 season when we finished a close third in Division One (as the top flight was then), but to attain our highest ever final league position (which was 5th in 1998/99) we may need to win our remaining five games.

In 1998/99 our fifth placed finish was achieved with 57 points, but that total will certainly not be enough this time. We sit on 55 points, and in the last five games we will need to break (probably smash) our Premier League points total best (62 in the 2015/16 final season at Upton Park) to finish in the top four. Whatever the final outcome, it has been an excellent season, but how disappointed will we be if it ended with a whimper and our final position was eighth?   

It was disappointing to lose to the only goal of the game last weekend against Chelsea. But with a relatively thin squad hit by injuries it was perhaps inevitable, although it was a goal that I felt could have been avoided. With our best possible team I feel that we would have given them a lot more to think about, but the injury list has taken its toll now, and we have to hope that the scheduling of this game at Burnley, being the very last fixture in this matchweek, gives us more time for our absentees to return to fitness and be involved.

There are still eight teams involved in the quest for a top four place, and the remaining fixtures of those (excluding the two Manchester clubs who are already there [City], or close [United]) are set out below:

Leicester (62 points, Goal Difference 22, 5 games to go) – Southampton, Newcastle, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham

Chelsea (58 points, Goal Difference 20, 5 games to go) – Fulham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester, Villa

West Ham (55 points, Goal Difference 10, 5 games to go) – Burnley, Everton, Brighton, West Brom, Southampton

Liverpool (54 points, Goal Difference 16, 5 games to go) – Manchester United, Southampton, West Brom, Burnley, Palace

Tottenham (53 points, Goal Difference 18, 5 games to go) – Sheffield United, Leeds, Wolves, Villa, Leicester

Everton (52 points, Goal Difference 4, 5 games to go) –Villa (home), West Ham, Sheffield United, Wolves, Manchester City, Villa (away)

We are now in a position whereby we need to depend on the results of others whilst attempting to get as close as possible to maximum points in our remaining five games. Our game at Burnley will not be an easy one given our poor record at Turf Moor in recent times and the Clarets current form. Their last game, a 4-0 win at Molyneux, was not a result that many would have forecast, although Wolves have had a poor season compared to expectations at the beginning of this campaign.

Leicester have maintained their pole position to finish third with points in the bag and the best goal difference, but based on league positions, their final three fixtures are tough and will coincide with their FA Cup Final involvement. But they may have already done enough? Perhaps not quite yet but their results since losing at the London Stadium have strengthened their hold on that position.

This weekend three of our rivals for a top four place have relatively easy (on paper) fixtures. Leicester travel to Southampton, whereas Chelsea and Tottenham have home games against Fulham and Sheffield United respectively. Everton too are at home to Villa and perhaps Liverpool have the toughest game away at Old Trafford.

By the time we face Burnley on Monday evening we will know how all of our rivals have fared, and it is more than likely that we’ll need three points just to retain our current position. I wonder how many (if any) of our injured players will be fit to return? Reports suggest that some are close, but we need to wait and see.

It’s about time for a win at Burnley, and I’m predicting that we’ll keep a clean sheet and nick a goal or two to maintain our challenge. What are the chances?

Burnley v West Ham – Who Will Have The Claret Blues After the Game?

At the start of the season, as a West Ham fan, would you have been happy that, after eleven games had been played, the team were level on points with Manchester United, Tottenham and Wolves? Almost certainly the answer would have been yes. But if you were asked a different question, such as, after eleven games have been played, would you be happy to be sitting below Sheffield United,  Bournemouth, Brighton and Crystal Palace in the Premier League table? The answer would definitely have been most certainly not. Such is the nature of the Premier League after eleven games with approaching a third of the season completed. Together with the Red Devils, Wolves and our friends from North London, then compared to last season’s finishing positions, then so far we are under-performing, unlike the other four teams mentioned who are currently occupying positions in the table which are exceeding expectations.

I always like to look at current form (say the last five games), and based on that then we would be in a relegation position with just two points, with only Southampton and Norwich below us on one apiece. Even Watford, who have been rooted to the bottom all season, have picked up three points from the last five games. Our opponents this weekend, Burnley, sit immediately below us trailing us by just one point. Their recent form has not been good either, collecting just four points in the last five games. But if they beat us, they will leapfrog us, and in fact all of the teams down to 17th in the table could go past us with wins this weekend if we lose, as we are only two points above Everton who are 17th.

So what exactly has gone wrong? It wasn’t that long ago when we were being touted (alongside Leicester) as one of the teams that could push ahead and perhaps challenge for a place in the top six, or even top four according to some. My friend and co-blogger Geoff wrote an article after the Newcastle game where he highlighted a number of the deficiencies in the team. In particular he mentioned a lack of pace, width, organisation, fitness, commitment and motivation. It is difficult to argue with those. He also mentioned (and I may have added one or two of my own) a slow pedantic build up when attacking, sideways and backwards passing to no real effect – this was particularly galling as the final whistle approached, a selection of an ageing right back to face one of the fastest wingers in the Premier League, the lack of strategy in not having faster players defending against counter attacks launched by the opposition from our corners, a manager with an apparently strange selection policy by not changing an underperforming team, an apparent reluctance to try something different when things are not going right, including a reluctance to try a different formation, the lack of chances given to in-form younger development players, the inability to recognise the need for the club to have at least two goalkeepers of the right quality for the Premier League, the apparent lack of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of opponents prior to games, and perhaps the most worrying of all, a manager who admits that he has no idea where things are going wrong, and no idea what he needs to do to turn it around. That’s quite a list!

On the plus side we do have some talented players. We are one of a number of teams that are probably not good enough to break into the elite six club at the top, but hopefully too good to become embroiled in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table (I hope!). The fact that Sheffield United in sixth place have 16 points and Everton in seventeenth have 11 points demonstrates how closely matched so many of the Premier League teams are. But we cannot become too complacent, and a continuation of the recent poor run would mean that we do get involved at the wrong end of the table. The theory of averaging one point a game throughout the season to avoid the drop usually applies, and this season doesn’t appear to be an exception at the moment with just three teams falling short of that level at the moment. Bookmakers’ odds in respect of relegation reflect the league table to some extent, although we are only tenth favourite to go down (and Everton are 12th), whereas Sheffield United are seventh. I guess the closeness of this season’s Premier League to date (ignoring the clubs at the top and bottom) makes it more interesting for the neutral observer, but how many neutral observers are there?

Burnley are favourites at around 5/4 to win the game, our odds are around 21/10, and the draw is about 13/5. But when you look at the correct score odds, a 1-1 draw is favourite at 5/1, very short odds for predicting a correct score in a football match! The overall head to head record between the two clubs is slightly in our favour, a fact bolstered by recent times. In the last 40 years we have won 15 of the 23 meetings, with 4 draws and 4 defeats. However our last visit to Turf Moor, just before 2018 drew to a close, resulted in a 2-0 defeat with an abject performance, despite coming off the back of a good run at the time. Burnley had suffered a heavy defeat just before they met us, and the same applies this time! This followed the game at the London Stadium a few weeks before then where we came out on top 4-2.

I’ve absolutely no idea about what the manager will decide regarding team selection. If he sticks with the same starting eleven as last week with no discernible change in how they approach the game, then I fear for us against a strong physical Burnley side. My best hope is for West Ham to do what they have done in the past and surprise me. I like surprises of a good kind!

Get Up, Stand Up! Don’t Give Up The Fight! West Ham Badly Need Bottle For Burnley Battle

Husillos is fingered as the convenient fall-guy the for current Hammer woes, but can anyone provide the much needed motivation and organisation to bring an end to the current freefall?

Every poorly performing project needs to have a properly identified scapegoat ready for when things really start to fall apart. In West Ham’s case the responsibility for the recent disastrous run is apparently all down to Director of Football (DOF)/ Recruitment, Mario Husillos.

On the face of it there is damning evidence for this view of the world in the shape of recent recruits Roberto, Carlos Sanchez and Pablo Fornals – but the extent of his culpability is surely dependent on the scope of his actual brief. In my own simple view of how recruitment might work, it is the manager who decides what types of players and needed and for what positions. The board determine what funds are available for each deal (and that includes transfer fees and wages) while it is the DOF’s roles to identify options for each position.

If Husillos had been asked to find the best keeper he possibly could, and the name he came up with was Roberto, then that would indeed be a worry.  If on the other hand he was asked to find an experienced but cheap option as backup, because the club didn’t want to continue paying Adrian’s wage demands, then responsibility is a a more collective one.  If his task was to find the type box-to-box midfielder that has eluded the club for an eternity, and his answer was Fornals, then he would be clearly certifiable. If it was to find a young, creative attacking midfielder then his pick would be easier to understand – even if he looks too slow for the English game.  It would not be his fault if the player was subsequently played out of position. It is difficult to believe that the manager wouldn’t have the final say on signings and for him to be happy that their abilities were a good fit with his preferred style of play.

Aside from a lack of funds, the areas where recruitment has regularly fallen short (and where Husillos must take some share of the blame) are: not being able to scout and develop young talent; ignoring the physical demands and pace of the modern Premier League game; focusing too much on players from the Hispanic world; and signing players with questionable attitude.

According to a ranking of Premier League squads produced at the start of the season, West Ham were valued at £313m (and that allows for the view that the squad was deemed to be irresponsibly thin). In contrast, the weekend’s opponents, Burnley, were valued at £179m. With the two clubs occupying 13th and 14th positions in the table, the logical conclusion is that it is Sean Dyche who is doing the better job. Disregarding a few of the top teams, all managers operate under financial constraints and the ability to meld, organise and motivate players is why they can command big salaries.

With both teams having suffered bad defeats last week, whom I wonder, will do the better job of motivating his team into a reaction.  I wouldn’t risk that much money on it being Manuel Pellegrini.  The memory of last season’s feeble display at Turf Moor is still fresh in the memory. Burnley had been on the wrong end of a 1-5 Boxing Day home humbling by Everton, while the Hammers went into the game having won five of the last six. What transpired was the meekest of all surrenders in a 0-2 defeat against a fully fired-up home side.  Can we expect anything different this time?  It is up to Pellegrini and the players to prove my pessimism misplaced. No mistake this is going to a physical test as much as anything else.

I have long wanted to see Pellegrini at least have a try at a 3-5-2 formation. It would seem to suit our players better, but I don’t anticipate seeing anything that radical when the team is finally announced. It will be the usual tinkering with the core squad of fifteen or so players that leaves us with an unbalanced starting eleven and an uninspiring bench.

In the defence, it would be a huge surprise if Ryan Fredericks doesn’t replace Pablo Zabaleta after his struggles last week, but maybe there will also be recalls for Angelo Ogbonna and Arthur Masuaku. Unfortunately the defensive high line preferred by the manager and the tactic of allowing as many crosses to come in as possible – in the hope that we are strong enough aerially to deal with them – will likely play to Burnley’s strengths – especially when you add a suspect keeper who is low on confidence into the mix.

Will there be any surprises in midfield? There is little chance of Jack Wilshere starting even if he is fit enough for the squad.  That means there is no realistic alternative to Declan Rice and Mark Noble for the more defensive minded duties. Will we still have the two wide-men playing on their wrong side – a tactic, not unlike that weird short free-kick routine, that has fooled absolutely no-one yet. Unlike other observers I thought Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini did OK (at least in the second half) against Newcastle and would persevere with them in the absence of anything more creative available. By default, the last place would go to Robert Snodgrass – mainly for the effort he brings to what is likely to be a robust encounter. Somehow one of Anderson, Lanzini or Snodgrass needs to be deployed far closer to Sebastien Haller if he is not to end up as Billy-No-Mates once again.

This weekend’s referee is Kevin Friend from Leicester. Whispering into his earpiece and picking up the clear and obvious offside armpit calls will be Lee Mason from Lancashire. Friend has been something of a red card enthusiast this season, and there is a good chance of him adding to tally here.

Both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas got it badly wrong last time in predicting a West Ham win over Newcastle, and now both have eyes on a Burnley victory – by 2-0 and 2-1 respectively. I wish I were able to inject a little positivity into proceedings, but now find myself looking nervously down at the foot of the table and hoping that games like Norwich v Watford ends in draws to preserve as much daylight as possible. After this week, the games only get tougher.

I think a hard fought draw is the best we can hope from the game, and even then, the caveat is that it would rely on putting out a team that is up for the fight and able to maintain the intensity for ninety minutes. Recent evidence suggest that this requires a massive improvement in attitude.

With all the weekend focus on Liverpool playing Manchester City no-one is really going to take much notice of this match, but I am keeping my fingers crossed. Otherwise, we got into another international break in a very bad place. COYI!