Bridge Over Troubled Waters: West Ham Finally Wake Up To Earn Pellegrini Reprieve

I’d rather be a hammer than a blue. West Ham defy the odds with a deserved victory to keep the customer’s satisfied – at least for the time being. What did we learn?

Oh! What A Surprise

I doubt that even the most optimistic of us saw this coming. I certainly didn’t, and had fully prepared myself for the worst – that adding yet another game to the demoralising win-less run was a mere formality. But it wasn’t to be. The West Ham of recent weeks had seemingly hired an unusually energetic and lively set of impersonators who would compete rather than capitulate. In the end it was a comfortable victory against a surprisingly subdued Chelsea side. The final margin of victory could easily have been wider, even ignoring the disallowed goal. It was a much improved effort all round. Better shape, improved intensity, space closed down and the ball moved far more quickly. Much was made of the change of keeper (and that was immensely important) but other factors contributed equally: Mark Noble sitting deeper alongside Declan Rice as a defensive midfield duo; Robert Snodgrass and Pablo Fornals working their socks off in the wider midfield positions; and greater mobility up front through Michail Antonio. The obvious question is, why did it take eight games and the onset of a sacking crisis for Manuel Pellegrini to finally make changes to his game plan? With an away game against Wolves coming up in a few days we will get the opportunity to see whether Saturday’s performance was a one-off reaction or the springboard for better things.

In Comes Startin’ Martin

David Martin’s Premier League debut at age 33 was the great story of the weekend. His emotion at the end of the game and the embrace with dad, Alvin, was a priceless moment. It is the first time I have seen him play and he looked more than a competent deputy. Handled well, was composed and communicated with his team-mates throughout the game. It must have been an enormous relief to the rest of the defence to know that disaster wasn’t lurking behind you. Quite what the manager and coaching staff have seen in training to prefer Roberto over Martin is a puzzle. The choice between the erratic flamboyance of Roberto and the unspectacular, competence of Martin should not be a difficult one, Señors. Neither can be regarded as a replacement for the injured Fabianski but only one will have the trust of his colleagues. Buoyed by the presence of a capable keeper and better protection from midfield the improvement in the performances of Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena was clear. Admittedly, Chelsea offered little attacking variety but the defence did all that they had to do very well. A bonus takeaway from the weekend was confirmation, if it were needed, that Giroud would not make a positive addition to the West Ham squad.

The Beast Is Back

Michail Antonio rightly took many of the post-match plaudits for a performance that was pivotal to West Ham’s success. With Antonio you get exactly what it says on the tin – pace, power and directness. He unsettles and out-muscles defences, provides a willing outlet for team-mates and is prepared to chase down opponents once possession is lost. He may not possess the greatest of technical ability but so what? It doesn’t diminish his overall effectiveness and eliminates much of the predictability from West Ham’s attacking play – provided that he is used correctly. Antonio’s qualities have frequently been undervalued by successive managers at the club, who have regarded him as emergency cover across multiple positions, rather than to be used where he can do most damage. It would be great to see him deployed in tandem with Sebastien Haller – opposing defences would certainly know that they have been in a game.

How do you solve a problem like Felipe?

Felipe Anderson has become the most enigmatic of characters. I have to say I was pleased to hear that he had been moved to a central midfield position when the lineups were revealed. The failed tactic of using him and Yarmolenko stranded on the ‘wrong’ flanks has never worked since the start – and, what’s more, it denies space for the full-backs to exploit. Aaron Cresswell demonstrated this to good effect on Saturday culminating in an excellent goal. Ryan Fredericks was less inclined, and seems too nervous to venture forward beyond his midfield partner. I don’t subscribe to the view that Anderson is a lazy player but he is frustrating one. He is clearly not happy, has lost his early swagger and is not providing value for money as far as creativity is concerned. I wonder if there is a problem between him and Pellegrini? Unable to rely on the services of Jack Wilshere or Manuel Lanzini, West Ham need Anderson primed and ready if they are to make anything of the season. Yarmolenko’s brief cameo from the bench didn’t inspire any confidence, while the remainder of the bench was, as usual, completely uninspiring. With Haller already benched, why also include Albian Ajeti, rather than giving Nathan Holland the experience?

Falling Foul Of Jon Moss

A notable statistic from the match was that Chelsea did not commit any fouls – correction – were not penalised for committing any fouls. Jonathan Moss is well known as a ‘homer’ referee and he did not disappoint on this outing. I am sure he was quite relieved that his VAR pal was able to detect a technical infringement for the second ‘goal’. The decision may have been correct according to the letter of the current interpretation of the law.  But this ‘any arm contact is handball interpretation’ is a brand new concept – it is not the reason so many were keen to see the introduction of VAR in the first place. I can recall controversies with penalty and offside decisions but not with balls accidentally striking hands.  An infringement should be an infringement regardless of who does it and where on the pitch it happens. VAR remains a good idea but typical of the football authorities that it has been so poorly implemented.

Player Ratings: Martin (7), Fredericks (7), Ogbonna (7), Balbuena (7), Cresswell (7), Rice (8), Noble (7), Snodgrass (7), Anderson (6), Fornals (7), Antonio (8) Subs: Yarmolenko (5), Haller (6), Masuaku (6)

Manuel’s Labours: Pellegrini And West Ham Certain To Be Singing The Blues After Stamford Bridge Showdown

The tortoises travel across London to face the hares this afternoon. What are the chances of a fairy tale finish?

If there was to be a Manuel Pellegrini terrace song then surely it would be one of those old blues/ country numbers where his women’s done left him, his momma’s an alcoholic, the house has burned down and the dog has died. The protagonist reflecting on this as he awaits the padre to escort him to his execution.

After a week of intense speculation where the entire focus was exclusively on who the club are lining up as his replacement, it has been reported that our manager has been given two weeks to save his job. At least when Flash Gordon was given 14 hours to save the Earth he had a sporting chance of achieving it.

In their wisdom, the two Daves decided that kicking the can down the road a little more was the sensible course of action to take – seemingly prepared to write off the games against Chelsea and Wolves.  Maybe they believe it will make them appear more reasonable and thoughtful chaps – or else, save them a few weeks worth of severance payments. It is difficult to understand that anyone who has sat through a West Ham game in the past two months can’t see that the chance of Pellegrini turning around the fortunes of this aimless, dispirited, divided and disorganised squad are several times slimmer than winning the Euro millions. The more humane option would have been to put him quickly out of his misery; allowing someone new the chance to assess strengths and weaknesses before the transfer window opens in the new year.

If actually getting a new manager in place is going to take a few more weeks, then let the U23 manager take charge on a caretaker basis. From what I have seen (admittedly only highlights) it looks like he knows how to set up and organise his side with both pace, energy and enterprise – it’s not as if he could do any worse. It really is a bizarre club where the academy sides play an entirely different style of football to the first team.

The elephant in the room when it comes to appointing a new manager is, unfortunately, the lack of imagination present in those making the selection. I don’t believe for a moment that the Board have been scouring the European leagues to identify up-and-coming talent – a few phone calls to their favourite agent or a search on Google would be closer to the mark. There have been so many names bandied about it is impossible to know which are genuine contenders and which have just been made to gain attention.

Personally, I would like to see someone who can be a longer term fix – a younger manager capable of instilling the kind of style, ethos and unity necessary to compete in modern Premier League football. What we don’t need is another rescue mission from one of the a managerial dinosaurs who may know how not to lose, but has little idea how to win.

We like to clutch straws and take comfort where we can find it and I would be happy with an appointment such as Eddie Howe – should he have any interest in coming to the London Stadium. At least now when I see a headline claiming “West Ham keen to pursue 41 year old” it just might refer to a managerial candidate rather than the latest stand-in goalkeeper or central midfield target.

Speaking of young managers, today will see West Ham come up against a Chelsea side managed by old foe Frank Lampard.  It has really surprised me how well he has done so far this season. I did think he would make a good manager one day but that this job had come too early for him – particularly with the transfer ban in place. Like it or not, Lampard is intelligent, articulate and happy to learn and adjust as he goes. His team play fast and attractive football and work hard for each other.  The introduction of a number of young academy players must have exceeded all expectations at the club.

Quite how our own laggardly rabble will fare against such youthful exuberance doesn’t bear thinking about. It could be a very long afternoon – starting an hour before kick-off when Pellegrini announces his latest permutation from his group of apparent strangers.

I read one laughable report in the week that suggested a recall for Carlos Sanchez (with Declan Rice dropping back to replace the suspended Issa Diop). The rationale being that the introduction of Sanchez changed the course of the game last week. Good grief! The worrying thing is that there is a good chance that Pellegrini saw it the same way – a tactical masterstroke that just came too late to save the day.  Can you imagine a midfield of Sanchez, Noble and Snodgrass chasing the shadows of Kante, Mount and Willian? He may as well bring back Pablo Zabaleta to take care of Pulisic.

Unless there is something devilishly cunning going on beneath the manager’s calm persona, I don’t expect any revolutionary changes to what we have seen taking place over recent weeks. A token effort for 15 to 20 minutes or so followed by a collapse when the first goal goes in. The other great unknown being who will it be be picking the ball out of the net when that happens. Seeing Roberto on the team sheet again could cause spontaneous combustion across the east-end.

This week’s referee double act consists of Jonathan Moss (West Yorkshire) trying to keep up with play on the pitch and Andrew ‘Andy’ Madley (Huddersfield) on VAR duty.

Media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are being rather conservative in predicting a home win but only by 2-1 and 2-0 respectively. I can easily see this being a complete rout and annihilation – something close to the 7-1, which I believe would equal our worst ever Premier League defeat (away to Blackburn in October 2001). Despite all this negativity I will still be watching and be urging us on to win. Perhaps there can be a miracle (like the two Di Canio goals in September 2002) but I can’t see where that individual quality can come from these days. I usually look forward to games but will be more than happy when this one is all over.

In-form Chelsea face out-of-form West Ham. Surely there is only one possible outcome?

Shortly before our game against Bournemouth on 28th September, just two months ago, I wrote the following words in this column:

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

The three non-elite teams in the top six just seven games ago were ourselves, Bournemouth and Leicester. We drew 2-2 at the Vitality Stadium that day whilst Leicester went on to thrash Newcastle 5-0 the following day. Not a bad result for us in the scheme of things. The previous Sunday we’d beaten Manchester United 2-0, but then we crashed out of the Carabao Cup in midweek to Oxford by an embarrassing 4-0 scoreline. Just another cup blip like so many in my lifetime. Never mind perhaps we were concentrating on the Premier League! So where are the three teams who had gate-crashed the top six just a few weeks ago? Well, Leicester are now second, Bournemouth are eleventh, and we are seventeenth! Just one place above the three teams occupying the relegation positions!

Just before the Everton game on 19th October, just six weeks ago, I wrote the following in this column:

It also means that Marco Silva heads the betting (at 5/4) for the next Premier League manager to leave his post (ahead of Solkskjaer at 2/1 and Pochettino at 5/1). What better for Everton than a home game against West Ham who specialise in helping teams and managers in this kind of predicament? Incidentally, at 50/1 our manager has only two managers below him in the betting to be next to leave (Klopp and Lampard are both 66/1).

Third favourite (Pochettino) has gone already, so the betting for the next Premier League manager to leave his post makes interesting reading. Emery at Arsenal is the new favourite at 1/2, Silva is still a low price despite Everton collecting 7 points in their last five games at 2/1, and the third favourite is guess who? Yes, Mr Pellegrini at 5/1. Quite a shortening of odds over a 7 game run in the league! The form table that I write about regularly in this column, based on the last 5 games, now has us at rock bottom, tied with Palace at 1 point! Southampton have 2 and Arsenal 3. Norwich have 4, and then both Watford and Bournemouth have 5. One point a game average is usually the minimum needed over the course of a whole season, so the teams I’ve just mentioned are the ones based on current form who would appear to be in the most trouble.

Our opponents this week have won four of their last five league games and so are in really good form. I watched their game last weekend where they lost 2-1 at Manchester City. The quality of football produced by both sides was so far superior to anything we have seen in recent times. Frank Lampard has made a very promising start to management at the top level, which won’t be a pleasing thing for some of our fans who dislike him (or worse). Where does he stand on the hate scale compared to Messrs. Ince, Defoe, and Payet? Chelsea sit comfortably in fourth place seven points clear of the fifth team, who incidentally are our next opponents. Yes, the game after this one will be another away game at Molyneux. Wolves, despite their slow start, have risen to fifth in the table and have only lost two games this season. Where are our next points coming from?

There is little point in me writing about the shortcomings of the team, or our current manager. In the last few columns both Geoff and I (mainly Geoff) have gone into some detail as to what we believe the problems would appear to be, but has anything changed? I always remain hopeful but the club appear to have hit a very low spot that requires drastic action. The dramatic fall from the top six down to seventeenth with a run of fixtures that on paper were not the most difficult would have resulted in action elsewhere, but, despite numerous rumours, it appears nothing has changed. I still expect to see the same team and squad selected this week, and cannot see anything other than another defeat. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I just cannot see anything else. If it is any consolation we can’t be in the bottom three on Saturday night, but by Sunday it is possible, albeit unlikely. At the current rate it will happen soon, and then perhaps some action will be taken.

The gulf between the teams at the top of the table and those further down is now massive. Three teams who are not even in the bottom three, ourselves, Newcastle and Brighton are very long odds to win their games this weekend. We are 9/1 to win at Chelsea, Newcastle are 14/1 to win at home to Manchester City, and Brighton are also 14/1 to win at Liverpool. A 2,250/1 treble on three football matches shows just what the Premier League has become.

West Ham v Chelsea – Monday 15 August

A look forward to Monday night’s opener against Chelsea.

Last season the fixtures computer gave us one of the hardest possible opening fixtures, away at Arsenal. We rose to the challenge with a 2-0 victory, so the computer decided that we could comfortably cope with a tough away game, and gave us another one this year at Chelsea. Despite their poor showing last season they should not be underestimated – the bookmakers make them third favourites to regain the title (remember they were champions the season before last) behind the two Manchester clubs.

andy carroll versus chelseaOf course we beat them last season at Upton Park with a goal from Zarate and a superb winning header from Carroll. But perhaps the game is best remembered for Mourinho being sent off, and the pictures in the following morning papers as he cut a sad figure watching the game from the back of the directors’ box. We were also mightily unlucky in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge when we were robbed, as so frequently happened in the latter stages of the season, by the incompetence of the officials (in this case Mr. Madley). Chelsea’s two goals which earned them a draw were dubious to say the least. For the first the referee made our wall retreat twelve yards allowing Fabregas to score more easily from a free kick, and for the second he gave a penalty when Loftus-Cheek tripped himself up just outside our penalty area. Two scandalous decisions but it is all water under the Bridge now.

I can remember three occasions when we have played Chelsea in the opening league fixture. The first was in our cup winning season of 1963-64 when we drew 0-0 away. I was nine years old at the time and on holiday with my parents and sister in a caravan at the Martello Camp in Walton on the Naze. I didn’t find out the result until the next morning when my dad bought the Sunday paper.

Moore, Hurst and PetersAlmost 50 years ago to the day I was at Upton Park for the first game of the 1966-67 season just three weeks after England had won the World Cup. Moore, Hurst and Peters ran on to the pitch alone before the start of the game to receive the acclaim of the West Ham crowd of over 36,000. Unfortunately, despite a goal from Budgie Byrne, we lost that opening game 2-1.

Recently I have been re-reading Robert Banks’ excellent trilogy of books, An Irrational Hatred of Luton, West Ham Till I Die, and The Legacy of Barry Green. In the third book he recounts the first fixture of the 2000-2001 season when we lost 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, with our goals coming from Di Canio and Kanoute. The part I particularly remember is him describing the hot day, a large number in the crowd removing their shirts to resemble the beach at Blackpool, but saying that the donkeys were on the pitch. I seem to recall he was quite scathing about our performance.

There may well have been other first day games against Chelsea but these are the only three that I remember. So what will happen this time? They have a new manager, one of a dozen or more top flight bosses who were not Premier League managers on the opening day of last season. A former Italian international footballer and manager, he has impeccable club footballing management credentials having led Juventus to three consecutive titles from 2011-2014.

Perhaps 2-2 to match the result at Stamford Bridge last season? That would be a good result, although I have a feeling that we might just lose to the odd goal in three. I hope that I’m wrong.

Most Premier League teams play high profile friendly matches before the start of the league season and Chelsea are no exception. In some ways the results are meaningless as players are getting match fit before the real season gets underway. Nevertheless in the last fortnight or so they have lost narrowly to Real Madrid (as we did against Juventus), but they have also recorded impressive victories over Liverpool, AC Milan, and Werder Bremen.

It is a tough opening. Who knows if it is a good or bad time to be playing such a difficult fixture? I hope for a win of course as I always do, realistically I will be pleased if we draw the game, but I won’t be too disheartened if the result does go against us if we put up a decent performance. Perhaps 2-2 to match the result at Stamford Bridge last season? That would be a good result, although I have a feeling that we might just lose to the odd goal in three. I hope that I’m wrong.

A draw would be a good result there. Remember our “19th Century Football 0-0 draw” there in 2013-4 that annoyed Mr. Mourinho so much. It gave us the impetus to go on and win the next four consecutive games. And what are the chances of us repeating the result at Stamford Bridge of just over 30 years ago in March 1986? For those of you too young to remember Tony Cottee scored twice, Frank McAvennie and Alan Devonshire scored one apiece, as we thrashed them 4-0 on our way to our highest ever (third place) finish in the top division.