Tell Me Why, I Don’t Like Monday Night Matches: Hammers Head West To Chelsea

Will it be one big Christmas knees-up or will tiredness and injuries take their toll as the Hammers face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge

If the Christmas bells that ring aren’t exactly what you would call ‘clanging chimes of doom’, the world in general (and football in particular) is still a long, long way away from a return to normality with supporters crammed into packed stadiums. Maybe not until the start of the 2021/22 season under the current wishful thinking trajectory.

Until then, we must continue to make do with current arrangements. Matches staggered over the entirety of the weekend that suits the TV audience demographic e.g. off-peak scheduling unless you are playing one of the big boys. I have always disliked Monday night games even though they have been a part of TV football ever since the early days of Sky. Even more that their Friday night cousin, they never really feel part of the weekend programme.

On the other hand, the top of the Premier League table is starting to take a normal, familiar shape with five of the ‘rich six’ now nestling in the top eight. If the tonight’s game goes the wrong way, then it could be five in the top seven. Only the ongoing turmoil unfolding at Arsenal is preventing a clean sweep.

Having watched too many of this weekend’s games I was left with an overriding sense of how ordinary most of them are when you don’t have ‘any skin in the game.’ Enthralling matches are an exception despite the commentator’s best efforts to make every game to sound like it’s been a thriller.

It occurred to me that maybe we will never return to the days of matches kicking off at the same time. That the staggered kick-offs might well suit the broadcasters and hence the clubs, grateful for the additional revenues that it might bring. It could be something else (like muddy pitches and physical contact) that disappears from the game for good.

In these changing times there is, at least, some consistency with the unexpected return of Fat Sam to football management. The sporting equivalent of Marley’s ghost who has been doomed to a lifetime spent wandering the lower reaches of the English game attempting to rescue lost causes. He looks to have his work cut out this time, though, as he replaces the hapless Slaven Bilic at West Bromwich Albion – a reversal of their sequence at the helm in east London.

Taking the spirit of the ghost of Christmas past, I was reminded of a Boxing Day fixture at Stamford Bridge in 1973. Having lost at home to Stoke the previous Saturday, West Ham were propping up the table when they travelled across the capital to Chelsea four days later.  In those days, if you didn’t go to the game, it was quite difficult to find out the scores until they appeared in the newspaper on the following day. Fortunately, I caught a clip on the TV News in the pub and was surprised to discover the Hammers had one 4-2 (Clyde Best (2), Frank Lampard Sr and Bobby Gould) .

The 1973/74 season was maybe the poorest of all under the management of Ron Greenwood, although it did include a win double over Chelsea. In the return game in March 74, West Ham won 3-0 thanks to a Billy Bonds hattrick. We eventually escaped relegation by a single point in a season that was notable for Bonds ending as the club’s top scorer (13); Derby, Ipswich and Stoke qualifying for Europe; and for the relegation of Manchester United – beware Arsenal!

West Ham versus Chelsea has often been a feisty affair. Before their Russian inheritance I saw them as our London equals on the pitch, slightly behind the more successful north London neighbours. Since then, it has become a more one-sided affair and West Ham have won only one of the last fourteen meetings at Stamford Bridge – that being the equivalent fixture last season, in which Chelsea recorded no fouls against.

The presence of Frank Lampard’s backside in the Chelsea hot seat adds a further dash of spice to proceedings. It has been a mediocre start to club management for the ex-Hammer and despite spending massive amounts of money in the summer, his team lacks any true identity – more a collection of individuals than a team. There have been days when it has clicked, but not often enough to call it a success.

If the press reports are to be believed, Lampard remains keen to add Declan Rice to his numbers. Naturally, I am hoping Rice sticks around at West Ham for some little while longer yet, but if/ when he does eventually leave, he could do so much better than Chelsea. Never go back, Declan!

West Ham were disappointing in midweek against Crystal Palace, demonstrating once again that we struggle to adapt our style when coming up against more dogged opponents. Paradoxically, we are better suited to playing against teams like Chelsea, who we can hit on the break, than those such as Palace, where guile and imagination are required to break down stubborn defences.  Still the game saw a goal of the season contender from Sebastien Haller as well as fine performances from Vladimir Coufal and the skipper (the real one, not the old guy that sometimes turns up.)

Despite its success at Leeds, I do worry about four at the back given our current resources. The thinness of the squad could be a significant factor tonight as a number of players are reportedly carrying knocks. Michail Antonio may be available (but only from the bench, I would think) while Fabian Balbuena, Jarrod Bowen and Aaron Cresswell are among those who have been receiving treatment.

New recruits to the squad are needed badly in the January window if Moyes team are to build on their fine start and maintain momentum in the cluttered schedule of league and (hopefully) cup games. The board should already be in contact with Good King Wenceslas to pop another couple of Czechs in the post.

I can’t make my mind up whether it is a good or bad thing that Chelsea have lost their last two league games. Does that make them more determined to perform or does it add extra pressure? I’m sure David Moyes will approach the game much as he has others against the top sides. Keeping shape and discipline will be essential, as will not letting the fleet footed Chelsea forwards embarrass us for pace. Keep it tight and they will fall over each other trying to walk the ball in. Too open and our defenders won’t see them for dust.

I am staying on the fence for this one with a predicted 1-1 draw. More importantly, I wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year.

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.