Mid-term report as West Ham make a trip to the Palace

If the season had gone to plan with no postponements due to COVID then Boxing Day should have signalled the mid-point of the Premier League season. However the fixture at home to Norwich on 18 December was called off, so we didn’t complete our 19th game of the 38 match season until last Tuesday when we comprehensively beat (what I thought was) a poor Watford team by four goals to one, our third win by that score in the first half of the season.

Normally one would expect that in the first half of the season a team would play against all the other 19 teams first and then play the reverse fixtures in the final 19 games. This season that hasn’t happened, partly because of the postponement of the Norwich game, but also because the fixtures scheduler arranged for us to play against Southampton twice before we faced Watford. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this (perhaps something to do with Christmas?) but the fairest way for a season to be arranged is surely to play all 19 opponents first and then start again with the reverse 19 matches. In years gone by it wasn’t always the case, but in recent seasons it has. In any event we have reached the halfway stage having played nine games at home and ten away, though we have yet to face two games against bottom club Norwich.

We enter 2022 in a very creditable fifth place in the table, although two teams below us could go above us if they won games in hand (Tottenham and Manchester United). Nevertheless with the injuries that have piled up in key positions in the past month, most of us would have been more than happy to have reached the mid-point of the season where we are.

On the basis of league table positions alone, we have faced much tougher fixtures at home than when on our travels. The nine teams we have played at the London Stadium are currently in the following positions in the league (2,3,6,7,9,10,11,13,14) which has an average of 8th. Ironically we have managed famous victories against four of the five highest placed visitors, but on the other hand have failed to beat the four lowest placed teams with draws against those in 10th and 11th, and home defeats against those in 13th and 14th. Our home record is therefore 4 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats.

Our travels have taken us generally to teams lower in the league at this stage (1,4,8,12,13,15,16,17,18,19) which has an average of 12th. We have lost the 3 games against the teams in the top half, but are unbeaten against the 7 teams we have faced from the bottom half of the table (5 wins and 2 draws). Our overall away record is therefore 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats.

Of course the second half of the season will be in reverse with tougher fixtures away from home and easier games at home based upon the current standings. Of the remaining 10 games at home, 6 of them are against the current bottom 6 teams, and only Manchester City and Arsenal are from the top 7. What we must do is match last season’s performances against the weaker teams. I would like to think that we could win up to 8 of these games, and then it would depend upon our performances away from home to see our final finishing position. 31 points from the second half of the season to match the 31 from the opening 19 games would result in 62 points, which is exactly what Tottenham managed last season finishing 7th. We finished 6th of course with 65. So much will depend on the injury situation (particularly in defence positions), whether we can pick up two or three exciting acquisitions in the forthcoming transfer window, winning home games against teams below us in the table, picking up valuable points on our travels, and the unknown effect that COVID might have in the next few months of the season.

Exciting times ahead – my prediction is for 34 points from our remaining 19 games to end the season on 65 points, an exact match of last time, and hopefully a place in the top 6 once again.

Of course I’ve only looked at the league so far, and in a week’s time we will begin our FA Cup campaign at home to Leeds. We have to wait until March for our resumption in the last 16 of the Europa League. I hope that we can go a long way in both of these competitions too. We performed so well in the EFL Cup with very difficult draws, and the loss to Tottenham came at a time when injuries had hit us hard.

Transfer rumours are already underway. I’d like to see a couple of left sided defenders (perhaps a left back and a centre back comfortable on the left) both with pace. For me the pace is important.  And also an out and out goalscorer would be more than useful; in fact a necessity if we are to maintain our challenge on all fronts. Personally I’m happy with the players we have in midfield. I wonder if it will be possible to unearth the players we need in these difficult times? We seem to have a very promising crop of Academy players at the moment, and we can hope that one or more will break through too at the top level.

Which brings me to the game against Palace. First time around the game ended 2-2 at the London Stadium in our third game of the season in August. The impressive loan signing from Chelsea, Gallagher, scored twice as Palace came from behind in that game. They have had a decent start to the season and sit comfortably in mid-table. Their highlight was an unexpected 2-0 win at Manchester City who are once again having an excellent season on top by 8 points at this stage.

Palace are one of the teams where the draws column exceeds both wins and losses. Their figure of 8 draws is equal to Burnley and Newcastle and exceeded by only Brighton and Southampton with 9. They have a decent goalscoring record with 27 goals putting them equal 7th in the Premier League at this stage. They haven’t failed to score at home since being held to a goalless draw against Brentford in August.

I have a feeling that they will struggle when the African Nations Cup comes around in January as a number of key players will be lost to that competition. But that’s in the future and their current form of 7 points from their last 5 games is equivalent to our own.

We are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at around 13/10, with Palace at 2/1 and the draw about 12/5. A 2-2 draw to match the reverse fixture is around 14/1, but my forecast, a 2-1 Hammers win comes in at around 17/2. These are the games we would love to win to maintain our challenge for the top 6. What are the chances? A Happy New Year to all readers of Under The Hammers; let’s hope for three points for a great start to 2022!

What The Dickens: The Best Of Times On The Pitch But The Worst Of Times In The Transfer Window

Performances on the pitch continue to defy the behind the scenes discontent as West Ham set their sights on a three match winning start to the season by defeating Crystal Palace

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t give a second thought to the league table after just two games played. But life is too short not to make exceptions. And with the Hammers sitting proudly at the top of the table, why not take the time to enjoy with a little smug smile of satisfaction. Even if we know it is only a temporary state of affairs.

Look no further than the fact that Arsenal were top at the same stage last season as a cautionary tale on how bad things can turn out. In fact, seven different clubs led the table last season before Manchester City eventually hit the front to win the title at a canter.

It’s all a bit Jekyll and Hyde at West Ham right now. A club with a split personality swinging between the many good things happening on the pitch and the ongoing turmoil of inaction behind the scenes.

To see the Hammers described in the press as “disciplined and aware, determined and resilient” is unfamiliar territory for seasoned supporters. We may have seen teams with greater individual flair and flamboyance in the past, but the current level of unity, courage, and team spirit has never been as obvious.

The performance against Leicester on Monday was close to perfection. Outstanding organisation and a rigorous compact shape, founded on the formidable Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek partnership, gave the visitors little scope as an offensive threat. Vardy and Maddison were neutralised, our defences were untroubled, and attacking players allowed to flourish.

Michail Antonio rightly received the plaudits for his record breaking goal-scoring exploits, but it was equally pleasing to witness top notch performances from Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen. I would go as far to say it was Fornals best all-round performance in a West Ham shirt – an extra helping of creativity added to his undoubted endeavour and work-rate.

If things are going well on-the-pitch this feels at odds with the usual transfer window shenanigans from the boardroom. To say West Ham have been quiet in the transfer market is a massive understatement. With just three days left until the ceremonial slamming-shut, no permanent signings have yet been made (unless you count the option to buy for Craig Dawson).

While other clubs are able swoop in and sign a player within a few hours of him being linked to a rival, the West Ham hierarchy continue to move at glacial speed – so what chance is there of completing more signings by Tuesday night? There is a fine line between getting a good deal and completely missing the boat.

I would be happy with the signing of Kurt Zouma but will not be counting any chickens until I see him holding the shirt. The move has been going on so long they could make it into a Netflix series. The deal has been off and on so many times it is difficult to keep track – personal terms, payment terms, agent fees, dodgy knees and whether to have pineapple on the take-away pizza they have ordered in. Supposedly the medical has been completed OK, but still minor issues to resolve before pen is put to paper.

Signing Zouma does nothing to resolve the striker debacle, however – although I did read he used to play right-wing. Hmmm? It is seven months since Haller was sold and still no sign of support or backup plan for the clubs one and only injury-prone frontman. It is impossible to read between the lines of what David Moyes has said on the striker search, given that he is notoriously cautious and unwilling to reveal his hand, but the omens don’t feel good. If there was ever an ideal time to invest in the squad this would be it.

Today’s visitors to the London Stadium for an unaccustomed Saturday 3pm kick-off are occasional West Ham party poopers Crystal Palace. It has been a slow start to the season for the Eagles and new manager, Patrick Viera, with just a single point and no goals to show from their two games. From the outside it looks like Viera has a thankless job on his hands in making something of the ageing squad left by Roy Hodgson. Hodgson’s Palace were exceedingly dull but he had them organised well enough to keep relegation out of harms way. They will be banking on there being three even worse teams in the league this time around though.

With each passing season Palace’s talisman, Wilfred Zaha, has become less talismanic. The kryptonite of not getting his move away from Selhurst Park has left him a weaker, irritable, and forlorn figure – to the point where a cardboard cut-out might even do a better job.

As ever, the danger is treating today’s game as a forgone conclusion. It’s fine for us supporters to do so, but the players mustn’t fall into the complacency trap. There is still a difficult job to be done. As much as our rapid counter-attacking style of play has the beating of Leicester these days, it will need to adapt to meet the challenge posed by a team with no intent of bossing possession.  Creating goal-scoring opportunities against a packed defence requires a different level of cunning.

I am tempted to look at the clues 4-2, 4-1, and see a 4-0 demolition as the next in the sequence (I may have been watching too many episodes of Only Connect).  I doubt it will be a rampant display, though, and will settle for a more conservative 2-0 win. Maybe that will be enough to keep us top of the table going into the international break. COYI!

“I Don’t Believe It!” – West Ham fans erupt as they score four again to go top of the table

If you thought beating Newcastle 4-2 on the opening day was good, how about a third consecutive win against Leicester (who finished last season in fifth place in the Premier League), and scoring ten goals against them in those three games? And as Michail Antonio thrashed the fourth goal into the net we had the realisation of being top of the league. As hardened West Ham fans we know it won’t last, but we’ll enjoy it for now, especially because we are watching a team playing some great attacking (or counter attacking) football. All over the pitch the players are playing with massive confidence and belief in their abilities.

Richard Wilson was on the TV on Wednesday. For those of you who have forgotten, or are not old enough to remember him, he was the main character in the sitcom One Foot In The Grave, playing Victor Meldrew, a grumpy sixty year old who had just involuntarily retired. He encounters a series of problems, many of his own making, and has a catchphrase “I don’t believe it”, a phrase echoed by most football fans seeing the Hammers perched at the top of the table. Incidentally I was surprised to see that the last episode aired over 20 years ago.

After all we are not noted for barnstorming starts to the season. The last time we won the opening two games in a Premier League season was in 1997. Comparing this season to last we are already six points ahead of where we were after two games. But as I say we won’t get carried away, but while we can keep our first choice players fit we can continue to win games. The problems will arise as the fixtures pile up with the Europa League games, and our relatively thin squad, especially if we get injuries to key players.

Here’s another poser for you. When do you think we last won our opening two games in the top flight and scored eight goals in the process? It has happened before, way back in 1930, a mere 91 years ago. That season we began with two home games, beating Huddersfield 2-0 in the first, and then in front of just 11,682 on the following Monday we put seven past Liverpool. Both of those teams went on to finish in the top half of the table, whereas we didn’t.

Our main goalscorer at the time (and the club’s leading goalscorer of all time) was Vic Watson. He scored six goals in those opening two games, and just like Antonio now was the leading goalscorer in the league. He scored 11 goals in the first 7 games and then he got injured and was missing for the next four months. Back then we had a ready-made replacement to play up front (Viv Gibbins) who took over the number 9 shirt and scored 19 goals in 22 games. When Watson was fit again he resumed his place in the team and Gibbins was left out, just playing a handful of games when Watson was injured again at the end of the season.

How did that season turn out after the brilliant start? Despite being fourth at Christmas a poor second half of the season saw us finish in 18th place. The two teams relegated that season were Leeds and Manchester United. Incidentally we won the first two games the following season too, but we only collected one point in the final ten games and finished bottom and were relegated. Of course there won’t be any parallels this season but the lack of cover for Antonio (at the time of writing) is a potential worry unless David Moyes has an alternative that we don’t know about.

Crystal Palace have collected just one point from their opening two fixtures, losing 3-0 to Chelsea and drawing 0-0 with Brentford. They were also dumped out of the EFL Cup 1-0 by Watford with an Ashley Fletcher goal (remember him?). In three games they have yet to score a goal and we are overwhelming favourites to make it nine points from our opening three games before the International break. We are 8/15 to win the game, with Palace at 5/1. We are now seventh favourites at 75/1 to win the Premier League too.

We’ll enjoy it while it lasts, and I’m hoping that my pre-season prediction of finishing sixth at the end of the season doesn’t end up being very far wide of the mark. Perhaps we can even do better than that? I’m hoping for four goals on Saturday for the third game in a row at the start of a season. I don’t believe that has ever happened before. What are the chances?