Sliding Tackles – What If West Ham Had Beaten Eintracht Frankfurt?

The European Conference League group stages splutter to and end for West Ham with a dead rubber tie in Bucharest. Can they raise the enthusiasm to make it six wins out of six?

Seeing Eintracht Frankfurt make it through to the last sixteen of the Champions League made me wonder what might have happened in a parallel reality had things worked out differently in last seasons Europa League semi-final. What if Aaron Cresswell hadn’t had a rush of blood to the head in the 19th minute, didn’t receive a foolish red card, and West Ham had gone on to overturn the one goal first-leg deficit? A footballing Sliding Doors moment, or Sliding Tackles, in this case.

Granted it would still have required the Hammers also to overcome Glasgow Rangers in the final – no foregone conclusion if pre-season friendlies were anything to go by – but how might our boys team have fared in the glare of Champions League floodlights? Could they have emulated the admirable success of Frankfurt or would it have been the abject failure of Rangers?

Frankfurt probably got lucky in being drawn into one of the weaker or, at least, more balanced of groups – but that should not detract from their fine achievement. Their squad is not radically different to the one we met last May and net summer spending was a modest €6 million. West Ham target, Filip Kostic departed for Juventus while the largest outlay was the permanent signing of loanee Jens Petter Hauge (the player Cresswell had fouled) who was promptly loaned out to Gent in Belgium. Kostic’s replacement was another reported Hammer’s target, Luca Pellegrini, signed on a season long loan from Juventus. In addition to their impressive Champions League exploits, Frankfurt also currently sit a creditable fifth in the Bundesliga.

So what if West Ham had qualified for the Champions League? Would it have been easier to recruit new players in the summer, get the first choices in early and have a reasonably settled side before the season started? Or would the usual haggling and dithering have been just the same?

Despite never being wholly convincing, the Hammers Europa Conference campaign has mostly been a walk in the park against the also-rans of the Denmark, Romania, and Belgium leagues. How might they have fared in group games against the likes of Marseille or Sporting Lisbon? Or against one of the qualifiers from either Italy or Germany – as it would not have been possible to be drawn against Tottenham? Would we have seen the same negative away day tactics that have become the norm in domestic matches against ‘bigger’ clubs?  

Many unknowns but my feeling is that dropping down to the Europa League would have been the most likely outcome. We can never know and the best we can now hope for is another shot at the Europa League next year. It remains the easiest route to the holy grail of Champions League participation for a club like ours.

I’m sure we were all shocked when the cunning David Moyes plan of ‘not trying to score until going a goal down’ failed once again to pay dividends at Old Trafford. Do you think he has spotted a pattern yet? We will have to wait until Boxing Day when his team visit Arsenal to see how Plan B is coming along.

Back in the present reality, there is a meaningless final Conference League group game tonight as West Ham travel to play FCSB, the club formerly known as Steaua Bucharest. Apparently, a West Ham win would be the first time any club has won all six games in this particular competition’s group stages. Even the most desperate manager would be embarrassed to put that on his CV!  

By all accounts it will be a mix of second string and youth players representing the Hammers tonight. According to one unverified source, the only first-team squad members travelling to Romania were Areola, Randolph, Ogbonna, Coufal, Ashby, Johnson, Aguerd, Downes, Coventry, Fornals and Lanzini. So that could very well mean Darren Randolph doing a Les Sealey turn up front!

Still no sign of Maxwell Cornet who was last seen wandering the labyrinth of corridors in the West Ham treatment facility – searching for the way out. You can check out, but you can never leave!

I should be looking forward to seeing a few youngsters getting a run out in tonight’s game – unleashed, I think, is the technical term. Hopefully it will be for more than three minutes of added time, although with the U21s rock bottom of the Premier League 2 perhaps we shouldn’t be getting too excited. But it would be a great experience for the lads involved.

Very difficult to generate any real enthusiasm for the game with all jeopardy removed, but hoping it’s an enjoyable trip for any travelling fans. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

On Handling The Cherries And Preparing For A Danish: West Ham Take On Silkeborg

West Ham set to seal Group B champions spot as they face Silkelborg at the London Stadium. The match may feature the long awaited debut for long-term absentee Nayef Aguerd.

I spent the weekend watching far too many Premier League games on TV than was strictly necessary. There must be more productive things to do when West Ham have been relegated to the Monday night slot. The experience left me with three random observations.

First, what is the point of the Oracle Cloud Win Probability that pops every twenty minutes or so? And are the commentators contractually obliged to mention it’s findings? Manchester City are leading 2-0 and are more likely to win than their opponents. Really, who knew? How is such an insight meant to inform or entertain?

Second, can TV producers please step back from their irritating and increasing tendency to look for arty angles to shoot the action from? As if they are filming a re-make of Escape To Victory. Doesn’t the TV viewer want an equivalent view to what would be experienced in the stadium, not a close up of Jack Grealish’s boots?

Third, and most importantly, if you have no particular skin in the game (i.e. West Ham are not involved) the entertainment value of games is not that great – for what is said to be the best league in the world. There may be momentary flashes of sublime skill, plus the occasional intriguing tactical battle, but take out the partisanship and many games tend towards the dreary for long periods. At least they did this weekend. Perhaps that is why we need the VAR talking points. To stop us nodding off or getting distracted by an animated dancing donkey video on TikTok.

The West Ham – Bournemouth game is unlikely to feature on anyone’s future list of best ever games. The various VAR debates will live far longer in the memory than any of the action on the pitch, and that seems true of so many games these days. No surprise that the West Ham and Bournemouth camps were not in full agreement on the decisions of Messrs Coote and Dean. Post match several ex-referees have given their opinion that according to the letter of the laws (or their current interpretation), both decisions were the correct ones. It is clear, though, that the offside and handball laws in particular need a thorough overhaul. Not to make them easier for VAR to review but to make them more consistent with their original sporting intentions.

Player ratings are another area where strong disagreements arise. Most are probably made up on the hoof without much thought and based on overall impressions – and influenced by individual prejudices. I doubt many are completely objective. Many years ago I think it was only the Sunday People that gave player ratings but in the modern era where it is possible to rate anything and everything (bus stops, flyovers, toilets and so on) they have become ubiquitous. Below is a selection from Monday night’s game.

Football London followed the path of least resistance and gave every West Ham player a 7, while anointing Kurt Zouma as their first among equals STAR MAN (come on Football London couldn’t that have been an 8?). iNews and the Evening Standard were all at 6’s and 7’s aside from the bold iNews decision to award Jarrod Bowen an 8; and the Standard in giving Said Benrahma, 8 and Gianluca Scamacca a sorry 5. Claret & Hugh mostly echoed the Standard ratings but with an additional 8 for Declan Rice. The award for the most creative ratings goes to West Ham Zone whose distribution included Bowen (3), Ben Johnson (4), 8’s for Rice, Benrahma and Thilo Kehrer, and a 9 for Zouma.

In comparison, the stats website, Whoscored, takes an algorithmic approach to its ratings based on a myriad of measurable player actions that are recorded during the course of the game. From that data, Whoscored rated Zouma, Aaron Cresswell, Benrahma, and Tomas Soucek as the Hammer’s top performers (all above 7.5) while Bowen lagged behind as worst of the bunch (excluding late substitutions).

Reading various message boards after the game, I saw plenty of criticism of Soucek, but much of that might be muscle memory from prior performances. I thought he was played more to his strengths against Bournemouth which, as we know, are headed clearances and ghosting in late for goalscoring opportunities. It’s unfortunate that elsewhere on the pitch the messages from his brain take far too long to reach his feet. The emergence of Flynn Downes now presents a conundrum for Moyes as a threesome with Rice, Soucek, and Flynn Downes, leaves one a defensive midfield gooseberry.

It’s a return to Europa Conference League action tonight as West Ham welcome Danish Super Liga club, Silkeborg to the London Stadium. The Hammers are already assured of progressing to the next phase of the competition while Silkeborg are the only club able to overhaul them as group champions. Although it would take a run of freak results to that. To secure top spot West Ham need either a win, a draw or to come out on top in the head-to-head aggregate score against the visitors. A 1-0 or 2-1 defeat would be good enough.

Silkeborg currently sit fourth in their domestic league, two places behind Viborg who the Hammers earlier beat in Conference League qualifying.  They are leading scorers in their league but also have one of the leakiest defences. At the weekend they went down 3-2 away to Horsens after going down to ten men just after the break.

In the reverse fixture between the two clubs, the Hammers won 3-2, recovering from an early home goal, racing to a 3-1 lead and then surviving a late scare after Silkeborg pulled one back. The Danes followed this up with two impressive 5-0 thrashings of FCSB to move into second place. Their final group match will be at home to Anderlecht next week.

David Moyes will likely ring a host of changes in the starting eleven, leaving his bigger guns on the bench in case of accident. Students of the training session videos sent out by the club are suggesting the involvement of Conor Coventry and Pierre-Emmanuel Ekwah in addition to the normal midweek shadow squad. There may even be a welcome West Ham debut for long term absentee Nayef Aguerd at some point during proceedings.    

I’m fully expecting the Hammers to do just enough to get the job done, but not expecting any fireworks. Possibly another 3-2 win. COYI!

Davey’s On A Roll Again – Hammers Looking For Six Wins From Last Seven In Return Anderlecht Showdown

An improved run of results without ever convincing has raised the mood at West Ham. Tonight they get a chance to seal the fate of Group B.

It never ceases to amaze me how much of a pigs-ear the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) have made of implementing VAR. That’s assuming the intention was to eliminate clear and obvious errors, rather than to generate ‘talking points’ for the vast and growing ranks of the punditocracy.

The beauty of football is its simplicity. What should have been the intelligent use of technology to quickly check against major refereeing bloopers, has instead created a whole new set of interpretations that were never a problem in the first place. It has introduced spurious levels of accuracy, offences that are treated differently depending where on the pitch they occured, and an imaginary concept of phases of play. One step forward and several steps backwards is the way I see it. Like permitting the use of self-driving cars on the roads and then insisting the man walking in front with a red flag must be re-introduced at the same time.

Neither of the goals by Gianluca Scamacca or Michail Antonio would have raised an eyebrow in pre VAR days. Balls brushing against the hand as it bounces, or as the result of a challenge is surely not in the spirit of a handball offence. The Scamacca VAR review was the perfect representation of all that is wrong with its implementation. How can it take 2 or 3 minutes to identify whether a clear and obvious error has beem amde? What on earth were they doing? Checking offside, handball, his credit rating and whether he had paid his TV licence? Still, it was smart work by Antonio to play a one-two off the keeper for his goal in order to start a new phase of play – just in case!

And as for the penalty, it was pure stupidity on the part of the Fulham player. His only intention was to block Craig Dawson’s path regardless of where and in which direction the ball was travelling. A clear infringement, and especially so as he had been warned at least twice immediately beforehand. It was a no-brainer penalty decision (apart from in Marco Silva’s head) and every commentary, every minute by minute report was unanimous in its award.

Apart from yet another worryingly slow start, during which Fulham scored and hit the bar, West Ham were by far the more threatening side on Sunday. But we still need a more adventurous attitude if the evolving talents and understanding of Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta are to be utilised to their full extent. While David Moyes will be thrilled that the Hammers have won five of the last six (in all competitions) he must be aware that they have yet to be fully convincing in any game.

Tonight, West Ham have a first opportunity to effectively seal qualification from Group B as champions. A fourth win from four against the second-best team in the group should build an unassailable lead. But it is still a game that needs to be won. Last weeks encounter was a close fought affair despite the West Ham goal coming under next to no pressure until the late Silva header, and the marvelous Areola save.

Just like West Ham, Anderlecht came from a goal down to win 3-1 in the league at the weekend, moving them up to ninth in the Belgian league. It will be interesting to what approach they take to today’s game, where avoiding defeat may best suit their long term qualification interests. If so, the Hammers may have a job on their hands to break them down and maintain their 100% record.

We can expect Moyes to start with a very similar lineup to that used in the previous Anderlecht game, subject to availability. There is some doubt over Antonio, who has been suffering with a cold, and questions as to whether Jarrod Bowen needs to take a rest. Antonio’s absence would necessitate another start for Scamacca, and another opportunity to extend his impressive Europa scoring record. But there is no obvious replacement for Bowen unless Maxwell Cornet is fit to play. The other option being the ever-willing Pablo Fornals moving across to the right hand side – demonstrating that he is too slow to catch Antonio’s cold on either flank.

Although I don’t have any ideological dislike of playing with a back three, our full-backs aren’t really up to playing the advanced wing-back role. Vladimir Coufal and Aaron Cresswell lack the pace and Emerson is too fond of cutting inside to be effective in providing the team’s width. It certainly isn’t good enough against Premier League opposition but may be adequate enough tonight.

Putting the group to bed with two games to spare would be a huge benefit given the busy match schedule in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that we plan to go all out for the win – or as all out as the manager’s caution allows. A 2-0 West Ham win for me. COYI!

Belgian Waffle: West Ham’s Revenge Visit To Anderlecht

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then waiting forty-six years to take it should bring a deep frozen sense of satisfaction. But can the Hammers do the business in Brussels?

In a bad week for conferences, West Ham renew their Europa Conference campaign with an away trip to Belgian side, Anderlecht. Should the Hammers prevail and maintain their perfect start in Group B it would create clear daylight between themselves and the rest of the pack. Getting the group sewn up early would be a huge bonus given poor domestic form and the prospect of ten games in the next thirty-seven days.

Older Hammers will remember well the only previous encounter between West Ham and Anderlecht. The 1976 European Cup-Winners’ Cup (ECWC) Final, played at the infamous Heysel stadium – a 10 km hike across Brussels from tonight’s venue.

Anderlecht were part of the European elite back in the 70’s and 80’s. The days before mega TV deals and big money when success was shared around more evenly, allowing the Belgians to win two ECWC Finals, one UEFA Cup and two UEFA Super Cups – as well as appearing as losing finalists four times.

In the 1976 Final, the Anderlecht line-up featured Dutch masters Rob Rensenbrink and Arie Haan plus future Hammer, Francois Van der Elst. They were firm favourites to win the game against an out of form West Ham who relied heavily on the legendary services of Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds. If you think the Hammer’s current form is bad now, in 1976 it was abysmal. In all the league games played between January and May the record was: played nineteen, lost twelve, drawn six and won one (against QPR). A run that saw the team fall from top spot in November to finally finish eighteenth (out of twenty-two).

Even so the Hammers put in a decent shift on the night. An early lead through Pat Holland was cancelled out just before half time before following a poor Frank Lampard back pass. Van der Elst put Anderlecht ahead just after the break, but the Hammers clawed their way back into contention when Keith Robson headed home from Brooking’s cross twenty minutes from time. With the tie nicely poised, the game turned when Holland was adjudged to have brought down Rensenbrink in the penalty area. Where was VAR when you needed it? Rensenbrink netted from the spot and Van der Elst scored his second late on, to make it 4-2, as the Hammers pushed forward for an equaliser.

Anderlecht remain Belgium’s most successful club side of all time although their pre-eminence has been usurped by Club Brugge in recent years. Although the Purple and White have never finished outside the Belgian league’s top six, they are floundering this term in a lowly tenth position. What we wouldn’t give for tenth!

David Moyes is likely to make several changes for tonight’s fixture following a welcome first home win, with some signs of improvement, at the weekend. It will be the usual switch of keeper and possibly the return of Vladimir Coufal and Angelo Ogbonna in defence. Ideally there should be further chances for Flynn Downes and Said Benrahma in midfield and possibly a recall for Manuel Lanzini. Surely, Gianluca Scamacca must be allowed to continue his splendid Euro scoring form and maybe, just maybe, with Jarrod Bowen and Maxell Cornet nursing injuries, we might even get to see Scamacca and Michail Antonio on the pitch at the same time. It has been reported that several youth team players have been added to the squad in Brussels but past evidence suggests that carrying the bags is the only action they will see.

Most recognisable names in the Anderlecht line-up are ex-Tottenham warhorse, Jan Vertonghen and expensive Wolverhampton striking flop, Fabio Silva – a player so ineffective he couldn’t get a game in a team with no strikers.

The previous two group games have seen (what has become) the trademark slow start from Moyes’ team, having fallen behind against both FCSB and Silkeborg. A repeat tonight would be best avoided while another three-goal haul (making it five in a row in the competition) would be more than welcome. West Ham to win 3-1.