Hammers Revival Threatens Toffees Survival

With injuries easing can David Moyes get West Ham geared up for one last push in memorable season?

Football returns from the enforced hibernation of yet another international break to focus once again on the important business of club competition. I am increasingly ambivalent when it come to international football. Delighted whenever a Hammer gets called up by his country and always pleased to see England do well, but I’d rather it didn’t disrupt the rhythm of domestic leagues as much as it now does.

While we were away the draw for the tainted Qatar World Cup took place. Gareth must have been wearing his lucky waistcoat as England were landed the easiest of draws. He needs shooting if his team don’t make it through to the last eight at least.

The World Cup Finals will, of course, cause major and unprecedented disruption to the 2022/23 season. Once the European Nations League and Euro 2024 matches are shoehorned in, the schedule will be energy sapping for the players and frustrating for the fans. The international programme will look something like this:

European Nations League Qualifiers: June & September 2022
World Cup: November/ December 2022
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: March 2023
European Nations League Finals: June 2023
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: June, September, October & November 2023

Are we reaching a point where there is just too much football?

Back on the domestic front, West Ham play eight more league games between today and May 22. There will also be a minimum of two and a maximum of five Europa League fixtures to fit in. In a perfect world the final match of the season will be in Seville on May 26. It could be an exciting couple of months or fizzle out to nothing.

The first game of the run-in sees chaotic crisis club Everton visit the London Stadium. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, then whoever has been making the recruitment decisions at Everton must be stark raving bonkers. They are the Keystone Cops of the Premier League.

The current Toffee’s manager is, of course, top three West Ham pantomime villain, Frank Lampard Jr. He is the seventh manager at Goodison since David Moyes left in 2013. Apart from Martinez, none have lasted more than two seasons despite eye-watering amounts spent in the transfer market. In some ways, what has happened at Goodison is an exaggerated version of what was going on at West Ham until recently. Hubris, pretension, and vanity overruling intelligence and shrewdness when it came to recruitment. The chutzpah of the big-name shirt-holding photo opportunity being preferred to the hard work and diligence of team building and player development. Hopes and prayers that we don’t fall back into that mode.

For all the bad feeling around Lampard, he seems an intelligent chap and one who always looked cut out for management. A mistake that he abandoned a worthwhile apprenticeship at Derby for a taste of the big-time well before he was ready for it. He seems an odd choice to parachute in for a relegation battle, but perhaps he will be lucky that the three teams below him just don’t have enough quality to drag him down. Survival by default.

The Hammers appear to have come through the international break without any additional injury concerns, although it was disappointing that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek were both required to play a full ninety minutes in meaningless friendlies in midweek. Manuel Lanzini is apparently fine after being involved in a car accident and while Jarrod Bowen and Vladimir Coufal are now back in training, I would be surprised if either of them featured today, except from the bench.  

Despite defeat at Tottenham there have been signs in recent performances that West Ham have recaptured some of their early season swagger. A shame that the doldrums of December and February had scuppered a realistic tilt at the top four.

The subtle tweak to formation that was seen against Aston Villa and Sevilla, with Manuel Lanzini playing deeper, has allowed Soucek to get forward more, without unduly restraining Rice’s freer role. It is closer to a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1. It makes better use of the talent available and I imagine that is how we will line-up today. Unfortunate that Lanzini will miss the Lyon game through suspension.

What was clear from defeat at Tottenham is that West Ham do not have the personnel to play any system that requires wing-backs. Aaron Cresswell, Ben Johnson and Coufal are all admirable defenders but fall short when it comes to the attacking requirements of that role. Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku are not up to standard either in defence or attack.

I can’t see much room for debate over the front three where Michail Antonio will be joined by Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. There has been speculation about Nikola Vlasic starting but other than he once played for Everton there seems no rationale to support this. For all his poor decision making, Benrahma is most probable source of the unexpected.

There is little to suggest that today’s game will be a thriller. Everton are desperate for points and will not want to give any of them up easily. They will defend deep and hope to hit West Ham on the break. Richarlison will be diving to ground and rolling around in simulated agony at every possible opportunity, with or without tactical head injury. The Hammers will need patience and should try to keep the ball moving across the pitch to create space for runners. The tendency to get bogged down in intricate congested triangles might work on the training ground but it is ineffective on the pitch. Breaking down stubborn opposition is not our strongest suit but we showed that we can do it against Sevilla. There is always the set piece for Plan B.

As with any tight game a goal can quickly change the complexion of a game. We need to keep plugging away to rattle the visitor’s brittle confidence. A top six finish is still a possibility, however remote, and it must remain the target until it is impossible. West Ham to win 3-1. COYI!

West Ham United face relegation threatened Everton on Sunday. With just eight league games to go is a top six finish still on the cards?

There are just two months of the Premier League season to go with the top eight teams ten points clear of the teams currently in 9th and 10th position, so you would like to think that those eight teams will finish in the top eight in May. That is the most likely scenario, although Leicester (in tenth) do have three games in hand over West Ham and Wolves in seventh and eighth, so it is not impossible for them to be involved if they have an outstanding set of results to finish the season. As a comparison with the teams above them (see below) the last five Leicester games have yielded 9 points.

We currently sit in seventh place in the Premier League table; a top four finish is beginning to look out of the question, but we are still in touch and challenging for top six. We will need to improve on recent league form to achieve this.

The current league table – top 8 (games played in brackets):

Man City 70 (29)
Liverpool 69 (29)
Chelsea 59 (28)
Arsenal 54 (28)
Tottenham 51 (29)
Man Utd 50 (29)
West Ham 48 (30)
Wolves 46 (30)

The form table (last 5 games of the top 8 in the current league table):

Liverpool 15
Chelsea 15
Arsenal 12
Tottenham 12
Man City 10
Man Utd 10
West Ham 7
Wolves 6

Remaining fixtures:

Man City: H – Liverpool, Brighton, Watford, Newcastle, Villa
Man City: A – Burnley, Leeds, West Ham, Wolves
Liverpool: H – Watford, Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham, Wolves
Liverpool: A – Man City, Newcastle, Southampton, Villa
Chelsea: H – Brentford, Arsenal, West Ham, Wolves, Watford, Leicester
Chelsea: A – Southampton, Everton, Man Utd, Leeds
Arsenal: H – Brighton, Man Utd, Leeds, Everton
Arsenal: A – Palace, Southampton, Chelsea, West Ham, Newcastle, Tottenham
Tottenham: H – Newcastle, Brighton, Leicester, Arsenal, Burnley
Tottenham: A – Villa, Brentford, Liverpool, Norwich
Man Utd: H – Leicester, Norwich, Brentford, Chelsea
Man Utd: A – Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Brighton, Palace
West Ham: H – Everton, Burnley, Arsenal, Man City
West Ham: A – Brentford, Chelsea, Norwich, Brighton
Wolves: H – Villa, Brighton, Norwich, Man City
Wolves: A – Newcastle, Burnley, Chelsea, Liverpool

The outstanding fixtures for the top eight are summarised above, split between home and away games. It is not always easy to decide which fixtures are the toughest or easiest at this stage of the season. Sometimes those clubs battling to avoid relegation can be equally difficult games when compared to facing those clubs challenging for a European place. And with the prize money on offer for each place in the table, all clubs are trying to finish as high as possible, so teams in between can be tough too.

I’ve looked at the fixtures and made a guess at the results to see where I think we might end up. 14 points from the last 8 games would take us up to 62 points which is what Tottenham achieved last season when finishing seventh. 17 points are needed for us to equal last years total of 65 when we finished sixth. 67 points was the total for fourth place last time, but I suspect that it will be higher this time around. If the teams in the top eight maintained their average points for the season to date in their final fixtures then the final table would be:

Man City 92
Liverpool 90
Chelsea 80
Arsenal 73
Tottenham 67
Man Utd 66
West Ham 61
Wolves 58

My own forecast of the results in the remaining games would result in a league table like this: (I’ll look back in May to see how close I got!). Take a look at the outstanding fixtures and see where you think we’ll finish.

Man City 93
Liverpool 91
Chelsea 83
Arsenal 73
Tottenham 70
Man Utd 62
West Ham 62
Wolves 56

Quite clearly we need to improve on our average points per game tally in the final run-in and hope that those teams above us don’t perform as well as they have done so far. Looking at the remaining fixtures of those teams above us I reckon Arsenal and Manchester United have a tougher set than Tottenham, who have potentially the easiest, although Arsenal do have points in the bag. I’ll be looking carefully at the Manchester United results as I believe that if we have a strong finish they are the ones we could catch to finish sixth. It will be close but at this stage a top six finish is still on the cards. Perhaps even goal difference will come into play?

A top 6 place at the end of the season will (I think) guarantee a place in Europe next season as Liverpool have won the EFL Cup. A European spot will extend to a seventh place finish (I think) providing one of Man City, Liverpool or Chelsea win the FA Cup and finish in the top four – a likely outcome unless Palace win the FA Cup.

Full details (an excerpt taken from the Premier League.com/European-qualification-explained website) of how Premier League clubs can qualify for Europe next season can be found here.

So if I’ve interpreted it correctly, sixth should be good enough for another tilt at the Europa League next season, and seventh will qualify for the Europa Conference League. Of course winning the Europa League would be the best outcome as it would mean automatic qualification for the Champions League. What we must not do is finish eighth or below to stand a chance of being in European competition next season (unless we win the Europa League).

Hopefully I’ve got this right. The next obstacle is the visit of Everton on Sunday. The top three teams have relatively easy fixtures this weekend so I think we must hope for Villa to pick up something at Wolves, Leicester to do the same at Old Trafford, and Newcastle to stop Tottenham winning. Arsenal probably can’t be caught but a defeat at Palace would also be a bonus.

All International breaks (and this is the the fourth one this season) can be really disruptive to the league programme, but it does give us the opportunity to regroup for the final push in the last two months of the season. Everton are in disarray but they will be fighting hard to pick up something at the London Stadium. With just eight league games to go we must really hope for three points on Sunday to maintain our challenge.

The European adventure (whatever happens now) has been great this season, and it would be excellent if we can qualify once again. Can we do it? I think we can. What are the chances?

The Cinderella Derby: West Ham Travel To Everton In Search Of The Magic Touch

Two teams whose big dreams are mostly overshadowed by more illustrious and uglier neighbours lock horns at Goodison Park on Sunday afternoon. Who will get to the ball?

There is a sense affinity between the stories of West Ham and Everton. How their hopes and dreams are largely thwarted by their relative places in the scheme of things. The fourth biggest club in London and the fourth biggest club in the North-West – at least as far as revenues are concerned. No doubt, Everton have enjoyed the greater share of success, but all that was back in the olden days, before the big money started to talk.

In more recent history, both clubs have stumbled along a path of vanity, making poor value signings where glamour and reputation are mistaken for talent and application. The Hammers have abandoned haphazard approach since the second coming of David Moyes and it seems that Everton hope to do the same, through the pragmatic management of Rafa Benitez. Two teams where collective effort and organisation take priority over individual flair.

Any aspirations that either club might be the one to break the top six monopoly on a regular basis received a massive blow last week with the sale of Newcastle United to Saudi Arabia. If hopes were up that a fairer, better regulated sport would rise the ashes of the European Super League fiasco, they were firmly dispelled with the surprise Premier League decision to ratify the Newcastle deal.

It may take the Toon a number of years to transform into a major force, but a bottomless supply of dodgy money and expensive lawyers will eventually overcome whatever passes for the regulatory obstacle of financial fair play. Not that the Saudis are any more inappropriate as owners than those already in place at Manchester City or Chelsea but it is one more step in stripping away the soul out of the English game – unless you are a Newcastle supporter, I suppose.

Benitez is probably kicking himself now for taking the job at Goodison when he would have been in pole position for a return to St James’ Park under the new regime. Instead of planning how to spend the loot he has to worry about facing West Ham with a patched-up team.

The Hammer’s express start to the new start has lost steam in recent weeks, although they remain unbeaten on the road. The defeat at home to Brentford was particularly disappointing. It is tempting to blame the fatigue of a Europa League campaign, but we are only two games in, and there has been ample opportunity to rotate the squad against indifferent opponents.

The slow start against the Bees was unfathomable and both Kurt Zouma and Angelo Ogbonna (neither of who had played the previous Thursday) looked as though they had lead in their boots. Having dragged themselves back into the game with a much improved second half performance (against it has to be said a highly cynical opposition) a home win looked to be on the cards. Ultimately losing to the last kick of the game following a needless free-kick conceded by Ogbonna was immensely distressing.

It is not clear at time of writing whether David Moyes will need to make any enforced changes with some speculation over the fitness of Vladimir Coufal and Michail Antonio. I would think any discretionary switches to the starting line-up are unlikely given the manager’s track record, although cases could be made for the return of Craig Dawson and for Alphonse Areola to replace Lukasz Fabianski – following the Poles two assists last time out.

In theory, it should be a good time to play Everton if reports that both Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison are unavailable are true. Rondon despite good approach work is hardly prolific, leaving goal-of-the-month expert Townsend as the major threat. The game could well turn out to be a cagey tactical battle. Benitez will know that West Ham’s strength is the quick counter-attack and with his main strikers absent may be prepared to sit back and force the Hammers to ask the questions. Unpicking packed defences is not our strong point and the best hope might be to regain the crown as the league’s set piece kings.

A hard fought game. West Ham to win 2-1 with Tomas Soucek back on the scoresheet, just as he was last season. COYI!  

Can West Ham make it three wins from the last four Premier League visits to Goodison Park?

Once again the Premier League resumes after the second halt for an international break. I dislike the stuttered start to a season brought about by these interruptions, but for those of you who enjoy seeing England play these World Cup qualifiers you won’t have long to wait for the next ones as after just four more games the campaign will once again be held up by another stoppage.

Anyway, on Sunday we visit Goodison Park for our eighth Premier League game. Our promising start has faltered a little, and it was disappointing to concede a 95th minute goal to lose our last game at the London Stadium to Brentford. At that point in the game it was only one point dropped, as it was in our last home game against Manchester United when failure to convert a 93rd minute penalty lost us another point. To counterbalance this of course, we ourselves scored a 95th minute winner at Leeds to gain two additional points in time added on, so the net result of the extra time played in our last three games is zero; two points gained and two points lost.

So we are where we deserve to be perhaps with eleven points from seven games and a positive goal difference of +4 to be sitting in ninth place in this early table. Everton are fifth just three points above us. If we can beat them then we will move above them. But previous visits to Merseyside have shown that this won’t be easy.

The Toffeemen have begun the season well under new manager Benitez. They have only lost once, but their four wins haven’t been the most difficult fixtures – away at Brighton was quite impressive, but home victories over Burnley, Norwich and Southampton, three of the bottom four teams at this stage, were games they might have expected to win. Hopefully we will prove to be a much tougher proposition!  

Historically they have been a bit of a bogey side for us, and statistics show that they have won more games, and scored more goals against us than against any other team in the Premier League era. Having said that recent history has shown some improvement, and we have won on two of our last three league visits to Goodison Park.

At this point I’ll pose a teaser for you. Who was the last Englishman to score a goal for West Ham at Goodison Park in either the league or one of the cups? I’ll give you a clue – it was in March 2008 in a 1-1 draw. There were actually seven Englishmen in the starting eleven that day. Since then we have scored 15 goals there but none by someone from England. The names of those goalscorers to take you down memory lane over the last 13 years – Kovac, Da Costa, Ilan, Spector, Piquionne, Zarate, James Collins, Antonio (OK I’ll admit he could be classed as English and was at the time, but now he’s qualified for Jamaica), Sakho, Payet, Yarmolenko (2), Arnautovic, Snodgrass, and finally Soucek who scored the late winner last season on New Years’ Day.

I wonder if a player qualified for England can score for us at Everton on Sunday? Of course there are fewer to choose from these days. In the last game against Brentford there were just three in the starting line-up, Cresswell, Rice and Bowen, and another two (out of nine) on the ‘bench’ – Dawson and Johnson. Without research I suspect that there are some other teams with fewer than that though. How times have changed!

Regular readers of this blog will know that my West Ham memories stretch back to the late 1950s. I have been thinking back over all the years of games against Everton trying to recall some of the best ones. One of the most exciting and memorable evenings was the FA Cup tie at Upton Park in January 2015 when the game was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time Lukaku scored his customary goal against us, before Carlton Cole was brought on as a substitute with about ten minutes of the 120 to go, and scored within a minute or so. 2-2 at full time and we were leading in the penalty shoot out after Everton missed one of their early penalties and Downing (with the fifth one) had the opportunity to win the game, but his penalty was saved by the Everton keeper Robles. Successive penalties were scored after that until it was the turn of the goalkeepers. Then Robles penalty hit the bar, leaving Adrian to step up. He memorably threw his gloves to the floor before striding forward to smash in the winner. 9-8 on penalties. What a game!

Another game I remember well (for a different reason) was a 2-2 draw in the 70s. I was standing on the North Bank when an Everton player called Ronnie Goodlass scored from about 50 yards (from a high bouncing ball) over the head of Mervyn Day – I was right behind it. I think that game ended 2-2 with Pop Robson scoring a couple for us.

And one of the best games I can recall, also at Upton Park was earlier in the seventies when we won the game 4-3. I think we had 10 Englishmen on the field that day, but two of our goals were scored by Clyde Best from Bermuda, who did score some cracking goals for us.

Looking at the bookmakers’ odds for the game on Sunday, Everton are narrow favourites at 6/4, we are around 15/8, with the draw at 23/10. My fun bet for this game is for West Ham to win 1-0 and the goal to be scored by Aaron Cresswell (an Englishman for a change!). The odds for this are 200/1. I can just picture a free kick about 25 yards out in the last few minutes, and Cresswell lifting it over the wall into the top corner. What are the chances? And by the way the answer to my teaser was Dean Ashton. What a super player he was before his career was cruelly cut short.