Festival Fixtures Alert – West Ham face the Seagulls, the Saints and the Toffeemen in 125 hours! It’s not fair!

How many times have you read or heard the manager of one of the leading clubs in the Premier League complain about fixture congestion? Or how difficult it is for their big squads of top players having to manage with only three substitutes permitted in each game? Well I haven’t yet heard David Moyes complain about this year’s Christmas schedule, but he damn well should!

I have been having a look at the festive fixtures and don’t believe that any club faces as many games in as short a space of time as West Ham do. With our thin squad it’s going to be a tough ask. All of the 20 teams play their first game of this demanding time over a period of two days on 26th / 27th December. They then play the next round of matches over the following three days, 28th / 29th / 30th. There are no games at all on New Years Eve, and then all the teams play their third festive match over four days 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th January. So three games are crammed into a ten day period for all teams.

But they are not equally spread out for all! A couple of examples – Liverpool play their first game of the three on 27th December, and the last on 4th January – 3 matches in 9 games. Southampton (one of our three opponents in the period) play their first game on 26th December and their last on 4th January – 3 games in 10 days! Conversely West Ham are asked to play on 27th and 29th December and then on 1st January. Our three games are all squeezed into six days! From the kick-off in the first to the end of the third game it will be around 125 hours – that is a little over 5 days.

So we face the teams 17th, 7th and 4th in the table in a period of time that I believe is shorter than any of the other 19 teams in the Premier League. And it’s not as if we don’t have to travel either. The first game is at home in London, then we travel to away games on the South Coast and then finally Merseyside. It’s hardly fair is it? Not a level playing field to quote a popular phrase banded about. And what of our opponents in the second and third fixtures? Well Southampton are second up and they will have an extra day’s rest before facing us after their first game in the period. And Everton will similarly have an additional day without playing after their second match of the three.

I’d like to think that the club will complain about the unfair way we have been treated, but even if we did I doubt that it would get us anywhere. The fixtures are all lined up to satisfy the TV companies, not for the good of the clubs or the players.

14 games have been played so far this season and we have 21 points. When you look at the equivalent 14 fixtures in the last campaign we picked up 13 points from them so we are currently +8. In the three games coming up over the Christmas period, the equivalent fixtures last time yielded 4 points (a draw at home to Brighton, a win at Southampton, and a defeat at Everton). How many will we pick up this time? Three wins would give us nine points, to take us up to 30 for the season, or three defeats would leave us on 21, and into the bottom half of the table. I reckon that given the closeness of the fixtures and the calibre of our opponents, three wins is not likely to be achieved. We would be doing well to match or exceed last season’s equivalent of four points from these games. I’d love it to be more but I just don’t think that we have the squad or the rest time to enable us to achieve more. One win and a draw or two would be quite an achievement given the difficulties we face.

Once the festive fixtures have been completed we have a break from league games to face a game at Stockport County in the FA Cup on 11th January before completing the first half of the season (all 19 teams will have been played) with winnable (on paper) home games against Burnley on 16th January and West Brom three days later on the 19th. So how many points will we have at the halfway stage of the season? It would be good to reach 30 points by then, but that will require at least three wins in the next five games. And we are not always entirely convincing when facing teams that we should perhaps be beating. In the equivalent 19 fixtures last season we accrued 20 points, so we have already exceeded that with another five games to go, but how many points will we collect in these five matches?

I worry about the depth of our squad at times like these when fixtures are congested into a short period. But that is an issue that we knew about during the last close season and little was done to rectify matters at the top level within the club. I wonder if this will be remedied during this mid-season transfer window? I won’t hold my breath as there are difficulties in recruiting quality players at this time of year. Perhaps we can have a look in Prague?  

The Toffeemens’ supporters are getting restless, but will West Ham be Silva’s saviour?

Once again our hopes were built up as we pushed towards a place in the top four of the Premier League, only to be dashed by an indifferent performance against Crystal Palace a fortnight ago. Perhaps it will be an effective wake-up call to remind the players that merely turning up does not guarantee a win in the top league, even if we are playing against a team who had not beaten us in eight previous attempts. Despite not playing particularly well, we did take the lead in the game, but Rice’s (inexplicable to me) handball, and then switching off as the game approached the ninetieth minute, resulted in our second home defeat of the season. Palace were nothing special either, and the game could have gone either way, although those of us sitting in the stands could somehow predict what was about to happen when Ayew managed to stay onside (just!) to score the winning goal. Nevertheless despite the disappointment, 12 points from 8 games represents a decent start to the season (it took us 14 games to reach that figure last season, and 16 games the season before), and, after all, eighth place is higher than we have managed for a while in a whole season. Let us hope we can retain or improve upon that place as 2019-20 progresses. As much as I dislike the disruptive influence of international breaks, this one has come after a defeat, and gives the manager some time to work with the players who didn’t go away, and it is an opportunity to re-group and take stock.

To many followers of the game, one of the surprises of the season to date is to see Everton occupying one of the three relegation places with just 7 points from their eight games played. It is still very early days of course, and more than three-quarters of the season remains, nevertheless I still wouldn’t have expected to see the Toffees down there at this point. For many years (until fairly recently) they have been a bogey team of ours, but I do dislike seeing us coming up against a team in such poor form. How many teams break a losing sequence when facing us? It happens so often I’m afraid. Of course, early days in the league table mean that stringing together a few positive results can mean a rapid rise, as consecutive defeats can conversely mean a significant fall.

After their opening four games (wins at home to Watford and Wolves, a draw at Palace, and a defeat at Villa), Everton sat in a comfortable sixth place in the table, in the sort of position many expect them to occupy at the season’s end. But four consecutive defeats (in trips to Bournemouth and Burnley and in home games against Manchester City – no surprise, and Sheffield United – a big surprise) mean that with no points in their last four games they are the most out-of-form team in the league at this moment. 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).

Everton have only found the net six times in their eight games, and half of those came in the 3-2 win over Wolves. However five of those six goals have come in the four games on their own ground so it might be difficult for us to keep a clean sheet, especially in the absence of our first choice keeper who has successfully come through a hip operation, but is not expected to play again until 2020. The only time Everton failed to score at home this season so far was surprisingly against Sheffield United. I say surprisingly, but a look at the league table and fixtures played so far actually shows that Sheffield United are unbeaten in their four away games to date. Only Liverpool and ourselves can match that record after just four away games played by each team in the division this season! Also, no team in the Premier League has kept more clean sheets than ourselves this season (3). Even Liverpool have only managed two despite their 100% start.

Head to head fixtures against Everton stretch back for more than a century and, at the moment have a symmetrical feel to them. In 140 meetings, Everton have won 70, and the other 70 have been either draws (30) or West Ham victories (40). Positive results at Goodison Park are even rarer. Two goals from Yarmolenko helped us to achieve a 3-1 victory there last season, and in 2015-16, three late goals in the last 15 minutes meant an unlikely comeback win after trailing by two goals. Apart from those two wins, our only other success on their ground in the last quarter of a century came courtesy of a Bobby Zamora winner in another comeback win (2-1) in 2005.

But at least the bogey team thing seems to have disappeared for the moment as we have won two of the last three games we’ve played against Everton; previously we had won twice in the 22 meetings that preceded those! Everton have traditionally enjoyed playing against us, and in Premier League fixtures they have beaten us and scored more goals against us than against any other team.

For the benefit of TV we kick off at 12-30, so we have the opportunity (with a win) to temporarily leapfrog over other teams into a Champions League position! On the other hand a defeat would mean that Everton would (in the short term) rise six places in the table and they’d be just two points below us on ten points, a point ahead of the once mighty, and now not so mighty Manchester United, who will fall still further this weekend if they are unable to get a point against 100% Liverpool.

Everton are odds on to beat us, as are all the home teams on Saturday with the exception of Villa (at home to Brighton), and Palace (at home to Manchester City). Of the five games that Everton have lost (out of their eight games this season), four have been by a margin of two goals. Perhaps we can inflict a fifth two-goal margin defeat on them, perhaps repeating last season’s 3-1 win, to heap further pressure on their manager? All of our three wins have been by two goals, and another will do nicely. However, to do so we will have to improve significantly on our showing against Palace in the last game, but an early goal would silence the crowd, or perhaps even make them turn on their own team, who must be very short of confidence after these four successive defeats. I just hope that we don’t allow them to turn around their run of losses, as we are often inclined to do for any team having a poor time. It is 14 years since Everton last lost five league games in a row! I shouldn’t have highlighted that fact!