West Ham and Everton Go First Footying Into 2021

Meet the new year, same as the old year. We won’t get fooled again by false dawns, but a West Ham win at Goodison would mark a bow for the new resolution.

West Ham will complete their third Premier League game of a congested festive schedule when they face Everton at Goodison Park this evening.  Their opponents having the benefit of a yuletide rest following the postponement of their clash with Manchester City as a Covid precaution.

The Hammers go into the game with no win in their last four outings (although they have lost just one of these) while their hosts are looking for a fifth straight win on the bounce.

The omens for today’s game are mixed. When I say mixed, I mean that they almost all point to an Everton win. The exception being the remotest of straws to clutch at, that West Ham have a surprisingly good record on the opening day of new calendar years – six wins, four draws and only two defeats from the last twelve. Apart from that, Everton’s Premier League record against the Hammers is better than it is against any other club. To make matters worse, David Moyes has lost on all four return visits since he left Goodison in 2013.

After the disappointment of a rather fortunate draw at home to Brighton, the point won away at Southampton came as something of a surprise, particularly as the manager attempted to juggle the limited resources available to him. It all conspires to leave us guessing what the starting line-up, and indeed formation, might look like today.

Recalls for the benched Vladimir Coufal and Jarrod Bowen should be guaranteed, but will Craig Dawson’s unexpectedly competent display give him the nod over Fabian Balbuena? Great to see Michail Antonio back in the fold, but will be risked as a starter? Unlikely, given the tone of Motes pre-match press conference. And will it be three (five) or four at the back? What is best way to counter Everton’s traditional strength down the flanks? Even with a fully fit squad, left back continues to be a major cause for concern.

Everton got off to a storming start to the season, faltered somewhat (coincident with Richarlison’s three match suspension) before racing back into top gear, and a top four berth. For today’s game they will again be without Rodriguez (the South American Yarmolenko – one footed and lazy), Digne and Allan. A midfield that includes Iwobi and Davies isn’t the most scary but it is Richarlison that is the danger man – as the main supply line for Calvert-Lewin, he has to be nullified.  Not forgetting, of course, that Sigurdsson has been a frequent thorn in the Hammer’s side.

With the turn of the year we also enter a new transfer window where media fuelled expectations will, no doubt, once again exceed reality. Loan deals would probably be preferred by the owners but West Ham already have the maximum number of domestic loans allowed – so unless Said Benrahma is made permanent or Craig Dawson is sent back (both unlikely) there is no further scope in that direction. International loans are possible but would be subject to new untested post-Brexit visa regulations.

There will be plenty of speculation between now and the window closing but I don’t see funds being made readily available given the relatively comfortable mid-table position at a time that the club pleads poverty. I’m sure everyone would be more than happy to see the back of Pellegrini’s expensive misfits but the best time to offload these will be the summer. Having to sell before you can buy must play havoc with the timing of transfer negotiations.

Josh King continues to be linked with a move to the London Stadium despite having played very little football this season – 30 minutes in total since November 7. Do we need someone who might not be fully match fit until March? January is typically for emergency buys, rather than for long term building. A new left back would be useful though! I’m sure they must have one in Prague or Brentford.

What is there to hope for in 2021? It would be great to have supporters back in the grounds but I doubt this can happen to any significant extent before the end of the season. I would love to see a prolonged run in the FA Cup, can we prioritise that, or will it be sacrificed for the place money that one or two league positions might bring? Can we put an end to, and stop condoning, the outrageous cheating that is diving and taking one for the team? Can we have a common-sense VAR regime that is fit for the game as a spectacle rather than one to suit armchair data analysts? Can commentators stick to telling us what is happening on the pitch rather than trying to show-off their knowledge (it’s not Test Match Special) and can pundits stop describing every ordinary event as brilliant?

Back to today’s game, and we are likely to see a cautious West Ham, at least in the opening exchanges (i.e. the first half). It was positive that Bowen and Coufal were able to get a much needed rest in midweek but the backbone of the team -Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna – have played every league game (maybe every minute?) so far this season (as has Aaron Cresswell). The Hammer’s fortunes will depend greatly on how they can perform again today.  I guess we are stuck with another start for the central defender’s dream, Sebastien Haller, but at least there is the prospect of Antonio from the bench. Full of new year optimism, I am going for a 2-0 win, including that elusive first penalty of the season.

Tales of the Unexpected: Wolves Sent Packing And A Route To An EFL Cup Quarter Final

West Ham face Everton in EFL Cup action to see which club has the strongest second string. Who will triumph in this midweek ‘bench test’ to claim a quarter final berth?

Just when we thought that football’s ability to surprise was a thing of the past, West Ham shrugged off the menacing dark clouds surrounding the London Stadium to register a remarkable and highly impressive victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Full credit goes to the players and manager(s) for lifting the gloom (at least for now) in the face of overwhelming adversity – what a difference a win makes!

As ever, there was going to be the usual debate. Was the win down to an excellent West Ham performance or a poor Wolves one? It’s impossible to answer but, for me, despite a number of fine individual performances, every West Ham player played their part in a superb effort. It was arguably the best we have seen for some years, scoring four times, preventing Wolves from getting into their stride playing and recording a rare clean sheet. Top half of the table and with a positive goal difference.  From despondency to ecstasy in 90 short minutes – the erratic pursuit that is football supportership!

While we must wait until the weekend to learn whether it was the Wolves or the Newcastle performance that was the blip on the radar, we first have an EFL away tie with Everton to deal with. For the winner, it will be a place in the final eight, where the prospect of silverware suddenly becomes a little more realistic. A trip to an empty Wembley would be very West Ham. Both managers will be wanting to win tonight, but without risking fitness or injuries in this hectic schedule.

The Toffees have enjoyed a flawless start to the Premier League season and will be hoping to sit proudly on top of the pile come Saturday evening. In the previous round of this competition (against Fleetwood) Ancelotti selected five players who also started in the subsequent league game at Palace, including Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin. By comparison, Fabian Balbuena was the only Hammer who started against both Hull and Wolves.

How them might they approach tonight’s game? For the Hammers, further run-outs are probable for the likes of Sebastien Haller, Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini and Robert Snodgrass – plus we might also see one of Mark Noble or Jack Wilshere given an outing. More experience will be needed in defence, though, should Everton decide field their big guns once again. A much sterner test than that posed by Charlton or Hull.

With the game being played at a Premier League ground, it will come under the auspices of the dreaded VAR, and its ludicrous handball interpretations. Following the criticism received during its first year of operation, it was difficult to see how VAR could be made even worse, but somehow they have managed it. Rulings on handballs, offsides and penalties are now as much of a lottery (and as unfathomable) as offside decisions in rugby. Too many loose interpretations and all seemingly designed to help Manchester United, even after the game is finished. The next step might be setting up a VAR Cold Case Unit to investigate historic handball decisions against the Red Devils – any incidents resulting in the next match against offending opponents kicking off with a United penalty.

We must give credit where it’s due, so well done to Martin Atkinson for allowing Pablo Fornals quickly taken free kick on Sunday to stand in the lead up to the opening goal. A good example of advantage well played. On the other hand, I don’t understand why Tomas Soucek’s header was chalked up as an own goal. Surely, some mistake there!

Days go by and the transfer window deadline moves ever closer, and still it is all talk and no action. By now, we must have reached page 3 or 4 of the transfer target list. Even if the manager finds a players he wants, who is happy to come to east London, there is plenty of scope for the Board to scupper the deal by insisting on long, drawn out payment conditions – no deposit and nothing to pay for three years, as if they were buying a sofa.

Back to tonight’s game and it is very difficult to call without knowing the relative line-up strengths – who will take the gamble and who has the strongest second string to call upon. Goodison Park has never been a happy hunting ground, although West Ham have managed two wins from the last five visits.

The teams have met twice before in the League Cup, with Everton winning on both occasions – 2-0 at Goodison in a 1983 4th round replay; and 2-1 at the Boleyn in a 5th round tie in 2007. There will, of course, have to be a result tonight and maybe it will end up with a penalty shoot-out, just as it did in the memorable FA Cup tie in 2015. I wonder what Randolph is like from the spot?

After tonight the EFL Cup will take a break, returning in the week commencing 21 December for the quarter final ties. Will the name of West Ham United be unexpectedly in that hat?

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!