West Ham Aim To Bite The Legs Of Not So Dirty Leeds

Moyes West Ham look to bounce back from last week’s defeat as they take on Bielsa’s much admired and far more cuddly Leeds United – no longer everyone’s most hated team.

Dirty and Leeds are two words in the English language that effortlessly belong to each other, like heavy traffic, rich history or strong coffee. Collocations they are called. There are also others that we have become intimately acquainted with over the past few years: white elephant; broken promise; and expensive flop, to name a few.

The dirty Leeds tag goes back a long way, to the Don Revie side of the 1960s and 70s, but it has been difficult to shift, at least in my mind – similar perhaps to the concept of the ‘West Ham way’ under Greenwood and Lyall. So entrenched was the dislike of Leeds that their financial woes and fall into the third tier of English football during the noughties was largely greeted with a sense of schadenfreude.

Revie’s Leeds team contained had some exceptionally talented individuals, but their playing style was often characterised by bone-crunching tackles and unrestricted thuggery. It was a perfect fit with the stereotypical view of the typical no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and was eminently successful – delivering a clutch of league titles as well as domestic and European cups.

Quite what the temperamental modern-day footballer would make of the game back then – shuddering challenges, quagmire pitches, lambchop sideburns, jumpers for goalposts – can only be imagined. Along with the terraces, such agricultural tactics were consigned to football’s history many years ago, as the game rebranded from full bloodied confrontation to slick TV friendly marketing event. No doubt, many of the changes were out of necessity and for the better, but by no means all of them.

Just as we have seen the demise of the tackle from behind and the pass back to the keeper, there is now a possibility that there will come a time when heading the ball is also prohibited. It seems implausible right now but could it happen? The physical side of contact sports is under increasing scrutiny and the recent focus on ex-players with brain disease, together with the threat of litigation, might well lead to changes in the rules. A further VAR check for accidental head-ball after each goal is scored, perhaps.

Moving on to tonight’s game, and West Ham will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of the Manchester United defeat last Saturday. Looking eminently comfortable and good for another win during the first hour of the game, everything changed when the ‘wind of God’ turned a wild clearance that had clearly gone out of touch into an assist for the assister. The Hammers earlier profligacy, their decision (by then) to sit back and protect the lead, and the introduction of Bruno, all leading to our eventual downfall. When the equaliser went in, all momentum was with the visitors.

With Michail Antonio once again absent tonight it will be a sub-optimal West Ham who take on Leeds at Elland Road. With our best starting eleven, there could, at least, be a hope of challenge the top six – but on a depth of squad basis, we are no better than mid-table. I wonder what the January sales will bring, if anything?

When I originally drafted this article the only potential change I could see for this evening was the popular call from supporters to start with Said Benrahma in place of Pablo Fornals. A test of David Moyes attitude to risk. Fornals to provide the off-the-ball hard work to counter the energy of Leeds; or Benrahma to offer the absent creative spark that could test the vulnerable and further weakened home defence. With Fornals proving so ineffective on the ball in recent games, I expected Benrahma starting to be the only change. However, the news that Arthur Masuaku is now unavailable raises a new set of questions.

I don’t envisage Moyes tinkereing with the formation even though the current setup does have a lopsided look. The pairing of Aaron Cresswell and Masuaku had compensated well for the absence of a specialist left back – but with Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena operating mostly in the centre, it exposes an over-worked Vladimir Coufal on the right. While Jarrod Bowen offers excellent support it is not his primary role. It compromises his attacking threat, especially in the latter stages of games, when he is clearly exhausted. To my mind, Ben Johnson as a replacement for Arthur feels like the least disruptive option.

Elsewhere, I see no alternative to Sebastien Haller continuing to deputise for Antonio.

Leeds under Bielsa are this season’s maverick side, and the best equipped of the three promoted teams to prosper. El Loco is one of the game’s characters and his high-octane style of play is geared to providing goals and entertainment. It is a far cry from the Revie days and quite possibly the most flamboyant thing to come out of Yorkshire since its eponymous pudding. Leeds have something of a defensive injury crisis at the moment, but we can be certain that whoever plays, will not be lacking in effort.

Patrick Bamford is key to the Leeds attacking threat, not just for his goals but also for his movement and ability to create space for others. In his various loan spells from Chelsea as a youngster, it looked like he had the makings of a top class talent, before apparently losing his way at Middlesbrough. He has now found a perfect niche in the Leeds setup and will be a real danger today.

The game will be another big test for Moyes team. Leeds with a hard press, quick counters, lots of movement, width and direct passing will require his team to have extra high levels of concentration. The hosts have weaknesses at the back, but do West Ham have the tools to exploit that by striking on the break? Without Antonio, out-ball options are limited, and they may struggle to break the press often enough and quickly enough. Instinctively, this should be a high scoring game, but I believe it will be tighter than that. It will be an interesting clash of styles that I’m finding difficult to call. Maybe a 1-1 draw!    

Can West Ham beat Leeds for only the second time this century?

I won’t dwell for too long on the game against Manchester United last Saturday. We outplayed them for 60 minutes, held a 1-0 lead, missed a number of chances that should have put the game out of sight, conceded an equaliser because a linesman wasn’t looking down the touchline but instead looking for offside, and then heads went down and we let in two more goals. The equaliser that shouldn’t have stood changed the course of the game, but in many ways we only have ourselves to blame for failing to increase our lead in the first half. The result meant that the opportunity to climb the table into third place was lost, and by the end of the weekend we would have been fifth had we won. The Equivalent Fixture Analysis figure comparing results this season against the same games last season fell to +10 points following the defeat.

But we didn’t win and it is hoped that lessons will be learned by the players and management. Considering the difficulty of our fixtures in the first 11 games, we ought to be satisfied with 8th place in the League, having won 5 games and drawn twice. A positive goal difference of +4 with 18 scored and 14 conceded is a good return, although we seem to have missed many good goalscoring opportunities, with Pablo Fornals particularly guilty in this respect. Of course we have missed Michail Antonio, and the debate regarding his replacement Haller continues with statistical analysis of his game seeming to contrast with what we see with our eyes. He is not as bad as many fans make out, but we definitely don’t play to his strengths. Personally I like the look of Said Benrahma in the cameo appearances he has made, and surely he should be given the opportunity soon to show what he can do from the start of a game. Whether it will happen in this game I am not sure.

For the twelfth game in a row we do not kick off at 3pm on a Saturday; this time it is a Friday night, which gives us the opportunity to climb into fifth place with a win. My thoughts on our opponents, Leeds, are tainted by the memories of them when I was growing up in the 1960s. Under Don Revie, who managed them for 13 years, they had probably their most successful period, winning a number of trophies and also being there or thereabouts in all the main competitions during that era. They had a reputation for being the bridesmaids, falling just short on several occasions in league and cup; I think they were runners-up in the league about five times in that period.

But I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the way they played, or their win at all costs attitude to the game. I know many who hated them despite them being a dominant force in English football. I guess success often breeds contempt, but my dislike of them was enhanced by the perceived way they achieved their position as one of the best teams around. To me they were highly physical and at times brutal and extremely cynical in style. They had a poor disciplinary record as they bullied and kicked their way to the top.

Our historical record in matches against Leeds is a poor one, especially in more recent history. Of course, we haven’t always been in the same division, with Leeds having only just returned to the top flight after 16 years in the second tier, but the last time we beat them was in November 2000, a 1-0 victory at Elland Road with an unlikely goalscorer – Nigel Winterburn, the only goal he scored for us in 94 appearances. I can remember being at the game at Upton Park in 1998, which was the only other time we have beaten them in the last 38 years; we won 3-0 with goals from Hartson. Abou and Ian Pearce. Our keeper that day was Bernard Lama – remember him? Two substitutes came on in the latter stages of the game, Scott Mean and Manny Omoyinmi – do you remember them? Our record in the last 28 fixtures against Leeds is, Won 2, Drawn 8, Lost 18.

I was also there at a game close to the end of the season in 1982 when we beat them 4-3. That was our first season back in the top division following promotion. I believe Leeds were relegated that year. We were almost invincible at home that season losing just twice in our 21 games, a record we equalled in our record breaking campaign of 1985-86.

There was one game against Leeds that I didn’t see but wish I had been there. On a cold Monday evening in November 1966 we beat the (then mighty) Leeds 7-0 in a League Cup tie after putting six goals past Fulham two days earlier. We then went on to win 4-3 at Tottenham the following Saturday. Geoff Hurst scored 8 goals that week. You’d think that would have been quite a season. But despite scoring 80 goals, we conceded 84, and finished 16th in the league!

I haven’t seen too much of the present Leeds team, but under Bielsa they seem to be a highly energetic and attractive side. They have scored 16 of the 36 goals in their 11 matches, and four wins plus two draws equates to 14 points and 14th in the table. But the league is a tight one so far, and if they win they will be level on points with us. 9 of their 14 points have been achieved away from home with victories at Sheffield United, Villa and Everton. They have only won one of their five home games (4-3 v Fulham), but have drawn against Manchester City and Arsenal. Their two home defeats were 1-0 to Wolves and 4-1 to Leicester. Patrick Bamford has been a surprise to many with 8 goals in the league, exactly half of the teams total so far.

I wonder if there will be any changes to our starting eleven for this game? Our lack of pace on the right hand side of our defence was exposed in the latter stages of the Manchester United game. The manager realised this (but too late) and Johnson was introduced towards the end. Perhaps replacing Balbuena with Diop might go some way towards solving this problem, although Balbuena hasn’t played too badly in his run in the team. Fans on social media often urge changes after a defeat, but I doubt Moyes will make many – that’s not his style either before (or during) games.

Leeds are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at odds of around 6/5. We are about 11/5 with the draw at 5/2. As is often the case, 1-1 is the “favourite” score at 11/2, and unsurprisingly, Bamford is favourite to score the first goal. Despite their league position, I believe this will be a tough game, and a draw would be a good point. We need to match their energy, and if we do this could be a highly entertaining game. My hope is that away victories will continue to outnumber wins for the home sides (for this week anyway!) and we pick up the three points. The players will believe that they are playing for their places and will not want a second consecutive defeat. It would be good to be the fourth team to score four times against Leeds this season; perhaps 4-3 just like the game in 1982? What are the chances?