Can West Ham reverse the poor opening day record against Newcastle?

In my last article earlier this week I referred to two games where we met Newcastle in the opening game. Those games were at home in 1973-74 and 2020-21. And we lost both of them. The last time that our first game of the season was away at St James Park was in 2002-03. And that, too, was perhaps a match (and a season) we’d like to forget.

The game in August 2002 was televised on Sky as the Monday night game, and for an hour it remained scoreless. By the end of 90 minutes we had lost 4-0 to goals from Lua Lua (2), Shearer and Solano. Do you remember Nobby Solano? He played for us subsequently as did another player in the Newcastle side that day, Kieron Dyer. Our team that night boasted players such as David James, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair and Jermain Defoe, but it was just the beginning of a wretched season that ended with relegation at the end of it.

After that poor start on the opening day we did not win a game until our seventh game of the season when we won 3-2 at Chelsea. We didn’t actually win a home league game that season until January 29th! One thing I do remember from that time was injuries to our strikers Di Canio and Kanoute, and a lack of depth in the squad forcing us to play Ian Pearce (a defender) as a striker. Nowdays that wouldn’t happen I assume with ‘false nines’ but I would like to see us begin the season with more out and out strikers other than just Antonio.

What do you think of West Ham’s three kits for 2021/22? Will we be wearing the middle one in the opening game, or is this too similar to Newcastle’s black and white stripes? I assume it will be the third strip, although our home kit would be my choice

Last season was probably our best ever in the Premier League, albeit not our highest finish, which was 5th in 1998/99. But back then (1998/99) we had only improved from a finish in eighth place the season before, and we were ten points below the fourth placed team. But our sixth place in the season just ended was only one win away from the top four, and an improvement of ten places over the season before.

But when you look at our results against the teams that did finish in the first four places, it wasn’t very good to say the least. In those eight games we drew one and lost seven. Compare that to the games against the other 15 teams that make up the Premier League and you will see a marked contrast. In those thirty games we won 19, drew 7, and lost 4, collecting 64 of our 65 points. Ironically two of those four defeats were against a very average Newcastle team. Better results against them could potentially have resulted in a top four finish.

It shouldn’t be too hard to predict our team for this first game, with few changes in the squad that ended last season. Fabianski will continue in goal (for the time being at least); Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell will be the back four, Rice and Soucek will play in front of them, with Fornals, Benrahma and Bowen supporting Antonio up front. Well that’s how I see it anyway. The only possible changes to that would see places in the starting line up for Ogbonna, Lanzini, or Yarmolenko, although the former two have had minor knocks in pre-season. We really need some reinforcements to the squad in view of the additional fixtures this season.

There’s no reason why our poor opening game record against Newcastle cannot be reversed this time around, especially considering our excellent pre-season form, and availability of almost all the players in the squad. I’ll predict a 2-0 away win. Unusually for us we go into an away game against a team who did the double over us last season as 6/5 favourites to win the game with Newcastle at 23/10, and the draw at almost the same odds at 12/5. A 2-0 win is around 10/1. I always like a slightly unusual bet, and this time I’m going for Antonio to score more goals in the game than Newcastle at 6/1.

I was looking at the odds for winning the Premier League, and they give a good indication of where the bookmakers, and most pundits expect teams to finish this season.

Manchester City 4/6; Chelsea 9/2; Liverpool 5/1; Manchester United 8/1; Arsenal, Leicester and Tottenham all 50/1; Villa, Everton, Leeds and West Ham all 100/1; Brighton, Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Wolves all 500/1; Brentford and Burnley 750/1; Norwich and Watford 1000/1. Of course some bookmakers have slight variations but generally they seem to think we will finish somewhere between 8th and 11th. That’s probably about right, but I believe that with more investment in quality players we could perhaps achieve a finish similar to last season’s sixth.

It depends on how optimistic you are but if you fancy a bet on West Ham, we are 12/1 to finish in the top 4, 5/1 to finish in the top 6, and 8/11 to finish in the top 10. Anyone other than the top 4 in the betting is not a realistic bet to win the title, and few pundits vary from Manchester City (and possibly Chelsea) as realistic contenders, although Liverpool and Manchester United cannot be completely ruled out. I reckon everyone else can be.

I’d love to see us make a storming start to the season. If you are old enough to remember 1983/4 (as I am) then you might recall that we won our first 5 league games to top the league by the end of September with 15 goals scored and just 3 conceded. That was the season we beat Bury 10-0 in a League Cup tie too. We were still second in the table in December, but faded as the season progressed. With six games to go we were sixth, but just two draws and four defeats in those final six games meant that we finished 9th. In fact we only won one of our last twelve league games. Trevor Brooking retired after the last game which was a 1-0 defeat at home to Everton.

Football was very different then of course. The Premier League would not come into existence until the 1990s, and the top flight was called simply Division One. Liverpool were champions but Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers all finished in the top five. Other teams in the top division included Ipswich, Sunderland, Luton, West Brom, Stoke, Coventry, Birmingham and Notts County. Neither Manchester City or Chelsea were anywhere to be seen!

But Back to the Future, or 2021/22 as it will be known, football will once again be played in front of capacity crowds. Let’s hope that can continue throughout and not be interrupted by another wave of the wretched pandemic that has disrupted our lives for the past (almost) eighteen months. I’d like to see an improvement in the performances of officials to match those that we witnessed in the Euros in the summer. I hope we see better use of VAR, such as less fussiness (just concentrating on key decisions), no more offsides by a toenail or armpit, and better interpretation of handball. I’d also like to see West Ham finish as Premier League champions, or at least in the top four! What are the chances???!!!

Carry On Lingardless: No Change For Dithering Hammers In Season Opener At Newcastle

It will be a Billy No-New-Team-Mates West Ham who face Newcastle United at St James’ Park on the Premier League’s opening weekend. Will the Hammers avoid a trademark sluggish start to the season?

By most measures, last season was West Ham’s best-ever in the Premier League. Sure there was a 5th place finish in 1998/99 but in terms of games won, points earned and goal difference, the 2020/21 campaign was way ahead and the closest the club have ever been to Champion’s League qualification, missing out by just one more win.

But the dawn of a new season consigns the heroics of the last one to history. The manager starts with credit in the bank but it can be so easily lost in football – as witnessed when Claudio Ranieri was sacked less than a year after winning the title at Leicester. It has to be a huge worry for David Moyes, despite his apparent outward public composure, that he starts the season with an even thinner squad of players available than he had in May – and with both domestic and midweek European competition to deal with.

I have tried to be patient but the apparent disarray with player recruitment has been a major test. Surely the signing of at least a couple of new players is a basic human right for modern day football supporters!

While the transfer window remains open for a further two weeks, the potential for panic buying increases the nearer the deadline gets. Last minute shopping is one thing but doing all your Christmas shopping at the motorway service station on Christmas Eve is sure to end in disappointment. As is buying a striker who has fallen off the back of a lorry from a bloke down the pub – probably closer to David Sullivan’s modus operandi with his favourite agents.

Still, we must put that to one side and prepare to get behind the team for their trip to Newcastle on Sunday. With no new faces (apart from Alphonse Areola) the team selection should be relatively straightforward, subject to injury absences. The same eleven that started against Southampton in May but with Said Benrahma replacing the now departed Jesse Lingard.

Once again, the partnership of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be crucial for a successful Hammer’s season. I can’t help feeling this will Rice’s farewell season in claret and blue. The period he missed towards the tail end of last season – including the defeat away at Newcastle – was instrumental in the Champion’s League charge eventually hitting the buffers. Hopefully, he suffers no hangover from the Euros or distractions from incessant transfer talk.

Soucek was the deserved 2020/21 Hammer of The Year. Joint top scorer and on the pitch for every minute of league action apart for the one missed following the ludicrous sending-off at Craven Cottage. Soucek was also top of the Premier League standings for number of Aerial Duel’s Won and, surprisingly, second in the rankings for Fouls Committed. Meanwhile, Rice was first in the PL standings for Percentage of Successful Dribbles and was second placed for number of Interceptions. An indication of their joint importance to the cause.

In defensive areas, the squad continues to look light in cover for the Centre and Left Back positions. Aaron Cresswell’s experienced something of a renaissance last season and is a deserved starter on the left, but backup is required. A new first choice centre back should be a priority though. Craig Dawson exceeded all expectations when he came into the side last year but, despite his obvious courage and spirit, he is exposed by pacey forwards running at him – as demonstrated by the defeat and red card at St James’ Park in April. Perhaps the Nikola Milenkovic saga will eventually come to a positive series finale.

Numbers are also look short in attacking midfield areas. Benrahma has looked lively in pre-season and should begin the season as a more regular starter along with Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. I’m not convinced though that collectively they offer enough to compensate for the loss of Lingard, who added pace and directness to the Hammer’s counter-attacking options.  I don’t see either Manuel Lanzini or Andriy Yarmolenko in anything other than cameo roles, should they remain at the club.

The ludicrous striker situation is long running and well documented. It would be extreme negligence to enter a busy campaign with complete reliance on Michail Antonio. I am a big fan of Antonio and am look forward to him becoming the Hammer’s All-time Premier League top scorer in the coming weeks. However, everyone knows he is unlikely to go through a whole season injury free. The make-do-and-mend alternative of playing Bowen up top is even less appealing the absence of Lingard.

Newcastle have also failed to register any transfer activity, at time of writing, although there is a chance they will seal a deal for Joe Willock in time for Sunday’s fixture. The threat of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin are well known to West Ham fans and Steve Bruce has yet to drop a point against the Hammers as Newcastle manager – having won all four league fixtures as well as a victory in the EPL Asia Tournament. With a stadium full of passionate home supporter this will be a big game to win. I might even settle for a predicted 2-2 scoring draw!

A repeat of last season’s top six finish will be a huge challenge for a squad that has limited options and a style that will now be more familiar to opponents. Anywhere in the top ten would represent a good result – and, of course, winning the Europa League as a way into the Champion’s League. In the PL it is difficult to see past Manchester City and Chelsea and my final table standings are as follows:  

Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Leeds, West Ham, Everton, Newcastle, Wolves, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Brentford, Burnley, Watford.

It was interesting to see the statistics on goal-scoring times in our league games last season. West Ham goals scored were fairly equally spread in the first four 15 minute segments of games (between 9 and 11 goals in each) but with a sudden drop to just 4 out of 62 goals netted between the 61st and 75th minutes. This was followed by a spree of 17 goals scored in the final 15 minutes (plus added time). The moral is, if you need to pop out to get a beer or use the toilet, do so just after the hour mark. But be aware, this was the second highest segment of the match for goals conceded.

I’m looking forward to the season and hoping that it’s an entertaining and rewarding one for West Ham fans everywhere. Getting off to a good start with a a top performance at Newcastle would be a welcome change. All we’ll need then is a flood of canny deals before the distinctive slamming shut of the transfer window . COYI!

West Ham Season Opener Revisited: You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next

This week’s preview is brought to you by HammerCalm, the official stress relief medicine of West Ham United. Take one tablet after the third Hammer’s goal and the proven slow-release formulation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation until the seventh minute of added time.

Do you remember, the 12th night of September? West Ham had just crumbled to defeat in the opening game of the 2020/21 season to Newcastle United. The omens were grim. A dispirited Hammers, lacking pace and positional sense, reeling from the controversial sale of Grady Diagana, had been easily beaten 2-0 by a visiting side considered to have recruited wisely during the transfer window. The obvious flaws in the West Ham defence had not been addressed and a season of relegation struggle and disharmony was widely predicted.

Who but a fool would have guessed, back then, that when we reached the final seven matches of the season, West Ham would be challenging for a Champion’s League place with Newcastle on the periphery of the relegation scramble?

West Ham’s transformation has been astonishing, regardless of what happens in the remaining games. The defence was eventually patched by the addition of the inspirational Vladimir Coufal and the resolute Craig Dawson, but it was done at very little expense. Where biggish money was pledged, for the creative probings of Said Benrahma, this has yet to pay the expected dividends. Otherwise the team is largely unchanged – in personnel, if not in performances. There have been many notable contributions to the team’s success (Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna to name but a few) but it has been the arrival of Jesse Lingard that has sparked the final assault on the top four.

At the end of January when victory at Crystal Palace first saw West Ham break into the top four, the pundits warned that a difficult run-in would bring them back down to earth. Most of those tough fixtures (at least on paper) are now behind us and still we sit with an opportunity to end the weekend not only in the top four, but in third place. No doubt there is still time for the wheels to fall off, but what delight to be in with a shout.

After last night’s draw between Everton and Tottenham, the race for the remaining two Champion’s League’s places is realistically down to Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool. The assorted bookmakers, sporting indices and pundits continue (not unsurprisingly) to see the Hammers as firm outsiders. I’m sure many West Ham fans feel the same wrestling between their privately held hopes and their publicly voiced expectations. At least the top four race provides an element of intrigue to a season that is in danger of fizzling out long before the end.

Next up in the West Ham run of weekly cup finals is a visit to St James’ Park for the return fixture with Newcastle. The Hammers achieved a league double over the Geordies in the 2018/19 season but, so far, have yet to taste victory over a Steve Bruce Toon, including a Premier League Asia Trophy third place play-off in Shanghai. The most recent visit ended in a 2-2 stalemate in July 2020 with West Ham twice surrendering the lead.

Newcastle supporters will be disappointed by their season season and, although they are not mathematically clear of relegation, they opened up a useful gap over the bottom three with a comeback win at Burnley last weekend. The game itself was a largely mediocre affair but the return from injury of Wilson and Saint-Maximin has provided a major and timely boost. The introduction of Saint-Maximin effectively changed the game and with Wilson always enjoying his games against the Hammers, the home side will be cautiously optimistic.

David Moyes has played his injury cards close to his chest making it impossible to predict the available permutations in the away side’s starting eleven. We know that Rice and Michail Antonio will again be missing but reliable news on Ogbonna’s fitness, and the extent of Aaron Cresswell’s and Mark Noble’s injuries are difficult to ascertain. My instinct is that Moyes will only be making enforced changes from the team that started last week. The most difficult gap to fill would be the absence of Noble. At least there are options elsewhere but unless the manager suddenly decides to put faith in Conor Coventry there is no backup as a partner to Soucek in the defensive midfield anchor.

A further unexpected feature of the West Ham season has been an unusually low profile from the boardroom. Not like them to be bashful in the light of unforeseen success on the pitch. Should the exceptional run continue to the end of the season then you can be sure they will be milking it for all it is worth – as the planned commemorative issue of the Sunday Sport recently leaked by a club insider reveals. No doubt they would see a place in the Champion’s League as reward for their efforts, not something achieved despite them.

It is going to be another tough match at St James Park today. Newcastle have lost just one of their last six and will have momentum from last week’s success. Hopefully, the West Ham mentality really is to take each game one at a time but it would be understandable if the pressure of expectation starts to creep in. A win and third place would be amazing and set things up nicely for the clash with Chelsea next weekend. If we do get ahead I’m looking for a better stab at game management than we have seen in recent weeks. The nerves can’t take much more of trying to throw away three goal leads – and there are no fingernails left to chew. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

Seven Cup Finals for West Ham to Achieve the Magnificent Dream

In a week when the nation’s high streets emerged from hibernation and Covid restrictions began to ease the Premier League shunned the old normality with the “new normal” of West Ham moving into the top four. And although we were close to that position when he joined us, and so many of our players have stepped up to the plate in this campaign, Jesse Lingard’s contribution has been a major factor in firing us into contention for a potential place in next season’s Champions League.

It is hard to remember a footballer make such a positive impression upon joining West Ham. When Jesse Lingard arrived in the winter transfer window there were many doubters among Hammers fans. Just as there were when Craig Dawson was signed, too. But I guess that is par for the course with many of the East End faithful.

Following last weekend’s win over Leicester I saw a “league table” of Premier League footballers with the most league goals and assists since February 1st and we all know who was at the top. With eight goals and three assists in nine games since joining on loan from Manchester United, Jesse has outshone all others being directly involved in eleven goals. It was also interesting to see Michail Antonio sixth in the table with two goals and four assists, and he hasn’t played that many games!

The Jesse Lingard show was in force against Leicester when a game that was a bit of a stalemate at the time was suddenly brought to life when he bent home a first-time half volley from Coufal’s cutback after half an hour. It was a strange shot (I think he said that he shinned it) and I did a double take when I saw it nestling in Schmeichel’s net. A few minutes later Jarrod Bowen beat the offside trap to race on to a long ball from Diop and then square it to Lingard to put it into an empty net.

2-0 at half-time, and then three shortly after the break when Lingard found Soucek who calmly passed to Bowen who controlled the ball with one touch and calmly finished it with the other. After the previous two games Hammers fans were used to 3-0 leads but we wanted more remembering what happened in those. Diop headed a fourth from a Lingard cross but VAR spotted he was narrowly offside.

Those supporters of a nervy disposition or with high blood pressure could have done without the drama that followed as the game began to resemble the last two matches with three-goal leads, especially the panic stations when the Foxes’ second goal went in at the start of the six minutes Mike Dean decided to add on at the end of the ninety. But just like the Wolves game we held on for a 3-2 victory that put us back into fourth place with just seven games remaining. Perhaps the reopening of pubs will be welcomed by many fans as the final stages of recent games may drive us to drink! How many of us would have believed that after 31 games we would be sitting in the top four with it in our own hands to remain there?

For the 27th time in those 31 games our opponents had more possession than we did, and Leicester completed more than twice as many passes. This just goes to show that the ball retention statistics that regularly appear on our TV screens during games should not be given the importance that so much of the media gives to it. But having said that there is one area where we can improve, and that is not giving the ball away too easily as we sometimes do.

Five of the seven remaining games are against teams in the lower reaches of the table (Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton and West Brom away) with the toughest games (on paper) in between them at home to Chelsea and Everton, before a final fixture at home to Southampton.

Considering the lack of depth in the squad and the mounting injuries it is amazing that we are still in this position so close to the season’s end. However there is hope that some of our injured players will be back soon, even in time for tomorrow’s game. Mark Noble has described our remaining fixtures as seven cup finals. What a shame that we can’t have 60,000 fans there for those three matches still to be played at the London Stadium.

Looking at those remaining fixtures in terms of degree of difficulty based on average league table positions, Liverpool and ourselves would appear to have easier run-ins than Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton. Brighton gave us a helping hand by drawing 0-0 with Everton on Monday evening. I watched the second half of the game and the Seagulls largely outplayed the Toffeemen without being clinical in front of goal.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that playing lowly teams is an advantage, so we can’t get too excited in anticipation of the games to come, as teams fighting for their lives at the foot of the table are often tougher opponents than those sitting comfortably with not much to play for, or those with other goals in mind such as the FA Cup or European competitions.

Our away games might seem very winnable but could be more difficult than we may think. We’ve only won twice in 16 visits to St James Park in the 21st Century. We have a better record against Burnley but have lost tamely on our last two visits to Turf Moor. Brighton have been a bogey team in recent years, and we’ve won just four of our last dozen visits to the Hawthorns.

Last weekend’s comeback win against Burnley was an important one for Newcastle but they are not yet out of the woods in the fight to avoid the drop. We could well come up against similar fighting opponents in our other three away games against teams in lowly positions but with a lot to play for. It is often better to have fixtures against teams who would already appear to be on the beach. Roy Hodgson was critical of Roy Keane for suggesting Palace did not appear to be fully committed with their players “in their armchairs” when they faced Chelsea last weekend, but to my eyes, Palace were rolled over with ease. Did you see Zaha in that game, remonstrating with just about everybody including his own teammates?

A final finishing position of fourth is in our own hands, nor is third out of the question with the win over Leicester taking us to within one point of their total. But whatever happens it has been a great season, definitely one of the best in recent times.

Three points against Newcastle would edge us closer to a top four finish. We’ll all be keeping an eye on the Everton v Tottenham game taking place this evening. A draw would probably be the best result for us in this one. Of course, Chelsea and Leicester are involved in FA Cup action on Sunday so a win today would elevate us into third place and heap more pressure on those two semi-finalists in their games in hand. Leicester’s next league game is at home to a resurgent West Brom next Thursday, whilst Chelsea face Brighton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday before they visit the London Stadium the following Saturday.We don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four. All we can do is try to win the next seven games. Seven cup finals as we aim for seventh heaven. We are sixth favourites to finish in the top four with the bookmakers. They think we’ll end up below Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester as well as the two Manchester clubs. But we are strongly fancied (5/1 on) to finish in the top six. After last season’s relegation struggle that would be a magnificent achievement, surely? I’m hoping for even better though. What are the chances?