Out On The Wilder, Windy Moyes: Hammers Must Prepare For Weathering Heights

A different test this weekend for the Happy Hammers as they travel to Yorkshire to face a Route 1 aerial onslaught from bottom dwellers, Sheffield United

Football comes and goes these days as frequently as sunshine on a cloudy day. One minute, there are warnings of burn-out due to the hectic schedule and the next it is a week long break for the totally pointless European Zenith Data Systems Nations Cup. Whoever could have thought that would be a good idea in a time of fixture pile-up and a global pandemic?

So where exactly were we before getting so rudely interrupted? That’s right, a stuttering home win against Fulham that saw West Ham on eleven points from eight games, and into 12th place with a goal difference of +4. A satisfactory start in most supporter’s eyes, given the daunting run of games that many of us felt would see the team languishing among the relegation places at this point in the season.

Compared to the same stage last term, the Hammers are one point and five places worse off – although we had, in those opening eight games of 2019/20, played six of the teams who, along with ourselves, would end the campaign in the bottom seven.  Perhaps it is hindsight at work, but my level of confidence is higher now than it was back then – with the proviso that the hard work and attitude is maintained, and that injuries are kept to manageable proportions. There is still no room for complacency

David Moyes has won round many of his doubters, while others remain unconvinced (or refuse to be convinced.) Was it a lucky win against Fulham? Not on the balance of play over 90 minutes it wasn’t, but the pivotal VAR decisions in added time could easily have gone differently. Perhaps the referee’s thought process about Sebastien Haller interfering with play was driven by the fact that he hadn’t done so during the rest of the contest – while Lookman’s bizarre penalty attempt was justice done for the softest penalty award since the last one given against us.

West Ham had created the better chances, but it was not an impressive performance. The same limitations that have prevented West Ham seizing the initiative against ‘lesser’ teams in the past, were all too apparent again. Failure to move the ball quickly enough, getting funnelled into congested cul-de-sacs, lacking the added creative spark and being unable to create space down the wings for crosses. If width is to be provided by the wing backs, then they need to be played into open space far more than they are now. Especially, while Sebastien Haller remains their target. Or is that a health and safety requirement due to the recent concerns over too much heading (which, of course, is a valid issue.)

Fulham were allowed to flood the midfield areas (albeit without posing much of a threat) leaving Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek outnumbered and unusually ineffective. Rice, particularly, was forced too deep and had the look of a backwards/ sideways parody of Mark Noble. He is at his best when driving forward and spreading play – we don’t need any of those Gareth Southgate, possession for the sake of it habits here, thank you!

Today’s game will present a very different challenge against possibly the most direct side in the league (or is that Burnley?) Past Hammers performances against physical opponents desperately seeking points might suggest a difficult afternoon. A trademark slow start that has often followed one of the enforced breaks could be the story of the game. It is vital that manager and team have prepared to weather an early and ‘in your face’ storm from the opposition. Timid away defeats at Burnley in both the of the last two seasons readily spring to mind as a yardstick.

Sheffield United were last season’s surprise package. Chris Wilder did a superb job with limited resources to finish top half, in a season of few goals – just over one per game scored and conceded – and with an admirable ability to come back from behind. They have yet to reproduce that success this time around. The loss of on-loan keeper, Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell to injury have resulted in a leakier defence – and what was a trickle of goals has almost dried up completely – not helped by missing two or three penalties they have been awarded. Brewster may eventually provide the missing cutting edge, but at the moment, the Blades look decidedly blunt.

Moyes will surely stick with his favoured three/ five at the back formation with final selection contingent on injuries and/ or fatigue. I am assuming that Angelo Ogbonna is available to play (it has all been very quiet on his injury) but there could be a recall for Issa Diop, if Fabian Balbuena has not recovered from his arduous trip back from Asuncion (how many connecting flights would that entail?)

Although Michail Antonio has been back in full training, I don’t see him being risked today. He needs to be packed in cotton wool as carefully as possible until there is a credible backup option. And despite his rousing cameo against Fulham, I don’t see Said Benrahma making the starting eleven yet – certainly not in the type of game where hard work and discipline will be paramount requirements. Expect another twenty to thirty minutes of him from the bench.

As ever, the wild card will be whatever grenades VAR throws up with penalty and offside decisions. It is obvious that the relevant rules lack precision, are largely vague and have become more subjective than ever. Just that we now have more than one person responsible for making those judgements. In fact, it appears there are two sets of interpretations depending on whether an incident took place inside or outside the penalty area. I am thinking it could be better entertainment if after any goal, or tackle in the box, the referee runs to the pitch-side and spins the Wheel of Fortune to determine the outcome. It would make about as much sense while at the same time producing great, nail-biting TV drama.

Whatever happens it is going to be a tight affair with few goals. My confidence that we can stop Sheffield United scoring is higher than it is on our ability to break them down at the other end. Could it be our first scoreless draw since September 2019? This is hardly likely to one of those games for the neutral (they must be better things to do on a Sunday afternoon even during lockdown) but will take the Hammers to nick it with the only goal of the game.

Can West Ham extend Sheffield United’s Second Season Syndrome Misery?

When Sheffield United began the 2019-20 Premier League season they were the favourites of many (including the bookmakers) to make an immediate return to the Championship at the end of the campaign. As we now know that didn’t happen, and they finished in the top half of the table in a very creditable ninth place, surprising a lot of teams along the way. This season has been a very different story, and they have collected just one point from their opening eight games. That came in a disappointing (for them) 1-1 draw at home against lowly Fulham. But that is exactly how our game against the Cottagers could easily have ended a fortnight ago! What a finish to a football match that was!

It got me thinking about the offside rule and also the law re fouls, and for a bit of lockdown reading I read through two of the laws of the game issued by the International Football Association Board through FIFA and also the FA. “Interesting” stuff and easy to see why they raise such controversy and discussion. Scott Parker was unhappy regarding our goal with Haller in an offside position, but was he committing an offence? The relevant point from the law (Law 11) is that a player can be penalised for offside if he is making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball. Parker’s point was that Haller affected the header of his defender which fell to Benrahma who very cleverly laid the ball for Soucek to calmly score. It becomes a subjective decision for the referee and is not a black and white situation. After the game David Moyes described the guidance as “not a good rule.” Scott Parker said that despite all the technical help we get, nobody really understands the rule in respect of interference. I agree with both of them. Fortunately for us, it fell our way this time (for a change!) and the goal stood.

Another aspect of the offside rule that continues to cause controversy is where you have offsides by a fraction of a centimetre, by a nose or an armpit, for example. A very simple change to the rule, as championed by Arsene Wenger earlier this year, was that if any part of an attacker’s body that can score a goal is in line with the last defender, they are not offside, even if other parts of the attacker’s body are in front. Effectively it would mean you have to have daylight between an attacking player and a defender for an offside offence to be committed. This would mean that more goals will stand as currently three times as many goals are being disallowed as reinstated following the VAR check, largely due to very marginal offside decisions. As DelBoy would say “you know it makes sense.” But have we heard any more about the proposal?

I am no fan of Leeds but the goal disallowed by VAR for offside scored by Patrick Bamford was a terrible decision in my view.  

Patrick Bamford Offside?

In my opinion we also have to try to remember why the offside rule was introduced many years before we were all born. It was to prevent goal hanging. Perhaps they should also restrict offside to the final 18 yards at each end of the pitch, instead of half the field? It would also stretch the play too, potentially making the game more entertaining.

And even after our goal in the 91st minute it almost went wrong when a penalty was awarded against us for the “foul” by Benrahma. In this case the referee seemed to decide that our player tackled or challenged the Fulham player and was careless showing a lack of attention when making the challenge (from Law 12). Once again a very subjective situation for the referee and not too dissimilar from Masuaku’s challenge on Salah; on both occasions the referee was (in my opinion) fooled by the “theatrical” plunge to the ground. But a penalty it was, although justice was done thanks to Lookman’s appalling attempt at the Panenka. How ridiculous was that? If you are taking a penalty just follow the approach taken by Geoff Hurst, Julian Dicks, Ray Stewart, or Mark Noble, my favourite penalty takers in my time following the team. Why try to chip the ball into the goal?

More lockdown reading; I’ve been looking through the Premier League statistics regarding penalty kicks. I have my own views about penalty kicks being awarded, as I think they are given far too easily. I believe that they should only be awarded if a goal looks likely when an offence is committed, otherwise it should just be a direct free kick even if it is in the penalty area. Too many are awarded (in my opinion) when there is no real goal threat. Around 83% of penalties are scored, so in most cases they lead to a goal whether the award is justified or not. Usually the home team get around 61% of penalty awards and the away team 39%. This season so far it has been very different. Of the 41 penalties so far, only 19 have been for the home side, and 22 for the away team. Perhaps the absence of home fans putting pressure on officials is a factor? Of the 41 awarded it doesn’t pay to be a team that begins with W – Wolves, West Brom and ourselves have yet to be given one. Claret and blue shirts doesn’t fare much better – Burnley are the only other team not to yet have one, and Villa have only been awarded one. Leicester top this table with 8! I wonder why? The most ever awarded in a complete Premier League season is just 106. We are on course to smash that total this time – at the current rate the final total will be approaching 200!

So we won the game against Fulham, and just about deserved to do so. The three points puts us into twelfth position in the table after eight games with 11 points, a very good return from a difficult run of fixtures. Sheffield United can also claim that they have faced many tough opponents with their home defeats when facing Wolves, Leeds and Manchester City, and away losses at Villa, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Five of those seven defeats have been by the odd goal. So we should not be complacent in this game. The Blades are not world beaters but potentially a better side than the table would suggest.

Last season we drew 1-1 in the home game against Sheffield United, and in the corresponding game at Bramall Lane we also scored a late equaliser to make it 1-1, before being “robbed” of the goal by one of the worst examples of how the handball rule was interpreted when the ball brushed Rice’s arm in the build-up. In theory they have made changes to the handball rule (also covered in Law 12) this season, but having read the Law (I know how to enjoy myself!) I can see why the officials’ job is so difficult when trying to interpret it. It still needs work to make it fairer and easier to understand.

I really can’t see any need to change the team unless Antonio is fit, in which case I would have him in the side straight away. The general consensus was that Haller had an improved game against Fulham, but the system we play doesn’t suit him. Personally if Antonio is not yet ready to return I would even consider replacing him with Benrahma, but I think the manager will stick with Haller. Unlike a number of fans on social media I am a big fan of Fornals (although not in front of goal!). I think he adds so much energy to our midfield in addition to being a threat in the creation of goalscoring chances. According to many, his place is the most under threat from Benrahma. I reckon that our Algerian recruit will be a terrific asset but it may be a little while before he commands a place in the starting eleven. But once there I don’t believe he will easily be left out.

It looks as though the use of five substitutes rule is likely to be re-introduced, which makes the game a little like rugby union in that respect. With a fully fit squad we have enough players to come off the bench and make a difference in games. But as the season progresses, too many injuries and the squad would begin to look a little thin. It’s good to read that Dawson has made a positive impact in training, and alongside Diop we seem to have decent cover at centre back at present. I’m looking forward to the game which kicks off at 2pm on Sunday. Have we had a 3pm Saturday kick off yet? I find it interesting to note that we are favourites to win an away game for the first time in ages. We are around 7/5 to win the game with the Blades around 2/1. I don’t think that this will be an easy game but hopefully the confidence gained from such a promising start to the season will enable us to (at least) pick up a draw. I’ll go for a win by the odd goal. What are the chances?

Blade Runners: Newly Energised West Ham Face Tough Challenge In The Steel City

David Moyes ‘Don’t Run, Don’t Play’ policy faces it’s sternest test yet as the Hammers travel to Bramall Lane to face Sheffield United, the season’s surprise footballing package.

Things could hardly have gone any better for David Moyes at the start of his second stint as West Ham manager. Two games, two wins, two clean sheets. Lucky in many ways to have begun with such a benign set of fixtures but it will have helped build both confidence in the squad and a degree of support for the manager.

The bounciness of any new managerial appointment always has limits before gravity and drag attempt to return it towards equilibrium. Solskjær’s endured for several months at Manchester United last season while Mourinho’s honeymoon at Tottenham was much shorter lived. Coming up against a gritty, well disciplined and determined Sheffield United side poses a serious challenge to the momentum of the current Moyes bounce. And that ignores any potential energy that might be added to this evenings proceedings as a result of the Carlos Tevez effect. Remember, when West Ham played with the unfair advantage of Tevez in their team they only lost 3-0 at Bramall Lane.

The Blades have undoubtedly been one of the success stories of the season so far. A team with no stars but having great work ethic and a shape that manages to be both well organised and unorthodox at the same time. Manager, Chris Wilder, can take much of the credit in producing a style that is so unfamiliar to Premier League opponents that many have struggled to cope with it. Whether managers will ultimately become wise to the approach, as we enter the second half of the season, remains to be seen. One certainly wouldn’t have put any money on Pellegrini spotting an Achilles heel, but can Moyes fare any better?

I suspect that the manager would like to play three at the back today – I believe he sees it as the best way to instil defensive stability given the players available to him. It was also apparently (at least from what I have read) one of the tactics employed by both Southampton and Newcastle in their wins at Bramall Lane. That formation, however,  may have been frustrated by the injury to Ryan Fredericks – just when he was at last looking to use his pace as an attacking threat. Pablo Zabaleta would be the obvious replacement but, putting aside the unlikely strike at Gillingham, there is a major question mark over his pace and stamina these days. Perhaps Michail Antonio is an alternative wing back option if considered fit enough to start.

Elsewhere, there are unlikely to be many changes from the side that started against Bournemouth, subject to there being no further injury problems. It has been encouraging to hear the manager’s “if you don’t run, you don’t play” mantra being repeated again this week although, maybe, it is too early to expect fitness levels to have reached that required to compete for 90 minutes – especially against opponents that demonstrate an effective never-say-die philosophy.

Today will see a third encounter of a close kind with referee Michael Oliver from Northumberland. If you believe in omens you will disappointed to be reminded that the last two ended in defeat – home games with Palace and Tottenham. Oliver’s wingman on the VAR master console will be occasional Premier League referee, Simon Hooper of Wiltshire.

In a rare Jupiter aligning with Mars moment, media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are agreed in predicting a fence sitting 1-1 draw. It is easy to understand why, with the chances of a Friday night goal-fest for the stay-at-home TV audience, unlikely from two relatively low-scoring teams.

From his own bigger picture perspective, Moyes may be inclined to view the game as a point not to lose, rather than two more to win – and will approach the game accordingly. That’s not to say, though, that it can’t be won courtesy of a quick breakaway. The hosts are strong in the air and rapid attacks through the middle might prove a more productive route to goal than crosses into the box – perhaps a reprise of Felipe Anderson’s goal against Bournemouth might do the trick. A goalless draw would be no surprise but, as always, we live in hope.

Sheffield United v West Ham – The Friday Night Match

In blog articles over the past few years, and in Gary Firmager’s much-missed fanzine Over Land and Sea before that, I have frequently written about my dislike for football matches that kick off at non-standard times. If I had my way all league games would be played on Saturdays with a 3pm kick off. Of course, with the money that Sky, and then BT, and recently Amazon have put into the Premier League, then they dictate the times when football matches are played with little thought for the fans, especially as they turn up and fill the stadiums whenever.

Of course this enables me to watch a number of West Ham games away from home on TV that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, but in all honesty I would have preferred the game to have remained as it was before Sky pumped their money in. However I can’t change things so I have to go along with it as we all do. As for the non-standard kick off times then we now have a whole plethora of them each weekend. In addition to the 3pm start on Saturdays, we can now kick off at Saturday lunchtime, teatime and evening. On Sundays it can be lunchtime, early afternoon and late afternoon. We also have Monday Night football too, as well as all the midweek games which enable so many matches to be watched if you have the time, inclination, and are prepared to pay. This game is in addition to all those times though, and is one of the occasional games that are scheduled for a Friday evening. I’m not happy with the timing but I guess I will tune in nonetheless as it is West Ham. I really couldn’t be bothered if it wasn’t my team.

This game is the return fixture of the one that was played at 3pm on Saturday 26th October, just two and a half months ago. Such a lot has happened since then, and from a West Ham viewpoint, most of it has not been good. If you remember that day, then in the first half we were the only team that wanted to play but we found it very hard to break down a well organised Sheffield defence. But a minute before half time Roberto took a long goal kick which found Anderson who set up Snodgrass to fire the ball low past Henderson to put us one up.

We thought that we would go on from there in the second half, but Sheffield United decided to play, and they played well, deserving the draw that they gained from Mousset, who had just come on as a substitute, whose side-footed volley deceived Roberto as he dived to his left, and the ball crept inside the post. Following that game both teams had 13 points from ten games played and sat 7th and 9th in the table. As we go into the return fixture, Sheffield United are now 8th while we are 16th, and just two points above the relegation positions. The excellent win in our last league game (at home to Bournemouth) ensured that we were not in the bottom three when we played our FA Cup third round tie at Gillingham last Sunday. Incidentally, has there ever been an FA Cup tie where two different players called Pablo have scored for the same team?

Sheffield United have surprised many people this season with their current position in the league, and especially their organisation. But one fact we should bear in mind is that they have actually been a better side away from home, where they were unbeaten until their last two games when they lost 2-0 on each occasion to Manchester City and Liverpool, so no disgrace there. But at home they have actually lost four games, not surprisingly to Leicester and Liverpool, but also to Southampton and Newcastle, so potentially they are more vulnerable at Bramall Lane. The gap is now 7 points which have opened up since our last meeting. Wouldn’t it be good to cut that to four after this game? Not surprisingly the home team are odds on to win the game, whereas you can get in excess of 3/1 for West Ham to be within four points, and at the same time climb into eleventh place in the table, at least until all the other teams play their games over the protracted weekend period.

The last five games ‘form table’ has Liverpool at the top (of course) with 15 points, followed by Manchester City on 12, and then two surprises, with Southampton (who have climbed out of the relegation zone) and Watford (who are still in it) both with 10 points. Everton follow on 8 points and then there are five clubs each on 7 and 6 points respectively. Sheffield United are one of those on 7, whereas we are on 6. The teams propping up the form table are Norwich and Newcastle with 3, Bournemouth with 4, then Brighton and Arsenal with 5. The league is still very tight with just 12 points separating Manchester United in fifth and Watford in nineteenth. Norwich are the only team currently adrift and they will need a big upturn to avoid returning to the Championship next season.

So what will happen this evening? I have a feeling that it will be a very tight game with few, if any goals. Perhaps a goalless draw, or possibly a game settled by a single goal. I hope we score it! History is against that happening. We have a negative record in games against Sheffield United, and haven’t pulled up any trees at Bramall Lane. We haven’t both been in the top flight at the same time on too many occasions, but when we have we’ve only won one of the last 13 games away from home in a period which stretches back 56 years tomorrow. That win was in April 1968 when a team containing Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds, Brooking and Lampard won 2-1 at Bramall Lane with two goals from Geoff Hurst.