Are Upbeat West Ham Ready To Exploit The Irregular Rhythm Of The Saints?

Despite the winning mentality building at West Ham out of recent league and European exploits it will be a tough test on the south coast against under pressure Southampton

When asked what he thought about football, a wise man once said: “It’s a funny old game.” It’s a fascinating insight and one that is particularly pertinent when it comes to football management. How else can you explain why anyone would want to give Steve Bruce a job?

Very few managers these days ever get to win a trophy – such is the financial dominance of a small group of powerful clubs. In the past ten seasons, the three major English honours have been shared by just five clubs (sorry, Tottenham) on all but four occasions – Leicester’s league title in 2016 and FA Cup win in 2020, Wigan’s FA Cup in 2013, and Swansea’s League Cup, also in the same year. In the last five seasons, Manchester City have won nine of the fifteen prizes on offer.

For anyone managing outside the richest clubs, success is purely relative. Trying to keep the owners and supporters happy (in that order) by maximising prize money and steering clear of relegation. Buried somewhere in their priority list is a precarious balance between expectations, results and entertainment.  

Just a few weeks ago, the ominous rasp of knives being sharpened might well have haunted David Moyes dreams. But a run of six wins from seven games (in all competitions) has been enough to silence his band of critics for now. A strong enough position to see off at least another two or three Prime Ministers.

Although the Hammer’s league position still leaves much to be desired, securing another feast of post-Christmas European football adds further credit to the manager’s account. In truth, a Premier League side not being able to qualify from a Europa Conference group must be regarded as a monumental failure (sorry, again Tottenham). Still, doing so with two games to spare, and using a largely second-string set of players, could not have gone any better.

This week, by complete coincidence, I came across a critique of Jose Mourinho’s management style by Spanish journalist, Diego Torres. Not a huge fan of the Special One, Torres distilled Mourinho’s footballing philosophy into the following principles:

  • The game is won by the team who commit fewer errors.
  • Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
  • Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
  • Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake
  • Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
  • Whoever has the ball has fear.
  • Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.

While it would be harsh to tar Moyes with precisley the same brush, there are certainly familiar themes – which become more visible as better players are brought into the club. When Moyes first arrived he did an amazing job of getting the best from the limited resources he had available. But as the value of his squad increases, he needs to demonstrate more variety in his game plan. The cycle of defend deep, break quickly, and score from set pieces cannot repeat indefinitely. The squad now has players that can add creativity to the energy and organisation, but there needs to be more freedom, less inhibition, greater adventure, improved fluidity and movement; and less respect for opponent’s reputations.

The transition is not an easy one, but there can be no linear path in football for clubs like ours. Without a preception of success, improvement, and momentum, the better players will move on, and it will be back to square one. See Leicester City for details.

Today, West Ham travel to the south coast to meet floundering Southampton. A string of four consecutive defeats, including reverses against Wolves, Villa, and Everton has seen the Saints slip alarmingly down the table and propelled Ralph Hasenhuttl to frontrunner in the managerial sack race, currently neck and neck with Steven Gerrard at Villa. A good time for West Ham to play them or will we see a survival mode response from the home side?

If there were to be an armchair poll of supporter’s preferred West Ham line-ups, my instinct is that it would show a strong desire for Alphonse Areola to replace Lucasz Fabianski, Flynn Downes to replace Tomas Soucek, and anyone (Michail Antonio, Said Benrahma or Maxwell Cornet) to replace Pablo Fornals. It is certainly what I have been longing to see, although none of that is likely to happen today.

Moyes has spoken highly of Downes in recent weeks but appears set on bringing him on minute by minute in the league. Last weekend Downes doubled his Premier League minutes from one to two; a rate that doesn’t suggest a stunningly rapid development plan. Surely, he must be given a twenty to thirty minute shift before too long.

The persistence with Fornals is the perfect example of Moyes’ aversion to risk. Preferring to employ him as an auxiliary defender rather than fielding a more attack minded player. I doubt any other side in the league plays with fewer players who are primarilyy focus on offense. The lack of options and movement that this creates contributes significantly to the below average level of ball retention.

Fans will remember that West Ham and Southampton were promoted from the Championship together in 2011/12. In the twenty league matches played since, West Ham have won ten, Southampton five, and there have been five draws – four of them goalless affairs at St Marys. The Saints did, however, run out comfortable winners when the teams last met in the fifth round of the 2021/22 FA Cup.

The current Southampton side is full of busy players but they are short of true quality, aside from the dead ball expertise of Ward-Prowse. That said, I am not as confident as others that the game presents something of a ‘gimme’ for the Hammers. Much will depend on two factors: one, whether the Hammers can find enough fit central defenders to start the game following injuries sustained in midweek; and two, whether they can shake off the characteristic slow start that has tended to follow previous midweek European outings.

I would love to predict a third league win on the bounce. One day we may get to see a West Ham romp inspired by the burgeoning skills of Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta. It could be today but equally I can easily see the spoils being shared. COYI!

A remarkable two years as we look back on West Ham’s progress in that time.

Tonight West Ham face Southampton in the fifth round of the FA Cup hoping to take another step towards winning a trophy

It has been quite an amazing couple of years for West Ham. Just two years ago as coronavirus (we didn’t call it COVID 19 then I don’t think) was beginning to attract more attention and we were all washing our hands more regularly (no lockdown or social distancing at that early stage) there we were battling relegation. We had already been dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship side West Brom, as well as on the end of a 4-0 thrashing in the EFL Cup by lowly Oxford United.

Our last home game before the (2019-20) season was suspended on 13th March was on 29th February 2020 was against Southampton, almost two years to the day before we meet them again in the fifth round of the FA Cup this evening. We beat them 3-1 that day, climbing out of the bottom three in the process, and rising to 16th in the league. We only played once more (a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal) before the season resumed on the 19th June (we lost to Wolves on that day too).

On that Leap Year’s Day two years ago, Jarrod Bowen put us in front, scoring his first Premier League goal on his full debut when he lifted the ball over McCarthy in the Saints goal from Pablo Fornals’ fine through ball. Southampton equalised with a goal from Obafemi but we restored our lead before half-time when Sebastien Haller beat McCarthy to Antonio’s cross that hung in the air and scored from close range. Antonio then increased our lead to 3-1 early in the second half, gathering Fornals’ pass and sliding the ball past McCarthy. It was our first win in eight matches. As we sat in the cold February sunshine little did we realise how long it would be before we could return to the London Stadium to see our team again. In front of empty stadiums we picked up 12 points from our final seven games to avoid relegation.

Football continued to be played in front of empty stadiums in 2020-21 and after losing our opening two games, we began to see a new West Ham. By 27 February 2021 (just one year ago) we had only lost a handful of games and sat proudly in 4th place in the Premier League table. I was one of the lucky ones in the ballot to be among the crowd of 10,000 to witness our final home game of the season when we comfortably beat Southampton 3-0, Pablo Fornals once again having a big influence on the game, scoring twice in the first half before Declan Rice wrapped up the scoring late in the game. That meant we finished 6th at the season’s end, narrowly missing out on the top four but qualifying for a place in the Europa League.

Fast forward another year and we sit in fifth place in the Premier League with just eleven games of the league season to go. We are also in the Europa League knockout stages, where we have been paired with La Liga side Sevilla, as well as the Fifth Round of the FA Cup tonight. What a transformation in just two years! None of us can honestly say we saw this coming when we went into lockdown two years ago.

It will not be easy for us tonight. Southampton have been in excellent form lately, and their 11 points from their last 5 league games is bettered by only two teams (Liverpool with 15, and Newcastle with 13). In fact they have only lost once in their last ten league games (3-1 at Wolves), a run (5 wins and 4 draws) which has seen them climb from 16th (just above the relegation places) to 9th, sitting vary comfortably in mid-table.

They needed extra time to knock out both Swansea and Coventry in the last two rounds, but now we’ve reached the stage where the winners of this tie will progress into the last eight, I would expect both teams to field close to first choice sides. They certainly should because at this stage we are only three wins away from a place in the FA Cup final and the chance to lift a trophy. Of course we remember the last round very well, only just surviving to get past Kidderminster thanks in the main to Declan Rice.

Ron Greenwood Taking Home The FA Cup in 1964. Will This Be David Moyes in 2022?

Southampton’s fine recent form sees them installed as favourites to win the tie by the bookmakers at around 13/10. The odds on a West Ham win are around 2/1 with 12/5 on a draw in 90 minutes. Betting on cup games is always a precarious business as you can never be sure how strong the teams will be. You’d like to think that being this close to a Wembley final would mean that teams are at full strength but that is not always the case.

In the next 19 days, starting with tonight’s last 16 game at Southampton we will play 6 matches, including home and away ties against Sevilla in the Europa League last 16, as well as three league games with visits to Anfield and White Hart Lane plus a home game against Aston Villa.

I wonder where we’ll be in three weeks’ time? We could be in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup and the Europa League and still challenging towards the top of the Premier League. Or perhaps we might only have eight league games left of our season having gone out of both cups? Or perhaps even somewhere in between?

With the relatively thin squad available to choose from it is remarkable that we are where we are considering where we were looking back to just two years ago. But whatever happens in the next two weeks and then in the final weeks of the season it is interesting to hear David Moyes’ thoughts. At the Press Conference prior to tonight’s game these are some of his quotes:

“Every manager wants to win a trophy.” “We’re on a good track but the next couple of years will be an important time. We’re trying to build a team that’s getting stronger.” “I look more at how we’re going to continue to try to build the club and keep getting closer to winning trophies.” “We’ve made a swift move towards the top end of the Premier League. We’re involved in Europe, had a decent run in the Carabao Cup and we’re trying to get a good run in the FA Cup if we can as well”

Well done David Moyes and his coaching team. What a fantastic turnaround in our fortunes in just two years.

Wish We Was At Home For Christmas? Injury Hit Hammers Hoping To Nick It Against Saints

There’s Boxing Day fare at last at the London Stadium. Who will shake off the Christmas hangover first as West Ham take on Southampton?

They have become a collector’s item in recent years, but finally West Ham prepare to host their first Boxing Day home game since 2013 when they face Southampton at the London Stadium this afternoon. It will be an opportunity for the Hammers to reinvigorate a faltering injury-hit spell that has exposed the inadequate squad depth that most of were already aware of.

In the Boxing Day fixture of 2013, West Ham took a second half lead through Carlton Cole against high-flying Arsenal only to concede three times as the north Londoners ran out 3-1 winners. A defeat that left the Hammers struggling in 19th place in the table. The two-goal hero for the visitors that day was Theo Walcott who may well feature in the visitor’s line-up today. The West Ham team, under the management of seasonal ‘jovial’ fat-man Sam Allardyce, was as follows: Adrian, McCartney, Tomkins, Collins (Rat), O’Brien (Demel), Jarvis, Nolan, Noble (Taylor), Diame, J Cole, C Cole

For a West Ham Boxing Day victory, we must go back a further four years to 2009. With the elf-like Gianfranco Zola in the hot seat, West Ham beat bottom of the table Portsmouth by two goals to nil – an Alessandro Diamanti penalty and a late header by nobody’s favourite Czech, Radoslav Kovac. The Hammers all-star line-up was: Green, Faubert, Tomkins, Upson, Ilunga, Collison, Kovac, Parker, Diamanti (Behrami), Noble (Jimenez), Franco (Nouble)

Today will be the fourth time West Ham have come up against Saints on Boxing Day. In 1983, a goal by Danny Wallace was enough to give Southampton (who would finish the season as runners-up to Liverpool) the points at Upton Park against John Lyall’s rebuilt side: Parkes, Stewart, Lampard (Donald), Walford, Martin, Devonshire, Orr, Cottee, Whitton, Brooking, Dickens

In 1968, it was honours even at The Dell when two goals by Geoff Hurst (one from the spot) was enough to earn a 2-2 draw for Ron Greenwood’s side: Ferguson, Bonds, J Charles, Cushley, Stephenson, Moore, Redknapp, Boyce, Hurst, Lindsay, Peters

The only West Ham Boxing Day win came in a 1935 Division 2 clash at The Dell with the Hammers winning 4-2. The game was a return fixture with the two sides having played out a no-score draw at Upton Park on the previous day.

Injuries will play a key part in today’s game. The long-term absences of Angelo Ogbonna and Kurt Zouma are well documented but mystery surrounds the fitness of Aaron Cresswell’s back. Internet rumours suggest that he will be missing for some time and is certainly not likely to feature today. One positive coming out of Wednesday’s Carabao cup exit, however, was that Vladimir Coufal was able to serve his one match suspension. He and Ben Johnson will fill the full-back slots with Craig Dawson and Issa Diop filling in between. A defence that was once as hard to crack as a Brazil nut now looks highly vulnerable. An uncertainty that appears to permeate throughout the team.

Sadly, the Covid virus and all its variants have not issued a Christmas truce and the number of players missing the game through positive tests will not be known until the teams are announced. Michail Antonio is a reported non-starter and the social distancing enforced by his absence of goal celebrations might yet turn out to be a positive if he has not infected any team-mates. Several online previews are predicting Andriy Yarmolenko to lead the line in Antonio’s absence. I hope that is not the case and that Jarrod Bowen is given the job following an impressive midweek performance – we need Dasher rather than Prancer! This would allow only a second Premier league start for Nikoli Vlasic.

The visitors also have injury concerns of their own. Adams and both the Armstrongs have been long term absentees while Forster may return in place of Caballero in goal. Chelsea loanee Broja is a likely starter having shown that his running can unsettle the Hammer’s backline when he came on as substitute in the game at St Mary’s in September.     

The game might easily be billed as the out-of-form derby. West Ham have just one win from the last six fixtures while Southampton have not tasted victory in any of their last six. The Hammers have won the last four home games against Saints, scoring three times on each occasion. A repeat would be most welcome if momentum is to be regained. It is needed to boost the top six ambitions that many of us have now developed. It was perhaps inevitable that the hectic schedule would eventually reveal just how thin the squad is for a team hoping to compete for honours. It was very bad luck to lose two quality centre backs but everyone knew about the lack of cover at striker and left back. Both need to be addressed early in the transfer window if the season is not to fizzle out with the new year fireworks.

Today, I think we will scrape through 2-1. COYI!     

Some Christmas memories of the late 1950s and 1960s as West Ham entertain the Saints on Boxing Day

I can’t remember the last time we had a home game on Boxing Day, but I don’t think it has happened since we have been at the London Stadium. As a young boy I used to love going to Christmas games at Upton Park, and just like in modern times, they used to cram as many games as they could into the festive period. The first one I ever went to was actually on Christmas Day. Yes that’s right on 25th December. The Year was 1958, and my second ever visit to Upton Park on that day was for the visit of Tottenham. We beat them 2-1 with goals from my first favourite footballer, Johnny Dick and Vic Keeble. I believe that this was the very last time that West Ham played a game on Christmas Day. For good measure we visited White Hart Lane the following day and beat them 4-1 this time.

My next Christmas visit to Upton Park came on Boxing Day two years later (1960), but this wasn’t such a happy trip. Once again the visitors were our ‘friends’ from North London – this was their double season and they beat us 3-0. The following year (1961) Blackburn came down on Boxing Day and beat us 3-2. Two years after that on 26 December 1963 I witnessed one of the most remarkable games I have ever seen. Blackburn were once again the visitors and people never believe me when I say that it was a fairly even game – but they beat us 8-2! Two days later with just one change to the starting line up we went to Ewood Park and gained swift revenge with a 3-1 win. Johnny Byrne scored two goals that day – he was a magnificent footballer and goalscorer in his time with us – he hit 10 goals in a five game purple patch that culminated in the victory over Blackburn, and 25 league goals in the season (in 34 appearances), just eclipsing his 24 goals in 33 appearances the season before. He formed a formidable partnership with Geoff Hurst who was in the early part of his career.

On Boxing Day in 1966, we thrashed Blackpool 4-1 and the following day we went to their ground and won 4-0. Not surprisingly, Blackpool were relegated that season after finishing bottom of the table. The following year (26 December 1967) I saw one of the best ever games I can remember at Upton Park. We were 2-0 down to Leicester in the first 15 minutes or so, and then we fought back to win 4-2. Brian Dear scored a magnificent hat-trick and the other West Ham goal was scored by a very young Trevor Brooking wearing the number 9 shirt in his debut season. Four days later we visited Filbert Street and beat them again by exactly the same score (4-2). Brian Dear scored twice that day and Trevor Brooking scored again. Both times the score would have been much greater but for the performance of a teenage Peter Shilton in the Leicester goal who showed even then what a player he would become.

Draw specialists Southampton are today’s visitors. They have drawn 8 league games this season, the same as Palace, Brighton and Burnley. All four of those teams could be much higher in the table if they had managed to turn some of those draws into three points, but all four are currently in the bottom half. As I write this, one-third of the Boxing Day games have already been called off due to COVID, and only 6 of the 9 remain. But there could be more by the time kick-off arrives.

All these postponed matches make the league table harder to decipher with teams such as Arsenal having played 18 matches, whereas Tottenham have only played 14. We currently sit in fifth place having played 17, but both Manchester United and Tottenham could overtake us if they win games in hand. The form table from the last five games shows why we have been joined by others in the race for a top four place. We have picked up 5 points in that time, compared to Arsenal (9), Manchester United (10) and Tottenham (11).

I was one of the lucky 10,000 in the ballot to witness the final game of last season against Southampton when we won the game very easily 3-0. Pablo Fornals scored a couple that day and Declan Rice scored one where he just kept running with the ball, similar to a goal he subsequently scored in Europe this season against Dinamo Zagreb. If we had our best team available I would expect a similar outcome today, but injuries (and perhaps tiredness?) have taken their toll. The performance in the midweek defeat in the Carabao Cup against Tottenham wasn’t too bad, and one player who stood out for me in perhaps his best game in a claret and blue shirt was Vlasic. I think he played well enough to retain a place in the team.

So what chances a 3-0 repeat victory today? Despite our recent indifferent league form we are slightly odds-on to win the game at 5/6, and 13/1 to win 3-0. What are the chances?