Haller-lujah, Antonio In Excelsis! Takeaways As West Ham Snatch Survival Lifeline

Now, I’ve heard about when West Ham scored. That Sebastien played, and it pleased the Lord. What, if anything, did we learn from West Ham’s surprise change of formation and victory at St Marys?

Sack Race Goes Into Added Time

There was plenty of pre-match speculation as to the potential scenarios that each of the possible outcomes might have on the future employment prospects of Manuel Pellegrini. Many believed that he would be gone no matter what the result. But now, according to the latest reports being leaked from the club, the manager will be hanging around for as long as the Christmas decorations are – ‘tis the season to be jolly! Although rather than being given another two game window to save his job, he is now apparently in sudden death territory – just one more shameful, insipid performance away from the job centre. None of this should really be any surprise since it became obvious that the decision hinged on compensation payments and not for football reasons. Are the team, under Pellegrini, able to scramble high enough up the rock-face to avoid drowning in the rising tide of relegation? It is not a matter of trust in the manager- it is a case of trusting that there are three worse teams in the league come the end of the season.

First Among Failures

West Ham were deserved winners in the game that, although relatively exciting, was generally poor in terms of quality. Not exactly a ‘game of two halves’ but certainly one of ‘two portions.’ The Hammers were dominant for the first 60 or 70 minutes until they tired badly just after the hour – perhaps a few more minutes than they managed on Monday. After that, all ambition disappeared and were left hanging on and thanking the woodwork by the final whistle. Fitness levels are one of the major concerns under the current management regime – as they were during his time at Manchester City. Better sides than Southampton (that is, most of the Premier League on this showing) will be quick to exploit that weakness. Hasenhüttl had adjusted his formation at half time and there was debate in the commentary box as to whether Pellegrini would make changes to compensate – based on previous experience he will be ready to do so sometime in early March. Although Romeu was one of the hosts better performers it was fatigue in the Hammer’s ranks (notably Mark Noble and Robert Snodgrass) that changed the dynamic of the game.  The defence (particularly Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena) was resolute but luck also played a huge part.

Pellegrini Sees The Light

Just as the manager had been slow to recognise the glaring limitations of Roberto, he was also the last person alive to twig that Sebastien Haller might be far more effective if he wasn’t left so isolated on the pitch. Begrudgingly and with the catalyst of a convenient Felipe Anderson illness, Pellegrini finally accepted that more than one team formation is possible. It was a transformation. Michail Antonio was outstanding, causing havoc in the Saints defence with his aggressive running, pace and power. Haller responded magnificently, not only with a goal, but also with a genuine striker’s performance that was a constant threat of danger. One could argue that Haller should have been putting in the required effort previously, but it is easy to understand his frustration – who would pay top dollar for a striker and then refuse to give him any service? More is still needed, however, to compete against better sides than Southampton. Midfield runners need to get into more advanced positions, beyond the strikers, on occasion – only Pablo Fornals (who is showing definite signs of improvement) did so to any effect.  The changed formation meant Declan Rice playing a more subdued role than usual – good for defensive stability but a problem while he remains the only pace in midfield. Long balls for Antonio and Haller to chase are a useful option, but cannot become the only tactic.

Little In Reserve

You only need to take a look at Saturday’s bench to recognise how thin the squad depth is, and how no confidence is being shown in academy players – Roberto, Zabaleta, Masuaku, Diop, Sanchez, Yarmolenko, Ajeti – hardly the magnificent 7! Accepted that there have been injuries, but probably no worse this season than the average Premier League club. Allowing Obiang, Fernandes and Hernandez to leave without bring in replacements and failing to address the full-back issues were completely irresponsible by all concerned. A good match-day bench should be a mix of essential cover and players who are capable of changing the game. Even Southampton had better alternatives to call on from the dugout. Pellegrini’s use of substitutes was again eccentric. Andriy Yarmolenko’s defensive contribution has suicidal tendencies – even if replacing Snodgrass (knackered and in danger of a second yellow card) made sense. The introduction of Carlos Sanchez (for Haller) effectively handed all remaining initiative to Southampton. Still, all’s well that ends well, I suppose.

Schrödinger’s Penalty

We saw the worst of VAR in Saturday’s game. Not the technology, but the way the buffoons (lunatics and assylum spring to mind) have implemented it. Ostensibly introduced to eliminate refereeing mistakes, it’s primary use is to either apply rules (or interpretation of rules) that previously didn’t exist or to enforce offside to a spurious degree of accuracy . The handball rule used to disallow the Antonio goal is bizarre. How does an offence (unintentional handball) only apply when it occurs during an attack and where a goal is scored? When in all other circumstances it is waved on? What is the current rule on penalties? What happened to the crackdown on grappling at corners? When does contact become too much contact – went down too easy versus entitled to go down? It’s a mess. In Saturday’s penalty incident there were two blatant fouls for the price of one but both ignored by the referee – perhaps he was overwhelmed. If it happened too quickly for the referee to see, then it should have been apparent to the VAR. The ‘clear and obvious error’ defence is clear and obvious nonsense – it should be about consistency and accuracy, not about a referee losing face. It has been said that had Atkinson awarded the penalty then Moss would not have reversed that decision either -for the same clear and obvious reason. It was both a penalty and not a penalty at the same time.

Ratings: Martin (6), Fredericks (5), Balbuena (7), Ogbonna (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (6), Noble (6), Snodgrass (6), Fornals (7), ANTONIO (12), Haller (8) Subs: Yarmolenko (5), Sanchez (5), Diop (5)  

A relegation six-pointer is the Saturday 5.30pm game – Southampton v West Ham – “All of us know we need a result.”

I really cannot believe that I will be writing about Manuel Pellegrini any more after this weekend. There cannot possibly be any way that he can survive as the manager of West Ham, whatever the result this evening. In view of the postponement of the Liverpool game (and perhaps even if it hadn’t been postponed) there is a very big chance that we will be in one of the relegation positions at Christmas. Very few managers survive after a run of results that we have had in the past few weeks, plummeting down the table from the heady heights of fifth place. Enough is enough. A change is necessary. There is no need to feel sorry for him – just take a look at the pay-off he will get, despite the poor performance. The exit poll taken as the fans left the ground after the Arsenal debacle predicts that he will be gone well before Christmas.

I’ve collected some of the comments attributed to him this week.

“All of us know we need a result.”

“I always think as a manager that the results of the team depends on the individual performance of a player. After that you can work a lot on tactical, physical and technical work but the players decide the games.”

“Of course, when you have your important players not in their best moment, the results of the team will not be good.”

“You must find why they are not in that moment and try to work with them and give them confidence and I hope that most of them will return as soon as possible to their normal performance.”

‘Well of course all of us know we need the results. We have just five points from the last nine games.”

“We need to return to being a consistent and solid team in the way we did against Chelsea and for 60-65 minutes against Arsenal. The points that we have are not enough for this team.”

“We dominated for 60 minutes. Maybe scoring the second goal would have been so important.

“It (booing at the end) was understandable because the last five games that we play here, we didn’t win.

“If you don’t win at home, your fans are not going to be happy.

“You cannot concede three goals in every game. Unfortunately for us, we are doing wrong things, but we need to continue fighting.”

The following is not a comment made by MP but it could have been – “And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain.”

Asked if he thought he could fix it, Pellegrini added: “Of course.”

A lot of things have been written about a rift between Pellegrini and Felipe Anderson. Here are some of the comments attributed to our Brazilian playmaker this week.

“When I arrived it was hard but we started winning and I started to show my potential by helping the team with goals, assists and dribbles, and right now things are not working out as we want.”

“Things have to improve and I have to improve to be able to help the team.”

“As I always say, this is a collective game. If I don’t score and the team wins, I’m happy, but if I don’t score and the team loses and I couldn’t help the team as I want to, it’s difficult.”

“But we need to keep on working hard and think positively.”

“Monday’s match was a very negative result and one that we didn’t expect because we were at home and because we had played well in the previous two matches.”

“But we know that we need to keep working hard to get out of this situation.”

“This is the worst phase I have been going through with the team.”

West Ham go into this “must win” game against Southampton, a team that has improved in recent weeks, certainly since being thrashed 9-0 at home by Leicester, knowing (well if they don’t know I’ve just told them!) that they have beaten Southampton in Premier League games more than they have beaten any other team. Our results against them in recent times have been positive with four wins in the last five Premier League meetings.

Knowing how our heads seem to go down when we concede a goal, one statistic that I read this week is troubling. In our last 15 visits to Southampton (a period of time that stretches back almost 25 years) we have failed to score the first goal in the game! I’m not sure what the odds will be, but based on that, you can almost guarantee that Southampton will take the lead by scoring the first goal. Despite their poor season they have managed to score in every league game they’ve played apart from two. Only Liverpool, Manchester City and Wolves have scored in more games than that.

As West Ham fans we’ve had little to cheer in recent games, and don’t need reminding of some of the statistics being banded about. Seven defeats in our last nine league games, five points fewer than at this stage last season, and twelve points dropped from winning positions (which equals our total for the whole of last season!) make depressing reading. It is hard to ignore the goalkeeping situation – we have lost 14% of games when Fabianski was in goal, and 78% of games since he has been injured and out of the team. We need him back sooner rather than later!

On a positive note (bearing in mind we are playing away), 56% of our total points this season have been collected on our travels, a percentage unmatched by any other team in Premier League. (It starts from a low base though). Our manager should be confident of victory too based on his past record, having won six and drawn one of the eight games he has been in charge of teams playing Southampton.

Of course I want us to win and I hope we can win. I don’t honestly believe that when we play our next match at Selhurst Park on Boxing Day that MP will be in charge whatever the result today. There is every chance that we will have a new man at the helm. Surely, despite some deficiencies in the squad, there is enough talent to work with to ensure a mid-table finish at least with these players. I just hope that we can attract a younger manager with fresh ideas, and don’t resort to one of the usual managerial names being banded about in the media.

Pellegrini Farewell Tour Goes South: Our Exit Poll Predicts No New Dates Planned

In the longest farewell tour since Elton John, Pellegrini takes his beleaguered Hammers to a seasonal six-pointer showdown at St Mary’s. Are we coming to the end of the line?

The Manuel Pellegrini Golden Bullet Farewell Tour heads to the south coast late on Saturday afternoon for the last of its currently schedule dates. We shouldn’t expect anything more than the same old tired performance; going through the motions with the usual absence of energy and lack of co-ordination. The tours co-promoters, G&S Self Promotions Inc, will reportedly decide, after the show, whether to add any further venues to the tour or finally call it a day.

Pellegrini is supposedly once more down to his final life – like some cornered avatar in a fantasy computer game. A West Ham win might earn him two more lives; a draw would mean not losing a life; while defeat and it is game over. As the sacking decision is now clearly only about money, any pretence of keeping faith with the manager to ‘turn things around’ has completely evaporated. West Ham occupying one of the relegation places at Christmas has now become almost guaranteed.

From the demeanour of manager and players, it has been obvious for at least a month that Pellegrini was a dead man walking. The problems run so deep that there was never any likelihood of a way back – the plug should have been pulled after the Burnley game.  To blunder along in the dark, week by week, hoping for a miracle has been beyond negligent.  Only time will tell whether the penny pinching, dithering Daves have allowed history to repeat itself and acted too late.

There continues to be much speculation in the media as to who the next manager might be. Despite everything, managing in the Premier League at West Ham will still be seen as an attractive job – with an attractive benefits package to go with it. Let’s face it, nearly all top flight manager appointments end up in ‘failure’ to some extent or the other – so who wouldn’t be prepared to give it a try.  It would be nice to think that our search would extended beyond the usual list of unimaginative hopefuls that always crops up when such a vacancy occurs. I cling to the hope that a younger manager with ideas that have been not been obsolete for the last decade could be in the frame. As it will be Sullivan who will be making the decision, though, I will not be holding my breath.

So, what about this weekend’s six pointer between a resurgent, high energy, cohesive Southampton side and a dispirited, bewildered, lethargic West Ham one? Which way could it possibly go? OK, so I was equally pessimistic before the Chelsea game and look what happened there. Maybe, the same lightning will strike again this time. We must pin our hopes on the possibility that Pellegrini has again left preparation for the match to one his coaches, rather than taking any part himself.

The main topic of team related discussion this week has been whether the Hammers will throw caution to the wind with a two man front-line. Such a change would entail Michail Antonio partnering Sebastien Haller with Felipe Anderson relegated to the bench. Sounds fine in theory, but difficult to see who would be loading the bullets if we have to rely on the combined sluggishness of Mark Noble, Robert Snodgrass and Pablo Fornals. I do understand the frustration that many supporters have with Anderson, but he remains the best (only) source of the unexpected. As with the Arsenal game, the fear is that once Antonio has run himself into the ground after an hour, there will be no meaningful threat left.

The best strategy may be one of containment with the hope of snatching a goal from a set piece or defensive mistake – in true Fat Sam style. Whether, it will work against Southampton, as it did against Chelsea, is the gamble. I sense that Danny Ings and Shane Long will create panic in the visitor’s defence while Nathan Redmond (who is usually mostly harmless) often looks a world beater against the Hammers.

The refereeing combo at St Mary’s consists of Martin Atkinson (whistle) and Jonathan Moss (remote control). Atkinson from West Yorkshire will be making his first appearance at either a West Ham or Southampton game this season.

As well as predicting a 2-1 Southampton victory, Lawro made an interesting comment about Pellegrini comparing him to an empty tube of toothpaste, from which the last squirt was being extracted.  At the time of writing, Charlie Nicholas has yet to reveal his selections – possibly out celebrating the expectation of a future independent Scotland. I will predict his prediction as a 3-1 home win.  Personally, I can see nothing other than more dark clouds for the Hammers this weekend; but with the silver lining of a change of manager on the horizon. At least that will offer a little hope until the name of his replacement is made known.