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.
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)