In a period of rampant fixture congestion prior to the Qatar World Cup it feels perverse to ask a team involved in midweek European competition to play their weekend fixture late on a Monday night. Once a big deal in the early days of live televised football, the glamour of the Monday night match has waned to become the home of fixtures with minority appeal. A perfect example of after the Lord Mayor’s show, but still preferable to the Friday night slot.
The weekend’s games have seen the Hammers left floundering in 17th place of the Premier League standings, teetering just above the dotted line of doom. As ever, the curse of VAR continued to infect the once beautiful game. When it comes to the poor standard of refereeing, a problem shared is a problem doubled. On-pitch and off-field officials compound each other’s flawed judgements and mistakes. The probability of error is being added rather than multiplied.
If the technology were being applied correctly, there would be a move towards greater consistency, not away from it. A penalty awarded for Chelsea but denied for Arsenal in almost identical circumsatances, just as the judo throw on Tomas Soucek also went unnoticed at Southampton. Haaland being allowed to use power and strength to barge through defenders, while Michail Antonio is regularly penalised for doing exactly the same.
Add to that the two-to-three-minute delay at Manchester City (as the game went on around them) before the ludicrous award of a ‘clear and obvious’ home penalty especially with a strong suspicion that Silva had engineered the tackle in the first place.
Although bizarre VAR decisions have played a supporting part in West Ham’s stuttering start to the season, both manager and team have struggled to look anywhere close to convincing. While a plea of misfortune could be entered for points dropped in games against Forest, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool, little evidence exists that the Hammers can reprise the exploits of the last two seasons.
If I were asked to summarise this season’s performances to date, it would be a team that is over-cautious, too willing to concede possession, poor at passing, and weak at finishing. But do the statistics bear that out?
I think the reason Moyes team appears overly cautious is the reliance on a low block and the lack of pressing higher up the pitch. The Hammers score low on number of presses, especially in the attacking third – preferring to retreat to the edge of their own area. Creating a disciplined compact defensive shape was one of Moyes tactical victories in stopping the rot left by Pellegrini. The culture persists today and only four teams in the Premier League have conceded fewer goals this season. But compact in defence can easily become congested in possession if there is not good movement. It is difficult to validate this from publicly available stats, but observation suggest a lack of fluidity, few third man runs, and a dearth of passing opportunities that feature in the play of most successful sides.
Possession stats have risen a little in the past few weeks, up now to 44% and higher than five other clubs in the division. Surprisingly, the Hammers are mid-table when it comes to passing accuracy, roughly equal to Newcastle. But when looking at the progressive distance of those passes, it shows them slipping down the table – suggesting a higher proportion of passes that are short or go sideways and backward. What is not clear to me is whether a below par passing game is down to individual player weaknesses or to match tactics which stymie a fluent passing game – which is the chicken and which is the egg?
Interestingly, West Ham sit eighth in terms of total number of shots but are well down the rankings for shots on target (and of course, goals scored). In fact, only Wolves have a worse record for percentage of shots on targets. West Ham’s 25% of shots on target is strikingly unfavourable compared to the 38% achieved by both Arsenal and Tottenham. What is the opposite of clinical?
I’ve had a long held soft spot for tonight’s visitors dating back to their time as a plucky lower league side. For some years, I lived on the south coast but the association started even before that, when I attended a Bournemouth versus Luton game in 1969 during a family holiday. It was first professional game I had gone to that didn’t feature West Ham. The battle of the Supermacs – Ted MacDougall for the hosts and Malcolm Macdonald for the visitors – ended as a 1-0 away win. The club has also had a strong West Ham connection over the years with John Bond, Trevor Hartley, Harry Redknapp, Kevin Bond, Jimmy Quinn, Scott Parker and now Gary O’Neil all spending time in the Cherry’s manager’s seat.
I half expected Bournemouth to fade back into lower league obscurity following their 2020 relegation, so full credit to them for making it back to the big time and putting together a creditable start to the current campaign, despite early season hammerings by Manchester City, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Since O’Neil took charge, the Cherrys have won two, drawn four and lost just once.
According to most reports, West Ham will be without Nayef Aguerd and Lucas Paqueta tonight and doubts continue with the fitness of Craig Dawson and Maxwell Cornet. That suggests a continuation of the Kurt Zouma / Thilo Kehrer centre-back pairing – assuming Angelo Ogbonna is not consider a credible starter these days – with either Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back. I am hoping that Paqueta’s absence means a rare start for Said Benrahma to offer at least a hint of guile, and that Flynn Downes gets another chance to impress following his fine performance at Anfield. My concern again would be a midfield top-heavy with defensive minded players unable to provide the level of support required by the front players. We are, after all playing at home – against Bournemouth!
A home win today would bounce West Ham into the top half of the table – onto page one of Teletext, as it was. Defeat would leave them mired in a congested mob of clubs looking nervously downwards. There is a lot to play for and it is a time to boldly go for it. Maybe time for an extended look at Gianluca Scamacca and Michail Antonio as a joint attacking force. We can dream!
Apparently, the Hammers have built a reputation as Monday night masters, having won their last five fixtures on that particular graveyard shift – who keeps tabs on this sort of thing? I will be surprised and disappointed if they don’t make it six in a row. But what we do know, is that they will make hard work of it. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!