What The Dickens: The Best Of Times On The Pitch But The Worst Of Times In The Transfer Window

Performances on the pitch continue to defy the behind the scenes discontent as West Ham set their sights on a three match winning start to the season by defeating Crystal Palace

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t give a second thought to the league table after just two games played. But life is too short not to make exceptions. And with the Hammers sitting proudly at the top of the table, why not take the time to enjoy with a little smug smile of satisfaction. Even if we know it is only a temporary state of affairs.

Look no further than the fact that Arsenal were top at the same stage last season as a cautionary tale on how bad things can turn out. In fact, seven different clubs led the table last season before Manchester City eventually hit the front to win the title at a canter.

It’s all a bit Jekyll and Hyde at West Ham right now. A club with a split personality swinging between the many good things happening on the pitch and the ongoing turmoil of inaction behind the scenes.

To see the Hammers described in the press as “disciplined and aware, determined and resilient” is unfamiliar territory for seasoned supporters. We may have seen teams with greater individual flair and flamboyance in the past, but the current level of unity, courage, and team spirit has never been as obvious.

The performance against Leicester on Monday was close to perfection. Outstanding organisation and a rigorous compact shape, founded on the formidable Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek partnership, gave the visitors little scope as an offensive threat. Vardy and Maddison were neutralised, our defences were untroubled, and attacking players allowed to flourish.

Michail Antonio rightly received the plaudits for his record breaking goal-scoring exploits, but it was equally pleasing to witness top notch performances from Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen. I would go as far to say it was Fornals best all-round performance in a West Ham shirt – an extra helping of creativity added to his undoubted endeavour and work-rate.

If things are going well on-the-pitch this feels at odds with the usual transfer window shenanigans from the boardroom. To say West Ham have been quiet in the transfer market is a massive understatement. With just three days left until the ceremonial slamming-shut, no permanent signings have yet been made (unless you count the option to buy for Craig Dawson).

While other clubs are able swoop in and sign a player within a few hours of him being linked to a rival, the West Ham hierarchy continue to move at glacial speed – so what chance is there of completing more signings by Tuesday night? There is a fine line between getting a good deal and completely missing the boat.

I would be happy with the signing of Kurt Zouma but will not be counting any chickens until I see him holding the shirt. The move has been going on so long they could make it into a Netflix series. The deal has been off and on so many times it is difficult to keep track – personal terms, payment terms, agent fees, dodgy knees and whether to have pineapple on the take-away pizza they have ordered in. Supposedly the medical has been completed OK, but still minor issues to resolve before pen is put to paper.

Signing Zouma does nothing to resolve the striker debacle, however – although I did read he used to play right-wing. Hmmm? It is seven months since Haller was sold and still no sign of support or backup plan for the clubs one and only injury-prone frontman. It is impossible to read between the lines of what David Moyes has said on the striker search, given that he is notoriously cautious and unwilling to reveal his hand, but the omens don’t feel good. If there was ever an ideal time to invest in the squad this would be it.

Today’s visitors to the London Stadium for an unaccustomed Saturday 3pm kick-off are occasional West Ham party poopers Crystal Palace. It has been a slow start to the season for the Eagles and new manager, Patrick Viera, with just a single point and no goals to show from their two games. From the outside it looks like Viera has a thankless job on his hands in making something of the ageing squad left by Roy Hodgson. Hodgson’s Palace were exceedingly dull but he had them organised well enough to keep relegation out of harms way. They will be banking on there being three even worse teams in the league this time around though.

With each passing season Palace’s talisman, Wilfred Zaha, has become less talismanic. The kryptonite of not getting his move away from Selhurst Park has left him a weaker, irritable, and forlorn figure – to the point where a cardboard cut-out might even do a better job.

As ever, the danger is treating today’s game as a forgone conclusion. It’s fine for us supporters to do so, but the players mustn’t fall into the complacency trap. There is still a difficult job to be done. As much as our rapid counter-attacking style of play has the beating of Leicester these days, it will need to adapt to meet the challenge posed by a team with no intent of bossing possession.  Creating goal-scoring opportunities against a packed defence requires a different level of cunning.

I am tempted to look at the clues 4-2, 4-1, and see a 4-0 demolition as the next in the sequence (I may have been watching too many episodes of Only Connect).  I doubt it will be a rampant display, though, and will settle for a more conservative 2-0 win. Maybe that will be enough to keep us top of the table going into the international break. COYI!

“I Don’t Believe It!” – West Ham fans erupt as they score four again to go top of the table

If you thought beating Newcastle 4-2 on the opening day was good, how about a third consecutive win against Leicester (who finished last season in fifth place in the Premier League), and scoring ten goals against them in those three games? And as Michail Antonio thrashed the fourth goal into the net we had the realisation of being top of the league. As hardened West Ham fans we know it won’t last, but we’ll enjoy it for now, especially because we are watching a team playing some great attacking (or counter attacking) football. All over the pitch the players are playing with massive confidence and belief in their abilities.

Richard Wilson was on the TV on Wednesday. For those of you who have forgotten, or are not old enough to remember him, he was the main character in the sitcom One Foot In The Grave, playing Victor Meldrew, a grumpy sixty year old who had just involuntarily retired. He encounters a series of problems, many of his own making, and has a catchphrase “I don’t believe it”, a phrase echoed by most football fans seeing the Hammers perched at the top of the table. Incidentally I was surprised to see that the last episode aired over 20 years ago.

After all we are not noted for barnstorming starts to the season. The last time we won the opening two games in a Premier League season was in 1997. Comparing this season to last we are already six points ahead of where we were after two games. But as I say we won’t get carried away, but while we can keep our first choice players fit we can continue to win games. The problems will arise as the fixtures pile up with the Europa League games, and our relatively thin squad, especially if we get injuries to key players.

Here’s another poser for you. When do you think we last won our opening two games in the top flight and scored eight goals in the process? It has happened before, way back in 1930, a mere 91 years ago. That season we began with two home games, beating Huddersfield 2-0 in the first, and then in front of just 11,682 on the following Monday we put seven past Liverpool. Both of those teams went on to finish in the top half of the table, whereas we didn’t.

Our main goalscorer at the time (and the club’s leading goalscorer of all time) was Vic Watson. He scored six goals in those opening two games, and just like Antonio now was the leading goalscorer in the league. He scored 11 goals in the first 7 games and then he got injured and was missing for the next four months. Back then we had a ready-made replacement to play up front (Viv Gibbins) who took over the number 9 shirt and scored 19 goals in 22 games. When Watson was fit again he resumed his place in the team and Gibbins was left out, just playing a handful of games when Watson was injured again at the end of the season.

How did that season turn out after the brilliant start? Despite being fourth at Christmas a poor second half of the season saw us finish in 18th place. The two teams relegated that season were Leeds and Manchester United. Incidentally we won the first two games the following season too, but we only collected one point in the final ten games and finished bottom and were relegated. Of course there won’t be any parallels this season but the lack of cover for Antonio (at the time of writing) is a potential worry unless David Moyes has an alternative that we don’t know about.

Crystal Palace have collected just one point from their opening two fixtures, losing 3-0 to Chelsea and drawing 0-0 with Brentford. They were also dumped out of the EFL Cup 1-0 by Watford with an Ashley Fletcher goal (remember him?). In three games they have yet to score a goal and we are overwhelming favourites to make it nine points from our opening three games before the International break. We are 8/15 to win the game, with Palace at 5/1. We are now seventh favourites at 75/1 to win the Premier League too.

We’ll enjoy it while it lasts, and I’m hoping that my pre-season prediction of finishing sixth at the end of the season doesn’t end up being very far wide of the mark. Perhaps we can even do better than that? I’m hoping for four goals on Saturday for the third game in a row at the start of a season. I don’t believe that has ever happened before. What are the chances?

Nobody Said It Was Eze: West Ham Momentum To See Off Workmanlike Crystal Palace

A chance to leapfrog Chelsea and reclaim their place in the top six is the target for the buoyant Hammers as they entertain a competent but uninspiring Eagles at the London Stadium

It was immensely satisfying to see West Ham come away from Elland Road with three points at the weekend. Away wins in the north against energetic opponents have rarely formed part of Hammer’s folklore. One of the most pleasing outcomes of the season so far.

Despite a creditable run now of excellent performances my default setting, when things are going well, is still that it is only a matter of time before the wheels eventually fall off. Conceding an early penalty, twice-taken would easily have knocked the stuffing out of West Ham of old – making the gutsy comeback all the more impressive. Interesting that VAR can detect a keeper a few millimetres off his line but not a ball that is two metres out of play.

If there was any criticism from last week’s game, it was that the score-line should have been even more conclusive. According to Sky Sports, we have had more shots on goal in the last five games than any other team in the division. A higher conversion ratio would be lovely.

It was an honest and enjoyable game to watch, without any of the cheating and diving that so often taints Premier League games. Full credit to both teams for that. I like Bielsa’s approach to the game which makes for entertaining viewing. I don’t believe it is a myth surrounding him, as some have suggested. I’m sure they will survive the season with plenty to spare, and return even stronger next year. Managing a promoted team and becoming established at the top level is not an easy task.

I’ll admit that David Moyes surprised me with his team selection for the game. I expected an attempted like for like swap when news broke that Arthur Masuaku would be side-lined for several weeks. Reverting to four at the back was the last thing I expected, but it worked a treat. Amazing what confidence can do for a player’s performance and Aaron Creswell slipped back into the left back role as if it was 2015 all over again.   

The added bonus in the game was the full debut of Said Benrahma and his Playmobil hair style. What a player he looked on that evidence. He excelled both going forward and in fulfilling his brief to cancel out the threat from Kalvin Phillips.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of the same from him in coming weeks, providing the outlet in midfield that has been missing for so long, and the enticing ability to run directly at defences. 

I’m fairly certain that it will be the same starting eleven once more for tonight’s game with Crystal Palace. Frustrating as his is, I don’t see any viable way of leaving Sebastien Haller out until Michail Antonio’s return. Haller has represented extremely poor value for money, but he is not as bad or as disinterested as some make out – we have had far worse. Suggestions of playing Benrahma in the striker role just seems plain crazy – putting him in a position he is not cut out for, while at the same time removing his threat from midfield.   

By historical standards, the Hammers have been relatively ‘lucky’ with injuries this season, perhaps a reflection of improved overall fitness levels. This is just as well, really, given there is little to get excited about on our bench. Some honest pros but no game changers or exciting prospects that can be used for reliable squad rotation. The danger of player burn-out or exhaustion is a real one as the season unfolds if no further recruitment is forthcoming.

With the January transfer window just around the corner, there are two possible approaches the owners can take. One, spend some money to strengthen the weaker areas of the squad with a view to sustaining a European challenge. Two, rest on their laurels now that relegation appears to be the most remote of dangers and keep their hands in their pockets. I wonder which one it is likely to be?

Player trading under the new post-Brexit foreign transfer rules agreed between the FA and Home Office will bring about changes to player recruitment. It will be interesting to see how these pan out in reality, but no surprise if they end up favouring those richer clubs able to afford signing established internationals.

Squad rotation is not such a big issue for Roy Hodgson at Palace as with the exception of Zaha (and now Eze) most of his squad are much or a muchness. Whenever, I have seen them this season they have looked fairly ordinary, but then something has happened to turn the game in their favour – the Bamford VAR offside vs Leeds, and the red card vs Albion, for example. Last weekend, Spurs looked like they would run away with the game but a trademark Mourinho lack of adventure, once they had gone ahead, allowed Palace to rescue a point courtesy of a Loris goalkeeping error.

In the past it has been a case of stop Zaha and stop Palace, but the signing of Eze has added a different dimension, both from open play and set pieces. Eze was one of many players linked with a move to West Ham in the summer, and it will be interesting to see him on the same pitch as Benrahma.

I am relying on another Declan Rice/ Tomas Soucek masterclass to steer the Hammers to victory, leapfrogging Chelsea in the Premier League table. It will be refreshing to look down upon Chelsea for a change when we face them next week.

Of course, we have been here before with Palace. Last season a win would have seen Pellegrini’s team climb into third place, but despite taking the lead they contrived to lose 2-1. Instead, it was the beginning of the end for the Chilean with a return of just seven points from twelve games.

I’m feeling supremely confident today and more than ready for an early Christmas present. The Irons to romp home as seasonal 3-0 winners.  

Do the statistics point to three points for West Ham tonight?

I never cease to be surprised by the vast array of statistics available in football these days. When I was young all that I can remember are league tables and goalscorers. Now absolutely everything is analysed in microscopic detail. Assists is an interesting one and can vary from playing a major part in a goal being scored, to being almost incidental. I suppose they add another element to fantasy football leagues, but really what is the point? Why not give credit to everyone involved in the build up to a goal? A player could go on a mazy dribble beating seven or eight players and then pass to a team mate who mishits a shot badly into the path of another team mate who scores a goal. The one who badly mishits his shot is credited with an assist.

I’ve been looking at a number of statistics in preparation for this game, and there are all sorts of reasons why West Ham should be collecting three points tonight. Firstly, a look at the current form, which is something I wrote about frequently last season when analysing the last five games played by each team. If you think our position in the table (6th) is very good, then you’d be even more impressed if you looked at the form table for the last five games. This puts us second on 12 points, a point behind Manchester United on 13. Even the top three teams can’t match us; Tottenham have 11, Liverpool and Leicester 9 apiece.

We have a positive record against Palace in history and despite losing to them in our last two meetings we are unbeaten against them in the eight before that. We currently have 20 points from 12 games, so a win would take us to 23 from 13. That would be our highest ever total at this stage in the top flight for 37 years, even surpassing the record breaking 1985-86 season.

Apart from our opening day defeat against Newcastle, we have scored in every league game this season. It’s not very often to find West Ham scoring in 11 consecutive matches. David Moyes has never lost a game when facing a team managed by Roy Hodgson and has won 8 of the ten games when managing a team against Crystal Palace.

Palace on the other hand would also have their best start in a top flight season if they beat us, and we have to remember they scored five goals in their last away game (admittedly only against West Brom, but then again Albion drew at Manchester City last night). Jordan Ayew has an interesting record against us. I remember him being sent off for quite unnecessarily elbowing Aaron Cresswell when playing for Aston Villa a few years back, but I see that he has scored more goals against us than against any other team, including the winner in both fixtures last season. But he wasn’t in the starting eleven against Tottenham last weekend with Benteke preferred up front. I would also add that Lanzini has scored four goals in games against Palace; does that mean he should be selected for this match? Are we also the unluckiest team in the Premier League this season? We’ve hit the woodwork on no fewer than nine occasions – more than any other side.

Another statistic from our last game against Leeds was that Haller lost possession of the ball 12 times in the first half. He is infuriating to watch at times, but still retains the potential to score goals. I saw a piece written by our old favourite David Cross praising Haller’s willingness to keep finding positions from which he could score and suggesting that when one or two go in his confidence might improve. Perhaps if that overhead kick had gone in? I don’t know, the jury is still out, but I hope he comes good, as I hope for all our players. He’s not small but doesn’t possess the strength that Antonio does to hold opposition players off and bring others into the game. But that is not his forte.

I was very impressed by the skills displayed by Said Benrahma in his first start for us and believe he can be a major asset to the team. Jarrod Bowen continues to impress as does Soucek, and Declan Rice is playing better than ever. What a change in atmosphere in the (almost) one year since David Moyes came back to the club!

I’ve no idea about team selection although David Moyes is not one to make changes unless forced to do so. But with our recent form why would he? There is a suggestion that a couple of our players are carrying knocks, so we’ll have to wait and see. One of the features of this season for me has been the inability of referees to spot “simulation”. As long as we can keep Zaha quiet and the referee doesn’t fall for any diving antics then I’m confident that we can continue our great run and pick up three points once more. I keep seeing penalties being awarded week after week when watching the Premier League games on TV. It’s about time we were awarded one or two.

I’m going for 2-0 with goals from Benrahma and Haller. What are the chances?