Moyes Must Avoid Doing Something Stupid Again As West Ham Entertain The Gunners

They practice every day to find some clever balls to play. To score a header or two. And then they go and spoil it all, by doing something stupid like ….. respecting the point!

No sooner had I been presenting the case for David Moyes pragmatism than he went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid with his puzzling team selection at Old Trafford. My argument that his approach was based on realism over caution were made to look well wide of the mark.

Granted there was the enforced absence of Jesse Lingard and the withdrawal through injury of Pablo Fornals and the manager is not blessed with the strongest of squads. But immediately the team-sheet was revealed it had the whiff of waving the white flag about it. What a boost it must have been for the opposition to note the lack of offensive players.

Being prepared to surrender possession has become a relatively common tactic in the Premier League these days, but without a supporting ability to cause damage on the counter, it is futile. When the height of aspirations is hoping to hold out for ninety minutes, it usually ends badly. It was a pale shadow of the spirit of adventure shown a few weeks earlier against a far superior side from the other side of Manchester.

It was frustrating to hear Moyes say after the game that he wouldn’t have done anything differently, even with the benefit of hindsight. Surely, he must have recognised that the team selection was all wrong. That not replacing Lingard with a ball playing midfielder would negate any threat posed by Michail Antonio or Jarrod Bowen. That despite Ben Johnson’s having the makings of a top class defender, he is not cut-out as a wing-back operating on the wrong side. That it is many moons since Mark Noble has operated effectively enough to start at this level.  

Being annoyed by a defeat at Manchester United may reflect how far expectations have come, but more so, it illustrates how far we have to go, especially when you look at the lack of depth on the bench. Should European qualification be achieved, it promises to be a one season wonder unless there is significant strengthening in all positions – and what are the chances of that happening based on past performance?

This weekend, West Ham welcome Arsenal to the London Stadium for the penultimate London derby of the season. The Gunners may not be the same force as during their Wenger heyday, but they have continued to dominate the head-to-head against the Hammers– West Ham having won just three times in the last twenty-six meetings. Even when the Hammers have given a good account of themselves, Arsenal have managed to steal the points in the final minutes.

The visitors are currently on track for their lowest league finish since the last knockings of George Graham. Replacing Wenger has proven almost as difficult as replacing Ferguson at Manchester United, as the Gunners (along with their North London neighbours) slowly but surely slip further behind in the super rich standings. Having initially believed that Arteta might turn out to be an inspired appointment, his team has floundered and lacks any identity. Despite the introduction of several promising youngsters, the team continues to be hamstrung by the inconsistency of big money signings.

There is nothing for West Ham to fear but fear itself. I don’t expect the Hammers to boss possession but do expect to see far more threat as an attacking force. The return of Lingard is important in that respect but better contributions are also required from the other forward players – Antonio, Bowen, Fornals (if fit), Said Benrahma and/ or Manuel Lanzini. I would hope to see a return to a back four and the time is right for Super Tomas Soucek to put and end to his seven-match mini-goal drought.

With only a handful of league games being played this weekend due to FA Cup commitments, a win would see the Hammers go into the international break level on points and games played with Chelsea. That would be some achievement and for all the disappointment of the approach at Old Trafford it has been a phenomenal season, and a phenomenal effort by manager, players and coaches. I fancy a 2-1 win against an opponent who are pinning most of their season’s hopes on Europa League success. COYI!

West Ham visit Old Trafford, but fans will be keeping an eye on results elsewhere too.

When you reach this stage of the season with less than a dozen games to go, then as a West Ham fan you start paying even closer attention to other games that are being played, especially those of the teams that are around us in the league table. On many occasions in past seasons the purpose has been to see if they are picking up points in the desperate scramble to avoid relegation. But this time around it is very different. We are interested from the point of view of finishing as high as possible in the table, perhaps qualifying for a place in Europe next season, and possibly even (whisper it quietly) a place in the Champions League.

Normally that would mean finishing in the top four, and most pundits are writing us off in that respect, believing that our wonderful run so far will come to an end before we reach the season’s finish. They may well be right but I hope not. How good would it be to prove them wrong? With a limited squad we have performed way beyond all expectations of even our most ardent supporters, and there is no reason why we cannot go all the way if all the cards fall in our favour, and results elsewhere help too.

Of course this season finishing in the top four might not even be enough to qualify for the Champions League. If there are two English teams that win either the Champions League or the Europa League, and they finish outside the top four in the Premier League then they would qualify for next season’s elite European competition alongside the teams that finish in the top three. There is a maximum of five places for any one country in the Champions League, and winning the previous season’s European tournaments takes precedence over league positions.

And this scenario could still happen. In the Europa League, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have all reached the last 16, and if one of them should go on to win it and finish outside the Premier League top 4 they would qualify for next season’s Champions League. For this reason West Ham fans will be rooting for Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan in the second legs on Thursday this week. But both Arsenal and Tottenham hold two goal leads from the first leg and are favourites to progress.

Similarly in the Champions League, Liverpool have already reached the last eight, and both Chelsea and Manchester City are well placed to join them, holding leads before their forthcoming home legs this week. I think we can disregard Manchester City in the Premier League as they will win it comfortably but we must hope that they, or one of the other foreign teams such as Bayern, PSG win the Champions League to prevent Liverpool and Chelsea from qualifying by the back door if they finish outside the domestic top four.

Of course none of this will matter if we don’t do the job ourselves in the league so we must continue to aim for as high a finish as possible, hopefully in the top three. Now this may well be beyond us but it is nice to think that it is still a possibility, and even still in our own hands with just eleven games to go. And the league results have been kind to us so far this weekend. Leeds holding Chelsea to a draw was a good result for us, and Burnley’s unexpected win at Everton was an even better one. This means that we go into today’s fixture (probably) still in fifth place just three points adrift of Chelsea with two games in hand, and two points ahead of Everton with a game in hand over them too. We could do with Sheffield United surprising Leicester today, but I can’t realistically see that happening, plus it would be good if Arsenal beat Tottenham, something I always hope for, and Wolves beat Liverpool on Monday night. Draws in those games wouldn’t be the worst results for us either. 

Apparently Manchester United are weakened by injuries for today’s game, and we must also hope that they want to hold themselves back a little for their return leg against AC Milan this week. We will be without Lingard of course, but I expect to see Benrahma in the number 10 role behind Antonio with Fornals and Bowen providing the other two attacking midfield roles. The back four pick themselves at the moment; Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell, as do Rice and Soucek in midfield. The only possible variation to this may mean a slightly more defensive line-up with Johnson replacing Bowen, who hasn’t looked at his best recently, in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Noble could even come into the equation but I’d prefer to see him held back and brought on in the last five minutes to help preserve our 2-0 lead! So my predictions are West Ham to win 2-0, Leicester to draw 2-2 with Sheffield United, Arsenal to beat Tottenham 2-1, and then Wolves to beat Liverpool 1-0 on Monday. I’m not hoping for too much am I? What are the chances?

Theatre Of Impossible Dreams: West Ham To Take A Passing Interest In Second Place

West Ham take a tilt at second placed Manchester United – fighting the unbeatable foe in a quest to reach the unreachable star of Champion’s League qualification

I was listening to a radio discussion in the week on the proposed changes to the Champion’s League – a plan to make the competition a closed shop for an elite group of super rich clubs. A large part of the argument for ‘inevitable’ change being the premise of a ‘huge shift in the way that football is consumed.’ Alas, football has become a product, rather than an experience.

Such discussions highlight again the dangerous path that the game is taking in deviating from its roots and treating the traditional fanbase as secondary to the worldwide TV audience. Greed is prioritising customers who give their money over supporters who give their heart. Supporter loyalty will see them stick with their team through thick and thin – a lifelong commitment. Whereas customers, will simply move on in the event of poor performance – switching allegiances as they might energy providers, either because their favourite player has switched clubs, or they have decided to follow basketball.

Being a supporter is an emotional attachment, and like all emotions they are prone to volatility. A run of defeats and the sky has fallen in. A couple of wins and the sky’s the limit. And I think I am sensing an outbreak of over stimulated expectations at West Ham at the moment.

If many of us had been asked at the start of the season how the Hammers would be faring come the middle of March, then more would have opted for ‘trading blows with the Albions to avoid relegation’ over ‘battling it out with Manchester United and Chelsea for a place in the top four.’   There cannot be many who don’t feel it has been a season of over-achievement so far. Yet there are mutterings in some quarters that we would be doing even better if only the manager wasn’t so cautious.

The case for the prosecution is that there are times when the manager has shown the opposition too much respect or else he has set the team up solely to protect the point. I’m not convinced that either is the case. Aside form the occasional positional tweak, the setup rarely changes. It is all about compact shape, great organisation, hard work and commitment – with the goal threat coming from rapid counter-attacks or set pieces. When it doesn’t come off it is because the best efforts of the opposition meet the limitations of our squad. West Ham’s strength this season is the result organisation and collective endeavour, not individual brilliance – even though there have been many excellent individual contributions.

The danger is that we may getting ahead of ourselves as to what is possible. Like popping in to your local drive-thru burger joint and demanding a patty made from kobe beef, topped with foie gras and black truffles. Possibly, the cook knows how to prepare it, but there is no chance that he has the correct ingredients. He can only make the best burger he can with what’s available.   

Every system/ formation has its weaknesses.  In ours, although we like to break quickly it is rarely in numbers. If the opposition deny the space and press hard surprise and potency are lost. We are just not geared to maintain possession for lengthy periods. That we don’t keep the ball well enough is a common post-match complaint, but it is systemic rather than individual technical deficiencies. Every good pass needs someone available to receive it, and the more options available the better. They is not yet in our repertoire.

A change to the system might be possible but it would likely expose weaknesses elsewhere. It is not the type of a risk that Moyes would take at this stage of the season, even if there is an argument that a win and a defeat is better than two draws. It really isn’t broken, so no need to fix it.

Tomorrow sees a third meeting of the season with the second team in Manchester, both of which have ended in defeat for the Hammers. The game at the London Stadium was particularly disappointing with West Ham comfortably ahead and on-top until the notorious ‘wind of god’ incident allowed the ball to miraculously return to the pitch from several yards out of play. The resulting goal simultaneously knocked the stuffing out of the home side and provided an unexpected boost to the visitors.

Despite the Red Devils sitting second in the Premier League table, they have only impressed sporadically. They are good rather than exceptional and far from an unbeatable foe. They may have only lost four league games all season, but all four have come at home. They are also experiencing twin pressures of injuries and fixture congestion, having surrendered a late equaliser in their Europa League tie on Thursday evening.  There could be far worse times to be playing them.

The non-availability of Jesse Lingard will require Moyes to do some juggling with his forward players. Possibly with Said Benrahma taking over the Lingard role and one of Jarrod Bowen, Ben Johnson or Ryan Fredericks stepping into the vacant slot, depending on the manager’s preferred formation and how he intends to counter the threat of Fernandes and Rashford (if fit).

Most pundits only mention the Hammers in passing when making their top four predictions. But by this stage of the season it is not impossible, even if it is unlikely, for West Ham to grab one of those places. All of the teams involved have tough matches to face.

As long as the team sticks to what it is good at, they are in with a shout. A win and the table will look very interesting, narrowing the gap between the two clubs to three points with a game in hand for the Hammers. West Ham’s odds have now shortened to 3/1 with some bookies for a top four finish and 4/6 for a top six one. It would be no big surprise not to make top four but I will be a little despondent if we slipped out the top six – even if it will still have been a great season.

Finally, I end the article back on an unashamedly emotional theme, West Ham to win 2-0. COYI!

The Road (To Europe) Is Long, With A Many A Winding Turn ….

That Leeds us to who knows where, who knows where. Are we strong, strong enough to carry it off? He ain’t Revie, he’s Bielsa!

In a season notable for its fixture congestion, it is something of a luxury to go a whole nine days without a game. In bygone days it would have been enough for Fat Sam to whisk the squad off for a warm weather jolly to Dubai, but the more pragmatic David Moyes will have wanted to put the break to better use. Recharging the batteries and retuning the engine for what could well be an interesting climax to an unusual campaign.

Since West Ham were squeezed out by Manchester City, despite a spirited and admirable display that was worthy of a point, the majority of Premier League clubs have played three times, resulting in the Hammers slipping from 4th to 7th in the standings. For a while it looked like other results were being kind to us, but recent wins for Manchester United, Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham have seen them putting points on the board at our expense. As an anxious supporter, I sense this may have posed a degree of added pressure to tonight’s performance, but hopefully the dressing room has an in-built immunity to such transient concerns.

With one or two games in hand over those above us (apart from Everton) the competition for a top six place remains open and up for grabs. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before the fat lady sings come the end of May. There are also an intriguing number of head-to-head games still to come between the interested parties – starting with Chelsea vs Everton, scheduled to end in a 1-0 home win immediately before our game kicks-off tonight. More gushing acclaim for Tuchel, the latest football media darling.

Where will it lead to, who knows where? My best guess is that a further twenty-one points would be the minimum requirement for West Ham to be in with a shout of a top four finish, it would certainly secure top six. Seven wins or six wins and three draws should do the trick. Not easy but, equally, not impossible.

How well other teams perform and avoiding injuries will also be contributing factors to the Hammer’s fate. We should all switch allegiances for European matches and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Liverpool continue to stay involved and distracted for as long as possible.

Despite Leicester’s win at the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell away given their spate of injuries and I’m still to be fully convinced by Everton. That the Hammers remain ‘part of the conversation’ (as they say these days) is nothing short of remarkable and more than I could have hoped for back in September. Who might have believed that games away at Manchester United and home to Chelsea, Leicester and Everton would be pivotal in determining European qualification rather than to avoiding relegation.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the Hammers have to negotiate the challenge from Premier League mavericks, Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has become something of a marmite manager among supporters – tactical genius or eccentric oddball? Whatever your opinion he has steered his side to a comfortable mid-table position in their first season back at the top, and provided plenty of entertainment along the way. They are as unpredictable as the Hammer’s sides I remember watching in the 1960s. A far cry from Revie’s Leeds of the same era. It will be interesting to see how they develop next season.

West Ham will be looking for only their second double of the season in tonight’s game. In the reverse fixture at Elland Road, Leeds attacking play was largely impotent, despite taking an early lead, and they are likely to provide a far stiffer test this time around.   

A huge difference compared with more recent seasons is the Hammer’s impressive home form, which is currently third best in the league. A win tonight would put them back into second place, above Tottenham, but still a long way behind Manchester City. A shame that it has had to be achieved in an empty stadium. Having supporters back inside for the final game on May 23 to secure a Champion’s League spot is a beguiling dream to hang on to.

The major injury concern over the past week has been the fitness of Lukasz Fabianski. His welfare is my concern. My fingers are doubly crossed for a safe return between the posts for today’s game, particularly with Darren Randolph also nursing an injury. Although Randolph is a decent enough shot stopper, he has always looked suspect in the air – evidenced, in my opinion, by his failure to claim De Bruyne’s cross that led to Manchester City’s opener the previous weekend.

Moyes has made a habit of springing the odd curve ball in recent team selections and formations. I think it will be a return to a back four tonigh with Jarrod Bowen returning in place of Ben Johnson – but perhaps the manager has other plans. 

It may be a tired pundit’s cliché but there is truth in the axiom that there are no easy games in the Premier League. Not in the sense that you can ever take it anything for granted. Leeds do not provide the compact, massed defence that has so often derailed West Ham in the past but there all action possession based style will present a very different challenge. There will be opportunity for the pace of Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to exploit on the break but the whole team must do their bit in matching the visitor’s energy. It is reassuring that we have come to expect a positive and determined team spirit throughout the side, as well as performances above and beyond the call of duty from the likes of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Craig Dawson.

For a side without a prolific goal-scorer, West Ham have a reasonable return in converting chances – but they do have an inferior goal difference to most of those above us. While it’s great to see the goals shared around, the absence of a 15 – 20 goals a year striker is an obvious vulnerability. The beauty of a natural scorer is in turning a draw into a victory and in turning the screw when you are on top, converting a 2-1 score-line into 4-1. Maybe next season, eh?

Win or draw and West Ham will be back in the top six at the end of the day. A win will see us back in fifth and should Everton manage a draw at Chelsea then it will be a good night’s work all round, with everything set up nicely for the following weekend. West Ham to win 3-1.  

Can West Ham complete the league double over Leeds for the first time in 67 years?

Arriving back from my three miles Sunday morning walk in the late winter sunshine I sat down to watch some football. West Brom v Newcastle wasn’t the most exciting prospect in advance of the game but I sat through most of it, although I was increasingly distracted by the Sunday newspapers. If there has been a more boring game of football in the Premier League this season I missed it. Here I witnessed two teams play out a game of football that was almost totally bereft of any quality. Two teams that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Championship next season if this was anything to go by. If only we could be facing Newcastle now instead of in the first game of the season.

After lunch, I was about to begin to write this article when I thought I would catch the first few minutes of the Liverpool v Fulham game. I stayed for the whole of the first half to witness an energetic and inventive Fulham side totally outplay a seemingly dispirited Liverpool team and take an interval lead with a late goal. On the evidence of that half I can easily see Fulham escape the drop that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. As we saw when we visited Craven Cottage recently they are a good footballing side that just lacked something in the final third. On the other hand Liverpool, after a 68 game unbeaten run at Anfield had lost five home games on the trot and this was looking as it could have been the sixth. It was hard to recognise them as the team that had played so well at the London Stadium a few weeks ago, and highlighted again to me the unnecessary (too much) respect that we gave to them in that game.

In this season of matches that just keep coming relentlessly, it seems a long time ago now that we put up such an excellent performance against the champions elect Manchester City. City are really streets ahead of all the other teams in the Premier League (and possibly Europe – we shall see), but we became another victim of their long winning run, despite matching them for shots and shots on target. We could have even ended that sequence of wins with the final move of the game which ended with Diop heading wide. City have such a depth of quality players in almost every position it would not surprise me to see them win every competition they are in this season.

While we have had this comparatively inactive period, the other teams around us hoping for a finish in a European qualifying place in the league have played, sometimes more than once, and the results have not been particularly good from our point of view. Wins for Everton, Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham have pushed us down the table without us playing, and now we are the ones with the games in hand over most of them. So many of those wins could easily have been draws, but as often appears to be the case, luck, refereeing decisions and VAR reviews seem to favour top teams in so many games.

Tonight we face Leeds, who must be relatively pleased with their season so far, after their return to the top flight after so many years out of it. They sit comfortably in mid-table with 35 points from their 26 games, unlike the other promoted teams (Fulham and West Brom) who are involved in the relegation scrap at the bottom.

The statistics for their season so far indicate a poor side from a defensive viewpoint, with only West Brom (56), and Sheffield United (45) having conceded more league goals than Leeds (44). They have lost half (13) of their games too, with only Sheffield United (22), West Brom (16), and Newcastle (14) having lost more.

Conversely they have won 11 games, which is more than the teams below them in the league, and they are ranked fifth in goals scored (44), with only City (56), Man United (53), Leicester (48) and Liverpool (47) having found the opposition net more. The above statistics point to their dearth of draws (just 2 in their 26 games), which include no draws at all away from home, a league low unmatched by the rest of the teams. Does this mean that this game will not end in a draw, or perhaps a draw is due for them?

The game at Anfield is now over and Fulham have won the game to ensure that Brighton and Newcastle will be looking anxiously over their shoulders. The usual punditry is underway with analysis of Liverpool’s vertical decline taking precedence over the credit that should be given to Fulham for their excellent victory borne out of splendid organisation. But we get used to that. Who would have thought that with just a dozen games of the season to go we would be two points ahead of Liverpool with two games in hand?  

Looking at our head to head record against Leeds it doesn’t make for very good reading. In the last 38 years we have faced them 29 times, and only beaten them on three occasions, of which only one was at home when we won 3-0 in March 1998 (that’s 23 years ago now) with goals from Hartson, Abou and Ian Pearce. We won at Elland Road a couple of seasons later when Nigel Winterburn scored the only goal of the game. Of course in December we won at Elland Road after conceding an early penalty, when Soucek and Ogbonna scored our goals in a 2-1 win.

The last time we completed a league double over them was on the day after I was born (I am now 67!) when we beat them 5-2 at Upton Park, after winning at Elland Road earlier that season. We were both Division Two sides at the time. The last time we did a double over them in the top division goes back over 90 years. So it would be the first time for many years if we win the game this evening.

But purely based on current form we are strong favourites to win the game. Only Manchester City have collected more league points in this calendar year than we have, and we have won four of our last five home league games. Leeds on the other hand have lost three of their last four league games, and have an abysmal record in London, losing all four games in the capital this season.

But in their 13 away league games they have scored in 11 of them. In fact they have found the net 24 times away from home but conceded 27, winning six times and losing seven. The 87 goals scored in Leeds 26 games this season suggests that a goalless draw is highly unlikely, with five goals or more coming in almost a third of their matches.

Despite current form pointers suggesting a home win we are not as strong favourites with the bookmakers as you might have thought. Odds of around 21/20 for a West Ham victory look inviting, as does a West Ham win with both teams to score at 5/2. As is often the case with the bookies the favourite correct score is 1-1 despite Leeds not having drawn an away game this season, but I quite fancy 2-1 to repeat the Elland Road win (15/2) or even 3-1 (14/1). What are the chances?

 P.S. Writers Curse – of course, after extolling the virtues of Manchester City, their long winning and unbeaten runs came to an unexpected end when their nearest neighbours beat them. Just a blip I reckon that will spur them on for the rest of the season.