There’s Only One F In Stratford: West Ham Entertain The Cottagers At The London Stadium

Two wins, two clean sheets and the luxury of selection dilemmas might finally put a smile on David Moyes face

A week is a long time in football. Two wins and two clean sheets in five days have transformed David Moyes demeanour and medium term outlook beyond his wildest expectations. Gone was the startled Scooby Doo look of panic that was a constant during his time at Sunderland, to be replaced by the smug satisfaction of a man who had just found a can of Irn-Bru in the mini-bar of his Brussels hotel room.

Having made nine changes to his side for the midweek game at Anderlecht, the Hammers put in a professional performance to take control of the game, even if needed the introduction of Declan Rice, Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta to finally seal the victory. An impressive trinity to be able to summon from the bench.

I’m already viewing the title of Group B champions as a done deal, and have started to look at which teams could potentially block the path to the final. Of those in the Conference itself, Villareal pose the greatest threat, followed by Koln and Fiorentina, though neither have made impressive starts in their respective groups. More of a problem are the clubs dropping down from the Europa League. Clearly, we wouldn’t want to face either of the English clubs – given previous inferiority complexes shown against Arsenal and Manchester United – and thankfully neither are likely to end up eliminated. Of the sides currently sitting third in their Europa groups, Roma and Lazio would be the greatest worries and best avoided. I’m all in favour of the clearest and easiest route possible to the final in Prague.

Standing in the way on back-to-back West Ham Premier League wins this weekend are newly promoted Fulham. The Cottagers have made a decent start back in the top flight and currently sit in ninth place with eleven points – having recorded wins at home to Brentford and Brighton and away at Forest. But a home victory today would lift the Hammers to within a single point of the visitors.

The Fulham gig has seen the resurrection of Portuguese manager, Marco Silva. Once the rising star among young Premier League coaches, Silva floundered, as many have before and since, in the graveyard of managerial ambitions that is Goodison Park. Eyebrows were raised when he replaced Scott Parker at Craven Cottage, but a barnstorming run to last season’s Championship title has represented a remarkable rebound in his stock.

A large part of Fulham’s resurgence has been to contribution and goals of Mitrovic. This time around he has offered far more than the typical blunt instrument impact of previous campaigns. Fortunately for West Ham, the Serb is a highly probable non-starter today.

The visitors were soundly beaten by Newcastle at Craven Cottage last time out when the early dismissal of Chalobah did little to help their cause. Chalobah’s ensuing suspension may herald an interesting return of Issa Diop to the London Stadium.

Moyes has a handful of selection dilemmas for the game which will test his loyalty to the established order. Has Alphonse Areola finally earned the inevitable upgrade to number one, Number One status? Who gets the nod between Emerson and Aaron Cresswell for the problematic left-back slot? Has Flynn Downes done enough to show he can be a Premier League starter in preference to Tomas Soucek?

I can’t see Moyes leaving out either Lukasz Fabianski or Soucek. Both had decent enough games last weekend against Wolves meaning the midweek heroics of Areola and Downes will likley go unrewarded. Fabianski will need either injury or serious howlers to lose his place.

It is ridiculous that Downes has just one minute (and no touches) of Premier League football to his name – in the season opener against Manchester City. The value of committed, no-nonsense players like Downes and Craig Dawson who make a real nuisance of themselves is hugley under-rated. If Downes doesn’t get a start he must be given at least twenty minutes or so to demonstrate he can cut it at this level.

It’s a toss-up for me at left back as I’ve yet to be convinced by Emerson’s defensive prowess. The problem with Cresswell’s rapidly waning powers, however, is that his presence almost guarantees the inclusion of the under-performing Pablo Fornals to baby-sit as a supplementary full-back. It’s the structural problem with the way that Moyes sets up in that our wide attacking players are given way too much defensive responsibility (well beyond the need to track back in response to an emerging threat). The consequuence is that out-ball options once possession is regained are severely limited.

Far better if the more advanced players are deployed further up the pitch to launch offensive actions and ensure the main striker does not get isolated. It was once said that it requires surgery to get a joke into a Scotsman’s head. Possibly harsh, but a similar procedure might be necessary if Moyes is to be persuaded that Scamacca and Michail Antonio can prosper together in the same side.

Scamacca is now the clear and obvious first choice frontman. He has demonstrated a predatory nose for goal and there are signs of promising understandings developing with both Jarrod Bowen and Paqueta. But Antonio still has much to offer – he is our leading all-time Premier League scorer after all. But as a striker, he gravitates towards the wings too much anyway, so why not play him there in a reprise of his earlier days at the club?

West Ham can boast an excellent record against Fulham over the years and in recent history with the Hammers having won three and drawn one of the last four meetings. Even so, both games in the 2020/21 Fulham relegation season were close run things and but for Lookman’s comical last minute penalty would have ended all square.

The absence of Mitrovic would be a huge blow to the visitors. Despite their promising start to the season they still have one of the worst defensive records in the divion. But West Ham’s profligacy in front of goal must improve if they are to advantage. A 2-0 win for the home side. COYI!

East London faces West London when Fulham are the visitors to the London Stadium to face a West Ham side looking for a third win in a row

After an indifferent start to the season the last week has been a good one for West Ham. A 2-0 win over Wolves which led to the sacking of their manager was followed by a 1-0 win in Belgium, a minor form of revenge against Anderlecht for our defeat in the 1976 European Cup Winners Cup final. Two victories, two clean sheets and an opportunity for most of the first team squad to get minutes on the pitch under their belt, and a chance to show the manager what they can do.

Three points last weekend were badly needed to move out of the bottom three and a game against Fulham is an opportunity to build on that. That is not to say that the newly-promoted West Londoners should be under estimated for they have made a decent start in their return to the top flight. They sit in eighth place with eleven points with wins over Brighton, Brentford and Forest and a draw against Liverpool being the highlights. Their last game a week ago was a bit of a nightmare after having a player sent off in the first few minutes, and they eventually lost 4-1 to Newcastle. They will be looking to bounce back. But this is exactly the type of game we should be looking to win if we want to continue our progress up the table.

Nine changes from the league game gave a lot of fringe players the opportunity to shine on Thursday evening, and in my view one player stood out, namely Flynn Downes. In two European appearances he has been my man of the match on each occasion. Surely he must be given an opportunity soon in the league? I won’t get bogged down in statistics here, but he demonstrated his skill in so many facets of the midfielders role. One thing that I particularly admire is his ability to find a team mate with his passing enabling retention of the ball, a skill not necessarily shared amongst all his colleagues.

Areola had very little to do but showed his concentration when making a magnificent save late in the game to confirm the win. The summer recruitment meant that we had the strongest bench seen for a long time, and the triple substitution bringing on Rice, Paqueta and Scamacca was key to taking the lead. I would have liked to see the manager experiment for at least a short period with Antonio and Scamacca on the pitch at the same time but he seems reluctant to do so, preferring just one at a time.

I don’t usually publish the team I would like to see playing in a game, but for this game against Fulham I will. I know the manager will not pick this team but here goes.

Kehrer, Dawson, Zouma, Emerson
Downes, Rice,
Bowen, Paqueta, Antonio

It won’t happen of course and I fully expect Fabianski, Cresswell, Soucek and Fornals to be in the starting eleven. I like Benrahma but he appears to be lacking in confidence at the moment. He has the skills to unlock defences but seems to have lost his composure when making the final pass or in front of goal. He needs a manager to have faith in him. I worry about Cresswell, Ogbonna and Lanzini. All three have been great servants but haven’t been the same following serious injuries. Fornals and Soucek have some great attributes but both seem to me to give the ball away too easily at the moment.

Apparently Mitrovic is an injury doubt, but if he plays he will be a threat. But I predict a third clean sheet in a row, a 2-0 win. I can’t remember the last time that we won two league games in a row – it must be many months ago. 

In a match with a history of goals, can West Ham maintain their excellent record against Fulham?

A trip down memory lane as we preview Fulham’s visit to take on the Hammers at the London Stadium

Saturday 3rd February 1968. 52 years ago. It was two days before my fourteenth birthday. A morning game playing for the school under 14s was followed by a trip to Upton Park in the afternoon. We took the District Line train from Barking to Upton Park shortly after noon, bought our programme (6d – 2.5p), and our hot dogs (1 shilling – 5p) outside, before heading into the ground when the gates opened to take up our places on the “big step” about halfway back slightly to the left of the goal in the North Bank. A group of us congregated there for the home games. I can’t remember for sure how much it cost to get in. I think it was 2 shillings (10p) for Juniors, but it might have been double that?

We were expecting to win the game against Fulham who were bottom of the league and looked like they would be going down. To be fair, we weren’t world beaters at the time ourselves and sat in sixteenth place. We had been 20th in November, and 19th at Christmas, but a run of five wins in six games had seen us climb the table and begin to alleviate any fears of relegation.

The West Ham team that day was full of many players who were, or would become club legends. In goal we had Bobby Ferguson who had joined us at the beginning of the season for a world record fee (for a goalkeeper) of £65,000. He was never quite the keeper that we expected, a great shot stopper but not so great at crosses. However, he went on to appear 277 times for the club over a number of years.

The full backs were two youngsters. Billy Bonds who had signed in the close season for £50,000 from Charlton, a transfer which would turn out to be probably our best ever, and a young Frank Lampard who had made his debut the previous November. They would go on to become West Ham legends and the two players who made the most appearances in a claret and blue shirt, 799 and 670 respectively. The centre backs in our 4-3-3 formation were England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore who was of course our most famous player of all time, and who made the third most appearances in our shirt (647), and John Cushley, a centre half signed that season from Scotland who never really made it with us.

The three summer signings, Ferguson, Cushley & Bonds were made to strengthen the defence following a season (1966-67) where we had conceded 84 goals. We had scored 80, so it was obvious that we made the purchases to strengthen the weakest part of the team (current administration take note!). That season had ended poorly, and was one of the examples often quoted of West Ham coming down with the lights after Christmas. On December 27th we sat in 7th place in the table, but only won four games in the remainder of the campaign (including three in a five day spell over Easter). We were still 10th with just eight games remaining, but just one point in those final fixtures, three goals scored, and 19 conceded, led to a finishing position of 16th (out of 22 in those days).

Back to the Fulham game that day, and in midfield we had three club legends, Sir Trevor (4th most appearances for the club), Martin Peters, another England World Cup winner, and Ronnie Boyce who had scored the winning goal for us in the 1964 Cup Final. They played 643, 364, and 341 times for us.

Up front another legend and scorer of the hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final, Geoff Hurst, who scored 249 goals in his 503 appearances for the club, Brian Dear, who was bang in form and had scored 9 goals in the 7 games before the Fulham game, and a tricky left winger John Sissons who turned out on 213 occasions for us.

What a team that was, and yet we were struggling to make an impact in the top flight, rarely finishing in the top half of the table. It was hard to believe that we lost more games than we won with those players in 1967-68. In our 42 games that season we won 14, drew 10, and lost 18. In fact we lost 8 of our home games, a number only beaten by the two clubs who were relegated that season, Fulham and Sheffield United. We scored 73 goals and conceded 69, so a positive goal difference which was helped by the game that day against Fulham. At least the season was a bit of an improvement on the one before and we eventually finished 12th, with a better finish this time, only losing two of our final 11 games.

We won the match 7-2, with goals from Brooking (2), Hurst (2), Moore, Dear and Peters. The 11 players who played that day went on to play a total of 4,564 games for the club, and scored 660 goals for us between them. The world has changed in more ways than one, and football has changed too. I wonder if we look back in years to come at the 11 players who will start the game against Fulham this time around, and total up their appearances and goals. Of course it won’t come anywhere close to those legends I watched as a young teenager. I wonder how many of today’s team will be remembered as legends of the club?

The current restrictions mean that I am unable to be at the London Stadium for this game but I’ll be paying my £14.95 and tuning in to the TV to see if we can manage another 7-2 victory. We go into this game in 14th place, while Fulham sit just above the relegation places in 17th. Our position does not really reflect our fine performances in a number of games in this season so far, it is more a reflection of the strength of the opposition we have faced in our opening 7 games. All 7 teams we have played are in the top 11 of the league at this early stage of the campaign, including the top three. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of our supporters have been generally pleased with our start, and would have bitten off your hand for 8 points from the opening seven games.

We now have the opportunity to put more points on the board in the next 12 games against lesser opposition (on paper) that will take us up to the halfway point of the season on 16th January, later than usual this time. But to do this we will need to maintain the form that we have shown so far, and find a different way to play in the absence of Antonio, whose form was a key factor in the opening six games – he was missed in last week’s game at Liverpool. An interesting statistic that I saw was that we have only won one of our last 12 Premier League games when Antonio has not been in the side. That emphasises the proof of his importance to the team, and the need to find a system that suits when he is not there.

I have no doubt that Haller will be given another opportunity to replace him in the starting eleven, but he really needs a player alongside to bring out the best in him. That would go against the system that has been successful this season so far, so it will be interesting to see if David Moyes and the coaching staff have come up with a suitable plan. Perhaps one to consider for this game against Fulham who seem to be a “keep possession side” would be to play without a recognised centre forward and flood the midfield, in a 4-6-0 formation? Whatever is decided I hope we see more of Said Benrahma than the two minutes he was given at Anfield.

In a season of more goals than usual, it is hard to imagine that the game can possibly end up goalless, especially as we have only kept two clean sheets in the 13 Premier League home games in David Moyes’ second time in charge, and Fulham haven’t kept a clean sheet in any of their last 15 Premier League fixtures against us. It would be great to see a repeat of the 7-2 that I remember so fondly from my teenage years. But games don’t end 7-2 these days do they? Oh, hold on a minute, what was the score in the Aston Villa v Liverpool game just a few short weeks ago?

In the season before our 7-2 win we beat Fulham 6-1 with our World Cup winning goalscorers netting all the goals (Hurst 4, Peters 2). I was at Upton Park that day too before going home for fireworks in the evening to follow the fireworks in the afternoon. The date was 5th November 1966. 6-1 would be a great score too.

On the exact anniversary of today’s game – two days later on 7th November 1966 – 54 years ago today – we had an evening game at home in the fourth round of the League Cup when we faced the mighty (at the time) Leeds United. We did even better than we did against Fulham, beating Leeds (with all their first team playing – players weren’t rested for the Cup games in those days) 7-0, with hat-tricks from Hurst and Sissons and a goal from Peters.

So what do I fancy today, the first game in the second lockdown, and the last game before the second international break? 7-2? 6-1? 7-0? So many times in the past we have failed to beat “lesser” teams that we would expect to beat. I’d just like to see an entertaining game, a good strong performance, a comfortable victory and the three points that would enable us to start to climb the table. What are the chances?

Calm After The Storm: More Hard Work Needed To Maintain Hammers Momentum

Having survived the hard start, West Ham must now prove they can also put in strong performances against the teams they are expected to beat.

Even though their team occupy an unspectacular 14th slot in the embryonic Premier League table, West Ham supporters would likely admit to being ‘mostly satisfied’ with how the season has gone so far.

Having lost the opening day ‘winnable’ home game against Newcastle, a return of eight points from the subsequent run of daunting fixtures was as welcome as it was unexpected. Looking back, the two victories against Wolves and Leicester are even more impressive and, were it not for two poor penalty calls (at either end) against Manchester City and Liverpool, the points tally might have looked healthier still.

On average, a typical Premier League season sees the award of somewhere in the region of 80 to 95 penalties. In the seven rounds of games to date, 36 have been  awarded – that is equivalent to almost 200 over the course of an entire season.  Could this be another consequence of empty stadiums? No doubt the referees will spot this trend and issue instructions to cut back as the season unfolds – thus, preventing matters from evening themselves out as we are told they do.

Naturally, the Hammers are one of only four clubs without a penalty to their name. It is worth speculating on what the reasons might be for this: we don’t get bodies into the box frequently enough; our players prefer not to throw themselves to the ground in spectacularly enough fashion; or because refereeing is notoriously inconsistent and always favours the bigger clubs.

For those of us brought up in an era where football was still a contact sport, the contemporary interpretation of what is and isn’t a foul is difficult to comprehend. The law simply describes a foul as a tackle that is careless, reckless or uses excessive force – leaving the rest up to the referee’s discretion. Although it has always been mostly subjective, we now have a situation where the slightest incidental touch is used as a conscious decision for a player to throw himself to the ground as if taken out by a sniper’s bullet.

Salah’s theatrically embellished dive last week deserved not the reward of a penalty but a ban for clear and obvious cheating. Pundits referring to such behaviour as “being cute or smart” does not help. It is cheating plain and simple – a scourge on the beautiful game that should be eliminated through lengthy retrospective bans. Klopp lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes with his post-match defence of Salah and his life-threatening bruise. Impossible to know how the game would have panned out without the penalty, but it gave Liverpool a way back into a game when they had been struggling to find one.

Turning attention to this weekend’s fixture with Fulham which presents a fascinating contrast to what has gone before. It is a game that many would expect us to win with some ease. But with Michail Antonio’s still missing and with the Hammers generally poor success rate against supposedly lesser sides, it would be premature to declare victory before all the goals are counted.

I have watched a few Fulham games this season and they look a little like this year’s Norwich. Preferring to stick with the adventurous passing and possession-based style that earned them promotion, they leave huge gaps at the back as a result.  In normal circumstances, such an approach would play to the Hammer’s counter attacking strengths. Without Antonio, though, it becomes less certain.

If there was ever any doubt, it is now obvious the squad has no like for like replacement for Antonio. Tactical and/ or positional changes are required if either Sebastien Haller or Andriy Yarmolenko are gong to be able to lead the line with any purpose. My assumption is that Moyes will go with Haller again and, if that is the case, I believe two things must happen.

First, Haller needs to be provided with the type of service that suits his aerial ability. As I don’t see how it is possible to play two up top, without compromising overall team shape and structure, the wing backs need to push much further forward and get into more threatening crossing positions. At the same time, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals need to have a greater presence in the box, alert to the second ball. It is a given that Tomas Soucek will already be waiting there.

Second, there needs to be an alternative out-ball other than the long pass up-field for the striker to chase. Haller can’t/ won’t do that and is not equipped to do so. It falls again to Bowen and Fornals to make themselves available immediately possession is won. This is an area where Said Benrahma could turn out to be a valuable asset. I don’t see him starting this week, but hope to see him on the pitch for more than two minutes – twenty to thirty at least.

Fulham will be buoyed by their first win of the season, even if it was against the abysmal West Bromwich Albion. I would love to see Scott Parker keep them up. He was a talented and wholehearted player at West Ham and hands-down wins the managerial Oscars for Best Hairstyle and Costume Design – smart suit, immaculate 1950’s RAF haircut, tie pin and cuff-links.

It’s tempting fate but I’ve never been convinced by Loftus-Cheek (since that dubious penalty he won at Stamford Bridge in March 2016) but Lookman is an exciting, if volatile, talent. And Mitrovic will always be a threat should a defence be intimated by his battering-ram style.

As mentioned, West Ham have long struggled to perform against the teams they are expected to beat. Whether it is an attitude problem or simply a lack of guile and application in breaking down defensively minded or more physical opposition is uncertain. Fulham don’t fit that bill, though. They work hard but otherwise play in an open, attractive style. With Antonio, I would be predicting a straight sets victory. Without him, it is going to depend how well the manager and team adapt to compensate for his absence. It promises to make the match a far tighter affair than it might appear. West Ham to scrape home with a 2-1 win. COYI!