Bullseye Bowen Braced For Back to Back Bonanza As West Ham Face Leeds Once Again

Super, smashing West Ham aim to stay on target against Leeds to show Arsenal and Tottenham what they could have won.

First there was the tactical foul and now we get the tactical postponement. Clubs hoodwinking officials to get games called off until the circumstances are looking better for them to play – taking one for the shareholders, as it were!

The latest miscreants are Arsenal who have pulled out of the scheduled north London due to a Covid epidemic sweeping through the Emirates – and infecting one player. A virus of convenience that will allow the game to be rescheduled at a time when injured players, those away at the AFCON, and any additional January signings are available to play. There is great deal of irony that it is Tottenham complaining about the postponement, given they were early adopters of the Covid get-out clause. It’s the equivalent of Fernandinho campaigning against the professional foul.

A raft of postponements has produced an unbalanced Premier League table with some clubs now having racked up three or four games in hand. While the Hammers will be fully up-to-date at the end of Matchweek 22, their other fourth place rivals remain well behind the curve.

Putting on my claret and blue tinted spectacles for a few moments. Imagine a West Ham victory today which would take them to 40 points from 22 games – safe at last! By comparison: Arsenal have 35 from 20; Tottenham 33 from 18; and Manchester United 32 from 20. A pessimistic view would be that games in hand might be won allowing both North London clubs to leapfrog the Hammers and push us down to 6th. Of course, that can’t actually happen when they are due to play each other.

In reality, though, the teams in our mini-group are averaging around 1.75 points per game, making points in the bank all the more attractive. A return of 1.75 ppg would bring Arsenal up to 39, Tottenham to 40 and Manchester United to 36. All very close and encouraging – and that ignores the extent of the wobbles that might be breaking out at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, now that the title has turned into a predictable one-horse race.

For any of that to make sense, West Ham must play their part and brush past Leeds at the London Stadium this afternoon. The scenario where you play a team in the league immediately after you have knocked them out the cup usually worries me. It is one of those unwritten football superstitions, like a striker returning to score against his old club, where the beaten cup-side exacts revenge on their erstwhile victors. Hopefully, shoehorning the Norwich game in between will have served to break the curse.

It was a fairly routine win over Norwich which could and should have been more convincing. I didn’t think the visitors were as hopeless as some naysayers have claimed. They played some neat football in central areas but were let down by lapses at the back and a lack of a cutting edge up front. You can see why they are struggling although yesterday’s win over Everton would have given them a much needed boost.

Jarrod Bowen is the man of the moment at West Ham and his brace of goals added to a growing reputation both inside and outside the club. There is much to admire in the skill, effort, and energy he brings to the team. He is a player who never gives up and never hides – whether it is chasing back or getting forward to create goalscoring opportunities. A better goal return with less shots of him, head in his hands, after another near miss would be a perfect bonus. I am looking forward to more of his goals today.

I was also impressed with the fluidity showed by the attacking midfield trio of Bowen, Pablo Fornals, and Nikola Vlasic. It looked a lot less rigid than previous combinations with plenty of positional interchange. It will be interesting to see how it works against better sides than Norwich.        

Also encouraging was the selection of academy players sitting on the bench in midweek. Just a shame that none were brought on once the second goal was scored.  What was the point of a few more minutes of Yarmo? From watching U23 highlights online I have been impressed by the contribution of one of the benchwarmers, Pierre Ekwah. Looks to me that he is destined for a big future in the game. Having said that, I have been wrong about academy players many times in the past!

Leeds are hovering above relegation danger but don’t look to be in any real trouble. A bad run of injuries has made it a disappointing season for the Yorkshire club after their thrill-a-minute return to the top-flight in 2020/21. They continue to have a lengthy injury list and will be without several key injured players, as well as having Llorente absent due to suspension. It is possible that Bamford may return from injury although reports are mixed on that likelihood. The biggest threat to the Hammer’s defence will again be posed by the runs of Raphina.

Marcelo Bielsa is regarded as something of a guru inside football, but I do wonder whether his style of play has a limited shelf life unless he is open to adapt and refine. It will also be a question on David Moyes mind as opponents become familiar with the Hammers strengths of rapid counter attacking and set pieces. The guile to break through massed defences is still below par, although that is unlikely to be a worry for this afternoon.

The West Ham line-up will likely be much the same as it was in midweek. There are mooted returns for Tomas Soucek and Kurt Zouma but they may be put on hold until next week at Old Trafford. This makes the Hammers way too strong for a weakened Leeds with West Ham going on to win 3-1. COYI!   

Can West Ham extend their winning sequence when Leeds visit the London Stadium for the second time in a week?

When I write these articles for Under The Hammers I often refer to current form and relate this to the last five league games played by the sides in the Premier League. The positions in the league table don’t always reflect the latest five games, but at the moment they are a very good guide, although Chelsea’s recent glut of draws (4 in the last 5 games) puts them at the bottom in respect of the current form of the top 7 in the league, despite remaining unbeaten in those matches.

What I’ve done is divided the league table into three sections; the top 7, the middle 7, and the bottom 6, and looked at the points that each team has accrued in the last 5 fixtures. The present position in the league appears in brackets, although this can be a little misleading in view of the disparity in numbers of games played following the postponements for COVID in the last few weeks.

Top 7: Manchester City 15 (1); Arsenal 12 (5); Tottenham 11 (6); Manchester United 10 (7); West Ham 9 (4); Liverpool 8 (3); Chelsea 7 (2)

Middle 7: Brighton 8 (9); Southampton 8 (11); Wolves 7 (8); Leicester 7 (10); Palace 7 (12); Brentford 6 (13); Villa 6 (14)

Bottom 6: Everton 4 (15); Leeds 4 (16); Newcastle 4 (19); Burnley 2 (18); Watford 0 (17); Norwich 0 (20)

The situation can change of course, but at the moment it looks as though the top 7 will fill the top 7 places at the end of the season, the ‘middle’ seven will finish between 8th and 14th, and the bottom 6 will stay there. Current form doesn’t indicate a great deal of change from that.

Leeds are the visitors for the second weekend running after we comfortably beat them 2-0 in the FA Cup third round last Sunday. We followed this up with a fairly straightforward 2-0 win over bottom club Norwich in midweek to make it three league wins in a row, to keep up our challenge at the top. We’ve now won four games in a row in all competitions since the unfortunate 2-3 reverse against Southampton on Boxing Day, and Leeds didn’t show too much last week to suggest that they can stop us making it five if we are anywhere near our best. The interesting thing is that I don’t believe that we have been playing that well in those games, but we have still been winning. That’s the sign of a good team I reckon.

If Zouma has recovered from his injury I would expect him to take his place in the team straight away, replacing Diop, who to me has looked half a yard off the pace in recent games. Assuming Soucek is still out I would expect the starting eleven to be Fabianski; Coufal, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell; Rice, Lanzini; Bowen, Fornals, Vlasic; Antonio.

If Soucek returns then who would miss out? Vlasic has impressed me in recent games and I would expect him to retain his place. Similarly Lanzini who appears rejuvenated as of late, and of course Bowen is the man of the moment, so perhaps Fornals would be the one to drop out, although he, like Johnson at full back has done little wrong to be out of the starting eleven.

The transfer rumour mill continues apace but nothing concrete yet, and I don’t tend to believe anything until I see the incoming player holding up the claret and blue shirt and crossing his arms. We all know what areas need strengthening if we are to maintain our challenge in the Premier League, the FA Cup and Europe. David Moyes knows and the board do too, and I believe (hope) that they will support him if the right players are identified.

We’ve scored 13 goals (2,4,3,2,2) and conceded 6 (3,1,2,0,0) in our five games played since Christmas, an average of almost four goals scored by the two teams in every game in that period. I see little reason why our recent record cannot be maintained and look forward to our third 2-0 win in a week in this game.

The West Ham games to follow Sunday’s game against Leeds are:

Saturday 22 January – Away v Manchester United

Saturday 5 February – Away v Kidderminster (FA Cup Round 4)

Tuesday 8 February – Home v Watford

Sunday 13 February – Away v Leicester

Saturday 19 February – Home v Newcastle

Saturday 26 February – Home v Wolves  

I wonder how well we will do, and what position we will be in at the end of February with the European fixtures kicking in again in March? The game at Old Trafford is an important one against one of our key rivals at the top, and then three of our next four league games are at home. Those league games are all winnable but who knows how we will do?

The FA Cup game at Kidderminster comes 50 years to the day after that famous giant killing with John Motson’s Match of the Day commentary recorded for posterity when Hereford upset Newcastle 2-1 on Saturday 5th February 1972. Of course we put paid to the giant killers in the next round when we beat them (but only after a replay), but 2 years later Hereford were once again giant killers when they knocked us out of the FA Cup in 1974! I wonder if they will wheel John Motson out of retirement to commentate on our game at Kidderminster?

It’s interesting to note that all English Premier League clubs will have a week off at the end of January (despite the backlog in fixtures) for a new national team break that FIFA has created specially to help clear the backlog of World Cup qualifying games outside Europe. There will be no Premier League games after the weekend of January 22/23 until they resume with midweek games on February 8. This pause in fixtures is being taken despite European national teams not playing. The Premier League have confirmed that they will not allow league games to take place during the break despite the domestic backlog. Surely this will increase the backlog later on in the season? Or am I missing something?

West Ham’s FA Cup Wilderness Years And The Meaning Of Life: The Answer Is 42

It’s FA Cup weekend as West Ham face Leeds as hopeful fans dust off the claret ribbons and dream of parading along Wembley Way in May

Third round day in the FA Cup has long been one of the most eagerly anticipated dates in the footballing calendar. A day when top tier teams enter the mother of all cup competitions. A chance for lower league sides to pull off a shock win and for those clubs who rarely feature among the honours to dream of finals and silverware.

In its 150-year history, forty-three different clubs have won the FA Cup. Arsenal and Manchester United lead the way with fourteen and twelve wins respectively. West Ham are sixteenth in the list of all time winners with three wins to their name, the same as Sheffield Wednesday and one behind Bolton, Wolverhampton and Sheffield United. Two more wins and we catch up with The Wanderers, who have held the trophy five times.

I have been fortunate enough to attend two victorious Wembley finals (1975 and 1980) and a thrilling but ultimately unsuccessful one in Cardiff (2006). The wins have given meaning to a long and often frustrating West Ham supporting life. The most recent win is forty-two years ago now. It was a wonderfully sunny Saturday in May 1980 when the Hammers triumphed over Arsenal through Trevor Brooking’s early headed goal. It remains the last time a team from outside of the top division won the competition.

In the years since that momentous achievement, West Ham’s record for FA Cup exits is as follows: 3rd round (12 times), 4th round (12), 5th round (7), 6th round (8), semi-final (1) and final (1). In the last ten seasons they have only made it as far as the 6th round on one occasion (2016). During those ten years, the Hammers have been eliminated by Manchester United three times and by Manchester City and AFC Wimbledon once each. The Wimbledon defeat one of the regular banana skins that have come the Hammer’s way – Hereford, Grimsby, Torquay, Wrexham and Tranmere among others.

The cup has been increasingly dominated by just 5 big clubs (not you, Tottenham) in recent years. In the Premier League era, only Everton, Portsmouth, Wigan, and Leicester have interrupted that dominance with a single win apiece.  

No chance of a giant-killing this weekend however as West Ham face an all Premier League clash with Leeds United. Although the Hammers record in top tier FA Cup encounters is not impressive, having won just one of their last nineteen.

This is the first time the two teams have met in an FA Cup tie since 1930, when the Hammers ran out 4-1 winners at Upton Park, all four goals scored by Vic Watson. Watson must have enjoyed facing Leeds as the previous season, he had scored six times in an 8-2 first division rampage. What we could achieve with someone like West Ham’s all-time leading scorer in today’s side.

Leeds fans have to go back even further back for an FA Cup final win. Their one and only success being the centenary final, fifty years ago, in 1972 – coincidentally, also a 1-0 win against Arsenal with Allan Clarke netting the only goal.

The big unknown, as ever in modern cup competition, is how the two managers approach the game. How to balance the supporter’s love of a cracking cup run with the demands and rewards of Premier League success. A situation made more intriguing by the fact that the teams meet again in the league next Sunday. An additional challenge for David Moyes being the re-arranged game against Norwich on Wednesday evening.

West Ham will once again be without Kurt Zouma, Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell, while Said Benrahma is now away at the AFCON. There will perhaps be starts for Mark Noble, Nikola Vlasic, Alphonse Areola and maybe one or two of the academy hopefuls by way of rotation. Leeds also have a lengthy list of absentees and although Patrick Bamford is close to a return, he is unlikely to be risked in the cup game.

There will be no replays in the 3rd or 4th rounds this season with games going straight to extra time and penalties, if needed. VAR will feature in all games played at Premier League stadiums. The referee is Stuart Atwell while Peter Bankes is at mission control, Stockley Park.

Until the teams are known predicting the outcome is even more of a lottery than normal. I will go for 3-3 after extra time and West Ham to win on penalties. 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.