The Joy Of Six: West Ham And Leicester Take An Early Opportunity To Check Each Other’s Balls

Unbeaten starts to the season, Premier League scoring records, frustration at the lack of transfer activity and takeover rumours will echo around a packed London Stadium for this evening’s top-six encounter with Leicester City

Faced with the prospect of buying a new pair of shoes, a man and a woman might approach the task very differently. Our typical man heads off to the High Street, tries on a few pairs for size, then once something is good enough, pays his money and spends the rest of the afternoon in the pub. Our woman, on the other hand, feels obliged to visit every shop likely to be selling shoes (including the designer ones she knows will be too expensive), tries on as many shoes as possible and worries whether they will match her outfit, handbag, and accessories. Realising many hours later that the best pair were the pair from the very first shop, she returns in a panic only to find they have since been sold.

David Moyes search for squad reinforcements feels a lot like the lady’s search for shoes. The notion of the perfect signing having created a transfer window equivalent of the ‘Yips’, a psychological fear of commitment preventing any deals from crossing the line.

Of course, we have little idea what goes on behind the scenes. The manager may have submitted a lengthy list of preferred targets to the Board only to be told that the credit card limit is maxed out and a deal can’t be done. But time is running out now and the thought of trying to make do and mend until Christmas makes as much sense as putting one through your own net in the first minute of every match. The longer we dither, the fewer the options available and the greater the temptation to panic. The equivalent of the last-minute shopper buying an overpriced pair of Chelsea boots at closing time that will simply end up at the back of the wardrobe until the next car boot sale – Ross Barkley or Reuben Loftus-Cheek, spring to mind.

Still Moyes has a fine recent record so far with transfers, and it cannot be an task easy to address the many gaps in the squad with the balance of quality and affordability. As they say, before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.

Today’s game against Leicester promises to be an intriguing affair. Early season matches can often offer unreliable pointers to the season ahead, but both teams got of to a flyer last week as they look to build on their 5th and 6th placed finishes. A scan of the likely starting elevens and it is difficult to separate the two teams. But the visitors have a far superior bench by some distance. A result of astute transfer dealings in recent years.

Barring injuries or sickness, it is impossible to expect any changes to the Hammers starting line-up for the game. Had it not been to waste a few precious seconds, the game at St James’ Park might have concluded with no West Ham substitutions. There is no-one on the bench (apart from Areola) knocking on the door for a first team start. And no impact super sub capable of coming on and changing the course of a game. 

West Ham’s double over Leicester was one of the highlights of last season. The 3-0 win at the King Power was voted by supporters as the outstanding team performance of the season on the club’s official website. The return fixture at the London Stadium was a more nail-biting affair that ended in a narrow 3-2 win. This came during a run of games where the Hammers would race into a three-goal lead and then endeavour to throw it all away.  In both games Moyes matched Rodgers’ formation by going three at the back, with Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku operating as wingbacks. Player availability suggests a return to a back four in both camps tonight, setting up an absorbing midfield contest as a result.

As ever, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be pivotal to any West Ham’s success, creating the space and opportunity for Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen to continue their encouraging early season form. But they face formidable opponents in the form of Ndidi, Tielemans and Maddison. But it is Barnes who particularly worries me. His pace and directness is of a style that often exposes vulnerabilities at the heart of the Hammer’s defence. He will need careful watching.

It was pleasing to see that referees continued to allow more robust challenges for a second week running. Hopefully, this will not be one of the early season initiatives that quickly gets forgotten or reversed because Jürgen or Ole have been complaining about the lack of soft free kicks coming their way. Eliminate exaggerated play acting and the new tactical head injury and it will be just like old times.

Away from the pitch, there has been the amusing distraction of an apparent takeover bid for the club by a shadowy consortium backed by investment firm PAI Capital. Rather than pursue the matter in the Boardroom, the consortium has come up with a dubious plan of courting West Ham fans in public and convincing them that they are the good guys. So far, they have failed miserably on that objective. Although it is not clear what that would have achieved. Difficult to believe that this will lead anywhere.

A win by four goals tonight and the Hammers would end the weekend sitting proudly at the top of the Premier League table. We can all dream, can’t we? A tight game with a single goal separating the two teams though is a more reasonable outcome – nineteen out of thirty non-drawn West Ham games last season were decided by a single goal. Keeping Vardy quiet will again be vital, but the visitors have plenty of other attacking options these days. A hard fought 2-1 win will do for me with Michail Antonio at last overtaking Paolo Di Canio’s record for Premier League goals scored. I’m sure he will be well prepared with a suitable dance and a ‘48’ T Shirt underneath his playing kit.

Can West Ham become the fifth Premier League side to boast a 100% record after two games this season?

Well that was a superb start wasn’t it? Three points away from home against a side who did the double over us last season. Conceding two headed goals in the first half wasn’t great defending, but that aside, most aspects of our performance were very pleasing. We do need a competent penalty taker though, Cresswell perhaps? He does strike the ball cleanly.

It certainly was an entertaining game for any neutral viewers with the chances created and attempts on goal, in addition to the six goals that were scored. I even thought the Sky TV commentary team were good (Bill Leslie and Andy Hinchcliffe). One thing that annoys me though – they love to highlight a player who loves playing against West Ham (e.g. Lukaku, Callum Wilson etc). They tell you before the game, and don’t they just love it when they score. They can’t stop going on about it.

I thought we were unlucky to be behind at the interval and loved the way we turned it on in the second half. Benrahma and Antonio combined so well for the counter attacking fourth goal, reversing the assist and goal scorer for Benrahma’s header. I’m looking forward to Benrahma being a key player for us. Soucek and Rice were excellent (as ever) and Coufal got better as the game progressed. Cresswell’s goal demonstrated how VAR should be used, although I was not convinced that Bowen was actually offside at the point Cresswell struck the ball, but that was not revisited with the thicker lines we can expect to see drawn from now on giving the benefit to the attacker. Bowen’s mazy first half run showed great dribbling skill but he should perhaps have been more composed and scored.

We now move on from a team that beat us twice last season to an opponent that we defeated in both games scoring three times in each one, although the away victory was more comfortable than the home one. Leicester were the only team that we managed to beat who finished above us in the table, and we achieved it twice.

Coming from behind to win 4-2 last weekend reminded me of facing Leicester way back on Boxing Day in 1968. That was a morning game at Upton Park, and it seemed we had barely taken our seats when we were two goals down. However a massively entertaining game ended with us winning 4-2 thanks to a Brian Dear hat trick and a goal from a very young Trevor Brooking. Four days later we visited Filbert Street, Leicester and won again with a 4-2 score line.

There were some high scoring games against Leicester in the 1960s and 1970s. The season following the two 4-2 wins we recorded a 4-0 win at Upton Park with two more from Dear. That was the game where I witnessed the best goal I’ve ever seen (scored by Martin Peters). In the seventies I remember beating them at Upton Park 3-2, 5-2 and even 6-2! On the other hand they also defeated us a couple of times in the sixties by 5-2 and 5-4.

Assuming no injuries I fully expect David Moyes to name the same starting eleven for this game. We are narrow favourites to win at 8/5 with Leicester at 7/4 and the draw at 23/10. Will it be another high scoring game? You can get 50/1 on 4-2 to West Ham (and incidentally 4-2 to the Foxes too).

If we win we will become the fifth Premier League side to boast a 100% record after just two games this season. That will be five more than achieved the feat in the ultra-competitive Championship where not a single team managed to win their first two games. History is against us. Can you remember the last time we won our opening two fixtures in a Premier League season? You have to go back to the 1997/98 campaign when we recorded two consecutive 2-1 wins, away at Barnsley and at home to Tottenham. That was a good season – we eventually finished eighth, winning the final game 4-3 at home to Leicester. Yet another high scoring game between the two clubs! Perhaps we’ll get another this evening? What are the chances?

Can West Ham and Leicester make Twenty-First Century Premier League History?

In the past twenty years, six football clubs have dominated English football. The “elite six”, certainly in terms of revenue generated, have almost always been at the top of the Premier League by the end of each season. The notable exception was Leicester City, today’s opponents, who surprised us all five years ago when they finished as champions. But Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham have continued to outshine others at the summit.

In fact at this stage of the season with eight games remaining (the position we have reached now) it is almost 20 years since there have been two non “elite six” clubs occupying places in the top four at the same time. Those two teams were Newcastle and Everton who were third and fourth respectively as the 2002-03 season approached the end. But come the end of the season, there has never been more than one team outside of these six in the top four. In the season in question Newcastle held on to third but Everton faded to seventh by the finish.

So we are already making some history with both Leicester and ourselves in the top four and fighting to finish there hoping to claim a Champions League place by the end of May. But can we both be there at the end? Leicester are certainly favourites as they are in third place, four points ahead of ourselves in fourth. But Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton are all waiting in the wings for either of us to slip up. It certainly makes the run-in more interesting, and even more so than usual because we are not accustomed to be in this position at this time.

I have been looking at some other statistics and noticed that we have had the majority of possession of the ball in just four of the thirty games we’ve played. Our success has been based upon being solid defensively (despite conceding five in our last two games), and excellent when counter attacking, superbly demonstrated in the Wolves game.

In view of our recent bad luck in respect of injuries through the spine of the team, Mark Noble will almost certainly play today. He is no Declan Rice, but the manager trusts him (at lot more than many on social media do too), and it will be quite an achievement as he plays his 400th game in the Premier League, quite a feat in the modern era. He will become only the eighth player to reach this milestone for the same club. Can you name the other seven? They all played international football and for teams that won either the Premier League or Champions League, whilst Mark Noble has played throughout in a team more used to being at the other end of the table, and although often touted, never quite made the England team at senior level, although he won many caps at younger ages. I’ll reveal the names of the seven at the end of this article.

There have been some great games against Leicester throughout my time following West Ham, and in fact two of them made it into the top 20 games I’ve seen when I wrote my book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford. The first one I’ll recall was on Boxing Day in 1967. I watched the game from my seat in B Block in the old West Stand at Upton Park. It kicked off at 11am (yes, there were morning games in those days), and by 11.15 we were 2-0 down. But the very first goal that I can remember a very young Trevor Brooking scoring, plus a superb hat trick from one of my favourite West Ham goalscorers, Brian Dear, ensured a great win in a very entertaining game. But the undoubted man of the match was a very young (17 year old?) teenager playing in the Leicester goal who had an unbelievable game and was destined to become a star in the future – Peter Shilton.

Now that game was 53 years ago and yet 17 of the 22 teams in Division One at that time are in the Premier League this season showing that, in many ways, not much changes in football. So there are only three teams that are currently in the Premier League who weren’t in the top flight in 1967-68, and there are five teams who were in Division One at the time, but who are now in lower divisions. I’ll challenge you to name them and I’ll reveal the answers at the end of the article. Ironically the two teams that were relegated that season were Sheffield United and Fulham.

When we met Leicester on that Boxing Day we were 20th in the league and in a relegation tussle (although only two were relegated in those days). By the end of the season we had rallied somewhat and finally finished 12th; Leicester were 13th. Incidentally we visited Filbert Street four days later and won the game again, with the identical score, 4-2, with goals from Dear 2, Brooking and Sissons.

Another great game against Leicester came in the following season. On 16th November 1968 we were 7th in the table, having won our two previous home games 8-0 v Sunderland and 4-3 v Queens Park Rangers. It was amazing that we were that high in the table considering we had a run of 9 winless games from early September to mid October. There were a few memorable games in that 1968/69 season and this one came a fortnight after the QPR game. I watched from the North Bank and, apart from being an exciting game it also included my all time favourite goal scored by Martin Peters. When I met Martin almost 40 years later at a book signing I asked him to sign the programme for that game, as well as his autobiography. And what a lovely man he was, although he had no recollection of the game. The goal was a fantastic move started by Ferguson in goal, the ball rolled out to Peters, then to Charles, then to Sissons, and finally a fantastic unstoppable volley by Peters who had run the length of the pitch virtually to get on the end of it. You can see the last part of the goal on YouTube from where Sissons crosses it, but unfortunately not the whole move. From our position on the North Bank we had a super view of the finish.

So what will happen in today’s unlikely potential Champions League six-pointer? Two managers, having great seasons, both having been previously sacked by “elite six” clubs, and both looking to add to their case for becoming the manager of the season and taking their respective clubs into the Champions League. Unfortunately our relatively injury-free season (especially by West Ham standards) is now beginning to show the limitations of our squad with both Rice and Antonio being added to Ogbonna on the treatment table.

But we are still in with a very good chance of our highest ever Premier League placing and I’d like to see both clubs playing today ending in the top four, at the expense of “elite six” clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. It was massively disappointing to see Liverpool come from behind to snatch a late winner against Villa yesterday. And then Chelsea rolled over Palace with ease too. Let’s hope that Manchester United can win at Tottenham later today. But yesterday’s results make today’s game even more important and three points would be invaluable in our quest for a top four finish.

Our run-in is not the toughest, and home games against Leicester, Chelsea and Everton (perhaps the three hardest games on paper) could be crucial. We have the second best home record in the Premier League (after Manchester City who surprisingly went down yesterday) so why not claim a place in the top four. We can still do it.

The answers to the questions posed earlier: The seven players who have played 400 games in the Premier League for one club: Giggs, Scholes, Gary Neville, Carragher, Gerrard, Lampard and Terry.

The three teams currently in the Premier League who were not in the top flight in 1967-68 are Brighton, Palace and Aston Villa. The five teams who were in Division One in 1967-68 but are not in the premier league now are: Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Stoke, Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry.

Let us hope for a win today to complete another double this season. What are the chances? 

West Ham Jockey For Top Four Place With Leicester Pivot

A crunch encounter in the race for the top four. But will the handicap of missing players impede the Hammers as they approach the final turn?

Following the entertaining win at Wolverhampton on Monday evening, David Moyes briefly referred to entering the final furlong of the Premier League race, then quickly corrected himself. With 20% of the season still to play, he was right to do so. If the league was a three-mile chase, then there would still be five furlongs to run – complete with a couple of tricky to overcome, including this weekend’s crunch encounter with Leicester City.

In a historical context, six pointers between these two clubs, this late in the season, would be taking place at the other end of the table. Not looking to gate-crash the elite’s Champion’s League qualification party.  A Hammers win and it drags the Foxes back into the field of five clubs chasing two places. Whereas a Leicester success puts them firmly in the driving seat for third place.

As things stand, the visitors are four points better off. Both have experienced eight defeats but Leicester have recorded two more wins (while the Hammers were drawing). The game sees the league’s second-best home record come up against the league’s second-best away record. Something’s gotta give!

Moyes was also correct in saying that West Ham sitting fourth in the table is not a fluke. They are there on merit and thanks largely to an amazing resilience that has been injected into the team. There have been many exceptional individual performances, but the major strength in the side is collective discipline, organisation, and teamwork. It is a rare occurrence for the West Ham whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Football hipsters may drone on about false nines, double pivots, half spaces, inverted wingbacks, expected goals, transitions, and so on ………….. but it is hard work, effort and energy that have provided the foundation for exponential improvement.

The other unusual feature of West Ham’s season (or at least it was to about a week ago) has been a better than expected experience with injuries. There have been isolated setbacks, but were negotiated successfully despite the thinness of the squad. But suddenly there is an epidemic. No-one can accuse this team of being spineless but we do now look like a team without a spine, the result of the simultaneous absence of Declan Rice, Angelo Ogbonna, and Michail Antonio.

I’m sure I am not alone in fearing that these injuries will be our undoing. Perhaps the manager has a cunning plan but with no radical options available, Moyes is unlikely to stray far from what (and who) he knows and trusts.

I can’t see any change from the defence line-up that started against Wolves despite the vulnerability that has crept in and seen five goals conceded in the last two games. That will mean Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku featuring again as wing backs and providing width going forward. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the ageing legs of Mark Noble alongside Tomas Soucek in the midfield ‘double pivot’. Several creative suggestions have been mooted online including moving Issa Diop, Said Benrahma or Coufal into that role, but even if I coul dbe convinced they might work, Moyes certainly wouldn’t go for any of them. My particular concern with Noble in this game is picking up yellow cards for poorly timed tackles on James Madison, another player who likes to go to ground rather too easily.

That leaves a front three of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. They provide enough threat to cause problems to an uncertain Leicester defence, but only if the rest of the team realise that none of them is Antonio. A very different level of service will be required.

The Foxes went through their own mini-injury crisis recently, but have come through it relatively unscathed and without the predicted fall off in performances. Of the key players only Harvey Barnes remains side-lined. They famously faltered in the home straight last season and will be eager not to do so yet again. Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans present a formidable partnership in defensive midfield while Kelechi Iheanacho has been the surprise pick lately as Jamie Vardy’s partner in attack. Linked with the Hammers before his move to Leicester in 2017 he has yet to deliver on his early promise and price tag.

Leicester have developed into much more of a possession-based side than the one that won the title in 2015/16. Back then they averaged just over 42% possession compared to 53% so far this season. By comparison, West Ham are averaging 41% this term. This provides a good indicator of how tomorrow’s match will pan out – containment and strike on the break.

The Foxes have yet to taste defeat at the London Stadium. At full strength I would give the Hammers every chance of changing that. The worries for me are not being able to adapt to the absence of Antonio and the lack of pace in defensive midfield. These tip the scales in Leicester’s favour but I think we’ll still manage to get a draw out of it. COYI!