Whistling A Happy Toon: West Ham To Make Winning Start To Season

When a new football season is about to begin then I am normally full of excitement, looking forward to going along to the London Stadium for the first game. If the opening game is away from home it is still exciting to watch the progress of the matches being played on Sports Saturday on Sky. But this time around I can’t really get as interested as I normally do, which considering I’ve been following West Ham since season 1958-59 may be surprising, and perhaps disappointing. Am I losing my enthusiasm for football? Of course last season was probably the strangest one of all time for reasons that we are all aware of, and this one may well be the same. Following the lockdown we began slowly, but then ended the season on a high, securing our place in the top division for another season with some excellent performances. Perhaps once the games get underway again I’ll regain my enthusiasm, but at the moment it’s not there yet.

The interval before the new season would start was obviously much shorter than usual, but I guess we were looking forward to seeing some departures and new arrivals in readiness for the new campaign. The friendly games against lower league opposition went well enough, although by all accounts the Betway Cup performance against Bournemouth (also lower league!) highlighted our defensive deficiencies. Of course some of our players were away on international duty, but the return of Fabianski, Rice, Yarmolenko, and Soucek will undoubtedly strengthen the team. But apart from confirming the permanent transfer of Soucek there is a distinct lack of new faces. All other Premier League clubs seem to have been active in the transfer market, but the eighteenth richest club in the world has been pleading poverty, much to the annoyance of the fans, who were looking forward to some new faces, in particular to strengthen the defensive positions, especially at full back.

The departure of Diangana to West Brom, where he spent last season on loan has caused much consternation on social media, but once Mark Noble and others had joined in with their disappointment at seeing him leave it became an issue for the national broadcast and newspaper media. Although the furore has died down a little, there still seems to be a lot of anger around still, and this will increase if we fail to get off to a good start in this game.

I’m not really sure how many times we’ve faced the Geordies in our opening game of the season. It makes a change in recent times to not be facing top-six opposition, although games against top sides come thick and fast after the opener. I do remember one season in particular, and that was back in 1973-74. We had ended the previous season in sixth place, one of our best ever top division finishing positions, and hopes were high for the new campaign. But that first game at Upton Park was a massive disappointment, which was exacerbated by a friend from Newcastle joining me at the game. We went down 2-1 with ex-Newcastle player Pop Robson scoring our goal.

From that point it didn’t get any better and a succession of draws and defeats in the first eleven matches left us at the bottom of the table. Eventually we won a game (1-0 at Coventry thanks to a John McDowell goal), but we remained at the foot of the table until we won our second game of the season beating Manchester City 2-1 on December 8th. Two 4-2 victories at Chelsea on Boxing Day and then at home to Norwich on New Years Day still left us in the relegation zone (21st), before a run of wins and draws from the beginning of January through to the middle of March eased the pressure slightly and we eventually stayed up by one point in 18th. Manchester United were one of the teams relegated. I’m hoping that we don’t replicate that season, which also included an ignominious defeat at the hands of Hereford in the FA Cup.

The point I’m trying to make here is that everything can look rosy before a season begins and then it all goes wrong. I can also remember pre-seasons where we have looked good in the friendly games and then performed badly once the league games have begun. The reverse has also happened at times with a disastrous pre-season leading to doom and gloom amongst the fans followed by some excellent performances. It just highlights the Forrest Gump box of chocolates story – with West Ham you never know what you are going to get. That applies from one season to another, one game to another, and frequently to the first half and second half of a game.

I’m not especially confident with everything about the club at the moment, but hopeful that David Moyes can continue where he left off at the end of the last campaign, despite the difficulties that he faces. He knows that the model of recent seasons has to change and he wants to build for the future. He doesn’t want players coming here for a good pay day in London, and if he can unearth more gems like Bowen and Soucek we will have a chance. People forget that when he arrived at Everton in 2002 they were a bit like us, often fighting the drop. When he left there eleven years later they had finished in the top eight for seven consecutive seasons. Whether he will be given the time, and even some of the resources that should be available to the eighteenth richest club in the world only time will tell.  

The game kicks off at 8pm and is available to view on TV. That’s some consolation for not being able to be at the stadium. How will we line up? I expect Fabianski to be behind a back four of Fredericks (or Johnson?), Diop, Ogbonna and Cresswell. I fear that Saint-Maximin can run our defence ragged as he did at the London Stadium last season and wonder if Masuaku will be included to provide extra cover for Cresswell? It wouldn’t be my choice but it may happen. Rice, Soucek and Noble may start in midfield, with Bowen, Fornals and Antonio providing the main attacking options at the start. But will there perhaps be a place for the in-form Yarmolenko, or a hopefully rejuvenated Haller, Lanzini or Anderson? Will any of the youngsters get a chance? Who knows? What we do know is that there won’t be any new faces to bolster a defence that had one of the worst goals-against records in the Premier League last season. I’m confident that we can score goals, but can we improve defensively? Perhaps David Moyes and his coaches can work wonders on this aspect of our team, but has he got the raw materials to work with?

The bookmakers have us at around 23/20 to win the game, with Newcastle and the draw both at around 5/2. If you fancy us to win then West Ham to win and both teams to score is on offer at around 7/2. My fun bet for this game is for West Ham to win 2-1 with Tomas Soucek scoring the last goal in the game – this is priced at 60/1. Without any great degree of confidence I’m just hoping for a decent performance and three points. What are the chances?

It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. So here goes: 1.Manchester City, 2.Liverpool, 3.Manchester United, 4.Chelsea, 5.Arsenal, 6.Wolves, 7.Everton, 8.Tottenham, 9.Leicester, 10.West Ham, 11.Southampton, 12.Newcastle, 13.Leeds, 14.Aston Villa, 15.Sheffield United, 16.Crystal Palace, 17.Brighton, 18.Burnley, 19.West Brom, 20.Fulham. There’s optimism for you! Enjoy the game

West Ham Disunited: Where the Calamity Never Ends

Years of delusion, unprofessionalism and poor decision making at West Ham have shown the next level promises to be a shambolic farce. If ever a club has been ill-prepared for a new season it is West Ham in 2020/21

I can’t remember a time when I have had less enthusiasm for the start of a new football season. Although partly due to the unusual circumstances that we are living through – forcing a foreshortened break and the absence of that slow build pre-season anticipation – the primary reason is undoubtedly the continued chaos and calamity that the club conjures up  for itself out of nowhere.

Having finished the post lockdown phase of the season in a relatively positive manner there should have been grounds for optimism in the face of a new campaign. All that was required was careful grown-up stewardship to address the obvious critical deficiencies in the squad, and then building on the hard work and collective team spirit that had been growing during the closing run of games.  What we got instead was the worst of all possible worlds – a malignant disharmony that has quickly spread throughout the club alienating owners, chief executive, manager, skipper, players and supporters. What could possibly go wrong with that as a preparation for a new season?

In days gone by, we might have laughed off supporting West Ham as a character building roller-coaster ride – but it is now a curious roller-coaster that travels only downwards. Starting a new season in turmoil; selecting from an even smaller squad of players; glaring weaknesses in defence left unaddressed; and a tough opening set of fixtures leads to only one conclusion. We are faced with yet another season of backs-to-the-wall attrition, where the only hope is there being three even more incompetent sides in division – it is difficult to see who these might be!

This will be West Ham’s ninth consecutive season in the top flight of English football. During that period the club have signed close to 75 players at a combined outlay of over £420 million (in transfer fees) and goodness knows how many millions frittered away in wages. That we have a squad that is little better in depth and quality than a promoted club is damning evidence of a club with no strategy and poor leadership. A board obsessed with short-term vanity signings at the expense of building for the future. As one newspaper article described the recruitment policy:

“And when age finally takes its toll, when the world stops waiting for you to become what it seemed you once could be, when you are written off with a dismissive shrug as a could-have-been then, in England at least, there are really only two places you can go: West Ham or Everton.”

In isolation I was ambivalent about the sale of Grady Diangana. I was not convinced that he would become a consistent Premier League performer but, on the other hand, he is an academy product (which we all love) and he could do no worse than several other of our very highly paid squad members. In a well run club he would have been given time to prove his worth but sadly West Ham is now a make do and mend operation, crippled by knee-jerk decision making and arrogance at Board level. Throwing money at Pellegrini and allowing him to appoint his mate as Director of Football was astonishingly foolish and will take years to recover from without a further injection of funds. The owners have created the chaos and we look to them to repair the damage. Either by shelling out or selling up.

Any pretence of building for another level is laughable. We can all see the king has got no clothes, so please stop telling us he has. It is clear that Gold and Sullivan do not have the competence to run a progressive football club and if they intend to stick around then they must bring in someone who understands what it takes to run a modern football – someone who knows the importance of scouting, recruitment, player development and training facilities – and is not just focused on shifting merchandise.

As for the season opener, West Ham entertain a Newcastle side who had hoped to be starting their own campaign under new ownership. Even so they have been busier in the transfer market than the Hammers (who hasn’t) and will be approaching the game in the more positive frame of mind.

The good news for David Moyes is that both Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek are available to start but beyond that he has no fresh options to call on. The famously leaky defence has not been reinforced and it is bare bones right across the backline – West Ham being the only club in the league who regard full-backs as optional extras.

Strangely, for a club that boasts only one recognised striker and little midfield creativity, scoring goals has not been a major problem in the recent past. Much will depend on the tireless endeavours of Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio to keep that record going. Maybe we will be surprised and Moyes will find a way to deploy the likes of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Andriy Yarmolenko that will justify at least part of their phenomenal wages.

Newcastle can now boast two players in Jonjo Shelvey and Callum Wilson who traditionally thrive in games against West Ham. Throw Saint-Maximin and Almiron into the mix and they carry more than enough threat to cause serious headaches to the West Ham rearguard – even at the best of times. In the current toxic atmosphere surrounding the London Stadium any outcome more positive than a draw is difficult to predict.

This weekend’s game is meant to be the easiest (on paper) of the opening sequence of Premier League games. If West Ham extend their opening day of the season losing streak to five games, then it is no leap of the imagination to suggest that we might find ourselves rock bottom after the first seven games on zero points.  Perhaps a late flurry in the transfer window can lighten the gloom but right now there is little cause for optimism. A season of real struggle awaits!

Uh oh, we’re in trouble! Something’s come along, and it’s burst our bubble.

The transition from early season optimism to winter of discontent continues with yet another woeful West Ham performance. Takeaways and player ratings from the weekend.

It’s A Perfect Time To Panic

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, West Ham manage to dig deeper to serve up an even more incompetent performance.  New depths have been well and truly plumbed.  This is not a team who just happen to be going through a poor fun of form, but one that doesn’t seem to know what it is supposed to be doing. We have a collage representing the worst aspects of manager’s past: Zola, Roeder, Grant and Bilic. The enigma of an under-performing team and a manager who, it appears, has absolutely no idea what has gone wrong or how to change things.  Manuel Pellegrini admitted as much after the game.  Ironically, most fans have a good idea where the deficiencies lie – pace, width, organisation, fitness, commitment and motivation – even if we wouldn’t really know how to fix them.  But then again, we are not paid millions of pounds a year to do so. How quickly an opportunity to leap into third place has morphed into taking an unhealthy interest in the relegation placings.  Two points from the last five (not particularly difficult) games has to be cause for concern.  If Pellegrini can’t turn things around before Christmas, then someone else has to be handed the baton.

He Thought What?

One of the most perplexing reports that I read during the week was that Pellegrini’s believed that West Ham had played well against Sheffield United.  True, we had a few chances to win the game but then so did the visitors. The consequence of that assessment was the naming an unchanged side for the game against Newcastle.  A decision that set up a confrontation between the fastest winger in the league and the slowest full-back.  Do we actually scout the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition? The modern game is very different now and if a player is not quick, athletic and full of running he needs to have some very special talents to compensate.  Equally a manager needs organisation, tactical and motivational skills in addition to a smart CV.  All of these things are in short supply at the London Stadium right now. When Pellegrini was appointed the one negative assessment that I read from his time at Manchester City was that he had allowed fitness levels to drop off alarmingly in his second season.  Has the same now happened at West Ham?   Has the manager lost the dressing room – after all the London Stadium is a big place and his short term memory is quite possibly starting to fail now!

You’ve got to hold and give but do it at the right time
You can be slow or fast but you must get to the line
They’ll always hit you and hurt you, defend and attack
There’s only one way to beat them, get round the back

Rapper John Barnes on West Ham’s Attacking Limitations

Can We Play You Every Week?

Running through West Ham’s limitation each week’s after the latest disappointment is becoming like a scratched record stuck on repeat.  We must be the easiest team in the world to play against. Stay compact, get back into shape quickly and the Hammers will have no clue what to do.  Then simply hit them on the break and get numbers forward quickly.  The first inclination of any West Ham midfielder is a backwards or sideways shuffle that allows any opposition ample time to regroup behind the ball.  I am sure our pass completion for pointless five yard passes is an amazing stat.  In a well drilled side, players would know exactly what they are going to do before receiving the ball.  That just isn’t happening. Playing the ball into space for a teammate to run into is now a blue moon event with West Ham.  The team has become a band of flat-footed strollers, unable to create even the semblance of a chance in open play – irrespective of the amount of possession. Pellegrini has been talking of a reaction in next week’s game, but with Burnley also being soundly beaten at the weekend where would your money go as to who gets the biggest reaction?

It’s A Team Game

“Rarely, if ever, can a Premiership team have defended so poorly.”

“…. must take some of the blame for poor organisation and questionable selection. West Ham’s marking was shambolic at set pieces”

The above quotes were taken from a report when West Ham lost 4-3 at home to Leeds in November 2002 having been 4-1 down at half time – a match I remember well.  A second half recovery partially disguised the incompetence of the first, just as with Saturday’s game. West Ham could easily have been on course by the break to challenge Southampton’s 9-0 home defeat record, had Newcastle been more clinical in front of goal. There is no doubt that Roberto is well below average for a keeper at Premier League level – a cost saving gamble that backfired due to Fabianski’s injury – but he was not the sole reason we lost the game. Capitulation was the only thing that the team did collectively all afternoon. The team had no idea how to deal with pace and movement of the visitor’s attacking players. There was a definite improvement in the latter stages of the second half, but it never turned into an onslaught – even in those five minutes of added time where an equaliser was a possibility.  For most of the game the only attacking threat was Fabian Balbuena at corner kicks. Still no-one wanted to play anywhere near to Sebastien Haller. I agreed with much of Danny Gabbidon’s post match assessment.  The problems are as much about system as personnel – but then I have though the same for a long time. Sure, better players would be great, but the core competence of a manager is to find a system that gets the best results with the resources available.  This is just not happening and there is not even the slightest hint West Ham are attacking, defending or working together as a team. There is no direction, no ideas and no leadership.

Player Recruitment And The Academy

Having said that our problems are as much about system as personnel I do believe that the club’s recruitment policy is flawed – probably as a result of using agents rather than old-fashioned scouting to target recruits. Over the years there has been a procession of players who may be technically competent, but who lack the work ethic that a club like ours (in fact any club) needs these days to compete.  Players who believe that a move to a Premier League club (and the bright lights of London) on lucrative contracts is the pinnacle of their ambition. Successful players need the right mix of talent and application – not one or the other.  The West Ham academy has also failed to deliver consistently for many a long year. As fans we love to see youngsters coming through, but it is tempting to believe that successive managers have not given youth a chance.  There haven’t been that many who have slipped through the net, only to build successful careers elsewhere – so why are we not developing youngsters with right attributes.  I feel that there is some hope with the new academy guy,  Dmitri Halajko, who has been doing a great job in charge of the U23’s.  He seems to have the kind of progressive outlook that is sadly missing in the first team. It is quite unusual that a club doesn’t play the same style of football throughout all age groups – but maybe the youth coaches refuse to go shambolic.

Ratings: Roberto (4), Zabaleta (3), Diop (5), Balbuena (5), Cresswell (4), Rice (5), Noble (3), Yarmolenko (4), Snodgrass (6), Anderson (5), Haller (5) Subs: Lanzini (6), Ajeti (4), Fredericks (5)

Panto Season Kicks Off At The London Stadium As Cinderella Takes On The Sleeping Beauty

As Rugby World Cup and Election fever sweep the country, can the listless Hammers be woken from their slumbers and climb away from a winter of discontent? We’re behind you, now it’s up to you!

It’s November, the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. It can’t be that much longer before the shops are welcoming their customers with the traditional seasonal chant of “It’s Chriiiistmaaaas!”

Equally, panto season will also be upon us and today’s game provides a suitable introduction as the two Baron Hardups of the Premier League’s (in the form of Mike Ashley and the Two Daves) sit back to watch their respective investments do battle at the London Stadium. A riches to rags story of great promises that always end up broken.

There are few British owners remaining in the top flight of English football and no-one divides opinion more than those in the hot seats at West Ham and Newcastle. Ask us fans where the glory days of our clubs are and we are guaranteed to answer “they’re behind you.” Oh, yes they are!

For most of the Premier League era, I have mentally bracketed Newcastle as the club that is the most similar to West Ham. Both can boast a passionate and loyal support, who continue to get behind their teams in large numbers despite having “won buggor aaal fo’ a lang time leek.”

Newcastle did enjoy a run of Premier League nearly years in the late nineties/ early noughties, and they certainly have a more impressive back collection of honours than the Hammers. But the 1969 Inter Cities Fairs Cup was the last time they won  trophy of any note – with a team that included one of my all-time favourite ex-Hammers, Pop Robson. A good job they have Texaco and Anglo Italian Cups to fill out the gaps in the trophy cabinet.

The two clubs have also shared several managerial misadventures – with both having elected, at some point, to engage Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew. Fortunately, the Hammers finally steered clear of Steve McClaren (in the same way that the Toon ‘missed out’ on Avram Grant) and, as much I am disillusioned with Manuel Pellegrini at the moment, he is still a more attractive option than Steve Bruce. The lack of imagination shown by boards when making manager appointments is astounding.

So, what of this weekend’s game? In theory, West Ham in 10th place should be favourites against their 17th placed visitors but there are only four points that separate the teams. The Hammer’s form has been mediocre to desperate for much of the season and it will require a huge improvement in attitude, organisation and application (or a particularly poor Newcastle showing) to end the day with all three points.

It is impossible to know what is in the manager’s mind.  It is true that he doesn’t have the strongest squad to play with but his past behaviour suggests he believes that the answer lies in tweaking his existing approach rather than trying something different, that might better suit the resources available.  The football under David Moyes may not have been the brightest but he was prepared to experiment – Arnie up front, Declan Rice in midfield, a back three – in an attempt to freshen things up.

My own preference would be to have a look how a back three (Balbuena, Diop and Rice) could work out. My sense is that it could address some of the ongoing problems: it would shore up the middle of the park; allow the full-backs greater freedom to provide the width that the midfield don’t offer; allow the opportunity for someone to get closer to Sebastien Haller. Haller has taken a bit of stick recently but it is no surprise that his frustration has increased in proportion to his isolation. I don’t expect Pellegrini to do any of this.  He is too wedded to his back four and hasn’t shown that he is one for new ideas.

Assuming he sticks with his preferred formation there is little room for manouevre. Maybe some like for like changes in defence, but the only decision of note is likely to be which two out of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Robert Snodgrass and Pablo Fornals are in the starting eleven.  My money would be that Snodgrass is a definite starter (for all his limitations he will at least put in the effort).  Then it is a toss up between Anderson and Lanzini – I can’t remember which of those combinations Pellegrini has ye to try. By a long chalk, my own preference would be to stick with Anderson. Perhaps he isn’t showing 30 million quids worth of quality but he is one of the few players to possess both a second gear and the ability to open up a defence. As I read once in a fortune cookie: It is better to be diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.

A warm welcome to matchday referee Stuart Attwell from Staffordshire and g’day to Aussie VAR maestro, Jarred Gillet, in the war room. Now that VAR has expanded its role into awarding penalties it could make for a long and interesting afternoon.

The punditry planets have aligned this week with both Lawro and Charlie Nicholas opting for a 2-1 home win.  It is Newcastle’s weakness in attack that is the deciding factor for their predictions.  The Toon have only scored six times in ten games this season, although such damning statistics rarely bring comfort to regular West Ham watchers.  I have been rubbing all the pots in the kitchen this afternoon but, so far, no sign of a genie appearing to offer three wishes. If he does show up, wins for England in the rugby and for West Ham will be the first two wishes.  If he can pull those two off, I will keep the third one secret – but I wonder if the Hammerettes are busy on Saturday night?