Pellegrini Shuffles The Pack But Still Has A Handful Of Jokers: Takeaways and Ratings

A point won or two points lost? Takeaways and player ratings from another below par West Ham performance against resolute opponents.

Crumbs From The Table

Just as a starving man might regard a stale crust of bread as a fine feast, there is a temptation to seek comfort from this marginally improved performance that ended a losing run and put one more point in the bank. A game where the Hammers dominated possession and, but for the spurning of several chances, would have ended as a deserved victory?  At least, that is how Manuel Pellegrini saw it – a spot of bad luck rather than the continuation of the previous poor run of performances.  From where I was sitting, however, it looked like the same uninspiring fare, but served up with slightly more enthusiasm. Sure, we might have scored one or two more on a better day but then so could the opposition. Had Sheffield been more adventurous in the first half, then who knows what might have happened? Once their confidence grew, an equaliser was always on the cards – even if, when it came, Roberto’s attempt to save Mousset’s Barnes-Wallis volley reflected his preference for the spectacular over the functional.   West Ham still have the look of a team in need of overhaul rather than fine tuning.

Nothing Ever Changes

Learning from Marko Silva’s recipe for success from the previous weekend, Pellegrini decided that the road to victory lie in making five changes to the starting eleven. It was close to all change at the back where Angelo Ogbonna and Ryan Fredericks would have been mightily miffed at their exclusion. The rationale, I guess, is that the underlying problems are defensive personnel rather than an inability to compete in midfield, which to me is more apparent. Naturally there was no change to formation where old-dog Pellegrini will have no truck with trying new tricks such a back three. No matter what happens, we are stuck with his 4-1-4-1/ 4-2-3-1 (or whatever it is) for the foreseeable future. Of the players who came in, Robert Snodgrass was the pick of the bunch and made a whole-hearted contribution capped with a smartly taken goal.  His level of effort compensating for an overall lack of creativity – even if his best work was as an auxiliary winger and not in the central areas expected from the team sheet.  It was a huge surprise when he taken off, as Andriy Yarmolenko was clearly struggling by that point. Equally baffling was the substitution of Felipe Anderson who, frustrating as he is, remains the best outlet and only player capable of breaking forward at speed – although admittedly his final delivery was wayward throughout.  Manuel Lanzini seems to have finally perfected the art of hiding in plain sight – I saw him come on but then he simply disappeared.

Five Guys Named Slow

Pace is not necessarily the ‘be all and end all’ for a modern Premier League footballer but it has become increasingly important over the years. If a player does not have pace then there has to be other very special qualities to make them standout. The starting eleven contained at least five players unfortunately blessed with below average pace for their positions: Pablo Zabaleta, Mark Noble, Snodgrass, Yarmolenko and Sebastien Haller. The same could be directed at substitute Pablo Fornals. That is far too many for any one team. To be fair to Zabaleta (and his ageing legs) he did cover a lot of ground and was always willing to get forward. Yarmolenko showed some lovely touches – his pass for the goal, the through ball to Anderson and the cross to Cresswell – being arguably the most incisive moments of the match. I do believe that Haller possesses great attributes but he is no Jamie Vardy and expecting him to chase long balls is pointless.  Unless someone is playing close to him (which didn’t happen all afternoon) he is not going to deliver on his transfer fee.  The skipper again had a poor game but the sad truth is that there are no known alternatives in the squad.

Rice With Everything

Snodgrass may well have made a valuable contribution but Declan Rice was my West Ham man of the match by some distance. He is a special player who, as well as his energy and defensive capabilities, has a good eye for a pass – always looking to switch play and preferring to use the ball progressively.  Not for him the instinct to go backwards before going forwards that has come to characterise Noble’s game and was later imitated by Fornals after his introduction.  Rice is carrying the team right now and we need to make the most of him.  With the club not making any progress and his international exposure he will soon become frustrated and open to offers.  Difficult to see him still being a Hammer next summer.

Expectations Lowered

At the current run rate (13 points from 10 games) this would result in a total of 49 come the season end.  Slightly below last year and a total that would suggest a top of the bottom half finish – typical West Ham territory and not the kind of progress that we were hoping for. Perhaps the manager can turn it around but he doesn’t have the look of someone able to make the best of limited resources through motivation, organisation and technical nous.  That is surely what he is paid big bucks for. The situation is surprising in the light of his track record from earlier in his career. Maybe the game has moved on and he hasn’t kept pace.  Time to prove us wrong, Manuel.

Ratings: Roberto (5), Zabaleta (5), Diop (6), Balbuena (5), Cresswell (5), Rice (8), Noble (4), Yarmolenko (6), Snodgrass (7), Anderson (5), Haller (5) Subs: Lanzini (4), Fornals (5), Ajeti (5)

Dust down your Carlos Tevez masks to watch West Ham entertain Sheffield United in a league match for the first time in over twelve years.

West Ham began the Premier League season 2006-07 with high hopes. We had unluckily lost the 2006 FA Cup final to Liverpool on penalties after conceding a goal in time added on to the infamous Steven Gerrard strike, and then on transfer deadline day it was announced that we had signed Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, two highly sought after Argentinians who had starred in that summer’s World Cup. What could go wrong? This was West Ham remember.

In the opening week of the season we comfortably despatched of Charlton 3-1, and then drew 1-1 at Watford. A 2-1 reverse at Liverpool was followed by a 1-1 draw at Villa. Five points from four games and we were in the top half of the table. Bobby Zamora had scored in all four of those games (a total of five goals) and at the time few predicted what was about to happen. I doubt that Bobby Zamora himself would have believed that he wouldn’t find the net again until mid-January despite playing in almost all of the games.

A home defeat to Palermo of Italy in the UEFA Cup was just the first of eight consecutive defeats which included a run of seven games where we failed to register a single goal. When we did eventually score we had been dumped out of the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle, we’d gone out of the Football League Cup to lowly Chesterfield (2-1), and tumbled down the league to 19th place.

Two consecutive wins against Blackburn (2-1) and Arsenal (1-0 on Bonfire Night), the latter sparking a touchline spat between Pardew and Wenger when Marlon Harewood’s late strike won the game, seemed to have halted the slide, but these were followed by two 1-0 defeats at Middlesbrough and Chelsea. We were still above the relegation places at this time when we faced Sheffield United at Upton Park on November 25th. A first half Hayden Mullins goal was the only score of the match, and at this point we were 15th in the table with Sheffield United 18th.

However three consecutive defeats in the first nine days of December followed (all to nil), and the last one of those (a 4-0 loss at Bolton) resulted in the sacking of manager Pardew just two days later. Two days after that Alan Curbishley was appointed and in his first game in charge we beat Manchester United 1-0 with a goal from Nigel Reo-Coker. But just three points from three draws in the next eleven league games, the last of which was an unlucky 4-3 home defeat to Tottenham, meant that with just nine games of the season left we were effectively 11 points adrift of safety with virtually no hope of escape. The Tottenham game was Tevez’s 20th appearance and brought his first goal!

The rest is history as we won seven of our final nine games, including the last-day 1-0 win at Manchester United which ensured safety (although a draw would have been enough). The two defeats in that winning sequence included a 3-0 reverse at Sheffield United, and a 4-1 loss at Chelsea. Incredibly we then won the final four games. Sheffield United lost at home to Wigan on the final day when a draw would have been OK and this sent them down.

The Blades insisted they were victims of a relegation rival gaining an unfair advantage by breaching the rules that barred third parties such as agents, or a company or investors, from holding a stake in the financial rights to a player. To many of us it seemed ridiculous. Mascherano had barely featured all season, while Tevez only started scoring towards the very end.

West Ham were found guilty in April 2007 of acting improperly and withholding vital documentation, but Tevez was allowed to continue playing and his part in the Hammers’ survival rankled with the Blades. Sheffield United subsequently slid into League One before their recent resurgence, while West Ham, in contrast, have only spent one season since outside the top flight. West Ham eventually paid £20m in compensation, having initially being fined £5.5m rather than being docked points. An arbitration panel said “the club had not only deliberately breached the rules but committed a grave breach of trust and been responsible for dishonesty and deceit”. The teams have only met once since, in a League Cup tie five years ago, which away side Sheffield United won on penalties.

I’m always amazed at some of the statistics that are dragged up these days before Premier League matches but the following are some of what I have read. Firstly we haven’t won a league fixture in the month of October since beating Sunderland in 2016. In that time we have drawn three and lost six matches. Secondly, including cup games, after four clean sheets in a row we have conceded at least two goals in four consecutive games since. And thirdly, since Haller scored with his right foot in the first half of our game against Norwich at the end of August, the next six league goals we have scored have all been left foot strikes.

Did you know that Sheffield United could become the first newly-promoted side for over ten years to remain unbeaten in their first five away games in the Premier League? Also, they have not kept three consecutive clean sheets away from Bramall Lane in the top flight for over 48 years, a record they would equal if they do not concede a goal today. Plus, this is their best performance in the first nine games of a top division season. One statistic that I really hate repeating though is that they have not won once in their last 16 games in the top division in London!

My co-blogger Geoff Hopkins wrote an excellent article published yesterday where he set out his expectations for today’s game. I have to agree with most of what he wrote, and I don’t believe his prediction of a goalless draw will be far away. However I don’t want to travel all the way to the London Stadium to see us come away with just a single point without seeing a goal being scored. For that reason I will dust off my trusty optimistic hat, and predict a 1-0 win with the sequence of left-footed goals being broken by a Sebastien Haller header. What are the chances? Another prediction – we will once again be the last game on Match of the Day!