And now the end is near as West Ham face the season’s curtain

Just one more point is all we need to be absolutely sure of sixth place – and we may not even need that

In these times of great uncertainty I can now stop trying to work out all the permutations of where we might finish at the end of this magnificent season. Just a few games ago I was speculating on how we could finish as high as fourth or as low as tenth and plumped for sixth. One point against Southampton today, or Tottenham’s failure to win at Leicester, will make my prediction come true and bring us European football in the Europa League next season. Even if the very worst happens today (and I don’t for one moment believe that it will) then we will still be taking part in this new-fangled European Conference competition, which would still be OK although it would bring greater early season fixture congestion.

The win against West Brom was a nervy affair and not really settled until the last few minutes, although anyone looking at the statistics of the game would think that it was a stroll at the Hawthorns. It most certainly wasn’t but somehow this team are superb at battling it out even when not at their best. It was the type of game that some Hammers teams of the past might have lost, but the spirit and togetherness is something I haven’t seen for a while. (And just a thought – I reckon Cresswell would be a good penalty taker. I wonder if this has been considered?)

Massive credit to David Moyes and the coaching team for what they have achieved in turning around a club close to relegation last season into one that has qualified for Europe in this one with minimal new faces, setting all sorts of club records along the way, such as number of Premier League wins, number of Premier League away wins, number of Premier League points, best Premier League finishing position this century, best Premier League defensive record and others. We’ve even won as many points away from home as the great team of 1985/86 in fewer games, and if we win today we will have the second best points total in home games of all Premier League teams this season (after Manchester City). That is some turnaround in such a short time.

Set out below is an extract from my first article this season that was published before the Newcastle game where we went down 2-0 at the London Stadium in the first match this season. Looking at what I wrote then not very much has changed personnel-wise. The brilliant capture of Coufal (my choice for Hammer of the Year very slightly ahead of Rice, Soucek, Ogbonna plus some others perhaps) has had a massive influence defensively, as has the surprising emergence of Dawson as a solid defender, forming a good partnership with Ogbonna. Benrahma was the only addition in an attacking sense in the summer window and I’m sure he will become a valuable addition in the years to come. Haller has gone, and I don’t see a way back for Anderson or Yarmolenko. Lanzini was beginning to come good at the end before his latest injury. It seemed that most of the fans were clamouring for a forward in the winter transfer window and were less than impressed when Lingard turned up. That soon changed when he had a massive impact, especially in his early games for us. I wonder what will happen in this respect in the next few weeks?

Prior to the first game of the season – “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?

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.”              

So we did get some defensive reinforcements in the end, and my forecast re league positions wasn’t too bad with Leicester and ourselves performing well above my expectations. But the squad remains light and will need reinforcing, especially to take into account participation in Europe. It remains to be seen how much backing that the manager gets from above. He has worked miracles with what he has despite very limited resources, and proved that he should never have gone in the first place to be replaced by Pellegrini. That was a massive error of judgement by those at the top.

A few additional seats for the game became available on Thursday from some of the 10,000 who were lucky in the ballot but who subsequently are unable to attend. I am one of the fortunate few who have come off the bench to replace them, so I am looking forward to my first visit to the London Stadium since February 29th 2020 when we beat Southampton 3-1 just before the initial lockdown. We have a good recent record against the Saints, winning five and drawing one of the last six encounters, and on quite a few occasions in recent years we have scored three or more goals in the games. I reckon 3-1 again today. What are the chances?

The London Stadium Will Be Rocking To A Top Six Finish And West Ham’s Euro Vision

Should the Hammers avoid nul points in the final game of the season, it will be Congratulations for a top six finish and ensuring the owners are Making Their Mind Up on improving the squad for Europe.

The final game of the season, the fans are back, and West Ham are on course to secure a place in the top six of the Premier League, along with entry into next season’s Europa League. What could be better?

European football in some form is already guaranteed at the London Stadium after the last round of games, with 5th and 6th taking part in the Europa League and 7th entering the new Europa Conference. That allocation could change if Chelsea finish fifth but win the Champion’s League, although would not impact the Hammers. I it that would mean that both 6th and 7th enter the Europa League. But I am no expert on arcane UEFA rules.

The broadcasters will be thankful that there are, at least, some matters to resolve on the final weekend. Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester will be fighting it out for the two remaining in the top four – I’m convinced it could have included us but for Declan’s injury on England duty. Liverpool now look certainties to salvage a place as Chelsea face a difficult trip to Villa Park. If Chelsea slip up and Leicester win, as we hope, against Spurs then the Foxes will sneak back up in the standings.

West Ham will confirm sixth place by securing at least a point against Southampton or by Tottenham failing to win at Leicester. There is one further mathematical scenario that would involve Everton overturning the eight goal deficit in goal difference in the event of a West Ham defeat, but as they visit the Etihad it hugely unlikely.

The midweek game at West Bromwich was a strange affair. It was unanimously accepted that we had not gien a good account of ourselves, while at the same time scoring three goals, missing a penalty, hitting the wordwork (twice if I can double count), and putting in twenty-one shots (nine on target). In the end the score-line made it look more comfortable than it was, but what a welcome victory – particularly in the light of the Villa win in N17. Can’t say I have ever really been convinced by the notion of Declan Rice as our penalty taker.

In an otherwise fraught year, the Hammer’s exploits have been a stand-out highlight. It is difficult to recall ever seeing a better team-spirit at the club. The manager, coaches and players have all exceeded expectations, overcoming squad limitations through hard-work, determination, effort, and collective desire. As well as that team ethic, there have also been outstanding individual contributions, making selection of Hammer of The Year arguably the most difficult decision since 1986. For me, it is impossible to split Rice from the two Czechs, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal.

Key to tomorrow’s game will be how the Hammers handle the occasion. With the fans back in there should be a party atmosphere, but there is still a job to be done. We will want to claim top six through our own endeavours, not the failure of others.

How Southampton approach the game will also play a part. It has been a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Saints as early season optimism gave way to a dreadful run of form. The ship has now been steadied, but they have little to motivate them. Hasenhüttl adopts an unusual narrow formation but they are not without goal threat. Danny Ings is always on the go and will be keen to exploit the type of gaps the Hammers gifted when conceding against Everton and Brighton. And there are few better than Ward-Prowse in taking advantage of the needless free-kicks given away just outside the box.

It will be the usual selection toss-ups for David Moyes but with the addition of the goalkeeper injury situation. If I can see how intimidated Darren Randolph gets by high balls into the box, then so can opposition coaches. He is decent enough as a shot stopper (as we saw at the Hawthorns on Wednesday) but my fingers are well and truly crossed that Lukasz Fabianski can return.

I feel reasonably confident that we will win today. Another 3-1 perhaps! It will round off a tremendous season and we can get on to the serious business of transfer speculation. It should prove a fascinating insight into a more professional direction of the club, the promise of a new approach to recruiting younger players and what investment is forthcoming.

The squad badly needs to be re-balanced. Those not suited to the current work ethic must be shipped out, and better options and/ or cover for key positions brought in. Four or five new players at least. The immediate future of Rice is also of great significance.   

It is fitting that this group of players will likely record West Ham’s best ever season in the Premier League, at least as far as points and wins are concerned. They have done us proud. My thanks to them all. COYI!

Recovery Position: A Sparkling West Ham Victory Sees Them Climb Out Of The Bottom Three For Now. What Did We Learn?

Everything about Saturday’s performance was just so much better than what’s gone before. What are the takeaways that will help navigate West Ham through the remaining games of the season?

The Wisdom of The Crowd

The wisdom of the crowd concept is that although individual members may not be wiser than a single expert, collectively they are.  It is demonstrated frequently in football where fans often have a more realistic take on the value of a player – no crowd would ever have sanctioned the signing of Carlos Sanchez, for example.  The Crowd largely got that their way on Saturday’s team selection, but with an added bonus of the surprise pairing of Michail Antonio and Sebastien Haller leading the line in an enterprising 4-4-2 formation. Throw in the introduction of Jarrod Bowen, a recall for Pablo Fornals and Jeremy Ngakia keeping his place and suddenly there was a team full of running and purpose. The Crowd had realised ages ago that West Ham were too slow in moving the ball forward, too predictable in opening up defences and hopeless at supporting whoever was the unfortunate lone striker. Amazingly, everything finally come together and delivered a deserved and much needed three points.

The Possession Myth

Despite the fine victory not everybody was happy if social media was to be believed. Those who are invested in their views that David Moyes is a dour, clueless Scot or that Haller is moody, French lump refused to have their opinions changed merely by events. Critics will point out that only having 34% possession in a home game is no cause for celebration. Yet, West Ham were able to outperform the visitors 14-10 on goal attempts. Possession, for the sake of it, is not what it is cracked up to be. On this occasion Moyes got the tactics spot on – by going direct it proved an effective counter to Southampton’s high press. The question, though, of whether this high tempo, hard-working, committed style was a one-off tactic or is to be how we will shape up for the rest of the season is a valid one. It won’t work so spectacularly every week and there is still plenty of work to be done in improving ball retention. Overall though, the change of approach made for a very entertaining, as well as a productive, game.

99% Perspiration

As full debuts go, it could not have gone much better for Jarrod Bowen. It was not just his smartly taken goal, welcome as it was, but also the good work he did in all areas of the pitch. Getting forward quickly to support the strikers; not giving up the chase for loose balls; working hard to regain possession when it was lost; and making a last ditch challenge to deny Bertrand a goal scoring opportunity. He looks just the type of player The Crowd want and love. A good, honest, young professional who is hungry for success and knows that working hard as well as possessing great technique is required. I don’t believe these are attributes that only English players have, but it was a breath of fresh air compared to the complacency shown by some of the big-money signings from overseas in the past. Some may feel that a full debut should have come sooner but, on balance, I think Moyes has handled the situation sensibly, given the nature of the previous two games.

The New Mr West Ham

Watching a re-run of the game on TV yesterday I spotted Declan Rice singing along to Bubbles as the teams walked out onto the pitch at the start of the game. Maybe other players were doing the same but not that I saw. Rice has become the backbone of the West Ham team and it would/ will be a great shame if, and when, he leaves in search of the better things that the Hammers cannot offer. While he is here there is no doubting his commitment to the club and cause. We should appreciate him while we can. If Tomas Soucek were to replace Mark Noble in Saturday’s line-up then it would be a team with a far better balance of ability and athleticism – arguably our strongest eleven, even when everyone is fit. Players such as Noble and Robert Snodgrass can still play a part in the squad but no longer as regular starters. The game is far too quick for them now.

The Race For Relegation

It was another interesting weekend in the battle at the wrong end of the table. West Ham are one of the six teams at greatest risk and as satisfying as the win was, performances like Saturdays need to be sustained if safety is to be assured. With most of the teams involved having ten games remaining it is tempting to compare and contrast run-ins – but this can prove misleading as incentives of opposing clubs change with time  – is home to a relegation threatened Watford an easier game, say, than away to Manchester United if Europa League qualification is the best they can hope for by then? In practice there are only two exceptional teams in the league (Liverpool and Manchester City) and West Ham should now be looking to pick up points in each of their remaining fixtures. The bookmakers favour Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth for the drop but I fancy Brighton to succumb. Survival is not a foregone conclusion, but I am breathing a little easier (despite the threat of coronavirus) after the weekend’s events.

Ratings: Fabianski (7), Ngakia (6), Ogbonna (8), Diop (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (8), Noble (5), Bowen (8), Fornals (8), Antonio (9), Haller (8) Subs: Snodgrass (6), Anderson (n/a)   

Not quite “must win” yet for West Ham as they face Southampton, but it will be if they don’t start picking up points soon

Two teams that gained promotion from the Championship at the same time (in the 2011-12 season) meet today. Whilst Southampton gained automatic promotion by finishing as runners-up to champions Reading, we, of course, came up the “fun way” defeating Blackpool in the play-off final at Wembley. Both clubs have consolidated within the Premier League in the seven completed seasons since that promotion and have similar records. We have finished above them on three occasions whereas they have been above us four times. Of course we have both flirted with relegation at times, although our lowest finishing position has been 13th, whereas today’s opponents have finished closer to the trap door with final positions of 14th, 16th and 17th.

Our best finishes have been 7th and twice finishing 10th, whereas Southampton had a purple patch from season 2013-14 onwards when ending up 8th, 7th, 6th and 8th in consecutive seasons. Even when we had that marvellous last season at Upton Park finishing 7th, they pipped us to end up one place and one point above us. Southampton have picked up 341 points in those 7 seasons (average 49) compared to our 334 (average 48).

If you calculate the average finishing position in those 7 campaigns then we both have identical results, showing an average of 11th. The head to head record in the period matches the all-time historical record with West Ham winning more games than our South Coast opponents. In the 15 games since promotion, West Ham have won 8 to Southampton’s 4 with 3 drawn games. We have won the last 4 meetings – until then the records were equally matched. The record when we have been the home side reads won 5 and lost 2 in 7 meetings, scoring 16 goals and conceding 9.

After a few games this season it looked like we were going to overtake Southampton in the comparisons since promotion. We started the season well and Southampton were languishing close to the bottom. However our form had slumped by the time we visited Southampton a few days before Christmas, and both managers were under pressure. On that day we won 1-0 with a goal from Sebastien Haller to relieve the pressure building on Manuel Pellegrini, whereas our opponents remained in the relegation zone.

But following that day Southampton’s season took off collecting 16 points from the next seven games to climb into the top half of the table. They haven’t kept up that pace in the last few games, but nevertheless they sit in a comfortable 12th place in the table on 34 points, 10 clear of ourselves – of course we are in the danger zone in 18th.

We are at that stage of the season now with just eleven games to go when games such as these are almost “must win” fixtures for us. It is not quite critical yet, and a win would see us leapfrog Aston Villa (who play in the Carabao Cup Final this weekend), and could see us move above Bournemouth if they fail to beat an out of form Chelsea side. That would be a boost.

There are currently 5 teams that are not averaging a point a game, and Brighton in addition are just above that figure. It seems likely that the three relegated teams will come from those six unless one of the teams immediately above has a disastrous run (similar to the one we have had!). 37 or 38 points could mean safety and that would probably mean four wins and a couple of draws. There are no guarantees of course but that might be enough. It’s sad though isn’t it when a season that started brightly has come to this. My prediction at this point sees us escaping the drop with Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth going down. But in reality, all of the bottom six teams have a number of difficult games, and it could be very different.

Bookmakers generally have 7 clubs in the mix for relegation, with current odds of about 1/20 Norwich (virtually already down), Villa 8/13, Bournemouth 10/11, West Ham 5/4, Watford 7/5, Brighton 11/2, Newcastle 6/1.

Even Brighton supporters, despite their points cushion at the moment, cannot feel comfortable, especially if they fail to beat Palace tomorrow, as their March and April fixtures are against Wolves, Arsenal, Leicester, Man United, Norwich, Liverpool, and Man City.

We can take heart from our visit to Anfield even though we took no points. Despite the obvious gulf in class we came closer to defeating them than most teams have this season in the Premier League. It’s a shame that our usual saviour Fabianski chose the game to have possibly his worst outing since joining us. He was obviously at fault for the second goal, and didn’t cover himself in glory for the other two either. But that’s water under the bridge now, so let us hope that normal goalkeeping service is resumed today.

I wonder what team we will see today. My selection would be:

Fabianski; Ngakia, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Snodgrass; Fornals, Anderson, Bowen; Antonio.

I am not sure Noble is up to two games in close succession and have gone for Snodgrass in a central midfield role for this game, with his dead ball delivery an important factor in my choice. Such a shame about the injury to Soucek – I thought he was looking like exactly the player we needed in midfield. I doubt that Mr Moyes will agree with my choice, but we can all play football manager when it comes to team selection.

I started this article by talking about the relative merits of the two clubs since promotion in 2012. In our first meeting in the Premier League following promotion, we comfortably beat Southampton 4-1 with a couple of goals from Mark Noble, one from Kevin Nolan, and a mazy dribble and finish from Modibo Maiga (remember him?). Adam Lallana scored for the Saints. If you go back to the very first meeting between the two teams at our ground in April 1900, the score that day was Thames Ironworks 4 Southampton 1.

What chance a repeat of the 4-1 win today? We’ll all be going home happy if we win by any score.

West Ham’s Escape Plan Revealed: Start Winning A Few Games Or Rely On The Coronavirus Pandemic

Not yet a ‘must win’ game or ‘we’re down if we lose’ but at home to Southampton is an important obstacle to overcome in the Hammer’s increasingly desperate battle for survival.

Recent events have proven that the world is about as prepared for a global virus pandemic as West Ham are for a Premier League relegation fight. With the level of anxiety rising on both fronts it has led to speculation on the possibility of the football programme being suspended or even abandoned as the consequence of a UK wide lock down on travel and public gatherings.

Imagine the outcry on Merseyside if the season were declared null and void some time in the next few weeks. It is not to be sneezed at! That is assuming there isn’t some footballing equivalent of the Duckworth-Lewis method that would be used to calculate final standings based on Opta Stats – no doubt, precipitating a raft of legal challenges.

For now, such a scenario will need to remain Plan-B, with a continuing focus on preserving Premier League safety through more conventional means – starting with Saturday’s home fixture against Southampton.

There was a notable improvement in the Hammer’s performance against Liverpool on Monday (when compared to the Manchester City game) and had it not been for the rarest of off-days by Lukasz Fabianski, one of the shocks of the season could have been on the cards. It is easy to understand fan’s frustration, though, as to why the same level of effort and commitment cannot be applied in all matches. For some reason the team have found it easier to play against Liverpool than City in both home and away fixtures this season. In the end, we expected zero points from those last two games and that is exactly what we got. More important now, however, is how the team shapes up for Saturday’s game. Will there be some carry over momentum from Anfield or will it be a return to the slow starting, low intensity team that we have been used to in the recent past?

Among the many West Ham weaknesses are an inability to break down hard-working, organised defences and preventing teams hitting us on the break. Southampton will provide a test on both fronts. Not throwing away another lead would also be welcome.

The Saints are 5th in the away table while West Ham sit just one off the bottom in the Premier League home table. Their style is well suited as a smash and grab away team in the modern style; not endowed with a great deal of midfield creativity but direct in rapid counter attacking and dangerous from set pieces -with a red hot striker at the moment in Danny Ings. They are, however, as prone to defensive howlers as the Hammers – as their goals against record (the same as ours) clearly illustrates, although nine of those did come in one game.

The question on all West Ham lips then is how will David Moyes set his team up to exploit Southampton’s weaknesses and deal with their obvious threats? Equally, what level of motivation will we see? Any chance of starting on the front foot, playing with energy and intensity, and giving the crowd something to get behind? The first twenty minutes could well be crucial in setting the tone of the game.

It is very unfortunate that Tomas Soucek is unavailable as he and Declan Rice could have provided a solid foundation in midfield to protect the defence, allowing Mark Noble to sit this one out. I would prefer not to see both Noble and Robert Snodgrass (too old and too slow in combination) on the pitch at the same time but fear that might not now be the case.

Popular opinion is that there should be starts for Jeremy Ngakia, Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen. I would go along with that but difficult to know whether the manager sees it the same way. Moyes reverted to a back four at Anfield but possibly only due to the enforced absence of Arthur Masuaku. It would be foolish to change back again and I am hoping to see an unchanged back line. Key decisions will be a choice between Snodgrass or Fornals and whether Felipe Anderson is considered ready for two games in a week. Opinion is very divided about the clubs two most expensive signings – Anderson and Sebastien Haller. I can’t say either is delivering value for money but would start with Anderson (if fit enough) as he is the one player capable of the unexpected. I don’t see anything but the bench for Haller. This would be my starting eleven but think Moyes will opt for Snodgrass over Fornals for his dead-ball contribution.

lineup

Anthony ‘Red Card’ Taylor from Cheshire is the matchday referee with Stuart Atwell as his virtual buddy in Stockley Park. I was interested to watch Mike Dean coming across as quite human in the Peter Crouch podcast this week – a reminder that refs might not be as incompetent and aloof as they seem in real life. Worth a watch if you have ten minutes to spare.

At time of writing, Lawro has not published his predictions – I expect his default 1-1 setting. Charlie Nicholas, who predicts far too many West Ham wins for his own good, has gone for a 2-1 home win. It would wrong to call games ‘must win’ at this stage of the season but it surely is one of the contests that we would pencil in as winnable. Attitude might well be the match winner. Keep on your toes at all times. Beware the pace of Long and the predatory instincts of Ings. Defend those set pieces properly and make sure Lukasz has his catching gloves on. I can’t see a lot of finesse in midfield from either team and it could end up as a dead-ball contest. I am hoping a fast start can see us get our noses in front. But if we do, can we finally keep it there. It could be a stressful afternoon all round but I will go for 3-1.