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.