Two Weeks To Save The Season: West Ham’s Fateful Fortnight Begins With The Wolves At The Door

The top four dream fades by the week. Can David Moyes wake up and shake up his Hammers for the visit of in-form Wolverhampton?

Before the season started my prediction for West Ham’s finishing position in the Premier League was 10th. I felt it would be a struggle to reproduce the previous seasons success alongside a European campaign. The most probable outcome now is that the Hammers will end up somewhere between 6th and 8th. In that context the team will have exceeded my expectations.

Of course, there is still time for things to change. A few weeks ago, most were certain of Manchester City winning the title at a canter, with Norwich, Watford, and Burnley dead certs for relegation. Now, Liverpool are piling on the pressure at the top while Leeds (how did we lose to them), Brentford (how did we lose to them) and Everton are being dragged into the battle at the bottom.

For a team sitting in the top six and still in two cup competitions, there is plenty of disquiet among Hammers supporters. A combination of poor results, mediocre performances, and a shambles of a transfer window. It is easy to understand. They showed us a dream of the top four but complacency has it looking unattainable. As the song lyric by James put it: “Now I’ve swung back down again, it’s worse than it was before, if I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.

Whatever happens between now and May, the next two weeks will be pivotal to how we remember the 2021/22 season. The sequence starts with today’s match up with close rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, then an FA Cup visit to in-form Southampton at fortress St Marys, followed by the perennially fruitless trip to title-chasing Liverpool, and rounded off by the Thrilla in Sevilla ©.

A variety of factors seem to have contributed to the West Ham slump. Individual loss of form, playing with injuries, fatigue, and opponents working us out are among the most obvious. Ultimately all come back to a ridiculously thin squad and a bench that the manager doesn’t really trust. There are just not the options for rest, freshening things up or trying something different.

I still believe that David Moyes has done a fantastic job considering the position he found us in. But just like Leeds are discovering, a change of plan is required when Plan A isn’t working. Thankfully, Moyes Plan A isn’t as bad as Bielsa’s.  

The issues with the squad should clearly have been addressed in January but weren’t. There are too many limitations to play anything other than a counter-attacking game, even if we have some fine individual players. Genuine width and pace down the flanks, the ability to go past an opponent, the basics of pass and move, a dead-ball specialist are all in short supply. Adjusting the 4-2-3-1 (which is increasingly overrun in midfield) to a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 look equally problematic. Something needs to change but nothing obvious sticks out.

Will there be any adjustments to the side that failed to impress against Newcastle? Ben Johnson in for the injured Vladimir Coufal, I would think. Possibly one of Manuel Lanzini or Pablo Fornals dropping into a midfield three with Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek. Leaving a front three of Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma (or Nikola Vlasic). It might improve the balance in what is likely to be a tight and cagey affair.

Wolves are in a fine run of form despite their late setback in midweek at Arsenal. Back in November, Wolves ended West Ham’s four match winning streak when Jimenez scored the only goal in an otherwise uninspiring game. In many ways, the Mexican is the ideal hold-up player in a team that score few, but concede even fewer. Manager Bruno Lage now has further options upfront with the long-awaited return of the impressive Neto providing competition for Hwang and Podence.

Nothing suggests to me that it will be anything but an afternoon of hard labour for the Hammers. Little threat to the Wolves goal was on show at Molineux other than hopeful long-range pot shots. Will it be any different today? Antonio’s customary Row Z skier, Benrahma’s curling it past the post, and Bowen hitting the bar. There is always a set piece, I suppose, and an early goal can easily change the complexion of a match.

As much as I would like to see a perfect Craig Dawson hattrick, I think this game might ending goalless. COYI!   

West Ham Love To Go A-Wandering; Can They Make It Five Wins In A Row?

The Hammers continue their adventures in the unchartered waters of the Premier League’s top four. Victory against recently becalmed Wolverhampton will see them on the crest of a wave.

The international break has given us all an extra week to admire West Ham’s lofty position in the Premier League table with a sense of smug satisfaction. Now comes the test as to whether they can stay the course – a furious run of ten games leading up to Christmas starting with a visit to Molineux on Saturday afternoon.

The Hammer’s form has been nothing less than remarkable in the opening months of the season. The only side in the division to win their last four games, unbeaten in seven games in all competitions – and unbeaten in eleven on the road. The last defeat coming in the last-minute to Brentford in early October. 

It was disappointing that post match reporting on the pulsating victory against Liverpool was overshadowed by contrived controversy over supposed game changing refereeing decisions. There was so much to appreciate about the game as an advertisement for the Premier League and yet the referee took central stage. Most of the blame for that lies with Jurgen Klopp who showed himself to be the most ungracious of poor losers.

It was an excellent West Ham win which once again demonstrated the tenacity and character present in David Moyes’ side. That the top sides finish games knowing they have faced a tough, resilient, and talented opponent is all we can ask.

We probably shouldn’t be doing this, but it is tempting to make comparisons with the 2015/16 season – the year Leicester City won the Premier League title. The image below shows the table after an equivalent 11 matches. Leicester were sitting third behind Manchester City and Arsenal (having earned a point less than West Ham have now) with the Hammers hanging on in sixth place. Had we not just gone done to a disappointing 2-0 away defeat at Watford, things would have looked even rosier for Slaven Bilic’s side.

The noticeable feature of 2015/16 was that as well as Leicester performed, each of the other title contenders managed to screw up their own challenge. None of the other teams performed consistently well during the remainder of the season. Adding to the mystery, both Liverpool and Chelsea were nowhere to be seen, finishing eighth and tenth respectively.  The chances of such a collective failure repeating itself is highly unlikely.

A look at this season’s current standings with a projection based on points per game being maintained to the end of the season has West Ham finishing on 79 points. That would be an incredible achievement – but unlikely to be enough to claim top spot. I doubt there are many supporters who truly believe a top four finish is achievable, but it is target worth aiming for. The recently announced investment in the club by Daniel Kretinsky certainly adds a new perspective on things, especially if it is backed up by player reinforcements in January. A long way to go, though!

Assuming all the players have returned from the international break in fine fettle, the only change for the Wolves game will be the one enforced by the probable long-term absence of Angelo Ogbonna – Craig Dawson being the obvious replacement. It is anticipated that Declan Rice will have recovered from illness and Pablo Fornals from the knock picked up playing for Spain. The Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back is the other talking point. I believe it is Johnson’s shirt to lose.

It was great to see Michail Antonio make his mark on the international stage at long last, with two fine goals for Jamaica. Whenever he shapes up for a long shot my head is usually in my hands, but the strike against the USA was a cracker. Shots from outside the box are the least productive of goal attempts – it is seen as a defensive positive to limit your opponent to long shots – but when they come off, they can be spectacular. Will we now be treated to a flurry of long-range Antonio efforts? And what is the probable outcome? It’s a long shot, but it might just work!

Wolves are a side slowly emerging from the doldrums of Nuno’s time at the helm. New boss, Bruno Lage, is something of an unknown quantity as a manager with only an ultimately unsuccessful stint at Benfica behind him in the big time. Still, he met the exacting criteria required for the Wolves job by being Portuguese.

The Wanderers have had a mixed opening to the season. After a sluggish start they have climber to eighth in the table but have only faced Manchester United from the top six. Their five wins have been mid to lower table affairs against Watford, Southampton, Newcastle, Villa and Everton. Presented as being more adventurous than under Nuno, goals have been at a premium at both ends in their matches so far this season. Only games involving Southampton have witnessed fewer goals.  

There was sad news from Molineux in the week with the death of Wolves legend (and member of the 1966 World Cup winning squad), Ron Flowers. I can remember him well from the very first football game I watched live on our newly acquired black and white TV – the 1960 FA Cup Final. A well-deserved Ron Flowers tribute will take place prior to Saturday’s kick-off. This looks like another tight game to me. Wolves have some dangerous players including Jimenez, Hee-Chan and the perpetually erratic Traore. Not convinced about them at the back. The ideal scenario is that Wolves push forward and fall into the trap of the breakaway Hammers counter-punch. And there is always the set piece danger. It is a game where if West Ham keep their discipline, they can come away with a narrow one-goal victory to make it five league wins on the trot. COYI!

West Ham Must Stay Positive Or Top Four Will Be Out Of Reach: No Time To Be Crying Wolves

Out of reach, so far, we never had the start. Out of reach, couldn’t see, Top Four’s ever meant to be. Who dares, wins, Mr Moyes!

If someone were to analyse my dreams, they might reach the conclusion that frustration is the common and recurring theme. Invariably, I am attempting to achieve or reach some goal or target and am unable to do so – whether it is catching a train, getting to an important appointment on time or finishing the weekend in the top four. West Ham are at the root of all my character defects!

The Hammers last league outing seems like it was ages ago now, interrupted as it was by another tedious international break. World cup qualifiers have become a case of going through motions these days. Designed to ensure the major sponsorship friendly countries have a smooth route through to the finals. It would be astonishing if any of the big name countries fail to qualify.

Anyhow, it has allowed for the disappointment of throwing away a three goal lead to Arsenal to fester in the mind far longer than necessary. An extra two points on the board would put a whole different complexion on the table as West Ham’s visit to Molineux rounds off Matchweek 30. An opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and into the coveted fourth place spot.

Who in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario at the start of the season? But is it an opportunity that will be taken? Can the nerve hold? Or will a promising position once again be kept tantalisingly out of reach – either through an absence of belief, a lack of focus or sense of inferiority? Will we end with another Jim Bowen “Look at what you could have won” moment? In short, when push comes to shove, will West Ham go all Spursy?

Immediately, the third goal went in against Arsenal, something odd happened on the pitch. What should have been a position of dominance morphed spontaneously into a phase of uncertainty. Not the result of tactical change but one born out of apprehension. Granted the third goal finally woke Arsenal up, but West Ham’s mindset changed as well. The passing and movement that had so unsettled the Gunners disappeared, replaced by hopeful balls forward and a willingness to throw away possession. Initiative was surrendered and, once Arsenal got one back, hope and momentum were effectively lost. The baffling substitutions only added to a sense of throwing in the towel. By the end, even coming away with a point looked unlikely.  The ease with which Liverpool despatched a poor Arsenal side at the weekend underlined the frustration felt.

For this evening’s encounter with Wolves, West Ham are able to welcome Pablo Fornals and Arthur Masuaku back to the squad. With all three of the Arsenal goals coming down our left hand side, David Moyes may be tempted to return to a back three rather than allow Aaron Cresswell to cope with the speed of the inconsistent Traore by himself. Despite calls for a Cresswell England return, left back remains a big problem position for the Hammers.

It is unfortunate that Angelo Ogbonna is not yet ready to return. Without the Italian at his side, Craig Dawson has had a bit of a wobble just lately. He and Issa Diop will need to be at their sharpest, even against the shot shy Wolves attack. A hattrick of own goals would be a disaster.

Hopefully, the two-week break will have given Michail Antonio another chance to recharge his batteries. He hasn’t been the same since his last injury and his old spark will be vital for the run-in. The dilemma of having only one striker.

Wolves have had a disappointing season. After two impressive 7th place finishes they have seriously lost their way this season, although sit relatively comfortably in mid-table. The loss of Jimenez has been a big blow as was the departure of Jota. At the same time the powers of midfield general Moutinho appear to be on the wane. I do like what I have seen of Neto and despite sounding like a discount supermarket chain he provides their greatest offensive threat. Traore has the occasional inspirational game but largely flatters to deceive, while Silva has the look of a player totally unsuited to the hurly burly of English football.

What can we expect tonight? Will the enforced break have any unexpected impacts, as it did for Chelsea and West Brom? Will the occasion and the chance to go fourth cause the players to freeze? With a return of just one point from the last two disappointing performances, it is the ideal time to get the show back on the road. It will be character, as well as skill and endeavour, that will determine outcome. As will a positive approach from the manager. Collectively, they must believe they can win. Form suggests they can, but what is in their heads?

When I first drafted this post I was banking on big performances from Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard providing the inspiration for a satisfying 2-0 win. News has since broken that Rice will be missing for an as yet unspecified period of time as the result of a knee injury picked up on England duty. That is a huge concern given that Moyes will no doubt see the likely replacement as Mark Noble. I wish him well and hope he has a blinder but the reality is he is far too slow still to be playing at this level.

Still hoping for the best but the confidence has dropped considerably. COYI!

The win against Wolves early on kick-started West Ham’s season. Can it be repeated as European qualification still beckons?

March 2020. A world bracing itself for a potential pandemic as talk of coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China gets louder and louder. Pictures in Britain emerge of hospitals struggling in Italy and Spain, and cases begin to emerge closer to home. As a nation not much changes at first. We are urged to wash our hands religiously but not much else to combat the spread of the disease. Sport continues as normal.

On March 7th West Ham play their 29th game of the season against Arsenal. We lose 1-0. It has been a difficult campaign. It started brightly enough despite a 5-0 loss at home to Manchester City on the opening day. With half a dozen games gone we sat in fifth place in the table. Expectations were high for a good season ahead.

Before 2019 is out it has all gone wrong. Following a home defeat to Leicester City after Christmas, with exactly half of the season completed, Pellegrini is sacked and David Moyes is appointed in time for the home game on New Years Day against Bournemouth. We are in a relegation tussle. Three wins and two draws in the opening six games of the season have been followed by just two wins and two draws in the next 13 games. We are now 17th in the league occupying the position immediately above the bottom three.

Move forward to March 7th 2020. Following the defeat to Arsenal our record now reads: Played 29, Won 7, Drawn 6, Lost 16. With a goal difference of minus 15 we are 16th in the table. David Moyes has had 10 games in charge so far. We’ve won 2, drawn 2, and lost 6. Our situation has barely improved. We are still in a relegation tussle.

Life continues as normal in Britain. As fears of the spread of the pandemic continue to grow and calls for action are made, the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival goes ahead and Liverpool entertain Atletico Madrid with thousands of supporters travelling from Spain to support their team. Personally I went horse racing to a relatively small meeting at Huntingdon on Wednesday 11th March. There was no talk of social distancing at the time, merely bigger queues in the toilets with extended hand washing times!

The season was suspended following a decision on 13 March 2020 by the Premier League to suspend the league after a number of players and other club staff became ill due to the pandemic. I had already decided against attending the Wolves fixture. National lockdown in Britain came in the following week. The initial suspension was until 4 April, which was then extended. The FA then agreed to extend the season indefinitely, past the scheduled end date of 1 June. During the lockdown West Ham were awaiting decisions on their fate in case football did not resume. Although we were 16th in the league there were differing ways of calculating which clubs would be relegated using varying complicated formulae.  

The season eventually resumed on 19 June, with West Ham playing their first match since suspension the following day, losing 2-0 at home to Wolves. More than three months had elapsed between games 29 and 30. All matches from this date were played behind closed doors with no paying supporters. Following this defeat we now dropped to 17th with just eight games to go. A defeat at Tottenham in game 31 didn’t help, but wins against Chelsea, Norwich and Watford and draws against Newcastle, Manchester United and Villa were enough to ensure a place in the Premier League for season 2020-21.

Fast forward to this season, and nobody expected us to be where we are now. Our 29th game was once again against Arsenal. We can all remember what happened a fortnight ago when we relinquished a three goal lead to draw the game. But, following Chelsea’s unlikely defeat at home to West Brom on Saturday, qualification for the Champions League via a top four finish is still in our own hands, although Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton are all still well in the mix. Manchester United and Leicester are well placed to finish second and third but aren’t there yet.

Our record after the Arsenal game is a big contrast to that after the same game last season. This time – Played 29, Won 14, Drawn 7, Lost 8, Goal Difference +10. Twice as many games won, and half the number of defeats. Plus a goal difference turnaround of 25. That is some improvement and great credit to the manager, coaching staff, and of course the players.

Wolves are in the bottom half of the table this time around, but the game will still be a difficult one, as will the following match against Leicester. Perhaps these two matches will define our fate, but there will still be a lot of football to be played. In the seven matches that follow on from there we face two of our rivals at the top, Chelsea and Everton, but also have some winnable games (on paper of course) against bottom-half teams Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton, West Brom and Southampton.

It’s quite a coincidence that the 29th and 30th games of the season are against Arsenal and Wolves for two years running. There is even a gap between the fixtures, although the two week international break this time doesn’t compare to the three months interval last time around.

I don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four but we’re still in with a shout and that’s great. Even if we fade a little from here and finish as low as eighth it would still be a good season and a massive improvement on the last few years, albeit a slightly disappointing end. The wins against Wolves and Leicester early on really kick-started this season for us and were followed by the dramatic comeback against Tottenham, and then holding champions-elect Manchester City to a draw.

Six points from these two difficult fixtures to achieve the double over both teams would be quite an achievement. What are the chances?