Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

West Ham - Kingdom Of The Not Quite

Full Of Life (Happy Now)

There was a Twitter thread this week where people were asked to post the most recent text message in their phone. Mine was "Always the same cycle" which could very easily have been my long suffering wife once more sending me instructions on how to use our washing machine, but was in fact my comment to a friend on our transfer policy.

This is not my wife, but finding weird stock photos is fun

The cycle I refer to is the long standing one of buying players as emergency surgery and then constantly needing to rebuild on the fly when these temporary sticking plasters come off. To continue mixing metaphors like cocktails, the adage is that teams need to be moving forward just to tread water in the fast moving Premier League. For West Ham it feels like we need to flail away frantically just to stop from drowning.

It is not, however, the de-rigeur thing to be negative about West Ham transfers at present. Such a thing would render you a "moaner" which is a rather widespread British phenomenon these days. See a half arsed plan and comment that maybe it could be improved with some actual, er, planning and one is sure to be rendered a whinger. You need to be a bit more patriotic, mate.

A Wish Away

But the thing is, I get it. It's summer and those abject home defeats seem like a distant memory. Now we're in the golden uplit sunlands of the close season where the players are all tanned, we're unbeaten and if you aren't optimistic now then you never will be. The beauty of summer belief is that it remains unscathed by the sharp blade of reality, which for now remains safely sheathed on Romelu Lukaku's hip.

And the names arriving are recognisable so there isn't a need to query if they will hit the ground running, or take any time to adjust. Pablo Zabaleta, Marko Arnautovic, Javier Hernandez and Joe Hart - how can they be bad signings? I've had them all in my Fantasy League team! In the short term I accept that it would be churlish to say that these signings won't make us better. Indeed, Jose Mourinho says we're trying to win the league, although he also thinks Ashley Young is a wing back so you can't have too much faith in his judgements.

And I agree with the general optimism for the short term. Zabaleta is possibly the best Premier League full back of the last 5 years and is an upgrade over Michail Antonio who started the season for us there last time around, before moving to a striking role because that's the level of planning we were running with last year.

Marko Arnautovic, meanwhile, is so far above any of our other wingers he might as well be on Peter Crouch's shoulders and as far as creative players from mid table teams go, he is about the best there is since the departure of our very own Dimitri Payet. He's also got rid of his man bun which is good because Loughton ain't big enough for two of them, says Andy Carroll.

Joe Hart is the incumbent England goalkeeper and therefore must be pretty good because Michael Ricketts is proof that nobody crap ever plays for the national team, and it's also World Cup year so he'll be motivated to keep his place. What comes after that isn't relevant, apparently.

And the last, and possibly best of the lot, is Javier Hernandez. The former Manchester United man is famed for scoring wherever he goes, and having run the gamut from Mido to Zaza with detours to Petric and Chamakh on the way, West Ham fans are not wasting any time in going mental over this signing. I can't blame any of them and in fact, I am delighted. I think this is a great signing, in isolation. After all, I still have a hole in my garden fence courtesy of the Modibo Maiga era.

So, what's the problem?


At least part of my issue is the seeming incoherence of the summer transfer policy. Although the club have done a far better job of keeping a lid on rumours this time around - someone presumably changed the WiFi password in the Sullivan house - much of their activity has still been documented in one way or another. First it was Kelechi Iheanacho, then Olivier Giroud and Andre Gray before Hernandez finally fit the mould. But, what shape of mould is he fitting exactly? How on earth do you pivot from Giroud to Hernandez without fundamentally changing the way you are planning to play? These strikers aren't particularly like each other, and would all require a different type of service. I'm not saying that professional footballers aren't adaptable but was this ever considered? Given the huge difference in players, I am struggling to see how they were ever identified in the first place.

If rumours are to be believed, we got 95% of the way through the process of signing Iheanacho before Bilic pulled the plug. How is this possible, I wonder. Was he not consulted before the negotiations? If he was, why did he change his mind? I would have been far happier if the deal had been vetoed on the grounds that the club weren't prepared to agree to a buy back clause for the player which in effect would have made it a loan signing anyway. But no, we had apparently agreed to that and it was Bilic who got cold feet.

Shape up dickhead, or I'll send you to West Ham

This brings us back to the thorny issue of who exactly makes the decisions at West Ham. Tony Henry gave a pretty interesting interview to the official website, wherein he laid out a nice sounding process for identifying and recruiting players. He talks about needing "two or three players, maximum" which always seemed a bit optimistic given the gaping holes in the squad and David Sullivan's predilection for buying in bulk, but there is lots of good sense in what he says. 

Quite how that translates to the Iheanacho situation is another matter entirely. That's the difference between theory and practice, I suppose. As a former soldier said to me recently, "no plan ever survives contact with the enemy". 

But that seeming disconnect between planning and reality, or between the manager and the recruitment team sums up neatly how I feel about West Ham these days. 

We are the Kingdom of the Not-Quite, the Empire of the Nearly, the Commonwealth of the Confused. 

There is a plan if you dig deep enough, but it's never quite the right one. The players are often nearly the right fit, but not quite, or they are signed at just the wrong the stage of their career, and all playing in a stadium that could have been brilliant but isn't quite. So close. Nearly.

We're like a Tim Burton film wrapped up as a football team. I sort of get it, but Christ it's all a bit off kilter. 

Don't Let Me Down, Gently

Take Joe Hart, a man who has yet to meet a tunnel he hasn't yelled at. David Preece wrote a fascinating piece on Hart and his technical problems which I would urge you to read. So much of the optimism about his signing is couched in the terms of "If he can just get back his form from a few years ago", which is a typical position for a supporter to take but also flies in the face of reality.

Hart has been in decline for while and simply because he is 30 and at a goalkeepers usual peak age doesn't actually mean that's the case for him. I rather admire him for going to Torino and attempting to restart his career in an environment where his "pashun" was somehow even less useful than it is here. But the reality of his move is that he will be taking a spot where we were already slightly above average. To the extent there is any upgrade at all, it is minimal at best and when I asked Preece this very question his response was "I don't think there is, to be honest. I quite like Adrian and on the few occasions I have watched him, I have been impressed".


That said, if the club feel he's an upgrade then so be it. But now we hit upon another touchy topic. He is signed for only one year on loan, with no follow on agreed price as far as I'm aware. This means if he plays well he will make the England squad and re-establish his transfer value. That's good for Joe Hart, good for England and good for Man City. It's good for West Ham too, but only if you assume that Adrian couldn't have done the same thing.

With Darren Randolph having been sold now, Adrian is formally installed as the understudy. If Hart leaves at the end of this season we then have a pissed off Adrian with one year left on his contract and no experienced back up. So, then we will have to sign a new keeper next summer to get back to...where we were at the start of this one.

I know most fans don't care about this - be more patriotic, that's next level whinging mate given it's two years away - but this seems like an issue to me.

To exacerbate all this, David Sullivan upset Adrian with a typically stupid comment upon signing Hart that he was "...the best keeper I have ever worked with". That our Chairman thinks he has worked with a player at all highlights a big slug of the problem at West Ham. Chairmen pay players, Directors of Football sign them and coaches and managers work with them. Given that Sullivan occupies the first two of those roles it's safe to say he doesn't understand either of them, but rather wishes he was the latter.

So to recap; we've signed a keeper who might not be any better than the guy we have already, who is himself now pissed off about a comment made by a Chairman that nobody wanted to hear from in the first place, with no guarantee that we get to keep the new guy beyond next May anyway. Triffic' as 'Arry would say.

This is not so much a problem kicked down the road, as a problem created from nothing and sent on the first plane to Austria for Slaven Bilic to deal with. It's nearly a good deal, but there is too much wrong with it to be right. Welcome to the Kingdom of the Not-Quite, Joe.

In case you've missed it - I see this as a vanity signing for Sullivan and nothing else. It's the footballing equivalent of a hair transplant for middle aged men. Which is pretty ironic for the Head and Shoulders guy.

It's Yer Money I'm After Baby

And what of Pablo Zabaleta? 32 year old Pablo Zabaleta. He played in a World Cup final in 2014, Pablo Zabaleta. That guy.

Well, he's experienced, expensive and old, I will grant you. He's also a pretty good player. Even at his age he is an upgrade on the inconsistent Sam Byram and may even help the former Leeds youngster develop, although I heard much the same thing about Arvelo Arbeloa last season.

As with all these signings, I have no real objection in isolation. Except they aren't being signed in isolation because that's not how it works. So Zabaleta may very well line up on that opening Sunday at Old Trafford alongside James Collins and Jose Fonte and we might be fielding the slowest defence since George's turn as a lawyer in Blackadder Goes Forth.

You take Lukaku, I'll take Rashford

So as the rest of the league gets younger, we get older. As everyone else gets faster, we get slower. As the world gets smarter, we get dumber.

To an extent, I feel David Sullivan's pain. He can't address the new, organic problems of last season, because he first has to fix the mess of the previous term. The lack of a right back has been an issue for ages, and he'll rightly say this is a solution. But, and there is always a but, it's about as temporary as it gets.

During the 2018/19 season we will now be paying Zabaleta (34), Fonte (35), Snodgrass (31), Noble (32), Carroll (30), Reid (31), Ogbonna (31) and now apparently Hernandez (31) and Arnautovic (30). That's a lot of your team who are suddenly too old to go on an Club 18-30 holiday, and one shouldn't ignore that Cresswell, Kouyate and Antonio will turn 29 that season too.

I can't help but feel that every single one of these signings makes perfect sense on their own and no sense at all when placed together. It's really quite remarkable.

I know that Premier League income is such that nobody really cares about it any more - teams are spending £50m on Kyle Walker and nobody even had to be kidnapped - but that's still a huge chunk of the wage bill taken up by players who are on the wrong end of the ageing curve. These are players who will be in or approaching decline and they are contracted to us, meaning their wages will have to be paid irrespective of their performance. If you're wondering why Mourinho is so impressed with our transfer policy, it's because it's the same as his own. Buy for the now, spend without regard for the future, and let someone else sweep up the pieces in a season or two.

Additionally, if you wonder why we seem to get such poor fees for players when we sell them, you have your answer right here. When you put people on long, expensive contracts they aren't generally keen to move. As such we will get less than £15m combined for Nordtveit, Feghouli and Valencia - all experienced internationals, and the former two having played in the Champions League - while Swansea turn down £45m for set piece specialist Gylfi Sigurdsson. Not that any of those three can compare with him, but more to say that we seem to sell into a different market than we buy from because we are constantly desperate to clear players from the wage bill.

So there it is. Our squad will increase in age next season. You say they will be more experienced and full of leaders - I say they will be slower, more expensive and unable to cover a pitch that was too big for a younger team last season.

And by the end of the next campaign, our team will be pushing an average age of 30.

The current average age of a Premier League squad is 27.

Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More

Well what would you do? A familiar refrain whenever I get out my soapbox and start off down this particular track.

I always find this a slightly odd question. If a Formula One driver crashes into a wall I'm pretty sure I'd be allowed to say "Oooh, that was a mistake" without someone promptly asking what I would have done differently. Well, I wouldn't have done anything differently because I'm a bit crap at hill starts, I'm terrible with directions and I wouldn't be allowed within a mile of a Formula One car.

But that's the thing with questioning West Ham's transfer policy before the season. It's all very no way, pal. You just love to have a moan. Stop talking us down mate, they wouldn't have come this far without a master plan.

Well, for what little it's worth, my plan would be to change completely the profile of players we buy. Players should only come when they will still have a resale value at the end of their contract, which means anyone turning 30 during their time with us would be out of the picture. The only market for these players currently is to sell them to us.

This could be costly, of course, because young players and especially English ones, are valued like diamonds. But there are plenty of examples of young players being bought in the last few years for affordable fees and immediately making their teams stronger. Dele Alli, N'Golo Kante, Cedric Soares, Idrissa Gueye and Joel Matip would all have walked into our side and all were affordable and obtainable at the time of their moves. Manuel Lanzini and Pedro Obiang are proof perfect that we can do it ourselves. All the more frustrating that we therefore seem to have forgotten that you don't need to spend £25m on Premier League ready youngsters if you have a sufficiently wide scouting and analytics net.

The problems start when you restrict yourself to players represented by certain agents, and only wish to buy players with Premier League experience. These seem like two of the most foolhardy things a smaller club could do and yet that is West Ham's policy. It's fucking batshit crazy, but it's actually the policy.

And this is the result of scouting via agents. An ageing side, with a constant and expensive churn of players, with each transaction being very profitable for the men in the middle. If you allow yourself to be led in a reactionary way by agents and a Chairman living out his dream of playing at being Alex Ferguson, then you ending up buying Robert Snodgrass in January for £10m and replacing him in July with Marko Arnautovic for £28m. All hail the Commonwealth of the Confused.

So, yes, I'm going to feel the same frisson of excitement as you when we first see Hernandez lining up with Arnautovic, Lanzini and Antonio just behind him while Hart and Zabaleta organise our defence properly. I worry about that soft looking central midfield but for now, for the shortest of short terms, that looks a decent side.

But this is a footballing sandcastle, not designed to last for long and susceptible to the ravages of nature, and when the injuries come in the winter I suspect we will all wish this squad was a bit younger.

Hot Love Now!

When fans say we need to invest in older players "now" in order to attract better younger types in future, I confess to being perplexed. There has never been a better time to take a chance on a different type of player than now. The top six are impenetrable and Everton are spending literally hundreds of millions to finish seventh. We remain adrift in that mid table pack with nowhere really to go. Relegation seems a stretch - although we needed some luck to avoid it last year, our odds never got much above 5% - and as promising as these new arrivals might be even the most one eyed loon doesn't think we're making the Champions League.

So why not model ourselves on the only team who have broached the top four permanently in recent times? Swallow your bile - we need to copy Spurs. Buy young players only, all in the mid to low range of the market and hire a coach to develop them as a team. It's no coincidence that Spurs are the youngest team in the league, and regularly run the furthest during their games. This is modern football. It requires youth, athleticism and tactical fluidity. Yet we appear to building for 2011 when everyone else is focused on 2017.

I will not mock Richie Benaud

Why are we are modelling ourselves on Manchester United and Chelsea in buying expensive players at the height of their value with no mind to what the cost will be to have them on the wage bill in a few years time?

The great Australian polymath Richie Benaud once said of cricket captaincy that it was "90% luck and 10% skill, but for goodness sake don't try it without the 10%". It doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that a cogent football transfer policy for a club like Chelsea is 90% money and 10% scouting,  and yet we seem to be trying to do it without either the 90% or the 10%. It's nearly a good plan, I suppose. But not quite.

Welcome To The Cheap Seats

But, I hear you say, this squad is young. What of Quina, Martinez, Oxford, Burke and Cullen? Start being more positive, you moaner - the kids will save us.

17 and our saviour

Yeah well, those kids play in an Academy that hasn't developed a first team player in a decade, and as incomprehensible as it may seem that none of them will make it, we also felt the same about Freddie Sears, Jordan Spence, Sam Howes, Seb Lletget and Blair Turgott once upon a time. George Dobson was highly thought of a season or two ago and he joined Sparta Rotterdam this week. Nearly, but not quite.

Young players are great for dreaming on but it's a hard old game to break into and we aren't very good at helping them do it. In fact, joining West Ham seems to be so harmful for kids development that we're probably nicknamed Thalidomide amongst parents up and down the land.

I thoroughly approve of the investment in younger players like this, however, as it's cheap and a couple might pay off. But let's not kid ourselves that these youngsters are breaking through anytime soon.

Thus we truck slowly toward Old Trafford and already Kouyate and Antonio will miss the start of the season because someone is always injured. But there is cause for optimism with the new signings in place and the horrors of last year behind us. I understand the excitement among the fans, but I can't help writing this article. I can't help saying that I think we're not quite there. Nearly, but not quite.

And if you're wondering why it is that I'm concerning myself with what our wage bill will look like in two years, or how exactly these new signings are going to cope with the high press, or who is going to be in goal for us next season or the average age of this years squad, well....it's because I'm not sure anyone else at West Ham is.

I want to believe in this new dream, and maybe they will sign some youngsters to shut me up before the window closes (although Keita Balde came and went pretty quickly, didn't he?). But I can't help but look further down the road and see trouble.

It's all decent, but it's temporary.

Nearly. Not quite.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The H List: Themes For A Season

I doubt anyone cares, but if you do - here are the themes used for each H List this season:

Watford (h) - The Stone Roses
West Brom (a) - True Detective
West Ham and the Lost Art of Defending - Indiana Jones
Chelsea (h) EFL Cup - Bob Dylan
Everton (a) - William Shakespeare
Stoke (h) - Robert De Niro
West Ham and the Art of the Deal - Neil Young
Spurs (a) - De La Soul
Man Utd (a) - John Steinbeck
Man Utd (a) EFL Cup - Game of Thrones
Arsenal (h) - Fleet Foxes
Liverpool (a) - Tennyson
Burnley (h) - Oasis
Hull (h) - Bruce Springsteen
Swansea (a) - The Pogues
Leicester (a) - Star Wars
Man Utd (h) - William Boyd
Man City (h) FA Cup - Arcade Fire
West Ham and the Fallen Hero - Philip Pullman
Crystal Palace (h) - The Libertines
Middlesbrough (a) - Elbow
Man City (h) - The Wire
Southampton (a) - Michael Connelly
West Brom (h) - The West Wing
Watford (a) - Embrace
Chelsea (h) - Breaking Bad
Bournemouth (a) - The Smiths
Leicester (h) - Billy Bragg
Hull (a) - Hell or High Water
Arsenal (a) - Arctic Monkeys
Swansea (h) - Simon and Garfunkel
Everton (h) - Thomas Hardy 
Stoke (a) - Gram Parsons
Spurs (h) - Richard Hawley
Liverpool (h) - Alt-J
Burnley (a) - Vampire Weekend

Monday, May 22, 2017

Burnley 1 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Holiday

So here we are. And there we were.

Stamford Bridge, August 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. On that balmy night under a crimson London sky, we still had the fresh faced innocence of youth. Back then we could destroy Death Stars and rescue princesses. We were Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. At Chelsea we came striding on to the stage, bursting with the confidence of a season spent bloodying the noses of the elite and with the strut that comes from having Dimitri Payet in your ranks. We lost, naturally, but with the ill fortune that seems to have been our constant companion during Slaven Bilic's tenure.

West Ham fan - August 2016

But ultimately we ended somewhat as we started, with injuries everywhere, no fit strikers and a seemingly terminal lack of direction to our play. By now we were limping forlornly to the finish of a dismal season. Now we were Luke Skywalker at the denouement of The Empire Strikes Back.

West Ham fan - May 2017. I hope none of you kissed your sister. 

In that vein, this wasn't a terrible game. It had the important feature of being unimportant, allowing us to watch it in the slightly catatonic, vacation like state that end of season games have when you're a bang average, mid table, vanilla scoop of a team in the giant Ben and Jerry's stand that is the Premier League. But that same lack of tension betrays something in itself. None of us watch our teams for safety. We watch to be entertained and for the pursuit of victory, however vain that might often be. To watch, perchance to dream, if I might misquote the Bard. 

However much it might knot the stomach, I think I prefer my football with something riding on it. 

2. Giving Up The Gun

I have seen some comments that paint this season as a triumph of sorts for Bilic. Amid the rubble left behind by Payet, he has fashioned a team that finished just two points - or a last minute Darren Randolph error at Sunderland - from 8th place. The stadium move, injuries like Platoon and a disrupted dressing room were among the trials he faced, and in the end he came through it all to lead us to 11th place.

There is no doubt some truth to all of that, but it's also true that the gap between ourselves and Everton (16 points) is enormous, and that's before we even consider the distant top six. We are firmly embedded in that glut of mediocrity that covers the bottom two thirds of the league.

I also find it hard to look past the self inflicted nature of some of our problems. The constant lack of a right back and the ludicrous and damagingly long exclusion of Adrian were both issues Bilic brought upon himself. Likewise, he must have some say in our transfers and therefore deserves a slice of the opprobrium for them, for if he really has no involvement then he should be moved on for a manager with a bit more spine who won't let his bosses suggest he does.

Sadly, as much as I find Bilic to be personally engaging and a seemingly very decent guy, I also can't look past those repeated shellackings at home. Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Man City again, Southampton, Leicester and fucking Watford all scored at least three times at our ground, whilst it would be remiss to ignore that we also somehow managed to go 4-0 down to West Brom without even the hint of a match fixing scandal. 

At some point it feels like we need to stop fixating on the rumour that Payet was being disruptive and focus a little more on the fact that the former Croatia centre half and manager couldn't organise his defence to stand in a straight line and stop Salomon Rondon from scoring. 

Arguing for Bilic's dismissal is pointless as he isn't going to be fired and also because I'm a blogger and nobody listens to me. But it feels reasonable to point out that Bilic surely won't survive another season of shambolic defending like this again. Sure, David Sullivan is happy to use the Club to promote his straight to DVD story about little known East End gangsters the Krays, but letting in four at West Brom is a bit embarrassing all round. 

3. I Stand Corrected

I wonder if I owe Andre Ayew an apology.

Probably not as he's never read a word of anything I've ever written and therefore doesn't give a shit about anything I think. But, if you can just exclude the memory of him having an epileptic fit last week and hitting the post from two yards out, he's actually been playing pretty well of late.

Deadly from 3 yards. If you forget last week. 

He started this game up front on his own because Bilic lost a game of pre match swingball to Sean Dyche or something, but made a very decent fist of it anyway. He's absolutely not a front man, but as a support striker you can see his merits easily enough. If nothing else he has the happy knack of finding himself in goalscoring positions more often than any of his team mates. 

The early pickings were slim as Burnley exploited the gaps in behind our wing backs very effectively, and opened the scoring after a glacial Andre Gray cross went through the legs of all three of our centre halves, two barstools, a giraffe and a snooker table before Sam Vokes tapped it past Adrian for the opening goal. 

We were level within minutes however, as Sofiane Feghouli ran on to a lovely Ayew flick to smash home a very well worked equaliser. That chance arose after Burnley midfielder Ashley Westwood fouled Ayew and was rightly booked. It seemed inevitable then, that the home midfielder would see red when shortly after he landed a knee high tackle on James Collins. 

Weirdly, referee Bobby Madley decided that knee high tackles are fine so long as you do them on the last day of the season and it's sunny and all the fans are in fancy dress. As such, Westwood got a mild telling off, while Lanzini then got a yellow card for a fairly inconsequential trip a few minutes later.

Premier League refereeing continues to distress me. 

As it was, Sean Dyche would later announce that his team should have been "out of sight" at half time, which confused me as his team managed one shot on goal all day, so perhaps he really meant he literally didn't want to see them as they were a bit crap. No matter, as we came out firing after the break and dominated much of the play. This included winning our first corner after an hour which we then executed so brilliantly that after taking it short on the left we somehow managed to engineer a situation where the ball made it's way out to the right for Jose Fonte to cross towards Feghouli. This actually happened. 

The winner eventually came when a Fernandes shot was parried straight up into the air by Tom Heaton, only to bounce off the bar to a waiting Ayew while Burnley defenders flung themselves into the net like parachutists exiting a glider. Aye meanwhile, buried it, as he is absolutely, unequivocally deadly from three yards except when he isn't. 

Thereafter we had several chances to get a third on the break, but managed to butcher them all like we were drafting policy for the Tory manifesto. Thus we were left to cling to a 2-1 win that propels us to the giddy heights of two places below Bournemouth, with one victory more than 17th placed Watford.

All in all we've generally looked a better team away from home this season, where the uncertain atmosphere and general malaise of the London Stadium has been but a memory. More importantly, on the road we've been able to sit back and seek to hit teams on the counter and we did that very well here in the second half, frequently disrupting play high up the pitch and then leveraging that into opportunities for our wide players to run behind and then spectacularly fail to play the correct final ball. 

No one disputes that there will need to be some major personnel changes this summer, but there does seem to be a method to how Bilic plays away from home that is working at least some of the time. We've still been too passive at places like Arsenal and Everton, but it's not hard to see the blueprint. The trick for next year is to find a more effective way to play at home. 

4. White Sky

Anyway, I feel like Ayew needs a song and the chorus of this is perfect. 

Skip to 1:06 if you can't stand the preppy magnificence of Vampire Weekend but either way I'm sure you'll agree it's perfect and not at all out of our vocal range. 

I feel like maybe I'm padding the article a bit this week. 

5. The Kids Don't Stand A Chance

On a scale of "1" to "Oh Christ, What Now?", how much did you enjoy this tweet by David Gold?
The thing is, I actually have some sympathy for Gold here. He was responding to a graphic showing West Ham had zero minutes from teenagers in the league this year, albeit this was prior to Declan Rice's four minute cameo today that may well have been Bilic's way of trying to shut up his chairman.

I think what Gold was clumsily trying to say is that most youngsters don't make it at Premier League level. This isn't news to anyone who watches the game, but the problem is that he said it at a time when fans are particularly desperate for help from the youth team because the senior squad looks so sparse.

So, fresh on the back of the u23 team winning promotion to Division 1 of what is effectively the old reserves league, fans were clamouring for some kids to be blooded. Nowhere was there much questioning of the fact that they were in Division 2 for a reason and didn't even win it but needed a play off. Instead, there was the usual lust for "something else". Football fans at heart are romantic and we are suckers for the story of the local kid coming through the ranks while skilfully ignoring the reality that when it goes wrong - Ince, Lampard, Defoe - it does so spectacularly.

But the thing that Gold really didn't appreciate is the value that players acquire in the eyes of fans when they can't see them playing. Diafra Sakho has had a brilliant season from this perspective as he is more highly rated now than ever, simply by virtue of being absent from the fray for much of the year. Likewise, young players like Martinez, Rice and Oxford simply must be better than what we have because there is no evidence to the contrary. One might point to the fact that our Academy hasn't produced a worthwhile first team player since Junior Stanislas, but that will never land with those fans who demand youth as the answer to all, and the elixir for our dying first team.

Gold's angle, I hope, was that young players who are good enough will always force their way into the side through their performance in training or out on loan. As prime examples Martinez didn't do much at Oxford, whilst Oxford didn't do much at Reading, which is a sentence you may have to read a couple of times to make sense of. However, Martinez scored a couple of goals in said play offs, getting lots of fans excited, although many seemed to ignore the fact that Newcastle u23 seem to defend in homage to Kevin Keegan and therefore didn't actually bother doing any.

Look, I'd love for our young players to emerge soon and be brilliant, but I also trust our Academy coaches to properly evaluate them to determine those who are ready. They have the advantage over 99% of West Ham fans because they have at least, you know, seen them play.

I'd also add that calling on them too young can be devastating for young players if it simply highlights their lack of readiness. I'm not entirely sure that Stephen Bywater ever recovered from his traumatic Bradford experience, as an example.

I'd like to think this is what Gold was trying to convey but, yet again, we find that tweets are rarely useful for addressing points with any nuance to them. What's perhaps most disturbing about this whole episode is that Gold somehow thought tackling it in 140 characters was a good idea. Yet again one of our chairmen is now a media story, as happens with depressing regularity, when a simple question to a media officer about whether this was a good idea for a tweet would presumably have elicited a "What? Jesus Christ, no! Give me that phone" response that I feel could preface about 50% of all public pronouncements made by our current Board.

There is no doubt in my mind that our Academy has underperformed for years, but look at Chelsea for a salutary lesson on youth production. They regularly have the best youth set up around, but are yet to graduate anyone properly to the first team due to the fact that none have been good enough to displace the incumbent. One might call that harsh, or simply the nature of professional football, but the point is that if even the best Academy in England can't progress many youngsters to help the first team then perhaps we should readjust our sights accordingly.

However, in some ways that issue at Chelsea should be our biggest selling point. We should be advertising ourselves to young British footballers as a place to come and play because at least there is a pathway to the first team here. "Come and play for us - we're not Chelsea!" - that sort of thing.

Which brings us back to where we started. Instead of that positive message, this ill judged tweet, however Gold meant it, gave the impression of the exact opposite and punctured any good feeling that had built up after the u23 play off win. I like David Gold and think his willingness to interact with fans on social media is both stupid and slightly endearing, but getting dragged into topics like this is just ridiculous. A good rule of thumb, David - if it requires to you to send anything more than three tweets to clarify your position, then it's too nuanced a subject for Twitter. Go write a long ranting post on Facebook like everyone else.

6. Run

I can't be bothered to write anything further about a season ending game at Burnley, especially given that it had all the dramatic tension of a North Korean election, albeit with less accurate shooting. So instead let me give you some H List end of season awards:

Player of the Season

1. Manuel Lanzini
2. Michail Antonio
3. Pedro Obiang

Apologies to: Winston Reid

No apologies to: Darren Randolph, Simone Zaza, Gokhan Tore

In the week that he gets a call up to the full Argentinian squad, Lanzini picks up this prestigious award as well. There's a new series of Game of Thrones on the way too - Christ, what a time to be alive, Manu.

I won! I beat Tore!

Picking up the mantle of being our only creative player after Payet disappeared, the diminutive midfielder was wonderful for the second half of the season. He scored crucial goals (helloooooo Spurs) and generally showed his team mates how to hold on to the ball for longer than the life span of a Tory policy on social care.

Behind him was Michail Antonio who started the season brilliantly, when played in his correct position which is Not Right Back. However, he tailed off a little towards the end and got injured before the run in. His fearsome physicality and unorthodox style made him one of our few leading lights this season, and the thought of him playing a full season with a proper striker in front is actually quite exciting. He also made the England squad but didn't get a game as Sam Allardyce opted for Theo Walcott instead and was fired shortly thereafter. Possibly as a result.

Third place goes to Pedro Obiang, who inexplicably started the season behind Havard Nordtveit but was soon making that position his own. As is customary, his season was cut short due to surgery, otherwise he probably would have won this award. He is, by now, the prime candidate to start in our central midfield with Kouyate next year.

7. Unbelievers

Goal of the Season

1. Dimitri Payet vs Middlesbrough (h)
2. Andy Carroll vs Crystal Palace (h)
3. Winston Reid vs Sunderland (h)

Apologies to: Manuel Lanzini vs Crystal Palace (a), Manuel Lanzini vs Leicester (h), Michail Antonio vs Watford (h)

I know, I know. It's not fashionable to speak positively of Payet, but to watch him slalom through the Middlesbrough defence was to watch a master at work. Carroll's spectacular bicycle kick at home to Palace was itself majestic, but it really only required one thing to be done well. By contrast Payet needed to do multiple things, moving at speed and ended up beating four players before slotting past the keeper.

Put another way, I think Payet could have scored Carroll's goal but the reverse isn't true. The mixture of skills required was sublime, and the fact that he later revealed himself to be an utter Sheffield United of a man doesn't erase that.

Elsewhere, I have a particular soft spot for Winston Reid's last minute winner against Sunderland as this was a last gasp throw of the dice where we eschewed giving it to any of our forward players and instead asked our centre half to do a Cruyff turn on the edge of the box and smash it home with his weaker foot. As one does.

8. Young Lion

Best Individual Performance

1. Cheikhou Kouyate vs Spurs (h)
2. Winston Reid vs Spurs (h)
3. Aaron Cresswell vs Crystal Palace (a)

Apologies to: Manuel Lanzini vs Spurs (a), Andy Carroll vs Middlesbrough (a), Michail Antonio vs Liverpool (a)

No apologies to: Darren Randolph vs Sunderland (a), Havard Nordtveit vs Liverpool (h), Gokhan Tore vs Literally Anyone

Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier - meet Cheikhou Kouyate, destroyer of seasons.

I'm just going to pick you up and put you out of the way. Big boys stuff, yeah?

It says much that all of the performances from the Spurs home game could have made their way in here, and none of it really dispels the myth that this is our Cup Final. Kouyate was immense, however, and gave us all a chance to nod and smile knowingly whenever our Spurs brethren start going on about the fearsome Wanyama.

Behind him Winston Reid was sublime, snuffling out Harry Kane - an achievement that would take on even greater merit when Kane would subsequently score eight times in his next three games.

It says an awful lot that the next best I could think of was a game in which the player in question was actually sent off. Cresswell made his return from serious injury at Palace and was superb up until referee Martin Atkinson went the full Hackett and dismissed him for having an offensive taste in music.

Elsewhere Lanzini turned in loads of brilliant games and could have easily filled all three spots himself, but I am nothing if not mercurial.

9. Step

Best Team Performance

1. Spurs (h)
2. Southampton (a)
3. Liverpool (a)

I doubt this can really have been a surprise to anyone. Our only decent home performance of the season against a good team and it came when we most wanted it. Half of the team were injured but we swarmed all over a neutered Spurs and Lanzini's second half winner was the least we all deserved for a season of rare travails.

Elsewhere we were much better away from home, and the come from behind win at Southampton was a doozy, as was the point earned at Anfield which is so rare that we welcomed it like a decent Ed Sheeran song. Or I imagine we would have done if such a thing existed.

10. Ya Hey

And with that, rather half hearted, effort we come to the end of the season. I would like to thank all of you who have persevered with The H List, and I want to say now how much I greatly appreciate every comment, like, share, retweet, link, upvote, subscription to the mailing list or just general nice feedback. It's been a laborious season in many ways, with the games often being shrouded in negativity and many of our faults going unaddressed for long periods, making the blog often feel repetitive.

I am therefore indebted to those of you who have kept reading and kept sharing my work. I can assure you that without that kindness I wouldn't bother carrying on.

In particular I would like to thank Graeme and Gordon at KUMB for carrying the H List on their site and to Phil and Jim from the Stop! Hammertime podcast who have been kind enough to have me on the show a few times this year. Michael Casagrande and Rob Coker were especially generous in helping me out with tickets and Andy Ellis single handedly ended the Lukaku streak by putting me in the Executive Boxes against Everton. I am indebted to you all.

Jacob Steinberg, Terry Land, Emily Pulham and Dan Silver were kind enough to participate in a roundtable with me and have foolishly agreed to do so again. Be prepared for Director of Football questions folks and keep an eye out for that sometime in the next month.

And lastly, I really must mention my wife - Mrs Shark - who never reads this blog ("it's too long - why on earth would anyone bother?" she says not unreasonably, before spending two hours reading Facebook posts), but is unfailingly supportive of me writing it, and puts up with a lot of me swearing at the iMac over our full back adventures.

I can't say for sure if The H List will return in the same format next season as there are a couple of other irons in the fire (not Zaza and Tore, sadly) whereby I might be doing some writing for some other publications next season. It's not my intention to abandon The H List however, but maybe my wife might get her wish and I might abridge it a little, or alter the frequency. We shall see.

That's all in the future, however, and I do plan to put some articles out over the summer. I was considering some retrospective H List's for games of yesteryear. If there are any you think would be decent let me know in the comments, and if I saw the game I'll give it a whirl.

And with that, I'll bid you all adieu for now. For all my whinging I love West Ham as one might love a family member. I know every flaw and every failing, but I also love them unfailingly and with the ferocity of a raging forest fire, and being able to share that with like minded Hammers is a privilege I don't take lightly.

Thanks to you all.

Monday, May 15, 2017

West Ham 0 - 4 Liverpool (And Other Ramblings)

1. Intro

I would wager that you are not of the opinion that this game was A Good Thing. But I rather think it was. Of course losing is crap, losing at home is crappier and losing 4-0 to a team captained by James Milner is really rather embarrassing and I'm not suggesting otherwise.

But after the electrifying high of last week, it felt like maybe we were all losing sight of what this season has truly been like. Not to wallow in misery, but this has been it. All. Fucking. Season. Overrun, overpowered and over before half time.

He missed this. Twice.

There were plenty of mitigating circumstances today; injuries aplenty, the most uneven refereeing performance I have seen in quite some time and an incredible miss that - fittingly for a player known as Shrodingers Ayew - defied the laws of physics.

But let's not kid ourselves that this hasn't been de rigeur for us all year. Consider how dreadfully shit we were today, and then reflect on the fact that I would name Arsenal, either of the Man City games and the Southampton match as worse home performances. Worse! This game didn't even crack the top three of our incompetent shitshows at the London Stadium. Aye(w) Carumba.

2. In Cold Blood

So, I think it's good that we disappear off for the summer with this awfulness ringing around our head. That might seem like heresy, but our Board need to be held to account for their abject failure this season and hiding behind a late season flourish isn't going to cut it. I'm sick of hearing from David Sullivan about how he sniffed out Payet and Lanzini and then leaking to his preferred fan sites how it was actually Bilic who wanted the likes of Tore and Zaza.

Fuck that cowardice. It's in the annual report that he's the Director of Football so that's the end of it. David Sullivan is responsible for every player at this Club and right now there aren't very many good ones on the pitch. If you want the plaudits for Payet then you have to take the brickbats for Calleri. That's how it goes. I fervently hope Sullivan sat there today utterly chastened by what was unfolding in front of him and left dispirited and hurt like the fans who actually paid to be there. Good - it's his fault.

We deserve more than this. Every fault line was visibly and egregiously exposed today. The lack of transfer nous at the Club, the failure to prioritise or even remotely acknowledge the importance of fitness in the squad, the consistent inability to keep players on the pitch, the lack of pace right through the team and the chronic failure of our Academy to provide first team players.

The danger of the Spurs win was always that it would paper over the gaping cracks in the facade. How bad can it be, we all wonder, if we can continue to deny them the title each year? Yeah, well I've got my sights a little higher than that. My head nearly came off my shoulders this week with all the eye rolling I've been doing at Spurs fans saying they'd be "embarrassed" if their team only got up for two games a year. The problem is that they're at least partially right - one week after we play like Trojans we revert right back to this clueless, shambolic schoolboy outfit.

Last week was glorious, but it stands alone in this season. It's a lighthouse on a treacherous coastline, showing us the way but illuminating the crashing awfulness below. I hate losing, but if this defeat in a meaningless end of season game that the team approached like a testimonial serves to force the Board to accept their failures then it will serve a purpose.

When you go to renew your season tickets, or buy your new shirts, or book your stadium tours remember that it's this shit they've been serving up for most of the season. We deserve better.

3. Breezeblocks

As for the actual game, well it was a curious affair. We started pretty brightly with both wing backs getting high up the pitch and causing Liverpool problems. One nice move involving Lanzini and Calleri opened up a channel for Byram, who dragged his shot across goal from a promising looking position. From there, however, it was all downhill and quickly at that.

@11tegen11 does his usual sterling job of laying out the chances and it's fairly clear that we were second best for most of the day. The visitors hit the bar three times, although to counterbalance that Andre Ayew hit the post twice with the same opportunity.

After a fairly even opening quarter Liverpool took the lead when a glorious Coutinho pass set Sturridge free. He bore down on Adrian with ease and even though his catheter came out and his bandages were trailing behind him, he navigated his wheelchair round the Spaniard and rolled it in expertly. This was a disaster on three fronts as it gave them the lead, gave David Sullivan another reason to try and spend fortunes on a constantly injured player and also meant he celebrated with that fucking dance.

I did enjoy his after match interview, however, when he confessed that he never practices one on ones because "you never see any at this level". Wait until you join us mate.

Not long after that a deep Lanzini corner fell to Ayew, who was standing minding his own business at the back post, two yards from goal with no defenders in sight. Ordinarily he would have tapped it into the empty net and drawn us level, but on this occasion he got the ball trapped under his foot and somehow hit the post and then fell over because - I don't know - an earthquake? Worse was to come as the ball rebounded to him, and from his prone position he poked it back against the same post where Mignolet finally fell gratefully upon it like a FIFA executive on a free luxury watch.

Meanwhile our defensive set up at corners must have been put together by the same Republicans who devised the Trumpcare health act as there was no cover anywhere. Matip hit the bar, and generally any cross in the general vicinity of our box caused everyone to go apeshit.

By the time the second half arrived our third choice central midfield duo of Nordtveit and Fernandes were being overrun, and the deployment of Coutinho as a deep playmaker behind Sturridge and Origi was paying dividends. The Brazilian had a few first half rangefinders that Adrian kept out but he eventually arrowed in their second after finding a ludicrous amount of space on the edge of our box.

At this point our back three were so far apart that the concept of defensive cohesion was nothing but a memory, and Liverpool were cutting us open at will. It is, however, possible to be both shit and unlucky and we appear to have that down to a fine art this season. In that spirit then, we should have got back into the game when Wijnaldum managed to both handle a corner in his own box and elbow Reid in the same movement. No Premier League referee has ever gone hungry giving decisions to big teams, however, and Neil Swarbrick decided to implement the ancient "two wrongs make a right" law. Liverpool thus broke away as Reid lay in the box with a head injury and played on all the way until Coutinho crashed in his second. OK then.

It should be pointed out that as shit a piece of refereeing as that was, the West Ham "defending" for the goal defies any attempt to describe it. I mean, look at the state of this drivel:

After that everyone stopped pretending there was a game going on, and West Ham even let Divock Origi score as though it was a playground game and there is that one kid in your class who everyone knows can't really play football but it's summer, the sun's out and everyone's in a good mood so let's let him stick one in. It'll be nice.

4. Pusher

The tough thing about this game was watching us struggle, knowing that probably half of this particular team aren't up to the standard required. Add to that the fact that Snodgrass and Feghouli were on the bench despite the number of injuries and it's even more depressing.

I'm not sure I can recall a squad so totally unbalanced for the job it has to do. It's hard to be too critical of the fourth and fifth choice central midfielders, but it should be pointed out that last year that role was filled by Alex Song. Rather then sign Victor Moses, they instead went for Feghouli and Tore, and then replaced Payet with Snodgrass, and Bilic then chose to play Michail Antonio at right back to accommodate this madness. My fucking eyes are bleeding.

So, I acknowledge that one cannot get too upset about games like this without at least acknowledging the entire hospital wing of missing players. Antonio, Carroll, Sakho, Ogbonna, Masuaku, Noble, Obiang and Kouyate are all first team players and left a running track sized gap in the team.

But that really serves to highlight the problem as much as explain it. Our squad gets decimated by injuries every year without fail. It's hard to find accurate statistics on this, but the most recent report I can find (from Sky Sports) had us 2nd in the league for days lost to injuries with 1,574. For reference Sunderland were first meaning that we led the league in injuries to actual professional players, and had lost around 1,200 days more than West Brom, who had the fewest injuries. Yet more reason to sell them Diafra Sakho.

Context is everything, of course, and it should be acknowledged that a huge, bloated squad gives you more chance for players to get hurt. It's also not possible to prevent injuries like impact injuries or a player cutting his toe open on a broken cup.

But at some point the Club has to address this. As long as I've been watching West Ham it seems like we've suffered huge numbers of muscle and soft tissue injuries, and then done a terrible job rushing those same players back into the team before they'd reached full fitness.

It's why Sturridge cannot be signed. He simply cannot. We've endured a season of playing without a striker and having valuable wage capacity taken up by Carroll and Sakho. We simply cannot afford yet another squad member who goes long stretches without contributing anything, no matter how enticing it might be when you see him play like he did today.

Also the dance, but mostly the fitness.

5. Something Good

Our goalkeeper was good today. It's really very West Ham to say it, but Adrian was decent. None of the goals were particularly his fault, and in fact I might take to calling him Moses given how readily everything parted in front of him.

My kingdom for some defensive cover

In one single Liverpool attack immediately after half time he made three successive saves, each of which were eminently saveable but exactly the kind of chances that seem to have been creeping in all year. He was later undone by the brilliance of Coutinho, but that was rather more to do with the abject defending in front of him than with an failure on his part.

It was interesting to see us being linked with Jordan Pickford earlier this week, as he is exactly the kind of player we should be targeting. He is young, promising, has some experience and would almost certainly fetch a good price were he to move on. Whether he actually represents an upgrade over Adrian is debatable, and all of the chatter seems to suggest that we are behind Everton in terms of recruiting the youngster anyway.

It would also be quite West Ham to buy the keeper from the worst defensive team in the league, but I can see the merits. In the end, however, we have a finite budget and I maintain that Adrian is a perfectly acceptable Premier League keeper. He'd look an awful lot better with a defence in front of him though.

6. Dissolve Me

Less certain is the future of Sam Byram at right back, and rumours continue to swirl that Pablo Zabaleta will be arriving imminently. I tend to treat such press murmurings about West Ham as being fairly reliable given the the way the Club leaks like the Legion of Doom's bathtub.

That joke might need explaining

I think there is a player somewhere inside of Byram and the reality is that if we sign Zabaleta he's likely going to face long periods on the bench. Or not, because the Argentine is 32 and actually has grey hairs.

There are those who believe that having older, more experienced players around is great for young players as they can learn from them. I suppose that might be true, but I've spent this year watching Byram training with World Cup winner Arvelo Arbeloa, and I can't say that it's made much difference. It's not that I'm opposed to buying another right back - far from it, as regular readers will attest - but have we learned nothing from recent years? Fonte was hauled off today, having made a less than stellar start to his career with us, and Snodgrass looks like the worst ever January signing for the club that signed Mido. 

I've already had this rant when we signed that pair, but good clubs don't sign players over thirty. The modern game demands a mobility that is generally beyond those players whose legs are on the wane. There is a reason that Schweinsteiger and Gerrard ended up in MLS, and why Tevez and Pato are in China. Mostly it's the bonkers wages, but it's also because they couldn't cut it at the highest level anymore.

Now, plenty of you might say that we're not at the top level so players like Zabaleta are just fine for us. But the issue I have with that is that surely that's what we're aspiring to? Aren't we going for the top four? If not, what are we here for? And if we are then why are we signing players who are being discarded by those teams as not being good enough?

Look at the some of the names on the list of leaked targets for next year: Sturridge, Zabaleta, Toure, Rooney and Hart. That team is going to be brilliant in 2012.

The lack of vision and process is soul destroying. Where are the young players? Where is the attempt to sign players who can actually improve and grow with us? Every single one of those players is in the decline phase of their career, and the thing about players like that is you are assuredly paying them for things they have already done for other clubs, instead of what they are going to do for us.

And for those who would, not unreasonably, say that we can't criticise the Board for things they haven't yet done, that is fair enough. But consider why these names get leaked; it's either an agent wanting to stir things up - in which case they have to choose a club that is clueless enough to seem credible. We should be ashamed that we fit that mould. Alternatively, they have been leaked by the Club in an attempt to gauge public opinion, as they did with the rumoured El Hadji Diouf signing.

No other Club does this, but our owners seem so desperate for public approval that they genuinely seem to care what fans think, despite fans having no access to the reams of data available on players these days, and despite fans being mostly stupid. Not you, obviously.

So the Yaya Toure rumour might be rubbish, but you look at the journalist and the seemingly detailed nature of the discussions that have taken place and it looks very much like there might be some truth to the piece. At which point you realise that we might be willing to pay over £100,000 to a 34 year old.  Excuse me while I puncture my own lung.

I realise I'm writing a lot about transfers today but that's mainly because I'm avoiding the game, and because let's face it, transfers are going to be all we talk about for the next three months.

7. Tessellate

Does anyone know how we play?

I'm two seasons into Bilic's West Ham and I really don't know. It started as a solid, repeatable 4-2-3-1 but that disappeared once it became clear how much it relied upon the disappearing Payet. We then stumbled into three at the back because everybody was injured and it was the only way to keep Feghouli out of the side, and in fairness it worked like a dream for a while.

But there is a recurring theme that whenever we think we've hit upon a way of playing, teams tend to discover how to nullify us pretty quickly. It happened earlier this season when our 3-4-3 flummoxed Alan Pardew at Palace, scraped past Sunderland (which barely counts) and then was abandoned again after a subsequent six match winless run.

After the most recent revival, we looked good here for about twenty minutes, at which point Liverpool pushed their wide players higher up the pitch, dropped Coutinho back to operate in the gaping hole in front of our midfield and that was us done for. Gone was the high intensity pressing of the Spurs game, and we were incredibly passive all day, with barely a tackle made in anger. This is how I imagine Gandhi would have played football.

It's hard to be too critical of Bilic for not altering his tactics as he had very few options, but it was telling that at 2-0 down we swapped out Fonte and went back to a flat back four. I'm not quite sure why Collins remained on as he was fairly woeful, including going on a magical mystery tour of his own right before Sturridge ran past him for the opener.

None of it made a huge difference although Feghouli did some reasonable things, to further cement his position as the most maddening footballer alive.

Maintaining tactical coherence while replacing team members every week is a huge challenge, but the strange persistence in playing one up front, when the only player truly able to do that is the permanently injured Sakho, has continued all season to very little effect. In particular, the insistence of playing this way with Carroll as the lone striker seems especially fatuous.

Surely a priority has to be for Bilic to establish a way he wants to play and get some players in who fit that system. Tellingly his Evening Standard column specifically said he wants to target players with pace, which makes sense as we looked incredibly pedestrian here today. It would also make sense in the context of the one up front plan, as it requires mobile players to be support runners for the lone front man.

How he utilises Carroll next season will be hugely telling. One has to imagine a fit, mobile striker is high in the shopping list, as it has been every year since I was 14.

8. Hunger Of The Pine

One frequent lament of fans after a performance like this, in a season of performances like this, is to demand that some youngsters are given a chance. If I had a pound for every time I've had someone tell me there must be someone better in the youth team I'd almost have enough to buy a round of drinks in the stadium.

It is the way of being a football fan. We lust for what we cannot see. Players are never better than when they are injured, and youth team players are a constant well into which we want to dip to satiate our desire for answers. The sad thing is that most of us have never seen these kids play, and choose to ignore a lot of the basic facts around youth team players.

Very few academy players at any club ever make it, and so the declining number of graduates is perhaps a mirror to the rest of English football. But it's also true that we seem to be producing fewer players who are even going on to play at a lower league level. Think of the famous Lampard and Ferdinand team - there were plenty of others like Lee Hodges, David Partridge, Joe Keith and Chris Coyne who went on to be successful lower league players. We seem to have even stopped producing those types now.

So simply wanting young players to be given a chance because they aren't Feghouli or Calleri doesn't make huge amounts of sense to me. If they were good enough then presumably they would be demanding a call up by virtue of their performances on loan or in training. The likes of Martinez, Samuelsen, Browne, Oxford and Burke have all been out on loan this season with little to no impact having been made and no glowing reports coming back. The exception to this rule is Josh Cullen, who has been named as Bradford's player of the year and surely deserves a chance to make an impact next year.

Josh Cullen, 11

My broader point is that football managers aren't in the habit of turning their back on players who can help them win games. If they are good enough, the kids will force their way into the side. Two at the club to keep an eye on seem to be Declan Rice and Domingos Quina, who are routinely making the bench despite their teenage years. But we are getting down to crunch time for the likes of Samuelsen and Burke, who at the age of 20 are getting close to the point where the club will need to make a decision about the likelihood of them having long term futures at this level. That might seem a ludicrous assessment to make, but all the academy graduates that I can think of who made it as top level professionals were all firmly ensconced in the first team squad by that age.

In our desperation for improvement we all latch on to the "if you're good enough, you're old enough" sentiment, which is admirable. But sometimes I think we forget to actually answer the first part of that question.

9. Choice Kingdom

It was the Club's annual year end awards bash in the week, and amidst the many and varied categories (Best Signing - Edimilson Fernandes, Best Owners - David Gold and David Sullivan (joint winners), Best Kiwi - Winston Reid and so on....) it was noticeable that the fans voted Michail Antonio as player of the season, while the players went for Manuel Lanzini.

Both are good choices, although I would slightly favour the latter. Had they stayed fit both Pedro Obiang and Winston Reid would have been in with a shout but of course they didn't because West Ham.

Shortly after, Antonio signed a new improved contract designed to ward off Chelsea and ensure he is paid more than Snodgrass and Feghouli on account of how he is actually useful to the team. A lovely little departing present to all of us for the summer might be something similar for Lanzini as one would think those two will be the primary targets for any circling vultures.

It is telling, perhaps, that there isn't likely to be anyone else at the Club who is chased by rival clubs. If anything one might expect to see some players moved on, with the likes of Feghouli and Nordtveit prime candidates due to their high wages and failure to settle. Both Ayew and Snodgrass might arguably fit that description too, but given the insane fees paid for them they would be getting sold at a loss, and that's not something that the Board will want, so you'd imagine both will stay.

Lots of fans would apparently give James Collins a new deal and as a fourth choice centre half he's not bad, but I'd rather they relegated Fonte to that role and went after a better player who could improve the team, not the wider squad. Harry Maguire at Hull is one we've been linked with, and he can at least still legally go on a Club 18-30 holiday.

Collins has been a wonderful servant to the Club, but the Premier League is no place for sentimentality, and the sad fact is he is old and declining. Not to repeat myself, to repeat myself, but we need players who might actually improve after joining us.

10. Last Year

This was a year ago this week. Chin up - a lot can happen in twelve months. I mean, we could get worse again but...let's not think about that.

Monday, May 08, 2017

West Ham 1 - 0 Spurs (And Other Ramblings)

1. Tonight The Streets Are Ours

What a night.

Stick that up your fucking cheese lounge, Mr Levy. We might have had to wait an eternity for something worth watching this season, but when it finally came it was thrilling and uplifting.

This was joy.

If you look closely, you can actually see Eric Dier's heart breaking

For what is being a football fan about if not joy? The relationship between ourselves and Spurs is at once both complex and simple, but tonight there was nuance everywhere. Their fans are determined that this a fixture about which they are ambivalent. They have always had bigger fish to fry and grander ambitions than merely beating us - "the Pikeys", I type incredulously - apparently. Of course, that particular sobriquet always tells you everything about the person saying it and nothing of the person it is being said about, but let's brush past that.

No, the problem is that this fixture has recently had the inconvenient feature for those indifferent Spurs fans of being a bit important. Last year, we were both flying and Spurs were cowed at Upton Park, just as we were insipid at the Lane. But tonight was Spurs biggest game of the season, if you use the not unreasonable logic that losing would end their electric title charge.

But still their fans insist it was our Cup Final. And maybe it was - our season ended months ago in a blaze of nothingness after all, and actual cup runs aren't really our thing. I guess the piece I can't quite understand is the way in which Spurs fans are so insistent (correctly, I might add) that defining yourselves by comparison to a superior local rival is the mark of a tinpot club, just one week after celebrating finishing above Arsenal like it was the fall of Baghdad. Had there been a giant statue of Arsene Wenger you can bet your life it would have been sawed down and decapitated on Seven Sisters Road last week.

In the end, I don't really care how Spurs fans feel about this game, but I will say that the general air of indifference is a bit unconvincing. Indeed, it just strikes me as the footballing equivalent of the teenage boy who has been dumped by his girlfriend and is now insisting he never liked her anyway whilst refusing to leave his room. It might be true, but it looks to the outside world like you are simply trying to inure yourself to the pain.

And that point brings me back once again to joy. The sad truth is that joy travels hand in hand with despair. For Spurs fans this defeat will be the canvas upon which they will one day paint their own joy. That's what football does to us. But this was our night. I have carried the pain of our November 3-2 loss for nearly half a year and tonight it was washed away. Joy.

2. Nothing Like A Friend

The brilliant Alan Fisher wrote this piece about that 3-2 game in his Tottenham On My Mind blog, and even he succumbs a little at the end to the weird notion of indifference. I love Alan's writing - he has soul, if you'll excuse me going all Roddy Doyle for a moment - but to me this smacks of the cockerel doth protesting too much.

We all went to schools with a mix of West Ham and Spurs fans, there are families everywhere around Essex and North East London split claret and blue and lilywhite, and there was a garrison of riot police officers at this game for a very good reason. Simply saying that they don't care about beating West Ham isn't really enough - they actually have to mean it, surely? All those last minute goals certainly seemed to spark celebrations that suggested they cared at least a little.

But in the curious London footballing ecosystem, it can't be ignored that we're not going to be as important to Spurs as Arsenal. This makes obvious sense, even if there were times over the last twenty years when you wondered why they didn't make a bit more out of their dust ups with us - they could actually beat us, after all.

As such, I'm fine with the notion that it means more to us than them. Our natural geographic rivals are Orient, whilst our historic and vicious feud with Millwall dates back to a dockers strike in 1926 that nobody knows anything about but feels obliged to still be upset about. Like Chelsea in the West, the fact our nearest neighbours have declined leaves us without a natural enemy and thus Spurs fit the bill.

So, was this our Cup Final? I don't know, and in all honesty I don't give a shit. We're not a homogeneous group of drones and each of you will make up your own mind. All that matters is that we won. Deservedly. And it was wonderful.

3. Tonight

Enough of the cod psychology. "What of the game", I hear you ask?

As usual, @11tegen11 reveals much. For all the increasingly demented commentary on this thread from Spurs fans, I don't see how anyone could have viewed this as anything other than a richly deserved home win. Except, perhaps for the visiting Spurs fans at the game who dragged in their chaise lounges and sun loungers so they could relax and keep half an eye on the game while they played canasta behind the goal, because they don't care about this fixture.

We started like the office of a Tottenham sheet metal working firm - on fire. Bilic has faced Pochettino four times now, and on three occasions seems to have bested him tactically. It's a small sample size, and the Spurs man is clearly destined for greatness, but it's an interesting point to note. It feels to me like Bilic has spotted a weakness in the North London ranks. When they play well they squeeze you into submission like a python, albeit one with cringeworthy preplanned goal celebrations, but seem surprisingly clueless when faced with the same tactic.

Much is made of the fitness of Spurs and their double training sessions - mainly by them, it has to be said - but here they looked leggy. Our extra day of recovery probably deserves a mention. There has also been a strain of commentary in the media suggesting that they bottled it here, but I think that's wide of the mark; I thought they were just outplayed.

Calleri and Ayew led from the front and harried the usually impeccable Vertonghen and Alderweireld into costly errors. By the end Toby even had a hair out of place. When the Argentine was eventually replaced it was to a standing ovation from a crowd who recognised that most universal of footballing truths - when it isn't going your way, work a bit harder. The poor fucker looked more tired than a fireman on the Seven Sisters Road dealing with all those spontaneous fires in the area.

Behind them Cheikhou Kouyate was a giant amongst men and the lung busting standard bearer for Bilic's high intensity death march. Before the game most Hammers were delighted to see Dembele on the bench, but concerned about the physicality of the Spurs central pairing of Dier and Wanyama. In the end, it wasn't even a fair fight as the Senegal captain hoisted both of them on to his shoulders and wore them like a gilet. By the end, both had been withdrawn - Wanyama to the bench and Dier to the back line. It might have been the single best individual performance I have seen at that stadium, and highlights the madness of playing him at right back ever more starkly.

Elsewhere, there were heroes aplenty. The back three give the distinct impression that they all enjoy having another person around to cover for mistakes and throw themselves desperately in front of shots. Jose Fonte against Dele Alli looked like something you'd only ever see in a Wes Craven film, but in the end the Portuguese stuck the quicksilver Spurs kid in his bum bag and didn't let him out all night. No doubt there will be better days ahead for him, but here he just spent the evening on Snapchat to Gareth Bale asking about decent club nights in Madrid.

Ahead of him Harry Kane looked hopeless, but then he always does when I see him in the flesh and he still has five goals in six games against us. Football makes fools of us all. Here he came up against Winston Reid in dominant form. Having the Kiwi skipper and Adrian back in the fold has rejuvenated us, and we kept a third successive clean sheet that the above xG shows was never really under threat. The most nervous moment came when Kane poked one goalwards from a penalty box scramble and Adrian diverted it over the bar with his foot. He might the most unorthodox keeper around but he stood up here when we needed him. Unlike Kyle Walker, who spent most of the night throwing himself to the ground in search of fouls.

4. Standing At The Sky's Edge

With half time approaching, the game shifted. Suddenly the visitors were moving forward. No real menace to their play, but an undeniable purpose. Christian Eriksen is a silken dream of a footballer and when he got on the ball my stomach began to clench as though I'd eaten a suspicious looking lasagne. But there was nothing much to get stirred up about and instead there was a sense of menace rather than evidence of danger. At one point, some of the visiting Spurs fans lowered their books and had a quick look before returning to their reading, because they don't care about this fixture.

By half time the concourse chat was mostly fearful, although tinged with a pleasant hint of surprise that we were making a game of it. It should be pointed out that most of my fellow Hammers seemed to have allayed their pre match concerns of a tonking by getting mind warpingly drunk. I could see the logic, unlike one bloke I encountered who apparently couldn't see anything at all.

The presupposed threat from the Spurs full backs hadn't really materialised. Ben Davies had his hands full trying to stop Byram, who had wisely decided that given his defensive deficiencies he was going to do as little of it as possible and spent the entire evening bombing forward instead. On the other side Walker seemed distracted. When he wasn't falling over he was on Right Move looking for properties in Manchester, and he was another to be later withdrawn from the fray. Cresswell, his opposite number, started tentatively but grew into the game and eventually helped set up the goal. He seems to typify our lost season, but here there was a little more swash to his buckle once again. If nothing else, the sparkling form of Arthur Masuaku seems to have jolted him into life. It's almost as if having competition for places is a good thing.

Going into this game you would have said that Nordtveit and Fernandes were unfortunate to lose their places, and there is truth in this, particularly for the former. However, on nights like this, when the stakes are high and the margin of error is low, Bilic needed men he could trust. Up stepped Mark Noble, once more unto the breach and all that, as Bilic might say.

The skipper clattered Eric Dier early and got a yellow, which didn't stop him covering more ground on the pitch than anyone else. He had been preceded by Walker leaving a foot in on Byram, and the tone was one of disjointed action amid lots of speed and physicality, with no sense that anyone had much idea what they were doing. A bit like a Fast and Furious film. Our main chance was a Kouyate strike where he got his feet mixed up and ended up smacking it so far wide it nearly hit Walker. Thankfully it didn't or he'd have just fallen over again.

But after the break, we were rejuvenated - score one more for Bilic - and swarmed them once more. The goal, when it came, was much like the game itself; bitty and disjointed, with Spurs tentative and West Ham purposeful. I'm glad it was Lanzini who scored as he is the player who seems most joyful at his lot in life. He is the only Hammer who could threaten a joint West Ham/Spurs XI and nobody gives a shit about that because those aren't actually a real thing. As his strike hit the net, a roar erupted to lift the roof off - and given the shitty design of this stadium we probably shouldn't dismiss that as a possibility - and a season of futility and frustration evaporated up into London's toxic airspace. Forget Bournemouth - this was the night that the London Stadium became our home, even if Barney Ronay conjectures that it might be the worst designed football stadium in the world. To my great-grandchildren who might be reading this fifty years from now, I say - "Sorry kids, the drawings looked a lot better than the real thing. Also, apologies about the inheritance tax thing. I forgot about that".

The last thirty minutes were torture in reality, but comfortable upon reflection. Spurs huffed a bit but all the best chances fell to us on the break. Calleri and Fletcher both ought to have scored but were denied by fine keeping from Lloris. Our goalkeeper, by contrast, was doing this:

Yes, but can Darren Randolph look cool doing this?

And so we scratched through to full time, a thoroughly merited three points, and a brief sojourn into the top half. By the point we entered added on time, the Spurs section was almost empty. I couldn't actually believe that given their record of recent late goals against us, but in truth their team hadn't given them much by way of hope. Or maybe they really don't care about this fixture.

Whatever. We deserved this. Savour it.

5. The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Was A Train Coming The Other Way)

Where exactly does this leave Slaven Bilic? Watch the game again and you'll see a well drilled back line, and a clever tactical system that allowed his wing backs to range far up the pitch. Spurs fans complained that we parked the bus, but that's the bitterness talking. The four full backs all had average touch positions in pretty much the same place, with the difference being that our three man backline allowed us to cover ours when they went forward.

By contrast, there were acres in behind Walker, in particular. Twice Lanzini drifted into the inside left position, once scuffing his shot across the goal and the other time being taken out by Lloris. From behind it looked a clear red, but in fairness I was sat in the stratosphere. There are people in Westfield who were closer to it than me. Either way, it was a sign of the rewards we would enjoy all evening on that side of the pitch.

But the nagging feeling that enveloped me as I watched this was one of slight incredulity. Where the hell was this all season? Watford scored four times past us. Watford! If they score four in training they release a fucking DVD.

So we can mutter all we want about Bilic seeming to have an edge on Pochettino but the twenty nine point difference between us puts the lie to that one. The gap between the two teams is as wide as a canyon, even if we bridged that gap tonight with a Herculean effort and an Argentinian jewel.

Context is important too, however, and Spurs were missing only Danny Rose, while our injured list included Pedro Obiang, Michail Antonio, Diafra Sakho, Andy Caroll, Arthur Masuaku and Angelo Ogbonna. But in some ways, I find that just annoys me even more - if Bilic could manage this with half his first team missing then what the hell has been going on all year?

I suspect that survival and the first truly great night at the new stadium will save him. I've said before that I can't see how we can progress with this level of chaos off the pitch, but Bilic deserves credit for keeping the team with him through a traumatic stadium move, the Payet bullshit, the annual injury crisis and the general maelstrom that surrounds West Ham.

As with everything that involves our board, the major benefit perhaps is simply that not firing him means they don't have to choose a replacement, and the less decisions they make about footballing matters, the better.

6. No Way Home

Still missing Upton Park? Me too, but it's undeniable that tomorrow the London Stadium will feel a different place than it did this morning. Now we have an "end" we can point to where someone scored a meaningful goal! Now we have a template for a victory over good teams! Now we have a spot in the crowd where the team celebrated and injured a fan!

The atmosphere tonight was fully present and correct. I thought the Spurs fans were mostly silent, but my cousin sat next to them said this wasn't the case, at least in the first half. Perhaps this was due to a particularly exciting turn of events in the group wide Scrabble competition they were all participating in as they ignored the game because they don't care about this fixture.

Either way, it speaks to the volume around me that I couldn't hear them. This was how it should be all the time, lively and fun and tense and loud. Thankfully, also, there was no anti-Semitic bullshit, no racism and no "mong" stuff at Kane. After all, "Tottenham Hotspur, it's happening again" is fine - to be encouraged, frankly - but "DVD, DVD" at a Korean winger is not. I'm glad we passed the test. It shouldn't need to be said, but it does.

There are still problems, of course, and I still wake up each day in the hope of reading a back page headline (or a tweet from the Club's official spokesman if he doesn't have a biology GCSE that morning) telling us that the track is coming up and the radioactive waste isn't actually radioactive because Brian was holding the machine the wrong way up again for fucks sake Brian, and we're getting a new, Spurs style stadium to call home.

But wishful thinking never got anyone anywhere - except for that time Simon Pegg said "Yeah, I'll write a Star Trek film" and Paramount said yes, and then Simon Pegg had to actually write a Star Trek film and apparently did it whilst on magic mushrooms - and so we have to accept we're stuck with the place.

I maintain that memories will be the difference. Make the team comfortable and in turn they'll reciprocate. Jacob Steinberg highlighted lots of the issues in this thoughtful piece for The Guardian, and the reality is that the view isn't getting any better and the gaps in the seating aren't disappearing, but after this I think it will feel an awful lot better for the Liverpool game.

7. Just Like The Rain

What a player is Manuel Lanzini. He and Eriksen were the two outstanding technical footballers on display tonight. His importance to us was highlighted on the many occasions he picked up the ball deep, slipped the Spurs press and cajoled his team mates forward. It was a bravura performance that also featured a proper defensive focus as he tracked back to contend with the rapier like Spurs counterattacks that failed to rouse any of their fans from their evening snoozes because they don't care about this fixture.

It's happened again 

The way that Lanzini has stepped up to replace Payet has been fantastic, and all the more so for his young age. In quieter times I might ponder whether we really made enough of having them both in the same team together, but either way he is emerging as one of the best young midfielders around.

There was some paper talk recently suggesting that Antonio was looking to leave, being not unreasonably pissed off that he was on less money than Robert Snodgrass. As am I, to be honest.

His agent quickly denied this, leading me to conclude that his agent planted the story and that Antonio will therefore soon get a raise. In that spirit it would be hard to argue with the same outcome for Lanzini. Along with Reid, Antonio and Obiang he has been the core of this team and needs to built around. The summer challenge will be to find a player to complement him, without driving him into the shell that he perhaps inhabited when Payet was in town and still talking to everyone.

For what it's worth, he's the front runner for the never-coveted-by-anyone H List Player of the Year award.

8. I'm Looking For Someone To Find Me

Adrian could fit that description too if he could find this level of consistency all season. I mention his unorthodoxy above, but it's still notable that he has not yet conceded a goal since returning, despite facing the twin buzzsaws of Lukaku and Kane. It's impossible to prove a negative, unless you're a barrister for Sheffield United apparently, but it's hard to imagine Randolph would have made both those saves from Kane and Son tonight.

Adrian remains a walking cardiac arrest inducer, but on nights like tonight it was reassuring to look at our goal and see him wandering around yelling stuff manically whilst maintaining an unmoving side parting.

There is an undeniable solidity about our back three now, and Adrian deserves credit for that too. Whilst chatting with Allen McKnight in a box before the Everton game (*) he suggested that changing a goalkeeper is often done in conjunction with the defence. Sometimes they'll prefer to play in front of one keeper over another, and as such a manager will resist change. It's a theory I hadn't really considered, and does suggest that perhaps Bilic had some private reasons for sticking with Randolph that we're not privy to.

And if you're thinking of suggesting that this is an area that McKnight would know a thing or two about, it's worth me saying that he made the joke himself.

(*) Literally the worst bit of name dropping you will ever read.

9. For Your Lover, Give Some Time

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, we can now start to plan for next season. Achieving safety might seem like a prosaic event after the highs of last year, but it should allow our off the field scouting and analytics teams to swing into action. Or at the very least, log into YouTube.

One would hope that the scouting department have multiple lists of potential players dependent upon our likely schedule next year, contractual situations, any European football, injuries, AFCON and, yes, which division we'll be in.

One does indeed hope for all of that, but one also is prepared to accept that we might simply be waiting for Jack Sullivan to break up for the holidays before we can really start scouting in earnest.

Matches like tonight might give us cause to consider the situation of players like Collins, for instance, but at some point we have to make an effort to get younger. If nothing else, buying some more players on the right side of 30 at least gives us an opportunity to get something back when we sell them. Consider that Feghouli and Nordtveit would probably bring back about £15m if sold over the summer (source: Transfermarkt), and then consider that the same website already suggests that Snodgrass and Fonte have lost value - or likely were overpriced to begin with.

Consider also the customary, but still awful, injury list. I said this only last week, but we need to consider player fitness as being equally as important to anything else. The amount of times we have lost Carroll and Sakho this year shows the sheer folly of not attempting to supplement our striking options last summer. I refuse to count Zaza here, because any man who can insert an interpretative dance routine into a penalty isn't a serious striking option.

With no news of a Director of Football on the horizon, we shall have to assume that David Sullivan hasn't become self aware yet and will continue to treat the Club as his plaything. This usually means six or seven new signings, one awful tabloid exclusive interview and someone from South America. It doesn't fill me with hope, and I am really terrified about where we might get that striker from. But what I took from tonight, heroic and life affirming as it was, is that we too often are forced to rely on our players raising their games to compete. It would be a hell of a lot easier if their levels were just up that high to begin with.

10. Lady Solitude

Karren Brady has a column writing for The Sun. This strikes me as pretty tone deaf given the papers history with football, but there you go. This morning she wrote something about how more women should be like Theresa May, which just conjured up visions of me asking my three daughters how their day at school was, and all of them replying "strong and stable".

She also wrote this about Spurs.

I usually find the stuff that Brady writes about Spurs to be unnecessary. As an example, she previously criticised Harry Kane for writing "we've had a baby" in an Instagram post like every other human on the planet would, as Brady thought this wasn't giving enough credit to his partner. 

But in this case, I don't see the issue. She's saying what everyone is thinking - that Spurs are going to have to cough up soon, or lose some players. Walker already seems to be gone, and if Real decide they want Alli then that will happen too. 

Brady is taking the opportunity to highlight that, to a rival who bid for a ground they didn't want and insisted the athletics track be retained. As part of that process, men ended up in court for hacking her phone. Let's face it, if Jose Mourinho says something similar before their game next week he'll be heralded as playing mind games, and being a master tactician. 

So if Brady has a pop at them in print, and it's this sort of thing that's actually credible and makes sense then I don't really have an issue with that. And neither will Spurs fans. After all, they don't care about West Ham.