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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

West Ham And The Lost Art of Defending

1. We Have Top Men Working On It Now...Top Men

At this point - would this be the worst way to train our back four?

So I've decided to turn my hand to data analytics. This is an interesting development because I understand neither data nor analysis. 

I'm just having a go. 

I'm a guy with some data, a laptop and a platform on which to express my uninformed view. Jeremy Hunt with a blog, if you will. I'm the Secretary of State for Idiots Having A Crack At Analysis.

I would LOVE some of those proper football analysts who I greatly admire (and are linked at the side of this blog) to take this article and turn it into something coherent, but for now you'll have to make do with my ham fisted attempts in the same way that we have to put up with Jack Whitehall being a "comedian".

2. It's Not The Years Honey, It's The Mileage

So, why am I writing this at all? Well, it's primarily due to the fact that West Ham appear to have forgotten how to defend. And I mean this genuinely. Trailing 3-0 at West Brom our entire set of outfield players went forward for a corner and then looked baffled when the home side broke away to score a fourth. That marked the twelfth occasion during the previous sixteen games that West Ham had conceded at least twice, and they repeated the trick again this weekend against Southampton.

Indiana Bilic is in search of the lost art of defending, and he probably won't find it anywhere near James Collins.

The genesis of this article was actually a moment during a game on Sunday 2nd February, 2003. West Ham were at home to Liverpool and 2-0 down within 9 minutes. As this was during our tragicomic attempt to avoid relegation under Glenn Roeder, it occurred to me that by continually going behind in games we were making our task significantly harder. 

As it turned out, this was unsurprisingly correct, as that encounter was during a run where West Ham won just once in 17 games, and conceded first in a whopping 14 of those matches. Relegation followed and Roeder ended up in hospital with a brain injury, probably brought on by spending two years wondering why the fuck Harry Redknapp tried to replace Rio Ferdinand with Christian Dailly and Rigobert Song (Too soon? That might be too soon).

3. Fortune And Glory, Kid, Fortune And Glory

Conversely, last year West Ham recovered no fewer than 18 points from losing positions. And as I watched them repeat this trick through the season I began to wonder about how sustainable it was. Could a team really expect to go behind this often and keep picking up points? If this flaw doomed Roeder, then why wasn't it doing the same to Bilic?

As an aside, how is it even possible to go 2-0 down against Sunderland in the first place? Remarkable.

Anyway, in order to establish what this meant, it seemed to me that I first needed to understand the impact of going behind in a game.

In an ideal world, we would be able to calculate a Win Probability Added (WPA) statistic based upon a variety of factors each time a goal goes in. These would include:

- venue
- game situation
- time of goal
- strength of scoring team
- strength of conceding team

No need to imagine any of this folks. It's all fairly basic and West Ham have been good enough to concede all manner of comedy goals this year to help us illustrate the point.

Thus, Diego Costa scoring in the 89th minute of a game at Stamford Bridge to put Chelsea 2-1 up would appear yield a far greater WPA than Nacer Chadli scoring to put West Brom 4-0 up at The Hawthorns in the 56th minute.

Again, this seems fairly obvious but it is important to document my train of thinking because I am desperately keen for people to believe that I have a train of thought, and am not just making this all up as I go, whilst randomly inserting a few pictures of Indiana Jones into the article to distract you.

"I don't know what linear regression is"

The problem with ideas like this is that the data necessary to produce such an analysis is not easily available or accessible. It is closely guarded by the likes of Opta and not available to people like me who presumably would only use it for evil purposes like proposing earth shattering theories like "West Ham should stop going behind in games".

It's a shame, as I think that the analytic community at large would advance the cause significantly if simply given the information, but that's not where we're at so I had to figure out what I could actually do myself. Answer - not much, but I did spend ages doing it. A bit like when my wife asks me to fold the washing.

4. 'X' Never, Ever Marks The Spot

As it was West Ham's 2015/16 season that triggered this all off, I decided to to start there. Opta have made public the following table:

TeamPoints Gained From BehindFinal League Position
West Ham187
Crystal Palace1015
Man City104
Aston Villa420
Man Utd45

Now the most obvious comment to make here is "Man Utd - LOL", but there are some other points worth noting.

a - The teams who did best were among the better teams in the league. This might be circular but it's also logical; you would expect good teams to have more chance of recovering points than, say, Aston Villa who were less a football team and more a collection of travelling acrobats. 

b - The question here is therefore perhaps whether or not we think West Ham were a truly good side, or one who over performed and got lucky last year. 

With an average return of 10.15 points for all Premier League teams from losing situations, we can see that last season West Ham picked up an additional 8 points from such positions as compared to the average team.

c - As fans we want to attribute this to some sort of voodoo magic wherein we establish that team spirit and resilience actually mean something, and that whatever "it" is, West Ham have "it". But I don't really think that's true. It's just a made up projection like Santa Claus or Eskimos. 

However, without access to tonnes of historical data I didn't have much choice but to revisit West Ham's own historic results and at least figure out if this was unusual for us, let alone anybody else.

None of this was difficult as my employer once sent me on an Advanced Excel course and when I got back, my boss asked me what I had learned. I proudly showed him how to turn his Excel spreadsheets upside down, which led to a week of high jinks in the office before it was generally accepted that I probably hadn't made the most of that particular opportunity.

However, using the general excellence of EuroStats I found some interesting things (last 11 seasons of West Ham league results):

Conceded First GoalDidn't Concede First
Goalless Draw034

So, in our 426 games, we recovered just 26 times out of 205 instances where we went behind to go on and win games.

Presented as percentages, in games where a goal was scored (i.e: Excluding all those Allardycian 0-0s) we see the following:

Conceded First GoalScored First Goal

So, over a ten year span (including one season in the Championship) West Ham have lost 70% of all matches when they have conceded first.

You guys, I'm beginning to wonder if we should stop letting in the first goal? Or maybe just stop letting in any goals at all? Feel free to mention this Slaven Bilic next time you see him in Mothercare.

5. Nothing Surprises Me; I'm A Scientist

If we dig a little deeper, and break down the numbers by manager, we can see the following:

YearConceded First GoalPoints GainedBehind In GamePoints GainedFinishing PositionManager

Conceded First Goal - Any game where West Ham conceded first
Points Gained - Points gained from any game where West Ham conceded first
Behind In Game - Any game where West Ham took the lead and then lost it
Points Gained - Points gained from any game where West Ham took the lead and then lost it

Now, all sorts of conclusions can be drawn from this. Unsurprisingly to me, we see that the higher up the table the team finished, the more likely it is that they were able to rescue points from losing positions. Better teams having a better chance to recover - that seems uncontroversial.

Interestingly, we can also see that Allardyce didn't go behind very often but when his teams did, they rarely recovered. Having watched so many of his insipid away performances this fits perfectly with my recollection of his time in charge.

I can't help but think that Allardyce read these articles at The Power of Goals and 5 Added Minutes which detailed how it is borderline impossible to come back from a 2-0 deficit. As such, his teams dug in and tried to sneak an equaliser rather than risk going two behind. This explains a lot of very tedious games over that 4 year period.


6. It's Time To Ask Yourself; What Do You Believe In?

However, there are examples of shit West Ham teams (Hi Avram!) who are also above average in this area, suggesting that recovery in itself isn't a skill per se that teams have, and is instead probably just random variation. We may see West Ham teams do well over the course of a single season, such as last year, but over longer periods of time that performance will invariably regress to the mean.

It is interesting that the 11 year average for West Ham has been to gain 11.0 points from losing positions per year, which isn't too far removed from the league average last year of 10.15. That is again too small of a sample to suggest anything but it does hint that last year was at least unusual.

For context, West Ham have this season conceded first in 4 games and lost them all, scored first once and lost and scored first once and won. That seems to be an ultra quick regression.

7. You're Meddling With Powers You Can't Possibly Comprehend

What should be acknowledged is that Bilic did manage a twofold piece of good work last season. His team did not concede the first goal very often, relative to recent history, and they came back from such positions with great frequency.

He also managed the only instance in the last decade of a victory where West Ham took the lead, lost it and then regained it - in the final game at Upton Park against Manchester United. I was shocked to discover this, but if you think about that chain of events, it feels reasonable to assume that most of those goals for opposition teams would happen relatively late in the game, presumably not leaving much time for a comeback. Also West Ham have been crap for quite a lot of the last eleven years, which really does underpin a lot of this research.

It does also suggest, however, that if you do ludicrous things like go 2-0 up against Watford, and then go 4-2 down that the likelihood of recovering from that position is fairly minimal. Thankfully we don't do stupid stuff like that any more now we've moved to our new stadium.

8. You Call This Archaeology?

I did wonder if it made much difference whether we conceded the first goal at home or away. Well, here you go:

HomeConceded First GoalScored First

AwayConceded First GoalScored First

So, yes it does, but it's not moving the needle very much. Letting in the first goal is still about as good an idea as being President, building a wall along your border and telling your neighbouring government that they are going to pay for it.

9. And What Did You Find? Me...Illumination

It's entirely possible that you may hate statistics. Many fans I know view them as representative of all that is wrong with the game. They want to see beautiful flowing football, and they want to see Matthew Le Tissier or Gianfranco Zola or Paolo Di Canio doing things that can't be cooked up in laboratories by the likes of Sam Allardyce.

Now, I'm not here to tell you how to enjoy the game you love, unless you're a fan of one of those teams who play music when they score, in which case you should take at least a short look at yourself. No, I'm just here to make a case that data analytics in football are not looking to replace the free flowing nature of the game, but instead to enhance our understanding of it and help us interpret what we are seeing.

Simon Gleave, the Head of Analysis at Gracenote Sports was kind enough to humour me in a conversation about this very point, saying "The key for me has always been stories. The numbers are simply to support the story and are not the story in themselves".

This makes perfect sense to me.

I have also heard it said that football is simply too difficult to break down into pure numbers. That it is unplanned and spontaneous and balletic and therefore defies categorisation.

Well, if you turn that thinking on it's head - how can one person watch a game of football for 90 minutes, with 22 players and hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete events happening in front of them and decide that their own opinions formed via one solitary glance at events could be sufficient to fully process and digest that game?

Analytics isn't trying to tell you what to think, it's simply trying to give you more information to think about. And that, to me, is a crucial development in the game.

It is unfortunate, however, if your first exposure to football analytics is through this column, as that would be like discovering reggae music through Sid Owen, but nonetheless everyone must start somewhere.

Bob Marley, basically

Please do not be misled into thinking that this is false modesty. I do not know what I am talking about. This is like getting Peter Andre to write a blog about Brexit. Proper analysts would identify problems and then tell you that they have fixed them with things like Poisson Distributions. The problem I have is that I don't know what that is.

I do know, however, that Poisson is French for "fish" so I instead had a tuna salad and just carried on, ignoring the glaring holes in my research. This is the beauty of being an idiot.

10. Trust Me

I apologise that this article has been so long. It's a lot to read about data and West Ham combined, and even though we've at long last brought Indiana Jones and Ricky Butcher together, I accept it's been a bit of a slog.

I also feel like the revelation at the end is a bit like that moment in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when you wait ages to find out who Kylo Ren is and then he takes off his mask and it turns out he looks like Graham from IT Support.

But still, West Ham need to stop conceding first. If they don't we will be relegated.

History doesn't always repeat but it's useful to know your own nevertheless. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

West Ham 0 - 3 Southampton (And Other Ramblings)

1. Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such past West Ham debacles as "Achieving The Impossible - Four Down To West Brom In An Hour", "Manny Omoyimni - Stick Him On, No One Will Notice" and "The Carlos Tevez Story - None Of Us Know What Third Party Ownership Is But I Doubt It's A Big Deal". 

2. 10,000 Seas Under The League

They got worse! After going out of Europe before we could blink, conceding EIGHT unanswered goals to Watford and West Brom, undeservedly scraping past Accrington Stanley, training all week, doing all their homework and eating all their greens, West Ham somehow managed to sink even deeper. We are the Jacques Cousteau of the Premier League!

I didn't think it would be possible to get worse than last week but we managed it with something approaching effortless ease. If you're wondering exactly where we are in the league, we are in the Mariana Trench, which is a lot nearer Stoke than I had first realised.

3. So, Like, What The Fuck?

It's hard to know exactly where to start with this game, given that it was a Hieronymus Bosch style cavalcade of nightmares. West Ham didn't concede four, but only due to the second half excellence of Adrian who repelled a rampant Southampton repeatedly whilst the defence in front of him did a passable impression of Gandhi.

The shapeless nature of our performance was highlighted by yet another second half collapse, that ended up once again with the league's joint top scorer playing at right back, in a system that defies any logical attempt to explain it. 

This was a team with no cover in central midfield playing a holding midfielder at right back, a right back at left back, a right winger on the left, Dimitri Payet everywhere but always with two Southampton men around him and Simone Zaza exposed up front, a mile from his nearest team mate. It's like Bilic is picking the names out of a hat and then using a Ouija Board to decide what position they play.

Tactically, we are shambolic at the moment, with no obvious method of scoring and seemingly no hope of repelling even the most straightforward of opposition attacks. 

Southampton's first goal was very well worked, but neither Ogbonna or Reid were within five feet of Charlie Austin when the ball was pulled back to him to score. I have no idea what state Austin's knee is in, but his finish was entirely predictable and should be a lesson to David Sullivan to shut up, but absolutely will not be. 

Thereafter, as Southampton realised that they were not playing the 2015/16 West Ham, they simply took control of the game, filtered every West Ham attack in to the jaws of their rock solid central spine and hit us repeatedly on the counter until it just all felt a little bit unfair.

4. You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

We are missing Aaron Cresswell more than any of us care to mention. Not simply because he is a left back who can defend, but because his lung busting overlapping runs make such a difference to our attacking threat. Cresswell as an attacking force can either open up space for Payet, or be the spare man to actually put balls in to the box. 

Note today how frequently Payet picked up the ball wide on the left and only had Arbeloa behind him as a passing option. Zaza may not actually have any motor function but he is so isolated that he may as well walk round with "Greenland" on his back. With Antonio drifting aimlessly around, and Lanzini looking lost in an advanced role, it really does beg the question as to how exactly we are planning to score this season. At present it seems to be the case that we hope for a Payet free kick and then take to the rosary beads.

As much as our missing left back is impinging upon our attacking play, it is equally true that our absent centre forward is hurting our defensive set up. Diafra Sakho may be a moody and unpredictable sort, equally as liable to drive his car into a wall as he is to score but his work rate is suitably Stakhanovite. Without his relentless pressing up front, teams are able to move easily through our midfield, where we have no noticeable defensive cover and then eventually get in behind our full backs. 

I wish I had something witty or incisive to say here, but the reality is that the problems facing us are enormous. Almost nothing in the team is working. Sure, it's only six games, but per @SimonGleave of Gracenote Sports we have taken ten fewer points than we did from those same fixtures last season. 

Consider that for a moment, and then ask yourself whether you think this team are going to take 4 points from Arsenal, Everton and Man Utd, 6 points from Liverpool and 3 points from Spurs. Last year happened, it can't and shouldn't be consigned to history forever, but it is not going to be repeated. So perhaps Slaven could introduce our centre backs to each other, play a defensive midfielder and see whether or not he's kept the receipt for Zaza in case Juventus offer refunds.

I don't Obiang have a solution Obiang for the Obiang defensive midfielder Obiang problem. Obiang.

5. You Can't Spell Hopeless Without Hope

I'm going to write a separate article about this at some point, but I have been concerned for a while with West Ham's consistent tendency to fall behind in games. Last year we recovered 18 points from losing positions, which was second only to Spurs, and seemed to convince a large portion of fans that this was a defined skill that we had mastered. The problem with that is that whole teams don't tend to have "skills" in that way. We were simply good, or lucky, or maybe a bit of both. Consider that the Premier League average was 10.5 points, and West Ham's average over the past ten years of league games has been....10.36 and you might begin to err on the side that we were in fact quite lucky.

So it was always an unsustainable level of performance and was always going to regress to the mean. And man, have we ever regressed. We've gone backwards quicker than Madonna off the stage at the Brit Awards. 

West Ham regress to the mean

Indeed, in the last ten years West Ham have gone on to lose 70% of all league games when they have conceded first. It is overly simplistic to say this, but if West Ham are to turn their season around, they absolutely have to stop conceding first. It was always unlikely that they would be able to sustain last years level of performance, especially with a transfer policy that has weakened the team, but this particular trait is killing us. 

Also, maybe assemble some defenders who actually know how to play in their positions. 

6. What Went Well?

Southampton were very good, but it's reached the point that we need to start qualifying that by adding "...but it was only against West Ham".

Adrian, who some people were dropping for Darren Randolph before today, was outstanding, and only his second half resilience kept the score respectable. In a game where we mustered just a single attempt on goal, it isn't really possible to single out an attacking player for praise but Dimitri Payet at least kept going, and wanted the ball even when we were three goals down and clearly as finished as Mel Gibson's movie career. 

The crowd didn't riot. Possibly because most of them left after 75 minutes, giving the chairmen a nice sneak preview of what their glittering new stadium might look like in the Championship. 

7. Is Slav In Danger?

Ordinarily, I would say not. Shitty start though this may be and, make no mistake, a top half finish is now little more than a fantasy, there is still enough time for Bilic to turn this around and steer us to an Allardycian 13th place finish.

There are two problems with that. Firstly, the goalposts have moved. Quite literally in fact, as we no longer have Upton Park to fall back on. No more acid atmosphere derbies to carry the team to victory and no more reliance on formidable home form to sustain our Premiership status. It's 38 away games, and thus far the season is going every bit as well as you might expect given that state of affairs. 

Secondly, whilst Sullivan and Gold are notoriously loyal to their managers they just can't afford to mess around if it looks like the season is slipping away. You can argue the toss over whether this season is more closely resembling Roeder in 2002/03 or Pardew in 2005/06 (I favour the latter) but it's already shaping up to be a fucking disaster.

Relegation would be catastrophic and therefore you suspect that Bilic will have a shorter leash than he might otherwise have warranted. That said, I still see him being given up until Christmas, with any new man brought in just in time for the January transfer window. 

Of course, given that our transfer activity has contributed to this current parlous state of affairs, one might wonder whether the premier decision maker, David Sullivan, might choose to consider whether he could have done a better job this summer? 

No, I don't suspect he will either.

8. Fixtures And Fittings

Don't look now but we're already into very dangerous territory with our next few fixtures. We simply have to pick up some significant points from our next three games.

We are about to play: Boro (h), Palace (a) and Sunderland (h) before we embark upon Everton (a), Stoke (h), Spurs (a), Man Utd (a), Arsenal (h) and Liverpool (a). Yikes. 

At the very least I think that home game against Sunderland should be fun as you rarely get to see so much incompetence in any one place outside of Cabinet meetings. 

9. War Of The Roses

A brief philosophical question before I go. If someone from Yorkshire wins a gold medal at the Olympic Games and someone else from Yorkshire doesn't immediately produce an alternative medal table showing Yorkshire as an independent country beating Belize and Kuwait, then did that medal victory really occur?

I ask this because some people have asked whether I have a bit of an issue with Dimitri Payet. Well I don't, Quite the opposite - I actually love Dimitri as much as people from Yorkshire like telling you they are from Yorkshire.

Like how you might be in a bar and you meet a guy and straight away he's telling you he lives two villages over from the Brownlee brothers and all you're thinking is "I just asked if anyone was sitting there".

Funnily enough they're less keen to tell you about Peter Sutcliffe, which is odd because he is one of Britain's most successful serial killers and he was born in Bingley. Still, never mind as they're still claiming those gold medals they won courtesy of one member of the coxed eights rowing team, one of the track pursuit cycling team and one of the synchronised divers being from Yorkshire. God bless 'em.

Anyway, that's how much I love Dimitri Payet. He's reet brilliant.

It's not his fault that Simone Zaza is operating on a higher plane of existence where his consciousness has become fused with that of a higher being and as such he has achieved a kind of Utopian transcendence that means he's gone and tattooed his knees and now couldn't hold the ball up if you covered him in Bostik.

10. Past Is Prologue

"So when you say it's gonna happen now, well when exactly do you mean?
See I've already waited too long, and all my hope is gone"

"How Soon Is Now?" - The Smiths

Thursday, September 22, 2016

West Ham 1 - 0 Accrington Stanley (And Other Ramblings)

1. Respite, Thy Name Is Stanley

I was pretty undecided about going tonight. I had a ticket, but due to the ongoing problems at the ground I wasn't prepared to take my daughter. The Club gave plenty of assurances today about how they'd increased security, but given they forgot to take a back four with them to West Brom I wasn't quite prepared to take them at face value.

2. When Losers Are Winners

In the end I need not have worried. Just under 40,000 fans were there and the overriding feeling was one of ennui and boredom. Around 500 Accrington Stanley fans spent the evening having fun and going bonkers behind one of the goals, and their team did them proud. In the end, nobody really lost tonight.

As well as scraping through courtesy of Dimitri Payet's sumptuous last minute free kick, West Ham also won off the pitch as we all got through the night without fighting with each other - which really shouldn't be newsworthy but absolutely is. Indeed, the crowd probably deserve some credit for tonight as they turned up but didn't turn, either on each other or the team.

Anyone quibbling about the atmosphere isn't accurately recalling these equivalent games at Upton Park. These matches are never enjoyable. There is no winning, only not losing, and that isn't quite the same thing. The only exception perhaps being the Battle of Green Street of 2009.

3. Are You Not Entertained?

Not really, Dimitri, but I still love you. 

4. The Struggle Is Real

Make no mistake - on the pitch, West Ham were dreadful tonight. The first half was the worst 45 minutes of entertainment I've been subjected to since my wife once made me watch an episode of Scandal. Disjointed and with no real pace to our play, we were played off the pitch by an Accrington team who actually carried far more threat then West Ham. 

Things improved in the second half, although short of Arvelo Arbeloa accidentally electing Donald Trump into office during the interval it's hard to imagine how it could have gotten worse. 

Payet, Lanzini and Antonio were introduced, which is kind of like asking The Three Tenors to sing with Boyzone, and things perked up but not to a significant degree. Accrington continued to press, and their heroic efforts were almost rewarded when Sean McConville fired narrowly over late in the second half. 

By the time Payet stepped up, I just wanted it to end. I didn't really care how - after 96 minutes of tedium, there was an overhwelming feeling of "let's just all get the fuck home, eh lads?". The best thing about the goal was the inevitability of it. It just looked right. Centrally placed so the keeper couldn't tell which way it was going, and far enough out that it could get up and over the wall easily enough. As the ball arrowed in, the guttural roar that followed was more of relief than anything else. 

5. Zaza Some More

I decided to pay close attention to Simone Zaza tonight given that he is 12 games from triggering a €25m transfer and doesn't appear to have any control of his legs. 

By my estimation, he managed one successful pass tonight. In 96 minutes. That's not an exaggeration - I literally only remember one time he retained possession, with a little return pass to Arthur Masuaku in the first half from a throw in. I'm sure my PlayerCam might have been a little off as I took to the drink before, during and after this game, but it generally felt like an astonishing display of ineptitude from an international player. 

He did have one very decent effort well saved in the second half, but generally Zaza looked like a rich guy who had paid £250,000 at a charity auction to play up front with his heroes in a testimonial. 

It's three games, so we don't need a rush to judgement quite yet. Zaza played for Juventus and Italy and has a pedigree that can't be denied, but he has shown the square root of nothing thus far. He has yet to hold the ball up with any regularity and his link play is right up there with my grasp of Sanskrit. At this point his only vaguely enticing quality is that he is not Jonathan Calleri, which is really not an endorsement.

Let's be honest, had Ashley Fletcher turned in these three performances we would have patted him on the head, said "You're not quite ready yet" and sent him on loan to Crewe.

There is an enormous elephant in this particular room at present. If, ten games from now, Zaza is still this bad will Bilic continue to start him if both Carroll and Sakho are still out? He is better than Calleri but cannot possibly be worth a €25m outlay, and yet the chances of us having better options for every game for the rest of the season are almost zero.

It will be fascinating to see whether boardroom considerations trump tactical ones as we struggle on through our dark night of the soul. 

6. What's Gone Wrong?

Even allowing for the occasion, we lacked any coherence to our play last night. There is a palpable difference between this years team and last that seems to begin with our full backs. Last season Cresswell and Jenkinson played almost as auxiliary wingers at times, giving us a thrust to our wide play that has been absent so far this time around.

Our full backs have been far deeper this season which has had the curious double impact of weakening our attacking options but doing nothing to make us any more defensively solid. Admittedly, this has been in part due to our central defenders also starting off the year like they've dosed up on lithium, but the point remains. We look terrible at the back, although Arbeloa does at least look like he wants to play there, thus putting him ahead of the other contenders for the role.

Our central midfield continue to remind me of Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven. I can see that they are there, but I am yet to discern exactly what they are doing or why. That said, I actually thought Pedro Obiang was our best player in the first half yesterday - take that in the same way as me saying "Fifty Shades of Grey" is the best book in the trilogy - and probably should be in the side on Sunday, meaning he will doubtless not be seen again until Christmas.

Shouldn't be playing against Southampton

The best functioning part of the team is the front three of Payet, Lanzini and Antonio who looked miles better than anyone else when they were introduced. Sadly, the men they replaced - Feghouli and Tore - were dreadful, and it remains to be seen how we would do in the long term if any of the former trio get a serious injury. 

For our attackers, please see above. We're in trouble unless Andy Carroll and Diara Sakho come back fit and raring to go, but that seems about as likely as one of the Eggheads being arrested on suspicion of murder. 

7. Oxford Blues

I'm concerned about Reece Oxford. If he doesn't play in games like this, then I don't really know when he will play at all. Presently, he looks like a central midfielder to me, based solely on the way that he was dismantled by Romelu Lukaku at Everton last year, although one would think he would grow into a defensive role as he matures physically. 

With him refusing to sign a new deal, it seems odd that we haven't tried to get him some more game time but I can understand Bilic not wanting to hitch his wagon to the star of a 17 year old feeling his way into the game. 

If he does go, it will be hard to see him rot away in the Manchester City development squad for three years before trying to pick up the pieces of his career at Sunderland. Trying to leave my biases aside for a moment, I can't really remember much good coming from young players leaving mid table Premier League teams to go to one of the bigger vultures and I hope he stays. 

But if my career prospects were being blocked by mediocre players like Nordtveidt and Collins I suppose I might start to consider leaving too. An Oxit, as I suppose it would be called in the current climate of portmanteau slogans. 

We started this game with no English players on the pitch. Any way you cut it, that's not a great enticement for homegrown youngsters to stick around. 

8. Who Are They? English Football, That's Who

A word then, for Accrington Stanley, in a way that I hope isn't patronising. They were great tonight. Their team played excellently and with no little verve and skill. There were technical limitations, of course, but they persevered and deserved more than to have their hopes shattered by a 96th minute piece of Payet magic. 

It is never hard to find things to hate about the modern game: Mourinho, Rooney, breakaway European leagues, the general concept of Chelsea, FIFA and of course, Sheffield United all loom large, but there is still a beating heart to the English game that lies in places like Accrington. To watch them come to a 60,000 seater stadium and go toe to toe with a Premiership team was heartwarming and a fantastic achievement by them, however anemic we may currently be. For that reason alone, I think they were the big winners of the night. 

9. Radio Rental

So, speaking of Chelsea. How's that new radio system coming along Karren?

His last words were: "how hard can it be?"

Monday, September 19, 2016

West Brom 4 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Our Defence - Truly Defective

I don't know if you've seen True Detective, but Season 1 is my favourite piece of television ever made. It contains genius characters, an emotional journey and an ending that was uplifting and brought succour to the soul without truly vanquishing the forces of evil.

Season 2, however? Not so much. The location was changed and even though there were a lot of familiar elements, nothing quite worked in the same way and it ended up as an incomprehensible load of heartbreaking nonsense.

So stop me when you figure out where I'm going with this. Or if you see Vince Vaughn playing at right back.

2. Time Is A Flat Circle

YearAfter First 5 GamesFinishedManager

It's only five games. But if you look at the previous ten seasons, the first five games have been tremendously predictive of the rest of the campaign. As shown above, anything in the 8-10 point range has resulted in a top half finish, and anything in the 1-5 point range has yielded a white knuckle descent into a relegation battle. 

Naturally, most West Ham fans remain convinced that this particular squad is too good to go down which by now might as well be the club motto. We could stick it just under the "London" on the club badge, along with two fighting season ticket holders.

I'm not suggesting that we'll go down. I'm not suggesting that Slaven Bilic is currently channelling the ghost of Avram Grant. What I am pointing out, is that in the last decade there have been zero instances when West Ham have started poorly and recovered to finish in the top half of the table.

3. I Lack The Constitution For Suicide

So, off we went to face Tony Pulis and his merry band of free wheeling, high scoring banditos. In their last 13 league games West Brom had won just once and managed only 6 goals in the process. Still, West Ham have always been pretty good for what ails you and arrived in town having conceded at least twice in 11 of our previous 15 league games.

Now that is some seriously shit defending.

Things started poorly here as Arthur Masuaku misplaced his cerebrum and handled the ball whilst under less pressure than an astronaut on the moon. West Brom, despite being the league's pre-eminent free flowing attacking force, didn't exactly pour forward. Instead they sat back, invited pressure and broke with enough menace to lead 3-0 at half time.

One passage of play before half time was instructive, as our vaunted attacking players moved the ball from one side of the pitch to the other whilst West Brom put ten men behind the ball and looked on with the curiousity of a cat watching a pendulum, until Mark Noble took a heavy touch and the home side broke to force a corner within the space of seconds. This constituted the most useless set of passes since universities started giving out degrees in social media, and represented how we could have had 70% of possession and still be 4-0 down after an hour. To West Brom.

4. There Is No Such Thing As Forgiveness

So West Ham haven't so much hit the ground running as smashed headfirst into it from 10,000 feet after the reserve chute didn't open.

I'm not going to be so revisionist as to say I saw this coming, but I've been uneasy about things for a while. Our pre-season seemed disjointed and aimless, culminating in a second successive Europa League Armageddon and our transfer dealings look bizarrely unsuitable for the travails ahead.

Assuming all our players were fit and healthy and firing - a scenario so unlikely it might well render this point redundant - I think our strongest first eleven would look something like this:


Some might quibble with the inclusion of Diafra Sakho over Andy Carroll, and may prefer to include Andre Ayew in there somewhere too but I would say that this is a defensible enough team, and thus I see two spectacular problems.

Firstly, the team includes 33 year old Arvelo Arbeloa who hasn't yet played a minute for us and gets in the team because we don't have a functioning right back in the squad. Secondly, the team doesn't include any of the other new signings.

Now, you may argue that Feghouli and Ayew would get in there if they hadn't got injured immediately upon arriving. But where would they play? Neither would displace Payet, Antonio is the leading scorer in the league and Lanzini has arguably been the only one of our midfield trio to be worth his place.

The form of Noble and Kouyate has been so mediocre that both must be in jeopardy of losing the places, but HÃ¥vard Nordtveit has been incredibly underwhelming and Pedro Obiang must have killed Bilic's cat, such is his current persona non grata status.

Elsewhere, Edmilson Fernandes and Ashley Fletcher are surely too young to be relied upon to impact the season although both are going to end up playing a reasonable amount purely due to the awful performances elsewhere.

Which brings me to Zaza, Tore and Calleri. All on loan, all looking out of their depth and all not good enough to improve the first team.

So we spent hugely in the summer and didn't improve the team - only the wider squad. That was fine when there was the Europa League to half-heartedly mess around with, but now it is solely the Premier League and it seems clear that we are in for a season of struggle.

5. Life's Barely Long Enough To Get Good At One Thing. So Be Careful What You Get Good At

I can't help but feel the right back spot has been instructive in this sense. We lost Carl Jenkinson to injury and then bought Sam Byram. He struggled and couldn't displace Michail Antonio, who was being played there solely because Bilic wanted to shoehorn him into the side somewhere.

That particular house of cards came crashing down when Swansea came to town and destroyed us 4-1, with Andre Ayew tormenting Antonio all day. Having seen that particular display, our answer to having a glaring hole at right back was....to buy the Swansea left winger.

6. You're Livin' Wrong

The West Brom fourth goal was worth the price of admission alone. Having got to the interval just 3-0 down, our back four apparently googled "Ukrainian border defences in Crimea" for inspiration as to how to approach the second half. This led to the slightly unusual decision to attempt to defend a West Brom attack without a defence at all. 

Manuel Lanzini seemingly missed all this and made a valiant chase back, but his half hearted attempt wasn't enough and we became the first team to concede four goals to West Brom under Tony Pulis, or possibly even ever because after all they are fucking West Brom.

If you're struggling to visualise the goal, try and remember what it was like as a kid when you were playing computer football games and your dad would ask to play. He'd have no idea what he was doing so would randomly press all the buttons and suddenly three of his players would be in the crowd, two more would be on the floor breakdancing and the centre halves would be engaged in a passionate kiss. In between laughing, you broke away and scored because you can only beat what's put in front of you.

Anyway, yeah, that was Nacer Chadli's second goal on Saturday.

7. You Owe A Debt

Whilst I spent most of Saturday night singing "Where have you gone, Danny Gabbidon? Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you" to myself, I can't help but wonder about Dimitri Payet. Some of the spark has gone. It's possible he's knackered after the European Championships, or it's possible that other teams are now targeting him so much that his effectiveness is reduced. I mean, he still leads the league in assists, so he can't be doing too badly but even then two of those goals have owed a bit more to Antonio's finishing than the crosses themselves.

It's ridiculous to worry about Payet when our defenders seem to have forgotten how to do anything, but I'd like to see him dictating games again. It doesn't help him that our defensive midfield pairing of Kouyate and Noble are playing terribly, but he is our premier player and we need him to take games like this by the scruff of the neck and drive us forward. We saw some of that in the second half on Saturday but it can't happen only when we've let in four goals.

And how galling that the last sentence is now a statement of fact rather than hyperbole.

8. The Secret Fate Of All Life

I'm ashamed to say that I make snap judgements all the time, and they are often based on ludicrous things. If you tell me you write a West Ham blog, I will happily read it up until you use the word passion in a sentence other than "passion is an irrelevant, meaningless, catch all phrase used by idiots to explain elements of the game they don't understand". If it's used in any other context I'm just going to smile politely and eventually delete the link.

And so it goes with centre forwards. If a ball comes into the box and you attempt an overhead kick from a ridiculous angle, with no hope of success, then I am going to judge you. Simone Zaza - stop doing stupid things. Hold the ball up. I'm judging you. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

West Ham 2 - 4 Watford (And Other Ramblings)

1. Fool's Gold

"This", I said to my daughter, "Is going to be brilliant".

A home game, against a decent but not great team, on a Saturday, in the pouring rain, at 3 o'clock. Finally, I was going to be able to begin passing on to her some of the magic that drew me in when I was her age.

I really didn't have any idea that I was about to endure the worst football watching experience of my life.

2. Here It Comes

My journey to this game began a few days prior, when my wife was casually browsing our online banking statement and asked me why I'd spent £60 at West Ham. I immediately denied all knowledge, whilst secretly hoping that I hadn't got drunk and finally bought that life size Herbie the Hammer costume, before remembering that I'd entered into the ballot for the Watford game.

Naturally the Club weren't going to do anything so obvious as tell me I'd got tickets, but off we went, nonetheless. As I had received no confirmation email once again, I had no idea which turnstile to go through - again. I dutifully asked the first couple of stewards I encountered for help, but both just stared blankly at me like I'd asked them to name their favourite commedia dell'arte characters, so back to the ticket office we trudged.

There, I enjoyed a brief moment with the lady behind the counter, and as our eyes met through the plexiglass window the shared pain of our afternoon coalesced in front of us. She was very helpful, and we eventually emerged into the stadium...20 yards from the away fans. Exactly where you want to be with an 8 year girl, and evidence that not letting people in the ballot have any say in where they sit might not be the best idea of all time. Now the Watford fans were actually rather delightful. Saturday was the first time I've ever looked at fans giving me abuse and thought "Well, they seem like nice people", but had it been Spurs or Chelsea there would have been a riot at the game.

3. Something Burning

Apropos of that point, it's annoying to me that away fans have been given such good seats at the stadium. If you've ever been to Old Trafford or St James's Park you'll know how far from the pitch the visiting fans are, and indeed, at Newcastle the highest seat in the away section is a quarter of a mile from the opposite corner flag. I know - I've sat in it.

In my ideal world, clubs would be given an equivalent allocation and location in our ground that they give to away fans. Man Utd, therefore, would be on the roof and Newcastle could watch from the viewing platform of the Orbit. That might be a touch impractical, but if that fails at the very least stick them up in the Gods somewhere, miles from where they can theoretically influence things.

4. Standing Here

So - the big news of the day. The crowd.

I saw three fights at this game. Two between warring West Ham fans, and one as home and away fans clashed after Watford's fourth goal.

The fights in the home end were especially awful. I saw crying children being picked up and dragged away to safety as fat, red faced thugs laid into each other. All I could think as I saw it was "There but for the grace of God". I'd had no say over my seat selection - and if I had, how would I have known there would be trouble there anyway? The fight continued for a while, and seemed to be broken up by other fans rather than the stewards.

A second scuffle broke out behind me, leading to my daughter asking "Daddy, why is everybody fighting?" and then a few dickheads attempted to get into the away section. They were able to do this because home and away fans were separated only by a low fence and a few stewards who couldn't have looked less interested if you'd doped them up with ketamine.

I don't really know what is the root cause of all of this, although I have my theories, but it defies belief that the Club didn't think a family section would be needed at the new ground. It is probably too late now, but without one most people are simply going to arrive at the same conclusion I have, which is that they won't be taking their kids back for a while.

Just consider that for a moment - West Ham fans aren't taking their children to games any longer because the Club can't guarantee their safety from the actions of other West Ham fans. If that doesn't shame everybody attached to the Club, then nothing will.

As the Watford fans sang, in the most thoroughly middle class chiding ever, "You're just embarrassing". Sadly, this is utterly correct.

5. The Hardest Thing In The World

There is something that West Ham fans need to hear and I don't suspect it will be popular but I am going to say it any way.

It's not the new ground. It's the people in it.

It's not the new ground. It's the people in it. 

It's not the stewards, it's not Karren Brady, it's not the away fans, it's not the Police (how could it be, there literally aren't any) and it's not the stadium. They all play a part, but it's not them.

It's you. It's me, It's us.

Sure, the plus two scheme was a figurative slap in the face to fans who didn't deserve it. By selling tickets to literally anyone who turned up with a season ticket holder, the Club blew the chance to fill the ground with people with a history of following the Club. If rumours are true and lots of fans of other teams have bought tickets and are now selling them on to Hammers at inflated prices then some people might want to have a think about that.

And yes, I get that the standing thing is frustrating. People stood a lot at Upton Park, myself included, and now they can't. But if you think that it's reasonable to physically or verbally assault people who ask you to sit down then I don't know what to say to you.

And, contrary to the group think idiocy of Twitter, it's really not the huge impingement on people's human rights that they seem to believe it is. You can't stand up at games of football in the Premier League. That's the law. And it's not a new one either.

Newham Council mostly turned a blind eye to this at Upton Park, but they're not doing that at the London Stadium, and as a result the Club can't take the capacity up to sixty six thousand.

So the standing rebels, who are attaching themselves to this flimsiest of causes, are preventing other fans from being able to get into games. That creates an angry underclass - and make no mistake, that's what it feels like - who, when they get into games are pissed off that their Club appears to have been stolen from them by new fans. Combine that with those who want to stand and those who want to see, those who never wanted to move in the first place, and the fact that the average West Ham fan is a bit more earthy than, say, his Arsenal equivalent, and this is what you get. Chaos.

My abiding memory of this game was that almost everybody in the ground seemed angry. 

It seems to me that if people just sat down for a bit, the Club could get their license and then begin the process of unofficially creating standing sections - dressed up as "singing sections". Until then, they are going to continue to send poorly trained, poorly paid stewards to ask people to sit, and the ground will continue to be the poisonous bear pit that it currently resembles. I understand that people might not think that the Club deserve this level of cooperation, and I'd agree they don't, but this can't carry on as it is.

Oh, and nobody is trying to prevent fans standing up at crucial times - it's just persistent standing that is causing the issue. So my advice is that the next time we blow a two goal lead at home, take a load off, sit down and boo from a more relaxed position.

It really shouldn't need saying, but as long as West Ham fans are fighting West Ham fans then this truism will remain:

It's not the new ground. It's the people in it. 

5. Tears

Anecdotally, I am led to believe that amidst all the rucking, a game broke out on Saturday. For 40 minutes, this was actually what we'd all been dreaming about. West Ham sweeping forward at will, with Michail Antonio setting up Miguel Britos for a nice bout of post traumatic stress disorder by skewering him mercilessly for half an hour. Antonio headed in twice, once from a ludicrously brilliant rabona cross from Payet, and the only question at that point was how many we would get.

There were warning signs though, as Watford flooded forward themselves with alarming ease, but it could easily have been 3-0 when Daryl Janmaat demonstrated everything he'd learned about defending at Newcastle and inexplicably knocked the ball against his own post when doing almost anything else at all would have been easier.

Sadly, that was about it as Ighalo smacked in a deflected strike off James Collins and the comeback was on.

The day was best encapsulated by Watford's equaliser as Collins allowed a through ball past him because he was too busy blowing up balloon animals at the time. "Not to worry" said Adrian as he came pedalling off his line on his unicycle, only to crash into Collins who responded by squirting water in his face from a plastic flower attached to his shirt. Not wanting to miss out, Winston Reid ran up and slammed a custard pie into both their faces and Troy Deeney ignored all of that, before gloriously drifting the ball into the net from an acute angle and making it 2-2.

Half time came and went, but sadly the trombone music played on, and truthfully we were lucky to escape with a 2-4 defeat.

6. What The World Is Waiting For

Everything started brightly on Saturday, and ended with us playing Fletcher, Calleri and Tore up front. That's right - Bilic's masterplan to get back into this game was to take the bloke who scored twice, play him at right back and bring on Gokhan Fuckin' Tore who has played 4 times for us and I already think is dire. Or Kieron Dyer. Which is the same thing.

Payet set up two goals, but blasphemy though it may be to say it, looked off the pace to me. Once Watford got to grips with our plan (Give it to Payet, then Antonio), we had nothing in response. There were a lot of players getting used to each other, and others getting over injuries but we never fully convinced as a unit, and that was the most alarming part of the day today for me.

It should also be pointed out that once it got back to 2-2, the crowd disappeared from the game completely. Up until then, the Watford fans were pin drop quiet and the atmosphere was fairly decent but as goes the team, so goes the crowd and after half time it was all about infighting and standing up.

Whatever you think about the new ground, it's not hard to see that our home record will drop off this year. As an friend of mine said - it could be like playing 38 away games.

7. Going Down

West Ham's back four prepare for the game on Saturday.
8. Don't Stop

Lots of people are writing about this.

If you've made it to then end of my waffling and feel you can stomach some better writing then try here where Terry Land presents his view of Saturday and nails a lot of my thoughts too.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Manchester City 3 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Hors D'ouevres

My last post was somewhat swathed in negativity about West Ham and I'd like to counteract that a little. Sadly the actual game I'm writing about didn't offer me that opportunity, so before we get on to our latest adventures in debacleland, I thought I'd share a story with you all that made me incredibly proud to be a West Ham fan.

During the last school term, the head of literacy at my daughters' school came up with a rather good plan to try and get boys more interested in reading. She wrote off to several leading professional sports clubs asking them if they could send old, unused programmes to the school as this was almost exclusively the only thing that certain young boys could be enticed to read.

A number responded with small donations of ten or so - Manchester United, Leyton Orient, Harlequins RFC and, to their credit, Spurs. From West Ham, the club with the most young fans in the school, there was nothing.

Disappointed, the Head Teacher wrote again to the Club, reiterating the request and explaining that this was a school squarely in their catchment area and full of disappointed young Hammers who were desperate to read all about Joey O'Brien's record collection.

A week later he received a telephone call from none other than David Gold, who apologised profusely for the oversight and explained that with the upcoming Stadium move having just been sprung on them, there was an awful lot going which had only been exacerbated by a number of our fans deciding to take up renovating coaches just as Manchester United arrived in town. He then passed him through to the Department of - actually I have no idea - Programmes, who explained that the school could have whatever the Club still had in stock.

And so it came to pass that loads of young West Ham fans received a bulk delivery of old programmes after a personal intervention from our Chairman. Say what you will about the way the Club is run but I thought that was fucking brilliant.

2. Mains

What I think we're all currently trying to figure out, is whether or not we should be panicking yet. It is, after all, three games into the season and therefore the perfect time to assess things if you're an idiot. Now, in fairness to those on Twitter who are warning that the Four Horsemen are upon us, we have played 7 competitive games this season and won just 2. That's a pretty shitty start even when you factor in our injury list, which can only really be described as "West Hamian".

However, some perspective is required. The injuries matter as they have robbed us of 3 of our 4 most important players (Payet, Lanzini and Cresswell - Kouyate is the other, in my opinion) and mean that we are seeing players without the requisite ability or confidence starting games.

But beyond that, look at the fixture list. Over the course of this season Chelsea and Man City are going to be two of the toughest away trips in the league, for everybody. We should have got a draw at Chelsea - overmatched even though we were - and here we put up a reasonably decent fist of it in the second half. In between, we bored Bournemouth into submission and thus sit with 3 points after 3 games. It could be better, but it could also be Stoke. So let's wait and see how we fare against Watford in a couple of weeks, with a few players back and an international break to fix up some of the tactical messes we've been creating. If we lose that though, we should all go apeshit.

3. Pep

God bless plucky little Pep Guardiola. Battling along with just the best squad in the league and £150m of new players to work with he has somehow managed to turn things around at everybody's favourite friendly oil baron's plaything. After the shame of losing at home to us last year, it never really looked like that would be repeated once Raheem Sterling put City into the lead after just 7 minutes.

Once Fernandinho had doubled that lead on 18 minutes - akin to being punched in the face by Santa Claus - it really did feel like we had got our West Ham back. I fully expected us to lose by 4 or 5 goals, but credit to the new found resilience of Bilic's side we stuttered through to half time with the score still at 2-0.

At half time Slav abandoned his experimental homage to the Ajax youth system, which dictates that forwards must be able to play at right back to learn every position on the pitch, and brought Sam Byram on. This had the dual effect of allowing our best attacking player Michail Antonio to play further up the pitch and also removed Gokhan Tore from the field of play where he had been stumbling around with all the impact of your drunken uncle Barry at a wedding.

With Antonio freed to actually do something other than chase aimlessly around after Nolito, we got back into it in the second half but a lack of real cutting edge eventually did us in and we settled for one of those "lost 3-1 but it could have been 6-0 so just think on that before you get too uppity" kind of defeats. I consider these to be even more intrinsically West Ham than Bobby Moore himself.

4. Slav Against Humanity

There is a funny board game that I discovered recently called Cards Against Humanity. You may be familiar with it, but if not let me describe it a little. Each player in the game is given ten white cards which have random statements on them. A black card is then placed in the middle of the table with an open ended sentence on it, and players then have to complete the sentence using a white card and the funniest version wins, as selected by the player whose turn it is to judge that round.

As an example, on holiday recently a card was drawn that said "Delays on the Underground today were caused by....." and the answers given were:

a) ...two midgets shitting into a bucket
b) ...sperm whales
c) ...Christopher Walken

My friend genuinely went for c) having decreed that the first two were "just stupid". I'll leave you to consider that for a moment.

Anyway, what does that have to do with West Ham? Well, I'm beginning to suspect that this method is how Slaven Bilic is deciding where to play Michail Antonio. Before each game he lines up the cards and Edin Terzic, Nikola Jurcevic and Julian Dicks all have to try and make the big guy laugh the most with their answers.

"Today Michail Antonio will play..."

a) ...right wing back
b) ...Vladimir in a production of Waiting for Godot
c) ...Christopher Walken

"Ha-ha, nice one Dicksy! A back 5 it is"

You're probably familiar with the statistics. The most headed goals in the Premier League over the last year, and second only to Dele Alli in midfield goals over the same time despite not actually playing in midfield. 

He is being picked there because Bilic doesn't think Byram is up to it, and because our squad is top heavy with attacking players and he's trying to shoehorn Antonio into the side. One would think this might lead to us buying a right back and letting some of our front players go, so naturally we have bought holding midfielder Edmilson Fernandes and striker Simone Zaza for reasons I can't fathom at this point.

Michail Antonio has now deservedly been called into the England squad and I'm pretty sure it's not so he can play at right back.

5. Central To The Problem

I'm just going to say this - I think we have a problem at centre half. Winston Reid got injured last year and has not been the same since.

James Collins told everyone he was in the form of his life last year and it sort of became a narrative, but it was noticeable that he didn't play at Euro 2016 until suspension kicked in and before then he was kept out of the side by James Chester.

Angelo Ogbonna is our best pure defender but he is also Italian meaning that his customary corner marking tactic is to envelope forwards like a Portuguese Man O' War. This is being clamped down on heavily this year and seems like a penalty waiting to happen. Note how he was absolutely nowhere near Fernandinho when he headed in his goal.

With no Tomkins around, these are the prime options and it felt like Bilic didn't much fancy any of them and so just went with 5 at the back. This was supposed to lead to marauding wing backs but instead led to us sitting deeper and deeper as Man City toyed with us in the first half.

Reid is probably the best player of all three and the one who is most able to stabilise things with a return to form.

6. Not If His Throat's Knackered Though

If we're talking about Reid then we should also mention the elbow in the throat he took from Sergio Aguero. Although he's not a typical dirty player like, oh I don't know, Diego Costa it was still a red card offence and he should have walked.

That said though. Arthur Masuaku should also have been sent off for persistent fouling and was very fortunate to last the game. I'm pretty sure he wasn't dismissed solely because referee Andre Marriner thought it was all a bit one sided anyway and felt a touch sorry for us.

I particularly enjoyed the Chelsea fans on social media who launched a campaign to get Aguero banned retrospectively, arguing that if it had been Diego Costa everyone would have been going mad. The reason I found it amusing is because this incident was exactly the same as a Costa one. Everyone saw it, it should have been a red and it wasn't. He didn't get sent off - just like Diego Costa!

Diego Costa - hard done by. Everyone knows it.  
7. Talking Diego

It's an article about a game against Man City, so let's talk a little more about seismic dickhead Diego Costa. Or more specifically refereeing decisions of the type he was involved with in our first game. Here is a little run that West Ham endured in a crucial five game run at the end of last season:

Everton (A) W 3-2 (Everton awarded penalty for foul committed outside the box)
Chelsea (A) D 2-2 (Chelsea awarded last minute penalty for "foul" committed outside the box)
Crystal Palace (H) D 2-2 (Kouyate given red card, later rescinded, when leading 2-1)
Arsenal (H) D 3-3 (Lanzini goal incorrectly ruled offside)
Leicester (A) D 2-2 (Leicester awarded last minute penalty because FAIRYTALE)

Now, every set of fans in the country could compile a list of decisions that they feel have gone against them, but these were either flat out incorrect "line" calls or widely pilloried judgements where even the national media were sympathetic toward West Ham.

That run of decisions, amongst other things, did for our Champions League hopes. Now we are just three games into the new season and we already have seen two opposition players not being sent off when they clearly should have been. These things happen, and it's a long season but it feels like we're due a run of shockingly bad decisions that actually benefit us.

8. I'm Formulating A Theory Here Slav...

Slaven Bilic after Man City:

"We stayed in the game. I wasn't happy at half-time, I asked the guys to show character and spirit and a different mentality, which they did. Praise for the team for the second half performance."

Slaven Bilic after Astra Giurgiu:

"We didn't play good in the first half or with desire as a team. We were second best."

Slaven Bilic after Chelsea:

"When you lose a game and concede late, of course you are disappointed. Apart from the first 15 minutes until we equalised, they were much better than us. We came back into the game. We played well after 1-1, but we made the mistake in the middle of the park. We gave the ball away and conceded a cheap goal."

Chasing games is not a good way to win games. It might help us immensely if we didn't start so badly so often.

Friday, August 26, 2016

West Ham 0 - 1 Astra Giurgiu (And Other Ramblings)

Before we begin you need to know something. Anyone who has read my last column will know that I was pissed off about not getting a season ticket at the new ground. I think the Clubs decision to allow existing season ticket holders to bring two friends with them was unfair and has marginalised a lot of genuine fans with far more history of following the Club than some of those who now have very cheap season tickets. Lots will disagree with me, which is perfectly reasonable, and I write this not to debate the point, but to simply remind you to read this column through that prism.

1. Everything Old Is New Again

So I did a series of tweets on this game last night and then decided that 140 characters wasn't quite enough to capture the full glory of the experience. And thus another biennial H List post appears.

I'll try and keep things linear and describe the entirety of my experience from beginning to end. Having been away for all three of the prior games played at London Stadium, I decided to cave in to the constant badgering from my 9 year old daughter and take her to a game. "It'll be good" she said, thus proving definitively that children should not be allowed to make any decisions that involve entertainment.

I began on the West Ham ticketing website, which allowed me to select our seats but which wouldn't allow me to pay for them. I won't lie - I found this shocking, given that pretty much the only area where West Ham have consistently demonstrated market leading excellence is in taking money from their supporters.

Undeterred, I abandoned modern technology and went full 1999 in my attempts to watch Astra Giurgiu by calling the Ticketmaster hotline. Here I was informed that I was 89th in the queue and could expect a wait of around an hour (at 13p a minute - it's the West Ham way).

Feeling ever so slightly agitated I tried the website again, which was still stoically informing me that I had no right to buy tickets for Claret members despite us both being Claret members, before yielding to the inevitable and calling Ticketmaster back. The young lady I eventually spoke to was very apologetic, and seemed upset with the online system which will come back to bite her when the machines rise up and take over the world. Although if that rebellion is being led by the West Ham ticketing system I'll still feel fairly comfortable that we can outflank them.

So, as requested, she booked me two seats on the end of the aisle, which was my cunning plan to avoid the standing issues that have plagued others with young children, and we parted as friends.

Two weeks later, I had not received a confirmation e-mail or indeed any tickets. The club did then send me an email the day before the game telling me that they were fairly certain someone in the post room had mailed out our Claret Membership cards, but Darren was off last week and you know what Graham's like so on the off chance that it hadn't happened, would I be a sport and pop to the Ticket Office a mere two hours before kick off and get paper tickets then?

Leaving aside the fact that I bought our memberships weeks ago, I was a bit puzzled by this chain of events. Where was I sitting? I had still received no details of our seats. Oh well, I've seen Karren on The Apprentice and that's always a slick endorsement of modern business practices so I shouldn't worry as doubtless this little chain of events would end up with a relaxing customer experience the following night.

Well, lo and behold, the cards arrived on the morning of the game and off we went. I logged in to my ticketing account and took a screen shot of the seat details and showed them to a steward when we arrived - who sent us off to Block A. On the opposite side of the stadium from the one I'd requested, but at this point I was simply glad that we were in the correct stadium at all so I ignored that. We joined a lengthy queue and then in a stunning turn of events, the cards didn't work.

Like a fat Frodo, I wasn't to be defeated and thus we went back to the ticket office where a frazzled looking lady printed us paper tickets, just like Gandalf would, and then looked at me like I was asking for her kidney when I mentioned that I'd been trying to find out for three months where I was on the Season Ticket waiting list and would she be able to help me? I'll own up that one - I think my timing was a little off there.

Now armed with paper tickets we wandered back and in a moment reminiscent of Indiana Jones finding the Holy Grail ("Only the penitent man shall pass") we entered London Stadium a healthy 9 minutes before kick off. Off we went to find our seats where I was delighted to discover they were slap bang in the middle of the row. Skynet getting it's revenge in early.

Now, this has been a largely negative commentary up until now but I should point out the many things about last night that were enjoyable. The tickets themselves were amazingly cheap. I paid £22.50 for my daughter and I to watch top level football, and also West Ham.

The staff that we encountered were also all exceedingly helpful, all sympathetic and all very good at their jobs. Nothing was too much trouble, and I got the distinct impression that we were far from alone in experiencing difficulties getting in. And I do understand that it's a new stadium, with lots of people using it for the first time and lots of teething problems.

So, I can give the Club a pass for not really having their shit together but it still made for a largely miserable experience up until that point. Being inside the ground though I drew comfort, because after that crappy 90 minutes nothing the players could serve up would be any worse.

And yet, of course it fucking could.

2. Atmospheric Pressure

Before we get to the game, and believe me when I say I'm putting that off as long as possible, let's talk about the surroundings, briefly.

There is a moment when you enter a new stadium where it rises up in front of you as you leave the concourse and head to your seat. It happened to us last night and the look of wonderment on my daughters face was almost enough to wipe out all the misery up to that point. London Stadium is a huge, sprawling arena that has been impressively customised to feel like home. She loved the crossed hammers and the massive player banners outside. It's a nice looking set of digs alright.

It has its flaws, of course, and the running track is horribly obvious. There is no feeling of being on top of the pitch like there was at Upton Park, and I wouldn't exactly say there was an atmosphere inside so much as the sense of an atmosphere. Old pockets of supporters have been broken up and distributed around the ground, and new fans have arrived and it feels like it. But on other nights, when the opposition are more meaningful, the team are better and the stakes higher I can see how the noise will swell up and move around the seats like a slow moving wave.

Of course, I still remember my first trip to Upton Park, but that didn't inspire awe in me, more a homely sense of comfort. It was a back alley bare knuckle fighting club compared to this gladiatorial Colosseum, and truthfully you'd probably rather have the former on most days but for the big games it will be fine and for midweek home games against Accrington Stanley it will seem like Lord's on Day 4 against Zimbabwe.

3. Stand And Deliver

At the moment most fans seemed to be most upset about the fact they aren't allowed to stand and have taken to tweeting David Gold about this in a furious temper, which makes sense because Gold is a football club chairman and prints the Daily Sport and is therefore in charge of standing regulations at live events in England.

I am not sure exactly what it is about this that is puzzling so many fans. Football supporters are not allowed to stand consistently at matches and haven't been able to do so for decades. When I had my season ticket at Upton Park the club went through a period of sending lots of letter to fans in the Bobby Moore Lower about persistent standing where they repeatedly asked people to stop as they were at risk of having their capacity slashed.

This seems to be the same deal. As far as I am aware, Newham Council grant West Ham a permit to host live events, and if West Ham can't guarantee that their fans will co-operate with the terms of that permit then they are able to impose limits on capacity. I read a Twitter rumour that this was the reason behind the big block of unsold seats at the Bournemouth game. I can't confirm that, but I believe it is also true that these problems are now preventing the Club from getting permission to extend the capacity upwards of the current 54,000.

So when those fans take to Twitter to bemoan the fact that they can't show their pashun for the Club by standing up and abusing Enner Valencia, it is worth remembering that their actions are actually stopping other West Ham fans from being able to see their team - literally in the sense of those behind, and also tangentially as the Club can't increase capacity while they do this. If they feel that strongly about safe standing perhaps they should register with the Footballer Supporters Federation who do lots of good work in this area.

But logic isn't the strong point of mass gatherings of people, particularly those who feel they have a cause, and so with their hearts full of the desire to stand up and yell things at the referee, many supporters last night chose to eschew singing anything in support of the team and instead focused on singing "Stand up if you love West Ham" for the entire game. Because remember folks, nothing shows how much you love the team like standing up to boo them. You just can't get the necessary basso profundo when you're sitting down.

4. You Can't Spell Infant Without The Word Fan

I will get to the game soon I promise, and rest assured I don't want to write about it anymore than you want to read about it. But first I just wanted to make a couple of observations about the crowd last night. I've been in absentia from West Ham for a season or two but last night was the most ethnically diverse crowd I've ever seen at a game. Additionally, there was a much increased percentage of women and girls in the crowd too. For that alone, Sullivan and Gold deserve credit for seemingly moving the Club away from it's long time (ageing) white male fan base.

But where I was sitting there was a weirdly poisonous feeling in the crowd. This was primarily because most fans were drunk, a long held side effect of late kick offs, and not particular to the new stadium. One trio of dashing young gentlemen arrived 20 minutes into the game and then proceeded to call everyone "cunts" when they didn't stand to join in with any of the 400 renditions of "Stand up if you love West Ham". These lads were big on showing pashun, and less big on actually watching the game, and certainly unconcerned about the high volume of small children sat near them.

Elsewhere, a guy in the row behind me spent the entire second half shouting "You're shit Valencia" every time he or Michail Antonio touched the ball, to the point where I actually questioned if he was a West Ham fan at all. Meanwhile the three teenagers in front of me were so bored they took to not-at-all annoyingly throwing their Sprite bottle in the air and attempting to land it upright, whilst the young boy behind me played on his iPad for the full 90 minutes. None of these things are especially remarkable, but when you combine them with the footage of some fighting in the crowd and pictures of some people wearing other clubs colours you can see there seems to have been a bit of a change in demographic.

When you increase the number of tickets available, and then lower the price of those tickets you remove barriers to entry for people. Some who couldn't afford a ticket can now come (this is a good thing) and those who were previously not too bothered about attending can also now come (this might not be such a good thing). I think there were a lot of the latter sat around me last night, and it shocked me a little. The joy of a season ticket is the like minded sense of devotion that it engenders in you and your fellow season ticket holders. The communal suffering is almost cathartic. My concern about the new stadium is that it encourages football tourists, a transient group who come for the experience and not for the cause of supporting the team. No one in my section did anything last night to support the team, and for that reason it was one of the least pleasurable games of football I've ever attended. And I had a season ticket at West Ham for 25 years so terrible football games is an area on which I am an undisputed authority.

5. The Game!

I enjoyed the way that the stadium is decked out to honour those heroes of the past. Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds for us and Ennis, Farah, Rutherford and Bolt for athletics fans. It's nice - a tie to the past in a way that makes you nostalgic but also highlights that all journeys must begin somewhere.

To that end, Slaven Bilic also decided to pay homage to Alan Curbishley last night and seemingly pick a team for a 0-0 draw. There were many tropes that I noted and enjoyed - the right footed centre half at left back, the right footed winger on the left, the left footed winger on the right and the substitute centre half being chucked up top for the final few minutes to really highlight what a successful summer it's been in the transfer market.

If this particular West Ham team was to play an entire Premier League season, there is little doubt in my mind that we would be relegated. There were contributing factors, of course. We had no fewer than nine players missing, which is pretty good going even for West Ham, but there were also lots of things to worry about.

Has a team ever looked this lacking in match sharpness seven competitive games into a season? Where the fuck did they go on their summer holidays - somewhere with an all you can eat buffet based on the lack of dynamism on display.

There was also a worrying lack of progression to our play which highlighted the missing creative players. Tore nominally fits that bill, but playing on the wrong side and lacking fitness he just looked like Alessandro Diamanti without the end product, which is really saying something as the Italian is the footballing Sagrada Familia - 130 years and still no finish.

Elsewhere, Kouyate ran around a lot and Obiang looked very decent so naturally he's being shipped out on loan. Enner Valencia appears to have lost all confidence and Reece Burke might have a strong hair game, but a left back he ain't.

It was a scratch team, and they played like it, but there was a worrying lack of intent and incision that will get badly punished by better teams in the Premier League. I could go into the match stats but it's all too painful - we lost deservedly due to not being able to create anything and an absolute masterclass in time wasting from Astra. Fair play to them.

6. Squad Goals

Primarily my concern is how far backwards we appear to have gone from last year. We are just a few months removed from a fabulous season and yet the squad appears substantially weaker. Alex Song has been replaced by Harvard Nordtveidt, Victor Moses by Gokhan Tore, Emmanuel Emenike by Jonathan Calleri and Eliott Lee by Ashley Fletcher.

It's only early of course, but the first two seem substantially worse than their predecessors. Emenike was one of the worst players I've ever seen at West Ham so if Calleri can stop missing one on ones every game he couldn't fail to be an improvement, and Fletcher is already the player who presently looks to have the most to offer of our new boys.

Of course, Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli are currently undergoing their initiations and are therefore unavailable - at most clubs they make you sing a song, at West Ham you do your hamstring. Welcome aboard boys!

Simone Zaza is also apparently about to arrive for a cool £24m which seems like a lot, but I paid £7.40 for a stale hot dog and a Sprite last night so I think we'll be fine, and so long as he stays off the penalties he should be a good addition. Arthur Masuaku also looks decent enough as a stop gap until Aaron Cresswell returns and reminds us all what good full backs actually do.

The problem with that amount of turnover is that there is a period of time when those players need to be moulded together. Very good players fit into any system, but it can't happen instantly and rather sadly we are already into the new season. Bringing a team together on the hoof is challenging and we have the double whammy of lots of difficult away games to open the season, while our home games are winnable but we're still struggling to settle into the new ground.

It will take time, and by cunningly playing like the Watford Long John Silver Impersonators we have ridden ourselves of the pesky business of playing in Europe. Ironically, those players who were so inept last night are largely those who would have benefitted most from a decent European run in terms of playing time.

It seems highly probable that some will now be loaned out. After all, how do you fit all of Carroll, Sakho, Valencia, Zaza, Calleri, Fletcher, Payet, Tore, Feghouli, Ayew and Antonio into a front 3? Of course, this being West Ham that will probably remain a largely hypothetical question.

7. Editors Note

My wife has just reminded me that our daughter is 10, not 9.

8. In Summary

A decidedly mixed experience. There is a notable new stadium effect when teams move to new surroundings and I think it's highly likely that we will be affected by that this year. It's a shame that the team is so disjointed at present, as I think a fully fit squad could have hit the ground running and gotten off to a flier. Still this is West Ham so I might as well wish we could have a unicorn as a mascot as wish for a fit group of players.

I can see long nights of frustration ahead as teams sit back and defend, and hit our shaky looking back four on the counter attack while Bilic struggles to get some cohesion into our play. We'll be fine, eventually, but there will be bumps in the road. Our next 5 home games are Watford, Southampton, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Stoke all of which are winnable and all of which have banana skin written all over them.

'Twas ever thus. I suggest we all sit back and enjoy the ride. Or stand. But only if you love West Ham mind you.