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

Friday, July 20, 2018

Let's Fix Modern Football - Pipe Dreams Edition

Imagine writing a long article highlighting the ludicrous, self serving, avaricious attempt by England's self styled biggest football clubs to murder the game, and then casually chucking in there that you had some plans to address those same imbalances. 

Imagine no more. I did it. And here I am, staring at my screen feeling a little too much like I've finally got something in common with Theresa May. This is my Article 50 and if I just have some belief in myself, everything should magically turn out alright.

Much time has passed since I wrote that first article. The big clubs eventually got their way, with everybody finally acknowledging that what English football really needed was for Bournemouth and Brighton to give some of their overseas TV money to Liverpool and Chelsea, lest any of those smaller clubs ever used the cash to close the gap to the elite and make the division interesting.

Outgoing Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore presided over this change, and was hailed for holding the league together, rather than losing those Big Six to a European Super League. He was thus able to explain to Daniel Levy that he'd come up with a way to scupper the idea of Blackburn ever winning the league again, despite the fact they've done it more recently and more frequently than Spurs. 


Hero

But before I begin, I need to briefly address a few points that came out of the initial piece:

1. This is a waste of time

I know this. I'm a blogger on the internet. Everything I write is a waste of time. There isn't going to be a great uprising whereby we suddenly level playing fields all over Europe and next years Champions League final is Huddersfield vs Celta Vigo, even though that would be brilliant. 

But it's alright to dream - it's all they let us do, after all. 

2. Stop Moaning - It's only what you did to the Football League

Well, yes, this is true. Although you'll probably remember West Ham getting heroically relegated immediately prior to the formation of the Premier League. That's the fabled West Ham Way.

But even if that is true, it's not a reason to allow ourselves to complacently accept the status quo as an irrecoverable situation. My primary challenge to anyone proposing changes to English or European football is always the same - do these measures make it more or less likely that Hull or Chesterfield or Yeovil or even Millwall can win the Premier League? Can we get Getafe into a Champions League final? Can Crotone win Serie A?

Unless you're trying to level the playing field for everyone, you're part of the problem. Or put another way - enough with this mendacious and solipsistic way of thinking spouted by the media at large that fans of teams like Arsenal somehow deserve success because they've gone a whole five years without a trophy.

All football fans are equal. It's really not a difficult concept. 

3. You just want to make it easier for West Ham to win things

Again, yes and no. I want it to be realistically possible for all teams to win. I want an end to the current situation where all football fans buy TV subscriptions and consume goods with cash that then flows back into the game through sponsors and TV revenue primarily to "The Big Six". Those six teams are the minority and it's time we ended their grip on the game.

I suggest it's possible to have a system whereby teams win things because they are better run, better managed and have better youth development rather than because they are Liverpool and they've got enough UEFA subsidies to buy half of the Southampton team. And let's face it, any system that requires smart leadership is extremely bad news for West Ham.

Like I said before - this isn't a West Ham thing. It's a football thing.

4. Go and watch a non-league team if you don't like it

Ah yes, that old staple. The only true fans are at Boreham Wood.

People love their football teams no matter what level they play it. Hell, even Manchester United fans are as devoted to their team as any other. But no one set of fans are any better or more deserving of success than any other - that's really the whole point of this article.

5. Making English football fairer damages our chances of winning anything in Europe

English teams have a chance of winning European trophies? Who knew? Well lads, I'm afraid that while you prohibit any teams beyond the self styled "Big Six" the opportunity to play in the Champions League then we're not going to care about it, are we?

But, the broader point is fair, and that's why these proposals are for the whole of European football - I am the President of UEFA, after all. Imagine therefore, that I was actually doing my job and representing all football fans on the Continent instead of pandering to those in Asian TV markets and those of the G14. Instead imagine a world where money was more evenly spread and Southampton and Ajax could hold on to all those players they've developed and meet in the Champions League final. That's what we're aiming for.

It's also another reason that none of this will ever happen.


***


Alright, so with all of those caveats in mind, what am I planning? Well, let me delay you again slightly and explain the genesis of some these thoughts.

Most of my ideas have come from studying Major League Baseball in the US. No one could ever accuse our American cousins of not giving capitalism a fair crack of the whip, but when it comes to sport they have a surprisingly nuanced world view.

There is a tacit understanding within American sports that competitive balance is hugely important and that US fans don't simply want to watch the same teams winning championships year after year. Now, they also (sort of) elected Donald Trump as their leader so let's not get too caught up in praising their thinking, but there are lots of things we could learn here.


Let's copy these guys - they seem to know what they're doing!

To start with, here are the Major League Baseball champions over the last twenty six years (chosen to match the Premier League era):

New York Yankees (5), San Francisco (3), Boston Red Sox (3), Florida/Miami (2), St Louis (2), Toronto (2),  Atlanta (1), Arizona (1), Anaheim (1), Chicago Cubs (1), Chicago White Sox (1), Philadelphia (1), Minnesota (1), Houston (1) and Kansas City (1).

By contrast the Champions League has been won in that timeframe as follows:

Real Madrid (7), Barcelona (4), AC Milan (3), Bayern Munich (2), Manchester United (2), Marseille (1), Ajax (1), Juventus (1), Borussia Dortmund (1), Porto (1), Liverpool (1), Inter (1), Chelsea (1)

To summarise, that's fifteen World Series winners taken from a field of thirty two teams, with another eight having made the World Series in that time span. Big money teams still top the list, but it's still possible for smaller teams to succeed in a way that it simply isn't in European football.

By contrast, we see thirteen winners of the Champions League, taken from a field of every single European club in existence. 

Now, offering up baseball as a perfect comparison is flawed because there are several striking differences. Firstly, there is no real international alternative league for playing baseball so MLB can impose a luxury tax on player salaries without the risk of those players going to China for more money. 

They also have a college and high school system that produces players for them, meaning that bad teams are able to replenish their playing staff through an annual draft, with players they have not had to pay a dime to develop.

Neither of these things are true in football, and that causes us significant problems in trying to pick up tips on equality from baseball, but there is still plenty to be learned.

And here we go. Here's what I would do as President of UEFA, in a utopian existence where I didn't have to pander to anyone for votes, or to sponsors for cash or to sportswear manufacturers for their influence. Pipe dreams baby:

***

The Home Club

Under my proposals, when a player signs for a team at the age of 18, that team is forever designated as his "Home Club". In order to qualify, they must play at least a year with the club after this point, in order to stop Chelsea just registering every child in the South East as their player.

I'll hold off explaining why for the moment, but just remember this, as it will become important. Think of this as like the bit in Sherlock when you meet Moriarty very early in the script but don't realise it. It's the same thing, except not at all.



I don't know what I'm saying anymore

Squad Sizes

Squads will now look like this:

  • FT25 - A twenty five man squad - with no homegrown quota - that the first team is selected from. 
  • FT40 - A forty man squad of registered professionals over 21 who are contracted to the club. This includes the FT25 squad, but the key point here is that players can't play for the first team unless they're in the FT25 squad. This is where your under 23 players sit. 
  • Y25 - A 25 man squad of players between the ages of 18 and 21. When a player reaches the age of 21 he must be added to the FT40 or he is allowed to leave the club.
If a player gets to 21 and isn't included in the FT40, he can leave the club without a transfer fee. If he gets to 23 and isn't included in the FT25, he can also leave the club without a transfer fee. There are loads more bits of nuance around these rules, but the simple objective here is to stop teams hoarding young players they have no capacity or intention to play. Fly free, sweet Rueben Loftus-Cheek.
Loans
  • A team may have a maximum of five players out on loan at any time. A player on loan is not counted against these squad limits but must be added when he returns.

Injuries

  • An injured player can be removed from the squad lists and place on the Injury List. During this time he is not eligible to play for the first team, and must stay on the list for a minimum of ten days. 

So, let's just assess all of that for a moment.

You'll no doubt be thrilled to know that the actual rules around implementing this are ludicrously convoluted but the simple fact is that by reducing the number of players any single club can have registered at any one time we force players to be more evenly distributed through the game. By virtue of this talent pouring out from the better teams in the league, then it seems reasonable to assume the wider game would be strengthened. Now other European top flight teams have a chance to pick up young players from the Big Clubs™, and by extension we should see a trickle down of talent to the lower leagues too, as the biggest clubs can no longer have first team squads with as many as 34 players.

Similarly, there is a specific rule here which is that when a player joins his "Home Club" at 18, he agrees to a "service period" of 5 years. If, at the age of 23, he is not in the FT25 squad then he is free to leave. This prevents the problem of talented young players being hoarded for ages by clubs but not being able to leave.

To prevent the largest clubs from circumventing this rule by sending 38 players out on loan  there is also a restriction in place on loan arrangements. No more than 5 players can be sent out and they have to be added to the FT25 of the receiving team.

Your immediate thought here might be - "Jesus Christ, this is the most boring article I've ever read"  and I can't argue that this is pretty dry stuff. So, to tide you over, here's an inexplicable Sunday League photo. As President of UEFA I can reassure you that I remain firmly in support of this sort of thing.


Low xG on this shot

But you might also be thinking that by restricting squad sizes, we force young players to struggle as the very top teams will simply continue to buy all the best players in the world, and with squad places so valuable it would be unlikely that young players would get much of a chance. That seems reasonable, and therefore we need to incentivise teams to prevent this. Which brings me back to that concept I mentioned before of the "Home Club". 

Revenues

Under the prize money arrangements in the Premier League, in 2016/17 each team received £84.4m for participating. They then received a "merit" payment dependent upon their league position.  For reference, Chelsea received £38.4m for winning the league and Sunderland took home £1.9m for finishing bottom. And anyone who saw them play would probably consider the Black Cats were fortunate to get anything.

Then there is a third slice of income known as a "facility fee" whereby teams receive money dependent upon how frequently they appear on television. Leading the way in that season was Manchester United who were paid £32.3m. They finished sixth in the league and you might remember that one of the arguments the "Big Six" make for taking more money is they don't want to reward mediocrity and I just died of irony.

The lowest paid teams received £13.6m, giving Manchester United a very nice leg up before we even add in their UEFA monies and additional gargantuan commercial revenues.

Under my proposal, that third slice would change dramatically. Instead of receiving money based on how often they appear on TV, the teams would now receive money based on how much of their squad they had developed through their academy. To the extent that they have players in their squad developed by another team, then that team receives the portion of the prize money for that player.

In the 2016/17 season a total of £404.2m was paid out under the "facility fee" arrangements to Premier League clubs. Divided equally this would have seen each club receive £20.21m each, so let's halve that and say that each team now gets £10.10m each as there is a guaranteed minimum already built into the current formula. But now we remove the link to TV appearances and instead we look at the "Home Club" of each player on the FT25 squad for the PL teams.

With each of the 20 teams having a FT25 squad, we have a total of 500 players. With £202.1m left over from the "facility fee", that equals prize money of £404,000 to each club per player on the FT25 squad.

Let me demonstrate this using the West Ham squad for 2016/17. These are the players who made most appearances for us that season, although in reality I would suggest that the way to determine allocation could be to use the 25 players with the most time spent on the FT25:



25 Man SquadHome ClubCountryHome Club Fee
AdrianReal BetisSpain-
RandolphCharltonEngland404,000
ByramLeedsEngland404,000
CresswellTranmereEngland404,000
ReidFC MidtjyllandDenmark-
OgbonnaTorinoItaly-
CollinsCardiffEngland404,000
FonteSporting LisbonPortugal-
AntonioReadingEngland404,000
LanziniRiver PlateArgentina-
PayetAS ExcelsiorFrance-
AyewMarseilleFrance-
FeghouliGrenobleFrance-
NordtveitHaugesundNorway-
ObiangSampdoriaItaly-
NobleWest HamEngland404,000
FernandesFC SionSwitzerland-
KouyateRWDM BrusselsBelgium-
SnodgrassLivingstonScotland-
ToreHamburger SVGermany-
CarrollNewcastleEngland404,000
FletcherMan UtdEngland404,000
CalleriAll BoysArgentina-
ZazaAtalantaItaly-
SakhoMetzFrance-
Paid to English teams3,232,000
Development Payments6,868,000

The first thing to note here, is that West Ham only get paid a further £404,000. Tough - they should have developed more of their own players. If teams want to keep more of their prize money then now they have a distinct incentive to make sure that they have homegrown players on their FT25.

Remember also, however, that West Ham would receive shares for Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe, James Tomkins and Glen Johnson. It's complex, I guess, with money flying around everywhere but it ensures teams with productive academies are rewarded. And it's nowhere near as complicated as trying to figure out UEFA coefficients.


So see, there's this thing called a "Home Club"

Another ancillary benefit is that £2m has been paid down the pyramid to lower league teams. Multiply that across 20 Premier League clubs and we start to get a little more parity back into the game. And if we're really feeling revolutionary then we would apply these same principles to the Merit prize money too. From Che Adams to Che Guevara, just like that.

However, you will see there are a large number of players developed outside of the English system. It doesn't seem reasonable for English teams to have money earned as a result of a TV deal for the Premier League, paid away to clubs outside of the country.

Instead, in this example West Ham are given this £6.868m but they are only able to spend this money in two areas. Half will go their Academy and the other half to the West Ham Ladies teams. I have labelled these as "Development Payments".

If this to be modelled across the whole Premier League I'd imagine that initially the larger clubs would get a lot of money under this system. But bear in mind this is because teams like Chelsea have enormous youth squads and have developed a cottage industry selling these players on but never graduating them to their own first team.

The whole point of the new squad restrictions is that teams simply cannot do that any longer. Over time, I think this would even out significantly and create a "one in, one out" culture around players meaning we would see a far more even spread of talent.

One point to consider is that if we were to apply this method to all teams in the footballing pyramid you could end up with a situation where smaller teams are having to make payment back up the pyramid to bigger teams for developing their players. It may therefore make sense to say that this particular criteria only applies to the top two divisions in a country.

FA Cup

How to make cup competitions relevant again? Straightforward enough - the FA Cup winner (or equivalent) now gets a Champions League spot.

Finishing fourth isn't really an achievement, especially given the current imbalance. Big teams will try to push for seeding if this happens, so therefore that is outlawed immediately.

Also, at the time that the draw is made, whichever team is lower in the league is designated the home team for the tie. The same will apply to all European domestic cup competitions.

League Cup

In the event that the FA Cup winner is already a Champions League qualifier, then the qualifying spot doesn't pass to the runner up, but instead passes to the winner of the League Cup.

"Hey!" I hear you say. "That's not fair - how can winning a cup be deemed equivalent to finishing fourth in the Premier League?" Well, yeah, that's not really a like for like comparison is it? I'm saying that teams who win things should be rewarded for it.

Alternatively, think of it as not rewarding mediocrity.

Europa League

Gone is the nonsense league structure and we revert instead to the old UEFA Cup format. The prize money on offer for the Europa League this year is around 30% of that on offer for the Champions League, so we'll try and balance that up a little as well by upping it to 50% and reducing the Champions League pot accordingly.

Also, no more parachuting the weakest Champions League teams into the Europa League. When you're not good enough to beat Ludogorets you can go home and think about it rather than be paid another few million by UEFA and given another competition to enter.

Champions League

The same distribution model as seen above will be applied to the Champions League and Europa League prize money. The "Home Club" principle continues with the only restriction being that teams won't pay money to clubs outside of the UEFA organisation. In that scenario the money is held by UEFA and invested into programmes for "minority" football programmes such as those covering players who are blind, deaf, autistic, suffer from learning difficulties or are physically disabled.

Football, after all, is for everyone.

What I like about this is that, under this structure, teams like MK Dons and Shrewsbury would have received - and will continue to receive - prize money for the Champions League performances of Dele Alli and Joe Hart.

European Super League

One common threat from the elite whenever the rest of us try and persuade them not to destroy the game, is to threaten a breakaway Super League. As tempting as it is to say "off you go", I'm now the President of UEFA and I probably can't be so cavalier about my organisation.

I'll try, therefore, to do something slightly different. Any player, therefore, appearing in such a Super League would not be able to appear in any UEFA international competition. No European Championships and no UEFA members able to select them for World Cups. As such, the elite can have their league but can only fill it with players who have retired from international competition or have no chance of playing in international tournaments. So, the Dutch, I guess.

Womens Football

As mentioned above, teams will now be forced to spend a certain amount of their income on their Women's teams. This will also require that all clubs actually have women's teams. I mean, imagine being Manchester United and not offering your young female fans a team to follow and idolise until now.

If your objection to this is that women aren't as good at football as men, you should log off and go find another blog. There is nothing for you here.


World Cup heroes come in both sexes

Youth Football

There was a distressing article in The Guardian last October by David Conn, highlighting the incredible rate at which young kids are hoovered up by large clubs and then spat out when it is clear they won't make it. In these cases there seems to be a distinct lack of care taken by the clubs over the academic education of these kids, or the mental health of those in their systems.

Therefore, clubs will be forced to spend more on their academies (using the Development Funds shown above) with a particular focus on these two points. This isn't more money to make those kids better or make the team more successful. It's to better support the ones who aren't going to make it.

And once again, the restricted squads are designed to help with this point by making clubs decide sooner on the fate of these kids. I'm sure there is an argument to lower the age at which the "Home Club" principle is enshrined too, with 16 perhaps a better age.

Additionally, any agent wishing to operate with a UEFA sanctioned club must now pay a 10% levy to the domestic FA of any club he receives payment from, which in turn must be spent on domestic football facilities.

Club Links
No more can teams in different countries be owned by the same individuals or corporations. No more links, or feeder clubs. The fans of Vitesse deserve to be more than the holding pen for Chelsea's youngsters.

***

And what, I hear you ask, would any of this achieve? How does implementing these complicated restrictions help in any way? How is this anything other than the footballing equivalent of a Dan Brown book whereby it all seems like it's quite clever, but none of it actually works and at the end of it all Tom Hanks is inexplicably an Aston Villa fan?

In short, I don't know.

I've been thinking about this stuff for a while, and mostly it's just percolated pointlessly with no real sense of an ending. Indeed, I wrote this article in October 2017 and then just sat on it because it seems so pointless. This is largely because I know it's all redundant thinking and that the requirements to make any of this work are astronomical.

Take, for example, the idea of Premier League clubs paying money to lower league teams. This wouldn't get anywhere because the EFL and Premier League are separate entities. So, in that sense, it's a pipe dream.

But as a thought experiment I think there is some merit in asking ourselves quite how far we are prepared to let all of this go. How long are we prepared to watch a sport that is so blatantly rigged in favour of certain teams, and at the same time routinely forces smaller clubs flirt with oblivion because there is no proper trickle down effect? Why are people lauding the genius of Jurgen Klopp for spending world record amounts on Alisson and van Dijk, and failing to acknowledge the inherent privilege of historically successful clubs like Liverpool? Let's get reality to one side for a moment and ponder what football would be like if it made even the most basic nod towards allowing everyone to be competitive.

Therefore, feel free to let me know where this goes wrong in the comment section below. I'll be interested to hear from you all, irrespective of who you support or whether you agree. I already have some thoughts of some fellow supporters of great repute and will post them up in due course too.

They raised many salient and valid objections to my suggestions, not the least of which being that the Premier League clubs outside of the Big Six were guilty of even greater greed by failing to vote against the proposals for the new revenue model, convinced as they were that they themselves could get a bigger slice of the pie.

My only request - don't tell me it will never happen as I know that already. It's a series of pipe dreams that might lead to greater equality and would thus be considered a grave danger to modern football. I know it's unthinkable.

But football is broken for all but the elite. I think we have a duty to try and fix it. Feel free to join the cause.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Dream of Summer

"Oh how is it that I could come out to here, and be still floating?
And never hit bottom and keep falling through, just relaxed and paying attention"
- The Byrds, "5D (Fifth Dimension)"


West Ham 0 - 0 Manchester United (And Other Ramblings)


Hold me - I'm bored

With safety comes excitement, they said. Watch us throw off the shackles and dance like it's the last night of our holiday, we thought. How wrong we were. Jose Mourinho and his footballing muzak rolled into town and now I feel like those poor Manchester United fans have spent the whole season in an elevator. 

I feel lightheaded. Up here where I sit, among the cormorants and the parachutists, games such as this play out as if I'm watching a dream. Nothing is happening. All this effort, and all this expense and still somehow Ashley Young is probably going to go to the World Cup. I feel like I'm on drugs. We could end homelessness in our country for the money it took to assemble this Manchester United squad. Such equivalencies are obviously false but I'm watching Luke Shaw waddle around like a duck on a diving board and I can't help feel that somewhere along the line our society went badly off the rails. 

I first felt like this, incidentally, when Babylon Zoo wrote eight seconds of a song, then played it at the wrong speed and accidentally got to number one. This game is not holding my attention. 



Ask your parents

We are unchanged and looking for our first successive wins since January 2017. That feels both remarkable and quite plausible all at once. We have not been a good football team for quite some time, after all. David Moyes is losing the PR war, and responds by fielding all his available attacking power. That means Arnautovic, Mario and Lanzini and no rest for the two central midfielders who are going to have to do their running for them. As it is, we start with all the confidence of a team hunting down 15th place, and Adrian is soon pressed into a number of smart looking saves. He seems quite good. We should probably play him more often. 

The defence looks surprisingly alright, bending but not breaking, with Declan Rice the standout man. His development has been one of the few positive elements of this season, and should render James Collins unnecessary. Instead, below me, several fans are calling for the Welshman to be given a new contract, for he plays the infamous "West Ham Way". I didn't realise that phrase meant missing half of our games injured and then smashing it fifty yards in the general direction of the strikers when you are fit, but there you go. Despite not playing since March, our fans are adamant that the 34 year old Ginger Pele must remain. Thank goodness the club isn't run according to the whims of the general public. 

But of course, it is. ExWHUEmployee revealed this week that the club will be running some online polls in order to gauge fan opinion on the manager and the stadium - as though not listening to the fans has been the root cause of all our problems. And so we find ourselves at the mercy of social media groupthink because the people who own the club have had their confidence blown to pieces by years of making bad decisions. Normal people would probably just hire somebody more qualified to help out, but instead, our gang of octogenarian nutjobs are asking the saloon bar inhabitants of the White Hart in Benfleet for their thoughts. 

It would be impossible to invent West Ham if we didn't already exist. 

David Sullivan looks like a drowning man. His head of recruitment has gone, he is unsure about his manager, his vice Chairman has nine jobs, the stadium is a monument to his own failures and his supporters hate him. Whatever you may think of him, I doubt he's enjoying his job right now. 

Shorn of self belief, he is therefore turning to fans. It's cowardly really, but populism and appeasement are all the rage right now. Give the people what they want, and then throw your hands up when it turns out to be a barrel load of shit. I don't want you to ask me who the manager is because I don't have any fucking idea. That's your job, David. 

Below me Luke Shaw wobbles the post. It seems only fitting. 

***

"I don't know what to say
You don't care anyway"
- New Order, "Crystal"

Once upon a time Manchester United at home was a date to ring in your calendar. They were great games, where you would stand for ninety minutes and then the other seven that referees would add on while Fergie's lot tried for a winner, and you could be guaranteed entertainment. We lost some mad games at Upton Park - 5-3 and 4-2 spring to mind - had several barnstorming 2-2 draws and then the odd famous win, capped off with the fever dream summer festival of nostalgia that was the 3-2 win to bid farewell to the Boleyn. It should have been the springboard to something bigger and better, but instead feels increasingly like the day we all said goodbye to a love we will never be getting back. And Sebastien Schemmel was there in a black cab for some reason. 

But football clubs are living organisms and change constantly. It was just five short years ago that Alex Ferguson was still guiding the visitors and only 24 months since Dimitri Payet was causing us to expand our horizons and dream a little bigger. We declined immediately, while Manchester United have instead said the long goodbye. Once, I watched them play whenever possible because their games were unmissable, even if you hated them. Now, they border on the unwatchable, like a Formula 1 car driving with the handbrake on. 


Can't you get someone sent off?

And so it's nearly half time and we've had a couple of moments. Anything decent tends to come through Arnautovic, who is manfully besting Smalling and Jones while they foul him at every turn. I've come to the conclusion that we still have the attacking scene stealers that were so important to those late nineties teams I referenced above, but we lack the supporting cast. Once we could rely on Trevor Sinclair, Steve Lomas and Frank Lampard to diligently understudy our leading lights. What riches. The drop off now is palpable. Too many are average or in decline. In the moments when he can be bothered, Paul Pogba looks like he is playing a different sport. 

Half time comes and goes and I've not yet been roused out of my chair. Michail Antonio didn't die for this. We continue to spark intermittently, primarily when Lanzini gets on the ball and Arnautovic gets on to someone's shoulder. At the other end, Adrian is still flinging himself around with elan, and Rice is mastering the art of the last ditch tackle. A football match has nearly broken out. 

Far off, in the South East Zone of the technical area, Moyes has seen enough. On comes Andy Carroll, like the guy arriving two days late for a stag do and off his nut on ketamine while everyone else is unconscious in the hotel lobby. God bless Andy, who plays for twenty five minutes and manages not to win a single header. Instead he unveils a dazzling array of twists and turns, displayed with all the grace of a crane rolling down a hill into a skyscraper, and some Quite Nice passing skills. This may actually be the best way to deploy him until his next injury.

With Carroll on the pitch we switch to the 4-4-2 formation that lots of people have been demanding. This leads to our wide midfielders being Joao Mario and Manuel Lanzini and Manchester United still can't score. It should be said that this is primarily because they aren't trying. Even Marcus Rashford can't make any difference despite Mourinho introducing him with enough time to score his customary goal. 

Somewhere in the ambience Mark Noble and Paul Pogba have one of those football fights where nobody does any fighting, but it's at least nice to see the two most diametrically opposed haircuts in the Premier League together at last. Cheikhou Kouyate doesn't get involved and instead lays down on the floor, asleep. Moments later Luke Shaw does the same thing, or maybe he's found a burger on the floor, and only then do I realise that £750m Manchester United are running down the clock against a team with Patrice Evra and Jordan Hugill on the bench.

The assistant referee optimistically signals three minutes of added time, which is Referee for "let's all just get out of here" if ever I've seen it. Mourinho makes two substitutions that take so long that the clocks go back during one of them. Jon Moss has to get home and he blows up despite the ball never actually getting back into play. A point. Boredom. No wonder those Premier League television rights packages remain unsold. 

***

"Tell me that you'll dance to the end
Just tell me that you'll dance to the end"
- The Thrills, "Big Sur"

West Ham 3 - 1 Everton (And Other Ramblings)

Three short days later and I'm back again. Once more unto the breach with one under achieving, over spending set of North Westerners exchanged for another. We have become experts around here on the subject of whether a football club can retain a shred of identity when it is being pummelled by the twin forces of avaricious owners and the relentless march of the Premier League towards a homogeneous mass of identikit clubs. Everton are next up, as they swap Goodison Park for a new waterside stadium and an owner who has already blown the thick end of £200m to make them slightly worse than Burnley. These are worrying times for those of us with our noses pressed up to the window, watching the Big Six huddle round the trough.


I'm very much in favour of this sort of thing

But Mourinho has gone, and like the Dementors from Harry Potter, has taken the cloak of depression with him. It's the last day of the season! Sunshine, long range goals, players dreaming of Cancun and Arnautovic and Pickford trying to out shithouse each other. It's a welcome relief at the end of another season of sliding yet further down the hill.

We start with our trio of attacking sprites once more, and Everton can't seem to get near them. This is particularly interesting given how much the visitors spent on trying to buy their own frontline. A couple of hundred million quid and Allardyce still left Rooney and Walcott out despite them both being guaranteed to score against us. Never change, Sam.

Our early play deserves better. Lanzini nearly gets in before a minute is on the board, and then Arnautovic slips in Noble to force a brilliant save from Pickford. The Everton keeper then seems to kick Arnautovic off the ball, and then celebrates with the travelling fans. It would be a shame if that comes back to bite him on the arse later. Meanwhile Angelo Ogbonna tries to control a ball with his Adam's Apple and lets in Oumar Niasse, which Adrian saves brilliantly. He seems quite good. We should probably play him more often.

Half time is approaching without the neccessary reward for our endeavours. And then we start passing again, and suddenly Kouyate has freed Lanzini by accident and the Argentine is sliding a left footed finish past Pickford from outside the box. It is a rose in the snow, a diamond in the soil and a bit of a worry if this kid is actually going to be in goal for us at the World Cup.

Everton are disjointed, with only Niasse and Tom Davies truly standing out. The latter is young, wears his hair like a matador and doesn't seem to quite have the pace to be a truly elite box to box midfielder. If Everton are going to carry on with their West Hamic transfer policy, we should make a bid for him - he'd be a legend here. Elsewhere I'd be inclined to mock the ageing Phil Jagielka if it wasn't for the fact that I'm genuinely worried he is the kind of player we will buy this summer.

Neither he or his two centre back partners are able to get particularly close to Arnautovic, who is thriving in his new central role. That tactical switch from Moyes seems to have flown under the radar but the ineffectual wide player of the first half of the season has been replaced by a Lidl Ronaldo and it has kept us in the division. We should probably acknowledge that at some point. The Austrian puts his own full stop on the sentence by turning Funes Mori and smashing a long range effort through Pickford's hands. Based on the evidence of this game alone, I am concerned that our World Cup goalkeeper has wrists made of crisps.

Everton threaten intermittently and even bring Walcott on, but their heart doesn't seem to be in it. The away fans look glassy eyed - they aren't used to such treatment in this part of the world. When they win a corner, I am relaxed as we know it will go long to the back post for someone to keep alive with a looping header back into the box. And as I wait for one of our defenders to do some defending there are three more headers and Everton have pulled one back. It is the most Allardician goal possible.

But Lanzini is in one of those moods he can get in. Everton have little by way of deep midfield cover and the Argentine is running riot with Joao Mario. Their passing and movement is exquisite and the final day of term feel is reinforced by Pablo Zabaleta continuously appearing in the box and trying to score - like an enthusiastic 12 year old trying to get served in a pub. It would be a popular goal for a player who has done much to endear himself to the crowd and yet must surely be replaced if we are in any way serious about improving this team. Time waits for no man, especially not one playing for the second oldest team in the division and the slowest in the hemisphere. I've seen baths run quicker than our midfield.

By the time Lanzini steps easily inside Coleman and places a glorious curling effort into the top corner, it feels like justice. Pickford could maybe have saved that one too, and in the spirit of glasnost I think he should try wearing goalkeeping gloves this summer, rather than giant inflatable hands. Panama have never seemed so terrifying.


Seriously, Jordan

And just like that, it's over. I am contented - maybe even malcontented - which is a strange and unusual feeling. My Pavlovian reaction to games of football in this place is to be upset and despairing, and wondering whether there will ever be time when we won't have to compete with the rest of the division with one hand tied behind our back, courtesy of our chaotic management structure. Instead today, I am smiling, as players mill around their pitch with their families, and the landlords remove the goalposts as they go because we've only got the place until six. Sadiq sure does know how to put the "lease" into "Please fuck off, the Stones are here in a week".

James Collins basks in the applause of the still stunned masses. I've always thought he was a decent squad player, but that his frequent injuries and uneven form made him a curious terrace hero. He has never once made 30 league appearances for us in a season, and played fewer times in the claret and blue than Steve Lomas. According to my Twitter feed, he is the lifeblood of this club. Maybe he is, and that's why we're dying.

I profess myself bemused by the sudden outpouring of love for a player in his mid thirties, with visibly declining skills. I can't understand those who call for a new approach to signings and then want Collins back, but perhaps I am once more forgetting the innate romance of football. I think Collins is a symbol of a past we all suddenly value more dearly than we cared to admit when we were marching out of Upton Park for the promised land.

***

"What she said was sad, but then all the rejection she's had
To pretend to be happy could only be idiocy" 
- The Smiths, "What She Said"

With this game being on a Sunday, we all got the benefit of hearing from "The First Lady of Football" once more before setting out in search of a pub within a mile of the ground. This time she manages not to insult anyone until the very end of the article, which is kind of like the time someone from HMRC managed to make it nearly all the way home before losing the USB stick with all the sensitive data on it.

For some reason the Baroness decided that she needed to use her last column of the season to say this:

"We have some problems at the London Stadium caused to a degree by the terms of our lease, which we are dealing with, but also to some degree by malcontents and keyboard warriors"

Yes, Lord Sugar, I decided to deliberately insult all my customers and pretend that their complaints about me were totally imagined.

I get that there are issues with the Labour Mayor wanting to make the deal signed by his Tory predecessor look bad, and I have no doubt that the failure of the landlords to adhere to their side of the bargain is frustrating and expensive to deal with. But the fact that the seats are miles from the pitch isn't an issue with the lease, it's an issue with the design. Here is the artist's impression that we were all shown before we moved to the Olympic Stadium:


Look closely. What is clearly shown here is a section of seating that overhangs the lower tier. This is not the case anywhere in the Olympic Stadium and a root cause of the frustration we all feel. The gap between the permanent seating and the temporary scaffolded stuff is incredibly distracting,  breaks your vision and, crucially, leads to a sense of disjointedness which is killing the atmosphere in the ground. Along with our back four all being grandparents.

This picture also fails to show the very obvious curvature of the seating caused by the running track. Pointing this out doesn't make me a malcontent or a keyboard warrior, but instead makes me a pissed off customer.

I have long defended Brady in these articles, because I think too much of the criticism thrown her way is because she is a woman. I stand by that because even a cursory glance at her Twitter timeline, or that of any other high profile woman in football for that matter, will reveal a distressingly high number of men abusing her for the simple crime of not looking like them. We privileged white middle aged males, who so dominate football in England should never kid ourselves about how many of our tribe are desperately terrified at the prospect of anyone different from us being given access to the game.

But, and I hate to follow that up with a but, we would surely benefit from less Brady at West Ham. At a cool million per year she would be poor value if she were full time, but as it is, she now has multiple jobs and hasn't done anything visible in her role with us since the infamous saga of the marches. The stadium move is complete, and it failed, but there is no changing that. I'm really not sure what her role is anymore, and if her view is that she wants to antagonise supporters, then maybe she doesn't either.

***

So all that really remains is for me to say thank you. 

Thank you to everyone one of you who has read these articles throughout the season, and even more so to those who then passed them to others. To those who have commented and "Retweeted" and "Liked" and "Shared" I am hugely grateful because I know that without you The H List would not have gone as far as it has. 

I must thank Graeme and the guys at KUMB.com for carrying The H List and for those who have supported me on other forums such as Reddit, In The Brown Stuff, Hammers Chat and WestHamOnline and my apologies to anyone I've forgotten. I am grateful too, to No Place Like Home and Blowing Bubbles for carrying articles of mine on their pages and to Jim and Phil at Stop!HammerTime for having me on their marvellous podcast throughout the season. I am very grateful to all of you. 

I was very proud to be nominated for an award at the Football Supporters Federation gala in December, and remain very humbled that so many of you took the time to vote for me. I was well beaten, though, so those of you who didn't vote should feel bad. 

I intend to write a couple of retro pieces over the summer, so please let me know if you have any suggestions for games or players. My only rule is I need to have seen the era....

It's been a tough season, and I've truthfully never felt so unsure about the direction the club is heading. We need a lot of new blood from top to bottom, and the splits in our fanbase are devastating.  But at the core of our disjointed mess still remains the club I fell in love with. Nothing can beat the electric thrill of the first time you see West Ham, and we shouldn't forget that for an entirely new generation of fans, the London Stadium will be their Upton Park. Sure, they might miss out on the strange alchemy of home games under the lights, or the heaving mass of humanity that was the North Bank when a goal went in, but they already have Lanzini ending Spurs title bid and Payet slaloming through the Middlesbrough defence and Carroll destroying the concept of beauty against Crystal Palace.


The night of the malcontents

Our club endures, and so do we. It remains the imperfect conglomeration of people and ideas and love and edginess and humour and failure that it has always been, but we've allowed that to be buried somewhat among the weight of this awful season. But in the storm, hope. Take it where you can find it - Declan Rice, Marko Arnautovic, the kids and their popcorn, the corner flag protests, your child telling you they can't wait to go to the game or, hell, it can even be David Moyes.

But whatever it is, find that thing that keeps you connected to your club. Treasure it and remember it, because I think it's getting harder to do that these days. And yes, while they can change a lot of things, they can't change that indelible link you have to West Ham. It's yours. It's ours. It most certainly isn't theirs. We are the concrete foundation of this club, and the more of us that stand shoulder to shoulder, the higher we can build up. I foresee another difficult season ahead and more than ever, we need to remember those things that made us Hammers to begin with and then stand side by side to remind each other of it. The owners aren't this club - it's me and you. Let's not forget that.

And of course, join WHUISA.

Until next season.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Leicester 0 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Come on, come on, and dance all night
Despite the heat it'll be alright"
- The Lovin' Spoonful, "Summer in the City"



Thank fuck for that.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

West Ham 1 - 4 Manchester City (And Other Ramblings)

"I don't want to spend night after night with you
While you figure it out"
- She and Him, "I've Got Your Number, Son"

A LETTER TO DAVID SULLIVAN

Dear David

This is one of those open letters. God, how tedious of me. I've become one of "those" people.

I know, I know - I should be better than this. But then again, so should our team after eight years of your ownership and instead we're going to either go down or survive with fewer than forty points. Neither of us have much to shout about.


First question - where on earth do you get your jackets?

I should be writing about this game, but to be honest, I've got nothing left to say about West Ham capitulating at home. I've seen this game a dozen times already at the London Stadium since you moved us there. I don't know how many more times I can say that Cheikhou Kouyate is no longer in control of his own legs, or describe Javier Hernandez nearly breaking out into a walk.

So let's just talk, you and I. Two seriously pissed off West Ham fans with an eye on the future.

I'm guessing that this weekend was tough for you. Perhaps I'm naive but I still believe that you are a genuine supporter, albeit one with a remarkably high tolerance for the team you support being abysmal. I suspect it must be galling for you to sit in Director's Boxes with the officials of clubs like Burnley, Swansea and Brighton and have to offer up polite chit chat while the team you have assembled at such great cost gets destroyed in front of you. I can't believe that at least a couple of them haven't at least leaned over and whispered something along the lines of "David, old chap, not to pry but exactly how incriminating are the photographs that Patrice Evra has of you?".

You're not a quitter, you say. You're not walking away from a job half done. Fair enough, I suppose, although I think you might be pushing the limits of the word "half" there. It's the standard rhetoric of people in jobs that are beyond them, but which remunerate them handsomely. And rest assured, I think we are all aware that the several million pounds of interest that the club pays you each year probably helps to while away the hours on those long drives back down the M1 after yet another Northern shellacking. 

I happen to think that people who refuse to quit when they aren't up to the task are selfish. People mocked Kevin Keegan mercilessly but by resigning as England manager in 2001 he helped England to reach a World Cup, by admitting he wasn't up to it. I find that infinitely more courageous and honourable than sticking around despite all the evidence being that you don't possess the ability to do your job. I'm. Just. Saying. David.

***

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. For our story begins some time ago. 2010, to be precise, and West Ham was a club on the precipice. We were, according to the BBC, "in 16th, in a season plagued by injuries and off field distractions". Seems a little outlandish, I know, but that's what they said. 

You described the situation thusly - "We have a short term goal to stay in the Premier League, and in the long term we'd like to be challenging for the top four and the Champions League....the club has such an unbalanced squad. We will be honest with the fans about the books and the crazy wages the Icelandic owners paid out that has brought the club to its knees". 

I won't lie, David, that last one is my favourite.

You finished up by saying "We're taking on a huge task at a club with enormous problems. It will take time for us to turn it around.". Remember what we were saying about a job half done? Time travellers from 2010 might wonder if you've even started at all. 

I should also add that there was also some stuff about how you always supported your managers, right before you fired Gianfranco Zola and replaced him with Avram Grant. For a bet, possibly. Anyway, we're five managers in now so I always figured that one was probably a joke. 

Plus ca change and all that, but I wonder if you ever sit at home, looking at those life-size waxwork butlers of yours and wonder whether you are in some mythical Greek hell?

I know I do.

In the same way that Tantalus is forever doomed to stand in a pool of water that recedes whenever he bends down to try and drink it, you seem destined to sit in the bottom half of the Premier League and watch poorer, smaller, but smarter, clubs breeze past you. 

It puzzles you, I'm sure, that fans aren't more grateful to you for saving us. I suppose that can be put down to the fact that a lot of fans don't really think you did. They saw a very wealthy individual swooping in and picking up a distressed asset that was always likely to produce a return with even a modicum of investment. Harsh, I suppose, but there you go.

There can be no denying that the clubs finances look an awful lot healthier now than they did in 2010, but of course this is largely due to the explosion in television rights. While Karren Brady might like to brag about turning around a failing business, most of us are a bit nonplussed by all that. The single best decision you made was to employ Sam Allardyce, at obscene expense, to ensure the club was back in the Premier League when the gravy train rolled into town. And if ever there was a man unlikely to miss a gravy train...


And a pint of fucking wine

***

I have no doubt that you are perplexed as to why exactly a home defeat to Manchester City would inspire all this angst among supporters. After all, City beat everybody, have unlimited funds and scored a couple of flukey goals. Their dominance says an awful lot more about the job being done by the men who run the Premier League and UEFA than it does about you. And, in isolation I'd agree with you. 

I don't understand why so many fans are upset about a supposed lack of effort when it seems clear to me that David Moyes had instructed the team to sit off and hold their shape to try and deny City space behind our defence. We did this at the Etihad to great effect, and I suppose you could say it sort of worked here for about ten minutes. City scored through a deflection and an own goal, both of which were unfortunate but exactly the kinds of goals that you let in when you are shit. And David, before you protest, we are absolutely fucking shit.

But I'm not sure it's this particular defeat that's really the point here. It's the fact that every single one of us knew it was coming. I knew it was coming. You knew it was coming too. I know you did. 

Since moving to the London Stadium we have played the current Big Six on thirteen occasions. We have won three (God bless London derbies), drawn once, and lost nine. In those games we have scored ten goals and conceded thirty four. Holy Shit, Dave! THIRTY FOUR. It's not just that we're terrible, it's that we're reliably terrible. 

We've never once scored four goals in a game at our home ground, and yet Manchester City have done it three times. Once upon a time you could judge a teams title credentials by how they fared at Upton Park, but under your watch, we now get to see how they would play in testimonials. I honestly thought Kevin de Bruyne was going to fall asleep yesterday.


I am incredibly bored!

Whether you accept it or not, the fact that we don't even remotely compete in games against one third of the division is a pretty good reason for the widespread apathy that is surging through your core support like poison through a bloodstream.

***

But I'm sure, you're sitting there fed up at having your efforts ripped to shreds. What of Dimitri Payet? What about that season of finishing seventh? And you'd be right. That was a great season. You should have bought a decent striker in January, of course, but instead did it on the cheap and missed out on a Champions League spot that was begging to be taken. I often wonder about that, and I'm sure you do too. Some better refereeing and Charlie Austin instead of Emmanuel Emenike and who knows where we would all be right now. 

But if wishes were horses, I'd be dragging Nigel Farage through the streets of Calais behind my carriage. We blew it and then returned immediately to the stagnant mediocrity that has been the hallmark of your ownership. Barring that one marvellous season when the Premier League went crazy, big teams fell and little teams rose and bloody Leicester won the league, we have been unrelentingly boring to support. I can describe it in no other way. West Ham on the pitch are generally one of the most tedious sides in the land.


We've got a live one

We just...exist. Drifting aimlessly through seasons, lurking in the bottom half of the table leaving nary a footprint in the sand. All of our impact is on the back pages, as we lurch from crisis to crisis, amusing the world as we go. We are irrelevant on the pitch and shambolic off it, and there is nobody to be blamed for that other than you. I resent being asked to give you my season ticket money before the end of the season because I feel like I will just be endorsing you to go out and waste it once more.

Let me ask you a question, David, if I may. Is there any challenge in your role? By which I mean, does anyone ever tell you that what you're doing is wrong? If not, perhaps you ought to ask yourself why.

Once, many years ago, I worked for a brief time at a place that had a "hands on" owner. The company had two security guards, one of whom worked from 5am until 1pm, and the other from 12pm until 8pm. They had a handover period of one hour in the middle. One day the owner turned up for an operations meeting and noticed them both at reception. Troubled by such an unnecessary display of manpower, he told his operational team to fire one of them because it was ludicrous to waste money like that. Given how long ago it was, this might have saved the company around £25,000 per year.

The problem with this was that it meant we had one security guard to cover fifteen hours. In the end, he did the early shift and the company paid the landlord of the building to have someone come and lock up. The cost of this service? £40,000 per year.

Whether that is apocryphal or not, I don't know, but it was told around the corridors as being true. And nobody was surprised because the distinguishing characteristic of that business was that anybody close to the owner just mumbled in agreement and told him what he was saying was great. It led to a very well paid senior management and a very poorly run company.

Challenge is a good thing, David. People disagreeing with you is healthy, because it introduces some rigour to your decision making process. Getting people into positions of seniority who have a backbone and some vision is a really healthy thing for a company to do. I understand that long term strategic thinking wasn't a huge part of your success in porn or property, but it couldn't be more vital to the industry in which you currently operate. You keep telling us that the manager must have the final say on transfers despite employing five in eight years. Any player signing on anything longer than a two year deal is likely to outlast the manager he signs for. Can you not see that this is a nonsense?

If nothing else, please look around. Examine what is working for those other smaller clubs who have gone skating past you so easily. You need some help. You've done your best, no doubt, but there is so much more intellectual horsepower in those clubs it's not even a fair fight. They have long term business plans that allow them to think further ahead than the next transfer window, and they don't lurch alarmingly from one crisis to another. It's pretty tough to admit, but when your business is failing and you've changed the staff, the place you do business and the management then perhaps it might be time to admit that the only thing left to change is...you.

***

But before you get too excited about making lots of changes, David, I'd like to ask one more thing of you. When you come to make those decisions - please don't do anything for public approval. I know it's been your preferred method to road test ideas by disseminating them through various social media outlets and then gauging public response, but this highlights everything that is wrong with your leadership. Your job isn't to satisfy fans before the season, it's to do it at the end.

I know fans are a nightmare. How can you appease people who scream that they want a high energy pressing game and then scream even louder for Hernandez to be on the pitch? What hope do you have of reasoning with people who insist on playing 4-4-2 without acknowledging that we don't actually have anyone who can play wide in midfield? Where do you go with supporters who criticise Moyes for not instilling a sense of organisation and professionalism into his team and then side with professional waster Andy Carroll because he didn't walk straight back into the team after being out for months? What is up with people who plaster pictures of themselves in the San Siro all over their social media accounts and then tell you they're giving up their season tickets because they're sick of the number of tourists in the stadium?

But that's the point, really - fans are emotional and illogical and moody, but the simple thing we all want is success. Produce a better team and we will fall in line. You need to stop taking short cuts and start working to some semblance of a plan. Or better yet, employ some people to design and implement that plan, because this current squad you have assembled is one of the worst I've ever seen and fans have every right to be pissed off about it.


Not that logical, shockingly

None of which is to say that fans aren't important. We're crucial. But we need you to listen to us on other things, because you've currently got it the wrong way round. And so you stay silent when our fans are threatened, when the stewarding is unsafe, when we are campaigning for safe standing and when that godforsaken fucking stadium turns out to be a total disaster, but find the time to canvas opinion about whether we should sign El Hadji Diouf. This is madness.

Any business making strategic decisions to gain short term approval from their customers is doomed to fail. If you had any belief in your own vision, you wouldn't care remotely for public opinion. Instead we have this strange briefing against Moyes now to prepare the ground for letting him go in the summer. I happen to think Moyes would be a poor appointment, but still the best you could realistically manage, although either way that's not terribly important.

What's important is your long term plan. How do you want to play? What type of team are you trying to build? What profile of player are you targeting and how do you plan to attract them? If Moyes is your ideal candidate then back him and commit to the plan. The problem is that you and I both know that no such template exists. Instead, everything is geared to short term survival and kicking problems down the road until you eventually sell the club and can leave them for the next guy to resolve.

And there's the rub. When you took us from Upton Park you ripped the soul out of the club. But crucially you didn't replace it with anything. I would suggest that the only thing that could really have worked is to have replaced it with a brain. A razor sharp, young, progressive, cutting edge managerial set up that could have bridged the gap between us and the elite. I can't tell you how often I daydream of West Ham Red Bull, David, because it would be no further removed from the West Ham of my youth than your version, and a damn sight more successful.

Instead...nothing. Just the same unimaginative approach that you have always employed, and in the end it has led us to where you have always ended up. At the bottom.

I should add that none of this is personal. I think you're a businessman who saw an opportunity to profit and you took it. But the issue is that you haven't given us anything. Absolutely nothing. Not the stadium, not the team, not the managers, not the Academy, not even any glimmer of hope for the future. And if your plan is to just hang on to the club until the restrictive covenants are lifted and then sell for the biggest profit possible, then you need to be aware of what that will mean for your legacy. And perhaps you won't care, and perhaps your sons won't care, but you'll be forever known as the guy who destroyed West Ham.

I hope it doesn't come to that, David, I really don't. It doesn't need to. We have attributes that other clubs would kill for. Stand aside and let people who know what they are doing utilise them. Look to Kevin Keegan - admit you're not up to it. There really is no shame in it.

Yours sincerely,


HeadHammerShark
Disgruntled of Block 256

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Arsenal 4 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint"
- Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box"

I had a curious experience watching this game. I now coach my daughter's under 10 team - with a heavy focus on shot locations, Expected Goals and fun, but mainly shot locations - and we had a game at 1pm. So I duly recorded this match, avoided my heavily vibrating phone, and watched the game with a two hour delay, and no social media echo chamber to influence my thoughts. 

And after eighty minutes I was bordering on happy. Not only had we thoroughly dominated the first half, but after conceding an epically shit opening goal, we deservedly hauled ourselves back into the game with a thrilling equaliser from Marko Arnautovic. The flaws in the performance were obvious, and the unbalanced, lopsided squad was badly exposed at times, but there was a sense of resilience and purpose to our play that was never present under Slaven Bilic this season. If nothing else, we were finally throwing some punches back, and doing it all on a day that the rest of the world was determined would be a farewell party for Arsene Wenger. 

And then Declan Rice ducked. 


Farewell Arsene - don't suppose we could interest you in a flat in Hackney Wick?

Is it possible to lose a game of football by four goals to one and feel you were unlucky? If so, then this was it. Arsenal opened the scoring when Aaron Cresswell got close to Nacho Monreal at a corner in the same way that Australia is close to New Zealand, and the Spaniard duly took advantage. His well struck volley actually went just inside our post which threatened to open up the old debate about whether teams should have a man on the posts at corners. I say "threatened" because we actually had Arthur Masuaku stood right there up until the exact second the ball went in. The problem is that such prosaic notions as stopping shots hit straight at him are not Arthur's metier. 

Instead, Arthur chose this moment to announce his support for the thinking of the French Marxist philosopher, Paul Lafargue. Big Paul, as I imagine he was known to his friends, lived an eventful late nineteenth century life before penning the renowned essay "The Right to Be Lazy" in 1880. This would prove an influential document for both European Marxists and West Ham squads through the years. And so, as Monreal's shot arrowed towards young Arthur, there followed this exchange:

ARTHUR MASUAKU
(jumping inexplicably to one side)

The proletariat, betraying its instincts, despising its historic mission, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment!

JOE HART

Yeah, that geezer killed himself, Arthur.

And thus we went one down having spent most of the game up to that point being the side looking most likely to score. That's not to say that we were playing particularly well, but we simply exploited the complete inability of any of Arsenal's hopeless defenders to cope with balls over their heads. Thus, a succession of well directed long passes sought out Arnautovic, who used his pace and power to get into a number of dangerous positions. Unfortunately, none led to a goal, but it was an effective tactic in the circumstance, and rather more well thought out than some fans seemed to have given credit for. 

Yet, the problem with our current side is that it is a Jenga column of a team. Removing something from one location and replacing it further up just weakens the foundations completely. And so it was that Manuel Lanzini and, to a far lesser degree, Javier Hernandez arrived to shift momentum, only to leave gaps that would be mercilessly exposed by Arsenal as the light was dying. 

That we were playing at The Emirates today served only to highlight those flaws. The glorious sunlight couldn't help but transport us back those two short seasons to the Dimitri Payet inspired side who destroyed Arsenal on opening day in 2015. That was a side who were set up to defend and then launch spring loaded counter attacks that primarily flowed through our nascent superstar, but which were augmented by the excellent midfield cover of Reece Oxford and the ceaseless running of Diafra Sakho. All are gone now, their footballing gravestones the series of inadequate men brought in to replace them. No matter what you think about this game, the contrast between then and now was dragged out into the bleached sunlight today and paraded for all the world to see. Hubris, thy name is West Ham. 

***

"Now you're at the wheel, tell me how,
How does it feel? So good to have equalised"
- The Stone Roses, "Waterfall"

Before we drop too deeply into our traditional H List inspired malaise, let's just take a moment to enjoy the simple art of goalscoring. Has there been a more satisfying goal this season than Arnautovic's equaliser? Arsenal came at us after half time, and our complete inability to retain possession meant we couldn't get out of own half, but there was still some lingering sense that if we could ride out the barrage we might yet survive. And then after Arthur's "after you" there was that crushing sense of inevitability as another promising start was about to be frittered away. Another war lost for the sake of a stray bullet.

Love the man, bemused by the hair

On some days, you can sense a goal coming in the same way you can feel an oncoming storm. Imperceptible changes and shifts in pressure let us know that something is happening far off in the distance. A dark cloud, a chill breeze, a shot here, a cross there, on come the substitutes and up go the umbrellas. 

Well, that wasn't happening here. 

Lanzini and Hernandez arrived and more men went forward. It left us terrifyingly open at the back, and highlighted even more starkly, the total absence of defensive midfield cover in this side. But with men pushed forward we had a chance to keep a few second balls alive and from one such piece of broken play, Lanzini flicked through to a malingering Arnautovic who turned and drilled home a superb equaliser.

It was one of those perfect moments when it's just possible to forget everything else and live, there and then, in the sheer joy of the present. We have the worst owners in the Premier League, a terrible, ageing squad, a ground we all hate, and a schism the width of a running track between our supporters. In theory, we shouldn't, and indeed can't, compete with Arsenal. But those things are not football. They are paraphernalia. Those things inform and influence but they are not the game.

For the game is beautiful and brutal and unfair and glorious, and as our moody Austrian picked up that half chance and turned on his weaker foot and displayed supreme technique to rifle home a half chance, generating that satisfying snare drum sound as it hit the base of the net, well...well, then we were experiencing the joy of all life.

This season, hell the last two years, have been too short of those grab-your-mates-arm, fuckinghavethat, hairs on the neck, fall forward two rows, "Christ is this really happening" kind of moments. And the very fact that I feel obliged to write a section solely about the goal in a 4-1 defeat is the perfect embodiment of why Sullivan and Gold need to move on. It's like being pleased that your Grand National horse has their saddle on the right way round, immediately before they smash into Becher's  Brook.

So yes, I shall always think fondly of the time that Arnie punched back at The Emirates and brought the music to a sudden, record scratch halt at Wenger's farewell party. It's sad that it's come to this, but come to this it has.

And for twenty minutes thereafter, I thought I was watching our best away performance of the season.

And then Declan Rice ducked.

***

"If the businessmen will drink my blood, like the kids in art school said they would
Then I guess I'll just begin again"
- Arcade Fire, "Ready To Start"

As frustrating as this game turned out to be, I'm not sure what people were truly expecting. Arsenal haven't lost at home to anyone outside the Top Six all season, and with it being the beginning of Wenger's long goodbye, we continued our proud unbeaten 123 year run of being Britain's best party guests. Joffrey should have invited us to his wedding.


They've spent how much on Joe Hart?

But after all this, I don't know how many more times I can go to the well. Chicharito as the answer? He had ten touches after he came on and did nothing. He can't play on his own up top, and if we play with any more than one forward we expose our wildly underpowered midfield, and indeed, one thing that struck me on Sunday was how few of our players are good on both sides of the ball.

The ones who can attack are non-contributors defensively, our midfielders either don't have the legs (Noble), have legs but possibly not their own (Kouyate) or are a footballing graveyard where good moves go to die (Fernandes). The best is obviously Lanzini, who leads the high press well but shouldn't be asked to do too much more. Joao Mario is obviously a decent player who probably needs some time to adapt to English football, and is too rich for our blood. That said, his last 27 corners have all hit the first man so he is at least adapting to some West Ham traditions well enough.

So as much as I want a more adventurous, younger, more mobile, more tactically fluid side, I also accept that Moyes can't possibly be expected to extract that from his current squad. Anyone demanding a 4-4-2 has to acknowledge that the wide players in that formation have to defend. Therefore, you might pick Masuaku and Fernandes to do that, and suddenly you have Mario and Lanzini on the bench, and four at the back and Brighton are beating you 3-0 at home.

It's also sadly true that we have no options in central midfield. Noble was excellent here but needs younger, more mobile legs around him. Fernandes fits that bill, but suffers from the unfortunate drawback of not being able to play football, while Cheikhou Kouyate has declined so much I am going to nickname him "Sterling".

Whatever way I slice it, I find an imperfect squad yielding an imperfect team. It's all well and good to demand a more attacking team but when we commit more forward we end up shipping goals by the boatload, not helped by a goalkeeping situation whereby we'd be better off if we spliced our two options together and had one dive one way and the other take the opposite side.

But much of the issue with how fans feels seems to me to be a classic case of fans failing to appraise the evidence of their eyes and instead thinking in emotional terms of how they remember the players. The problem with that is that players decline so rapidly and so imperceptibly that it is almost impossible for fans to notice when we actually see them play so fleetingly. One of the great tricks of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure at Manchester United was his ability to sell players at the height of their powers, or right at the start of their decline. Beckham, Stam, van Nistelrooy, Ince and Cole were all moved on when it seemed they had something left to give, but were on the wrong side of the ageing curve.

Ask yourself when was the last time we did that? It's rare for us, primarily because we are usually buying those types of players, but also because as a club we have developed a fear of selling, when it would perhaps be wise to accept that some sales can actually be doubly useful because you can clear out declining players and get money back for them. The trick is knowing that they are declining before everybody else does. An analytics department would be useful here.

As it stands now, I would say that Kouyate is one such type. Other clubs may see him as being young enough to reclaim but I'd be prepared to take that risk. Cresswell might fit that description too, and Arnautovic probably does as well, although the club can't sell one of their few usable players. Ultimately we would have to trust the club to make that assessment because that institutional knowledge is critical - we know nothing of who is injured, who is declining physically, or who is becoming less productive as a result of minor tactical adjustments the manager wants to make. Ogbonna is a good example of a player who seemed lost and now should win Hammer of the Year, after some actual honest-to-God coaching.

My broader point is that when fans demand that the likes of Hernandez play more regularly, you can't just do that in a vacuum. It's not enough to argue that he has to start because he "guarantees goals", when all our sports science numbers might suggest he has lost a yard in pace, or Moyes has identified that a penalty box striker isn't much use for a team who don't get in the box very much. I'm just throwing those out there as possible reasons, but my broader point is that all of this stuff is linked and relevant. The fact that he was a good player when he was 26 is not.

***

"Feel the sunshine on your face, it's in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space"
- Blur, "Out of Time"

Fuck this descent into misery. Let's predict the future!

MAY 2018

We flirt with relegation by losing to Leicester but salvage it with a win over Manchester United at the London Stadium. We finish the season up with a 0-0 draw with Everton that is so bad it leads to Jeremy Corbyn proposing to renationalise football. 

With the season over the club announce David Moyes on a three year contract having publicly courted Arsene Wenger until he eventually emigrates to stop David Sullivan calling him. This appointment will ensure stability for around ten months before people start talking about an extension. When asked how the search for a new Head of Recruitment is going, Sullivan denies all knowledge of such a vacancy. He then announces that he and Jack will be attending the World Cup in Russia. 

JUNE 2018

It's season ticket renewal time! Benzema! Bacca! Rodriguez! Welbeck! 

You renew your season ticket, because you're an idiot.

We promptly sign Peter Crouch from relegated Stoke and Charlie Austin's one working knee from Southampton. David Gold gives a radio interview where he states that Financial Fair Play rules make it very difficult to bring anyone else in. Meanwhile, Burnley sign James Ward-Prowse for £30m.

England go out of the World Cup to Senegal. We are linked with every player having a good tournament for a minnow. This is fine, as those guys are always good signings. 

JULY 2018

We sign four players from Panama and Tunisia after they impress in their countries successful campaigns. In order to make this work we sell twelve players, including Jordan Hugill to Preston for £4m. That's how it works. 

AUGUST 2018

We eschew money spinning, useful tours to the US or Asia and instead play three games in Slovenia against Swedish amateur teams. We draw all three. Everything is fine. Only Declan Rice from the first team is actually doing any training, as the others are all either in traction after the World Cup, or on holiday in Mexico.

We open the season with a 6-1 defeat at Manchester City. Moyes and the players describe it as a good run out, leading me to wonder if they are aware the season has started. Newly promoted Wolves win 3-0 at the London Stadium before we get the show on the road with a 1-1 draw at Cardiff. 

Twelve minutes after the transfer window closes, Manuel Lanzini does his knee. 

SEPTEMBER 2018

David Sullivan is busy scouring the globe for out of contract players who we can sign as we finally get a win at home to Swansea with a late Noble penalty. Everyone would be feeling a bit down about our poor start but thankfully we have those flags around the pitch before matches. 

That architect finally gets round to looking at the possibility of redesigning the stadium. His report is one page long and contains two words. 

OCTOBER 2018

The new signings aren't working out brilliantly and are all on the bench, while Austin is in America trying to buy a new knee. James Collins and Pablo Zabaleta are our centre back pairing as we grab an unlikely win at Brighton, who fire Chris Hughton out of shame. 

Michail Antonio returns in the home draw with Newcastle where he nearly lasts to half time before injuring his hamstring. Gary Lewin pronounces himself happy with this progress. Crouch equalises with a minute to go and does the robot and then does a funny Tweet. We lose in the EFL Cup to, oh I don't fucking know, Swindon. 

NOVEMBER 2018

Everybody is injured. There are bodies everywhere. The Club release a statement referencing their unprecedented injury crisis for the tenth straight year.  Mired in the bottom three, Sullivan gives a well thought out, superbly judged interview to The Guardian announcing that if we can just get through to January we can fix it all then, and that Moyes was probably the wrong appointment but nobody else would come. 

We are somehow playing Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool in consecutive games. We lose them all except for Spurs, obviously, which buys Moyes an extra six months in the role. 

DECEMBER 2018

Karren Brady launches her Christmas cookbook, a range of specialist leggings for businesswomen and an album of corporate jingles. She launches this at 8pm on ITV on a Wednesday when we are gaining a surprising win at Fulham. 

We are away on Boxing Day, which is a coincidence, and lose 5-0 at Everton. We do at least welcome back Andy Carroll who tore his Achilles Tendon in the summer doing the Macarena in Tenerife. He plays 17 minutes and concedes 12 fouls. 

JANUARY 2019

Everything is fine! We win all our league games this month as our unprecedented injury crisis that we have every year finally abates. Austin scores four in four, including the winner at Newcastle where away fans now watch the game from a hot air balloon attached to the top of the stand. 


The Mike Ashley Stand

We win our 3rd Round Cup game at Bury live on the BBC who couldn't look any more unhappy about it. Our reward is an away tie at Manchester City. 

With the team surging to 12th and our injured players on the mend, Sullivan announces that no dickhead buys any players in January and instead announces a couple of loans for players who were top drawer on FIFA '15. Neither ever play for West Ham but cost the club £800,000 in agent's fees. This is fine.

FEBRUARY 2019

Doctors discover that Austin's knee is made entirely of chewing gum and he is ruled out for the season. This isn't an issue as Carroll is now returned from a back injury he sustained attempting to pick up a concrete bollard on a team night out in Dubai. 

We lose 5-1 at Manchester City in the fourth round of the Cup, which everybody agrees is a big improvement on the opening day game. The match is played at 10pm on a Saturday night for overseas television audiences. British rail services are so good that some West Ham fans don't get home until March. 

The Annual Accounts are released. The club made a profit of £76m. Nemanja Vidic signs as a free agent to cover for the injured James Collins. 

MARCH 2019

The East Stand at the London Stadium falls down in the middle of the night. It turns out that building a stadium for a two week event and then fixing it up with sellotape and Prittstick is sub optimal. As the Directors aren't in this stand they don't give a shit and agree to meet with the landlord at the end of the season to resolve the issue. 

For his part the Mayor says that he can't be held responsible for things like stands falling down and suggests that West Ham pay £140m to replace it. The case ends up in court at a cost of £25m in legal fees. The Mayor agrees to rebuild the stand, but fifteen feet further back. Sullivan agrees. We beat Wolves 4-1 in our annual "where the fuck did that come from?" away performance. 

APRIL 2019

We avert relegation for another year with two home victories over Burnley and Leicester. Both games finish 1-0 and contravene the Trades Description Act. 

Sullivan gives a well thought out, superbly judged interview to Sky Sports announcing that never again will the Club be in this precarious position and that if we can just get through to the next transfer window then everything can be resolved. In the background David Moyes can be heard sobbing. 

Meanwhile, West Ham Ladies have gone the season unbeaten. 

MAY 2019

We finish 15th.

It's season ticket renewal time! Ribery! Giroud! Bale! Sturridge!

You renew your season ticket, because you're an idiot...