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

Monday, September 18, 2017

West Brom 0 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

I am a terrible Englishman.

I do not drink tea or coffee, and society is simply not able to cope with that. I have lost count of the conferences, meetings and social visits that have ended with me drinking nothing while a host looks on disconcertedly, or worse, scrabbling round in a distant cupboard for some Ribena. Which I also do not drink, but am now forced to out of a desire not to be impolite.

But, to an outsider, context is everything.

I'm not sat in that front room drinking the purple teeth destroyer because I want to, but because it's the least worst thing available to me.


"Who said you could attack?"

And so to the footballing caliphate of West Bromwich, where modern practices are eschewed and shunned in favour of a safety first football that will one day be studied by great physicians of the future as the first cause of mass eye-bleeding in the English Midlands.

Or put another way, this was so terrible a game of football that shortly after the final whistle blew, ISIS claimed responsibility for it.

But all of this has to be placed in a wider context. I'm not sure Slaven Bilic wants to drink this particular brand of Ribena either, but he is left with little choice. The start to the season has been so dreadful and his team so inept that he simply had to act, and the basis of any such self renewal is always the defence.

And so it has come to pass that Bilic has returned to the 3-4-3 formation that best suits his slow backline and least suits his current attackers, and the results have been two clean sheets, four points and great swathes of existential anguish.

Whatever your opinion on the quality of these last two games, one can't deny that it feels an awful lot better to have four points in the bank and to be moaning about the manner in which we gained them rather than being, well, Crystal Palace.

***

This was a curious game in so much as it felt that we were very clearly the better side but the xG map below from Caley Graphics doesn't agree. This is a reflection that while we came closest to scoring, those chances themselves weren't really very good. Instead we relied on individual excellence to fashion something from unpromising situations. Sort of like when Susanna Reid rolls her eyes at some shit Piers Morgan is saying and somehow continues to be professional while working with an hyperactive adolescent orang-utan. 


Entirely appropriate

And so Pedro Obiang brilliantly spotted Ben Foster trying to tunnel his way out of the stadium to play for a team where he wasn't the main creative force, and audaciously lobbed him from all of 40 yards, only to see it crash back off the bar. Chicharito also burst through on to a Carroll flick on and was cynically hacked down by Foster when through on goal, albeit heading away from the danger area. 

But as far as goal scoring chances go, we didn't create too much that would usually result in a goal. Our xG of 0.2 is the lowest I can ever remember from us, which will be hard to comprehend for some given we hit the bar, but if you think about it this makes sense. If Obiang were to try that shot again (which he did in the second half), he would be very unlikely to score (he put the second effort on to the roof). All this is saying is that we didn't create much by way of high quality chances even if we by and large dominated the game in most ways. 


Our best chance was probably a glancing header from Fonte that, on another day, could have flashed into the corner. This is promising because we relied heavily on set pieces last year, although the gap between Payet and Cresswell in terms of delivery is, um, noticeable.

But mostly this was fairly agricultural fare. There were long balls to Carroll once more, and a near complete reliance on Antonio to carry the ball and fashion chances from deeper positions.

Furthermore, Chicharito was once more banished to the left as we continue to sacrifice all our attacking options at the altar of CarrollBall. There was a moment in the second half when Bilic had Arnautovic, Antonio, Hernandez and Carroll on the pitch at the same time during a brief foray into the realms of Ossie Ardiles. This came about because James Collins was injured and Bilic replaced him with Arnautovic and returned Antonio to right wing back AS THOUGH LAST SEASON NEVER HAPPENED.

It boggles my mind, but we're apparently back there again.

***

Reactions to these columns are always pretty interesting, even if not always complimentary. Some of you were upset last week that it was all too negative - why can't you take more positives out of being bottom of the league? - while others think it's all a bit repetitive. For the former I offer no apology, but the latter is, I think, a problem. Some of that is the natural spin off from writing match reports about the same team, which will always lend itself to repetition, but also because we do seem to be stuck in some sort of footballing Mobius Strip. I can't quite figure out if I'm doing thirty eight different match reports a season or the same match report thirty eight different times.


West Ham's road to recovery

For that reason, I can see some glimmers of hope from Saturday, which is kind of ironic because I'm pretty sure that some West Brom fans were engaged in a mutual suicide pact towards the end.

It wasn't much by way of hope, admittedly, but the faint whisper that Bilic is at least seeing what his problems are and making some tangible moves to fix them. We remain a see saw of a team, whereby walking up one end simply causes the other to shoot up. As such, two clean sheets and barely any chances given up suggests that he's temporarily fixed the defensive side of things, but it's clearly been done at the expense of our attack.

In reality that's the right way round, because if you don't concede you can still pick up points, but when you concede two goals every week it places an intolerable strain on the attack. So we have gone with three centre backs and for the most part we look very comfortable although it should be acknowledged that both Huddersfield and West Brom had all the offensive ambition of the Swiss Navy.

Spurs will be the acid test of our nascent recovery. They are a proper team who will be smarting from their last visit and who need a result to stay in touch, even at this early stage. Defensively all our success against them has come with a high press, so I don't really know how we will get on with that on Saturday if Carroll is playing. He doesn't offer the mobility of Calleri and Ayew, who did it so well last season, which causes concern as we don't really want Spurs to have time to pick us apart.

Behind him, with just two in the centre we run the risk of being outnumbered again, leaving Kouyate and Obiang to do too much physical work. It also seems feasible to expect Spurs to target those wide open spaces in behind our full backs. West Brom didn't do this because the last one of Tony Pulis's full backs to cross the half way line was stapled to a horse for a week as punishment.

So, you can say that Bilic picked a fabulous time to get his defence in order, by doing it against two of the least ambitious teams around. Alternatively you could posit that he wasted a great opportunity here to kick the season into a higher gear with an away win at a team who were actively avoiding attacking as if they were some kind of Gandhi tribute act.

***

In examining why we play three at the back - everyone is old and slow and doesn't really know what they're supposed to be doing at any given moment - it's probably worth considering why the 4-2-3-1 has stopped working.

Usually in this formation the two full backs bomb forward, and the deepest lying central midfielder drops into the back line to make a three. There are those of you with coaching qualifications who can better expound on what this does to the game, but looking back to 2014-15 and 2015-16 when we were at our recent peak, we had Alex Song to superbly fill this role. Looking more widely around world football you will also see players like Mascherano - the Catalan Hayden Mullins - Sergio Busquets and David Luiz floating around in these roles.

This fluidity of movement is what separates the elite from teams like us, but it does explain why centre backs quite often appear in midfield roles without explanation. Song fell away for us in 2015-16 but Noble was outstanding that season, and furthermore having Dimitri Payet in your side can help detract from a lot of other deficiencies.

I suspect that Havard Nordtveit was bought for this purpose last year, and it might also explain why Bilic has been so keen to blood the likes of Reece Oxford and Declan Rice. Each are converted centre backs who can play in midfield, and should be able, theoretically, to drop back and assist without the mass panic and confusion that seems to accompany it these days.

With none of these options really paying off, Bilic targeted William Carvalho and might well have got him if everyone involved in the process wasn't a fucking lunatic. But he didn't, and as a result, with Obiang the only player fit enough and impressive enough to occupy the role, Bilic seems to have decided that the chaotic defending being offered by the four at the back can't continue.

What is noticeable, however, is that going to a back three seems to render us pretty impotent going forward. However, that is in contrast to last season, when we actually looked quite fluid at times and produced our better displays with that line up.

The Geordie in the room here is that when we played that way we didn't have Andy Carroll as the focal point of our attack. Playing him, and smashing long balls in his vague direction, seems to negate other players. Hernandez, as seen below, is visibly uninvolved in games when shunted out wide and Kouyate too seems strangely neutered.


Times Javier Hernandez touched the ball and then pondered firing his agent

So while I respect the point, and acknowledge the necessary evil of getting down into the mud and sewers to battle with Huddersfield and West Brom, I'll also add that I really struggle to see how this formation beats better teams.

***

I'm guessing that the coach journey back from this game was an interesting one. Earlier, Carroll went off shaking his head in disgust at the notion of being substituted, with all the self awareness of a man who has actually dyed a section of his pony tail blonde. Already we had seen Chicharito withdrawn, trudging off with demeanour of a man hired to perform magic tricks at a party but then being asked to serve the trifle instead. Neither Ayew or Sakho will be happy on the bench, while the notoriously zen like Arnautovic isn't going to last long as a substitute before going apeshit in some highly public fashion.

That just leaves Antonio, who was shunted back into his least favourite position and suddenly I am left to wonder if Bilic is going to achieve the stupendous feat of giving all these players gametime and somehow keeping none of them happy?

Adding Manuel Lanzini back into the mix further complicates matters, although the reality there is that the Argentine walks straight back in and the rest must fight it out. In the end, I can't really tell you what I think Bilic will do because none of these forward players beyond Antonio and maybe Arnatouvic make much sense for this system.

My biggest gripe with the use of Hernandez isn't so much that he is starting out wide because he can drift infield, but more that he is so deep. It doesn't seem like it should be beyond the wit of man to conceive of a system whereby we get our penalty box striker into the box.

In real terms, it's actually hard to make a case for Hernandez playing if this is going to be the system we employ from here. Arnautovic would do the wide job better and is a more natural fit. Antonio is untouchable on the other flank, leaving only the central position to decide. I suspect Bilic will go with Carroll even though the fans will clamour for Hernandez, and Sakho is going to stay in a bench based purgatory until he can resume his transfer wanderings in January.

In reality, that's probably a sensible decision because I just can't see Hernandez as a lone central striker in this formation. All of which does rather beg the question - what formation did they buy him to play in?

***

It's never a great sign upon entering a football stadium when you are presented with a rock hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster and given the option of "doing a Shawshank" at some point in the second half if it all gets a bit much. But that's the way of it at The Hawthorns.

I actually feel rather sorry for West Brom fans, who are trapped in what I call the "Scudamore Snare" - the club is reliant upon Premier League status and thus this must come before all else. No notion of entertaining football can be considered without first weighing up if it would jeopardise their safety. It is the way of things for mid table sides and we were there ourselves just a couple of seasons ago.

And so it comes to pass that even when they have a good transfer window and make exciting signings like Kieran Gibbs, Oliver Burke and Grzegorz Krychowiak (taking the well trodden path from Seville to Paris to West Bromwich), there is still a feeling that Pulis has only done all of that with a view to turning them each into a centre back. Even Gareth Barry popped up, so slow that he could play for us, and sat in front of the back four looking to break up play. There wasn't much ambition on show.

But for all that, they are a team who know how they play. Each of their players understands exactly what is required of him, and each carries that job out diligently. It's not interesting to watch, but it's effective.

By comparison to us, one would say they are at least in possession of an identity, and an obvious path forward. Buy better players and add some attacking intent and it's not hard to squint and see them in the top ten regularly.

By contrast, Bilic is behind them now. He is striving to find that sense of self and is presumably aware that while his current system seems tailor made to extract the best from Jose Fonte, it is similarly rendering Cheikhou Kouyate almost totally ineffective.

Bilic is a bright man, and will know all this, and the advantage he holds over Pulis is probably that if he gets his system right his attacking players will deliver more for him in the long run.

But perhaps the most pertinent question of all is this: if the way forward from here is to take this Allardycian approach to the game whereby we fixate on defence, respect the point and try to build on top, then why would you ever employ anyone other than Allardyce to implement it? Bilic is hampered here by the fact that he took an Allardyce team and advanced it, before regressing with terrifying speed once Payet downed tools. Few would argue that the current team, in this vein of poor form stretching back to the beginning of 2017, are much different to any of Allardyce's teams.


Miss me much?

And here's the rub. You can play like this to steady the ship for a while but eventually fans will want more. There has to be more to life than respecting the point at West Brom. Thus, the search for an identity goes on but it strikes me that the one you probably don't want to take on at West Ham would be that of Sam Allardyce.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

West Ham 2 - 0 Huddersfield (And Other Ramblings)

As a kid growing up, one of my favourite films was "Big Trouble in Little China". Being a boy from Essex, I'm pretty sure that the attraction revolved around being shown a world totally unlike anything I had ever even imagined before. Up until I saw Kim Cattrall battling the Wing Kong, I'm pretty sure the most exotic thing to have ever happened in Harold Hill was when my mate Danny's dad bought himself a new Fiat Uno and promptly crashed it into a skip.

The plot is bananas, featuring warring Chinese clans, mystical warlords, metaphysical battles and Kurt Russell running around in a tank top. I do not know what else you could possibly want from a film.

I would estimate I have seen it roughly 3,000 times.


The 1980's - rubbish for everything except movie posters and Alan Devonshire

One of the many running gags is the nice subversion of the movie trope of the time, whereby the all American hero (Russell) has to be constantly rescued and kept alive by his Chinese allies. During the course of all this they tell him that "China's got a lot of Hells". They then relay these to him at various points in the ludicrous plot to scare him. The list includes the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces, the Hell of Boiling Oil and the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners. 

To this list I would also like to add - The Hell of Having To Watch Slaven Bilic's West Ham play Must Win Games. 

***

By my estimation, this was the fifth such game that Bilic has faced since the start of last year. Hull, Burnley, Swansea and Spurs were all presented at the time as being of such great importance that should we have lost them, then Bilic would have been sacked. 

The ironic thing is that these games were mostly dreadful - Spurs excepted - but we won them all 1-0.  I'm almost tempted to say that perhaps Sullivan and Gold should make every game like this except for the fact that I'm not entirely convinced they wouldn't take that seriously, the crazy bastards.

Now, twenty fours hours on, I am still unsure exactly how I feel about this game. We won - WE WON - and you don't take that for granted these days as a Hammer. On the other hand, Huddersfield made West Brom look like AC Milan '94 so it's hard to gauge whether this chaotically oppressive performance was indicative of an improved ability to snuff out teams or just a lot of hard work to blow away an awful opponent.

Mostly though, I just want something to dream on. It's draining to always be stumbling from one self inflicted crisis to another, like the newest action hero of our time, Wayne Rooney - Uber Driver Man. And in the end, that's where I've landed. Let's enjoy that all too rare feeling of wandering out of a stadium and being able to excitedly discuss a win.

***

Individually, there were some cheery moments as Michail Antonio turned in the kind of performance to make you mutter "Michail, these men have families" under your breath as the Huddersfield back line were introduced to what I am reliably informed the kids call "Beast Mode".


Exhibit A M'Lud.

Whilst I have described this as the slowest West Ham team I've ever seen, that's not a charge that can be laid at the door of Antonio. He was the central cog of this performance, such as it was, transitioning us from unpromising midfield possessions to advanced territories with either outrageous strength and skill or just via jet fuelled bursts.

As tactically incoherent as I find us to be under Bilic, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that this is the best way to use Antonio. The bottled lightning he poured into our attacks looks to me to be exactly the kind of break that would best utilise Javier Hernandez, or would do if he wasn't wandering about on our left side like a horse who'd got confused and roamed out of his paddock.

What's interesting about that is that when I looked up Chicharito's heat map over at Sofascore.com he actually spent more time infield than it seemed at the game. I wonder if that's because he made several fruitless breaks inside looking for passes and flicks that never came, as we became overly fixated on smashing the ball towards Andy Carroll.





Either way, what is evident is that the Mexican is more defensively diligent than I gave him credit for, but in reality I'm not sure I wanted to find that out. I remain perplexed as to why a renowned, proven penalty box striker would not be the most advanced player on your team.

***

Behind all of this, we lined up with three at the back. I would say that this is really our best defensive alignment because it allows our slow, ageing and disorganised backline to individually only have to cover a smaller area of real estate. Jose Fonte, in particular, seems to thrive in this system and once again looked every inch the European Championship winning centre back that he actually is. Like, really, it's on Wikipedia and everything.

James Collins remains our sturdy umbrella, carried around for conditions such as these where the rain teemed down with such strength that it caused the game to look as though it was being played behind a shower door. On sunnier days, against better opponents who will move the ball with greater penetration he will probably be an unnecessary piece of kit, but here he was in his element.

But the issue with playing this way is that if you have three centre backs you really want at least one who is comfortable advancing with the ball at his feet, or distributing the ball forward with some alacrity. This isn't true of any of our four available centre back options. As such, teams can press heavily against our midfield players and then let our back line keep it, safe in the knowledge that at some point Collins is going to get bored and launch one in the general direction of Andy Carroll, whether he's on the pitch or not.

It also asks a huge amount of the wing backs, as they must perform their defensive duties whilst offering the width that won't be provided by a narrow midfield three. Here, Pablo Zabaleta confounded his critics (including me) by showing off a suitably lung busting capacity to do just that. Some of his forward raids were of the Blackadder-General Melchett-Goodbyeeeeee variety, but perhaps on a night like this he had correctly determined that a bit of headless running about might not be the worst thing in the world.


I see Zaba's gone again

Better teams will exploit those gaping holes behind our wing backs, but for this particular game it was fine as Huddersfield seemed content to keep it scoreless for a while and then rely on the Shitty Late Goal Syndrome to work its magic. As it was, they never threatened and as outrageously fortunate as Obiang's goal was, it felt like the least we deserved.

***

The Spaniard was partnered alongside Kouyate in the most mobile midfield pairing we can put out. They needed to be too, given that the full backs were charging forward like Scalextric cars when your nan has a go at them on Christmas. With Mark Noble mysteriously absent, there was a noticeable increase in mobility but a decrease in actual meaningful passing through that area, not helped by the back three going aerial more often than not. 

Kouyate was somewhat anonymous, getting about the field well but failing to really impose himself on the game as we know he can. I suspect that the lack of play through the middle made it tough for him to get into the game. Obiang, by contrast, got on the ball a lot more but found it equally as difficult to pick passes to get us moving. For all those who want Noble out of the team, tonight was a salutary reminder that central midfielders who can pass and carry the ball aren't to be dismissed lightly. 

It's also worth mentioning that a number of this team were returning from injury. As is customary, the line up resembled a rehabilitation centre as Reid, Obiang, Kouyate, Antonio and Carroll all got minutes under their belt after disrupted pre seasons. It's probably not an unrelated point that because our pre season work seems so amateurish we end up with players trying to get up to Premier League speed during competitive fixtures. 

We tend to eschew the money making tours to the Far East and US but if nothing else, playing a higher standard of opposition before the season starts might get the players a bit sharper. Each of the last two seasons have been characterised by this failing. 

***

So, that's a lot of tactical chat but what of the match? Well it was a scrappy, nervy, tentative affair which seems like a predictable by product of deeming a game a "must win" affair and telling the world that the managers position was "under review" and then having the maddest transfer window possible.

For all that Huddersfield were disappointing. Set up to contain, they did this moderately well for an hour although we went close in the first half when Kouyate narrowly failed to convert a Carroll cross-shot, and Hernandez hit the bar after some more Antonio bullying of the Terriers back line.

But we look a team bereft of confidence and ideas. Our 3-4-3 line up stifled any forward progress from the visitors, but led to some confused attacking patterns too. I would describe us as a footballing Rubik's Cube just now. Whenever Bilic puts something right within the team, he is doing so at the expense of somewhere else.

So the defence was shored up, but the midfield weakened. Perhaps this was precisely why William Carvalho was targeted so strongly. On nights like this he would have been our key player. Shorn of Lanzini and Arnautovic we lacked creativity and guile, but made up for it with a willingness to smash the ball long and play through the driving rain. Say what you will about Bilic, but he keeps winning these games and his team, by and large, continues to play for him.

If Zabaleta truly can play at wing back then that opens up another set of tactical possibilities, and if Antonio plays like that for the rest of the year then he will win plenty of points on his own. But, and you knew this was coming - there are some fairly significant problems in there too.

***
Despite the win, and all the good stuff mentioned so far, I still found this a fairly baffling performance. Most of this revolves around one player - the pissed Geordie elephant in the room - Andy Carroll.

Bilic hitched his wagon to that particular star many moons ago. The beginning of his falling out with Diafra Sakho was when he dropped him for Carroll in the 15/16 season despite Sakho being at the heart of all those famous early wins.

Like many before him, he was suckered in by the siren song of a player who would be worth building a team around if he could ever stay fit and this was a different team. Because of Carroll's persistent injuries it's not possible to set a team up to play completely to his strengths and so we have a curious halfway house. The 15/16 team was flying with an attacking game plan built around giving it to Payet at every available opportunity, and putting pacy mobile forwards in front of him to either create space or latch on to the inevitable inch perfect pass.

This worked splendidly for a long time, and carried on after Carroll was inserted into the team even if he looked as uncomfortable with that style of play as an Australian in a library. But the house of cards couldn't survive the hurricane that was the 2016/17 season. Carroll played in that same system once more, but those other pacy forwards were gone and soon, so too was Payet.

That left us with a team designed to play one way, with a centre forward very obviously suited to another way. There were moments of excellence - we'll always have Boro away - but most of the time, the disconnect between a midfield trying to play a style suited to galloping, mobile forwards floundered as they discovered that they were actually playing with the Angel of the North.

All of which leads me to the question that all of us were asking after last night - what is the plan for Javier Hernandez? Here he was a nominal left sided forward but got about a bit, but rarely into the box. This last bit is crucial, as the entire reason we signed him is his ability to snaffle goals from nothing. Here he was shunted wide and asked to try and link with Carroll. It did not work.

Presumably Arnautovic will replace him on Saturday, and with Antonio rolling on the other side that leaves a straight choice between Hernandez and Carroll as the solitary striker. Ironically, both might better as a pair, but that too is an impossibility because that would give deeper defensive responsibilities to Antonio and Arnautovic which is the sort of thing to give a man Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Quite where Lanzini fits into any of that is beyond me. Can he play as part of a solitary midfield two? Can Steve Parish rap? Sure, but I don't imagine anyone thinks it will end well.


Now, having too many good players isn't a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue that the squad as currently constructed is too thin but does have quite a decent level of consistency across the personnel. The drop off from first teamer to their replacement is generally minimal but it's a problem that some of them don't really have a replacement.

But bigger still is this issue of style. Are we a team who like to play 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3? I don't really know what Bilic wants, and whilst there is value in versatility and tactical flexibility, there is more value in your players having some sort of consistent idea about what you want them to do. We won this game by winding up Carroll like a clockwork rhino and letting him loose against a defence who hadn't seen it before. The idea that will work against West Brom or Spurs seems fanciful to me.

To my mind, the answer seems to obviously be that Carroll should be an impact sub, meaning that when he gets injured the disruption is minimal. This hybrid solution of setting the team up to play without him and then just sticking him into the team anyway...well, that way relegation lies.

***

All of which suggests that our optimal line up has Hernandez leading the line. I think that's defensible but only in a world where we play with Lanzini close to him, and in a way that allows Arnautovic and Antonio to join quickly from wide positions. Maybe that's possible but it feels like a long way from where we are. The greatest irony of all is that our most flexible and adaptable striker is probably Sakho, but he seems destined to remain on the naughty step for the rest of his time here. 

One name I haven't mentioned is Andre Ayew who actually changed this game. Most were unhappy with Hernandez going off, but that's the reality with so much invested in Carroll. Instead it paid dividends as Obiang fluked one off a defender and then Ayew tapped a second in from a corner, on the line. I have struggled to define Ayew as a player but his predominant and obvious skill is the ability to score goals. Looking solely at time on the pitch, he is scoring a goal for us once every 224 minutes. That amounts to a goal every two and a half games. Not bad for a player who may or may not exist in this dimension. 

In all the permutations I ran through above, it never once occurred to me to put Ayew into the team, and yet the man has an undeniable something whereby he continues to contribute even when he's not playing well. This feels like something that will be very useful at West Ham.

***

And where does all of this leave Bilic? Everywhere and nowhere, baby. The cynic in me suggests that this will just perpetuate his death of a thousand cuts, as this win staves off the axe for another few games until the next time. It's never far away because our form, fitness, confidence and tactics just don't lend themselves to consistent performance. 

As an example, I can't even hazard a guess at the team on Saturday, for a game against a West Brom team who aren't very good but were 4-0 up in an hour in the corresponding fixture last year. 

So this win doesn't really change anything. If you were a fan before then you'll have been pleased at the obvious togetherness on the field, and are probably of the belief that the securing of the three points overrides all else. Win, get the points, build from there. I'd have some sympathy for that it wasn't for the fact I've heard that at least four times before. 

I keep waiting for the building bit. 

For those, like me, who advocate change then I'm not sure this will have moved the needle either. A disjointed, confusing performance that led to a thoroughly deserved, basically dominant win isn't the easiest thing to process. It's kind of like that time Johnny Depp appeared in the Vicar of Dibley. I just don't know what to do with the information.


Another three up top configuration I don't understand

I'll tell you what though. These games are painful. The constant strain of going into that stadium, a stadium where it already requires a massive effort just to get any atmosphere into the place, and having to watch these knife edge encounters is debilitating. Whatever the circumstances of the 2015/16 season, it was joyful because everybody had the shackles off. 

For Bilic to survive he needs to recapture some of that. I don't think he's going to do it without a better plan than he had here. But in the moment, here and now, that matters not. A win is a win is a win. I'd just as soon not return to Hell any time soon though. 


Friday, September 08, 2017

West Ham and The Year of The Long Knives

If your household is like mine, then you will have a bin in your kitchen. And if your family is like mine then they will stuff things into it until it seems no more can possibly fit inside, and then continue piling things on top of it until it starts glaring at them like some kind of erupting rubbish Sauron in the corner of the room.


The corner of my kitchen 

This will not move anyone to empty the bloody thing, of course. Instead somebody will casually suggest that Dad needs to empty the bin whilst lobbing another empty Hula Hoops packet in the general vicinity of our new rubbish bin overlord and keeper of the One Ring.

Now I know you all love an analogy, and never has there been one so apt as the rubbish bin of Mount Doom and the relationship between West Ham fans and their club at present. It won't surprise you to learn that I view us as being inside the bin, wondering quite how much more can be tipped down on top of us and thinking we had reached the end only to find that, no - yet more detritus is heading our way.

I had been planning to write about the recently finished transfer window pretty much immediately upon it closing but so bewildering has it been attempting to keep track of the shenanigans at the Olympic Stadium that I chose to wait for the dust to settle before writing it all up. And then the President of one of the most famous clubs in Europe called our chairmen the "Dildo Brothers" and I decided that trying to make sense of all this would be like trying to catch a bat with a tea towel.



If you haven't seen the above I urge you to watch it (with sound) as it is not only brilliant, but also a nice metaphorical reflection of me trying to catch up with all the crazy West Ham related news of the last week. But fear not, I am your Derry, and I have donned my shorts and pulled up my socks in the pursuit of some sort of sensible analysis of the window.

***

It seems to me that a timeline might be helpful here. After all, we are just humans and only able to process so much stupidity in one go. So let's try and summarise the madness as best we can. Updates in real time:

Deadline Day T -1 (AM) - Diafra Sakho goes all Odemwingie

August 30th arrives with the news that Diafra Sakho has flown to France. Apparently the club don't know about this, which seems unlikely, but in any case it's unfortunate as Sakho is there for a medical with Rennes. He has apparently organised this himself, which is remarkable for a guy who nearly burnt his flat down when he arrived because he couldn't use the kettle.

Should Sakho leave, our striking options will be Javier Hernandez and whatever is left of Andy Carroll in the club morgue.

Deadline Day T -1 (PM) - Robert Snodgrass is upset that he, a left footed winger, was played on the left

Former Hull legend Snodgrass is loaned to Villa and announces in an interview that he's not a massive fan of Slaven Bilic, seemingly incredulous that West Ham could have bought him without knowing what position he played. At this, fifty thousand West Ham fans burst out laughing, possibly recalling that our due diligence is generally so good that we once bought a player from Oxford who got homesick.


No seriously, come here. What's your name?

Apparently on his debut, Bilic asked Snodgrass where he wanted to play which conjures up a lovely image of Bilic as a Sunday League manager bringing on a ringer. One can half imagine him telling Snodgrass that if he got booked he was to give the name "M-A-S-U-A-K-U" and to make sure he spelt it right or we'd all be in trouble.

Anyway, Snodgrass thought that his exploits at Hull meant he was too good to stay and fight for his place so now he has to play for Villa as punishment.

Deadline Day (AM) - Everton reject loan bid for Kevin Mirallas

On Christmas morning in my house we have champagne and toasted ham sandwiches. It's a tradition my wife brought with her from New Zealand, along with a remarkably laissez faire attitude to speed limits. Likewise, on transfer deadline day West Ham like to get in a shit loan signing and they ain't changing for anyone.

Mirallas fits the bill rather nicely having been discovered by Tony Henry, being 29, being in decline and having a notoriously moody attitude. Sadly Everton turn us down perhaps because, unlike us, they have noticed that we don't have any wingers and thought that this might be a reasonable opportunity to nobble a notional rival. Or maybe Mirallas took one look and just said "Nah, I don't think so". Either way he's not coming and one of my kids has just stuffed half a watermelon into the already full bin.

Deadline Day (AM) - West Ham agree to loan Domingos Quina to Sheffield United

I may be a petty man. I may be a small man. I may be driving myself slowly mad by clinging to a rage from years gone past. But...fuck Sheffield United. Fuck them right in their Ched Evans supporting eyes.

Of all the teams in the world they could have chosen to loan one of our most promising young players to, they chose...Sheffield United? What, when you get the chance to send a player to the team that developed Wayne Quinn you just don't pass that up? Christ on Henry Winter's tandem, read the room guys. In the event the move is scuppered by a greedy agent which I, for one, find shocking.

My only faint hope here is that we were planning to loan them Quina with a view to him being their best player all season and then recalling him with ten games to go, ensuring they went down. Truthfully, I'm not sure we have that kind of vision at the club.

Deadline Day (PM) - Diafra Sakho is at the races

Remember Sakho? Yesterday he was in Rennes negotiating a move there, with the French club suddenly flush after receiving a slice of the Ousmane Dembele fee. Sadly whatever he agreed with West Ham has fallen through, with the club now strongly denying that he had permission to go anywhere. They then issue formal denials through the usual channels, namely the Sullivan kids Twitter accounts for actual fucks sake.


Got to stay at West Ham. Won £500 on the horses

Diafra is still persisting, however, and flies back to London today. Sadly he can't come immediately to the club to resolve his fairly obvious issues because his agent has a horse running at Chelmsford race course. He therefore has to hang around in the car park while Mark McKay gets his equine fix. With that kind of work ethic and attention to detail I am beginning to understand how McKay is in the middle of so many of our deals.

The pair eventually make their way to the club where they can't find any Directors. This is a real thing that actually happened.

Sullivan is apparently on holiday in Marbella which is fair enough. No reason a Director of Football would need to be around on transfer deadline day.

Meanwhile, I am considering setting the bin on fire.

Deadline Day (PM) - William Carvalho is not coming

The faint hope that outstanding Portuguese midfielder Carvalho will join us flickers out. He instead joins the long list of potential signings who Sullivan might have been able to sign on Championship Manager, but couldn't get close to in reality: Ruud van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez, Alexandre Lacazette, Carlos Bacca and Keita Balde all sounded great in the tabloid gossip columns and not a single one got close to joining. Remember that next time you get excited over a transfer link.

Anyway, Carvalho doesn't sign and I can't imagine we'll hear any more about that.

Deadline Day (PM) - we are linked with Andre Gomes and Jack Wilshere

These don't happen either. Wilshere is probably too young and healthy at present.

Deadline Day (PM) - The U23 team lose 7-2 to Spurs

This might not be quite so funny if it weren't for the fact that it is now becoming painfully obvious that we won't be able to make a full 25 man squad without dipping into the Academy.

We also managed to miss two penalties in this game. The bin is now on fire.

Deadline Day (PM) - West Ham Twitter goes postal

Twitter, always a haven of good sense and reasoned debate has not taken the failure to sign anyone very well. West Ham fans are spitting blood and the mood isn't improved when some tweets critical of Bilic emerge on the West Ham Way account, with the location showing as Marbella. You may remember that this is where the Sullivan family are on holiday.

Initially, the account administrators seem to suggest that the reason for the weird locations are because someone is tweeting from an aeroplane. With tweets apparently being sent from Northern Ireland, Malta and Marbella this seems a little unlikely unless they're on a plane being flown by Wayne Rooney after a night out. As it transpires, there are people with access to the account in all of those locations on the night, but by now the account is saying that the aeroplane thing was a joke and it is in fact the person in Northern Ireland who has posted all the tweets. Fair enough - Twitter does weird shit sometimes.

The West Ham Way website has some ties to the club in so much as the Sullivans have previously appeared on their radio show and also carried out a Q&A on Twitter, and although the tweets are quickly deleted it doesn't stop the rumour quickly spreading that they have come from the Sullivan clan.

I ask ExWHUEmployee, the main man on the account and he says that the Sullivans have denied it was them. Apparently Jack still has a log in from the time he did a Q&A for the site, and they never changed the password, which could explain why Marbella came up if the location services on Twitter are playing up. I have no reason to doubt anything that Ex would say, but I suppose the fact is that he can't categorically rule it out simply because they do still have a log in.

If you believe the guys at the West Ham Way - and I do because this would be devastating for them if it was later found to be untrue - that it was them who sent the tweets, then this all really is a mountain out of a molehill. However, if I was in any way associated with the club my biggest concern would be that when it was suggested that the Chairman's son had posted derogatory comments about the club manager on Twitter, nobody suggested that this was simply too outlandish to be true.

I should also add that Ex wrote this piece explaining his side of the story, and also making a lot of balanced comments about the situation at West Ham in general.

Oh well, after that insane incident, we can all go to bed and take comfort from the fact that things can't possibly get any madder.

Deadline Day +1 (AM) - West Ham summon Diafra Sakho to a meeting

After his exemplary behaviour leading up to the deadline, Bilic demands that Sakho attend a meeting so he can fine him and discuss his future. This is critical because the day after the transfer window has closed, the West Ham manager appears to have at last noticed that he doesn't have enough strikers.

Ordinarily, Sakho would be extradited to the youth team for his behaviour but instead there is now somehow discussion of incentives and a possible new deal. All this for an obviously troubled guy who seems fairly intent on leaving the country.

I have decided to no longer question any of this, particularly given that this won't even come close to being the stupidest thing that West Ham do today.

My wife has now noticed that our bin is on fire.

Deadline Day +1 (PM) - David Sullivan releases a statement

With deadline day in the rear view mirror and no further additions made, those same West Ham fans who were busy lapping up the club propaganda about this being a wonderful transfer window have suddenly noticed that when you get rid of nine players and bring in only four, that might have knock on implications. Social media is therefore ablaze. Open letters are being drafted, votes are held, Facebook groups are formed and memes are produced. The word is out - the Board have failed us.


They called me what?

But here's the thing - social media is not the world. A few hundred people taking a vote on Twitter is not a representative sample. I am silently praying that David Sullivan does not decide to respond publicly to the criticism.

I might as well pray for a decent Robbie Williams song.

A statement is released late on September 1st. It is startling for its stupidity and flagrant disregard for the privacy of the process of transfers. It takes just eleven words to maroon Bilic, as he is rendered the culprit for the failure to add to the squad while the Board are credited for the additions. So far, so Sullivan.

Then things take a turn for the bonkers, even by West Ham standards. Sullivan describes how Sporting Lisbon accepted a bid for Carvalho late on deadline day but left them with no time to complete a medical. Premier League rules state that medicals can be completed after the deadline. I am confused.

He then goes on to state that Bilic turned down Grzegorz Krychowiak and Renato Sanches. To what end only he knows but I cannot think of another club who would announce such details in such a way. Oh well, that's the end of that then. What a bizarre transfer window.

Deadline Day +2 (AM) - Sporting fire back. "We're just as insane as you!"

If you woke on September 2nd 2017 to the sound of rolling thunder, you might have been surprised given that there was no rain evident. This is because it wasn't thunder, but instead the sound of a million West Ham fans yelling "We told you this would happen" in anguish at the sky.


Bruno de Carvalho - Probably our new Director of Football

Sporting, it turns out, are every bit the basket case that we are. Nuno Saraiva, their Director of Communications has posted a statement on Facebook in which he calls Sullivan a liar, and states that no bid for Carvalho has ever been received.

He also makes several allusions to the pornographic background of our owner, and a number of obtuse references to "parasites" which I read to be more about Carvalho's advisors than West Ham, but it's translated from Portuguese so who knows. What a time to be alive.

Deadline Day +2 (PM) - West Ham respond as professionally as one might expect

We decide to draw a line under this debacle by releasing a non-committal vanilla statement that blames everything on intermediaries and allows everyone to save face and move on.

Nah, just kidding - we announce our intention to sue them via teenager David Sullivan Jr's Twitter account. This is exactly what any other team would do. Shut up, yes it is.

I have noticed that the fire has spread to our kitchen workbenches.

Deadline Day +3 - Nobody does anything mental for a while

Respite.

Deadline Day +5 - Everybody goes mental again

West Ham decide to respond to the Saraiva comments by leaking some emails to Sky purporting to confirm the bid. Interestingly, the "To" field is redacted meaning that it doesn't prove remotely that the offer was made to Sporting. This is likely to be because the email was sent to an agent working on behalf of the club. It is unknown whether said agent had any horses racing around this time.

The emails, sent on 10th and 11th August, suggest that we were offering £23m over two years, with £7.6m up front and a 10% sell on clause.

William Carvalho, I should highlight, apparently has a £40m release clause in his contract.

I am by now thinking back fondly on the time that Newcastle appointed Joe Kinnear as Director of Football and wondering if he would come and do the job for us. Joe, I should point out, once tried to buy one of his own players who was out on loan.

He'd fit right in.

Deadline Day +6 - Sporting go the full Mariah Carey

Having established that Sporting are run by lunatics, it is little surprise that they fire back with all the gravitas of Kerry Katona on GMTV.

President Bruno de Carvalho refers to the chairmen as "the Dildo Brothers" and "these offended virgins". I'm beginning to like him.

Sporting follow all of this up by threatening to report West Ham to FIFA for tapping up their player, while we respond by calling them attention seekers, presumably via a teenagers Instagram account with a link to Rise of the Krays included.

The fire has spread to my cupboards now. I really must look at that bin.

Deadline Day +7 - West Ham suggest they may return for Carvalho in January

It's nice to know we have a sense of humour. A West Ham source suggests to The Sun that we may try and buy Carvalho again in January and I think I speak for all of us when I say that this is a brilliant, clearly thought through idea and I can see no way that this won't work. Go with glory.

My house is now entirely on fire. I may need to replace the bin

***

It may surprise you to know that I have some sympathy with the Board over all of this. If nothing else, they chose the worst dance partner imaginable in dealing with Sporting. Like when a woman begins a relationship with a guy and then on their first holiday finds out he wears white socks with flip flops. It's also true that had Sullivan and Gold carried on as Sporting have in the last week, there would be all sorts of opprobrium flying their way.

But that doesn't excuse the overall stupidity, and mind boggling lack of PR savvy. Our problems began when Sullivan dragged this all into the public domain with his ludicrous statement. Why on earth does he insist on continuing to air his thoughts in this way, and why is it that nobody at the club seems able to stop him? PR is one of those maligned and undervalued jobs that people are happy to ridicule and dismiss until someone is calling them The Dildo Brothers in public and then it has a value again.

So once more, why am I being given David Sullivan's intimate thoughts on all this? Who exactly thought this was a good idea? This is as interesting and necessary to me as hearing Dane Bowers thoughts on Proust.


"A la recherche du temps perdu? Overrated!"

All of the issues with Sporting stem from the Sullivan statement. Here he gave answers to questions that weren't asked, put forward information that didn't need to be leaked and gave a commentary that nobody wanted to hear. Apart from that it was brilliant. 

I wonder if a FIFA charge will be enough to prevent these outbursts, which seem designed solely for him to shore up his own position and are released for his own edification? I'm guessing not. 

***

It is also worth asking at this point where the rest of the Board are. I have heard from a couple of separate sources that Gold is incensed by all of this, but if he continues to play the role of the kindly uncle while Sullivan and his kids lead us into these scrapes then he is just as guilty as them. 

Whither also, our CEO? Karren Brady has been noticeably absent all summer, perhaps wisely as her deal of the century sent us off to three defeats on the road. But here is a woman who makes a living - amongst many other things - criticising inept business practices on television. This is like finding out that Mary Berry works for Greggs. 

The true role of a Board of Directors is to challenge and interrogate the decision making at a company. They are supposed to offer direction. Gold and Brady are part of the troika who have taken the club to this point, and for them to abrogate responsibility now and allow Sullivan to have a mid life crisis in this way is a dereliction of duty. 

West Ham's misfortunes over the last year have been characterised by the failure to ask three questions that every successful organisation must ask itself constantly. 

Firstly, are we doing what we do in the best way possible? Secondly, do we have the appropriate people in place to deliver that work and lastly, the appropriate means of making that assessment? I'll leave it to you to decide if you think West Ham can answer any of those affirmatively. 

Either way, Karren Brady is paid a lot of money for her role and David Gold is taking a share of £7m a year in interest on loans to the club. Their inertia is not acceptable. 

***

Fellow West Ham blogger Alex V wrote this interesting take on the window, and I find much there to agree with. I was going to pick out a few choice quotes but in the end I decided that I agreed with it all so you should just read it if you haven't already. 

He rightly hits upon the lack of planning and forethought that has led us once again to this seeming crossroads. The combination of a terrible transfer window last year and now an appalling start to the season has focused the minds of some supporters. They are beginning to demand more, and want to know precisely why the trauma of the stadium move was inflicted upon us if the club did not have the off field strategy to accompany such a giant leap forward. 

Noticeable too is that our net spend this year is way down, although this is largely due to us being in the unusual position of having players worth selling, and also because football has a No Returns policy which means that Tigres can't send Enner Valencia back. 

Alex also correctly highlights the part played in all this by Slaven Bilic. He has a curious relationship with the Board in so much as they love him because he is popular and deflects attention away from them, but they also seem to distrust him because he is popular and deflects attention away from them. It is this odd dynamic which has inspired this Year of the Long Knives, whereby the Board seem to have been constantly maneuvering themselves into a situation where Bilic can be blamed for everything, in particular the failed transfers, such that when they eventually make their move they will be deemed to have been left with no choice.

None of which can disguise the fact that Bilic hasn't been up to it for quite some time, but one wonders at the working atmosphere in an environment where he knows his employers are openly touting his job around behind his back.

Bilic was nowhere near the first choice for the job, but that magical voodoo 2015/16 season seems to have inured him against too much of a backlash from supporters. The Huddersfield game will be interesting in that respect, because it feels like something has changed but it's hard to know now whether that anger will be directed at the touchline, the Boardroom, or the pitch. Maybe we will win 3-0, Hernandez will score a hat trick, Hart will save a penalty and Zabaleta will break Aaron Mooy and everyone will forget why they were angry in the first place. Such is the transient nature of the football fan group think. 

But in the long term, the Board must surely be terrified. Whilst I thought our summer business was awful as far as long term planning went, I did think it would most likely be moderately successful in the short term. Then we shed more players without replacing them and so far we look tactically inept, physically unfit and mentally drained. 

But the squad is neither strong enough or balanced enough. Whilst the first eleven looks decent, we are a Hernandez injury away from the Doomsday scenario of James Collins playing up front. Scoff all you like, but remember that Ian Pearce played there for a ridiculously long time in 2002/03 because of the same squad building ineptitude. If Bilic is truly responsible for that then must carry the can for such largesse, but there is a horrible feeling that he has had his legs chopped out from underneath him in this window, with Sullivan deciding in the end not to invest heavily in the choices of a manager he wan't planning to employ much longer. 

Such decisions might be entirely sensible, but lend themselves to the feeling that we are no longer watching a cohesive management structure and instead are viewing the death throes of a year long power struggle. Our descent into high farce. Our Year of the Long Knives. It is a dreadful shame to have gone from the unadulterated joy of 2015/16 to this in such a short time. We deserve better. 

***

While you're here - I wrote this for FourFourTwo while I was waiting for West Ham and Sporting to stop doing crazy things. Unsurprisingly, our transfer nonsense makes an appearance. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Newcastle United 3 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Omnes relinquite spes, o vos intrapten"
- Dante Aligheri


Sure, Dante might have had a decent crack at describing hell, but he never watched West Ham lose at Newcastle. 

***

Where does one even start? What can I write about this game that hasn't already been spewed forth and vomited up on every West Ham forum already? How I can honestly detail my feelings about this performance without simply repeating things I have been saying for months? 

Worse still, I am at a loss as to how I can actually try and entertain people - which I do realise I am purporting to do in offering up my work here for public examination - when I haven't felt this disconsolate about the present and future of my club since Avram Grant was in charge. How do I give you anything approaching the unvarnished version of my opinion without encouraging those who already claim I hate this club that I follow everywhere and devote hours of my life to writing about?

I'm not asking for sympathy, by the way, but more openly questioning quite how many more times I can chastise the manager for his ineffectiveness and the board above him for their complacency in assuming that the problems at the club are happening in spite of them and not because of them, and still hope to retain a readership.

But what else is there to think when watching games like this? Here was a West Ham team apparently chosen by a fucking Magic 8 ball and playing with all the cohesiveness of The Beach Boys at a family dinner. 


I'll take Perez, you take Ritchie and you take Mitrov- fuck

This absurd start to the season is just another waypoint in the series of crises that the club lurch between on a constant basis. First the team has to play all their opening league games away from home, then the overpriced £10m January vanity signing is gone after 15 games as he bemoans never being played in his correct position, then the vaunted new £40m big name transfer breaks down, then the managers position is put under review and then it was Bank Holiday Monday so everyone took a day off because constant unceasing stupidity is tiring. 

This nonsense barely even registers any more. Remember the halcyon days of six weeks ago when we made a teenager the Managing Director of the West Ham Ladies team or when the chairman told everyone that no kids would ever break into our first team? Pfft, that shit is old, yo. In the Def Con 4, constant Code Red world of West Ham the sad fact is that this week is barely a ripple on the surface of the permanent shitstorm that engulfs the club. 

***

So, what of this match? A confession. I was driving through France as it was being played. At one point I was under the English Channel where, I regret to tell you, West Ham still cannot defend. 

The television highlights doubtless don't give up all the secrets of this game, although I rather fancy that nothing positive has been hidden from me. The same problems persist as have done for months. The team cannot defend, the personnel are changed like bandoliers in rapid fire M60 machine guns to no obvious effect, and if there is a plan to score it is apparently so secret that it has yet to be shared with any of the players. 

This was the day the music stopped, the lights came on and the full gory truth was dragged blinking into the harsh glare of reality. Newcastle are quite possibly the worst team in the division not named West Ham, and they beat us so easily that the man of the match was Ciaran Clark, a footballer that bad he was once let go by Aston Villa. Mocking the Toon is ludicrous of course, seeing as how they polished us off like Neil Ruddock with a Gregg's pasty, but I'm sure you'll allow me some gallows humour.

Every manager has a landmark game where it ends. Irrespective of how much longer he stays, this is the end for Bilic. The fans have turned and once that happens nothing will ever be the same. Where once he offered hope and forward progression from the interminable boredom of watching Allardyce's teams, these constant defensive capitulations have dulled the ardour of even his most fervent supporters. 

Whether it manifests itself immediately inside the ground is a different matter, but it's all simply a matter of time now. I would have fired him last season after the Arsenal away game, but he earned a stay of execution with the Spurs victory. That typically short sighted thinking from the Board has given us (yet) another lost pre season, transfer window and now seemingly another year of struggle. 

Simply put, there is nothing left to believe in. Belief has turned to equivocating and now to the sad, reluctant realisation that nothing is changing. And when you don't offer hope to fans of mid table teams, you offer them nothing at all. 

To pick an arbitrary point, in 2017 we have played 22 league games with the following record:


Played22
Won6
Drawn5
Lost11
Goals For26
Goals Against41
Points23


Allardyce was fired for that sort of turgid, dire output and few were sad to see him go. The circumstances were different, of course, but the fact that our support have chosen to romanticise Bilic's association with us doesn't change the bare facts that his teams are awful and have been for a while. That Spurs victory isn't so much papering over the cracks as filling a hole the size of the Grand Canyon. 

Enough. So long Slav, and thanks for all the fish. 

***

But wait, I hear you cry. Are you seriously suggesting that we're going to struggle all season on the strength of three away games? Well, yes and no. I'm actually suggesting that on the back of our results going back a lot longer than that, but also simply on the strength of history. There have been 28 teams in the Premier League era to have started the season with three defeats. Here they are, with a big shout out to 2017/18 for providing three terrible teams:



ClubSeasonForAgainstGoal DifferenceFinished
Leicester2001/02010-1020
Wolves2003/04110-920
Swindon1993/9419-822
West Ham2010/1119-820
West Ham2017/18210-8?
Middlesbrough2001/0207-712
Southampton1998/9929-717
Wimbledon1996/9706-68
Aston Villa1997/9806-67
Wigan2005/0606-610
Crystal Palace2017/1806-6?
Leicester1994/9517-621
Blackburn2009/1017-610
West Brom2002/0339-619
Bolton2002/0327-517
Newcastle1999/0038-511
Bolton2007/0838-516
Portsmouth2009/1016-520
Southampton1993/9415-420
Southampton1997/9815-412
Bournemouth2017/1815-4?
Sunderland2005/0626-420
Bolton2009/1026-414
Stoke2010/1126-413
Blackburn2011/1226-419
Southampton2012/1348-414
Wimbledon1992/9325-312
West Brom2011/1225-310

Now the good news here is that we are a highest new entry in this particular table and have now provided two of the worst starting teams in the Premier League ever, gang. And they said we'd never amount to anything.


Another cracking Sullivan and Gold decision

We have actually begun this season worse than the Sunderland team of 2005/06 who were so bad that if they'd have sacrificed a member of 5ive for every game they won we'd still have two of the fuckers left alive today.

What this chart tells us is that if we stay up we'll be the first team to do so with a goal difference this bad this early in the season. On the other hand, none of those teams played all their games away from home so that needs to be factored in as well and realistically this is still a sample size too small from which to draw any meaningful conclusions.

As such, what the more optimistic of you may wish to note is that only 10 of the 25 teams shown here went down. It strikes me that we could very easily win our next two games and pull away to finish twelfth and you can look back at this column and laugh at my over reaction. 

What probably is true, however, is that those pre season dreams of our new super-duper-glacially-slow-but-it-don't-matter-cos-they-are-well-experienced team pushing up to challenge for a European place are already dead in the water. Only four of these teams finished in the top half, and none of them defended like they were drunk.

***

It's a difficult task to make sense of this team. Blown away and seemingly clueless at Old Trafford, they rallied superbly at Southampton when all seemed lost. Claims that Bilic had lost the dressing room seemed spurious as the team showed all the fortitude that had been missing the week before to come within a Zabaleta brain fade of stealing a point. I don't think there is much doubt that he's lost his UEFA Tactics Manual but I'm not sure Bilic has lost the support of his players. They seem to genuinely care, even if they don't seem to understand what it is he wants them to do. But then a week later, awful again.

What can't be denied is how our basic default position seems to be one of general cluelessness. Our problems begin in the back four where our centre backs are so slow that the only way we can really guarantee a defensive base is the 3-4-3 formation that allows us to flood the central area with bodies.

Against elite teams, however, that doesn't tend to work because they press high and without a top level ballplayer in either central defence or midfield we have no way out. Think back to those maulings at the hands of Manchester City for evidence.

The significant problem with the 3-4-3 however, is that Pablo Zabaleta can't play as a wing back anymore and Aaron Cresswell is a pale shadow of himself. I am beginning to wonder if he didn't actually die in that pre season game in Germany and what we're watching is just a reanimated version of him, brought back by the Night King to wander idly around on our left flank and possibly kill a wildling or two.


Any chance we can have Aaron back please?

Elsewhere, James Collins played well in midweek against a Cheltenham side who are literally the second worst team in English football and thus was immediately restored to the starting eleven at the behest of West Ham Twitter. I respect Collins, love his willingness to throw himself in front of anything for the cause, but also accept that at 34 years old he shouldn't be playing regularly in the Premier League. Check out his defending for goals two and three. He looks like a remote controlled car being operated by a two year old, going in weird directions for no obvious purpose.

The only reason you might have missed this was because you might have been asking yourself where Pablo Zabaleta was for these goals. The answer is fucking miles away. Maybe he was over next to Sam Byram giving him all this advice that I keep hearing so much about.

While the defence is largely shambolic, there is also a problem in front of them. Our defensive midfielders don't seem to have any clear idea of their roles and both Obiang and Noble have looked way off the pace so far. Best of them has been Declan Rice, making it even more of a shame when he was caught in possession here for the first goal. Weirdly, Lanzini did exactly the same thing for the second and didn't get anywhere near the same level of public opprobrium. In both examples, it should be pointed out that there were several subsequent phases of play before the ball ended up in the net. Our ability to transition back when we lose possession like that seems to be almost nil, not least because our only players with any pace are attacking players with no interest in defending.

Whilst Rice was unlucky, I don't buy into the notion that Bilic was wrong to remove him at half time. You don't keep professional footballers on the pitch to massage their egos or soften the blow of their errors. Rice is a young kid and will learn, but Bilic had a game to win. It may not have looked like it but he was attempting to get us back into the game and the idea that the manager who gives a young player his debut is hanging him out to dry by substituting him seems deeply flawed to me. I absolutely guarantee that Slaven Bilic rates Declan Rice more highly than you.

Ahead of them we rotate our endless cast of players with obvious physical skills and talent and no clear position. Ayew plays wide and then through the middle, Fernandes plays everywhere but in goal and manages to look good whilst not contributing anything and Michail Antonio rotates between playing wide and up front, with no obvious suggestion that these movements are related to anything being done by anyone else in claret and blue. Chicharito signed as a fearsome goal poacher and after three games I am reduced to wondering if our sole plan for getting him the ball is to concede endless amounts of goals so he can take kick offs.

It's a mess. A terrible, long gestating mess that cannot possibly be a surprise to anyone who has watched our slow decline over the last calendar year. Watching all of this only serves to reinforce the notion that the thrilling 2015/16 season owed more than a little to the defensive base left behind for Bilic by Allardyce, and the rest to the mercurial talents of Dimitri Payet. The Frenchman dropped in Bilic's lap, motivated, in glorious form and capable of dragging his team to hitherto unheralded levels amid the weakest Premier League ever.

As soon as those circumstances changed, the Croat proved incapable of moving with the times, incapable of recreating that brio and verve once the music stopped.

***

All of which leads to the inevitable question of "what next"?

If I had to guess, I would say there is an existential crisis in the West Ham boardroom right now. Gold and Sullivan have a hard earned reputation for sticking with their managers through thick and thin and even away defeats to teams who literally cannot score against anyone else.

But the ghost of Avram Grant haunts them like a clueless, inept Israeli ghoul. By retaining Grant for the entirety of the 2010/11 season they condemned us to relegation. They are terrified of making that mistake again, although apparently not terrified enough to delegate a bit more of the decision making process to people who actually know what they are doing.

It would suit them down to the ground if Rafa Benitez could have his inevitable falling out with Mike Ashley over this international break, enabling them to have him installed by the Huddersfield game. Sky reporter Peter Graves even offers up some interesting commentary on the possibility. If that doesn't happen, however, it starts to look a little hairier. We know that the Board don't have the knowledge or imagination to make a progressive appointment, and it strikes me as unlikely that progressive managers would be queuing up to manage a club still being run in the same way as it was in 1980.


How do you fancy advertising my film about the Krays, Rafa?

All of which leaves us at the mercy of a Pardew or Hodgson style stopgap, each fulfilling the seemingly obligatory requirement to be famous enough that fans have heard of them, but not successful enough to be in employment currently.

But let's lay it all on the line here. Bilic isn't a cause, he's a symptom. One has to look deeper to ask ourselves why we are constantly having these same dark nights of the soul every few years.

Two weeks ago, David Gold gave an interesting interview to Moore Than Just A Podcast where he talked openly about a wide range of subjects. It's an interesting listen, and you'll like him a bit more at the end of it, as always seems to be the case with Gold.

But there is one section where he talks about the club transfer policy that only lasts a few minutes and yet caused me to lose my shit about five times in the process. The transcription, from Claret and Hugh, is as follows:

“We all have our opinions, We all have our viewpoints and we make them clear but in the main I’ve worked with David Sullivan for 30 years, we are like an old married couple, he starts a sentence and I finish it or the other way round. We trust each other, he’s got his role and I’ve got my role. The club is very fortunate in having David Sullivan on board in the way he does, he is a workaholic, he takes responsibility and I am a great admirer of him.”
Asked whether the board sit down formally to discuss transfer business Gold replied:   “We have chats, it’s very informal, it mainly it comes from Slav. Slav will give us a list of the players he is looking for and he will give a list of first, second and sometimes a third choice then it is up David (Sullivan) to get agents onboard because it is agents in the main that drive this. If you look over this summer, you can see how well it works. It is a tried and trusted system, it has worked nearly ten years we have been at West Ham and of course it worked for twenty years at Birmingham so if it’s not broken don't fix it.”
Asked whether the board brings in players themselves he added: “It is usually a young player that we bring in and we say to Slav 'Look we are bringing this player in, it’s not affecting your budget, this is the boards decision, we fancy this player, he could be a complete flop or he could be a superstar, we don’t want this to impact on you, your requirements have been fulfilled, this is something we are doing'. Call it an indulgence of the owners but our first requirement is to fill Slaven’s requirements, his targets, that is our first priority.
“If you go back to last season I can’t think a signing that wasn’t Slaven’s approval or requirement, if its a first team, if he’s put in a list of what he wants, they’re the ones David Sullivan and the team go out an pursue, please don’t feel this is any other structure.”
Now I don't know about you, but whenever I'm in a pub discussion about the greatest transfer policy of all time, the conversation always comes to a dead stop whenever anyone brings up Birmingham City circa 2001. It's just a huge relief to know that the transfer policy which managed to get Jesper Gronkjaer and Richard Kingson to St Andrews is alive and well at West Ham.

What's even more absurd about this is that Sullivan and Gold know all too well that business practices need to change or become rapidly obsolete. Sullivan made his fortune in pornographic publishing. I can't think of two industries forced to change their models in recent times more than porn and publishing. And what of Gold's Ann Summers stores? Twenty years ago they made their money through parties and in store purchases. Now, they sell in vast quantities online. The world has changed. Uber is the largest taxi company in the world and doesn't own a single vehicle. Airbnb is the biggest provider of accommodation in the world and doesn't own a property anywhere.

Put simply, it's not good enough to do something because that's how it's always been done. Wake up David - they didn't treat you with leeches that last time you were in hospital.

***

Leaving aside the fact that the phrase "tried and tested" apparently has a new definition, there is so much else in here to get your teeth into. The first is the confirmation that Slaven Bilic provides the transfer targets.

That'll be the Slaven Bilic who trains and prepares the first team, analyses the opposition, does all the media duties of a Premier League manager and then sits down to inexplicably pick Michail Antonio at right back. That Slaven Bilic. It rather seems like he already has a full time job, but there he is heading up our scouting department too.

The same Slaven Bilic who had his hip replaced in the summer.

The same Slaven Bilic with a newborn baby and young family.

That Slaven Bilic.

So, to be clear, the guy with the single most time consuming and important job at the club is doing the job of player recruitment in his spare time. I wonder how many Eredivisie games he sees, or how many MLS players he's scouted in person, or how long he spent in Uruguay before deciding we desperately needed Jonathan Calleri?


No wonder he looks so tired

***

Consider this for a moment. Who do you think is in the room when West Ham decide to buy a player? I'm guessing David and Jack Sullivan (we all know it happens), David Gold, Slaven Bilic, Edin Terzic, Tony Henry, Rory Campbell and maybe a low level analyst or two.

When the team lose 3-0 to Newcastle, who of that group is most likely to lose his job? I would say that is indisputably Bilic. So why, therefore, would the employee with the least available time, the most responsibility and the least job security be entrusted with spending a £70m budget? And what happens in the incredibly likely scenario that we lose at home to Huddersfield and a new manager arrives and promptly says that the squad has huge holes and big money needs to be spent in January?

Managers shouldn't be identifying players, they should be identifying specific needs and Directors of Football should be meeting those needs with players. The problem is that our Director of Football offers no direction and doesn't understand football. This is how you end up spending £20m on Andre Ayew when you need a right back. This is how you end up with Joe Hart when you need a winger.

It is now clear that the price of Sullivan and Gold investing in us was that the former wanted to play at being a football guru. It's also pretty clear that he has none of the contacts nor the experience nor the simple understanding of sport to do this. Answer me this - have you ever seen any football team make transfers look so difficult as West Ham?

And so we drift along aimlessly, forever condemned to a cycle of ineptitude because the people making the decisions about that direction never change.

Sullivan is the wealthy ship owner who decides to help out the captain of the Titanic and promptly crashes straight into an iceberg. He then commandeers the life raft and smashes it straight back into the same iceberg. As he comes to the surface he sees some driftwood, hops on top and sails that straight back into the same bloody iceberg. After resurfacing yet again he turns to the captain and says "I don't think much of the steering on these things".

It is, I think, the hardest thing a person will ever have to do professionally to admit that they are not up to the task. It's why I think Kevin Keegan and Nasser Hussain are English sporting heroes for pushing their respective sides forward by accepting that they could no longer do it themselves.

Sullivan must be a West Ham hero now. Bilic must go, certainly, but we will be here again soon enough if the whole structure at West Ham doesn't change. The roiling incompetence and institutional lunacy begins at the top and after nearly a decade we deserve better. Progress is impossible in this structure. We need highly skilled professionals with cutting edge thinking and adaptive practices to stand even the smallest chance in this competitive environment. Instead we have a businessman determined to live out his dream of being a Football Manager vicariously, and every single one of us is paying the price for that hubris, and for the weakness of his fellow chairman in playing along.

I know you've heard this all before. I know this is the same old diatribe with a fresh lick of paint. I know this is a broken record. But in the end, that seems apt. Today, after all, was the day the music stopped.