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, March 20, 2017

West Ham 2 - 3 Leicester (And Other Ramblings)

1. A New England

I feel like I just watched the physical manifestation of Brexit. 

With our stadium move loosely mirroring the country's exit from the EU, everybody has split down the middle on its merits and division is everywhere as we wait to see if it was worth the pain. 

It began with hope and ambition, with dreams of a future that would surpass our history and allow us to move past our self imposed shackles to a bright new daydream. It might still happen, but I'm rather concerned that whatever gains there are may be illusory. 

For sadly, reality is a cruel mistress and many a harsh lesson has been learned when real life intersects with fantasy. On this drizzly, grey day where it all continued to go wrong, I sat in our new home and pondered our recent history and the present that was unfurling below me with predictable grimness. This was supposed to be glorious and easy. Perhaps we should have built a yacht to show Leicester how powerful we really are. 

Somehow, in my little corner of the cyber world Jamie Vardy has become synonymous with Article 50. For Brexiteers I think he might represent the kind of meteoric rise to glory that they themselves are shooting for, while for Remainers I think it's just that he's apparently a thick racist, which seems to be the lazy default position of the liberal press on Leave voters. 

I'm mostly puzzled at why an England centre forward who has scored fewer goals this season than West Brom's central defence would be quite so keen to taunt opposition fans, but perhaps I'm misunderstanding his "fairytale". In the end, this might have been the worst 90 minutes entertainment you will ever see, or at least will be until they release the Vardy film. Don't forget the diving, guys!


Jamie Vardy. A prick. 

But on this day, like so many others lately, we were destined to be on the wrong end of this shit. Slaven Bilic patrolled the sideline like our very own David Davis. "I haven't done any modelling on the impact of playing all my players out of position, but I don't need to. I just know it's going to be fine". Experts be damned - in went Kouyate at centre half to replace the injured Reid and no amount of head holding in the stands was going to change his mind.

High up above him, miles from the action, unelected and unloved, sat our very own Theresa May - David Sullivan - presumably wondering how everything had turned to disaster quite so quickly. After all, lots of clever people keep telling him it's all going extremely well. 

It's not a perfect metaphor, of course. Nobody voted for West Ham to move, and none of our counterparts have even the slightest interest in making it work. In both cases I can see the destination, but have no confidence in the ability of the people leading the way. These are chilling times for those of us looking up the road ahead.

But if I squint I can at least see the thinking. In both cases people really believed that this violent separation from history was necessary to improve our situation. Fair enough, but the problem is that when it looks like all you've done is take a hugely circuitous route to get back where you started...well, that just seems like a massive waste of time. 

2. Accident Waiting To Happen

I had every intention of making this piece entirely positive. I appreciate it's tough for you all to read the same match report week after week - "West Ham played without a right back and conceded early, sort of got back into it, Andre Ayew scored, Manuel Lanzini was great - wish we played him in his best position - better luck next time" - but hopefully you'll appreciate that it's even tougher to write it. 

I was done with that then. This was going to be ten positive points. Or as near to ten as I could muster, and then possibly Frasier quotes for the rest. 

And yet, somehow we found new and inventive ways to be bad. 

Worry not, Sam Byram started at right back and played pretty well. None of the goals were obviously his fault, and he attacked with plenty of verve and purpose. This counts as a huge positive in the world of West Ham fullbackery.

In fact, Byram looked far more dangerous than his winger Robert Snodgrass, who appears to have forgotten how to use his feet, and his left sided counterpart Aaron Cresswell, who seems to have forgotten that he has feet at all. The latter was eventually replaced by Arthur Masuaku, which is a bit like when they made Basic Instinct 2 and got Stan Collymore involved for reasons nobody has ever quite fathomed. 



@11tegen11 shows yet again how reliant we are upon Lanzini, who was at the heart of everything good that we did in this game, and whose wonderful free kick pulled us back into things after a dire opening saw us two down after seven minutes. And that despite David Sullivan telling them that they needed to stop conceding early and everything. 

Riyad Mahrez opened it up with a cross that accidentally went in. It could have been genius, but it was probably luck. Leicester, ladies and gentleman! In an ideal world Darren Randoph would have saved it, but he tends to save everything he should and nothing he shouldn't and thus it flew in and we were behind again. 

The second was a mixture of a nicely worked free kick and the sort of defensive display that one normally associates with Star Wars stormtroopers. I have watched it back and I have no idea what the West Ham players are doing. Leicester's little routine involved Mahrez and Albrighton shifting the free kick slightly, during which two second pause our players went absolutely mental and came wandering out of the box like zombies from The Walking Dead. When the ball eventually made it's way into the box it found an unmarked Robert Huth, who has exactly one footballing skill - heading footballs - and he made it two. I'm pretty sure we signed Jose Fonte to stop this kind of thing. 

After Lanzini's goal briefly gave us hope, Vardy pounced on yet another loose ball from a corner to add a third, and made it 103 goals conceded in Bilic's 67 league games in charge. And Dimitri Payet said we were too defensive. 

The bonkers reality is that even at 3-1 down we should have won this game. Andre Ayew got our second with a header from a corner routine that was so lame I had to blink twice to convince myself it wasn't us defending. Thereafter we rained efforts on the Leicester goal and only a combination of Kasper Schmeichel's excellence and incredible luck (Leicester, ladies and gentleman!) kept us out. 

Carroll alone had two great chances and both Ayew and Kouyate should have scored too. In fact, this really should have been the first truly great game at the London Stadium, but we blew our lines and proved yet again that no amount of attacking brio can make up for a defence this porous.

3. Days Like These

I don't go to games any more looking for victory, but instead I look for victories. Little ones, mostly. Can we get through without injuries? "Be not deceived: God is not mocked" says the Bible on that front, and sure enough this game saw us lose Reid, Antonio and Obiang for extended periods. At this point I'm pretty sure the Hull team talk in two weeks won't amount to much more than just "kick Lanzini". 

But more prosaically, what can we learn about certain players? Does Byram have a future here? Who has regained form? From where is hope going to spring as we limp in an ever more bedraggled fashion towards the mythical 40 point mark?

It's hard to gauge any of these things at present, as the team is just so disjointed. We fought back well here, and with great spirit, but it would take a peculiar type of myopia to overlook the disastrous defending. There is no getting away from the fact that we are an awful defensive side, as we boast the fourth worst goals against record in the league and for all the spirit we showed in the second half, it sure would be nice to avoid going behind early and having to chase games constantly. If nothing else, we aren't going to run into opponents like Leicester every week who are knackered after their midweek exertions in the Champions League. 

And so we sit, nine points off the bottom three, no wins in five, one win at home since December and no obvious help on the way. God's little joke at my attempts to be positive. 

Let me say now that I don't think we're going down. In fairness, the lads seem to be giving it a bloody good try but there are probably just too many bad teams around who have too much ground to make up. But with three new, long to medium term injuries - I know this because the details were tweeted out by the Chairman's teenage son, just like Bayern Munich do it - we face a tough few weeks to avoid getting dragged into a relegation fight in the manner of an errant two year old interrupting her fathers' BBC interview. 

4. Train, Train

There was an odd little sideshow this week when Jaap Stam and Reece Oxford joined the list of people to have decried our training as lacking intensity. They joined Enner Valencia, Simone Zaza and, weirdly, Bilic himself in questioning what is happening at our new Rush Green training ground. 

Now, the first thing I would do is to immediately discount anything said by another manager. They are all champion bullshitters who will say anything to help their own job security. Ever noticed how when a new manager takes over he immediately tells the world the players aren't fit enough? It's all part of the same trick to convince fans that any short term failure is not his fault and to send a message to the board that any success is his. When Stam talks about our training he's really saying to his bosses that he is better than a Premiership manager. That's his prerogative of course, but hopefully he gets a nice digital wanker sign next time he calls up looking for help. 

As for the rest? Well, I don't even really know what intensity means in this context. The training seemed fine last year, even if we were going behind too frequently then as well, and these are players who weren't getting in the team, which is also a point to consider. 

In general, though, I suppose it's impossible to say that our training has been adequate when the team are performing so poorly on the pitch. Whereas last year we seemed able to implement a high pressing game both tactically and physically, we seem incapable of either this time around. In fairness it didn't help that the game on Saturday was cynically and persistently slowed down by Leicester, in a style to make Tony Pulis weep with joy. 

Time after time Schmeichel kicked his studs against the posts and substituted players left the field with all the speed of teenagers at a zebra crossing. It was painful, and enough to drive me apoplectic except that nobody around me seemed to notice. At one point, only my small child next to me seemed to be able to hear me whinging, leading me to wonder if perhaps I was in The Sixth Sense, albeit with the big twist being that Havard Nordtveit is actually dead. 


I see dead people - OK, can any of them play right back?

Like many, I was quick to jump on the intensity and training bandwagon but in the end it's all a distraction. The only thing that matters is how the team play and the results they get. If our players can't press and harry like Liverpool or Spurs it's probably because they aren't as good or as athletic as them. Look at the way Byram visibly ran out of puff here after 70 minutes, or the way that Carroll loped around like a pissed Geordie Geisha at midnight in Bigg Market for most of the game. 

Maybe that's a lack of conditioning or maybe they just can't compete with Lallana or Alli on those terms. I don't know the answer but it feels like a cop out to simply say that training isn't intense enough. Maybe the answer has been staring us in the face for quite a while, and we just don't want to accept it because to admit it would be too painful. But maybe. Maybe we're just not.....very good?

5. Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

So what of Bilic? For the first time there seem to be a few ripples around the fanbase as people begin to divide upon pro and anti Slav lines, with the only comfort for him being that even if the crowd did turn on him, he’d be too far away from them to hear the boos anyway.

To get our message across we’d really need some planes trailing banners behind them, one saying “Enough – Slav Out!” and then a second saying “In Slav we Trust” and then finally a third one with “I’m not too fussed really as I think it’s quite hard to determine how much we should blame the board and how much we should blame the manager”.

My take last week is that I wouldn’t fire Bilic as the board can’t be trusted to replace him. This is a cop out, as it doesn't really answer the question of whether I think Bilic is up to it. As my wife will attest as she looks fondly at the family sized bag of Minstrels that she got for Valentines Day - I am a romantic. Last year happened, and I can't seem to let it go. Bilic produced a team with a swagger and a belief and I feel like I waited thirty years for that. So I am prepared to give him time, with the, frankly terrifying, acknowledgement that another summer of transfers like this one will probably see us relegated.

Of course, the murkiness comes in trying to establish why that fell away this year. How much should we blame Payet, the new stadium, injuries, bad luck, the terrible business by the board or the terrible business by Bilic? 

My conclusion is that the answer is a little bit of all of the above, and at least a couple of those shouldn't be factors next year. I see Bilic on a short leash though. This board have a pathological desire to be seen to be doing something - hence we get Monday morning apology emails from the Chairman - and if next season starts like this one, then I wouldn't be surprised to see Bilic gone. And then the white knuckle ride begins all over again. 

***

OK - let's be positive for a second. After all, how hard can it be - someone once heard the demo of this and decided to release it anyway. And charged money for it.




Seriously, please listen to this. It is amazing.

So, in the spirit of Vanilla and looking for the positives where there are none. What reasons do we all have for optimism?


6. God's Footballer

Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio play for us

For the first time in a long while we have young talent to build around. Lanzini and Antonio are both high class performers, in their twenties and signed to long term deals. One might also add Pedro Obiang, Aaron Cresswell, Cheikhou Kouyate, Andre Ayew and Winston Reid to that same bracket although I think they might each be slightly lower down the talent table.

I've excluded Carroll and Sakho from this list as I'm trying to highlight the players who don't have their own private MRI machines at home.

Around this core must be built a young, mobile, pacey side who can get back to being competitive with the top six in English football. It might feel like a flimsy base to start from, but somebody once took two empty loo rolls, glued cotton wool to them, painted them brown and sold them for £100 a pop as UGG boots. Anything is possible with the right people making the decisions and significant amounts of luck - just ask Leicester City and Toby Young. 


Please be like Payet, but don't be like Payet in absolutely every way

How far are we from being a good side? It's really very hard to tell. We probably need a goalkeeper, and whilst Byram might yet emerge, a right back seems essential. A striker has been on the agenda for years, and despite (or because of) the joke January window we still need a centre half and a creative player to share the burden with Lanzini. 

All of this relies very heavily on large amounts of money being made available to spend and a robust, perceptive policy for choosing the players. Which brings me to....

7. Sugardaddy

We are owned by David Sullivan and David Gold

By now, you're probably thinking that the PTSD caused by Huth scoring has seeped into my writing. But here's the thing: have you been watching events at Leyton Orient? Or Leeds, or Cardiff or Hull? Bad owners never ever equal successful teams. It's why Ken Bates is so popular everywhere in the country outside Chelsea and Leeds. 

Sullivan and Gold are far from perfect owners, and I've said so many times previously. But they are deeply attached to the Club. And I see them in two very distinctly separate lights: the first as off the field movers and secondly as they pertain to the team itself.

I don't really see how people can be unhappy at them taking over from the Icelandics. They have real money for a start. By which I mean legal tender, and not something they got out of a Scandanavian Monopoly box. They have also been prepared to spend that money, often unwisely but I don't feel like they've skimped on their outlay - it's just that they rely too heavily on Sullivan's web of agents and South American fetish.

Many are unhappy that Sullivan and Gold charge interest on their loans to us, seemingly unaware that owing money to your chairmen is a very different kettle of fish to being in hock to a bank. If you wish we were owned by Roman Abramovich then that's something else entirely, although maybe check out where he got his money from before you eulogise his largesse unduly. 

I understand the high emotions around the stadium and for some that is a bridge too far. For me, I wish they'd assume a lower profile, keep the kids off Twitter and take several steps back from the media. But weighing it all up, there is an underlying ambition to their ownership that was never present in my childhood. Back in the days of the Cearns family, the only ambition was to survive, and we have gone past that now. Even if you think they are only after success to line their own pockets, then I'm still not sure what the problem is? It all ends with West Ham doing well. 

On the flipside, they need to step away from the team as soon as possible. I understand the desire - they've spent their entire lives being successful off their own backs, and the cold reality is that I strongly doubt anyone is ever going to tell them that they aren't especially good at being Directors of Football. Self awareness and booming self confidence rarely go hand in hand at that level of business. 

But if they would just get out of their own way, continue to spend appropriately but hand the reigns over to someone who knew what they were doing, then that might just be the making of the Club. And if they don't want to do that, well, we've never been a sexier purchase then we are right now. We have manageable debt, a cushy stadium deal, a huge fanbase and we aren't successful so there's no premium to pay. Excuse while I keep making eyes at the Qataris....

8. Moving The Goalposts

We have Karren Brady

Again, I can hear some coffee being spluttered, but here's a question for you. Who is the most prominent woman in British football? And who is the most prominent woman in British business? I would argue that the answer to both those questions is our Vice Chair. She works for West Ham, is wildly popular around the country as she pulls faces on The Apprentice when some candidate asks "Do French people love their children?" and is a vocal and articulate advocate of women in business. How could this not be a positive thing for the Club?

I am proud that we brought Clyde Best to the UK when it was social anathema to do so (and we should memorialise that more), and whilst the two situations aren't equivalent I think it's brilliant that we now have a woman so visible and competent at the helm of the Club. I love that my daughters have someone at their Club they can look up to and not simply see a wall of middle aged white men staring back at them.

For some fans I know that there is simply no way they will ever accept this, and the air of latent misogyny that often surrounds that analysis is something I just can't be bothered to get into. It's like Eighties music - you can play it, but I don't have to listen.

Of course she has made errors like the Plus Two scheme and I wish she'd just ignore Spurs in her Sun column, but by and large I see nothing but progress off the pitch. Brady never chose to move us to the Olympic Stadium, but when she was tasked with doing so she secured a deal so good that other fans hate us for it. I prefer that to when they all called us their second team because they used to beat us while we played pretty football.


Our third choice right back too, probably

Of course the running track is a killer, but that's the price that had to be paid. Too steep for some, I know, but that was the cost of doing business. Without it, we'd still be at Upton Park and whether people want to accept it or not, significantly less well placed to progress. 

Brady has helped to put the base blocks in place and the hope is that one day there will be sufficient brainpower in the Boardroom to build upon them. For now, we should savour the fact that the commercial and administrative side of the Club seems to be blossoming nicely and try to forget all about the time we missed out on a semi final because we brought on a player who had already appeared in the competition. 

9. Somedays I See The Point

We're crap.

Not an immediately obvious cause for optimism, I grant you, but bear with me. Like Season 2 of Heroes this could be fucking terrible, but you've already started so you might as well finish.

We do not have a very good team or squad. And yet, there we sit in the middle of the Premier League. Despite our disastrous form in the new ground, a transfer policy carried out by magic 8 ball and our best player going home we're sill muddling along. We've barely played well all season and yet somehow have 33 points.

With this comes hope. For we cannot really get any worse. Some good investment and some luck and there isn't any reason we can't get back into the top half. I know that we were promised more, but I think we'll all have to accept a slightly less steep ascent than last year. Gradual improvement shouldn't be difficult when you can hardly get any worse.

10. Which Side Are You On?

The fans.

I'm not going to blow smoke by making those sweeping statements so beloved of Liverpool and Man Utd fans about how we're the best in the country. But there are a lot of us. Each week, we are seeing record numbers coming to the London Stadium, and even though I keep reading about all these tourists and opposition fans in the home end, I never see them. All I see are genuine West Ham fans who couldn't previously get to see their team. It's anecdotal, and probably not worth much, but I know a lot of casual fans who've been to games this year and keep going back. Premier League football is a wildly popular concept, no matter how badly corners are being defended. 

For those who have season tickets I think it's strange for them to realise that other fans might not be able to watch their team, but it's true. Not everyone could afford football at Upton Park. Tickets were expensive and hard to come by, while the ground was murder to reach. Now, with more availability and decent pricing - especially for those taking children - the Club is simply more accessible. 

And the thing about real fans is they don't really give a shit about results. I've been to pretty much every game this year and I've left miserable but still wanting to get my season ticket. I've rekindled my love affair with the Club after the Allardyce era and all it needed was a couple of rabonas and Manuel Lanzini taking off. 

Maybe all this will fade away in a year or two, especially if we keep getting served up a level of mediocrity only matched by the succession of hosts they've picked for the ITV "Tonight" show. But I don't think so. I think the stadium is helping us to reach back out into our heartlands and pull fans back to the Club, and when the team eventually rise up above the current sea of unrelenting dross that they are currently sailing on - I think we will be a club on the rise. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bournemouth 3 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before

And so it goes on. I'm not even sure what to say anymore but I know I just want this joyless season to end. This year, in which we were supposed to kick on and show the world what an upwardly mobile club we have become, has instead been in its own way almost as nostalgic as last term.

Where once I thought we were building for the future, instead we now seem determined to keep repeating the past. This is our very own Groundhog Day, with no sign of a Cockney Andie MacDowell or a useful toaster to end the loop.



Wait, they're still not playing a right back?

This season has been a homage to years past. Terrible recruitment, players forced to play out of position, our best player demanding a move away and fans splintering from a Board of Directors who seem to be having an entirely different experience to the rest of us. 

I don't particularly care that we lost to Bournemouth in this deadest of dead seasons, but I do care that some at the Club seem to have not even noticed we lost the game at all. David Gold thinks this risible shitshow was a 6/10 performance.



Slaven Bilic, meanwhile,  thinks we "are looking like a really good team" and I am forced to turn to the fantasist David Sullivan for a half sensible appraisal of affairs. I hate being so negative about the club that I love, but I see no obvious way that West Ham will ever progress out of being an average mid table side under the current ownership. I'm well aware that we are just one season removed from one of the finest years in our history, but this term has made it painfully obvious that 2015/16 was an outlier.

We have now entered into a period of our history where nearly everything we are doing is running entirely contrary to the rest of the footballing world. We are buying older players while everyone else gets younger, buying from England as the rest of the league recruit players from a wider base than ever before and moving into a larger stadium and distancing our fans from the pitch as other clubs build steep Kops and employ accoustic engineers to ensure a fever pitch atmosphere.

I was a supporter of the move from Upton Park on the grounds that I saw no other way for us to compete with the richer, UEFA subsidised clubs in the Premier League. The loss of our home was a price worth paying to finally start going toe to toe with those clubs gifted a head start on us by virtue of history and the desire of the Premier League for a status quo.

But the harsh reality is this - more income, a bigger stadium and a higher profile are only useful in the hands of people who know what to do with them. And our Board demonstrably do not. This defeat - this insignificant but mind bending Groundhog Day defeat - highlighted every one of our flaws in all their awful glory. The incoherent transfer policy, the unbalanced selection, the mystifying tactics and the chaotic defending have killed us on the park and at the same time are all perfect metaphors for the Club's off the pitch approach. Seb Stafford-Bloor of FourFourTwo put it better than me when he said:

"West Ham are...a club with plenty of ambition, but who are either unsure of how to satiate it or incapable of doing so...In the absence of a more considered culture, they appear to have become overly reactionary, with organisational energies sapped by the need to firefight this never-shortening list of issues...Progressive clubs tend to radiate calm, logical order, whereas West Ham seem to exist in mild chaos.
There is always some kind of drama."

The bit about transfer values is off the mark, but the rest of that article is a dagger to the heart of the issue. 

I know that plenty of you want me to be more upbeat about the Club's outlook, and I get that. I would love nothing more than to write glowingly of our future, and caustically about Spurs, but I also have to write what I see. Theoretically it's a rosy picture, but from where I sit it is being squandered with an unforgivable insouciance by a Board in dire need of hearing some hard home truths. 

2. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

So, what happened in this game? Well, firstly if you didn't see it and you think that maybe a last minute goal suggests we were unlucky then I should disabuse you of that notion. The only reason that we limped into the last five minutes of this game on level terms was due to the fact that Bournemouth's foreigners took penalties like traditional Englishmen should, and because Andre Ayew, of all people, is in unstoppable goal scoring form. 

We began again with Cheikhou Kouyate in the right back slot, probably due to Russian hackers - I HAVE NO OTHER EXPLANATION - and Michail Antonio returned to the starting lineup in place of Robert Snodgrass. Manuel Lanzini played in the inside left channel and Sofiane Feghouli drifted around all over the place, causing havoc. Sadly this primarily manifested itself in our box and he conceded a cast iron penalty in the 9th minute as he tried stopping Charlie Daniels by jumping on his back. 

However, Josh King put the resulting penalty wide, and just 48 seconds later we took the lead after Harry Arter conceded possession to Feghouli on the edge of the Bournemouth box, and the Algerian fed Antonio for a sharp turn and finish. It was an excellent goal, fashioned from nothing and further vindication that Antonio really is our pre-eminent attacking player these days. 

While that goal should have calmed us, we were looking rocky every time Bournemouth got into our half. Reid was struggling with Benik Afobe and Daniels and Pugh were slaughtering us down our right side and an equaliser looked inevitable. It duly arrived on the half hour when King made amends for his earlier miss with a fine turn and finish, leaving Fonte for dust in the box. 

Thereafter, referee Bobby Madley stepped up and, in keeping with the rather poor nature of most of his decisions, awarded the home side a second penalty after an embarrassing dive from Marc Pugh. When the referee blew the whistle I presumed it was to book Pugh for a dive so blatant that all Englishmen bearing the name "Pugh" should this week be stapled to their local church and pelted with out of date pavlovas, as we did in the olden days, in retribution. 

Instead Madley bought it, and Bournemouth got precisely what they deserved when Afobe took a penalty so shit he'd be a dead cert for the next England squad if he hadn't already committed to the DR Congo. 

Undeterred, the Cherries took the lead again three minutes after half time through a suspiciously offside looking King. Replays showed he was miles offside when the cross came into the box but under the current rules was correctly ruled onside, as Antonio wandered back with his customary lack of awareness to play him onside and allow him to poke the ball home to give them the lead. This marked the fifth consecutive game that we have conceded within twelve minutes of a half starting, which I'm sure isn't a problem at all. 

That led to quite a lot of futile attacking as we looked to get back into the game, most of which looked hopeless until Obiang picked out the advanced Byram with a sumptuous pass inside the left back and the newly arrived substitute set up his fellow replacement Ayew for a straightforward tap in. 

Instead of getting a draw we scarcely deserved, however, Ayew was then caught in possession and with Byram so far up the pitch he was almost in fucking Portsmouth, Jack Wilshere broke away and after his shot was saved King slammed home a deserved winner from the rebound despite us having two men on the line. It was that kind of day. 

3. Is It Really So Strange?

If you take a look at this pass map from @11tegen11 you don't really need much else to explain this defeat.


This is a side not using one side of the pitch to attack. When Bilic eventually loses his job, the pigheaded refusal to accept that he needs a proper right back will be a large part of the reason. Instead of allowing Byram a run of games to see what he has, he persists in playing Kouyate there and as this shows, it does us no good at all.

We ship so many goals down the right (no matter who plays there) that only a fool would refuse to accept it isn't our biggest weakness. Here Kouyate was rendered useless as an attacking force by the huge number of overloads that Bournemouth managed against him, preventing him advancing. These were largely as a result of Feghouli not tracking back, which is best highlighted by the fact that our centre half, Jose Fonte, had a wider average position than our right winger. Both right sided starters were eventually withdrawn, in a tacit admission that their selection in those roles was a mistake and you can bet your unusable West Ham e-credits that we'll see them both out there again on Saturday.

The good stuff came from Antonio who foraged admirably, often in advance of Carroll, scored a fine goal and could have had a second with some better luck. While it's easy to criticise Bilic on the back of performances as abject as this, it should not be forgotten that players like Antonio and Lanzini have flourished and improved markedly under his management. The latter remains a delight, and holding on to this pair in the summer will be a tough job if better clubs come calling.

Elsewhere, Carroll was horribly isolated and immobile and barely looks fit, whilst Lanzini was our key creative force despite being wasted out wide yet again for the first half. Whoever has taken over Aaron Cresswell's body got quite high up the pitch and did nothing when he got there. His best performance of the season remains the away game at Crystal Palace, a game where he returned from long term injury, was knackered after an hour and got sent off with fifteen minutes to go.

I appreciate you might be reading this on your morning commute, but I want you to know that nobody will judge you if you have a drink.

4. What Difference Does It Make?

I tweeted out during this game that for a side with one tactic for goalscoring - crosses to Andy Caroll - we sure are shit at crossing the ball. Some took umbrage to that, berating me as the two goals we scored showed that to be untrue. I guess that viewpoint is predicated on the belief that we scored our two goals as a result of a tactical plan. Given that the first came from an opposition error, and the second came from a high raiding right back - something Bilic cannot possibly consider a tactic as he never picks one - you'll have to count me out on that one. I see only one tactic for trying to score.

Since Carroll came back to fitness we have played Chelsea and Bournemouth, and attempted 54 crosses, completing 9. In that same two game span our opponents have successfully completed 8 from 28. This shouldn't surprise anyone who watched the games, as both were incredibly frustrating.

I don't dismiss it as a tactic given that both opponents seemed weak centrally but it can't be denied that it's failed dismally. At least part of this can be put down to Carroll lacking match fitness, as he's barely got near anything, but also due to the low quality of the service. Snodgrass was the main culprit against Chelsea and was duly dropped, but the rest of them have been just as bad. Here, as an example, Cresswell had a number of opportunities and managed nothing of any significance.


Well, we could have had a worse experience with crosses, I suppose

The great frustration is that our best creative player, Lanzini, keeps being isolated in wide positions to start games despite this needing to be changed every time it's been tried. I am but a lowly blogger, and I defer on every conceivable level to Slaven Bilic, but if he is forced to keep changing his own tactics then I cannot understand why he is persisting with them. It's not me telling him he's wrong - it's opposition managers.

When we beat both Middlesbrough and Southampton, it was noticeable that we didn't do so by battering them with crosses but by mixing our attack and actually attempting to go through the middle with our neat ball playing midfield.

With Leicester in town next week, and featuring two centre halves whose only strength is heading the ball, it would be nice to see some variety in our play.

5. This Night Has Opened My Eyes

Up until this weekend I had considered Bournemouth almost entirely unremarkable. Their team is peppered with players who could break into my house and be assured of anonymity even if I caught then scrawling their name on the wall, Homer Simpson style.


Simon Francis breaks into my house - "Who the devil are you?" I say

I'm sure this sounds insulting, and I don't mean it to be, but I can't tell most of the Bournemouth team apart. Francis, Cook, Daniels, Smith, Pugh. I have no idea who these men are. 

And yet, Bournemouth had two very obvious tactics today. First, bomb down our right hand side, targeting Kouyate and generally tearing us apart while Bilic stuck his fingers in his ears and told himself everything was going to be alright. 

The second was to simply surround the referee every time he made a decision. I've never seen anything quite like it, and I've seen us play Manchester United seven times in the last two seasons. 

The ringleader was Dan Gosling, a player so unrelentingly mediocre that he is most famous for something he did when nobody was watching. It wouldn't have surprised me to have seen Madley in the dressing room afterward deciding what shower gel to use and for Gosling to have appeared and screamed into his face that he was wrong. It was all very Goodison, as the home crowd appealed for everything with a sense of injustice that might of been a bit more understandable if they hadn't been given two penalties, one of which being for a piece of street theatre.

Perhaps the injustice was fuelled by the fact Tyrone Mings was banned for this game having been banned for three games for stamping on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's head, and a further two for then having the temerity not to play for Manchester United while appealing the decision. Maybe it was because Noble brainlessly launched into a tackle after getting booked for dissent and was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch. 

I have no real comment here, they deserved to win, but mostly I thought they behaved like dickheads and I wasn't really expecting it. 

6. Panic

If I had to think of one defining feature of Jose Fonte's West Ham career so far it would be of him rushing out to our right flank to make some last ditch tackle while our right back stared on with glassy eyed indifference from the halfway line.

I wasn't a fan of signing Fonte, largely because spending eight big ones on a 33 year old is the biggest waste of a few million since that Sheikh hired Robbie Williams expecting to hear a load of jokes from "Good Morning, Vietnam" (*)

However, I struggle to blame Fonte for the state of our back four, which seems to be the position of West Ham Twitter after this game. Fonte looks alright to me, but like all of them is being exposed by our right flank and our terrifying susceptibility to quick counter attacks. For a team with two holding midfielders we get hit on the break with alarming regularity, and are being repeatedly cut open by losing the ball in places we simply can't afford to lose it.

At this stage, it seems fair to assume that Byram isn't showing Bilic anything in training to force his selection, and as such isn't going to make the position his own. I don't really know where that leaves us in terms of our right side, but I don't see anything that makes me think James Collins is the answer to the problem.

The reality is we have only five clean sheets in the league all season. I simply cannot wrap my head around how a team managed by a centre half can so look so clueless at the back. With 21 goals conceded in 10 games in 2017, we are currently parading the worst defence since this guy argued he shouldn't get a driving ban as he needed his car to drive between his two wives.

To quote Sean Connery spinning round in the fireplace in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade my main observation of all these defensive changes is that, essentially, "Our situation has not improved".


He's got a point 

(*) This might be an urban legend. Don't tell me if it is - I want it to be true and real life is a cruel mistress. 

7. How Soon Is Now?

Another week, another Mark Noble substitution. In truth, this one was needed to prevent him from being sent off, as the Gosling led hordes were round Madley every time he even contemplated a tackle.

However, it was another game where the skipper had little impact and it's hard to know where he fits when Obiang and Lanzini are both playing so well. It seems odd, but perhaps in retrospect Noble was a bigger beneficiary of Payet than we realised. With opposition players inevitably drawn toward the Frenchman, maybe Noble just had more time to play, and produced his best ever season as a result.

Whatever the issue is, he seems to have lost the ability to meaningfully influence games at the moment and it's telling how often it is Obiang who is producing the key passes from our midfield. Indeed, of Noble's 23 completed passes, only 10 even went forward in this game. I love Noble, and I accept he brings more to the team than can be seen on a statistical breakdown, but it feels like a good time to give him a break and see if we can't get into some kind of form with Kouyate and Obiang in the middle.

8. You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby

Andre Ayew appeared again to great effect of the bench. I still can't tell you with any degree of certainty what position Ayew is ever supposed to be playing but his Schrodinger like ability to be in multiple states certainly seems to be helpful in allowing him to be unmarked in front of empty nets.


Deadly when there is no goalkeeper

His goal owed most to Obiang's sublime through ball and Byram's awareness to cut it back to him, but one can't deny the usefulness of a striker who can take up actual honest-to-God goalscoring positions.  Ayew certainly looks better for his stint at the AFCON, but he also lacks in work rate off the ball, and his concession of possession for the third goal was particularly weak and especially galling as it left Jack Wilshere free to break and create a goal - the only Bournemouth player on the pitch with the necessary guile to exploit such a situation.

Our forward situation is a mess right now, with Carroll unfit but playing, and Antonio our only reliable outlet. This leaves Ayew, Snodgrass and Feghouli fighting over one spot as Bilic seems determined to waste Lanzini for 45 minutes per game out wide.

Competition for places is a good thing, but my overwhelming feeling as I watch these guys play is that I still think we need another wide player in the summer. A left sided version of Antonio would be perfect if a little wishful. The biggest issue of all might actually be a question of formation - if we are to play 4-2-3-1 then how much defensive work is expected of the two wide men in the 3? As it stands right now, they are hardly doing anything and it shows in our goals conceded column.

One benefit of the 3-4-3 formation is that your front three can get away with less defensive work if your shape is correct and your wing backs have the legs to cover the miles needed. I'm not entirely convinced that we have the necessary personnel for it right now, but either way we have to find a way to be more defensively solid than we are at present. I'd also suggesting taking the unicycles, red wigs, giant shoes and cream pies off everyone before the next game.


9. Suffer Little Children

After this game, we have won just three games against teams who aren't currently in the bottom three.  Those were the fortuitous home wins over Burnley and Bournemouth and a fine away win at Southampton. This might not bother you, as wins are wins and it matters not where the points come from so long as they come at all.

But to me this starkly highlights the regression of this season. Our performance against the best teams was always unsustainable, but I thought we would have held our own against the mid table types. As it is, we have become reliant upon beating the weakest teams in the division to prop us up into mid table.

It has made for a weird, unsatisfactory season with largely forgettable victories and some sadly memorable thumpings. We've also undergone wild swings in form whilst somehow producing a completely predictable set of results.

What this says about Bilic, I don't know. I am largely agnostic on him, to be honest. I suspect that working for our owners is a huge challenge, with the reputational damage we have suffered making it incredibly hard to attract good young players without paying way over the odds. As I said last week, I also don't think they have the wherewithal to replace him with anyone better so I'm sticking with the devil I know for now.

As it is, I gloated along with everyone else last season about the obvious progression from Allardyce and believed that campaign was the evidence we'd finally been waiting for that West Ham were going forward at last. But consider this team:

Adrian
Tomkins
Cresswell
Ogbonna
Reid
Oxford
Kouyate
Noble
Payet
Zarate
Sakho

(Nolan, Maiga, Jarvis)

This is the group that won 2-0 at Arsenal on the opening day of last season, and completely outplayed them. In the intervening eighteen months six of those players have left the club including the subs, two have lost form completely (Noble, Cresswell), two have been dropped (Adrian, Oxford), two are injured (Sakho, Ogbonna) and one is being played out of position (Kouyate) leaving just Reid as any sort of constant.

I thought that team was going to be the bedrock of a sustained period of decency, but instead it was just a fleeting "what if" and a tantalising glimpse into a future that would never come. Since then we have spent £38m buying Snodgrass, Fonte and Ayew and two of them were on the bench on Saturday.

I understand that last year was over performance and I get that for all my moaning there is every chance we may finish in the top ten this season, but I am frustrated by the failure to grasp the mettle. I keep saying it, but Upton Park was an acceptable price to pay (for me) if it turned us into Everton. If it turned us into West Brom then it was the worst deal since Lando Calrissian started negotiating with Darth Vader.

10. Accept Yourself



On some level, we are all Robert Snodgrass here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

West Ham 1 - 2 Chelsea (And Other Ramblings)

1. Cat's In The Bag....

As a teenager in the mid 90's I learned to play the guitar. I did this because Oasis and Britpop were big at the time and having heard some of the output produced in that era it didn't seem inconceivable that the simple act of owning an instrument and having a functioning pair of arms was enough to guarantee a career in the music industry. I'm pretty sure I formed this opinion after seeing the singing mannequins that were Menswear at the Reading Festival in 1995.


I can remember nothing about this band

But the path to learning a musical instrument is quite challenging. Most people give up before getting anywhere as the literal sound of it is painful to listen to, particularly for your family. It's a frustratingly long process that is illuminated only when you are finally able to get the instrument to produce something recognisable as music. And then it's brilliant.

My formative few months as a guitarist were spent trying to figure out how to master "Mr Tambourine Man" and it was only when I eventually figured out the chord change for the chorus that I would finally feel I was a musician. No one could deny - that sounded like The Byrds. Move over Roger McGuinn, there's a new sheriff in town. But the sad truth is that the one moment when you finally make a sound that resembles the song you're trying to play is but a fleeting instant. The rest of it still sounds like a cat being thrown into a bottle bank.

Last night was our "Mr Tambourine Man". I won't say that nothing good happened as it would be untrue. Manuel Lanzini was a delight, Pedro Obiang showed something and Darren Randolph made a couple of tremendous saves. They were our chorus key changes. The rest of it was borderline unwatchable. I kept having visions of me excitedly asking my nonplussed sister whether she liked that version and her responding, crushingly but honestly, with "Well, what were you trying to play?".

Some of you criticised me last week for not being more positive about a 1-1 draw at Watford. Fair enough too, opinion pieces should invite other opinions, but at some point it doesn't seem unreasonable to demand that we have ambitions beyond beating only those teams below us in the table.

And somewhere Andre Ayew and Mark Noble just went hurtling into a bottle bank.

2. ...And The Bag's In The River

Any analysis of this game has to start with Antonio Conte and Chelsea. It may be painful to admit it but the Mewling Muscovites are a damn good team. I had the pleasure of seeing Conte's Italy play in the summer against Spain at the Euro's and the way in which they casually dismantled them was a worrying prelude to this season. 

They aren't a high pressing team in the style of Spurs or Liverpool, but instead prefer to block passing lanes and funnel teams infield where everything inevitably gets gobbled up by the human threshing machine that is N'Golo Kante. There is an alleged weakness at the back in the air, which we demonstrably tried to exploit by bombarding the back post with crosses. Sadly, and shockingly, Andy Carroll was clearly struggling physically and both Gary Cahill and David Luiz were imperious in dealing with that threat. As evidence, consider that Snodgrass attempted 15 crosses in this game and was successful with 3. Aye Carumba, people.

Our best moments, as ever, came when Lanzini got on the ball. On the couple of occasions he ghosted past Kante the game seemed to open up, but with our wide players largely ineffective he had nowhere to go. It was a sobering 90 minutes that reminded me of nothing so much as the last days of Allardyce, as we had only one plan for scoring. The only difference being that our defensive organisation is shot to shit these days as a result of the embarrassingly unbalanced nature of the squad. 

Kouyate was once again wasted at right back because reasons, and in fairness to him made a decent fist of trying to coral Eden Hazard, but it wasn't hard to look at the centre of the park and feel that his energy and mobility might have provided a useful counterbalance to Kante. 

We actually had more possession tonight, primarily because Chelsea let us have the ball knowing full well that our tendency to overload when going forward left us terrifyingly susceptible to their rapid counter attacks. For all that, we looked decent in the opening twenty minutes and had the better of the early exchanges. As seems to be the way against the big teams, however, we were punished for a mistake in the second quarter of the game and the hope rushed out of the stadium like foam from an exploding fire extinguisher.

This is where the London Stadium kills us. At Upton Park, even when we weren't playing well, there was something to cling to. There was a history that could be drawn upon, some muscle memories of famous victories and hopeful chants could arise without seeming like a complete waste of time. Here, there is nothing. Each home defeat follows the same script - plucky start, defensive error, loss of atmosphere, 70 minutes of futility, mystifying Andre Ayew appearance, rapidly emptying stadium, crowing away fans and then a Tweet from a board member about how crazy it would be to expect to ever beat the likes of {insert name of team we beat last year}. 


As usual, @11tegen11 captures the action nicely. Chelsea created one very good chance for Hazard and were gifted an even better one for Costa. We huffed and puffed and worked undeniably hard, but created nothing until Lanzini tucked one away skilfully in the 92nd minute. This was done in front of the now customary swathes of empty seats, as we hardy remaining few all cheered, looked at the clock and then realised we all had Azpilicueta in our Fantasy League teams and had just lost a clean sheet. 

3. Crazy Handful Of Nothin'

My great concern as I watched this game, is that in a certain context we didn't actually play that badly tonight. That is not to say we played well, but more that this might well have been about the best level this team could produce. With no Antonio, no Payet and no credible goal scoring threat we perhaps have to ask ourselves what more could they have managed?

I know that we failed miserably to exploit the gaps in behind Chelsea's wing backs, and the defending on the second goal was risible, but isn't that what you get when your team is bang average? So many players have lost form, and so many are simply mediocre that it's perhaps the unpalatable truth that right now this is just about the best we can hope for.

Take Lanzini, who was excellent tonight but wasn't even among the best five performers on the pitch (Kante, Luiz, Cahill, Alonso, Hazard as I know you'll be asking). There is a distressing lack of quality in the side right now that no amount of hard work or good intentions can mask. Feghouli and Snodgrass both flickered briefly last night but can't be reasonably compared to their Chelsea counterparts - and all this just a year after we outplayed the Sibneft Squad home and away.

Snodgrass is an interesting player as we overpaid for him and therefore are presumably invested in him being in the side for the foreseeable future, and yet it shouldn't escape our attention that he was Hull's best player and having sold him to us they have improved markedly. That's not a comment on Snodgrass specifically, but more that with some clever recruiting it's possible to lose good players and replace them....and as I type that I think I might have realised the flaw in my plan.


4. Negro Y Azul

Andy Carroll deserves praise for tonight. He played, obviously injured and never gave up. It's easy to expect that as standard from players who are paid fortunes but we all know it's not that simple. In fairness to the whole team it wasn't a lack of effort that did for us here, but a lack of quality.

Frustratingly Carroll has the latter attribute but a groin injury is clearly going to impede his jumping ability and he never looked like winning a header all night. He looked knackered after an hour, and I assumed he was being replaced when Bilic made his substitutions but in the five minutes it had taken Ayew to take his trousers off Winston Reid got injured and thus Carroll was left to struggle on.

Say what you will, but the man never gives anything less than his all whether he's in a Shoreditch pub or a Premier League penalty area.

But, and it's a huge but, we have not yet discovered a viable way of playing against good teams with him in the side. He lacks the mobility to play alone up front in the style of, say, Diafra Sakho and thus has to play with a partner. Antonio did that role well for a while, but was banned tonight, seemingly paving the way for Ayew to get a game. Instead Bilic stuck with Feghouli, which is fine as he's been good recently, but he couldn't get anywhere close to Carroll leaving him like some sort of avant grade tribute to the Angel of the North, marooned on his own, arms out, staring longingly at Newcastle.

It's noticeable that on the only occasions when we have given decent teams a game (Liverpool, Man Utd and Spurs - all away, tellingly) Carroll has not played. It might well be the case that he is a flat track bully - fine to bring on and roll over the weaker teams in the division and simply a luxury we can't afford against the better ones.

Of course, this ignores the six goals he scored against the Big 6 last season, and the fact that when he has players up next to him he continues to look a threat. It seems clear to me that the priority in the summer has to be to find a striker who can play alongside Carroll, and for Bilic to construct a way of playing that allows that pairing to get some service against the best defences in the country.

5. Over

Just look at the state of this, from @SimonGleave at Gracenote Sports. Our season laid out in all it's dubious glory, with each result essentially entirely predictable based solely on the league table. Now, after years of losing games against poor teams and indeed losing a Champions League spot last year because of it, there is some comfort to be had in seeing that we are beating exactly who we are supposed to.

However, and this is key, there is absolutely nothing coming back against the best. This isn't a failure specific to us as the Top 6 are decimating the rest of the division regularly, but our failure to be even competitive in those games is more embarrassing than a Harry Kane/Dele Alli goal celebration.

Part of this can be explained by acknowledging that our performance last year was extraordinary. We picked up 25 points in our games against the current top 6, which Simon notes is the best return of any team outside that group ever. By contrast, the best outcomes this year have been from Everton who have 9 points. Our crash back down to earth has been as predictable as it has been painful. Home games against City, United, Arsenal and Chelsea have seen us manage a total of 10 shots on target as opposed to a combined 35 for our opponents. That's not losing - that's being brutalised.

The sad thing is that a trip to West Ham used to be an acid test of a title chasing teams credentials. Plenty of teams saw their challenges falter at Upton Park, most recently last season when Spurs visibly shat themselves and threw away any hope of the title. A public service on par with 1966, I'm sure you'll all agree. Not so this season, as any half decent team has turned up and rolled us over easily.

Simon points out that we actually have exactly the same number of points from our games with teams 7-20 as we did at the same stage last season. Our decline is therefore due entirely to our failure to compete with the likes of Man City, Arsenal and the Rouble Rabble.

Whether you consider this to be a simple regression to the mean, or a woeful underperformance, it is irritating to me that there seem to be some around the Club who view these defeats as inevitable. I don't buy the "no shame in losing to these teams" argument. Give me a fucking break. Or more accurately a refund. On the day the Club start charging less for games they don't expect to win then they can roll out that line. Until then - find a way to win. There is always a bit of shame in losing when you are a professional football team.

6. No Más

So where does all of this leave Bilic? With a year left on his contract there is talk of an extension in the summer, which doesn't seem unreasonable given that two consecutive top half finishes would be an achievement not managed by any of his predecessors since Harry Redknapp did it three years in a row from 1998 - 2000 before losing his mind and spending the Rio Ferdinand money on a family of travelling acrobats.

Yet, Bilic has been bequeathed a windfall that none before him could dream of having. The final season at a stadium generally always produces a lift, just as the first three seasons in a new ground usually see a decline - Hey, come back and renew those season tickets folks! As he benefitted from the Allardycian staples of a strong defence and unlimited chewing gum in the managers office, he also had a world class playmaker around which to build. And in his defence, he did it majestically. There were flaws of course, and these are being brutally exposed this season, but for one heady, intoxicating year he could do no wrong.

On to that was then tacked the gleaming new stadium, allowing us to pack in an extra twenty thousand fans a week, get them all to pay £6.50 for a chicken burger and simultaneously attract a better class of player. It was everything we'd ever dreamed it would be.

In reality, we now play in a Scaffolded Palace of Mediocrity with a team who are probably improving but play so far away from my seat that I can't be entirely sure. I think he probably deserves the security of an extension and the benefit of a summer of decent spending, but I also accept that he is not the manager who is going to breach the now monumental gap to the Big 6.

In truth, therefore I am forced to admit that whilst I dream (nonsensically) of Luis Enrique and Diego Simeone, I am in favour of keeping Bilic simply because I don't think the people who would choose his replacement have any fucking idea what they are doing.

7. Half Measures

This game once again brought a nasty subject to the fore. Is Mark Noble worth his place in the side? I'm always slightly wary of this question because I'm not sure I can be all that objective. Mark Noble is me if I had any talent. He is literally living my dream by captaining West Ham, playing professional football and having a rather saucy tattoo on his hips.


A lifetime on the hips

But with Obiang growing in stature each week and Kouyate displaced, there is a focus falling on the skipper. To some he is slow and predictable, without the necessary athleticism to survive in the roided up world of Premier League midfields. To others he is our heartbeat, a leader with experience and grit who sets the tone when it needs to be set.

The truth doubtless lies in the middle, although the Chelsea opener didn't help as he inexplicably failed to cross into a packed penalty area and instead shifted it to Snodgrass before watching helplessly as Hazard and Pedro cut us to ribbons on the counter attack.

I think that part of the issue is that with Kouyate visibly being displaced, it clearly shines a light on Noble. With all the other problems in the team - conceding goals, no right back, no fit strikers, no one can take a fucking corner - I don't think that central midfield is going to make to much of a difference. Obiang and Kouyate would be better but probably not materially enough to paper over any of those problems. A spell out of the limelight might make a few people appreciate that Noble, for instance, is our best midfielder at coming deep and using the ball with a view to getting Lanzini in advanced central positions.

His form has dropped from last year, as it has for most, but he still has much to offer. One thing that was obvious here however, was that his lack of pace was brutally exposed when Chelsea broke on us with the speed of John Terry nipping round to his neighbour's house.

8. Hazard Pay

Talking of fast counter attacks, that first goal was frighteningly good. It seems churlish to critics Randolph given that the ball was lost 70 yards from his goal and none of his team mates would get a foot on it again before it was past him. Still, his effort to save it rather resembled a fat guy falling slowly into a swimming pool, whilst trying not to spill his beer.


Didn't spill a drop

At the other end of the spectrum, his save from Costa's turn and shot was stunning. And therein lies the conundrum with our goalkeepers. Both seem to produce roughly similar results, suggesting that the defence in front of them isn't brilliant, and yet neither inspire total confidence.

In his sixteen games since winning his place, Randolph has kept three clean sheets and I can't decide if he's average or really quite good seeing as how he is often both in the same game. If we really are after Joe Hart in the summer, I wouldn't really think that was a great use of limited funds given that goalkeeper is the easiest position to upgrade cheaply, but I could see the underlying reason for thinking that was a good buy.

9. Cornered

When they weren't singing "Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea" and muttering words of thanks to their Russian Mafia benefactors, the visiting fans goaded us with a round of "You're not West Ham anymore". If you're like me your eyes probably just about rolled out of your head hearing that, but on some level it might be worth paying some attention.

See, if any fans know about having the soul ripped out of their club, and watching it turn into a soulless vampire squid, then it's Chelsea. I don't say that in criticism of them - it's not their fault after all - even if the nouveau fans with their Super Frankie Lampard scarves are a bit much to take. The irony is that the Leningrad Lemmings are pretty much where we want to be.

I get that people will be disgusted at the thought of being compared to a plastic plaything club, who are built on money accumulated during Russian aluminium wars, but the output is the thing to look at here. Their transformation from mid table mediocrity to the finest team roubles could buy is the path we're trying to tread. It's the reason we had our Mayor of Casterbridge moment and struck out in pursuit of future glory, leaving our past behind.

The issue is that the mediocrity we have been served up this season simply isn't going to suffice. The fans are owed a debt. You can't turn us into Chelsea 2017 off the pitch and leave us as Chelsea 1994 on the pitch - it's not what we signed up for. I've read plenty of fans who tell me they don't want success if the price is being Chelsea, but I have no idea why. The "game", whatever you might think it is, disappeared some time ago. We're paying a grand a year to watch TV games we got for free as kids, Man Utd players are advertising X-Men films, Chelsea have 30 players out on loan largely to deprive them from their competitors, the FA Cup is sponsored and Paul Pogba is the most expensive player in the world despite not being remotely close to the world's best. Whatever Corinthian ideal that those fans are clinging to is dead in the water. I want to win. My money is just as good as anyone elses and if the price I have to pay is some Japanese tourists or opposition fans telling me I'm a glory hunter, then that's a price I'm willing to pay.

This summer feels hugely significant in this sense. We've done the transfer failures to death, but they've got to get this team on an upward tilt, and soon, before those fans who were lured by the new stadium and the prospect of a Payet fuelled revolution start to lose the faith.

10. Say My Name

Last night was another game where, upon reaching a designated time, the crowd (including our visiting friends from Russia, good on them) broke into a minute's applause. This has become customary all over the country and isn't unique to West Ham, although there seem to have been a number of instances at our home games recently.

On this occasion the stadium stood to applaud eight year old Zara Witherall who tragically died of cancer recently and it was touching and heartbreaking in equal measure. My own daughters are seven, nine and eleven so I can barely type this without tearing up. I can't even imagine the pain her family must be feeling, and completely understand the desire to remember her at a place where they came in the same spirit as the rest of us - more in hope than expectation, but as a family to share the experience.

So let me be clear that I know her grieving family and friends don't need some twat of an internet blogger telling them how to grieve. If this gave them - and particularly her father, if you'll allow me to project my own fears for a moment - a crumb of comfort, then it was worth it. Indeed, I felt rather proud that the Club agreed to do it.

But I wonder at what point does this end? We are a big club with a big fanbase and it feels like a decent number of our fans must pass away each fortnight. How do the Club determine who gets afforded this particular honour? What happens when two families want it to be offered to their relative and the Club have to make some sort of terrible decision about who deserves it more?

In this era where social media allows some to publicise their every emotion and demand immediate acknowledgment from distant acquaintances, we are being press ganged into public displays of grief for people we don't know. On every single occasion it has been a tragic story and I've convinced myself that it was the right thing to do, I'm a bit worried that at some point I'm going to read up on it and find myself saying "I'm sorry - but he's only died". Christ, I feel like a bastard just writing that, but there you go.

So, a suggestion. The Club are in an invidious position here. They seem cruel and unfeeling if they turn down the requests, but can't acquiesce every time without turning games into remembrance services. However, you may not know this but we have the largest digital wrap in Europe. It's enormous and can be seen from Stratford Station - roughly the same distance as the touchline to the bench, if you're wondering - and is visible to at least 40,000 fans a game.

Could the Club not display the messages there in the lead up to matches? In that example it wouldn't just be a minute, but the messages could be replayed throughout the build up to the game, allowing people to take a some time to remember those who have passed away without shoehorning it in to a game of football. For example, I can't imagine it having quite the same poignancy if the picture goes up during the game and the referee chooses that moment to wrongly send off Sofiane Feghouli, or award Spurs a penalty or we concede to Millwall.

I'm sure you'll all let me know if I'm way out of step on this particular point.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Watford 1 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Save Me

One of the joys of having children is watching them grow into confident young people, with their own opinions and thoughts on the world.

It should also be said that one the downsides of having children is watching them grow into confident young people, with their own opinions and thoughts on the world.

Gone are the days when I could simply put my own music on the car stereo or watch what I wanted on the TV. Now I have to listen to Capital and watch drivel like "The Voice" because when you tell children to think for themselves you can't really ignore them when they do, or it sort of defeats the purpose.



I'm sure he's very talented

One such demonstration of their independent thought has been an insistence on introducing me to the music of Ed Sheeran. I have welcomed this new element in my life with roughly the same level of enthusiasm as Native Americans greeting the Pilgrims turning up on their lands, riddled with leptospirosis. 

His latest tune is an eight hour form of Chinese torture called "Castle on the Hill" which takes us on an autobiographical tour of Ed's childhood in Suffolk. He tells us of the time he broke his arm, his first love, his first trip to the dentist, his ongoing love for the music of Sid Owen, the trouble with biscuits and their packaging, the time he took a city break to Budapest and somewhere around this point I began to wonder if at any point Ed was planning of introducing any more traditional elements into the song like, say, a melody. 

But Ed is not old fashioned like that and on he went, reciting his grandmothers twelve favourite Psalms and then including the name of every person who died on the Titanic before telling us the exact life situation of his four closest friends followed with the lovely line "but these people made me", with that use of the word "but" really being quite telling. 

Anyway, at half time in this game I was thinking to myself - "This is like that Ed bloody Sheeran dirge. I'm 45 minutes in and I keep wondering if a game of football is going to break out". 

2. Out Of Nothing

Looking back now, it seems impossible that we nearly lost this game. 

We dominated most aspects of the match, although in fairness to Watford that is largely because they simply stopped attempting to attack after they scored. This actually happened in the second minute of the game after Cheikhou Kouyate ran straight into the back of Mauro Zarate in the style of a dog who hadn't seen this owner in about three months, and gave away a penalty that Troy Deeney stuck away with aplomb.

At this stage you might expect me to make a sarcastic comment about our ongoing determination to play an entire season without a right back, but I have decided to engage myself in less frustrating endeavours such as arguing global macroeconomic policy and UK interventionism with Sue's husband Roy on Facebook. 

Of course, Kouyate is a professional footballer and therefore it might be reasonable to expect him to make a better fist of tackling than he did, but for the second game running we were behind to an early goal as a result of our porous right sided defence. 

For the remainder of the first half we huffed and puffed ineffectually, with our sole threat coming whenever Michail Antonio got into the inside left channel and sliced through the Watford backline. As Bilic said after the game, "Antonio was our best player but he can't get the ball, run down the wing and cross it to himself. Well maybe someday, but not today". 

At this point I'm almost tempted to suggest that perhaps a good idea might have been to therefore give Antonio someone to cross to, but I'm not sure that would have fitted Bilic's preferred option of picking seven midfielders and playing them all out of position. 

So after a fruitless forty five minutes spent creating opportunities for us to create opportunities without actually managing to create any opportunities, we simply steamrollered them for much of the second half. Lanzini, pointlessly marooned out on the left again in the first half, was moved inside to great effect after the break. Flitting in between the lines, he was a constant menace and finally provided a bit of worthy support to Antonio, who by this stage was looking like John McClane in Die Hard, wondering when a bit of help might turn up. 

In the end it was these two who created the equaliser, as Watford made the fatal mistake of looking vaguely offensive for a moment, and Lanzini burgled a midfield ball to release Antonio one on one with Younes Kaboul. That's like leaving Sam Allardyce alone with a pie, and Antonio duly gave him the full Yippee Ki-yay before somehow hitting both posts with quite possibly the most West Ham shot of all time, and briefly convincing me that this weeks article was going to consist of only two words. Thankfully the ball rebounded to Andre Ayew, in one of his brief appearances on our plane of existence, who cushioned it nicely back in for a thoroughly deserved equaliser. 

This seemed to remind Watford that it was possible to venture past the halfway line and the closing quarter was a duly helter skelter period. Both teams had chances to win, and despite our superiority in the overall statistical analysis, it's hard to say that a draw wasn't a fair result. Watford sub Isaac Success went especially close as he barely failed to nudge in a winner with the last kick of the game, after some set piece defending that came straight out of Aliens.



Some nice looking shot locations here, courtesy of @11tegen11, with the most glaring miss being Antonio's second half header from a glorious Cresswell cross, that really should have got us back on terms. Watford, meanwhile, didn't manage an attempt on target apart from their penalty. Jose Fonte Baby. 

3. Come Back To What You Know

I have no issue with the team going away for four days of warm weather training in Dubai. In true West Ham fashion, they didn't actually get any warm weather but the principles were sound. Get away, bond, train more frequently and use the opportunity to reenergise for the run in to the season.

All of that is logical, which makes it even more bonkers that upon returning we went straight back to the system which had failed us in the first half against West Brom. Lanzini was stuck uselessly out on the left like an Argentine Jeremy Corbyn, Snodgrass looked lost in the middle and Kouyate was once again wasted at right back because Bilic seems to prefer that to choosing between his three central midfielders.

Putting Lanzini out wide is particularly egregious as his footwork and ability to take on and beat a player is invaluable against pressing teams. In this game alone he successfully did this on seven out of eight attempts which was as many as the Watford team combined, and he led the game with twelve ball recoveries. In short, the Jewel is now our leading player and the odd decision to play him wide of Snodgrass deprived us of his proper influence in the first half.

What was brutally apparent, however, was that our attacking options are criminally limited at present. With Carroll and Sakho absent once again, it fell to Antonio to strive manfully on his own up front. Whilst he did a good job, his best position seems to me to quite clearly be as the wide player in a front three, joining at the back post to win headers and bully full backs. As Bilic alluded to, he frequently got into positions to put dangerous balls into the box and found no targets to aim for. It seems a little curious that Calleri isn't being used more frequently for no other reason than we ought to be finding out what we have with him, before he goes back.

He was actually due to come on in place of Noble just as Ayew equalised which suggests that, if nothing else, Bilic knows which of his three central midfielders is most vulnerable should he ever choose to make a change. As it was, the skipper stayed on as Bilic looked to protect a point that means we have now lost just one of our last seven away league games.

So, in short, it was a half decent performance with lots of nice things about it and at the same time lots of frustrating nonsense, far too much of which is being caused by a steadfast refusal from Bilic to stand up and pick a team of players in their correct positions. 

4. Gravity

The day when Bilic addresses this may come as soon as next week, as Antonio was latterly sent off for a brainless handball and will now miss the Chelsea game. In truth, he'd been on thin ice for a while as he totted up fouls all over the place. I have no complaints about his dismissal, although I can barely believe that M'Baye Niang didn't join him as he did exactly the same thing all night and somehow managed to not even pick up a yellow card.

Referee Craig Pawson seemed predisposed to trying to allow the game to flow, but Watford are managed by an Italian and pulled off a masterclass in professional fouling. I haven't seen a team so cute at breaking up play since Ranieri's Leicester, who also adopted a "Thou shall not pass" approach to defending that one rarely sees outside of Serie A.

I'm not entirely convinced that Pawson was going to book Antonio immediately for the handball - if you squinted your eyes you could (wrongly) argue it was accidental - but Tom Cleverley didn't play all those years at Man Utd without learning a thing or two about shithousery. He was straight on to the ref as if Jose Mourinho was whispering in his ear, and out came the yellow and we'll now have to face the league leaders without a fit striker. If only there was some way we could have anticipated this and potentially planned for it, but sadly that sort of thing is just impossible.

Where Pawson did screw us was in not giving us at least one of two decent penalty shouts. Kouyate was wrestled to the ground by Niang in the second half in what seemed to be a fairly clear instance of foul play. Pawson simply waved it away rather than make a decision, although Bilic can't complain about that as he currently doing the same thing with his midfield.

Earlier, Antonio had got on the wrong side of Britos who thudded into him from the side. Had he fallen it would have been a strong shout, but instead he stayed on his feet and Gomes saved smartly. I'm really unclear as to how we're supposed to eradicate diving if players never get awarded fouls unless they fall over. I mean - we're all agreed that Joey Barton is in the wrong here, yes?

5. Happiness Will Get You In The End

You might remember that after our defeat in the reverse fixture in September, noted moral philosopher Troy Deeney declared that he felt "West Ham were trying to mug Watford off", which duly inspired their marvellous second half comeback.

He was especially aggrieved about the Rabona cross which Payet put in for Antonio to score his second. Now you and I might think that a Rabona is a particularly good bit of skill, but Troy informs me that it is in fact an attempt to mug someone off, and therefore cannot be allowed.

Let's look at Payet here:


This painting by Raphael is called "Zaza the Optimist"

I am not entirely clear that I know what "mugging off" really entails but I think the general gist is that you shouldn't be attempting to embarrass your fellow professionals, which I think is a reasonable stance to take, but is perhaps fraught with danger. For instance, someone like me, who is not as attuned to the Byzantine rules of "mugging off", might think that mimicking the dance move of a fellow professional could be construed as a bit of mugging, and indeed, offing. 

Here is Troy Deeney doing exactly that to Paul Pogba a week after that very same game. 


This is definitely not mugging someone off

Now you probably don't care about that, because a footballer having his own dance move is just about the worst thing in the world, but I'm really more interested in the elusive understanding of what truly constitutes a proper "mugging off". I'm concerned that I'm missing something, if I'm honest with you.

I could also point out that in 2012, Troy Deeney was sentenced to jail for ten months for kicking someone in the head during a brawl, and maybe his idea of what constitutes the appropriate way to play football is really a bit fucking redundant. But I won't. I might be mugging him off.

6. Even Smaller Stones

With twelve games to go, we have no chance of going any higher than our current ninth position and no risk of being dragged in the relegation battle. The remainder of our season is like a Robbie Wiliams album - pointless, but unavoidable.

One would think that in that scenario, there would be quite a lot of licence for Bilic to experiment with his squad and give a nice ten game trial to some players he needs to know a little more about.

Sam Byram is the obvious example here, but instead he sits marooned on the bench as all of our midfield, two wingers and three lads from the ticket office get a game in front of him. I'm not convinced that Byram is the answer, but it concerns me more that Bilic isn't even asking the question.

I say again - these games don't fucking matter.

On a similar note, the Club have decided to loan out some of our more promising youngsters. Reece Oxford has gone to Reading, Reece Burke and Marcus Browne went to Wigan and Toni Martinez is at Oxford.

As part of the Gang of Four who were involved in the Tevez affair, we should never be lending Wigan players, but both of them have been injured so my hope is that they are having to subsidise the wages of two squad members who won't play for them again. We'll get that £20m back somehow.

Reece Oxford is in the most frustrating situation of all, as he is just sitting on the bench at Reading, although Toni Martinez is getting a fair bit of playing time.

I'm not actually in favour of throwing youngsters straight into the first team, which is the usual default position of certain fans whenever results take a turn for the worse. Premier League managers aren't in the habit of leaving out players who could make their team better, so if a youngster isn't in the squad it's because he hasn't proven himself yet. Loans to lower league teams are a much better idea as they bridge the gap between youth and senior football much quicker than a season of five minute substitute appearances.

All of our golden generation bar Joe Cole went out on loan and came back better for it. Ferdinand and Defoe went to Bournemouth, Lampard went to Swansea, Johnson survived a stint at Millwall and Carrick was at both Swindon and Birmingham. These loans are a good idea, but only if they play. Truthfully, if Jaap Stam can't risk Oxford because he's in the play off hunt that's fair enough, but then the Club should recall him and either get him some first team games with us, or arrange another loan.

I'll admit that I don't know if another loan is allowable under the rules. I'm as familiar with them as I am with those of "mugging off". The broader point here is that if Oxford is indeed a miniature John Stones, destined to be a ball playing centre half, then he is going to make a few mistakes and we'll have to suck that up. I'd rather we started that education now, when the stakes are low, but I accept with Fonte having arrived that is now a dead duck. All of which combines to leave our brightest prospect playing no football. This seems...sub-optimal. 

7. Higher Sights

Having said that about the meaningless nature of this season it seems reasonable to ask what exactly we are looking to achieve between now and May. What are we aiming for?

Of course everyone will pay lip service to finishing as high up the league as possible, but we have no chance of making up the seven point gap to West Brom, which is just about the most depressing sentence I've ever had to type.

So, if we aren't going to use these games to work toward next year I suppose it's fair to say that we'll have to look at what we have. Look out for Cresswell, who improved dramatically in this game, which was perhaps not unrelated to Masuaku being back on the bench. Andre Ayew got some games at the AFCON and looked a bit sharper last night - understanding what position we are going to use him in would be a big help.

All of that is fairly prosaic though. I'm thinking it's been a while since we've done anything barmy. Sure, we're currently playing all our midfielders out of position but that's small beer. I think we have us in it to do something properly bananas. Enter Wayne Rooney, England captain.


Let's be honest - he'll fit right in

I think we're going to try and sign Rooney in the summer. I have absolutely no sources telling me this and this is purely a theory, but stick with it for a minute.

This would, of course, be a terrible idea which sadly increases the likelihood of it happening by about 800%. Unfortunately, the Manchester United all time leading goalscorer is like an angry, balding Scouse Christmas present for David Sullivan. He's in decline, he's famous, he's waaaaaay overpaid and he'll be literally useless in two years time.

If one assumes that Rooney isn't going to China because they don't do big enough lollipops, then that doesn't leave too many options. I don't see him playing in another European league, which leaves the MLS or a fucking lunatic team in England. Do you see where I'm going with this?

No proper teams will be interested, which means we start to get into mid table teams with money. With Payet off the books and Sullivan desperate for a marquee signing, there is some wiggle room for wages at West Ham just now. I'm not sure that Everton could afford it or are that stupid, although I suppose that Rooney might offer them a small discount to go home. No other mid table team fits either financially or in any other sense.

Most likely of all is that he goes to LA Galaxy and fades into irrelevance there, thank Christ, but do not be surprised if we are heavily linked once the silly season begins. 

8. Fireworks 

Watching Slaven Bilic on the touchline during this game was to see a man on the edge of madness. He looked like I do when I write these articles on my Mac and then after I've posted it, I notice all the various little improvements that Steve Jobs' gang of lunatics have made to my prose. Bilic has become Billie, Lanzini becomes Lansing and hearsay becomes heresy which is at least quite clever I suppose.

Anyway, after a year of keeping his cool under remarkable provocation, Bilic has suddenly become incredibly animated on the touchline. I wonder if there is a little link here to the story which emerged in The Sun, the Sullivan organ of choice for formal leaks, stating that Bilic was history unless he managed a top eight finish. Once the board start briefing against a manager it's very hard for him to turn it around, albeit Bilic is a far more popular incumbent than the previous victims.

All of this is hearsay and speculation, but it is a quite remarkable change in demeanour for a manager who has never previously got too involved with commenting on referees. Maybe it's nothing, maybe he's completely on edge at the prospect of getting the chop or maybe he doesn't subscribe to my line of thinking that these games are essentially meaningless. He seems a bit....different to me though.


Airborne microphone just about to land on the lino's head


9. All You Good Good People

If you would allow me a moment of self indulgence, I would like to thank all of you who read, shared or commented on the piece I wrote last week about my old youth team coach, Steve Cowley, and his sons Danny and Nicky - currently plotting to defeat Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter finals with Lincoln. I was greatly touched by all the kind words, and the lovely feedback.

As an addendum, I thought you might like to know that I received a really nice message from Nicky, sent at 3am after he just got back from a game at North Ferriby, thanking me for writing the piece. Given that he and his brother are currently being inundated from all sides for interviews and comments, I am well aware that he didn't need to do that and indeed scarcely had time to do that. A measure of the family, I think.

I also made a couple of comments in the piece about my own playing ability. Three people got in touch to tell me I'd been too harsh on myself - Steve, Danny's wife Kate, and my sister. I think that sort of proved my point.

10. One Big Family

Last week I was a guest of Phil and Jim at the Stop! HammerTime podcast. We chatted about the West Brom game, the late lamented and brilliant Fortunes Always Hiding fanzine and Donald Trump sorting out our right sided issues. Phil forgot to introduce me so the first five minutes are sharkless, a bit like Deep Blue Sea, but with less Saffron Burrows.

The podcast can currently be found here and on iTunes here.