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, May 15, 2017

West Ham 0 - 4 Liverpool (And Other Ramblings)

1. Intro

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

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

He missed this. Twice.

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

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

2. In Cold Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Breezeblocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Pusher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also the dance, but mostly the fitness.

5. Something Good

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

My kingdom for some defensive cover

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

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

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

6. Dissolve Me

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

That joke might need explaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Tessellate

Does anyone know how we play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Hunger Of The Pine

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

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

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

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

Josh Cullen, 11

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

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

9. Choice Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Last Year

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

Monday, May 08, 2017

West Ham 1 - 0 Spurs (And Other Ramblings)

1. Tonight The Streets Are Ours

What a night.

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

This was joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Nothing Like A Friend

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

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

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

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

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

3. Tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Standing At The Sky's Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but can Darren Randolph look cool doing this?

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

Whatever. We deserved this. Savour it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. No Way Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Just Like The Rain

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

It's happened again 

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

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

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

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

8. I'm Looking For Someone To Find Me

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

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

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

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

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

9. For Your Lover, Give Some Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Lady Solitude

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

She also wrote this about Spurs.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Stoke 0 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Still Feeling Blue

Eighteen years ago I went to see the Christopher Nolan film, "Memento". I saw it with my mum and sister and, true to form, they were a few minutes late. Now usually, missing the first five minutes of a film isn't a massive problem except for when the story is being told backwards.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the story centres around Guy Pearce, a man who has a memory span of just fifteen minutes and who is searching for the men who killed his wife. In order to aid his search he tattoos certain phrases all over his body and has a set of Polaroids with names and descriptions written on them. No one seems to tell the truth, nothing is what it seems and all in all it's a beautifully dark comic noir thriller and I recommend it highly.

I'm looking for a right back - seen one?

In that spirit, it's not difficult to imagine that somewhere, before this game, Slaven Bilic was stood looking at himself in a mirror. On his body were tattooed varying slogans like "Winning games is good" and "Players don't play well out of position". Scattered in front of him were varying Polaroids, mostly showing injured players, but there were others like one of Edmilson Fernandes saying "Don't play at wing back" or another of Jonathan Calleri saying "On loan from Argentina - nobody knows why".

Slaven used to win games of football but he can't exactly remember how. Now, he's in a seedy hotel in Stoke wondering what to do next. Diafra Sakho is tied up in his closet and he has no idea why and no ability to make any new memories. He's in Memento.

So, just as Slaven gets the full picture in his head, and decides to play all his players in their correct positions, and with a gameplan to win the game by scoring goals, suddenly his memories disappear once again.

And so it comes to pass that a midfielder plays at wing back, Jonathan Calleri is trying to score via a rabona and we end this game with a set of substitutions that could only have been devised by a person suffering from serious head trauma.

2. Cry One More Time

Perhaps the worst thing about this result is that we really could have won it. Unlike last weeks exercise in zen like non aggression, this was a reasonably decent encounter. Adrian once again showed the value of a keeper who can make important stops at important times, but the man of the match was Stoke keeper, Jack Butland, who pulled off a number of excellent saves to keep us out.

So to be critical is to be churlish, but also fairly accurate. As this season slips away like a fat kid on a water slide, it's noticeable how rarely we've been able to prevail in these sorts of games of late. Tight, tense affairs where a rare moment of quality would be enough to separate the teams have typically ended up as stalemates - think West Brom and Everton - which perhaps isn't all that surprising when you consider that most of the quality present in our team last year is currently not on the pitch.

It's not new or original for me to say this, but I sure can't wait for this season to finish.

3. Love Hurts

Whilst there's not much doubt that we could have won this game, there's also no doubt that the best chance of the game fell to Marko Arnautovic. He was found with one of those long balls that Stoke don't play anymore now that Mark Hughes is in charge and they are basically Barcelona redux, but his poked effort was brilliantly kept out by Adrian from close range.

By contrast we fashioned lots of less clear chances inside the box, the best of which fell to Calleri and gets a section all to itself later on.

Our most potent threat was Andre Ayew who was twice denied splendidly by Butland, once from a marvellous overhead kick after a fine run by Arthur Masuaku. But in the end, a point seemed about right, and it's another mile travelled on the slow boat to safety.

With this team selection I was actually a little surprised that we carried the fight as well as we did. What the above graphic doesn't show is the Catherine Wheel like display of Cheikhou Kouyate who bestrode the battlefield like a general and was a huge part of how we were able to frequently hit Stoke on the break.

Alongside him Manuel Lanzini continued his superb post Payet run of form, and between them they give me what little hope I can muster for the upcoming home games against much better teams. Out wide, I remain unconvinced that playing Fernandes as a wing back is a good idea, but there's no doubt his athleticism is a bonus, and indeed he twice popped up here in advanced positions in the first half without quite picking the final pass that was needed. I couldn't help but think back to Bournemouth and Sam Byram and wonder if playing a proper wingback in that position might actually be useful at some point.

It rather feels like we've stumbled into this 3-4-2-1 formation by accident, and that Bilic is now picking players and shoehorning them into the setup rather than picking players in their natural positions and moulding a way of playing to suit them.

And so it goes that we have a central midfielder playing out of position to cover a suspended full back, and retaining his spot seemingly because the manager doesn't like to treat his players unfairly. It's admirable enough I suppose, but I feel like we've seen this all season to the detriment of the team. Darren Randolph given too much rope, Noble playing ahead of more in form alternatives and Kouyate playing instead of Byram for reasons I've yet to fathom.

Poor decision making is one thing, but it seems to me that a failure to make decisions can be equally as damaging.

4. That's All It Took

On that topic, it's been a delight to welcome Adrian back between the sticks. I wouldn't say he necessarily inspires an unswerving confidence but there is a certain comfort to be taken when he's lining up a save. As an example, Saido Berahino hit a very decent second half effort low to his right that he palmed away strongly. It was a save he should have made, but one perhaps that Randolph might not. In addition, Berahino hadn't scored in 24 games so I'd have bet my fucking house on him doing it against us. I still remember Linvoy Primus, after all.

Whether Adrian stays with us in the long run is probably dependent upon whether the Club want to make a big splash in the summer. The reality is that the Spaniard is a perfectly decent stopper who got off to a bad start when his own form dipped just as Bilic was assembling a back four that seemed to rely upon voodoo spells and magic to keep out the opposition rather than such exotic notions as tackling or defensive structure.

But, our Board is our Board, and they like nothing more then to be seen to be doing stuff. Snodgrass, Fonte, Ayew, Zaza - one could argue that all of these were little more than impulse purchases because David Sullivan didn't want to be seen to look like he was inactive. It's not hard to see how such folly could extend to splashing out £15m on Joe Hart.

The problem I have with that is the fact that goalkeeper is the easiest position to recruit. Top teams only need one so unlike centre halves or strikers, they tend not to get hoarded. When Tom Heaton can't get a game at Manchester United he moves to Burnley. When Tim Howard can't get a game at Manchester United he moves to Everton. Stop me when you see a pattern.

Equally, Premier League history is filled with keepers who were brought from "smaller" overseas clubs for low cost. Petr Cech, Thomas Sorensen, Jussi Jaaskelainen, a raft of Americans and, yes, Adrian are all examples of outstanding players who were picked up for small sums.

Of course, it's still possible to spend big amounts on the every best keepers like De Gea or Lloris but I'd still be fine with us sticking with Adrian and spending the money elsewhere. I'm {on} not {a} sure {right} where {back}.

5. Do You Know How It Feels

It's not often you watch a game and think that a full back might be the best player on the pitch. I can think of a few vintage Leighton Baines and Ashely Cole performances, and of course we had Julian Dicks in his prime, but it's not an everyday occurrence.

Step forward then Arthur Masuaku, who was comfortably our best player here, even if he has a haircut that looks like it belongs in The Hunger Games.

The Arthur Appreciation Society

Masuaku has always looked pretty comfortable on the ball and going forward, but has had a tendency to defend like Diane Abbott on the radio. To clarify, it's often made no sense at all. But since his return to the side, and perhaps crucially - to full fitness - he has looked outstanding. His footwork makes him difficult to tackle and as such allows him to raid high up the pitch. He combined here on a number of occasions with Lanzini and Ayew, and generally seemed to have miles more time on the ball than anybody else on the pitch. 

The crucial difference to his earlier performances were that back then he wanted time but couldn't get it, whereas now he brims with the confidence to make time for himself. A year ago I would have thought it incomprehensible that we would replace Aaron Cresswell and yet the performances of Masuaku in the last couple of weeks have been better than anything Cresswell has produced this season. Small sample size and all that - who can forget that Kepa Blanco looked good for about twenty minutes - but there is an increasing confidence about his play, and he deserves a chance to press for his place. 

That said, an hour of chasing after Kyle Walker on Friday might burst that balloon fairly quickly. 

6. White Line Fever

Talking about players brimming with confidence and derring do. Jonathan Calleri. He hangs out with a couple.

Calleri continues to bemuse me like some sort of footballing "Avengers" film. Why am I watching this? Why do people think is good? OK, that bit was good. Shame about the other hour and a half.

Jonathan Calleri. Obviously.

In this game, Calleri was faced with a great chance to score after a Fernandes cross fell to his feet eight yards from goal and the keeper was stranded. Faced with the chance to touch the ball on to his left foot and try to drive it past the defender, Martins Indi, he did what any of us would do when we'd scored one deflected goal all season, had no confidence and were playing for a team in desperate need of points - he tried a Rabona. 

I have not the words. 

OK, I have some words. 

Christ on a fucking submarine. 

I can just about accept that every now and again a rabona can make sense when your feet fall in a certain position and your momentum is going a certain way. Payet and Lanzini have both credibly pulled it off at various times this season, and we all delighted in them. But Jonathan Calleri is assuredly not in that class. 

He is our Jeremy Renner, bringing a bow and arrow to a gun fight. I want him to be good, but I really don't see the point. 

7. Farther Along

Three men currently enjoying their football in the current system are our centre halves. Winston Reid was at his imperious best here, blocking everything and finding a precious moment to whinge at every single person in the stadium.

Beside him Jose Fonte is revelling in the unusual situation of having people in the team who are actually concerned with stopping the opposition scoring, whilst James Collins is the perfect man to sit between them and chuck himself on any grenades that need muffling. Perhaps the reality is that we don't have a confident enough pair, or indeed four, to play a traditional system so we're replacing defensive competence with numbers and just snuffing out attacks with the sheer weight of players in front of the goal.

Crucial to that is Havard Nordtveit who patrolled that area in front of the back three with plenty of intent, and he did a good job of preventing the likes of Shaqiri from getting between the lines and causing us problems. I'm not sure that Andy Carroll can play in this system as it doesn't get players close enough to him but even the powderpuff Calleri made it look workable at times, and for now it definitely seems like the best way to stagger to the end of the season.

8. Man In The Fog

Whisper it quietly but is Andre Ayew becoming useful?

He linked play nicely here, following up from a decent second half performance last week against a soporific Everton. Whether he is a proper striker is up for debate but we have to ask the same question of Calleri too, Slaven. Therefore, the decision to remove him and leave the Argentine on, to facilitate the introduction of Noble was a head scratcher. Having had two very decent efforts, Ayew looked positively aghast to be withdrawn and dragged himself off the pitch with all the speed of Karren Brady answering the front door to HMRC inspectors.

Yet more mystery would follow when Bilic removed Calleri and then his Magic 8 ball told him to bring on Robert Snodgrass in his stead. For those keeping track at home this meant we had no strikers on the pitch, as we employed a sturdy 5-5 formation that one would usually associate more with Roman military units than Premier League teams.

Maybe there was some unseen method to the madness, but mostly it just looked like a manager trying to get certain players some game time, and not worrying about whether that actually made sense given the situation of the game.

I'm not the biggest fan of Ashley Fletcher, feeling that he would have benefitted greatly from a loan spell somewhere, but to be left on the bench whilst the manager plays anybody but you seems like it must be demoralising, much as in the same way that Byram has suffered this year. I'm fairly open about my loss of faith in Bilic, but games like this don't help. This was an almost Redknappian set of changes that did nothing but gift the initiative back to Stoke in the closing stages, and seemed to confirm the thought that if you're a Bilic favourite you'll get playing time no matter whether it makes sense or not.

9. Dark End Of The Street

It might have made sense to have opened with the HMRC raid on West Ham and Newcastle but in the end I began to realise that I don't really have much to add. I actually work in this field, so I can confirm that 180 agents isn't a casual knockabout gig, but at the same time it's impossible to know what this is about.

I'd be willing to bet the same house that I already lose gambling on Saido Berahino to score that this was agent related, as they are the hardest people to regulate and clubs can easily fall into a trap of paying money to them that doesn't end up being declared.

But at the same time, I don't know and it could just as easily relate to irregularities around image rights, or the failure to report agents fee as a benefit in kind or even just good old fashioned evasion.

I can't really believe that the Club would be so stupid as to try and get cute with their tax affairs in an age when they've been given a taxpayer funded stadium, and get £90m from the Premier League no matter how crap they are.

But then I remember that we are the Club who signed Mascherano and dropped him for Hayden Mullins; the Club who made a semi final and then realised we'd played a cup tied player in the previous round for 30 seconds; the Club who tried to cure a players thigh strain with a hot jacket potato; the Club who beat a team 10-0 in the Cup and signed their centre half; the Club who signed a player from Oxford who then got homesick; the Club who sold Mike Marsh because his wife was homesick for the North, before he then moved to Turkey and came back to Southend; the Club who decided Andriy Shevchenko hadn't pulled up any trees on a trial and, of course, the Club who hired Avram Grant.

Perhaps that uselessness is just a part of our DNA. I don't know, but until we know more it's probably best not to worry about it.

10. In My Hour Of Darkness

It's going to be a long week. We play Spurs on Friday and given that our season finished months ago and they are sort of still in the title race, naturally Spurs fans don't care about it whilst it's our Cup Final. That's completely logical and cannot be argued.

Harry Kane. I don't know where to begin with this picture

Spurs fans are generally alright, but listening to them at the moment is fairly difficult. They finally have a team to match the opinion they've held of themselves for the last two decades, and having finished above Arsenal for the first time in Dele Alli's life they have now declared themselves the Kings of North London. Much as we are now all supposed to accept Gary Barlow as a serious musician, it's like the last twenty years never happened.

So, one way to get through the excruciating water cooler discussions of the next couple of weeks after their inevitable win is to arm yourself with this helpful Spurs bingo card. If you can get a full house in any conversation you win the prize of a commemorative Tim Sherwood DVD and gilet. I once did it in twelve minutes.












Monday, April 24, 2017

West Ham 0 - 0 Everton (And Other Ramblings)

1. The To-Be-Forgotten

In the end, this was the kind of game to make you question your short term memory. I got home and immediately began to worry about why I could barely remember anything of the ninety minutes, before reassuring myself that this was less likely to be due to amnesia and more due to the fact that barely anything happened.

And for those of us who went into this expecting a largely traumatic experience, that was pretty good news.

Matches against Everton - or "make Romelu Lukaku your Fantasy League captain day"  as they are known locally - have been largely depressing affairs for quite some time now, with just two Hammers victories in the last nineteen encounters. These came courtesy of last years burglary at Goodison Park and a Bobby Zamora long range beauty as part of the 2007 Great Escape. Overall, we have just seven wins from forty one Premier League encounters with the Toffees, meaning that there have been more Olympic Games than West Ham victories in this period.

So a draw, and a comfortable one at that, is not to be sniffed at in the context of our historical ineptitude in this fixture. Interestingly the first of those victories came in 1994, when the Sylvester Stallone film Demolition Man was knocking about in cinemas.

Slightly incredibly this movie was partly based on an Aldous Huxley novel, and involved people being cryogenically frozen and then waking up years later in a dystopian future where swearing is outlawed and guns no longer exist, and then loads of stuff explodes because Hollywood.

I'd like to shoehorn some questionable comparison here whereby I imagine waking up a West Ham fan from 1993 and showing them the current lot, but primarily I mention it because I think Arthur Masuaku and Edmilson Fernandes went to the barbers with a picture of Wesley Snipes' character from that film and said "make us look this stupid please".

Apparently, Arthur and Edimilson like them some Demolition Man

2. The Two Men

There was a slight shock before the game when it was announced that Adrian would be replacing Darren Randolph, after the latter managed to concede two goals to a Sunderland team genetically incapable of scoring last week.

In the end we could have put a bag of flour in goal here and kept a clean sheet, so inept were the visitors, but it was somewhat reassuring to have the crazy Spaniard back between the sticks. Things started serenely enough but after a full fifteen minutes of peace he decided that was quite enough of that and signalled that Fernandes should lob a thrown in back to him.

As Lukaku wandered in to close him down with all the intensity of a teenage boy making his bed, Adrian promptly miscontrolled the head high pass, stuck a false moustache on, produced a bowler hat, did a quick mime and put a curly red wig on before finishing his routine up with a knee high lunge at Kevin Mirallas as the Belgian bore down on a open goal.

This was simultaneously heart stopping, as it reminded us all of the slightly frenetic air that always surrounds the Spaniard, and marvellous as this was literally the closest Everton came to scoring all game.

I have felt for a while that Adrian needed to come back in to the team as Randolph seemed not to have that crucial ability to keep us in games by producing big saves at big moments. By contrast, Adrian is unorthodox but effective and if he can revert to last years form it would be a huge boon for these last few games. Whether either will survive the summer is perhaps questionable as Joe Hart ticks all the David Sullivan boxes (heard of him, expensive, possibly in decline, no one else wants him), but in general I think that upgrade would be so marginal that it really wouldn't be worth the cost involved.

3. He Never Expected Much

Ahead of this game it seemed the height of optimism to expect a positive result. Byram and Noble were suspended, while Obiang, Antonio, Carroll, Snodgrass, Feghouli (Our wingers! Our ineffective wingers!) and Ogbonna were all absent with late season West Ham syndrome. This led to a number of youngsters being on the bench and had the effect of making an already deeply unimpressive squad look like they were having a "bring your child to work" day.

But then a funny thing happened - the game started and we weren't terrible. In fact, far from it. This was the kind of determined, "fuck-the-circumstances" type of performance that fans love but West Ham seem to so rarely produce.

Havard Nordtveit was the best player on the pitch, despite a start where he looked as nervous as Ross Barkley in a nightclub. The Norwegian grew into the game and by the end had so thoroughly subdued  Barkley that it's entirely possible he took him home in his back pocket. No mean feat given the Evertonians impressive recent form.

We managed to stop Lukaku from scoring for the first time ever as an Everton player (not an exaggeration), primarily by snuffing out his supply and if that failed by swarming him with rugged centre halves.

The returning Winston Reid was supreme in this role and was ably assisted by Fonte and Collins, each of whom benefited hugely from the extra layer of support provided by the 3-5-2 system. Outside them Masuaku was excellent, in spite of his terrible hair, whilst Fernandes provided the athleticism and near total lack of positional awareness that Bilic seems to demand from his right sided defenders.

As the below shot map from @11tegen11 shows, we were pretty dominant all game without really carving out the one big chance we needed to secure the points. Our best hope was probably a Lanzini effort that was blocked by the excellent Phil Jagielka, quite possibly at the expense of some of his teeth. As for Everton - nil shots on target nil hope, and a big LOL at those shot locations.

Sadly, up front Jonathan Calleri endured an afternoon to consign to the wastepaper basket as he toiled in a lone striker role to no noticeable effect. More than any other player, he seems to visibly lack confidence and will presumably disappear back to the bench once they get the plaster cast off Sakho or Carroll next week.

Behind him, however, Andre Ayew actually started to look the part as he benefited from the lack of mobility in Everton's back four to float around and, startlingly, link our play with some effectiveness. With Lanzini a constant menace, it would be a significant boost if Ayew could step up his play to provide a second player in the final third with the ability to carve out chances. He still seems ponderous at times, and is infuriatingly slow to run at defenders but he worked hard here and his high pressing was one of the reasons that Everton never looked remotely threatening. With all of that being said, he should be leaving the free kicks to Lanzini though.

Still, all things considered, I'm going to take Sam Allardyce's advice and respect the fuck out of that point and order a nice pint of wine to celebrate being a point closer to mid table oblivion.

4. Moments Of Vision

There was a moment in the second half that demands a little commentary all of it's own. Manuel Lanzini - our light in the gloom - picked up the ball on the left and cut inside to loft a pass to Ayew, who in turn flicked it back to him via an aerial backheel.

The Argentine sprinted through in pursuit before pulling another magical Rabona cross from nowhere. Naturally it went in to an empty box because we have no strikers, but in these days of respecting the point and hoping Hull lose at Stoke, it's nice to see some bona fide brilliance from time to time.

I hope the chaps at @westhamsocial won't begrudge me illustrating the point.

5. The Self-Unseeing

Over lunch recently with a friend, we got on to the topic of Ross Barkley's hair. Having stuck rigidly to local law by having the same haircut for 25 years, the youngster has suddenly allowed his locks to grow out a little. We posited the theory that this was due to the arrival of Tom Davies and his long flowing locks and low shin pads. Davies was Barkley's Summer of Love, his sexual revolution, and now young Ross is sporting a barnet like a mushroom and getting knocked out in nightclubs. Good for him - Stevie G will be proud. But somehow, that little act of growing his hair seems to symbolise a new found belief in Barkley and has coincided with a very good season, or had done until this stinker of a performance at least.

I don't have huge amounts of time for the more unscientific side of analysing sport. I have written before of my disdain for the concept of passion, and I subscribe to Mike Atherton's view that "team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in victory". In both cases it strikes me that these are stock phrases used by people to cover up a lack of knowledge or because spouting cliches is far easier than thinking about things.

As an example, it strikes me that quite often James Collins is reduced to making full length diving blocks because of a poor bit of positional play, rather then because he's full of passion. But one is easier to explain than the other, so here we are.

However, one area which I do believe impacts on the game hugely is confidence, both of individuals and a team. At the start of this game, two of our players were obviously struggling - Nordtveit and Calleri - but only one overcame it. Nordtveit is a better, more experienced player and you could see that he wanted to ease himself into the match. He barely attempted anything other than a five yard pass and was robbed at least twice in dangerous positions. But as the game progressed he started to feel his way and by the end of the second half was using his physicality impressively to regain possession in our defensive third, and starting attacks wisely with intelligent use of the ball.

He is actually a more naturally defensive midfielder than any other player we have, and he screened our back three superbly. This solidity has been lacking all season, and it was actually refreshing to see a good performance against a good team being built on such foundations. Although Obiang and Noble offer much going forward, neither of them quite have the positional awareness or physical gifts of Nordtveit and with SARS sweeping through the dressing room, he has a chance to cement a place for the next few games.

By contrast, Calleri looks lost. He looks like a cockney Atlas, with the world on his shoulders except for the fact that if that were true he would have lost possession of it by now. I suspect he'll go on to play elsewhere and have some success. There is the germ of a good player there, but here he just looked unathletic and bereft of any self belief.

The lesser spotted goalscoring Calleri

6. Song Of Hope

Confidence takes many forms and it seems that the team are starting to rediscover some after a long fallow period. Some of that may just be because the some of them are getting fit again and can now trust in their bodies to do what they want them to. It certainly seems to be the case that we have rushed far too many players back from injury and paid the price when they have either had relapses or simply taken an age to get up to speed.

Think of how frustrating it is to try and play a sport with an injury and an unresponsive body, and then multiply that by a million for these men who rely on their health for their living. Fans see a player on the pitch and expect him to be completely fit and capable, without ever really giving any grace and favour period for recovery.

Both Nordtveit and Ayew suffered injuries early on in the season and only now seem to have recovered. Likewise Sakho returned here and looked fairly ginger as he ran around, presumably wondering where the fuck everyone had gone from the last time he played a home game. Aaron Cresswell, meanwhile, doesn't appear to have recovered at all and was only seen here in a late cameo at right wing back because it's required by law that West Ham always have someone in that position who doesn't know how to play there.

That failure to have a fully fit squad has exploded in our face this year as several players without obvious replacements (Byram, Carroll and Ogbonna) got injured, necessitating either panicky transfer business or ludicrous decisions to play people out of position to cover them. When the time comes to fire up Jack Sullivan's Xbox in the summer and search on FIFA 17 for new players, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to put health as a main criteria for any new purchases.

Ignoring our ongoing fitness travails, however, there was a pleasing solidity to this performance as the players at last looked as though they had some belief in the system they were playing. It was slightly odd that Everton didn't try to exploit the spaces out wide behind the Demolition Men, as this is traditionally how teams nullify wing backs, but without Seamus Coleman they probably lacked the personnel to do so.

Whether this form will continue next week, or survive intact against the better teams to come, is another story but one worth keeping an eye on. For all his flaws, Bilic has successfully got the team able to switch from system to another without much of an issue, and deserves praise for that.

7. The Dead Man Walking

Talking of the manager, this nascent unbeaten run seems like an opportune moment to reflect on his position and wonder whether he will make it all the way to next year. The signs are that he will, although my fears over his tactical shortcomings would lead me to move him on in the summer, given the choice. Which I won’t be. So ignore me.

However, it's a nuanced situation when one considers the vagaries of the stadium move, the Board he has to work for, Payet, the terrible transfers and the oft ignored fact that the top six in the Premier League have absolutely destroyed everybody else this season. You could cogently argue that Bilic himself must take some blame for those issues, but in the end the point here is that all of that stuff has made his job incredibly difficult this season. In the circumstances, perhaps time will show he has done a better job than we are currently acknowledging, although as I write this we have won just once in ten games which still feels very Allardycian.

Perhaps the most galling part is that for so long last year we felt we were on the verge of joining that elite, but the harsh reality is that one misstep in the fast moving world of the Premier League can cost a team badly. Think of Newcastle's tumble from Champions League contenders to Championship runners up, if you need a live example of how hubris and boardroom incompetence can kneecap a promising revolution before it gets any momentum.

Even standing still isn't enough - as Arsenal are finding out now – and the reality is that given our low starting position we have little hope of getting back in touch with the top six any time soon. Indeed, ignoring the evidence of this game, we have a huge job on our hands just to get back in touch with Everton. So the question with Bilic is how much blame must he take for the transfer window and how much do we think he can improve in that area? The sad fact is that none of the other people involved in our summer transfer shambles will pay the price for our failures there, and thus it is Bilic who is always at risk.

As an outsider I would guess that this is probably one of the reasons why Bilic agreed to safety first, uninspired signings this January when we probably needed to push the boat out and try to attract some younger, less rounded players in the hope of later harnessing their upside, as Spurs have done with Dele Alli and Saints have done with Nathan Redmond.

Sullivan and Gold don’t like to fire managers, so I suspect he may get another year. However, as our season will open up with three games on the road next year due to the stadium not being ready after the summer athletics – God bless that track – it will be very difficult to get off to a good start. I can’t help thinking that any hint of a repeat next season will be met with a fairly swift visit to the executioner. 

8. Night In The Old Home

There were some noticeable moments where the atmosphere on Saturday was edging towards decent. In fact, I suspect if you were in one of the noisier hotspots you might even have felt it was pretty good altogether. Sadly, the London Stadium is so large that it has yet to truly ignite and take the whole crowd with it, and it wasn’t about to do that for a game so dreary it could have been written by Ed Sheeran.

But there were signs, as the home fans grew in belief after each minute that ticked past with Lukaku no closer to breaking a sweat, that the general mood was turning a little. There’s no doubt that the stadium can be intermittently loud, but it doesn’t have that same capacity to swell with excitement as Upton Park did. I have a theory that this might be due to the upper tier spectators being divided from the action by an obvious and distracting thirty foot gap, covered by claret tarpaulin, temporary gangways and comatose stewards. But here, in the sun and facing a team on their holidays, there was a hint of life.

For those pining for the Boleyn, this is all grist to the mill, but perhaps the Spurs game on a Friday night might be the spark that sets the whole fire roaring. On the flip side, I’m fairly friendly with a senior Met Police crowd control officer who will be working that night, and when I asked him how he felt about it he went pale, whispered "the horror, the horror" and put his head in his hands. Good ol’ Sky Sports.

9. Leipzig

An interesting conversation from Saturday. 

How much would you be prepared to put up with in the pursuit of glory? For some fans we already know that the stadium move was a leap too far, and they’ve abandoned us – possibly for Leyton Orient, which I imagine is working out well.

But what of the rest of us? Looking at the Premier League, realistically the only way we can dare to dream is with new ownership pushing us upwards with the help of a cash injection and the strategic thinking that is evidently beyond the current board. I won’t go over all the old ground of recent weeks, but events of the last season would suggest that the Board have done a very good job with the balance sheet, but have probably reached a level in terms of team affairs where it has become evident that they don’t have the strategic vision, experience or self-awareness to make the necessary decisions to push the team forward. To be honest, there is no shame in that particularly, but rather more in the failure to internally critique their performance and either hire in people who can do the job or standing aside for new investors.

On that point, remember when the Club announced they had turned down a £650m bid via a teenagers Twitter account, as all top tier businesses tend to do? The assumption at the time was that this was a bid from Red Bull, the Austrian soft drink company who have cornered the market in weird flying events and producing mixers for vodka that can convince middle aged English people to dance at weddings. However, they also do an interesting sideline in footballing ventures, with clubs owned in Austria, the US and most successfully of all, Germany.

There they took SSV Markranst├Ądt, a team from the fifth tier of German football, to the very tip of the Bundesliga. They created enemies all over Germany as they went, as well as renaming the club RB Leipzig. I don’t claim any level of expertise on their rise and would recommendthis as a primer on why they are so hated, but it did make me think a little about how West Ham fans might have taken to such a takeover.

For me, the support of my team has become tarnished by the fact that the very league they play in is determined not have any competitive balance. And I say that knowing full well that West Ham are a well-funded, well supported team who benefit from this in our own way. (Also Leicester - but fuck Leicester as their victory made zero sense). As an example, our general incompetence this year will net us a whopping £90m of TV money while a team like Huddersfield in the tier below won’t pick up even 10% of that, despite being far more successful, relatively. Such is the iniquitous nature of English football.

But to jump up again we need money. Even Spurs, who I laud for their off field thinking, are supplementing that policy with enormous sums of cash. Nowhere the likes of the Manchester clubs, but still many multiples of what a team like Burnley can spend. It’s a rigged casino and the only way to challenge the house is to have more money. So, it’s a worthwhile question to ponder – how much change could we stomach? A new badge and a new ground have already been and gone. No more claret and blue? How about RB West Ham? What about staying as West Ham United but finding Manuel Lanzini has joined RB Leipzig in a cut price deal because they are in the Champions League and we aren’t?

I’d probably need several thousand more words to properly articulate how I feel about all of that, and there isn’t a right and a wrong answer anyway, but if we truly want the investment required to get us to the top trough of English football, at some point we might have to face up to some hard truths. Everything has a cost.

The view from the top tier of the West Stand at the Red Bull Stadium

10. The House Of Hospitalities

I can't finish up without admitting I watched this game from a hospitality suite. This might well render everything I have ever said, or will ever say again, redundant but I don't care - it was ace. I'll happily point out the flaws of West Ham's transfer policy forever, but I won't hear a word against their chocolate orange brownie.

My sincere thanks to Andy Ellis for the invite. I have no qualms at all about saying that the meal was more entertaining than the game.