Well, that was quite a weekend for the human race. It's somewhat ironic that as we discovered that time travel indeed is an impossibility - as a Fascist took control of the free world with nobody coming back to stop him - West Ham turned the clock back a year and produced the sort of performance that propelled us into the upper reaches of the league last year.
And don't pretend you don't come here for that kind of seamless transition between biting political comment and fairly obvious footballing observation.
Andy Carroll now out for six weeks with crucifixion-like injuries
Tenuous links aside, this did rather feel like a return to last season as we set up with Bilic's preferred 4-2-3-1 and an honest to goodness right back, in Sam Byram. We rode our luck at times, but our fluid counter attacking ability was evident from start to finish, and we defended stoutly enough to repel Middlesbrough when the need arose.
It is also worth noting that this win took place on the icy tundras of the frozen North, where so many previous West Ham sides have been rent asunder. In reality, Middlesbrough aren't a great team but they are difficult to beat, and certainly difficult to score against and any way you cut it, this was an excellent win.
We started this game with unusual brio and could have been ahead after a couple of minutes when Cresswell and Lanzini combined dreamily down the left, but Antonio could only flick the formers' fizzing cross wide.
It mattered not as Andy Carroll soon rose to meet a Lanzini corner with a thunderous header to make it 1-0. Custom dictates that I refer to it as a "towering header" but that doesn't really do it justice. This was a skyscraper of a header, an Empire State, a Burj Khalifa, a Shard of a header. It was fucking magnificent. If you haven't seen it, try and picture a Sherman tank cresting a Normandy hedgerow in 1944 and rolling over a Middlesbrough shirted Wehrmacht division in the process. That's what it was like.
Andy Carroll scores his first
If his goal last week was a thing of technical beauty, then this was a great example to young kids of how sheer bloody minded determination goes a long way. Nothing was going to stop him crashing Lanzini's cross in, and who can blame him having waited all season for a corner that actually cleared the first man.
In fairness to Middlesbrough, they fought back gamely and their equaliser was marvellous. Christhian Stuani is a footballing broken clock, useful only twice a season and sadly both of those times have been against us. Here he slotted home a Calum Chambers cross after a brilliant, sweeping eight man move, and deservedly drew the home side level. It should be noted that at the time he scored, our two centre backs were arguing on the halfway line about which is the best series of The Wire (which is mental because it's clearly season 2) but I digress - it was a cracking goal.
Rather than fold, however, we regained a foothold and right on half time our pissed Geordie llama was on hand to slam home the rebound after a long range Antonio shot was parried.
So far, so good, and despite injuries to Noble and Carroll, we held on for the win and even found time to break away and snatch a third. In fairness to the lads they made things interesting by trying every conceivable method of fucking it up before, eventually, Lanzini picked out Jonathan Calleri whose deflected shot sealed the points.
I've been critical of Calleri's signing, and one deflected shot doesn't amount to much, but if this goal gives him the confidence to show us what he can truly do, rather than the pale imitation of his talent that we've seen so far, then that would be a very good thing indeed.
3. High Ideals
After this game, the Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka took the unusual step of slagging off the home crowd, apparently for demanding that his team play long balls. I strongly suspect that this wasn't what was irking the home fans but I'll leave that for better qualified folks than me to determine.
What is clear is that criticising his own fans doesn't detract from the fact that we created far better chances than his team, and that 3-1 wasn't a particularly flattering scoreline. Aside from the shot map shown below, created by the excellent @11tegen11 , there was also a fairly clear penalty claim for a clumsy first half challenge on Sofiane Feghouli that should really have been given.
What is noticeable about this map is that it shows how we have started to create good chances in the opposition box again. The three goals all had decent xG ratings, the aforementioned Antonio chance was also a good one and Lanzini burst into the box early in the second half and fluffed his lines with just the keeper to beat. I'm not about to suggest that we don't miss Payet, but if we can replicate this level of performance against teams better than Palace and Middlesbrough then there is cause for cautious optimism.
None of which is to suggest that the home side didn't have their chances, as they certainly did. Randolph pulled off an excellent second half save from Stuani, and Cresswell somehow managed to casually flick a dangerous cross on to Stuani and then the bar from all of about 4 yards out. I described Cresswell as "misplacing both a pass and his cerebrum" during my column the Hull game, and to be honest I'm not sure he's found it yet. Christ only knows how this one stayed out, but stay out it did and Middlesbrough gradually faded into the night.
It was that kind of day - some heroically stoic defending, allied to some luck at last. I'll take it - we've been due some for a while.
4. The Fix
So is Sam Byram the answer at right back? I thought he played reasonably well today, and looked a bit more comfortable against the fearsome pace of Adama Traore than Cresswell. The Middlesbrough man is reportedly set to join Chelsea and it's easy to see why, as his speed and trickery caused us headaches all day. Byram had his own struggles but he did enough to hold things together, and just the increased solidity of having a natural right back injected some structure into our play.
No longer was our right side a desolate wasteland of conservative decision making and poor passing. Here, Byram held his position well and got forward in support of Feghouli on a number of occasions. He's not Cafu reborn, and I'd still buy another right back as soon as possible, but the difference between him and the willing likes of Nordtveit and Antonio is night and day.
I see a couple of problems that need to be addressed, however. One is that he gets booked constantly. He has 8 in 15 appearances for us, or put another way it's easier to book Sam Byram than a Bruce Springsteen tribute band for a presidential inauguration. If he carries on at that rate he would pick up about 20 bookings a season, which is ludicrous.
Problem two is that he struggles to stay fit, and that's why I would like to see us pick up an alternative. Staying healthy is a skill for footballers, and Byram hasn't shown much of it so far. I like the fact that he is young, and I would hope to see him improve defensively as he ages and gets exposed to, theoretically, better coaching but he has to be able to make it on to the pitch more often than he currently does.
5. The Bones Of You
Speaking of people who have their own MRI units reserved for them, Andy Carroll was superb in this game. Say what you will about his mobility or his fitness, but when Carroll is in the mood and we are playing to his strengths he is hard to resist.
There was a nice fluidity about our formation here as Antonio frequently pushed up alongside him to turn our 4-2-3-1 into more of a 4-4-2, and in the first half they combined on a number of occasions to advance the play. I've already mentioned his goals but Carroll's hold up play was also excellent, and his ability to retain possession and bring support runners into the game was crucial to us regaining the ascendancy.
It's also noticeable, however, that Carroll has a tendency to drop deep when we are under pressure. Maybe it's frustration at being isolated, maybe it's a willingness to help out when things are tough but it was on display here again. I applaud his desire to help his team but it seems slightly circular for a centre forward to drop back to relieve pressure when the reality is that without an outlet up the pitch it's hard to get back on the front foot.
Naturally, with Carroll being Carroll he was an injury doubt going into this game having suffered whiplash whilst scoring his overhead kick last week. This might actually be the single most ridiculous injury of all time, beating even the occasion that Alec Stepney dislocated his jaw yelling at his defenders, but Carroll still played until pulling up with an almost disappointingly prosaic "tight groin" in the second half.
I remain unconvinced about how successful Carroll will be against the better teams in the division, especially given the way that he meandered around for 90 minutes against Man City looking about as useful as a sundial in Scotland.
On days like today, however, when the opposition aren't so good and we can flood runners forward to support him, then Carroll remains a remarkably potent striking option. I'd still be buying a striker in this window, given that he remains unlikely to stay fit for extended periods, but these last two weeks have shown exactly why Bilic is so enamoured of his pissed Geordie threshing machine.
6. My Sad Captains
With Cheikou Kouyate off laughing for Senegal for the month, it fell to Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang to marshal our midfield. Noble is clearly our on field leader, whilst Obiang was revealed this week as the administrator of the teams WhatsApp chat, and therefore is the de facto dressing room boss as far as I'm concerned.
I ain't adding you to shit, Dimitri
Here they were asked to do double duty as they had to frequently scamper over to the wings to try and double up on the rocket fuelled Traore and whilst it wasn't pretty, they sort of managed it. In truth it was Obiang who did most of the hard yards, but Noble did his bit too, and it was noticeable that we seemed to lose some direction when he was forced off injured after a shitty challenge from Bernardo.
Edmilson Fernandes is a good young player and will eventually cement a place in this team but he sometimes gets lost in games like these, looking as out of place as decent match in the BBC's FA Cup live schedule.
What Noble brings is control and a better understanding of the role than Fernandes. What the young Swiss offers is the legs to get up and support the forwards, as he showed with his part in the third goal. What Kouyate offers is the combination of both, and the reality is that once he gets back from Gabon, he and Obiang should be given the chance to build a partnership in the middle of the park.
Whisper it quietly but we might actually be in form. It's hard to think that, given that we are two weeks removed from being pancaked 5-0 at home by Man City, and we haven't signed anybody in the transfer window to fix our two most pressing needs, but still I think we might actually be in form. We've won five of our last seven league games and going into the the second half of the season, most projection systems give us around a 2% chance of being relegated. Or, put another way, roughly the same percentage chance that the new Fifty Shades Darker film will be watchable.
At least part of the problem with this is that two of those wins were the abominations against Hull and Burnley, whilst we've subsequently thumped Swansea, Palace and now Middlesbrough, who make up five of the current bottom eight.
What would really get me excited would be if we could beat somebody good. We're not alone in struggling against the top six, as they've been walloping everyone all year, but the curious nature of our fixture list does throw up an intriguing second half of the season. With the odd exception we are basically playing the top half of the division at home, and the bottom half away. That is exactly how you would draw it up if you had the choice, and if we could ever return to something resembling our home form last year we would actually have a good chance to press up the league.
That is easier said than done, of course, as we've been largely abysmal at home all year but perhaps the removal of Payet, or the general acclimatisation to the new digs, or the sense of freedom of mid table mediocrity, or perhaps all three, will galvanise us into some better home performances. With the exception of a trip to the Emirates there are no remaining away games to put fear into the soul and, without wishing to get too carried away by a win at Middlesbrough, for the first time in ages I can actually see glimpses of a structure to our play that makes sense. The caveats about Carroll apply, and better teams won't let him run uncontested through their box to head in corners, but let's not get too wrapped up in logic. We're seventh in the Premier League form table after all.
8. Any Day Now
I could have written the entire H List about the signing of Jose Fonte from Southampton, as it's so interesting. With twenty days of the transfer window gone I was beginning to get concerned at the lack of stupid moves, but thankfully with a mere ten days to go we pulled it out of the bag. In came 33 year old Fonte for £8m on a two and a half year deal worth a reported 70k a week, with a potential further £1m potentially payable and the player holding an option for an extra year.
Alien ship lands on the London Stadium pitch, two miles behind Jose Fonte
So if you're keeping track at home that's £8m up front, a further £1m down the line, potentially £13m in wages, another £1.7m in employers NIC if we're going to be picky, and agents fees because there are always fucking agents fees with Sullivan. So all up then, about £24m. For a 33 year old.
Don't get me wrong when I say that Fonte is an excellent player. I mean that - he really is. If you were going to put together a side from outside the traditional big teams in the Premier League it would be either him or Reid partnering Alderweireld in the centre half berths. To have them both together is going to be sweet, for about six months. He was also part of the triumphant Portuguese side last summer at Euro 2016, a leader, an experienced Premier League player and generally there's not much about him that won't improve us.
But he's 33 years old. So even though we're now going to have him around for the next couple of years he's probably not going to be any use to us after about a year. We're not even buying the last bit of his prime before he starts to decline - we're buying the decline phase of his decline phase. It's a fucking mental purchase.
Subsequent to Fonte arriving, it was revealed that Angelo Ogbonna is going to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, which at least explained why we'd signed a centre half when we so evidently need help elsewhere first. But even that pisses me off. In a normal club, the scenario would play out something like this:
Medic: "Angelo Ogbonna has hurt his knee and will miss the rest of the season"
Bilic: "Hasn't he been playing with a knee injury for ages? That seems fucking stupi-"
Medic: (Softly presses fingers to Bilic's lips) - "Hush now Slav. Let's go and see the chairman"
Bilic: "Why? He's the Chairman, not the Director of Fo-"
Medic: "Not how it works, Slav. You know that."
(They enter David Sullivan's office)
Bilic: "Boss we need a new centre half"
David Sullivan: "Well, that's nothing to do with me lads. Get down the corridor to see our shit hot new Director of Football so I can concentrate on tasks more commonly associated with club chairmen"
Bilic: (to the Medic) "I told you. Dickhead"
(They enter the Director of Football's office)
Bilic: "Boss, we need a new centre half"
Director of Football: (opens up an impressive database) "Here you go Slav. That's my list of all the best young players in Europe in each position. I have them ranked into categories such as "Now", "12 months", "36 months" and so on, to indicate when I estimate they could be ready for our first team. We have tactical, technical and psychological reports on each of them, and they are filtered to show which ones I think would best fit our playing style. There's video analysis of all of them too, in case you want to take a look".
Bilic: "Blimey, that's impressive. You must've had some help from a few agents or Jack Sullivan's YouTube collection to pull all that together, did you?"
Director of Football: (looks perplexed) "What? No. I used scouts and high level data analysis like every other leading professional football club in the world. What are you on about?"
Bilic: "Do you at least have their Championship Manager ratings?"
Director of Football: "I knew I should have joined Swindon"
But of course that didn't happen here. With a 2% chance of being relegated, this is the absolute perfect season in which to take a punt, either on Reece Oxford or a new young player brought in from outside. Instead, Sullivan reverted to what he does best. He rang up some agents and paid way over the odds for a player he'd heard of before, saddling us with a contract that will be an albatross a year from now.
This is what drives me mad about our current setup. Sullivan looked at the disasters of the summer and decided he wanted to get in players with Premier League experience rather than risk yet more unproven foreigners. But that is flawed thinking of the worst kind, and the sort of shit that he wouldn't get away with if anyone was holding him to account. It shifts the blame for poor decisions away from those who made the decisions and on to the process. See folks, it's not my judgement that is to blame - I was just shopping in the wrong market.
So here we are, trying to buy players from English clubs, which is universally known as the least economic way to do business imaginable. I cannot understand how the Club couldn't identify a younger centre half to buy with that money. If you want to know why other Clubs have suddenly surged ahead of us, here is your answer. We are never prepared, even though players can get whiplash, get malaria, require season ending knee surgery or go on strike at any time. In fairness, for most clubs that would be a years worth of injuries whereas for us that just the last week, but it only adds to the point - why aren't we ready for it given it happens so often?
This bullshit, this lack of intellectual clout, this failure of management, this lack of analytic, agile thinking is why we are falling further behind our rivals. You will never, ever see teams like Spurs or Liverpool making moves like this and whilst I know I'm going to be grateful for Fonte when we play Manchester City in a week, I'm also know I'm going to stare at him in bewilderment for a long time afterward. Like some statue in honour of the all encompassing stupidity of our decision making.
I don't know how to say this any more. FOOTBALL GET DIRECTOR OF FUCKING A.
9. Magnificent (She Says)
So you may have read this week that Karren Brady hosted a meeting of prominent West Ham bloggers, websites and video bloggers. I wasn't invited, quite reasonably, as I have a readership that could fit in a canoe and I really only care about three off the field issues:
a) the bullshit Plus 2 scheme;
b) the fact that certain seats at the London Stadium are closer to the Upton Park pitch than this one; and
c) that, and I don't mention this very often, we don't have a competent Director of Football.
None of these things are within Brady's gift to do anything about. She can't reverse time, change the laws of physics or fire her boss, so it would be pointless to discuss them.
So I get why I wasn't there, and although I would have enjoyed the opportunity to have heard the conversation, I also understand why the Club chose to engage with the biggest sites to reach the highest number of people possible.
As most of you know, The H List is now effectively syndicated at KUMB, and so I'm a little biased when I say that I think Graeme did a good job of going to the meeting prepared. He had a thread running on the forum for a while, which generated a lot of responses and seems to have been a framework for the discussion, although others who were actually there may disagree. The KUMB summary is here and from what I understand Brady has already begun addressing some of the points raised. Say what you will about Brady, and plenty do, but I really do struggle to see why some dislike her quite so vehemently. If this isn't an example of her engaging with fans then I don't really know what is.
Amusingly, apparently the genesis of the meeting was a discussion between Jack Sullivan and the Clubs's PR manager. The most shocking part of that being not that our owners teenage son is brokering fan engagement, but that the Club actually employ a PR manager.
One observation I would raise is that it's slightly dangerous ground to start assuming that simply because people write blogs or make videos about West Ham, that they are automatically representative of fans. The last video I saw that purported to represent me was that bullshit open letter to the board which seemed to be premised around the Club never attempting to win anything. Cheers guys, thanks very much for that. If only we were worse.
This, of course, is the great democracy of the internet. Everybody has a say, everybody has a voice, and if it's your thing to watch one hour videos on YouTube of people discussing West Ham then that is now available to you. A couple of these videos have been produced in respect of this meeting, and you can doubtless find them if you want them. Honestly, I can't link to them here as I found them unwatchable, but if that's your thing then they're out there.
All of which brings me on to something connected to this. If those sites (and this one) aren't really the voice of the fans then who is? Well, in recent weeks a group of fans have set up an independent West Ham supporters association. I've been watching from a distance so I'm not best placed to comment but I'm led to understand that we are the last Premier League team without such an organisation. You can visit them here or here and read more about it. What appeals to me is that they're saying it will be a democratic organisation aimed at representing the fans.
That said, one issue that concerns me is that WHUISA haven't really told us what they want to do yet, or given examples of those ambitions. Purporting to "represent the aims of the fans" is fine, but it's opaque enough that it does lead to the minute possibility that you could pay your £5 subs and turn up to the next game to find a load of "No blacks, No Irish" leaflets having been handed out. Now that might actually be the only way we'll ever feasibly beat Everton again, but it's not something that any West Ham fan is going to want to be associated with.
But let's assume that the people in question aren't attempting to invoke Oswald Moseley and instead simply want to represent the ordinary fan. They have a paradoxical situation right now where they want to represent their members aims but are still trying to gain members and understand their aims, so I can see why they might be a little light on detail.
My hope is that they have an election (some female candidates would be good), gather the thoughts of their members and take them to the Supporters Advisory Board (*), which I believe is scheduled for next week. It may not seem like it's relevant to you, but if there ever comes a time when you're banned for standing in the wrong place, or your disabled relative is left sitting in the rain waiting for a bus, or your child is left inside the ground while your malfunctioning ticket keeps you outside, then I can see that a Supporters Group with access to the Club would be a powerful ally.
I haven't paid yet - I want to know what the aims are in more specific detail - so I'm not suggesting anybody sign up or do anything other than read a bit and find out more. I don't say any of this in the spirit of creating an organisation to go to war with the Club, in fact quite the opposite. I suspect that a proper voice for fans would help the Club a great deal, and after all, that's what we all want.
The next two years, after all, could feel be the most important in the our history. We have a small window now, before Spurs and Chelsea move into stadia that are better then ours to branch out and establish ourselves as a bigger club than we currently are. As soon as the new White Hart Lane is open with it's huge stands, steep rake to the pitch, bakeries and 86 metre bars, I think it's going to be very uncomfortable for the board to explain away quite why they thought the London Stadium was good for football.
I'm not sure why Spurs think they need a bakery in a football ground, but then again they spent £30m on Moussa Sissoko so who knows why they do anything.
(*) I accept that maybe the SAB is supposed to do all this anyway, but I still have no idea what they do.
10. The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
I'm going to make you sing Salt'N'Pepa.
Great chant pic.twitter.com/GEPgSVPpHO— IronsHome (@Irons_Home) January 16, 2017