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

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

West Ham 1 - 2 Chelsea (And Other Ramblings)

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

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

I can remember nothing about this band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Crazy Handful Of Nothin'

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

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

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

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

4. Negro Y Azul

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. No Más

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

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

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

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

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

7. Half Measures

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

A lifetime on the hips

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

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

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

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

8. Hazard Pay

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

Didn't spill a drop

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

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

9. Cornered

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

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

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

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

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

10. Say My Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Brilliantly summed up, as ever (including the very well made points about the Cheatsea fans).

    You've stuck your neck out very far on that last point...and well done to you. I'm with you on it, and I say that as a father too. The moments, currently, are indeed very poignant. But that will inevitably fade as we become used to them, game after game after game. Personally I feel they already are, Monday was definitely less of a "That is SO sad" and more of a "Who's that this time?", and there is no way I should be feeling that about the loss of a child, no way.

    And as you so rightly say, had we all been solemnly mid-standing ovation when Phil Jones was shot...what then?

  2. Excellent read once again, poor old Menswear's lead singer admitted a few years ago he suffered from autism, I was surprised because a lot of autistic people have talent in the arts, leaving me wondering what his excuse was.

    I also agree with your points re. the need for everyone to know one's personal grief via public displays, and the risks of the club agreeing to requests. I regularly use FB, Twitter, etc but don't for one minute think of mentioning family business (unless cringeworthingly funny/stupid), and certainly not the passing of close relatives. I must admit I find it weird that people see public acknowledgement of family tragedy as a necessity, (mind Otis of ITBS infamy was giving me shit for not seeing the need to participate). You tell your close friends and family, and that's it, a random Aussie met travelling through South America five years earlier doesn't really need to be involved, as per 55,000 plus strangers in a souless bowl.

  3. Almost every game I go to these days, home and away, has a minute's applause for some tragic event I don't know about and have no direct relation with. I feel like an idiot joining in, as it's patently meaningless and insincere for me to do so, and I feel like a cynical arse for not joining in.

    PS l smiled at the "performing acrobats" line in this post. Keep up the blog, it's the best one out there.

  4. Smiffy8:11 PM

    Brilliant as usual .. only wish I could say that about the football

  5. Anonymous11:21 PM

    Great Read although i grumpily disagree with a lot of it.

    Most of all I laugh a bit (In a polite way) at the rose tinted upton park memories of top teams struggling against us with a belting atmosphere. Truth is we normally got stuffed and as for atmosphere the last few season at upton was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

    I never wanted to leave but rows of empty seats Monday night cant be blamed on the stadium but on our own fans who claim the players need to fight to the last but head of on minute 75 when the going gets tough.

    As someone mentioned, the Chelsea cup game had a cracking atmosphere and as far as I recall it was played in the same stadium as Monday night.

    As to the match surely one good, mobile stiker like a fit sakho would transform the side. It would add a bite that would glavanise the whole team. That and maybe a right back and we would banging on top 6 position which in my west ham memory wouod be good progress after a move.

    Call me old fashioned but i think success needs to be built over time with patience - not with a instant 'i want it now ..' attitude.

    Good write up though. Only blog i read...


  6. Anonymous12:52 AM

    Top read. Snodgrass can take an excellent corner

  7. Cheers for the comments, all.

    The last point was one I took a considerable amount of time over as I didn't want to write something totally insensitive about the death of a child. I'm sure others disagree, and I can see why, but either way I think the Club cannot really win.

    As for the atmosphere - I'm not sure I mentioned that as such. It was more that we're currently in a house, not a home. Until we make some better memories there isn't anything for the players to fall back on as there was at Upton Park. That's not really a reference to the crowd, but simply the point about feeling comfortable where they play. It must be hard to feel they're going to rescue losing positions when we've primarily been beaten by anyone half good.