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, 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.












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