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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

West Ham - Kingdom Of The Not Quite

Full Of Life (Happy Now)

There was a Twitter thread this week where people were asked to post the most recent text message in their phone. Mine was "Always the same cycle" which could very easily have been my long suffering wife once more sending me instructions on how to use our washing machine, but was in fact my comment to a friend on our transfer policy.

This is not my wife, but finding weird stock photos is fun

The cycle I refer to is the long standing one of buying players as emergency surgery and then constantly needing to rebuild on the fly when these temporary sticking plasters come off. To continue mixing metaphors like cocktails, the adage is that teams need to be moving forward just to tread water in the fast moving Premier League. For West Ham it feels like we need to flail away frantically just to stop from drowning.

It is not, however, the de-rigeur thing to be negative about West Ham transfers at present. Such a thing would render you a "moaner" which is a rather widespread British phenomenon these days. See a half arsed plan and comment that maybe it could be improved with some actual, er, planning and one is sure to be rendered a whinger. You need to be a bit more patriotic, mate.

A Wish Away

But the thing is, I get it. It's summer and those abject home defeats seem like a distant memory. Now we're in the golden uplit sunlands of the close season where the players are all tanned, we're unbeaten and if you aren't optimistic now then you never will be. The beauty of summer belief is that it remains unscathed by the sharp blade of reality, which for now remains safely sheathed on Romelu Lukaku's hip.

And the names arriving are recognisable so there isn't a need to query if they will hit the ground running, or take any time to adjust. Pablo Zabaleta, Marko Arnautovic, Javier Hernandez and Joe Hart - how can they be bad signings? I've had them all in my Fantasy League team! In the short term I accept that it would be churlish to say that these signings won't make us better. Indeed, Jose Mourinho says we're trying to win the league, although he also thinks Ashley Young is a wing back so you can't have too much faith in his judgements.

And I agree with the general optimism for the short term. Zabaleta is possibly the best Premier League full back of the last 5 years and is an upgrade over Michail Antonio who started the season for us there last time around, before moving to a striking role because that's the level of planning we were running with last year.

Marko Arnautovic, meanwhile, is so far above any of our other wingers he might as well be on Peter Crouch's shoulders and as far as creative players from mid table teams go, he is about the best there is since the departure of our very own Dimitri Payet. He's also got rid of his man bun which is good because Loughton ain't big enough for two of them, says Andy Carroll.

Joe Hart is the incumbent England goalkeeper and therefore must be pretty good because Michael Ricketts is proof that nobody crap ever plays for the national team, and it's also World Cup year so he'll be motivated to keep his place. What comes after that isn't relevant, apparently.

And the last, and possibly best of the lot, is Javier Hernandez. The former Manchester United man is famed for scoring wherever he goes, and having run the gamut from Mido to Zaza with detours to Petric and Chamakh on the way, West Ham fans are not wasting any time in going mental over this signing. I can't blame any of them and in fact, I am delighted. I think this is a great signing, in isolation. After all, I still have a hole in my garden fence courtesy of the Modibo Maiga era.

So, what's the problem?


At least part of my issue is the seeming incoherence of the summer transfer policy. Although the club have done a far better job of keeping a lid on rumours this time around - someone presumably changed the WiFi password in the Sullivan house - much of their activity has still been documented in one way or another. First it was Kelechi Iheanacho, then Olivier Giroud and Andre Gray before Hernandez finally fit the mould. But, what shape of mould is he fitting exactly? How on earth do you pivot from Giroud to Hernandez without fundamentally changing the way you are planning to play? These strikers aren't particularly like each other, and would all require a different type of service. I'm not saying that professional footballers aren't adaptable but was this ever considered? Given the huge difference in players, I am struggling to see how they were ever identified in the first place.

If rumours are to be believed, we got 95% of the way through the process of signing Iheanacho before Bilic pulled the plug. How is this possible, I wonder. Was he not consulted before the negotiations? If he was, why did he change his mind? I would have been far happier if the deal had been vetoed on the grounds that the club weren't prepared to agree to a buy back clause for the player which in effect would have made it a loan signing anyway. But no, we had apparently agreed to that and it was Bilic who got cold feet.

Shape up dickhead, or I'll send you to West Ham

This brings us back to the thorny issue of who exactly makes the decisions at West Ham. Tony Henry gave a pretty interesting interview to the official website, wherein he laid out a nice sounding process for identifying and recruiting players. He talks about needing "two or three players, maximum" which always seemed a bit optimistic given the gaping holes in the squad and David Sullivan's predilection for buying in bulk, but there is lots of good sense in what he says. 

Quite how that translates to the Iheanacho situation is another matter entirely. That's the difference between theory and practice, I suppose. As a former soldier said to me recently, "no plan ever survives contact with the enemy". 

But that seeming disconnect between planning and reality, or between the manager and the recruitment team sums up neatly how I feel about West Ham these days. 

We are the Kingdom of the Not-Quite, the Empire of the Nearly, the Commonwealth of the Confused. 

There is a plan if you dig deep enough, but it's never quite the right one. The players are often nearly the right fit, but not quite, or they are signed at just the wrong the stage of their career, and all playing in a stadium that could have been brilliant but isn't quite. So close. Nearly.

We're like a Tim Burton film wrapped up as a football team. I sort of get it, but Christ it's all a bit off kilter. 

Don't Let Me Down, Gently

Take Joe Hart, a man who has yet to meet a tunnel he hasn't yelled at. David Preece wrote a fascinating piece on Hart and his technical problems which I would urge you to read. So much of the optimism about his signing is couched in the terms of "If he can just get back his form from a few years ago", which is a typical position for a supporter to take but also flies in the face of reality.

Hart has been in decline for while and simply because he is 30 and at a goalkeepers usual peak age doesn't actually mean that's the case for him. I rather admire him for going to Torino and attempting to restart his career in an environment where his "pashun" was somehow even less useful than it is here. But the reality of his move is that he will be taking a spot where we were already slightly above average. To the extent there is any upgrade at all, it is minimal at best and when I asked Preece this very question his response was "I don't think there is, to be honest. I quite like Adrian and on the few occasions I have watched him, I have been impressed".


That said, if the club feel he's an upgrade then so be it. But now we hit upon another touchy topic. He is signed for only one year on loan, with no follow on agreed price as far as I'm aware. This means if he plays well he will make the England squad and re-establish his transfer value. That's good for Joe Hart, good for England and good for Man City. It's good for West Ham too, but only if you assume that Adrian couldn't have done the same thing.

With Darren Randolph having been sold now, Adrian is formally installed as the understudy. If Hart leaves at the end of this season we then have a pissed off Adrian with one year left on his contract and no experienced back up. So, then we will have to sign a new keeper next summer to get back to...where we were at the start of this one.

I know most fans don't care about this - be more patriotic, that's next level whinging mate given it's two years away - but this seems like an issue to me.

To exacerbate all this, David Sullivan upset Adrian with a typically stupid comment upon signing Hart that he was "...the best keeper I have ever worked with". That our Chairman thinks he has worked with a player at all highlights a big slug of the problem at West Ham. Chairmen pay players, Directors of Football sign them and coaches and managers work with them. Given that Sullivan occupies the first two of those roles it's safe to say he doesn't understand either of them, but rather wishes he was the latter.

So to recap; we've signed a keeper who might not be any better than the guy we have already, who is himself now pissed off about a comment made by a Chairman that nobody wanted to hear from in the first place, with no guarantee that we get to keep the new guy beyond next May anyway. Triffic' as 'Arry would say.

This is not so much a problem kicked down the road, as a problem created from nothing and sent on the first plane to Austria for Slaven Bilic to deal with. It's nearly a good deal, but there is too much wrong with it to be right. Welcome to the Kingdom of the Not-Quite, Joe.

In case you've missed it - I see this as a vanity signing for Sullivan and nothing else. It's the footballing equivalent of a hair transplant for middle aged men. Which is pretty ironic for the Head and Shoulders guy.

It's Yer Money I'm After Baby

And what of Pablo Zabaleta? 32 year old Pablo Zabaleta. He played in a World Cup final in 2014, Pablo Zabaleta. That guy.

Well, he's experienced, expensive and old, I will grant you. He's also a pretty good player. Even at his age he is an upgrade on the inconsistent Sam Byram and may even help the former Leeds youngster develop, although I heard much the same thing about Arvelo Arbeloa last season.

As with all these signings, I have no real objection in isolation. Except they aren't being signed in isolation because that's not how it works. So Zabaleta may very well line up on that opening Sunday at Old Trafford alongside James Collins and Jose Fonte and we might be fielding the slowest defence since George's turn as a lawyer in Blackadder Goes Forth.

You take Lukaku, I'll take Rashford

So as the rest of the league gets younger, we get older. As everyone else gets faster, we get slower. As the world gets smarter, we get dumber.

To an extent, I feel David Sullivan's pain. He can't address the new, organic problems of last season, because he first has to fix the mess of the previous term. The lack of a right back has been an issue for ages, and he'll rightly say this is a solution. But, and there is always a but, it's about as temporary as it gets.

During the 2018/19 season we will now be paying Zabaleta (34), Fonte (35), Snodgrass (31), Noble (32), Carroll (30), Reid (31), Ogbonna (31) and now apparently Hernandez (31) and Arnautovic (30). That's a lot of your team who are suddenly too old to go on an Club 18-30 holiday, and one shouldn't ignore that Cresswell, Kouyate and Antonio will turn 29 that season too.

I can't help but feel that every single one of these signings makes perfect sense on their own and no sense at all when placed together. It's really quite remarkable.

I know that Premier League income is such that nobody really cares about it any more - teams are spending £50m on Kyle Walker and nobody even had to be kidnapped - but that's still a huge chunk of the wage bill taken up by players who are on the wrong end of the ageing curve. These are players who will be in or approaching decline and they are contracted to us, meaning their wages will have to be paid irrespective of their performance. If you're wondering why Mourinho is so impressed with our transfer policy, it's because it's the same as his own. Buy for the now, spend without regard for the future, and let someone else sweep up the pieces in a season or two.

Additionally, if you wonder why we seem to get such poor fees for players when we sell them, you have your answer right here. When you put people on long, expensive contracts they aren't generally keen to move. As such we will get less than £15m combined for Nordtveit, Feghouli and Valencia - all experienced internationals, and the former two having played in the Champions League - while Swansea turn down £45m for set piece specialist Gylfi Sigurdsson. Not that any of those three can compare with him, but more to say that we seem to sell into a different market than we buy from because we are constantly desperate to clear players from the wage bill.

So there it is. Our squad will increase in age next season. You say they will be more experienced and full of leaders - I say they will be slower, more expensive and unable to cover a pitch that was too big for a younger team last season.

And by the end of the next campaign, our team will be pushing an average age of 30.

The current average age of a Premier League squad is 27.

Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More

Well what would you do? A familiar refrain whenever I get out my soapbox and start off down this particular track.

I always find this a slightly odd question. If a Formula One driver crashes into a wall I'm pretty sure I'd be allowed to say "Oooh, that was a mistake" without someone promptly asking what I would have done differently. Well, I wouldn't have done anything differently because I'm a bit crap at hill starts, I'm terrible with directions and I wouldn't be allowed within a mile of a Formula One car.

But that's the thing with questioning West Ham's transfer policy before the season. It's all very no way, pal. You just love to have a moan. Stop talking us down mate, they wouldn't have come this far without a master plan.

Well, for what little it's worth, my plan would be to change completely the profile of players we buy. Players should only come when they will still have a resale value at the end of their contract, which means anyone turning 30 during their time with us would be out of the picture. The only market for these players currently is to sell them to us.

This could be costly, of course, because young players and especially English ones, are valued like diamonds. But there are plenty of examples of young players being bought in the last few years for affordable fees and immediately making their teams stronger. Dele Alli, N'Golo Kante, Cedric Soares, Idrissa Gueye and Joel Matip would all have walked into our side and all were affordable and obtainable at the time of their moves. Manuel Lanzini and Pedro Obiang are proof perfect that we can do it ourselves. All the more frustrating that we therefore seem to have forgotten that you don't need to spend £25m on Premier League ready youngsters if you have a sufficiently wide scouting and analytics net.

The problems start when you restrict yourself to players represented by certain agents, and only wish to buy players with Premier League experience. These seem like two of the most foolhardy things a smaller club could do and yet that is West Ham's policy. It's fucking batshit crazy, but it's actually the policy.

And this is the result of scouting via agents. An ageing side, with a constant and expensive churn of players, with each transaction being very profitable for the men in the middle. If you allow yourself to be led in a reactionary way by agents and a Chairman living out his dream of playing at being Alex Ferguson, then you ending up buying Robert Snodgrass in January for £10m and replacing him in July with Marko Arnautovic for £28m. All hail the Commonwealth of the Confused.

So, yes, I'm going to feel the same frisson of excitement as you when we first see Hernandez lining up with Arnautovic, Lanzini and Antonio just behind him while Hart and Zabaleta organise our defence properly. I worry about that soft looking central midfield but for now, for the shortest of short terms, that looks a decent side.

But this is a footballing sandcastle, not designed to last for long and susceptible to the ravages of nature, and when the injuries come in the winter I suspect we will all wish this squad was a bit younger.

Hot Love Now!

When fans say we need to invest in older players "now" in order to attract better younger types in future, I confess to being perplexed. There has never been a better time to take a chance on a different type of player than now. The top six are impenetrable and Everton are spending literally hundreds of millions to finish seventh. We remain adrift in that mid table pack with nowhere really to go. Relegation seems a stretch - although we needed some luck to avoid it last year, our odds never got much above 5% - and as promising as these new arrivals might be even the most one eyed loon doesn't think we're making the Champions League.

So why not model ourselves on the only team who have broached the top four permanently in recent times? Swallow your bile - we need to copy Spurs. Buy young players only, all in the mid to low range of the market and hire a coach to develop them as a team. It's no coincidence that Spurs are the youngest team in the league, and regularly run the furthest during their games. This is modern football. It requires youth, athleticism and tactical fluidity. Yet we appear to building for 2011 when everyone else is focused on 2017.

I will not mock Richie Benaud

Why are we are modelling ourselves on Manchester United and Chelsea in buying expensive players at the height of their value with no mind to what the cost will be to have them on the wage bill in a few years time?

The great Australian polymath Richie Benaud once said of cricket captaincy that it was "90% luck and 10% skill, but for goodness sake don't try it without the 10%". It doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that a cogent football transfer policy for a club like Chelsea is 90% money and 10% scouting,  and yet we seem to be trying to do it without either the 90% or the 10%. It's nearly a good plan, I suppose. But not quite.

Welcome To The Cheap Seats

But, I hear you say, this squad is young. What of Quina, Martinez, Oxford, Burke and Cullen? Start being more positive, you moaner - the kids will save us.

17 and our saviour

Yeah well, those kids play in an Academy that hasn't developed a first team player in a decade, and as incomprehensible as it may seem that none of them will make it, we also felt the same about Freddie Sears, Jordan Spence, Sam Howes, Seb Lletget and Blair Turgott once upon a time. George Dobson was highly thought of a season or two ago and he joined Sparta Rotterdam this week. Nearly, but not quite.

Young players are great for dreaming on but it's a hard old game to break into and we aren't very good at helping them do it. In fact, joining West Ham seems to be so harmful for kids development that we're probably nicknamed Thalidomide amongst parents up and down the land.

I thoroughly approve of the investment in younger players like this, however, as it's cheap and a couple might pay off. But let's not kid ourselves that these youngsters are breaking through anytime soon.

Thus we truck slowly toward Old Trafford and already Kouyate and Antonio will miss the start of the season because someone is always injured. But there is cause for optimism with the new signings in place and the horrors of last year behind us. I understand the excitement among the fans, but I can't help writing this article. I can't help saying that I think we're not quite there. Nearly, but not quite.

And if you're wondering why it is that I'm concerning myself with what our wage bill will look like in two years, or how exactly these new signings are going to cope with the high press, or who is going to be in goal for us next season or the average age of this years squad, well....it's because I'm not sure anyone else at West Ham is.

I want to believe in this new dream, and maybe they will sign some youngsters to shut me up before the window closes (although Keita Balde came and went pretty quickly, didn't he?). But I can't help but look further down the road and see trouble.

It's all decent, but it's temporary.

Nearly. Not quite.


  1. Good article, but get your ages right. Carroll is 28, not 30; Antonio and Cresswell are 27, not 'nearly 29.'

    1. I think the key point here is "...During the 2018/19 season..."

  2. Anonymous9:52 AM

    Oi, Uknown. The author said they would be that age in the 2018/19 season.

  3. Some very astute observations that mirror my own thoughts. No matter the grand talk of next levels the actions suggest that guaranteeing survival is the extent of the club's strategy. I watched Tony Henry's interview a while back and he spoke of a wide ranging scouting network but if all you are after is Premier League experience you may as well just watch Match of the Day. West Ham does not have the look of a progressive club (i.e. Spurs, Everton, Southampton) but resemble mid table plodders (Stoke and West Brom) with a steady but uninspiring coach and an ageing squad albeit with some flair. They need to get out of this mindset or they will struggle to fill the stadium once the novelty has worn off.

  4. Nicely written and spot on. The only comment I have is that the 'Kingdom of the Not Quite' pretty much sums West Ham up from 1965 onwards. The actual issue - in this case older players filling gaps - may be relatively recent, but there's always been something in the makeup of the club that holds it back. No board from the Cearns onwards has ever come to terms with it. This is by no means to defend the status quo but just to point out that it's been a problem for a long time and I'm not sure it will ever be solved. My Granddad used to say 'With West Ham always expect the unexpected' and phrases like 'flatter to deceive' have accompanied the club for many decades. It transcends players, managers and even owners. It's a fascinating discussion as to why a club that 'promises so much so often gets it wrong' (a certain Mr B. Moore from his autobiography)

  5. Thanks for the comments, chaps.

    And yes, Billy, I agree. Nearly but not quite feels like a West Ham mantra as old as the North Bank.