A look that just screams "experienced, error free defending"
But this game... this game might just be the very essence of supporting West Ham. The perfect distillation of agony and ecstasy, bravery and incompetence, Hernandez and Fonte, stupid David Sullivan decisions and even stupider David Sullivan decisions. I want you to pull up a chair, sit down there, pull on your Robert Snodgrass replica top and let me tell you about the day that West Ham went to St Mary's and West Hammed the absolute almighty fuck out of this game of football.
The story begins months ago, in March 2015, when Winston Reid signed a new six and a half year deal with the club. This would have taken him to his age 33 season which everybody knows is when centre backs are just about to hit their prime. Because of this our genius Director of Football, Professor David Sullivan, decided that we also needed to buy out another two years of Reid's career meaning that on the cusp of this game he signed yet another contract extension. This pointless endeavour now means that we get to pay Reid right the way up until he is 35 years old. Remember gang, long term planning is for wusses.
The way you can tell this is a good idea, by the way, is simply by checking how many 35 year old centre backs started in the Premier League this weekend. None. Boy, it feels great to be a trailblazer. West Ham, ladies and gentlemen.
Anyway, flush with his new contract Reid promptly got injured in the warm up for this game because of course he fucking did. There is nothing more West Ham in the universe than new signings getting stretchered off, even when they're just contract extensions.
Into the team came Angelo Ogbonna, himself a recent recipient of a long term extension whilst recovering from an operation, who had been dropped after doing a passable impersonation of a kindly doorman at Old Trafford last week - "None shall pass! Except you! And you! Oh go on then, you too!". So one game into the season, half of the back four who had presumably been training together all pre season were out. We were rapidly approaching peak West Ham and the game hadn't even bloody started.
It's been a bad week for statues in the South. In the US they are wanting to pull down these unmoving, rigid monuments to another time, and replace them with something more appropriate. At West Ham we just buy them from Southampton for £8m. And so it was that Jose Fonte had a first half here that could have been painted by Hieronymous Bosch, so hellish was it.
Jose Fonte marks Manolo Gabbiadini for the opening goal
Despite having stocked up on cod liver oil before the start, Jose looked miles off the pace. Saints hadn't scored at home since April, but if doctors were going to prescribe treatment for such ailments this West Ham team would be at the top of the list. As such it took all of eleven minutes for Manolo Gabbiadini to run in behind the Portuguese and score the exact same goal he scored against us in February. On another day I might have questioned Joe Hart's positioning but until he plays with an actual back four in front of him there's no point making any judgements.
Things somehow got worse from there as we looked hopelessly ineffective going forward and totally disorganised defensively. Southampton could have had a second before Marko Arnautovic - another of Professor Sullivan's new arrivals - decided that the only possible way to improve things was to elbow Jack Stephens in the face. It led to a deserved red card, and in reality is the kind of incident where the perpetrator can consider himself lucky to only get a three match ban. On a day when our new signings seemed to forget they were no longer at their previous clubs, the Austrian went full Stoke at the moment we least needed it.
Arnautovic's lapse was so brainless that it would almost four minutes before any other West Ham player did something so stupid. This time, Fonte got himself the wrong side of Steven Davis and made up for it by dragging him down by the neck. It was a blatant penalty and even though Dusan Tadic - the worst penalty taker in the universe - took the kick it deflected off Hart and in.
The first thirty eight minutes of this game were a painful dagger to the notion that this West Ham team is going to be different. On a day when the sun was broiling, and the heat was like a character in the action that needed to be acknowledged and factored into the plot, this was supposed to be the day our season started. Many fans were content to write off the opening day debacle at Old Trafford - you can't expect to win there, they said. If we can't expect to win there with a team bought and constructed with the sole purpose of winning right now then we'll never win there, I thought, but that's an argument for another day.
The weather was glorious. Players were returning. Hope was rising. This was the start.
It should have been a home game, of course. If it had, you rather fancy things might have turned out differently. It's rare for teams to concede two penalties and have a player sent off in a home match, even in a stadium as sterile as ours. On another day, in our postcode, it is possible Tadic wouldn't have even been on the pitch to take his penalty. His early mistimed lunge at Hernandez might have returned a different colour card if fifty thousand home fans had been able to give their opinion on it. As it was, referee Lee Mason waved a yellow and cultivated the sense of injustice that seemingly led Arnautovic to remove his cerebrum.
At 2-0 and a man down, it was impossible to see a way back. Only proper teams fight back from such situations. Teams who are organised, pacey and motivated can face such odds and defy them. This just isn't in the West Ham DNA, to be honest. In my thirty years of watching, such comebacks can be counted on one hand, like the number of actual jokes in the entire run of The Big Bang Theory. True West Ham fans were hunkering down, preparing for the worst. Maybe keep it to 4-0 against this team who haven't scored in 500 minutes and that won't be a bad result. We'll go again next week. We always do well at Newcastle, don't we?
And then, hope.
Let's face it, if the first half of this game was everything shit about supporting West Ham, then the second was the reason we all go. This was a reason to believe. This was life affirming.
Michail Antonio has been out for months. He started this game, somewhat surprisingly but then between injuries and the failure of Professor Sullivan's January arrival - Snodgrass - we're a bit light on wide players. Antonio eased his way into the action, but when we needed him most he stood up like Ethan Hawke in Dead Poets Society. "Oh captain, my captain. I'll do your running". A man light, he simply took on the work of two men and began to carry the ball through the weak looking home midfield with energy and purpose.
West Ham's second half. Fuckin' A
Our first came on the cusp of half time, when Antonio had no right to turn or shoot but managed to do both, and Fraser Forster parried weakly for Hernandez to score the kind of unremarkable but entirely necessary goal that it feels we have been doing without for years.
At 2-1 down, there wasn't much more reason to believe than the simple fact that that's what we're supposed to do, but the second half was different in almost every way. Where we lacked cohesiveness and purpose we now had unity and ambition. Antonio was doing yeoman labour, but Hernandez was covering himself in glory too. Shifted to an unfamiliar left sided position he dutifully did his defensive work and when the time came, made slamming home the equaliser look far easier than it was.
The truth of that second half is that we were as good then as we were inept in the first. Young Declan Rice and Mark Noble held the midfield and Cresswell and Zabaleta coped manfully with the twin Southampton creative threats of Redmond and Tadic. Indeed, it was only when James Ward-Prowse joined the fray that the home side looked like being an attacking threat again. There was no pace to our play particularly - there can't be with such a slow team - but through repeated and persistent knocking on the door Cresswell and Sakho prised it open just enough for the Little Pea to slip through and give us hope. A comeback from absolutely nowhere, the kind to have you belting out "Bubbles" long into the night, and falling headfirst back in love with everything you believed when you first fell in love with football.
West Ham, ladies and gentlemen.
Remember though, we're telling the story of West Ham here, a walking Greek tragedy of a football team. Whilst it's easy to blame the late lapse on some sort of lifelong gypsy hex, the reality is the team were exhausted by their efforts with ten men and a pre season fitness regime that seems to have produced a team in the image of Dawn French. It's almost as though playing German third division teams isn't great preparation for the Premier League.
West Ham are about to salvage a point, you say?
And so it came to pass that a long, searching Ward-Prowse pass arced into our area with just seconds to go. The target was home centre back Maya Yoshida, who would have needed to have been Spiderman to have actually done anything with it. At that precise moment, it was possible to see why Professor Sullivan was so keen to sign 32 year old Zabaleta. The Argentine used all his experience to usher the ball out of play and shepherd us to an unlikely, but season launching point. Except he didn't. Of course he fucking didn't.
I can see Zabaleta's point of view. He's been making that challenge for years at Manchester City and not getting pinged for it. Had he been playing for Manchester City in this game it wouldn't have been given. It was a marginal call, and when in doubt Premier League referees will always err on the side of a decision that won't be analysed for twenty minutes on Monday Night Football, or require a column from Jeff Winter in a newspaper. The problem is that games between West Ham and Southampton don't attract that kind of attention, so referees will just make normal, regular decisions. He's lost the protection of the Abu Dhabi millions.
To call Lee Mason a cheat for awarding a penalty is to fundamentally misunderstand referees. They don't care who wins so long as they get an easy life. They're humans and so they act like humans. They get most things right, some things wrong and every now and again they can be influenced by large crowds. That's not cheating.
Would that penalty have been given for Southampton against Manchester City? No. Would it have been given at the Olympic Stadium? Less likely, but possibly. Would I have wanted it if it had been up the other end? You bet your life I would. We can't complain - Zabaleta just needs to remember who he's playing for now. It's the entire bloody reason we signed him, after all.
After that, the penalty was taken by a player that Professor Sullivan publicly insulted last season, who promptly scored his first goal in nine months after our captain convinced him to put it the other side because Joe Hart knew what way he was going. West Ham, ladies and gentlemen.
So what are we supposed to make of all this? I guess it depends upon how you choose to view results so far. If last season is a single, discrete event that you have wrapped up and parked on a shelf then I guess it is too early to make judgements. One away game against the best looking, most expensive team in the league and another where we played the majority of the game with ten men are no barometer of anything. Equally, our best player has yet to appear and as is customary at this time of year, we have plenty of injuries. Other teams hit the opening weeks at full speed, whereas we use them to get our players fit. It's little wonder we get off to such routinely awful starts.
But for those who see Bilic's reign through the longer lens, then this is all just the continuation of the same old stuff. Since we were last at St Mary's we've played 16 games and won 3. That's the sort of nonsense that got Allardyce fired, and he never had the kind of financial backing that Bilic is getting. More tellingly is that fact that we've kept only four clean sheets in that time, despite him playing three different goalkeepers, and at least seven different defensive set ups that I can remember.
Guys, why is nobody defending?
Some of you will scream about injuries, as though this is somehow new or unique. Injuries are so endemic to West Ham that it is time to stop thinking of them as an unusual circumstance and instead accept that they are a simple fact for West Ham managers. Bilic will always have someone injured and so he needs to develop a way of playing that is less dependent upon individuals and more built towards the strengths of the group. I despised Allardyce's style of play, but I accept that he fashioned a system that meant players could come and go and not be confused by what they were supposed to be doing. Does anybody think our current system amounts to much more than "Oh well, Lanzini will be back soon"?
Having watched Bilic's teams for two seasons I have no idea how he wants to play. He asked for pace in his team this summer and got none, so now I don't know if he's a shill for the board or if he's changed his mind and he is happy having a side this pedestrian. We are lacking depth in the centre of midfield and yet Reece Oxford is off playing in the Bundesliga for reasons I cannot fathom. He doesn't seem to think either of his left backs are any good and signed a goalkeeper when he had a perfectly good one already. Perhaps the most obvious example of the totally disjointed thinking surrounding the club was spending £10m on Robert Snodgrass to replace Payet, replacing him with £24m Marko Arnautovic six months later and then banishing him from the squad altogether when he might have been very useful on a day like this one. He is currently being hawked round Championship sides with Professor Sullivan apparently bemused that his value has dropped so much in six months. Someone please explain to the Professor that perhaps the problem is he overpaid unnecessarily to start with.
It's worth remembering all of that when you read about the board quibbling over a £5.5m gap in the valuation of William Carvalho with Sporting Lisbon. Perhaps if someone at the club - ANYONE - had more of an idea about squad building and transfers, we wouldn't have to worry about such a relatively small amount.
In the end, I've landed here. I'm terrified about the parallels to 2002/03, but it's far too early to judge this particular team. If nothing else, Bilic is still clearly able to motivate his team to play for him, and that is certainly worth something. I think you have to give them ten games, the return of Lanzini and (I guess?) Carroll before making any firm pronouncements.
But equally, saying "It's just two games" is disingenuous bullshit. None of these problems are new - none of them. Read what Rich Sprent had to say about all of this after the game on Saturday. The facts are dismal reading - 92 goals conceded in the last 50 league games played! How is that sustainable? £20m on Andre Ayew and still no obvious answer to where he should be playing? A sudden drop in net spend after years spent wasting it like a wedding planner? It's not really a surprise that the team play so incoherently when all around them is chaos.
I've been off the Bilic bandwagon for a while now, despairing of those many gutless surrenders against the top teams last season, but I'm not seeing any reason to jump back on it here. When he does eventually go, it will because of a myriad of reasons. A failure to stand up to the Board when needed, a misplaced belief that he could build a system around a player as unreliable as Carroll and probably the Payet thing too. But in the end, it will boil down to the simple fact that his teams have never, ever been able to defend. It's incredible considering his playing career, but there it is. A team managed by a centre half, that can look glorious going forward and like Gloria Hunniford defending.
West Ham, ladies and gentlemen.