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

Monday, September 25, 2017

West Ham 2 - 3 Spurs (And Other Ramblings)

In the classic three act story structure, we typically see a standard set of touchpoints through the course of the tale which give us the basic framework for events to unfold. The opening act requires the storyteller to establish the world in which the story will take place, give us the characters and a basic understanding of what is motivating each of them. This part of the story will generally end with an "inciting incident" which kicks the story into gear and pushes us toward the midpoint.

Act two will then typically take these characters further into that world, but with their circumstances worsening until all hope appears lost. Then, another inciting incident finally drives us into the final act where our heroes salvage their lost cause from the apparent jaws of defeat. Unless, of course, you are writing a tragedy.

The Matrix is a pretty good example of a standard story, if you feel like you want a real life look at a tale that operates this way. Or you could just support West Ham and feel like it's imprinted upon your soul.

There is no spoon, Neo. Or Christian Eriksen

So, anyway, welcome to West Ham, the Kingdom of the Not Quite, where we came pretty close to pulling this off against Spurs but fell short of the actual "salvaging" of the disaster, although it should be said, we remain pretty adept at getting the "lost cause" part right. With that in mind, let me break down the basic three act tragedy we saw unfold here on Saturday.



The London Stadium is not a great place to watch football. It's an impressive venue but a poor football ground. I know some disagree, but I think it's fair to say that most feel once the game kicks off then our home advantage is substantially lessened. But it's not the girders or the steel or the terraces or the scaffolded retractable non retractable seats that make an atmosphere. That belongs to the people in the ground. 

For the last couple of the seasons, this fixture has been played in the evening and Spurs have visibly shrunk from the occasion. There was an edge to those games which rendered them more hostile and unwelcoming for the visitor than is customary. For this game, played at 12.30pm in the warmth of the autumnal sun rather than the cool of late winter or early spring, no such feeling was discernible. Where I sit, up among the cirrus clouds and the Chinese satellites, the feeling was mainly one of nervousness, as people openly expressed their fear that we would get the shoeing that we all thought was coming here last season.

Quite why the general timbre of the place changes with early kick offs is open to debate. I'd say it's probably as straightforward as saying that early starts preclude much heavy drinking and also increase the number of children in the crowd. It's not bad, it's just different. 

Perhaps it was no surprise then, that Spurs looked a bit more up for this game than recent iterations. Whilst we dominated possession and territory in the first thirty minutes, we didn't create too many chances, although neither did the visitors. It was mostly two evenly matched teams cancelling each other out. 

We started with Andy Carroll on the bench. Our Geordie howitzer, watching and waiting for the final throes of the game when he could be unleashed on a tiring defence. For the first time this season, I felt I could understand Bilic's set up. Arnatouvic and Antonio either side of Hernandez offered mobility and invention, and in particular lots of opportunity to attack the wide open spaces behind the high pressing Spurs wing backs. 

And so it proved for much of the opening exchanges as Arnautovic continually ranged into the inside left channel and should really have done better with some promising openings. That wastefulness would prove costly.


Now, all good storytellers like to drop in to their tale something known as "call backs". These are oblique or passing references to events which will return to be important in the latter part of the story. Thus, here I should point out that the space we were exploiting down the Spurs right was being left by Serge Aurier. The wing back was playing suicidally high, and whilst he managed a couple of dangerous looking interceptions, he also left acres of real estate behind him for players to run into. 

On the rare occasions he was in the general vicinity of one of our players, he fouled them, but referee Michael Oliver chose not to book him. *INSERT GIANT THEATRICAL WINK TO CAMERA*


With half an hour gone and the teams in a stalemate, Michail Antonio tried to latch on to a through ball and pulled up limping. In the time honoured tradition of West Ham United, he then left the field with a muscular injury, sporting what the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists must surely by now be calling the Boleyn Walk (Hand on back of thigh, limping, accompanied by sheepish looking physio).

"Let me guess - a muscle injury? What a fucking surprise"

Upon Antonio pulling up lame, Bilic had immediately sent Rice and Carroll to warm up so it wasn't any surprise to see the latter come on, although with Ayew having started the season well, and Sakho apparently fit and available either of them would have seemed a more natural replacement. Instead, on came Carroll, lumbering on to the pitch like the Indominus Rex breaking out of her pen in Jurassic World.

As with that story - owning such creatures seems great in principle but you'd better have an idea of how to look after them or they just cause havoc.


With Antonio gone, and the threat of anybody running in behind disappearing with him, Spurs pushed up and took control of the game. In his first action Carroll flattened Davinson Sanchez, and with his second he gave the ball away to Eriksen and watched as Alli fed Kane for the opener. Shortly after, he was dispossessed by Jan Vertonghen and the Alli/Kane duo combined once more to make it 2-0.

Half time came and went with no obvious change and Eriksen latched on to a fortuitous bounce from an Aurier cross *GIANT THEATRICAL WINK TO CAMERA* to coolly make it 3-0. At this point, our heroes were facing their dark night of the soul. A two nil deficit is almost impossible to overcome, but three is impregnable. These days Spurs are chock full of good players, and also Moussa Sissoko, and to expect a comeback from that point would have been akin to asking for a miracle.

What we really needed was divine intervention.


With the game slipping away, we got our first foothold when Eric Dier lost Jose Fonte at a corner and Chicharito lost Sissoko and the result was a close range headed goal. With our tails up, enter the sympathetic villain - Serge Aurier *GIANT THEATRICAL WINK TO CAMERA*

The Ivorian decided that while we were showing signs of life, the only sensible way to deal with any problem he encountered was to foul it. He duly picked up two yellow cards in quick succession and picked up a red card so stupid that it felt like it had wandered in from a less intelligent script.

Somehow, this took 70 minutes

What was interesting about the red card is that it took an hour and three fouls for Oliver to issue anything at all. On the day West Ham players committed ten fouls and picked up four yellow cards, while Aurier made four fouls and was only booked for numbers three and four. In the fairy tale land of "what if" it's tempting to wonder if he shouldn't have gone earlier, for all the difference that would have made. 


With the villains in retreat, we had our chance at last. Even at 3-1 this was the longest of long shots but we pushed forward and generally rained hell and brimstone on to the Spurs goal. This culminated in a Kouyate header so towering it should be remained the Empire State Goal, but in the end we came up short. 

And thus ended the great London Stadium performance of 2017. A classic tragedy in three acts.


But what can we make of this game? So much happened, with so many caveats and additions that it feels almost impossible to draw safe conclusions. 

I would say that the first thing to do is to remove emotion from any such analysis. Football might be the drug, and the London Stadium might be our opium den, but in the end it's only a game. Six people were attacked in an acid attack later that day in Stratford, hours after I was there with my daughter. It's going to be rough when we see our Spurs supporting mates, but still. It's only a game. 

That said, I can't think of anything more West Ham then losing this match and then the US and North Korea going to war, meaning that we all have to spend our lives wandering in a post apocalyptic wasteland knowing this happened the last time we played them. 

For many, this game seems to have thrown up lots of positives. We started well and gave a glimpse of what we might be capable of when we get everyone fit. Likewise, we battled back gamely, with a rousing finish that could easily have yielded a last minute penalty for a fairly obvious shove on Carroll by Sanchez. Elsewhere, I thought Fonte was excellent again and our midfield duo played well until being overrun. So, in that sense, there were plus points to be drawn. 

Contextually we will also have to grudgingly admit that Spurs are a good team and, while I think it's unlikely that they will win the league, they will beat better teams than us this season. 

So, yeah, that's one way of looking at things. 

What a near come - diddly - back!

The issue I would take with this way of viewing the result, is that it seems bereft of any attempt to assess this performance alongside the rest of Bilic's reign. 

So while we started well, we didn't actually create anything in that time. We were simply on top in a fairly mediocre encounter. And while injuries continue to plague any attempt to get our full team on the pitch, this is really nothing new. Dealing with a weakened squad is simply par for the course if you manage West Ham. Likewise, you can't manage Oasis and then complain that they're off their nut half the time. 

So while I too enjoyed the comeback up to a point, it seems ludicrous to me to try and paint being constantly 3-0 down as a positive thing. We have played six games this season and conceded three goals during four of them. It is not possible to stay up playing like this. 

There is research around that suggests that, at best, teams have a 5% chance of winning when they go two nil down. That number actually gets lower depending on what minute the second goal is scored. In short, given when Kane got the second on Saturday we had around a 2% chance of winning that game. 

Not for the first time this season, or under Bilic, the inability to defend properly is what continually undermines our attempts to win. Saturday was his 82nd league game in charge of West Ham, and according to my research we have gone two nil down on twenty five separate occasions during his reign. Put another way, in about 30% of the games. If you want to know why we're struggling so much then look no further than that porous defence and woeful organisation. 

The other thing that happens when you go two goals down is that the opposition withdraw. No longer needing to score, they will frequently sit and allow us to have the ball knowing they can pick us off on the break. This leads to a slightly artificial sense that we have gained an upper hand when, in reality, teams are drawing us on to them. I think sometimes West Ham fans forget this because we are rarely two nil up, and don't have the pace to be a good counterattacking team. 

Additionally, had Aurier not got himself sent off I highly doubt we'd have been able to push forward down our left as forcefully as we did. It took quite a lot of material changes to the circumstance of the game before we got back in control.

Beware this illusion of ascendancy.


Much of the discussion after the game centred on the decision to bring Andy Carroll on for Antonio instead of someone more mobile like Ayew, Sakho or the Bobby Moore statue. The common reading of this seems to be that when Carroll came on we abandoned our shorter passing game and instead went long. 

Interestingly, this isn't supported by the facts. We actually attempted more long balls as a percentage of our passes before Carroll came on, and only really resorted to throwing crosses into the box at the end during the last, desperate scramble for a point. What happened in reality is that we replaced Michail Antonio with Andy Carroll and then tried to continue playing exactly the same way.

Think about that for the moment. Antonio, all pace and power, strong running and lung bursting surges into unorthodox areas. It's not hindsight to suggest that Ayew or Sakho would have been a better replacement there, if we intended to continue trying to do those things. 

Instead, Bilic put on Carroll but made no tactical changes to accommodate him. So we continued to try and do the things which had put us on top early - running the channels, exploiting the wide spaces, pressing high and playing through the weak Spurs central midfield - but all of a sudden those things stopped working because we didn't have the personnel to execute them any more. Carroll can't link play or turn defenders like Antonio, he can't run in behind like Chicharito (who can't do it much either) and he can't range from wing to wing like Sakho at his bullocking best. And nor should Bilic be asking him to. It's madness. 

In the end, as observers, we know nothing of form, fitness, confidence or the personalities involved. We have no idea which player has lost form because he's going through a divorce, or has gambling debts, or has a sick child or has a tender hamstring and can only manage twenty minutes (all of them from the bloody looks of it). 

So maybe there were lots of very good reasons to choose Carroll over Sakho, not least that the latter wants to leave. Maybe Bilic has never fancied Ayew but has to humour him because he's Sullivan buy. As I say, we really know nothing of the factors involved. 

But, on the pitch, we can see the results and they are dire. A league table put together for just 2017 shows us fourth bottom, with just two points separating us from Palace who really have been dreadful this year.

Carroll is not being utilised as he should be. We might not want to see it, but if Bilic really believes that he is worth building a team around then he needs to play in a way that suits him. It is noticeable currently how often Carroll receives the ball deep, with his back to goal and plays the ball backwards. Indeed, trying to do precisely that was the root cause of the two opening goals here. In a traditional centre forward role, presumably he would be looking to flick balls on for runners or spread the play wide for high wingers. Indeed it's not hard to reimagine long floated balls to the edge of the box for him to knock down for a Kevin Nolan type, as that's what we saw for years under Allardyce.

We do none of these things. 

The last temptation of Bilic

Instead we persist with a 3-4-3 that requires a far more mobile central forward, and displaces Chicharito to achieve this. It is an odd hybrid, style of play that somehow manages to play to nobody's strengths. 

The comparison here is that when Allardyce also built his team around Carroll, he was forced to find another solution when he got injured. His use of a diamond formation with Downing at the top worked brilliantly, until he abandoned it all when Carroll came back and results plummeted. It's therefore interesting to me that Bilic seems to get a free pass for doing much the same thing.

On a slightly related matter, I'm not as high on Chicharito as lots of others - although I enjoyed the Herculean effort on Saturday - because he presents some similar problems to Carroll in that he requires a certain type of play. He reminds me a little of Michael Owen in so much as his contribution outside the box is minimal, but once he gets into the penalty area he becomes invisible to defenders. It's hard not to feel a little giddy about the prospect of a striker who can score twenty goals a season. It's harder to see how we'll ever fashion enough chances for him to do that. 


Where Bilic is failing is in not determining a path and remaining true to it. He's equivocating constantly, flipping back and forth tactically and falling into the trap that has ensnared a lot of other managers whereby he seems to be struggling to identify which players need to transition out of the first team to being squad players. 

I don't think much of our board but I can see how they struggle to place any long term faith in a manager who spends his entire pre season planning to play a specific way and then drops half his back four after one game, and changes the system entirely after three games. There's making necessary changes and then there's apparently picking numbers out of a hat. 

He seems to have determinedly hitched his wagon to the stars of Carroll and Noble, who are now the two most divisive players around. If Carroll is the siren bewitching Bilic with the promise of hat tricks against Arsenal and bicycle kicks, then Noble is his shop steward, the old faithful who knows how things are done and does it quietly. 

I thought Noble played well on Saturday until his legs failed him after too long spent covering the holes left by Arnautovic. Spurs were weak in the centre with Dier and Sissoko well short of Dembele and Wanyama and it was a shame that we didn't exploit them better. Indeed trying to pass off Sissoko as a replacement for Wanyama is like me sellotaping some plastic knives to my knuckles and claiming to be Wolverine. 

Dier, meanwhile, sees Cheik Kouyate holding a red balloon every time he looks in a sewer vent and all of that early dominance was in part because those two grabbed the centre of the park. Our problems began when Eriksen started to get on the ball and we never really had got close enough to him to stop the inevitable. While Kane and Alli get most of the plaudits, it's Eriksen who seems to me to be the tick of the Spurs clock. We missed Obiang's mobility in trying to stop him and seem to have a fairly large Carvalho sized hole there right now. 


So as much as we may want to feel otherwise, this was really a story as old as time. The Bilic West Ham experiment ran its course some time ago but will continue until the end of the season unless things really get desperate. He enters a soft run of fixtures now, and with Palace seemingly determined to go full Sunderland this season, there might only be two places up for grabs in the relegation zone. 

One would hope we'll have enough to stay afloat, at which point the board will doubtless wave him goodbye, maintain their proud run of not firing underperforming managers, waste another season, and then do their best to attract a high class proven manager to a club where a teenager will sit in strategic meetings with them. The death of a thousand cuts continues. 

So Mr Tuchal, let's talk money

But watching this game really only served to reinforce to me how much of what we have seen before continues to be repeated. The familiar themes of the Bilic regime were on display again - individual mistakes, injuries, defensive lapses, some bad luck and a confusing tactical setup that leaves me no closer to understanding how he wants to play. I'd be genuinely interested to hear from a pro-Bilic fans who still want him to stay. I'm sure there's another story on the other side of this coin, but I'm fairly sure I've lost the bloody coin by this point. 

We're well into Act Three by now, and whether it's Romeo and Juliet, Maximus, William Wallace or Jay Gatsby it's heart wrenching to see a tragedy unfold and a popular hero disappear. But truth be told, I'm more than ready for someone to bring down the curtain on this particular show. 



  1. Totally agree about Bilic - not sure though that we’re not at serious risk of going down. The four worst teams in the division are IMO Palace, us, Bournemouth and Brighton - perm three from four. The Dildo Bros are playing a dangerous and short sited game if they think saving a three or four mill pay off is worth it against the serious risk that we could be involved in a relegation fight with a high probability that it will end badly. A-V-R-A-M G-R-A-N-T. Muppets.

    Even if we don’t go down the club will be viewed as a basket case making it harder when it comes to recruiting the sort of manager we need as Bilic’s replacement - one who can tell Sullivan snr and jnr to bugger off and let him get on with it. And all that ‘next level’ talk from the board will just be ammunition for rivals to joke about it being the ‘next level down’ etc etc.

    The squad is a long way from being perfect but it’s a lot better than a lot of the teams we’re competing against – we lack the organisation and tactical awareness, but a good manager could get something out of this lot. At the moment I can’t see West Ham beating a good team - so far this season they haven’t, Spurs at home was probably our best chance of that.

    The measure of where we are is how we do when we come up against an average team playing averagely at the London Stadium. So far at home we’ve beaten Huddersfield (an average team playing badly), away we got a point against a dreadful WBA cos not conceding was the height of their ambitions - a better team would have won that game, and against average Southampton - we lost. The upcoming run of fixtures against Swansea, Burnley, Brighton and Palace (especially the latter two) is a good test. If we fail it though… does Benitez proving that he can manage in the championship count as a silver lining?

    Finally, the most damning thing about Bilic is that organisation and tactics aside he’s obviously a bright bloke and must surely have realised that Sullivan and Gold’s tightness makes you unsackable during the term of your contract. Even if you only get one contract you’ll still last longer than most managers at similar clubs so you might as well cut loose, do things your way and be damned. I suppose the worry is that he has.

  2. I would say I am still on board with Bilic, but not in the sycophantic ways of some.

    Arguably, I am happy with him unless we have a very good replacement. I personally have no issue with a club doing their due diligence over any possible replacements whilst they have a manager. In fact, I should think they should always be comfortable knowing people who they could replace their manager with (I would guess we just have some names and no actual idea of their real situations and interest).

    If (and I use the name as mere example, not optimism) a Tuchel-level manager of repute was available, then maybe I'd move for him. But I wouldn't be keen to sack Bilic if this wasn't the case, as I don't feel he's doing an awful job.