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, October 30, 2017

Crystal Palace 2 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Now I've swung back down again, it's worse than it was before
If I hadn't seen such riches, I could live with being poor"
- James, "Sit Down"

So in a week where we learned exactly how long it takes to rig a league cup quarter final draw (it's two hours) we learned how long we are allowed to be happy. It's two days. Two bloody days of savouring that win at Wembley and then we're back on the rollercoaster once again. Even Pontius Pilate got three days of thinking he'd sorted out his Jesus problem before reality started to bite.

The worst thing is that viewed in isolation, it isn't that terrible or surprising that we can't beat the bottom team in the league. Over the last two years we were the only team around who struggled to beat Sunderland and if it wasn't for nine dropped points against relegated teams, we would have finished level on points with runners up Arsenal in 2015/16.

If, if, if - the clarion call of the desperate and the dreamers, but still. Shit.

This. The whole article basically boils down to this.

One thing that did hit me as I watched this game, is how difficult it really is to get a handle on West Ham. We so rarely play in the same formation, or with the same tactical approach or even with the same level of efficiency, that opinion tends to swing wildly from game to game. And so far, every game has come with a caveat: injuries, sendings off, the desperate need to just get a win so we just take what points we can get and then worry about the performance later. 

Someone - and I apologise to whomever it was because I can't remember who posted it and can't find it again now - appeared in my Twitter feed after this game making the point that we haven't played well yet this season. My immediate thought was that this was ludicrously harsh, but if you take that to mean a complete ninety minute performance then that's probably true. Even the Miracle of Wembley required a disaster in the first half, in order for the whole thing to be miraculous.

So I thought I'd list out our league performances so far and see if it's really true that each game has had a sizeable caveat attached to it, and whether any of them can really be said to be good, front to back, 90 minute displays:

Man Utd0-4They'll beat everyone, loads of injuries
Southampton2-3Ten men, played well second half, ref
Newcastle0-3Loads of injuries, everything will be better at home
Huddersfield2-0All that matters is the result, it's hard at home
West Brom0-0Nobody plays well against West Brom
Spurs2-3Good start, we played Andy Carroll
Swansea1-0All that matters is the result
Burnley1-1Ten men, did you see that one move in the 2nd half?
Brighton0-3Erm, we didn't play Andy Carroll
Palace2-2Our players have no brains. None of them.

OK, so my immediate thought is that the Burnley game was probably our best performance of the season and it involved seventy minutes with ten men, an assist from our goalkeeper and featured another late equaliser. Overall I think we played well, but draws against Burnley do not contented supporters make, especially when they get followed up with 3-0 defeats at home to Brighton. 

Our two victories were both fairly dire, albeit we were the better team on both occasion. We're just so inconsistent from game to game, from half to half and even from one passage of play to another, that any kind of objective assessment feels impossible. But what fans really want is a complete display from start to finish, with all areas of the team functioning and a resounding victory, because that allows us to stop thinking of sustained competence as being a hypothetical concept. 


Take this game for instance. How can you moan about a team being two nil up at half time, with two superbly engineered and wonderfully taken goals? Well, I suppose the reality is that at the interval everything did seem to going swimmingly, even if we did have to rely upon an absolutely amazing double save from Joe Hart to keep us in front at 1-0. So what though, that's what he's there for, after all. 

But then the came the worst second half defensive performance since John Parker left Ford's Theatre, Washington DC, 1865 during the intermission of "Our American Cousin" to go and have a drink at a saloon next door. While he was getting smashed, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln and Parker struggled to get much more work in the bodyguard field, although he did later turn out a couple of times at right back for West Ham. 

That's it Michail, into the corner 

At one point in the first half of this game I was beginning to wonder if it was possible to write an article about a match where nothing happened. Even Sartre would have found this all a bit challenging to describe, as two very poor teams engaged in a battle to see who could do least with most. 

And then the game sprang into life. Wilfried Zaha broke into the box and went down in a tangle with Jose Fonte. I thought it looked a bit innocuous, but would have probably wanted it given at the other end. As it was, Bobby Madley waved it away and we then swept upfield with a glorious move that culminated in Chicharito slotting home his fourth of the season. The goal was fairly reminiscent of Lanzini's winner in the corresponding fixture last year, as Cresswell served it up on a plate and the Mexican cleverly flicked it in with the outside of his boot. 

Prominent in the build up to that goal was Andre Ayew, playing just off the striker and getting on the ball very nicely, and he was at it again a few minutes later. This time he latched on to a loose ball courtesy of some good pressing by Fernandes, and drove forward, turned Scott Dann so many times he could have opened a bottle of Merlot with him, and then smashed it in to the top corner from outside the box. He probably should have slipped in Fernandes outside him, but when you're having the kind of week he is, you can't blame him for taking it on. 

As it is, all West Ham players should probably be shooting from everywhere at Selhurst Park as we only ever seem to score screamers against them. 

So a two nil lead at half time seemed fairly sustainable against a team who had scored twice all season, but as this shot map from Caley Graphics shows, you can make an argument that we were fortunate to get anything at all such was the dominance of the home team. But football games aren't played on spreadsheets and when you get to the 97th minute of a game with the lead then you expect to leave with three points. This one was a gut wrencher. 


When whoever it is that assembles the playing staff at West Ham decided to put together the oldest, slowest backline in the league I'm fairly sure that they weren't envisioning games like today. We are now ten games into the season and have the third worst goal difference in the league, Zabaleta has been booked five times, we have been beaten 3-0 by two promoted teams and have conceded four penalties. 

Today it was Angelo Ogbonna who decided to forget everything he had learned playing for Juventus and Italy, and brainlessly nudged over Andros Townsend right at the start of the second half. It was soft as ice cream in a sauna and wouldn't have been a penalty in 1985, but as far as arguments go that's not actually a very good one. The penalty went in and suddenly we lost any momentum rolling over from Spurs and instead found ourselves penned back as the home team bombed forward. 

Moments after that goal, Yohan Cabaye hit the post and we were wobbling mightily. It was good timing then, for Joe Hart to start illustrating quite why we'd gone out and paid so much money to get him when Adrian is a perfectly capable Premier League keeper. Wave after wave of home attacks were repelled with a combination of last ditch blocks and brilliant Hart saves. 

Among a number of fine stops, he kept out a Cabaye free kick that looked destined for the top corner and somehow tipped a James Tomkins header on to the bar. In truth, much of the Palace threat came from set pieces as they looked for all the world like West Ham 2014/15 under Sam Allardyce, featuring long deep crosses to Tomkins that were then kept alive in the box for onrushing attackers.  It took a decent amount of World War One style Tommies in the trenches defending to keep them out, which was fitting as we were wearing our new third kit which is apparently a homage to our first ever strip in 1900. 

Joe Hart, ladies and gentleman

So Hart probably deserved better than to be beaten by Zaha's 97th minute equaliser, but in reality we couldn't complain. Had we not wasted so much time throughout the second half we wouldn't have been on the pitch to have given up the goal. As it was, Lanzini and Antonio took a free kick in the 87th minute and decided to keep it in the corner. This was particularly ironic as Palace would score their second a whole ten minutes later, but perhaps more crucially still - neither one of them took it in the fucking corner. 


Ah yes, taking the ball into the corner to protect a one goal lead. It's boring and negative when it's done against you, and the height of professional game management when your team does it. And now this morning, Antonio has been roundly criticised for failing to do exactly that in the minute before the goal. 

The problem I have with this is that had Antonio ignored the three on one situation in the Palace box, where Ayew, Lanzini and Chicharito were waiting for any kind of decent cross, and gone over to the corner flag it's still possible that the same thing could have happened. He could still easily have lost the ball, and Palace could have broken away and scored and everybody would have lost their shit that he was being so negative and spurned a gold plated opportunity to seal the win.

Therefore, my issue with Antonio doing what he did isn't that he did it, but more that he did it so badly. The worst part of it all is that any half decent ball would surely have resulted in a goal, which is of course the absolute best way to kill off a game. As it was, Dann chested the laziest pass of all time back to Speroni, and Palace worked it out to Zaha who did a bizarre loop with the ball before driving the winner through a crowd of legs and thousands of West Ham fans muttered "Of course he fucking did" to whomever they were with at the time, before crying like we were watching a walrus trying to find a bit of ice left at the North Pole to park her kid on.

That said, we had so many opportunities to launch late breakaway counters and we seemed clueless as to how to do it. I haven't seen a group of people so unsure of how to attack since the villagers in The Magnificent Seven

As such, I have no issue with Antonio doing what he did - he should have just done it better. And maybe the players in the box could have actually chased back, but then I guess when we all moan that the team doesn't look remotely fit enough, we can't really complain when they can't physically match other teams in the late stages of games.

And so the rollercoaster surges on. 


What is interesting after games like this is how we all fall very easily into the trap of telling each other how obvious and predictable it was that this would happen. Truthfully that's not really very fair as we are no worse than any other team when it comes to defending two goal leads. However, as a club we are pretty bad for letting in late goals, and we also have exceptional timing, meaning that we would of course throw away a two goal lead just two days after skewering Spurs in the same way. It's more West Ham than Bubbles, Bobby Moore and getting drawn away in the cups to Big Clubs ()

Under Bilic our record in this situation is actually pretty good:

2-0 Up2-0 Down

So, with a two nil lead this is only the second time that we've failed to win under Bilic. The other was when we were ahead against Watford at the London Stadium and then Troy Deeney got upset about rabonas and everybody forgot how to defend and instead just rode around on unicycles squirting water in each others faces.

It would perhaps be better if you tried to ignore how often we have gone 2-0 down under Bilic unless you want to completely lose your mind.


And what of Bilic? What does this game tell us about him? We routinely lead the league in defensive errors that lead to goals and that shows no sign of abating. You can argue that he isn't responsible for experienced defenders giving away needless penalties or you can say that when people keep continually making mistakes in his teams that perhaps the structure in which they are playing isn't conducive to error free football.

As it is, we don't really know anything today that we didn't already know yesterday. He still seems cursed with bad luck, he still can't organise a defence, and juggling all his attacking options around seems to befuddle him. Here he pushed Kouyate back into a trio of centre backs and he did pretty well, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the 3-4-3 came back into fashion when Barcelona started dropping their central midfielders between their centre backs and sending their full backs off like auxiliary wingers. The problem is that without him in midfield we lacked the ability to carry the ball or break up play, and even Manuel Lanzini looked peripheral as we struggled to get him in possession.

We also scored with our only two shots on target which either shows a pleasing level of efficiency or a desperate lack of creativity, depending on your world view. While all of that was happening Obiang, Antonio, Carroll and Arnautovic were on the bench and you couldn't help but return to that question one more time - what the hell were we trying to achieve with our summer transfer activity?

So Bilic will wander onwards, because when he was given two games to save his job it didn't make any particular sense, but once you say that then you probably can't fire him after a win and a draw even when the circumstances of those results were so crazy.

It will surprise none of you to know that I don't think a great deal of our Board and their management structure, but I have some sympathy over this decision. How can you assess this? It's impossible to sift through all the madness of those two matches and draw anything concrete from it. And realistically, this constantly undulating graph of our performance that reflects a Himalayan skyline is probably reflective of where we are as a club. Everything is chaotic, there's loads of wild stuff happening behind the scenes and in the end that was always going to bleed out on to the pitch.

Changing the manager might help, purely because they might be able to organise our defence to at least recognise each other occasionally, but I don't think it would make too much difference. This is the problem when you choose not to back a manager by giving him a new contract, but also choose not to fire him. So Bilic exists in this strange footballing purgatory because we all accept that you can't get anyone better in November, especially when you're down with the dead men, but we all know he won't be staying beyond July. In some respects it's probably a testimony to his man management skills that the players pay any attention to him at all given the circumstances, but even though that may be true, I really do wish he'd sort out our back four.

So on we roll, back on the rollercoaster.


In a week where the growth of English youth football is on everyone's mind, it's worth noting that England have won both the u17 and u20 World Cups without any West Ham players. This has been a common theme this summer, as most of the best kids seem to come from the same academies - Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are prominent - and it does lead me to wonder quite what is happening with our scouting.

It's not to say we don't have kids at these tournaments as Dan Kemp and Nathan Trott were squad players at their respective Toulon and European Finals, while Domingos Quina also represented Portugal in the latter. But what is striking is how so many of the kids that represent England at these tournaments come from London and how we really seem to be struggling to identify and attract those kids.

Quina was picked up from Chelsea and the likes of Toni Martinez and Martin Samuelson were also transferred for decent sums. Not that this isn't a reasonable way to acquire players but what I'm referring to is the older method of picking up a boy at the age of 9 or 10 and bringing him through your system, moulded as the kind of player you want. We've been struggling with this for a while, and maybe Declan Rice and Reece Oxford will prove us wrong but it's starting to concern me that London kids might now be presented with three other better options for their footballing development at Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal.

A friend of mine took his very talented nine year old to West Ham recently at the club's request, and when they arrived he was bunched in with a huge number of other children and nobody took any notice of them. His main observation after watching his son learn precisely nothing in an hours worth of coaching, was that "they fail primarily as human beings".

One persons experience isn't indicative of anything, but at some point we may want to ask why our youth policy isn't delivering players in the same way as other teams. Declan Rice might very well be one such player but our London rivals are currently producing Premier Leaguers at a rate of far higher than once every five years, as we tend to do.

I don't know enough to comment fully on this, but I highlight it just to make the point. More help from the Academy is needed. 

1 comment:

  1. Didn't Rice come from Chelsea? Great read as always.