"I'm wasting all my time
I push it all away"
- Day Wave, "Wasting Time"
Context, context, context. Breathe in, breathe out, stare longingly at that semi final draw and try and put all of this into context. We have a lot of injuries. Arsenal have enough players to have two separate teams. Arsene Wenger's dad is refereeing. All those eighteen year olds. It was cold.
But even with all of that being true, this still feels like a hollow defeat. To borrow from cricketing parlance - we died wondering. And so, on the way home last night, I found myself pondering whether this had been one of the most pointless endeavours in human history. Ninety minutes played with just a single shot at goal from us, and only one shot on target from both sides in the entire game, which Joe Hart most certainly did not save. What a colossal waste of time.
Watching such impressive futility I couldn't help but think of the Roman Emperor, Caligula, who was apparently so furious with the sea that he ordered his soldiers to take their spears and stab the water, and then commanded them to collect sea shells as tokens of victory. In his defence, I have often felt like this about my new Sky Q box.
Sadly, this story is unlikely to be true and is widely regarded to be a concoction of Roman historians, but as I watched Aaron Cresswell battle gamely here as a very makeshift right wing back, I couldn't help but think that if we gave him some Speedo's, a beachtowel and a speargun he couldn't actually do any worse than he was doing.
"I wonder if there are any central midfielders in here?" says David Moyes
"Oh is this the way they say the future's meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?"
- Pulp, "Sorted Out for E's and Whizz"
So what did this mean exactly? What was the point of that stirring, life affirming, renewing-our-vows-of-fidelity comeback at Wembley if we were going to surrender so meekly here? After all, this was a quarter final of a major trophy and it's a pretty messed up set of priorities when we're exchanging all of that glorious possibility for a shot at finishing 12th in the league. But it's really a bit more nuanced than all that.
Of course, we took seven thousand fans last night, and even at a tenner a ticket we were being fleeced, given the performance, but before tearing into Moyes and the players too quickly, I will ask a broader question of those fans who are rightly angry at such an insipid display. For me, the issue here is not one of whether we should have been more attacking, but more one of whether we actually could have been more attacking? Because, while I agree wholeheartedly with those who say that we should never spurn any opportunity to win a trophy, I think it's also reasonable to ask exactly what people would have done differently. Simply saying "have a go" or "show a bit of passion" isn't sufficient because those are meaningless phrases. The question here is...how?
The problem for Moyes essentially boiled down to the fact that he had no midfield available to him. He lost Edimilson Fernandes, Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble to the West Ham annual Christmas injury bug, and Manuel Lanzini to a suspension after he was found guilty of diving whilst playing for a team with a turnover of less than £150m. Similarly absent were Josh Cullen and Reece Oxford who are on gap years somewhere getting their hair braided on the Inca trail, and Michail Antonio was declared unavailable by our medical team after it was confirmed that this game would last longer than an hour.
So before he even began Moyes was shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic, and his answer was to hand starts to a pair of eighteen year old kids in Declan Rice and Domingos Quina. Alongside them was Obiang and they sat in front of a back five where Cresswell was pushed into service as a right wing back because Sam Byram has hamstrings made of blancmange and Pablo Zabaleta has bingo at Help the Aged on a Tuesday. To say we were under strength doesn't quite cover it. I didn't see a lack of effort on the pitch, but more a startling lack of ability.
Declan, you go here, Aaron, you go here...
As such, we battled manfully enough, but with no creativity in the middle we kept running into problems once we got past the halfway line. Our sole opportunities came when Arthur Masuaku was on the ball and was able to run with it. Beyond that, we were reduced to aimless punts in the direction of Chicharito, and generally hoping that we might get a corner and smuggle one in.
For his part, I didn't think that the Mexican did enough to hold the ball up, and instead spent too long trying to run off the shoulder of the last defender. That's not proper forward play, and unless you have some pretty accurate long range passers in key positions, is destined to fail - and we had James Collins and Declan Rice.
Ironically, the one time Chicharito did get in behind, he latched on to an Obiang through ball and was immediately bundled over by one of Chambers or Holding (I couldn't tell them apart). It was a certain foul, and possibly a discussion over a red card. Instead, referee Kevin Friend just ignored it and waved play on. Ho, hum, get the tin foil hats out again lads.
"There's the hum, young man where you from? Brooklyn number one
Native son, speaking in the native tongue
I got my eyes on tomorrow"
- Mos Def, "Hip Hop"
On a night of vanishingly few positives, and a literally vanishing Andre Ayew, I took some comfort from the performance of Domingos Quina. He started uncertainly, which is fair enough when you're up against players of the experience of Coquelin and Elneny, but I felt he grew into the game and showed some nice touches. He is diminutive in stature and clearly needs a bit more game time but I thought he showed enough to warrant further looks.
By contrast, I felt the game mostly passed Rice by, which is also fine because he's a centre back being asked to play in midfield and is also just eighteen. I can see why he gets in ahead of Quina, because he is versatile and more physically ready, but ninety minutes of passing the ball four yards sideways to Obiang didn't convince me that he has a future in midfield. To be honest, I'd rather he went on loan somewhere in the Championship for a month and got kicked around a bit and made his mistakes there instead of for us. I'll also note that I don't want him to have a season long kick-the-issue-up-the-road loan, like Reece Burke is having.
I must also confess that, particularly in this venue, it caused me to once more ponder the merit of sending Reece Oxford elsewhere. I suppose it's always true that on nights like this, players who aren't in the team can certainly improve a great deal.
With those two youngsters alongside him, Obiang was frequently overrun and so Ayew was often seen dropping back, and as a result we really struggled to get forward at all. it also highlighted that none of Ogbonna, Reid or Collins can distribute the ball, and really hammered home the benefot of having Fonte or Cresswell in there, simply so that the ball can be passed forward with an entire bloody rosary of Hail Mary's to accompany it. As you can see from this 11Tegen11 shot map, we managed a solitary effort at goal - a Cresswell free kick - and apart from that were reduced to cheering the half time penalties going in past the Gunnersaurus.
I mean, honestly, that's not even a shot map - it's a Subbuteo pitch with some gravy spilled on it. The goal was a cavalcade of shitness as Hart stayed rooted to his line, while our centre backs bumped into each other like they were blindfolded and drunk and playing party games, and Danny Welbeck popped up to shin the ball in after controlling it on his stomach. As a metaphor for the game itself, it was a little too on the nose if anything, and even the guys waving those annoying flags behind the goals did so a bit sheepishly.
And that was it. A League cup quarter final that circled the drain and disappeared without even the hint of an intervention. Not even the late, desperate decision to fling on Carroll and Sakho paid off as the latter was sulking and the former spent the entire time giving away fouls or being fouled. Sadly, the referee was adopting the old boxing adage of giving the edge to the team on the front foot, and thus ignored all of that. He also failed to do anything at all about Arsenal's timewasting and injury feigning in the last ten minutes - the only world class thing anybody did on the pitch all night. None of it made any difference of course, as we were so bad, but on a night when there was no beer on sale, and no spark on the pitch, it all just added to the irritation.
"Just wait 'til tomorrow
I guess that's what they all say, before they fell apart"
- New Order, "Regret"
But let's deal with something now, namely that this was a big game, and we never showed up. Context is important, and we can't ignore that we're in no position to sacrifice league points in pursuit of anything, but what this also signified for me was two things; firstly, that our squad is almost criminally weak, and that the death of the league cup as a credible competition is almost upon us.
The timing doesn't help. We are about to enter a period when our season will be determined, and we'll be playing five league games in fifteen days. We will have to play those fixtures without any help from January additions, because the game will all be over before they get here. So Moyes had to pick his poison and I can't argue with how he chose.
By contrast, a team like Arsenal actually need these games because it allows them to give playing time to fringe players. Between the league cup and the Europa League it's actually eminently possible for Wenger to give these guys a dozen games before Christmas, which is a nice way to keep your players happy. As such, this competition has become a godsend for those with bloated squads (the big clubs), and a nightmare for anyone trying to preserve ageing legs going into the woodchipper that is Christmas (everyone else).
What this has done then, is reinforce the point in the minds of chairmen and managers that the Premier League TV money of £80m is a far greater reward for a season's work than a cup victory. And while fans might disagree with that on a cellular level, we all also know that there is some truth in that. I hear plenty of fans arguing that they would take a Cup victory and relegation, but I have to assume that those people have not heard of Wigan. Sadly, even though I hate myself for typing it, it's not as straightforwardly binary as making that kind of choice. Fans forget that when you make a semi final now it's a two legged affair in January, when your knackered, depleted squad might very well lose 9-0 on aggregate to Manchester City, so even in that theoretical scenario it's not guaranteed that winning here would get us a trophy.
But what's also maddening about this, and the piece I sympathise with enormously, is that this is one of only two things we can win. As a mid table club, we are totally reliant upon cup competitions for actual silverware, and therefore to pack up and give up on half of our chances doesn't sit well. In fairness, I don't think it sat well with Moyes either, and as I've said above, I saw his stance as being one of necessity rather than ideology. But the fact is, West Ham are precisely the kind of club for whom the League Cup should be an aspiration. We should be too good to go down and too inconsistent to dream of much else, so this should be a target that we go after with all the zealotry of a Republican congressman cutting children's healthcare in an attempt to reduce his own taxes. But that's just not possible with this squad.
And even though I gave David Sullivan some credit for his hiring of Moyes at the weekend, I sincerely hope he spent this ninety minutes with his cheeks burning and his eyes on the ground. Look at the state of that midfield, David, and tell me you're proud of your summer's work. The folly and hubris of those purchases was laid bare as we ended this game with Ayew and Arnautovic in a three man midfield, and Rice as a wing back and even then our best hope of scoring was still our left back.
I thought it was telling that at the weekend, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe rotated his entire midfield for their game at home to Liverpool. Not that it did them any good, but the point remains. Other teams have depth where we have none, and it's going to be an incredibly long winter if that's not addressed, no matter how well organised our back four has suddenly become.
"But my mother always said you can forgive and forget, and expect that most promises won't be kept
I guess I gave credit where it wasn't deserved
Some brothers must have preferred not to keep their word"
- Jurassic 5, "Great Expectations"
Another day, another falling out with Diafra Sakho. I understand why he, and other fans, might be frustrated with his lack of playing time, but he's seemingly such a disruptive influence that I can understand why Moyes isn't prioritising his happiness over that of people like Ayew or Hernandez, who aren't openly campaigning to leave the club at least.
So, with the Senegalese apparently getting £50,000 every time he starts a league game, he has started...zero league games this season. All very Entertainment 720, for those of you who know your Parks and Recreation, and seemingly a sure fire way to piss off a player who you need.
Fifty grand to start!
It's not that I think we owe anything much to Sakho, given his propensity for disappearing when the going gets tough, but I just don't understand why he would be given this incentive and then actively prohibited from reaching it. He has been ignored all season, firstly in deference to Carroll and lately in favour of two midfielders turned forwards. I can see why he might be a bit pissed off, and think that was a deliberate attempt to avoid paying him his due.
In addition, the sad reality is that he is the only one of our actual forwards with the capabilities to do what Moyes clearly wants from his front men - namely, to run channels, hold the ball up and get about the pitch with more mobility than a trebuchet. But from where Moyes sits, I can certainly understand how little desire there would be to accommodate the wishes of a player who is openly determined to leave.
What a way to do business.
Up the other end Joe Hart had another one of those evenings where he didn't do anything wrong but he didn't do anything right, and he won't be back between the sticks on Saturday. There was a strange, slightly down moment when some fans started singing Adrian's name after Hart came charging off his line and was booked for - as far as I could tell - not touching Welbeck. I get that fans feel Adrian has been hard done by, but when that manifests itself in actively trying to undermine the confidence of the guy on the pitch then that's a bridge too far for me. I accept that this was a frustrating night, a Fast and Furious movie of a night, a One Direction members solo album of a night and a general waste of time. But we must be better than that.
After all, slagging off players generally has one outcome - it makes other players dislike the fans and the club. What do we think that Hart's mates in the dressing room think when they hear that? What about prospective signings, who are already wondering about joining a club with a near constant media circus surrounding us, a rehabilitating manager and an owner with a tendency to comment on them in the press? It's no wonder that Sullivan has to work harder than Antoine Griezmann's PR company just to get anybody through the door for a chat.
Come on folks - we're better than that. When I wrote my retro pieces about Ian Bishop, Trevor Sinclair and Jack Collison, the unifying feature was how all of them felt a connection with the wider West Ham fanbase that helped them in moments of darkness. I'm sure that there are plenty of other players who would state that they had the opposite experience, but the point does still hold, I think. We can make a difference, and we should try and make the difference a positive one. Otherwise, we're just wasting our time. We might as well stab the sea.