"So how could I ever refuse
I feel like I win when I lose"
- ABBA, "Waterloo"
Well then. How does one assess a match in which your team is at longer odds to win 1-0 than the opposition is to win 7-0? A game in which your team takes a half time lead and defends tenaciously, but ultimately loses late on and drops more precious points? An away fixture in which we have to measure our progress not through tangible rewards like points, but instead through more prosaic measurements such as how long it took to concede? Glorious defeats are still defeats after all, and lots of games like this litter the fixture lists of relegated teams. How can it be then, that I feel somewhat more positive about life than I did this morning? How can it feel like a win when we lost?
Can four people dressed like this really be wrong?
At the most base level, this is simply a result of us not caving and losing by the tennis scores that have been the customary outcome whenever we have gone up against bigger teams lately. In fairness, that hasn't tended to be the case away from home, where there is less onus on us to come out and attack and as such we can keep a better defensive shape. For fifty minutes here, we performed a very impressive impersonation of a top flight football team as we kept Man City at arms length and forced them into ambitious shooting from long distance. In fact, I haven't seen so many shots fly over a bar in such quick succession since I last made the mistake of going for a drink with my Polish mate, Pete.
But putting aside all of that, I think what was really the most encouraging part of all this was that there seemed to be clear evidence of a plan and a commitment to sticking to it by the players. Ask yourself, when did you last see that? Even the glorious high of that cup win at Spurs seemed to be driven by some kind of magic pixie dust that settled on a couple of players and took the crowd with them and just blitzed us through. And while we might not like to admit it, that can happen in knockout games when opposition players get distracted and start to focus on the weekend and teams can take risks they might not otherwise take. But here, we did it on a day when it really mattered. Whisper it, perhaps, but we looked a little like one of those old David Moyes sides.
"We all disagree, I think we should disagree, yeah
Is this it?"
- The Strokes, "Is This It"
But how excited can we really be about "it" when we lost the game? After all, eight minutes from a point might as well be eighty for all the impact it had on the league table. In fact, as a result of this weekend we are now below Crystal Palace in the league table despite the fact that they played the first month of the season using their ballboys as a back four.
My take is that we at last displayed some level of discipline in our defensive duties and, crucially, the team were prepared to trust the system and each other to carry it through. It wasn't pretty or terribly ambitious, but when your opposition literally have a billion more pounds than you to spend on their team then I don't really feel like that should be a factor. City players and Pep Guardiola can make all the snide asides they want about time wasting and parking the bus but when we are but a month removed from the nation state of Abu Dhabi demanding that Brighton and Bournemouth give them a larger share of the Premier League television money they can, quite frankly, fuck right off. And when they get there they can fuck off again, as the great Malcolm Tucker might say.
Parked the bus did we Fabian? Fuckety bye, son.
In fact, Pep, if you hope that more teams will attack you then why don't you give us David Silva and a wage cap? Until then, slip on your hipster Adidas sambas and your Northside t-shirt and piss off on your skateboard back to your cave of oil money bullion and stop telling teams with 5% of your resources how to play.
As it was, we went into this game in the middle of our customary winter injury crisis and emerged with yet another muscle injury as Cheikhou Kouyate limped off in the first half. All hail Gary Lewin! That withdrawal had a big impact as it pushed Antonio out wide where he was pressed into lots of defensive work, which is usually a prelude to something disastrous like a rip in the space time continuum or a new Robbie Williams album.
Oddly, Man City looked nothing like the glorious attacking force that we are used to seeing as they huffed and puffed their way through the first half, with lots of possession and territory but very little by way of clear cut chances. Indeed, the best chances of the half came when Antonio got free at a corner and was unable to guide a flick on into the roof of the net and Manuel Lanzini pounced on a loose ball to fire at Ederson. With just a minute to go, however, Lanzini and Aaron Cresswell worked a short corner to allow the latter a better angle with which to hit the first man. Instead, he surprised us all by finding an unmarked Angelo Ogbonna who thumped home an opener that might not exactly have been deserved but did not flatter us.
I realise that not everybody puts much faith in Expected Goals, but this map from Michael Caley pretty much adheres to my view of that first half and highlights the excellent defensive performance. There seems to have been some view of it as us playing a three at the back system, with Cresswell as a centre back and Antonio as the lone striker. I didn't see it quite that way, as I thought it was a traditional flat back four with the full backs tucked in very tight and the wide players instructed to get back and provide cover at every opportunity. Arthur Masuaku did this pretty well and also managed his customary thing whereby he made several long weaving runs upfield, going past three or four players, and then following them up with periods of play where he looked like he was in a Testimonial.
Unfortunately, we couldn't keep that level of solidity and eventually we were simply overrun by a team who possess brilliant attacking players at every turn. The winner came just eight minutes from time and was wonderful, as Kevin de Bruyne picked out David Silva at the back post with a ludicrously pinpoint cross, and the Spaniard athletically volleyed it home. Scant reward for all that effort, but evidence enough that the gulf in class was pretty wide.
The equaliser was truly the goal that sank us, as the longer we went without conceding after half time, the more we had to cling to. It came from a free kick awarded for a Fabian Delph dive (Delph, the last bastion of footballing morality) meaning it was a passage of broken play when there are players in the box who aren't normally there. And so it was that Jesus made a run and crossed for Nicolas Otamendi, of all people, to stab it home. Until that point, Adrian had looked fairly unbeatable in a way that Joe Hart has never yet done in claret and blue.
We still had a couple of half chances to snatch something when Marko Arnautovic broke late in the half but his first cross was too high for Antonio and his second was turned just past the post by Diafra Sakho. By such fine margins can relegation seasons hang.
"We're movin' up, we're movin' up
It's been a lot to change, but you
Will always get what you want"
- Two Door Cinema Club, "Something Good Can Work"
What really needs to happen now is that these brief elevations in performance levels actually need to start producing something. It's tough on David Moyes, who has not had a preseason and has inherited a team that look knackered, unfit and lacking in confidence, but there is no time for sentiment. Turning this around is a huge job, and these are spirited baby steps, but sadly, getting the team to perform to a level just below that of the opposition is still a recipe for going down. It is a sobering thought that for all of these small, incremental gains, we are currently in a worse position than we were under Avram Grant, Patron Saint of the Incompetent, at the same time in 2010/11.
The half time TV analysis of this game was interesting, as Jamie Carragher suggested that West Ham were deliberately not advancing from their defensive shape to engage City's attackers. What this ensured was that we left no space behind our defenders and instead kept them in front of us. This led to lots of pointless passing and those long range shots that Adrian was happy to wave into the stratosphere.
Now, I'm sure that Slaven Bilic tried to instil those sorts of plans in his players too, but to a layman like me it never looked like they stuck. Yet here was a defensive plan frustrating the worlds best coach and forcing him to switch to a 4-2-4 system that eventually overwhelmed us. While it may not have worked today, what games like this can do is give players confidence in their management staff that they have some workable ideas that will serve them better against lesser opposition in the future. Very few teams have a David Silva to turn to, after all.
This won't happen every week, Declan
I also have to hold my hands up and acknowledge that Declan Rice was more than worth his starting place. I have generally not joined in the clamour for young, inexperienced players to be thrown into the team, but the Irishman was outstanding here and stood firm against world class opponents. Certainly, Sergio Aguero seems to have gone off the boil - not the first man to pay the price for a long weekend in Amsterdam - but Rice was assured in his defensive work, even allowing for an early booking, and he deserves an extended run, if only because both Reid and Collins are so injury prone that the disruption caused by their frequent absences is an increasing problem.
The booking for Rice was interesting as referee Mike Dean refused to apply the same rigidity to his decisions for City defenders. Both Otamendi and Mangala should have been booked for first half fouls, which would have at least forced them to be a little more timid in their second half tackling. As they weren't, City just kept fouling us with impunity on the rare occasions we forayed forwarded. It's a little trick that served Ranieri's Leicester well in the season they won the league, and is an oft underplayed element of Premier League defending these days.
However, where we really lost out in the second half was in the way we dropped deeper and deeper, inviting them on to us with no real way out. Giving Antonio defensive responsibility is fraught with danger, especially when he is such a strong outlet at the other end. There is a dream I have where he and Sakho terrorise less progressive teams with their pace and power. However, even Arnautovic was sucked back into defensive roles and what that meant was we could never relieve pressure by advancing further up the pitch in possession. Lots of aimless balls went into the corners and by the end we were basically putting on a touring version of Zulu.
"Let me go on,
Big hands I know you're the one"
Violent Femmes - "Blister In The Sun"
One thing that was also different this week was that we had Adrian in goal. David Sullivan's £4m summer vanity project, known to his mum as Joe Hart and "Good try, Joe" to his defenders, was ineligible as he is technically still a Man City player, although Pep seems to have more time for Nathan Redmond than he does for Hart these days.
The Spaniard did nothing to deserve being dropped in the first place, and was excellent here again. Neither goal was his fault and he pulled off a number of excellent diving stops to keep us at parity. He has no weakness to his left, unlike Hart, and seems to inspire a certain level of confidence in the team that isn't there when the "England No.1" is between the sticks. It's a bit harsh to blame Hart as the defensive set up in front of him this season has been mostly imaginary, but it was still a vainglorious signing by Sullivan in an attempt to get some big names into his side to deflect criticism from his prior failures.
The folly of that policy was laid bare here, as it was tempting to imagine how that £4m of wages could have been better utilised as we got to seventy minutes and an exhausted Antonio desperately needed replacing and we had only untried youth players available.
There is a rumour doing the rounds that Hart has a clause in his deal that demands he is played when he is available, and if so, he'll return on Saturday against Chelsea. I don't blame him for that, by the way, as this is a World Cup year and he couldn't run the risk of losing his England place due to not playing. However, for us to agree to that is ludicrous. He was never anything more than a minimal upgrade over Adrian, at best, and by not playing the Spaniard we have cost him his own chance of regaining his position as 3rd choice Spanish keeper. Given that, he will be off at the earliest available opportunity, and who can blame him. What a nonsense.
This is the kind of crap that so frustrates me about the way the club operate off the field. A completely unnecessary signing that wasted valuable funds in a transfer window where Sullivan presumably knew he was going to be significantly reducing our net spend. I'm sure it's tedious for you all to hear me vent about this, but we are teetering very close to a catastrophic situation for the club and the hubris of Sullivan in believing he is suited to overseeing the situation is a huge factor in that. Take the injury to Kouyate - the continual loss of first team players to muscle damage should be a huge warning sign to a thoroughly modern club. A qualified Director of Football would be investigating that and demanding an upgrade to performance in that area. Sadly, at West Ham, unless a question can be resolved with a phone call to an agent, it simply doesn't get asked.
Interestingly, a reader asked me on Twitter during the week what were my criteria for a Director of Football and I struggled to answer because of the character restriction. This in itself is telling, because it should be a huge job that encompasses broad and wide ranging responsibilities across the club, with responsibility for lots of different staff members.
I would start by saying that the departments of recruitment, scouting, analytics, sports science, medical, player development (Academy) and player welfare should all report to that position. It's a role that requires an ability to manage across a wide area and has a pseudo CEO look because delegation and flexibility seem key to me. Rather than hiring an ex manager who is looking for a short cut back to the dugout, the person would probably be someone with a business background and experience in sport, without any requirement to have played the game at a high level. Perhaps most importantly of all would be the requirement that this person shape the philosophy for the entire organisation. It's hard to overstate how demoralising it can be to work somewhere with no direction and no obvious plan for the future. Employees like certainty and structure - even those at football clubs.
What I wouldn't suggest is a club chairman with five relegations to his name, who never leaves his house or speaks to junior staff and holes himself up in his office ringing agents until 4am trying to drive down loan fees for players that any reasonable analyst could tell him won't fit his side.
I'm sorry for continuing to bang this particular drum, but in this odd time we live in where the club appear to be canvassing opinion from every possible corner, the single best thing West Ham fans could do right now would be to turn their attention away from the lack of places to rest their pints at half time on the concourses and demand some proper corporate governance and leadership from those who own the club.
"Don't give me love or, no, none of that stuff
Cos, it's yer money I'm after, baby"
- The Wonder Stuff, "Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More"
So as we leave today behind and look forward, we return home for back to back games with Chelsea and Arsenal. The former seem a bit more mortal this year, and probably represent our best hope of getting something even though Eden Hazard's return to form seems a bit terrifying.
But perhaps the most interesting part of our return back to the stadium is the report that was issued by the Mayor's office last week into the costs around the conversion of the Olympic Stadium to its current state. Jon Lines writes a good review of the situation at Brace The Hammer which fills in a lot of blanks you may have. I've added a few bits here, but where I get anything wrong please let me know. It's a complex area and I have really only skim read the report. But a lack of expertise certainly didn't stop any of the people involved in the deal so I'm not worrying either.
The report, by Moore Stephens, should be read through the prism of the political situation in London at present. The games were won under the Labour Mayor, Ken Livingston who made the decision - along with Tory Seb Coe - that the stadium would maintain an athletics track after the games and that no concessions would be made to the desire of Premier League teams to be involved in the process. This fateful decision would end up costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions, as it would become evident in later years that a stadium with no anchor tenant would be the white elephant the British bid had promised not to leave behind.
Ironically, IOC President Jacques Rogge would later state that there was no firm requirement for an athletics track to be retained as part of the stadium design, confirming that at least in some part, this was an ideological decision on behalf of former Olympic champion, Coe.
Thereafter, the political landscape changed as Boris Johnson was elected Mayor, meaning that the entire world could watch our opening ceremony and say "My God, he's their Mayor?". Johnson would reopen the stadium issue once again by seeking an anchor tenant to provide a greater legacy than a 25,000 seater athletics stadium that would likely rust in the London rain. In 2011, he selected West Ham as that tenant with an agreement that we would effectively take over running of the stadium, with responsibility for the costs of conversion and maintenance in exchange for retaining all profits associated with the deal.
This proposal, as revealed in the report, was markedly different to the version we have now and essentially involved West Ham agreeing to play in the Olympic Stadium as was, athletics track and all, with a canvas roof above. I don't know either.
However, fellow bidders Spurs and Leyton Orient and an anonymous complainant would appeal this decision, quoting EU State Aid rules (oh, the irony). Amid a feverish political climate, Johnson shelved that idea in between insulting some foreigners, and re ran the bid process with the central plank being that the Government would retain full ownership of the stadium and run the business profitably for the taxpayer. This would mean that a tenant such as West Ham would gain access to the ground for a small number of days each year, with the rest of the time being taken up with other profitable events to make money for the taxpayer.
In reality those appeals from Spurs and Leyton Orient saved West Ham hugely, as the reality of playing in the stadium with next to no money spent on conversion would have been horrendous. What they also did was cost the taxpayer an incredible amount as those costs would later spiral wildly, as West Ham's demands increased substantially now that we weren't paying for it. The decision to rerun the bid process would generate huge costs for the taxpayer - a point that the current Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was looking to highlight with the publication of this report.
Even more ironic was that Spurs never had any particular desire to move to Stratford, but instead merely wanted to use it as a stalking horse to get the Mayor to commit to providing funding for their own stadium redevelopment in Haringey. That was successful as they are now receiving tens of millions of public money to assist with their project - you'll remember that irony I mentioned earlier - and had the added effect of convincing Karren Brady to commit to keeping the athletics track as part of West Ham's bid.
My own feeling is that West Ham were, not unreasonably, concerned that if the Spurs bid were to be chosen and if they were to move into Stratford it could signal the end of our dominance of the East London and Essex catchment area. As such, they sought to differentiate themselves by committing to the track, even though grounds that have done this are usually as atmospheric as morgues. What does become clear reading the report is that the fan experience is not central to anything that has been done with the stadium.
Fast forward to 2017, and what the report is showing is that the deal West Ham negotiated is so ludicrously one sided that the best projected year for E20 - the company running the stadium for the Greater London Authority - is a ten million pound loss. Much of this is due to the fact that West Ham's annual rent is £2.5m, when the cost of running the ground is closer to £11m. Additionally, the famous retractable seating has proven to be a disaster, with the company contracted to deliver it going bust and the replacement system required at short notice for the Rugby World Cup an expensive exercise. West Ham fans will also realise that it doesn't retract. Johnson's fingerprints are all over that process too.
The summary of the report is essentially that the current situation is not tenable, with so much public money being used to prop up a poorly negotiated, one sided deal that hurts the taxpayer. The problem with that is there aren't any terribly good options available. Sadiq Khan has announced that his office will take control of the stadium from E20 which I suspect will mean a squeeze on any of the services provided by the landlord. Expect to see stewards, safety officers, security officers and any other staff reduced as much as legally possible by the Mayor. Great news for fans.
In Jon's summary article above he suggests that West Ham will inevitably end up paying more due to Khan's desire to rescue the situation. I disagree with this, largely because there isn't anything Khan can do to renegotiate the deal unless he offers up something in return. That might be a greater slice of naming rights or a reduction in the amount due to the Treasury in the event they sell the club. Therefore, Khan can talk about a new deal but in all likelihood nothing much will change. There may be an attempt to leave the stadium in athletics mode after the next event, but presumably that will be met with a strong legal challenge from West Ham on the grounds that they will have sold season tickets to fans in those seats.
Given all of that, and there is a whole load more to this which I'd encourage you to read about on this excellent thread at KUMB, I can only really see a long term solution whereby we take over the stadium. Let's face it - the Mayor could save millions for the taxpayer now simply by giving Sullivan and Gold the keys. Of course this won't happen because the political nature of the situation prevents it, but it does it mean there is going to be a public focus on the costs of the London Stadium. Generally, such PFI arrangements can be loss making forever, but now that Khan has made it so public I do wonder if something will happen further up the line.
There is then a question as to exactly why Sullivan and Gold would ever bother to take on the ownership of a ground when they could stay as they are and reap all of the same benefits for just £2.5m a year. But while there are plenty who will think that this is a great deal for West Ham, it should be noted that I don't support a balance sheet, and what's good for our owners hasn't generally translated into good things for the team, and furthermore West Ham fans are taxpayers too, and have every right to be as outraged as anyone else about this appalling waste of public funds.
Should the owners buy or acquire the ground, I don't see them investing in making it the arena for football that we want to be with proper retractable seating and (somehow) a steeper rake for the stands. But, if they were to own it, then it would make the purchase of West Ham a far more attractive proposition for external investors. It's a long way to go from where we are now, but in the longer term I can't really see that it's palatable to the public purse - and those Newham resident West Ham fans who saw their council chuck £40m into the pot - to continue setting fire to ten million quid a year. If they were going to do that they could have just bought us Robert Snodgrass last January and called it quits. Nothing will happen quickly, but something will happen there. Keep an eye on it.