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

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Arsenal 4 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint"
- Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box"

I had a curious experience watching this game. I now coach my daughter's under 10 team - with a heavy focus on shot locations, Expected Goals and fun, but mainly shot locations - and we had a game at 1pm. So I duly recorded this match, avoided my heavily vibrating phone, and watched the game with a two hour delay, and no social media echo chamber to influence my thoughts. 

And after eighty minutes I was bordering on happy. Not only had we thoroughly dominated the first half, but after conceding an epically shit opening goal, we deservedly hauled ourselves back into the game with a thrilling equaliser from Marko Arnautovic. The flaws in the performance were obvious, and the unbalanced, lopsided squad was badly exposed at times, but there was a sense of resilience and purpose to our play that was never present under Slaven Bilic this season. If nothing else, we were finally throwing some punches back, and doing it all on a day that the rest of the world was determined would be a farewell party for Arsene Wenger. 

And then Declan Rice ducked. 


Farewell Arsene - don't suppose we could interest you in a flat in Hackney Wick?

Is it possible to lose a game of football by four goals to one and feel you were unlucky? If so, then this was it. Arsenal opened the scoring when Aaron Cresswell got close to Nacho Monreal at a corner in the same way that Australia is close to New Zealand, and the Spaniard duly took advantage. His well struck volley actually went just inside our post which threatened to open up the old debate about whether teams should have a man on the posts at corners. I say "threatened" because we actually had Arthur Masuaku stood right there up until the exact second the ball went in. The problem is that such prosaic notions as stopping shots hit straight at him are not Arthur's metier. 

Instead, Arthur chose this moment to announce his support for the thinking of the French Marxist philosopher, Paul Lafargue. Big Paul, as I imagine he was known to his friends, lived an eventful late nineteenth century life before penning the renowned essay "The Right to Be Lazy" in 1880. This would prove an influential document for both European Marxists and West Ham squads through the years. And so, as Monreal's shot arrowed towards young Arthur, there followed this exchange:

ARTHUR MASUAKU
(jumping inexplicably to one side)

The proletariat, betraying its instincts, despising its historic mission, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment!

JOE HART

Yeah, that geezer killed himself, Arthur.

And thus we went one down having spent most of the game up to that point being the side looking most likely to score. That's not to say that we were playing particularly well, but we simply exploited the complete inability of any of Arsenal's hopeless defenders to cope with balls over their heads. Thus, a succession of well directed long passes sought out Arnautovic, who used his pace and power to get into a number of dangerous positions. Unfortunately, none led to a goal, but it was an effective tactic in the circumstance, and rather more well thought out than some fans seemed to have given credit for. 

Yet, the problem with our current side is that it is a Jenga column of a team. Removing something from one location and replacing it further up just weakens the foundations completely. And so it was that Manuel Lanzini and, to a far lesser degree, Javier Hernandez arrived to shift momentum, only to leave gaps that would be mercilessly exposed by Arsenal as the light was dying. 

That we were playing at The Emirates today served only to highlight those flaws. The glorious sunlight couldn't help but transport us back those two short seasons to the Dimitri Payet inspired side who destroyed Arsenal on opening day in 2015. That was a side who were set up to defend and then launch spring loaded counter attacks that primarily flowed through our nascent superstar, but which were augmented by the excellent midfield cover of Reece Oxford and the ceaseless running of Diafra Sakho. All are gone now, their footballing gravestones the series of inadequate men brought in to replace them. No matter what you think about this game, the contrast between then and now was dragged out into the bleached sunlight today and paraded for all the world to see. Hubris, thy name is West Ham. 

***

"Now you're at the wheel, tell me how,
How does it feel? So good to have equalised"
- The Stone Roses, "Waterfall"

Before we drop too deeply into our traditional H List inspired malaise, let's just take a moment to enjoy the simple art of goalscoring. Has there been a more satisfying goal this season than Arnautovic's equaliser? Arsenal came at us after half time, and our complete inability to retain possession meant we couldn't get out of own half, but there was still some lingering sense that if we could ride out the barrage we might yet survive. And then after Arthur's "after you" there was that crushing sense of inevitability as another promising start was about to be frittered away. Another war lost for the sake of a stray bullet.

Love the man, bemused by the hair

On some days, you can sense a goal coming in the same way you can feel an oncoming storm. Imperceptible changes and shifts in pressure let us know that something is happening far off in the distance. A dark cloud, a chill breeze, a shot here, a cross there, on come the substitutes and up go the umbrellas. 

Well, that wasn't happening here. 

Lanzini and Hernandez arrived and more men went forward. It left us terrifyingly open at the back, and highlighted even more starkly, the total absence of defensive midfield cover in this side. But with men pushed forward we had a chance to keep a few second balls alive and from one such piece of broken play, Lanzini flicked through to a malingering Arnautovic who turned and drilled home a superb equaliser.

It was one of those perfect moments when it's just possible to forget everything else and live, there and then, in the sheer joy of the present. We have the worst owners in the Premier League, a terrible, ageing squad, a ground we all hate, and a schism the width of a running track between our supporters. In theory, we shouldn't, and indeed can't, compete with Arsenal. But those things are not football. They are paraphernalia. Those things inform and influence but they are not the game.

For the game is beautiful and brutal and unfair and glorious, and as our moody Austrian picked up that half chance and turned on his weaker foot and displayed supreme technique to rifle home a half chance, generating that satisfying snare drum sound as it hit the base of the net, well...well, then we were experiencing the joy of all life.

This season, hell the last two years, have been too short of those grab-your-mates-arm, fuckinghavethat, hairs on the neck, fall forward two rows, "Christ is this really happening" kind of moments. And the very fact that I feel obliged to write a section solely about the goal in a 4-1 defeat is the perfect embodiment of why Sullivan and Gold need to move on. It's like being pleased that your Grand National horse has their saddle on the right way round, immediately before they smash into Becher's  Brook.

So yes, I shall always think fondly of the time that Arnie punched back at The Emirates and brought the music to a sudden, record scratch halt at Wenger's farewell party. It's sad that it's come to this, but come to this it has.

And for twenty minutes thereafter, I thought I was watching our best away performance of the season.

And then Declan Rice ducked.

***

"If the businessmen will drink my blood, like the kids in art school said they would
Then I guess I'll just begin again"
- Arcade Fire, "Ready To Start"

As frustrating as this game turned out to be, I'm not sure what people were truly expecting. Arsenal haven't lost at home to anyone outside the Top Six all season, and with it being the beginning of Wenger's long goodbye, we continued our proud unbeaten 123 year run of being Britain's best party guests. Joffrey should have invited us to his wedding.


They've spent how much on Joe Hart?

But after all this, I don't know how many more times I can go to the well. Chicharito as the answer? He had ten touches after he came on and did nothing. He can't play on his own up top, and if we play with any more than one forward we expose our wildly underpowered midfield, and indeed, one thing that struck me on Sunday was how few of our players are good on both sides of the ball.

The ones who can attack are non-contributors defensively, our midfielders either don't have the legs (Noble), have legs but possibly not their own (Kouyate) or are a footballing graveyard where good moves go to die (Fernandes). The best is obviously Lanzini, who leads the high press well but shouldn't be asked to do too much more. Joao Mario is obviously a decent player who probably needs some time to adapt to English football, and is too rich for our blood. That said, his last 27 corners have all hit the first man so he is at least adapting to some West Ham traditions well enough.

So as much as I want a more adventurous, younger, more mobile, more tactically fluid side, I also accept that Moyes can't possibly be expected to extract that from his current squad. Anyone demanding a 4-4-2 has to acknowledge that the wide players in that formation have to defend. Therefore, you might pick Masuaku and Fernandes to do that, and suddenly you have Mario and Lanzini on the bench, and four at the back and Brighton are beating you 3-0 at home.

It's also sadly true that we have no options in central midfield. Noble was excellent here but needs younger, more mobile legs around him. Fernandes fits that bill, but suffers from the unfortunate drawback of not being able to play football, while Cheikhou Kouyate has declined so much I am going to nickname him "Sterling".

Whatever way I slice it, I find an imperfect squad yielding an imperfect team. It's all well and good to demand a more attacking team but when we commit more forward we end up shipping goals by the boatload, not helped by a goalkeeping situation whereby we'd be better off if we spliced our two options together and had one dive one way and the other take the opposite side.

But much of the issue with how fans feels seems to me to be a classic case of fans failing to appraise the evidence of their eyes and instead thinking in emotional terms of how they remember the players. The problem with that is that players decline so rapidly and so imperceptibly that it is almost impossible for fans to notice when we actually see them play so fleetingly. One of the great tricks of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure at Manchester United was his ability to sell players at the height of their powers, or right at the start of their decline. Beckham, Stam, van Nistelrooy, Ince and Cole were all moved on when it seemed they had something left to give, but were on the wrong side of the ageing curve.

Ask yourself when was the last time we did that? It's rare for us, primarily because we are usually buying those types of players, but also because as a club we have developed a fear of selling, when it would perhaps be wise to accept that some sales can actually be doubly useful because you can clear out declining players and get money back for them. The trick is knowing that they are declining before everybody else does. An analytics department would be useful here.

As it stands now, I would say that Kouyate is one such type. Other clubs may see him as being young enough to reclaim but I'd be prepared to take that risk. Cresswell might fit that description too, and Arnautovic probably does as well, although the club can't sell one of their few usable players. Ultimately we would have to trust the club to make that assessment because that institutional knowledge is critical - we know nothing of who is injured, who is declining physically, or who is becoming less productive as a result of minor tactical adjustments the manager wants to make. Ogbonna is a good example of a player who seemed lost and now should win Hammer of the Year, after some actual honest-to-God coaching.

My broader point is that when fans demand that the likes of Hernandez play more regularly, you can't just do that in a vacuum. It's not enough to argue that he has to start because he "guarantees goals", when all our sports science numbers might suggest he has lost a yard in pace, or Moyes has identified that a penalty box striker isn't much use for a team who don't get in the box very much. I'm just throwing those out there as possible reasons, but my broader point is that all of this stuff is linked and relevant. The fact that he was a good player when he was 26 is not.

***

"Feel the sunshine on your face, it's in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space"
- Blur, "Out of Time"

Fuck this descent into misery. Let's predict the future!

MAY 2018

We flirt with relegation by losing to Leicester but salvage it with a win over Manchester United at the London Stadium. We finish the season up with a 0-0 draw with Everton that is so bad it leads to Jeremy Corbyn proposing to renationalise football. 

With the season over the club announce David Moyes on a three year contract having publicly courted Arsene Wenger until he eventually emigrates to stop David Sullivan calling him. This appointment will ensure stability for around ten months before people start talking about an extension. When asked how the search for a new Head of Recruitment is going, Sullivan denies all knowledge of such a vacancy. He then announces that he and Jack will be attending the World Cup in Russia. 

JUNE 2018

It's season ticket renewal time! Benzema! Bacca! Rodriguez! Welbeck! 

You renew your season ticket, because you're an idiot.

We promptly sign Peter Crouch from relegated Stoke and Charlie Austin's one working knee from Southampton. David Gold gives a radio interview where he states that Financial Fair Play rules make it very difficult to bring anyone else in. Meanwhile, Burnley sign James Ward-Prowse for £30m.

England go out of the World Cup to Senegal. We are linked with every player having a good tournament for a minnow. This is fine, as those guys are always good signings. 

JULY 2018

We sign four players from Panama and Tunisia after they impress in their countries successful campaigns. In order to make this work we sell twelve players, including Jordan Hugill to Preston for £4m. That's how it works. 

AUGUST 2018

We eschew money spinning, useful tours to the US or Asia and instead play three games in Slovenia against Swedish amateur teams. We draw all three. Everything is fine. Only Declan Rice from the first team is actually doing any training, as the others are all either in traction after the World Cup, or on holiday in Mexico.

We open the season with a 6-1 defeat at Manchester City. Moyes and the players describe it as a good run out, leading me to wonder if they are aware the season has started. Newly promoted Wolves win 3-0 at the London Stadium before we get the show on the road with a 1-1 draw at Cardiff. 

Twelve minutes after the transfer window closes, Manuel Lanzini does his knee. 

SEPTEMBER 2018

David Sullivan is busy scouring the globe for out of contract players who we can sign as we finally get a win at home to Swansea with a late Noble penalty. Everyone would be feeling a bit down about our poor start but thankfully we have those flags around the pitch before matches. 

That architect finally gets round to looking at the possibility of redesigning the stadium. His report is one page long and contains two words. 

OCTOBER 2018

The new signings aren't working out brilliantly and are all on the bench, while Austin is in America trying to buy a new knee. James Collins and Pablo Zabaleta are our centre back pairing as we grab an unlikely win at Brighton, who fire Chris Hughton out of shame. 

Michail Antonio returns in the home draw with Newcastle where he nearly lasts to half time before injuring his hamstring. Gary Lewin pronounces himself happy with this progress. Crouch equalises with a minute to go and does the robot and then does a funny Tweet. We lose in the EFL Cup to, oh I don't fucking know, Swindon. 

NOVEMBER 2018

Everybody is injured. There are bodies everywhere. The Club release a statement referencing their unprecedented injury crisis for the tenth straight year.  Mired in the bottom three, Sullivan gives a well thought out, superbly judged interview to The Guardian announcing that if we can just get through to January we can fix it all then, and that Moyes was probably the wrong appointment but nobody else would come. 

We are somehow playing Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool in consecutive games. We lose them all except for Spurs, obviously, which buys Moyes an extra six months in the role. 

DECEMBER 2018

Karren Brady launches her Christmas cookbook, a range of specialist leggings for businesswomen and an album of corporate jingles. She launches this at 8pm on ITV on a Wednesday when we are gaining a surprising win at Fulham. 

We are away on Boxing Day, which is a coincidence, and lose 5-0 at Everton. We do at least welcome back Andy Carroll who tore his Achilles Tendon in the summer doing the Macarena in Tenerife. He plays 17 minutes and concedes 12 fouls. 

JANUARY 2019

Everything is fine! We win all our league games this month as our unprecedented injury crisis that we have every year finally abates. Austin scores four in four, including the winner at Newcastle where away fans now watch the game from a hot air balloon attached to the top of the stand. 


The Mike Ashley Stand

We win our 3rd Round Cup game at Bury live on the BBC who couldn't look any more unhappy about it. Our reward is an away tie at Manchester City. 

With the team surging to 12th and our injured players on the mend, Sullivan announces that no dickhead buys any players in January and instead announces a couple of loans for players who were top drawer on FIFA '15. Neither ever play for West Ham but cost the club £800,000 in agent's fees. This is fine.

FEBRUARY 2019

Doctors discover that Austin's knee is made entirely of chewing gum and he is ruled out for the season. This isn't an issue as Carroll is now returned from a back injury he sustained attempting to pick up a concrete bollard on a team night out in Dubai. 

We lose 5-1 at Manchester City in the fourth round of the Cup, which everybody agrees is a big improvement on the opening day game. The match is played at 10pm on a Saturday night for overseas television audiences. British rail services are so good that some West Ham fans don't get home until March. 

The Annual Accounts are released. The club made a profit of £76m. Nemanja Vidic signs as a free agent to cover for the injured James Collins. 

MARCH 2019

The East Stand at the London Stadium falls down in the middle of the night. It turns out that building a stadium for a two week event and then fixing it up with sellotape and Prittstick is sub optimal. As the Directors aren't in this stand they don't give a shit and agree to meet with the landlord at the end of the season to resolve the issue. 

For his part the Mayor says that he can't be held responsible for things like stands falling down and suggests that West Ham pay £140m to replace it. The case ends up in court at a cost of £25m in legal fees. The Mayor agrees to rebuild the stand, but fifteen feet further back. Sullivan agrees. We beat Wolves 4-1 in our annual "where the fuck did that come from?" away performance. 

APRIL 2019

We avert relegation for another year with two home victories over Burnley and Leicester. Both games finish 1-0 and contravene the Trades Description Act. 

Sullivan gives a well thought out, superbly judged interview to Sky Sports announcing that never again will the Club be in this precarious position and that if we can just get through to the next transfer window then everything can be resolved. In the background David Moyes can be heard sobbing. 

Meanwhile, West Ham Ladies have gone the season unbeaten. 

MAY 2019

We finish 15th.

It's season ticket renewal time! Ribery! Giroud! Bale! Sturridge!

You renew your season ticket, because you're an idiot...

3 comments:

  1. I wish I could take the same medication you must rely on because clearly it’s working.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Superb. You have redefined Gallows Humour. My son, being far wiser than me, says that all West Ham need to do within the limitations of the current squad, is to sneakily play with 12 men and hope no one notices. Would love to hear you expand on your views of s solution to the issues that you clearly outline so succinctly - agree almost entirely with what you say but can’t see beyond Ogbonna, Rice, Lanzini, Antonio and Arnautiovic as current players I’d keep.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers David - my solution would be to fire David Sullivan into the sun and appoint someone, anyone, else to do his job. More specifically we need younger players, with more mobility and better fitness records. I'd start there and work up.

      Delete