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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

West Ham 3 - 0 Crystal Palace (And Other Ramblings)

1. Time For Heroes

Prior to this game, if someone had asked me to describe the atmosphere at the London Stadium this season, I would have said it was as though a great blanket of negativity had gradually, slowly enveloped the ground over a period of months.

Going to games has been difficult with the transport not up to scratch, the stewarding largely a nightmare, dealing with the ticket office a brief venture in haphazard psychosis and the games themselves being largely dismal affairs played out on a pitch that is miles away from most fans.

And as time has passed, it has gradually dawned on us, that blanket has slowly settled on our heads, that none of that is going to change.

We're always going to have to queue for the trains for ages, we're never going to be able to generate that same Upton Park roar, and as much as we might will it to happen, that pitch isn't getting any closer. This is it.

And amidst that backdrop there has been so much else to be negative about. The transfer disasters, the insipid football, the Board generally dismaying fans with an alacrity that Martin Cearns could only dream of, and now Dimitri Payet turning his back on us.

He didn't even get injured

I hope you don't judge me too harshly then, when I tell you that I skipped this game. I just couldn't take it. I've read this book before folks and I knew how it ended. Big Sam in town, Allardycing us to death in a lousy 2-0 defeat while Palace fans sang Payet songs into the cold January evening.

For 70 minutes I felt pretty justified in my decision, as the game was a stifling mess, bereft of the sort of touches that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named would usually bring to the stage.

But football is a wonderful, unpredictable, changeable mistress and she was no different here. Mark Noble was recalled for this game, as a kind of Cockney counterpoint to Payet and he released Michail Antonio into Payet's now vacated inside left channel. Wayne Hennessey was so distressed by this that he came charging off his line with the kind of speed you only usually see from Payet when he spies his wife is flicking through his phone, and with that rush of blood came the opening we craved. Antonio skipped past the crazy fucker and crossed to a possibly offside Sofiane Feghouli, who clearly can't be trusted with anything further out than two yards, and we were in.

The drama is draining and the negativity a constant weight on all our shoulders, but nothing beats a goal. The release was palpable from 10 miles away.

Forget the circus - a weight had been lifted.

2. The Good Old Days

Being one nil up against Sam Allardyce teams is a nice place to be. For 70 minutes his tactics worked superbly as his 5 man midfield forced us into long periods of nothingness, and everything seemed set for the inevitable late Palace winner.

But once behind, Allardyce teams look lost. Told to sit in and frustrate the opposition, it is hard for them to expand on that and throw off those shackles in pursuit of a goal. He's only had Palace for four games and it shows, as they pushed forward and we picked them off with pleasing ease. For a brief moment it was easy to forget about Payet and Zaza and the fact we have no right back, and instead imagine that it was 2015-2016 all over again. Crowd noise, an atmosphere, a genuine striker and West Ham counterattacking like Napoleon at Austerlitz.

If the Feghouli goal was a slight loosening of the pressure valve, then Andy Carroll's goal smashed it open and nailed it to the sky. Noble, Lanzini and Antonio combined once more down the Payet channel, but the latter's cross looked largely optimistic.

Not so said our pissed Geordie octopus, who backed away and fashioned a frankly incredible bicycle kick that was fit to grace any game of football. The ball flew into the roof of the Palace net with the velocity and accuracy of a Patriot missile, and six months of frustration was vented into the skies above East London. Sam Allardyce would later describe this with his customary good grace as a "goal we gifted to them". Hokey dokey Sam, have another pint of wine.

I'm gutted I missed it. Even on a shaky looking stream the place looked to be rocking, and everything I've read since only confirms it.

Good. We deserve it. In a season of unremitting gloom this was as welcome as seeing Diego Costa fall out with Antonio Conte after two days of hearing about Payet from lifelong Chelsea fans, who think football was invented in 2003 and that Mickey Hazard is something to do with Rohypnol.

3. The Man Who Would Be King

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Payet's Paul Ince homage has been Manuel Lanzini, who has suddenly become a playmaker destined to benefit from the opportunity to play without Payet. This is a bit barmy, as at least one benefit of a player like Payet is that he draws defenders to him and leaves space for players to Lanzini to exploit.

The Argentine's best performance in a West Ham shirt came at Chelsea last year when his ability to break from midfield was crucial, and should have seen us win comfortably. However, that day he had Kouyate all over the place alongside him, and Payet and Cresswell destroying Chelsea down the left.

This season he has been in and out of the side, with injuries and form being a problem, as well as trying to find a place to fit him into a misfiring midfield. His best turns have been playing deeper, alongside Obiang and using his dribbling to carry us forward. In other words, the glowing accolades suddenly bestowed upon him haven't exactly matched the reality of the matches.

"Hold me. I'm knackered"

Here he was given licence to roam, with Payet absent and Noble and Obiang behind him to provide ballast, and he was outstanding. His quickness of foot is wonderful, and when the time came to do something, anything, in the final third it mostly fell to him to do it.

His goal was a thing of simple, devastating beauty. The corpse of Loic Remy was raised from the dead by Allardyce for this game, and in the space of a few seconds he lost the ball in our box, and between Reid and Antonio, suddenly Lanzini was breaking free. He carried it to the edge of the box before dinking it over Hennessey - who by this stage had had quite enough of this shit - with impish brilliance. It was a perfect goal to seal a game and the perfect fuck you to Payet, Marseille, agents, Chelsea and all the other evils of the world.

After his 80 yard sprint he then carried on and jumped into the crowd to celebrate, meaning that the overall distance run on the goal was something like two miles.

I can see why fans want to latch on to Lanzini as the perfect replacement for Voldemort, but I'd urge some caution. He seems to function best when paired with others - previously Payet, and here Feghouli - and we'll need to put some equivalent talent around him to get the best out of him. I'm sure that sounds familiar, but I can't figure out why.

4. Don't Look Back Into The Sun

The off the field battle was almost as interesting here as the stuff on the pitch. Bilic has actually beaten Allardyce in both their meetings, and here he did well to adjust on the fly to the Palace tactics.

The first half was largely tedious, with a half chance for Carroll and a golden opportunity for James Tomkins that he Feghoulied wide from about 8 inches.

At half time Bilic introduced a lesser spotted right back and suddenly off we went. Michail Antonio, who had a temperature of 101 on Friday and was rewarded for his determination to play by being stuck out at wing back again, was released to play alongside Carroll and suddenly we were in business. Sam Byram might not be the answer at right back, but he's a better answer than any of other options, and the simple presence of an outlet ball was disproportionately pleasing after a season of watching a succession of square pegs jamming up that particular hole.

The truth is that if we played this game again tomorrow we might just as easily lose. I don't think we were noticeably that much better than Palace but we took our chances, and our manager showed an ability to get his team to play in more than one fashion. You might also reasonably argue that those two fashions were "bad" and "good" but that in itself might sum up the Bilic/Allardyce comparison perfectly.

Palace played okay but never looked like they could transcend that. We were crap and good in the same game. That wild fluctuation seems to be a Bilic trademark as opposed to the steadiness (or tedium, depending on your viewpoint) of Allardyce.

This is really how I view these two. Allardyce can get a team into a certain range in the league and probably not much higher unless he has a lot of time or money. Bilic seems capable of getting higher, but also carries the risk of finishing up lower too, as we are seeing this season.

In the long term it doesn't matter much as Allardyce doesn't manage us anymore, but it felt like an interesting counterpoint, and Bilic deserves credit for the way he changed things up and altered the seemingly inevitable flow of the game.

5. Heart Of The Matter

Mark Noble had an interesting day. He is a lightning rod for those who would affect wild and sweeping changes on the team, with most seeming to think that his lack of pace is career limiting, but on days like these his qualities are evident.

Just got a text in from Vernon Kay, lads

I'm not sure he should be playing ahead of the Kouyate-Obiang-Lanzini axis, but here he did what he does very well. He tackled, worked hard, chivvied and played one or two sublime passes to create the first half chance for Carroll and the through ball that released Antonio for the opener.

His pace is waning, and at this point he has all the speed of Jeremy Hunt answering his phone on a Sunday, but he still has plenty to offer the side. The willingness to get on the ball and make passes, and take responsibility in a struggling side is a significant plus. It strikes me that in a team so low on confidence that it is odd to criticise a player who is willing to do that with regularity. Noble never hides and on days like Saturday that is important, when it feels like an opening will never come, and the tension is palpable.

His role might need to change over the next couple of seasons, but in this week of all weeks it's hard to dispute that the man is committed to the cause.

Also, anyone prepared to lift up a ball boy by the bib deserves some patience.

6. What A Waster

Goodbye then Simone Zaza. We hardly knew ye, except for the fact that you once took a penalty for Italy whilst riding a unicycle, and you have tattooed knees. The issue of Zaza is curious as it seems to be simultaneously the fault of David Sullivan that he failed, due to the ludicrous pressure of being asked to prove himself in 14 games, whilst the chairman also gets credit for not wasting £20m on a player who couldn't find the net with shoal of fish.

In retrospect, the whole Zaza saga reflects poorly on the Club. We signed him late in the summer when it became clear that our ploy of telling everyone that "we've got a load of money and baby we intend to spend it" somehow didn't end up with us being offered top players at knockdown bargain prices.

Thus Zaza arrived, and I have no idea if he was ever a real target, but he played because everyone else was already injured. It was September after all.

I really have no idea how he was ever supposed to fit into our system. He never showed the mobility to play as a lone striker and his link up work was decidedly patchy. I refuse to believe that he was as crap as he looked, but I think he was also symptomatic of the panicky nature of our summer business. Along with Ayew he seemed to have been brought in for entirely the wrong reason. Ayew to keep Payet company in the canteen and help him argue for TV Monde5 to be on the dressing room telly, whilst Zaza was simply there because he was available. That's a bad sign and a poor reflection on Bilic for agreeing to it. Sadly, I suppose the natural in house replacement - Antonio - was already been deployed at right because of his own managerial fuckwittery, meaning he probably felt he had little choice.

As it is, he is off to Valencia and will probably bang one in against Barcelona soon. C'est la vie.

7. What Became Of The Likely Lads

Two weeks into the transfer window and I'm still trying to balance my opinion on us not having made any panic signings yet. Clearly I am against us doing stupid things in the transfer window - paying £15m for 35 year old Jermain Defoe would be a textbook example of that - but I also do acknowledge that we need some help. Moreso now that Payet has turned footballing quisling.

The thing about Antonio being brilliant on Saturday, and Byram being healthy is that it could easily convince Bilic et al that there is no need to bring in reinforcements. The reality is that most projections for the rest of the season give us about a 2% chance of going down, which doesn't seem that ridiculous as Hull are Hull, Sunderland are also Hull and Swansea have the defensive solidity of Donald Trump's iCloud password.

So I can see the temptation to stay put, tempered with the knowledge that if we do, Byram and Carroll will be involved in a tragic hoovering accident on February 1st and our cover for both of them is the same player.

It's a bit like seeing Katie Hopkins on television. On one hand that's a reason to perforate your own ear drums, but on the other you're also thinking that there's a chance someone might see her and take the opportunity to rob her house. That's a tough choice, and one you shouldn't even have to be thinking about in the first place. Much like buying Jermain Defoe.

Oh look. A fucking idiot

I can't really decide what I want from this transfer window. I see little value and the reality is that we're not in much danger any more. All things considered I'd rather that they didn't make any moves and kept the money for someone sensible to make some decisions in the summer. Given that will never happen, I expect to shortly see Defoe and Glen Johnson holding scarves above their head on the West Stand concourse, with the touchline twinkling in the distance behind them. 

8. Campaign Of Hate

All of which reminds me that this weeks events have rather neatly detracted away from that nascent anti board movement that was springing up. Despite me thinking they don't seem to know what they're doing, I generally can't fault the board too much. I grew up with the Cearns family, Terry Brown and the  broke Icelandic billionaires. I have seen things. I remember.

The problem has never struck me as one of penny pinching or general cheapness - although I'm more sympathetic to that view the more time I spend in the stadium - but more a lack of thought over how their money is spent. But those failures of judgement around how to run a Club pale into insignificance next to the prospects we faced before they took over. Intellectual heavyweight Scott Duxbury was hosting barbecues and planning for the Champions League whilst failing to notice that new Director of Football, Gianluca Nani, only had one phone number in his book - that of his old club, Brescia. In short, we were fucked.

We've had rank incompetence and borderline criminal negligence in the past and what we have now is different. Most paint the new West Ham as a slick, new brand focused corporate monolith with no soul and a desire to treat us as customers. You can take whatever side you want on that, but that deviousness has come in handy this week.

The more I hear about the Payet business, the more I think the Club have done pretty well. My initial response to be flabbergasted that we would banish him to the reserves whilst telling the world that he wanted to go. This seemed destined to crash his transfer fee, and put us on to the back foot.

However, at that point I didn't know he was on strike, and by doing this they've pretty much cornered him and his agent. He can't now pretend to be injured as nobody will believe him, and the Club can leave him unselected and save themselves plenty of cash by fining him for being on strike.

Tonight we learn that Payet's wife and children are already back in France, leaving him with the prospect of living apart from his family whilst not being paid and being called a mercenary arsehole by model footballers Robbie Savage and Chris Sutton. What's odd about that is that he doesn't seem to want to go for money, he just seems to want to go back to Marseille, which I think most West Ham fans would find eminently understandable.

If I was Payet I would fire my agent and replace him with someone more capable - like Natasha from The Apprentice who said “Do you know what guys, I can’t find my underwear. Just trying to work out if it will be any benefit to us whatsoever.” - and begin mending some fences. 

Dimi's new agent

I cannot for the life of me work out why he didn't just announce he was homesick and wanted to go home, but promise to stay until the summer so as not to leave us in the lurch. His manager was the inventor of that bullshit! The Club could have worked in the background with Marseille to structure a deal and he could have left a hero, not that he gives a shit but it has to be at least slightly better than what he has now. 

The word is that Marseille have today upped their initial £19m bid to £20m which I find hilarious, and just about the most David Sullivan thing ever. I'm not sure they actually have enough money to afford Payet, and if they don't then he really doesn't have much choice but to try and come back into the fold.  

I still think this saga might have some legs left. Unlike Dimitri if he tries to buy a pint in The Carpenters anytime soon, mind you. 

9. Can't Stand Me Now

One thing to consider about Payet, however. Don't be swayed by this belief that we don't need him solely on the basis of one good game. He leads the team in key passes per game this season with 4.1 per game. Next is Lanzini is 1.3 (all stats per WhoScored.com) and thereafter it's a fucking wasteland. That is a huge creative component suddenly removed from the side, and it's not an easy thing to replace. Feghouli might well be a capable replacement in the longer term but he's a very different type of player and he also can't score unless he's behind the goalkeeper so that hampers his effectiveness somewhat.

We are off to Middlesbrough on Saturday and you might remember that we required the goal of the season to score against them in the first game. I don't care if you think Carroll's goal was better than Payet's - you are wrong. Payet had to do several things brilliantly, whilst Carroll did one thing. If we're one down after an hour again, you might find yourself casting wishful glances at the left wing and wishing that a certain Frenchman wasn't being a dickhead.

10. The Saga

I'm exhausted after all that, so here you go. Here's a Libertines song in honour of those who stayed and fought on Saturday and gave us something back. Not to be melodramatic but we needed that. And don't look now but we've only lost 2 of our last 7 Premier League games.

Thanks West Ham, I cherish you, my love.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

West Ham And The Fallen Hero

Ever fallen in love with someone?
Ever fallen in love?
In love with someone, ever fallen in love
In love with someone, you shouldn't have fallen in love with?
- The Buzzcocks

Oh Dimitri. Say it ain't so. Not you. We've got a memorable song for you and everything.

At this point, the only surprising thing about Payet wanting to leave West Ham is that he didn't somehow injure Andy Carroll as he handed in the transfer request. 

The Broken Bridge

What a Stygian set of affairs. What a fuck up. What a disappointment. 

From the point that he smacked in that last minute winner for France in the opening game of Euro 2016 it has felt different. I suppose it's not hard to see why. At that moment, in the host country, in a city still reeling from terrorist atrocities, Dimitri Payet scored a wonder goal and elevated himself beyond West Ham and into the footballing stratosphere. By the time he struck, Pogba and Griezmann had already departed the stage and it was the kid from La Reunion who became a national hero. Suddenly he was being talked about as a transfer target for Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain. We had all hitched our wagon to his star, with no notion of quite how far he would take us. 

On British TV Slaven Bilic was celebrating on an ITV table and somehow we convinced ourselves that this demonstrated a bond between them, or was symbolic of Payet being one of our own. The boy from La Reunion was now the boy from Loughton. Except in retrospect it now looks like Bilic was prostrating himself before a departing son. 

After Euro 2016 things suddenly took a turn for the strange. Payet wasn't popping up in the Club's endlessly cheery summer updates, nor was he playing in any pre-season games. His post tournament rest period went on so long that he wasn't fit to start our opening league game at Chelsea, and then was absent until the infamous Watford game on September 10th. Tellingly this was after the transfer window had closed, giving credence to the notion that he was unsettled even back then.

Naturally we started the season with all the impetus of a Jeremy Corbyn policy launch and by the end of September had lost four games in a row and five of our first six. If Payet was disaffected when the Club refused to sell him during the summer, then it's hard to imagine his mood being improved as Arthur Masuaku and Simone Zaza arrived and promptly started losing balls in the lake behind the goal at training. 

The Ruby In The Smoke

Thereafter followed his wonder goal against Middlesbrough when he scored the best individual goal I have seen since Di Canio's volley and he briefly seemed to be the energised talisman of last year. Looking back at old columns I can see that I described it thusly:

The H List - 3.10.16 - Middlesbrough

If you haven't seen this goal, stop reading and go and do it now. If you want yet more persuasion, imagine Beethoven being at a Robbie Williams concert and thinking "thank fuck I'm deaf", before walking on stage, pushing the fat prick off the side and sitting down and playing Symphony No.5 in full. That's what it was like.

The problem was that even though Payet seemed to have been reborn somewhat, the team were spiralling. The awful start had scuppered any fanciful notions of the Champions League, and with our summer signings being very Poundworld when they needed to be Waitrose it was hard to imagine any scenario in which we would be able to get Payet to stick around.

If there is one thing that football fans specialise in, however, it is widely misplaced optimism and thus there wasn't a widespread sense of fatalism. Most fans seemed distracted by the transfer failings, the stadium failings, the public communication failings and well, whatever failing we wanted to focus on. There was no shortage.

A memory of better times. October. 

Payet had been worrying me all season though, and I wrote this after the League Cup quarter final defeat at Man Utd. 

However underwhelmed he is by the team around him, he has to get on with it. I have written before that his sale was inevitable once it became clear that we were going to be a bottom half team this season, but what we cannot afford now is for Payet to go into a tailspin in pursuit of a move in January.

Please note, I'm not including this to make myself look prescient. I get stuff wrong constantly. I once described Gerard Pique as "presumably having a football career as a result of winning a competition on the back of a cereal packet" and Lassana Diarra as "being made entirely of pasta". 

The point is more that I write The H List in the immediate aftermath of each game and therefore the articles are supposed to reflect the emotional journey of being a West Ham fan. One week you're down, the next week you're down a bit further. That's how it goes. Reading back over the season so far there seems to have been plenty of games where Payet visibly looked distracted, half arsed and uninterested. By the time we got to Arsenal things seemed to have reached a nadir, although with West Ham that is always a dangerous thing to assume:

Farewell Payet then. I've said it for a few consecutive performances but he doesn't seem terribly perturbed by events unfolding around him.

By the time we got into the next transfer window, it simply seemed a matter of time:

Maybe I'm doing him a disservice, but Payet hasn't looked as sharp this year as he did last, and by the end of this game he was walking around with his hands on his hips like Robert Duvall on that beach in Apocalypse Now. I'd personally give him a rest on Friday night, as the last thing he needs now is another energy sapping defeat at our soul sapping stadium. If nothing else, none of this is helping his transfer value for the now inevitable summer departure.

Again, none of this makes me a remarkable soothsayer, it just makes me a cynic who happens to write down my opinion each game and therefore have a record of my thoughts on this particular topic. The signs have been there all season. 

I Was A Rat!

Much of my opinion on this was formed after the Bilic press conference, and my initial tendency was to side with Payet. That won't surprise many of you who have been reading recently and will know that I think the work of the Club hierarchy this season has been largely incompetent. 

Who could blame him for not wanting to play for this team? I don't want to watch them, so I get where he is coming from. The devil lies in the detail though. 

Has he said that he doesn't want to play or that he will not play? These are two subtly different things. I do not want to go to work on Monday but I will go. That is not the same thing as me refusing to go. 

After the bombshell of the Bilic presser, the story quickly became however that Payet was on strike. Looking back, Bilic does say that he is "refusing to play for the Club" and if that is indeed the case then it is inexcusably reprehensible. 

If Payet is indeed on strike then he is dead to me. I'm removing the tattoo, taking down the petition to rename the A406 as the "Payet > Ozil Highway" and renaming my youngest daughter. He can, in the common parlance of the time, do one. 

But there are two sides to every story and we have yet to hear his. It won't be long. Shortly we will doubtless see a promo interview on a French TV station talking about the unhappiness of his family, his unceasing love for the West Ham fans and how he just wants to go home. You can definitely get a decent tan in Loughton, but it ain't the Cote d'Azur, after all. 

It is not without irony that I link to this column by ExWHUEmployee at the West Ham way site. it contains far more background to the story and essentially states that Payet has been unhappy all season and is definitely on strike. I don't think releasing our transfer stories is helpful, but I can't deny that this kind of thing probably is useful for the Club given that they are now essentially in a PR war with their best player, which barely scrapes into the top ten most ridiculous things to have happened at West Ham in my lifetime. 

And what are we to make of it all?

Well, I don't blame Payet for being unhappy with the direction of the team. He is the best player and he is entitled to want the Club to surround him with good players. They have summarily failed to do that, and we all agree with him so it would be hypocrisy to say otherwise. 

The reality is that the Club would have been been better off selling him after Euro 2016, but they simply couldn't have done so. They were selling tickets to their new stadium on the basis of a Payet led team and would have been derided as small time shysters lacking ambition had they moved him on and replaced him with Robert Snodgrass. They might be about to do that now, but they've already sold their 50,000 season tickets.

I can't blame them for holding on to him. Anything else would have been met with opprobrium and immediately reminded West Ham fans everywhere of the Club's storied history of selling on any decent players as soon as they can. Sullivan and Gold were attempting to sell a vision of something different and thus their hands were tied. That decision came at a cost of millions as his transfer fee will undeniably be lower now than last summer, but it bought them some credibility with the fanbase that was crucial to filling the stadium. 

But all of these ignores a simple fact. Payet is paid £125,000 a week and was paid a £1m loyalty bonus just last year in a masterstroke of irony from his agent. He is fantastically remunerated by any standards, and to withhold his labour on these grounds is disgraceful, if utterly unsurprising behaviour. 

That said, I am afraid that I don't buy into the argument that he owes anybody loyalty. He has been well paid at West Ham and he has played well for West Ham. He is a French footballer seeking to maximise his career earnings, and was a well established player with Champions League experience and international caps before he joined us. We didn't put him on any map other than that of the English football world, and as a result this idea that we have elevated him is a bit incongruous. 

What he owes us is the simple half of his labour agreement. He signed a contract and it requires him to play football. So he should play fucking football until he signs with someone else. There are plenty of others out there who don't have the ability to play professional football and would love to like me, my daughters, my dad, Chris Smalling and 50,000 West Ham season ticket holders. He might be famously "naturally indifferent" but Payet is spitting in a lot of faces with this stance, with the greatest irony of all being that his manager came up with the template for hanging around to "save" a team and then fucking off for pastures new.

Not everyone is good enough to be a pro, Dimitri

The Subtle Knife 

Fair play to Marseille for their artful tapping up however. It remains to be seen whether they will get their man in this transfer window but they have done everything in their power. The manager, Rudi Garcia, and players are already making eyes at him via the press and doubtless there is plenty that has happened away from the public eye. 

I'd get angry but what's the point? UEFA don't give a shit and I would want us to do the same to a transfer target where it was the only way to get him. 

But it creates a painful, but unarguably fascinating, situation for the neutral. What do we do? Banishing Payet serves the purpose of calling his bluff by presumably fining him for each week that he refuses to play. If they are true to their word then that could save them about £3m in wages before a summer sale.

The issue is that with each passing week Payet gets less fit - a low base line to start with - and his fee decreases. Each week on strike renders him a bigger rebel and a bigger problem and therefore those dreams of getting £30m disappear into the dust. It is for that reason that I can actually see him playing for us again. 

Marseille's reported bid of £19m - or 69% of a Fellaini put another way - was a insult but indicative of how this thing works. Payet's agent is banking on his behaviour being so disruptive that the Club have no choice but to cut bait and offload him for a reduced fee. The tapping up club are happy as they shell out less in fees, and the agent and Payet get healthy sign on payments. It's worked for them twice before already and doubtless will work here. 

What a mess. What a Stygian mess. 

So, for once, I side with Sullivan. Send Payet to rot and tell anyone who wants to buy him the price is the price and any lowballing is an insult to the Club and the player by undervaluing him. 

Once the transfer window passes, then Payet faces six months without playing and, crucially, earning.  At some point there has to be some value to him in coming back into the fold, putting a bit more effort in and getting out of Dodge in the summer. 

Maybe that's all a bit fanciful. The better odds are surely on Marseille upping their bid to something like £25m and West Ham taking the option to let him go, but don't be surprised if we all get one last chance to boo him before June. Might make it a bit uncomfortable for him to walk past his inevitably defaced mural though...

The Tiger In The Well

The great irony of all of this is that the person who come out with the most credit is Slaven Bilic. Just a week ago he was within the crosshairs of the Board, with the Club taken the bizarre (*) decision to publish a Martin Samuel article  on the official site that essentially told the fans to stop whinging about the stadium and start laying the blame where it ought to be laid - with Bilic. 

(*) I say bizarre, but these days, perhaps not so much

With his emotional, wrought, dare I say it - passionate - press conference performance Bilic has bought himself some breathing space. Now he has his own scapegoat - "We lose Payet, but we might gain the team" he said during his elegiac address to the media. Clearly things haven't been copacetic behind the scenes for sometime but Bilic ironically has some leeway now. He can lay the blame for the disjointed performances, the lack of intensity in training and all other manner of issues at Payet's door and now he has to rebuild. A fanbase determined to brand Payet as a snake will probably afford that to him too. 

There's a lot to consider here, and ultimately there's a lot that we don't know. 

I suppose the piece that gets missed, but which is ultimately is the biggest cost is that paid by the fans. A reduced transfer fee doesn't annoy me too much as we'd only waste it anyway, and a loss of wages to a millionaire isn't a problem either. 

As a team we'll survive but probably worsen in the long run, especially as our attempt to replace him will be fraught with danger, likely be expensive and probably be a disaster.

But for the fans it's a kick in the teeth. My daughter was visibly upset when I told her, to try and forewarn against playground taunts. All those kids lost their hero this week and that's a great shame. We all remember the first time we lost a hero and it's painful. The realisation that the hero frozen on your wall is a drugs cheat, a racist, a sexual abuser or in the case of Paolo di Canio, a worryingly devout Fascist. 

Farewell then Dimitri. You gave us great joy and then you turned out to be just like the rest. We fell in love with someone we shouldn't have fallen in love with. 

What a mess.

Monday, January 09, 2017

West Ham 0 - 5 Man City (And Other Ramblings)

1. Here Comes The Night Time

One of the joys of parenting is little tasks like getting up at 4.15am every Saturday morning to drop my daughter to her ice skating lessons.

Due to that early morning appointment she couldn't come to this game, but when I began the delicate process of negotiating her wake up at 4.20am, her first question was "Did we win last night?". She is only 11 and therefore hasn't progressed on to the more relevant "How much did we lose by?" but no doubt she will reach that stage soon enough.

As I looked into her naive young eyes I couldn't help but savour the moment. The innocent years before you hit secondary school and suddenly there are lots of Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd fans with displaced fathers to highlight the true horror of being a young Hammer.

Upon telling her we had lost 5-0 she pondered this for a moment before looking at me with the pure face of someone who has never heard of Oldham and asked me "Is that our worst ever cup defeat?".

And there is the rub. Because after losing 5-0 at home it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask that question, and yet this wasn't even our worst Cup defeat against Manchester City in the last three years. 

I'm sure glad those days of embarrassing cup defeats are behind us

2. We Used To Wait

This game didn't start well. Outside the ground there were queues at each set of turnstiles, which appeared to be a mix of the post work kick off ensuring everyone turned up at the same time, several new fans taking advantage of the cheaper prices, tighter security and some good old fashioned garden variety West Ham incompetence.  

By the time we got through there was barely enough time for my ears to start bleeding from the megasonic PA before we were off. Dimitri Payet was on the bench having looked totally uninterested against Man Utd on Monday, but Pep Guardiola wasn't feeling quite so relaxed as his counterpart, Bilic. City started with Aguero, Toure, De Bruyne, Sterling and the magician that is David Silva meaning that watching this one was rather more an exercise in hope than optimism. 

Curiously, we weren't too bad for half an hour. Manuel Lanzini was at the heart of all our best play as he flitted about with intent and showed the ability to transition us from one third of the pitch to another with a slip of the shoulder. Sadly, Silva decided he'd had enough of that shit and suddenly took hold of the game like Wayne Rooney grabbing his first Stella of the evening. 

Despite the vague promise of our early play, Winston Reid was our busiest player, turning in a heroic thirty minutes of blocking and tackling as the rest of our back four took the opportunity to update their iPads and generally stand around doing anything other than actual defending. 

Sadly this couldn't last indefinitely and when Pablo Zabaleta popped up in the corner of our box he dangled out a leg, felt some Italian skin and then Phil Jones'd the fuck out of it. As is required under FA rules the team with the better looking balance sheet gets the decision, so referee Michael Oliver took a quick gander, snorted at our turnover and gleefully pointed to the spot. 

Reid and Ogbonna had an almighty moan, but it made no difference and Toure barely squeezed his shot past the diving Adrian. Thereafter followed an entertaining couple of minutes as Ogbonna dramatically removed his gloves, raising the brief hope that he might challenge Zabaleta to a duel which would at least have raised the entertainment quotient, but sadly he was just being dramatic, as was Sofiane Feghouli who somehow managed to put a shot wide of an open goal moments later, thus summing up his entire West Ham career in one fell swoop. 

Zabaleta goes all Phil Jones

3. Cold Wind

The problem with West Ham circa 2016/2017 is that going a goal behind is the death knell for any hopes we may have of winning a game. We have regained just two points all season from losing positions (Middlesbrough (h) and Liverpool (a)) and have won only two games where the opposition have scored a goal (Chelsea (h) and Swansea (a)). 

Armed with that knowledge, and with no positive memories at all of the stadium in which they play, the team fell apart with impressive speed. Ten minutes later Havard Nordtveit turned into his own net under pressure from Raheem Sterling, before the wizard Silva made it three just a minute later. 

By now Toure was just shuttling up and down in a straight line like a less mobile version of Shaquille O'Neal, as various £50m players rotated around him and we essentially gave up. 

It should be noted that at this stage Silva had changed in to a top hat and tails and was waltzing around looking like the game changing maestro that we wish Payet was. His performance was brilliant and he should have got a standing ovation when he was removed but I think most of us felt that would have been a bit embarrassing as it was only against us.

Sergio Aguero, anonymous all evening, popped up to score a fourth immediately after half time to kill everyone's spirit, and then John Stones - who couldn't win an aerial duel if you gave him a fucking Messerschmitt - rose unchallenged to head in a fifth. 

Guardiola apparently doesn't like Bilic much, as he then brought on Fabian Delph which is like going down to ten men and is frankly just taking the piss. 

4. Black Mirror

Objectively I actually can't get too upset about this result. The four players who scored for Man City tonight cost them £135m (£179m if you include Sterling). Our most expensive ever signing is Andre Ayew, who was ludicrously over priced at £20.5m and would still have been the cheapest player in Man City's attack tonight. 

But the result pales against the performance. The manner of this defeat was so abject, so pathetic and so predictable that it can't help but raise concerns. After the Man Utd game it actually felt like there was something there. We had won three in a row before turning in two consecutive decent performances in defeat, and the players had seemingly pulled together in distressing circumstances. Small crumbs to be sure, but something to cling on to. It would have been impossible to say that the players hadn't played for their manager having seen them strive manfully with ten men for an hour against Mourinho's boredom boys. 

And now - well, who knows? For reasons I cannot fathom, Bilic decide to bring Payet on after 70 minutes with the score at 4-0 and with the only conceivable benefit being to cup tie him, which isn't a good reason to do anything. This soul destroying, interminable waste of a season was perfectly summed up as we brought on our global superstar to run around pointlessly to try and stop us going 5-0 down. 

I actually can't figure out what I think of Bilic anymore. We could easily have won at Spurs and Liverpool, and should have taken a point at Chelsea but by the same token could have easily lost at home to Sunderland, Burnley and Hull. There appears to be no consistent tactical plan or shape, partially driven by the absence of a right back which is his fault and therefore engenders no sympathy.

To be honest, this performance was like this Babyshambles appearance on French TV. It started pretty well, and then by the end you're just thinking to yourself "God, I hope they all survive this"

Just occasionally we flicker into life, like at Palace or Spurs, and suddenly the mind wanders back to last year and the exhilaration of seeing a West Ham side go toe to toe with everyone. Points taken off every side in the division and no backwards steps taken anywhere. I'd waited my whole life to see a West Ham side do that and it buys him huge amounts of emotional currency with me. But there's no getting away from it - this season has been a shambles. The only top half team we have beaten in the league all season is Bournemouth, who we robbed, and other than that we've laboured to victories against the dregs whilst saving our best performances for glorious rearguards against the top teams. 

I could even stomach a result or performance like this if I had faith that the Club was actually heading in the right direction. If we had a cohesive transfer plan with an obvious strategy and lots of young players obviously recruited with that in mind, then it would be easy to ask us to buy into that. A "project" if I dare utter the word, after the failures of the Scott Duxbury/Gianfranco Zola era, is what we probably need. 

Sadly, there is no such wagon that we can hitch our stars to. This aimless, directionless season has sucked so much life from the Club that optimism is as absent as that mythical stadium Wi-Fi we were promised eons ago. 

I wrote last week that I would have rested Payet, and I stand by that - he wouldn't have made any difference - but that capitulation was unacceptable. Tellingly it was that similarly risible 6-0 defeat at Eastlands which marked the moment that many fans turned their backs on Allardyce. Many more of these and Bilic will be getting a lot more time to spend with his new baby. 

5. Une Année Sans Lumière 

If you spend any time on social media, you'll have seen everyone get very excited at Dimitri Payet "liking" a Tweet from a Marseille fan suggesting he return there after this debacle. If there is one thing that being on social media has taught me it's that social media is not the world, and doesn't reflect terribly well the real universe outside. I mean, how much credence should we be giving a platform that allows men to send unsolicited pictures of their genitalia to women, and does absolutely nothing to weed out racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia or any of the other platforms on which Donald Trump won the US presidency?

As an echo chamber, Twitter is loud and useless and best ignored. But let's be honest, Payet is not long for this corner of East London. I can see the attraction of Marseille, although I keep looking at these fees from China and wonder if he wouldn't fancy Shanghai for a year or two. 

Honestly, I hate that we have got to this position but we are clueless, he has lost interest, is nearly thirty and so many players simply fall off a cliff at that age. Kaka, Ronaldinho, Robin Van Persie, Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney - all have sparkled brightly before declining precipitously somewhere close to the big 3-0. 

In an ideal world I envision lots of one sided deals where we ship him off somewhere and get young, affordable players in return. To Arsenal for Iwobi and Ramsey. To Man Utd for Martial and Rashford (we should actually offer this - never fail to give Man Utd an opportunity to do stupid things). To PSG for Rabiot and Moura. Except those are all ridiculously lopsided and of course, I doubt we'd have the nous to ask for those players back anyway. 

Instead it will be for cash which is terrifying as it means David Sullivan will be spending it which means no plan, no strategy, just lots of money thrown at lots of players (and agents, of course). It'll be Rio all over again.

Our best case scenario is now is that he hangs on for a while, doesn't sulk and then a drunk Chinese club decides to try and one-up that £60m deal for Oscar. 

6. Wasted Hours

As all this destruction was being wrought around him, Andy Carroll stood watching impassively like our very own Colossus of Rhodes. You wouldn't want to have to outjump him but going round him doesn't seem too tricky. 

There was no pressure on the ball anywhere tonight, but in the modern game that starts from the front and Carroll simply isn't mobile enough to get around to do the necessary pressing. 

Our best periods in the last couple of years came when Sakho and Valencia were able to hound opposition back lines and force them into ceding possession in bad areas. Now there were two of them, so a direct comparison to Carroll is unfair but the reality is that Bilic seems unwilling to pair him with anyone, meaning that better sides are able to pick us apart. It also seems clear that Bilic wants to play him at any opportunity - and why not given that I suspect an old centre half like Bilic hated playing against players like Carroll - but has no clear plan for playing to his strengths. 

It seemed we might have stumbled upon such a method against Swansea but on reflection it does seem like that really was "only" Swansea after all. 

I think there is a clear role for Carroll but it has to be with a partner, or alternatively as a thirty minute battering ram at the end of games. It's one of the things that makes this transfer window so fascinating/terrifying [delete as applicable]. Are we trying to augment Carroll and make him more dangerous or are we moving away from him with a view to trying to recapture the mobile pairings that served us so well over the last twenty four months? 

Or Option C - are we writing out the names of all the players we've heard of and using a magic eight ball to decide whether to bid for them, and how much? Hence, "Robert Snodgrass - £3m".

7. Intervention

The most co-ordinated West Ham move of the evening

By far the most entertaining moment of the night came when two highly inebriated Hammers fans ran on to the pitch with seconds remaining and re-enacted Zabaleta's dive. I felt that Iron Man made a little too much contact on Spider-man if I'm honest, but it was still the most well put together move of the evening by anyone in a West Ham shirt. 

8. Black Wave/Bad Vibrations

With eight days gone of the transfer window, we've already got off to the kind of start fans have been dreaming of. In case you missed any of it:

- an article appeared on the Clubs official website written by the West Ham "Insider" revealing ill disguised bids for Moussa Dembele, Scott Hogan and Jermain Defoe. Primarily this article was a crime against grammar, looking as it did like a GCSE submission, but it was clearly produced with the blessing of somebody very senior within the Club.

- brilliantly, the following day, David Sullivan then denied in print that we were interested in Dembele (despite the fact we should be), thus creating possibly the first ever situation where a professional football club have removed tabloid newspapers from the chain altogether and are just starting and denying their own rumours.

- as our transfer plans were leaked all over the place, it became clear that two of our top targets were Defoe and Glen Johnson. You'll remember them playing in our relegated 2002/03 team. Fourteen years ago.

- a column then appeared on The Sun website written by @exwhuemployee confirming all of the various targets and deals. 

- Karren Brady then announced publicly that the "Insider" column would no longer appear, despite the fact that it can only have appeared with Board approval in the first place. 

Now whether you're a fan of our Board or not, that is an astonishing amount of mismanagement to cram into eight days. It's like Basil Fawlty is running our PR operation. 

A transfer window you say?

Let me say this - I have a full time job to which I sometimes give over 40% of my effort, a family, this blog and season two of The Man in the High Castle to get through, and I will still willingly offer up my services to manage West Ham's public communications strategy. I'll basically be doing it on the train home, and I'll still do a better job than is currently being done. 

The worst thing about all of this is that these leaks are at least partly deliberate in order that the Club can gauge how supporters feel about the potential signings. You may remember them deploying this tactic previously and deciding not to sign Joey Barton and El Hadji Diouf as a result. Here's the thing about that - it's beyond stupid. For the love of God, have some faith in your own processes and discard public opinion. 

The decisions makers at the Club need to settle on a strategy and stick to it. Ideally that strategy would involve them hiring other people to make the decisions, but that seems unlikely, so if nothing else it would be preferable if they simply went ahead and did their business in private like every other team. 

9. Ocean Of Noise

Which brings me to the thorny business of "in the know" West Ham fans. The most prevalent of these is ExWhuEmployee, who started as a Twitter user and then started The West Ham Way  website. Now I have never met Ex, never attended any of his live events and I only listened to his Podcast on Wednesday for the first time given that I knew I'd be writing this column. I've had no personal interaction with him and I doubt I ever will. 

Truthfully, I read his update columns and that's about it. I take the columns as fact as they are clearly from very reliable sources within the Club. In fact, Jack and David Sullivan have been guests on the podcasts, so I'll be honest and say that I consider the columns to be direct from the Sullivan family. Indeed, several columns have referred to "the Sullivans" really liking certain players which is somehow horrifying and yet not even remotely surprising. 

If the Club wanted to shut this leak down it wouldn't be terribly difficult, and therefore one can only assume that they are happy for the information to be public. I have yet to come up with a viable reason as to why this could ever be a good thing. 

Tangentially, I once went to a gig when I was a hip young thing to see the then up and coming band The Bluetones. It was a weird gig as they played their songs and the crowd responded at best half heartedly. I read the NME review a few days later and it described the audience as a "hands behind their back, impress me, London crowd". 

Well, here's the thing; we should put our hands behind our backs and simply say to the Board... "impress us". 

No more bullshit leaks, no more promises of £30m strikers followed up by loan signings, and no more unofficial Twitter polls on players. Just do whatever the hell you're going to do in silence and when we see the signings standing three miles from the pitch at the London Stadium with a scarf above their head in a £300 designer t-shirt that looks like a rag, then we'll give it all some thought. 

As for Ex, scrolling through my Twitter timeline last night I can see that some fans are suggesting he no longer write his columns or tweet his updates, to which he seems to be suggesting he'll simply give out his information on his podcast and write no more articles.

I'm not interested in any kind of online spat with another West Ham writer, not least because I am very well aware of the difference in reach between our two sites. The H List is read by a few hundred, most of whom I related to, as opposed to the many thousands who read the other sites. I doubt I speak for very many.

But my tuppence worth is this: if there is even a 1% chance that having our transfer affairs in public is placing us at a disadvantage then why bother? Satiating the interests of fans who demand to know the Club's every move as they are being made is not a good reason to do anything. 

So yes, personally, I would like to see all the online transfer updates stop and West Ham announce their transfer business through Sky Sports News when the deals are complete. Just like every other team does. 

10. Suburban War

I see that the board are now the subject of various online petitions and action groups. I can't deny that I can see why people are frustrated. The unprofessional nature of the transfer activity, the team is crap, the stadium is divisive and Phil Jones is still rolling around the concourse. It's not earth shattering to say that things could be better. 

But I did notice that there were Supporter Liaison Officers at the exit gates on Friday night. This was something Karren Brady had promised during the week and there they were, in one case listening dutifully as some lunatic seemed to be berating them about a lack of a right back. 

This is a good example of why I don't understand how Brady gets vilified. I get the very many charges levelled against her, but to me she seems determined to try and solve problems when they arise. I have no idea if other supporters found the SLO's to be useful or not, but as someone who has fallen foul of our ticket office frequently this year, I could see clear benefits to them being around outside the ground. 

Now Karren, about that Director of Football...

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

West Ham 0 - 2 Manchester United (And Other Ramblings)

1. Ordinary Thunderstorms

A game of football broke out tonight amidst all the terrible decision making, but I'm sure you'll forgive me if I jump straight to the nights big talking point - the red card for Sofiane Feghouli.

You need to be careful about calling someone a cheat. It's a strong word, that carries lots of connotations and therefore should be used judiciously.

With that said, I don't think that Mike Dean cheated tonight. Firstly, for someone to cheat they have to benefit from the action, which a referee clearly doesn't. We might like to think that referees want bigger teams to win, largely because so much other stuff is skewed in their favour, but they don't. It seems logical to me that referees just want to get through the game and get home without causing too much damage, having got the big decisions right.

When that doesn't happen, then we get nights like these.

I can't defend Mike Dean, as such, for his decisions tonight were almost unforgivably bad, but I suppose we have to accept that human beings have human failings and that they make mistakes. Because of that, wanting referees punished for their mistakes doesn't make too much sense to me. I'd rather focus on those who stand in the way of giving them assistance. We should by now have a system that allows managers to challenge one decision per game in the same way that NFL coaches can, and that would have seen this red card rescinded before Feghouli was even off the pitch, and thus preserved the challenge for the second goal when three Man Utd players were offside.

But somehow this can't happen, because there are still those who put forth the idea that bad decisions are somehow good because they generate pub discussion. This is such utter horseshit that it barely warrants a response. And this would still be horseshit even if Mike Dean had sent off Phil Jones and and not Feghouli. Football referees don't exist to generate conversation or column inches. They are there to apply the rules of the game, fairly and equally to both teams, and not send off players when they shouldn't.

It has also been said that FIFA don't want to introduce replays or challenges as they want to maintain the professional game as closely to the amateur version as possible. This is also horseshit, as anyone who has ever played on a Sunday morning will know. I have played games without linesmen, substitutes, nets, and one one memorable occasion - a crossbar. No amateur footballer in the world would care about replay, any more than they have cared about goal line technology.

Instead of vilifying referees for their errors, we should be crucifying those in authority who refuse to help eradicate them.

A red card challenge, clearly

2. On The Yankee Station

So having said that about Mike Dean, I can say without fear of contradiction that I consider Phil Jones a cheat. 

The sequence of events that surrounded Feghouli's red card was remarkable from start to finish. The Algerian took a heavy touch and then foolishly dived in to try and recover the ball, as Jones flew into him from the side. Having watched it several times over it's not clear to me where Feghouli actually touches Jones to cause him such agony, but you can watch for yourself here:

What is clear is the way Jones brings his trailing leg through and catches Feghouli. I'm not going to lie and say that I had a clear view at the time, but I can honestly say that I didn't know who had fouled who, or even if a foul had been committed. My seat was in the upper tier and therefore at least four nautical miles from the action, but whilst I winced at the tackle my main fear was that Man Utd would play it as perfectly as they did. And boy did they play it perfectly.

As Jones began his sequence of rolls away from the impact, United players in turn started streaming toward the referee from all directions. The likes of Rojo, Lingard, Darmian and Herrera might be average footballers, but they are top quality Mourinhoans, and they quickly and cynically demanded a red card for Feghouli even as Jones began his 17th roll of his routine, quietly rolled all the way out of the stadium and bumped up against the Velodrome.

Without the context of this game, I might actually have admired the ruthless cynicism of their actions. It was a perfectly constructed performance - by the time Dean drew breath he had six players around him, Jones had a make up artist applying blood splatter to his knee, Hugh Laurie was standing with a sardonic look saying "It can't be saved!", Wayne Rooney was demanding vengeance even though he wasn't playing, and a Second Unit were setting up a lighting rig behind Jones so they could better capture his agony. Only Zlatan stayed out of it, hands on hips, like the Norse God of ennui, perhaps recognising the same tactics that Mourinho employed to get him sent off for PSG against Chelsea in 2015.

It was masterful and planned to perfection and helped convince Mike Dean that the fifty-fifty challenge he had just witnessed was somehow a red card offence. No referee has ever gone hungry by choosing to side with a big team over a small team, and thus Dean took the easy way out, and after a brief period of blowback tomorrow, nobody will ever remember it. Had he given it the other way, he would have had to contend with a week of Mourinho tantrums and a media storm lasting for weeks. It's easy to criticise, but what would you choose?

Of course, I wish referees were stronger and didn't just favour big teams for an easy life, but at the same time I wish the Premier League acknowledged this was a problem and tried to do something to stop it. After all, I'm not sure that games being ruined after 15 minutes by shitty refereeing decisions is all that useful in selling those all important global TV rights.

I'd like to say it's also not fair to those paying fans in the stadium, but I'm an idealist, not a fantasist and I know no one gives a shit about us.

3. An Ice Cream War

It's hard to know what to make of a game like this, ruined as it was by the red card. Having played just 48 hours earlier and with a useless squad, Bilic made just three changes whilst Mourinho was able to make five. In truth, the opening fifteen minutes were uneventful, although we just shaded it and there was some promise in the lively looking Lanzini and Feghouli, two of the new boys.

But once we were reduced to ten men it became an exercise in attack versus defence, as Antonio was withdrawn to the wing from his central striking role and asked to do the work of two men. Elsewhere Kouyate put in a lungbusting performance all over the place, whilst Obiang reminded us all what a steadying influence he is in the middle of the park.

What we really needed was for the game to spark into life and for a few tackles to start flying in because this would have given Dean the opportunity to even things up. Sadly, Man Utd were far too cute for that and barely made a tackle for the rest of the game. Instead they harried and pressed us until we coughed up possession, and built from there. It felt like the consequence of this approach was they didn't seem to recover the ball in dangerous positions that often, which forced them into slow, laborious, often boring passages of play with little direction. I have no evidence of that though (the theory about them recovering the ball - I have lots of evidence they were boring. I nearly feel asleep at the end of the first half).

For a while the ship steadied, and Man Utd seemed content to pass it aimlessly from side to side with no penetration. Their best chance came when a clearly offside Valencia was somehow denied by Randolph from 5 yards out and Jesse Lingard hit the post from the rebound, possibly as he was in the process of uploading a video to Snapchat at the time.

At half time we could dare to dream, such was the insipid nature of the visitors play, and sure enough Antonio had two excellent second half chances to give us the lead. The second in particular, saw him run clean through at De Gea and shoot straight at him when a yard either side would have been enough. He'd have probably done better if he dropped to all fours and tried to head it in.

Shortly thereafter, Marcus Rashford ran past Havard Nordtveit like he was a slow moving defensive midfielder and not a Premier League right back, and his cross was expertly finished by Juan Mata. After that, it was twenty minutes of pointlessness until Zlatan Ibrahimovic slammed in a second to close the door on any lingering dreams of a fightback. The Swede was yards offside at the time, as were two of his teammates, but you can't be stopping the game for little things like that or we'd never get any action at all. Or something. I don't really know any more.

4. A Good Man In Africa

We're really going to miss Cheikhou Kouyate when he goes. His athleticism and general willingness to run himself into the ground has been sorely missed from our midfield this season, and has been perhaps the great unheralded reason why Noble and Payet have fallen away as they have. His ability to gather the ball and carry it long distances is gold dust, and it's been even more noticeable that we don't have the players to do this on our newer, bigger pitch.

Today he had a general roaming role, and was eventually withdrawn, exhausted, towards the end. Kouyate is best deployed in this fashion as his natural ability to cover the ground makes him a threat all over the pitch. It's been a problem for us to get high quality possession high up the field this year, and his deployment as a defender is part of the reason. Without him foraging and harrying high up the pitch, the likes of Lanzini and Payet have been receiving the ball either too deep or with their backs to goal leading to the general low quality of our attacking opportunities. Also the fact that we've played half a season without a centre forward hasn't helped, but perhaps that's a story for another time.

No offence to any of my doubtless thousands of Senegalese readers but I hope he comes back quickly from the AFCON. We need him.

I can nearly see the front row!

5. Restless

Writ large across this defeat were the failings of our summer transfer dealings once more. I know I won't win any new readers by pointing this out, but without a proper centre forward or right back we were brutally exposed once again here tonight.

To pick up on a point that I started in my Leicester article from this fucking morning (I'm with Jurgen Klopp on this - won't someone think of the bloggers!), it is wholly unsatisfying that the errors of this summer haven't led to any changes in process for this window.

Ask yourself this - if David Sullivan were to apply to any other Premier League club to be their Director of Football, would he get the job?

No is the answer, in case you're still scratching your head. Because other Premier League clubs can see his past record just as easily as we can.

Yet, because he owns the Club he will continue in that role with no apparent accountability for past failures. In what universe is this a good idea? In what other business would failure of this nature not even warrant the slightest hint of self examination?

And so as Rashford ghosted past Nordtveit, and Carroll lumbered on for twenty minutes because he can't play twice in three days, I couldn't help but wonder if somewhere in the Director's Box there was a Russian hat being bowed ever so slightly in shame. I doubt it, because self awareness doesn't seem a particularly strong Sullivan family trait, but fuck me it would be nice to imagine.

Rich Sprent gets into this in more detail at KUMB, but the reality is that every window that passes with this shambolic recruitment structure is another lost opportunity, and more ground lost to our competitors. It really is that serious. Be very afraid of that Payet £30m bid from Marseille - it might sound great, but consider who will be spending it and try and recall if you think Rigobert Song was a great replacement for Rio Ferdinand.

6. Any Human Heart

What is especially galling about this game is that buried underneath the miles of pointless running and the simmering resentment was a half decent performance. Manuel Lanzini was excellent in his midfield role, and it was no surprise that it was his perfectly weighted pass that released Antonio for the chance that should have given us the lead.

I especially enjoyed his late rasping first half effort that drew a scrambling save from De Gea as it occurred whilst Ander Herrera was injured in the centre circle having lost the ball. And I mean, actually, properly injured which in itself is a rarity. 

See, if you play computer games you can often do tricks to “unlock” a certain signature skill for particular players. Payet takes improbable free kicks, Giroud does a scorpion kick, John Stones gives it away in a dangerous area and Ander Herrera commits a niggly foul and then feigns injury. It’s his superpower, as though there is some football factory in Spain that crammed every crappy character trait of modern footballers into one snivelling midfielder, and then sold him on to Manchester United and Mourinho – his natural home. Anyway, it’s a shame Lanzini’s effort was saved as I’d have enjoyed watching Herrera sprint up to Dean demanding he acknowledge that this time he actually was injured.

Behind the diminutive Argentine, Pedro Obiang continued his excellent form. Playing up against an ultra-languid Pogba, with Carrick alongside him and a man down is no easy task but he stuck to it gamely, and the time would surely have now come for these two to be paired in midfield were it not for the AFCON robbing us of Ayew and Kouyate at the very minute we seem to have stumbled arse backwards into a formation that might have suited them. Expect Noble to return on Friday against Man City, therefore, and expect some of those old possession problems to return too.

I love Noble, for his loyalty, his dedication, his skills, his never changing haircut and his penalties, and I still see him as a valuable player, but right now a Lanzini-Obiang-Kouyate triangle in midfield would look very appealing. 

7. The Blue Afternoon

What on earth are we going to do about Dimitri Payet? Maybe this run of games was just a bit too much too quickly for a player whose pre-season basically consisted of two laps of the training pitch and some Lucozade Sport.

It's an understated point, but Payet basically plays every minute of every game for us (except for those last five minutes at Spurs, but let us never speak of that again), and that must take a physical toll on a player like him who doesn't appear, at least, to take his conditioning that seriously.

Maybe I'm doing him a disservice, but Payet hasn't looked as sharp this year as he did last, and by the end of this game he was walking around with his hands on his hips like Robert Duvall on that beach in Apocalypse Now. I'd personally give him a rest on Friday night, as the last thing he needs now is another energy sapping defeat at our soul sapping stadium. If nothing else, none of this is helping his transfer value for the now inevitable summer departure.

Are you going to do any defending, Dimitri?

I'm sure there are plenty who will be exasperated at me giving up on our season already, but I can't see any way we will beat Man City with or without Payet, and if he carries on his current form he won't help much anyway. Stick him on the bench, give him a rest and let Feghouli have the game he was robbed of here. 

8. Solo

In spite of the result here, there has been a pleasing tightening up of our back four in the last month. Most of this has been led by Winston Reid, but one can't deny that Darren Randolph has played his part. I felt he was fortunate to gain his place to begin with but since then he's been pretty decent and he pulled of a couple of excellent saves here, as well as somehow letting a Rashford drive through his hands on to the post and back out into his midriff. Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I suppose. 

It is a surprise then, to hear us being constantly linked with a big money move for a keeper in the summer, such as Hart or Begovic. I say that because although I agree that teams should always look to upgrade wherever possible, when you are restrained by your budget in the way we are it makes sense to me to look for the biggest marginal gains from any such upgrade. I have no evidence to support this, but it always seems to me that goalkeeper is a place where you would need a very subpar incumbent in order to gain much obvious advantage from a new keeper. That is simply because a brilliant goalkeeper doesn't seem to save that much more than even a league average performer. 

Put another way, had De Gea and Adrian swapped teams last year, would it have made much difference? I doubt it very much, and I think De Gea is the best in the world at his position. 

That might seem daft, but remember that Petr Cech was apparently going to be worth 10 points a season to Arsenal, and then he joined and they conceded exactly the same number of goals, gained four fewer points and only finished up in second because Spurs went full Spurs at the end of last year. 

I can't say I would ever turn down the opportunity to have Joe Hart play for us, but even if he did it seems obvious to me that he would still concede plenty of goals, simply because we allow teams so many efforts on target. So, yes, upgrades are fine, but the benefit we would get from a proper right back, a fit striker and a Director of Football would far far outweigh anything we'd get from a new keeper. 

9. Waiting For Sunrise

Why is the PA system at our stadium so loud? I thought I had tinnitus for most of the first half and my ears only stopped bleeding on the hour mark when Phil Jones rolled past me on his way back to the pitch.

This game was played out in half an atmosphere, and ended up as yet another damp squib with a big team in town. Most of that can be laid at the feet of the Feghouli decision, but it should be said that it wasn't exactly rocking at kick off. I genuinely think some of that is due to the music being so deafeningly loud that people would rather stay in the concourses and finish their drinks than risk their ear drums splitting as "London Calling" is hammered out again and again, and some kids bellow out pre-match predictions on the big screens.

And the half time stuff is even louder. It was like a fucking sonic boom as the teams trudged off and the concourse at the interval resembled something out of Ypres as survivors wandered around shell shocked and desperately in need of a pie that would never come. It's a small, tiny thing but maybe if we could all hear each other there might be a bit more of a hint of an atmosphere.

Another delighted Junior Hammer

10. Sweet Caress

I read with great sadness that a 64 year old Manchester United fan died at the game tonight, having collapsed and suffered a heart attack. There isn't anything I can say at the end of this blog that will be in any way meaningful, but I shall just say that there are certain things that transcend football and life and death is one of them, irrespective of stupid Bill Shankly quotes.

I don't know the man in question, but if he was following his team away from home then it doesn't seem unreasonable to presume he was doing something he loved, and took great joy from and maybe there is some small comfort in that for his family. I doubt it, but I don't really know what else to say. May he rest in peace.