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, January 17, 2018

Huddersfield 1 - 4 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Just a perfect day, problems all left alone, 
Weekenders on our own, it's such fun"
- Lou Reed, "Perfect Day"

And that will do very nicely indeed. 

In a season that seems to have been tinged with a sense of disappointment from the moment that we started the year with all the well drilled organisation of the Hawaiian Emergency Alert team, and then slammed shut the transfer window with a slightly incredulous "Is that it?", it must be said that in those brief, tantalising moments when things have been good, they've been almost perfect.


Mark Noble. His legs have gone. Literally, in this case. 

Two down to Spurs at Wembley and then roaring back to triumph 3-2; that thumping 3-0 win at Stoke; Chelsea kept at arms length and poked like a tiger for a 1-0 victory; the last gasp home winners against Swansea and West Brom that masked the inadequacy of what had gone before. All moments to remember and a reminder that when the stars align and the gods are with us, then West Ham can serve up great days just like anyone else.

And what was even better about this one was that it almost sprang from nowhere. After twenty minutes of this game it wouldn't have been a surprise if a great celestial hand had appeared from the clouds, picked up the John Smith's stadium, turned it upside down and shaken it, while yelling "IS THIS THING ON?".

It wasn't for a lack of effort on behalf of either side, but the stars weren't aligning for anybody. The home team huffed and puffed but never looked like causing us any damage, while we continually got Manuel Lanzini on the ball in dangerous positions, only for his radar to malfunction. Shades of that Hawaiian Emergency Alert team once again. Overall, I'm not sure I've seen so much effort produce so little of value since Madonna last starred in a film. 

In such circumstances, the tropes demand that you either need a moment of individual brilliance or catastrophic error to conjure up a goal. And so it was that Huddersfield keeper Jonas Lossl lined up a goal kick, noticed that all his defenders on the edge of the box were marked, and still passed it to the one of them anyway. This is a tactic which the Terriers have used regularly all season, and for all I know it could be a key component of why they have done so well. But in that moment, with the way that Lanzini, Arnautovic and Noble were aligned, it was fairly clear that we had set ourselves up with the expectation that they would try this, and thus just looked ludicrous.

So Lossl found Joe Lolley, Arnautovic hassled the young man, and Noble stole it from him and ran through to coolly bend it round the keeper for a barely deserved lead. It was an interesting passage of play because we had already forced Lossl to go long from goal kicks previously and won the ball back as a result. What I liked about this was that we were prepared for it and it worked so well it resulted in us scoring. I might be doing Bilic and his staff a disservice, but that feels like exactly the kind of attention to detail that was so frequently missing from his latter day teams. By contrast, whether it's towels on the sideline for long throws, or minimising the gaps between midfield and defence, you sense that there are no stones being left unturned by Moyes in the search for an edge. This goal would be Exhibit A for why that's a Very Good Thing.

***

"When I'm outside in a real good mood
You could almost forget 'bout all the other things"
- Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, "Over Everything"

It was at this point that I started to get a nagging sensation that I'd seen that goal somewhere before. I'm always hugely appreciative of opposition goalkeeping incompetence, as I often mention to my eldest daughter Barthez, and Lossl was definitely ringing some bells here. And then it came to me. 

Finn Harps. 

I shall say no more, but I shall simply invite you to watch this clip. Thirteen year old me nearly burst a blood vessel laughing at this the first time round. I think Lossl might have been channelling his inner Finn Harp here. 



***
"Are you hoping for a miracle?"
- Bloc Party, "Helicopter"

So with a one goal lead to protect and Huddersfield looking insipid, it felt very much to me like we could sit on that advantage and possibly snatch a second on the break. This is why my opinion should always be taken with a Super Sized pinch of salt.

Approaching half time, we were still playing disjointedly when Lolley picked up a loose ball wide on our left, cut into the box under minimal challenge and curled a sumptuous equaliser inside Adrian’s far post. The finishing in this game really deserved a better showcase – similar to when when you see a band you like on The Andrew Marr Show at nine on a Sunday morning and Chris Grayling is tapping his foot away on the sofa. If that was a goal from nothing, then it at least better reflected the balance of play in a game where neither side was really doing anything of note.

But if goals from nothing are your thing, then Marko Arnautovic seems to be your man. It took him just eleven seconds of the second half to latch on to a speculative Kouyate flick on, pull it out of the air, baffle Tommy Smith and drill home a fine low left footed shot. In that moment the entire Huddersfield team talk was consigned to the waste paper bin, and we could once again retain our shape and look to hit them on the break. It was a moment of sublime skill and a far more difficult finish that it looked at first glance.

Thereafter, we looked like we might score with every attack, as Huddersfield decided to give defending a miss and move to a "Rush Goalie" formation that I haven't seen since leaving school. We duly took advantage with a beautifully crafted first goal for Lanzini, which he finished smartly. He then helped himself to a second when Arnautovic went full "T-Rex out of the enclosure", leaving a trail of mangled bodies behind him until his strike partner arrived to smash home the loose ball like some glory hunting Velociraptor. The Austrian celebrated with all the relish of a dad who had just discovered his kids have changed the Sky Q pin.


Marko celebrates Lanzini's second

But here's the thing about Moyes' West Ham. We continue to win in very unlikely ways. Now hold on, because I know you might be spluttering at the mouth and wondering how I could possibly find fault with a 4-1 victory, so let me firstly say that I am not. This was a wonderful win. A perfect day. But let me sound a note of caution, because this is The H List after all, and you can go elsewhere for cheerleading if that's your thing.



As this shot map from Caley Graphics shows, while there wasn't much of a threat all day from Huddersfield while we displayed almost unheard levels of ruthlessness in our finishing. I was somewhat shocked when I saw the low xG of our chances, but that is kind of the point of xG - to remove the inherent biases of our own opinions. And so hats off to Noble, Arnautovic and Lanzini for their classy finishes. As it was, our best chance actually might have fallen to Kouyate who couldn't redirect an Ogbonna header just inches from the line, after a corner.

But the reason for my nagging concern is that we won't score four goals every week from six shots on target. We won't score last minute winners every week. We won't keep Chelsea quiet for 85 minutes every week. We won't have three shots to Spurs 31 and get a 1-1 draw every week. And if you think that is all just a load of overly negative shit, then ask yourself whether either of Bilic or Pardew were able to sustain their habit of going a goal down all the time and still winning. Regression to the mean is a bitch, yo.

And yet, with every passing fixture Moyes seems to conjure up ever more unlikely results. And here we are, with one defeat from our last eight fixtures and up to eleventh in the table. It is truly impressive what he has been able to achieve with a simple devotion to proper organisation and an ability to actually coach and improve players. I'm not yet ready to commit to Moyes on that long term deal, primarily because this sample size isn't anywhere near big enough, but also because I would like to see more of those wins like we had at Stoke. An impressive, dominant, no doubt about it, "Alexa beat these fuckers like a piñata", kind of a win.

Because, for all the excellence on display here, I'm not sure it's entirely sustainable in the long run to lean so heavily on keeping things tight and hoping that our midfielders cum forwards will conjure something up. And in fairness to Moyes, perhaps the best thing about this little resurgence is how underwhelmed he seems to be with it all. As if he can't quite get over how low the bar is in East London. He reckons we have a long way to go until we're close to the level he wants us at and I reckon he's right. That said, if the road is going to be long, then a few pleasant diversions such as this will go a long way toward easing the burden.

***

"Oh, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now"
- Bob Dylan, "My Back Pages"

If the calling card of the Moyes regime has been his ability to rejuvenate players, then perhaps the shining example has been Mark Noble. I remain convinced that Noble was either injured or unfit at the start of the season, as it turns out that a 70 yard Croatian long jumper might not have been right at the cutting edge of elite athlete fitness preparation. Since his return to the side under Moyes he has been exemplary, and has done a marvellous job of thumbing his nose at unbelievers like me.

What I really noticed on Saturday was how much sharper he looked during the many short sprints that are the staple diet of the modern day Premier League midfielder. While Noble always has loads of time on the ball and always looks to retain possession in tight areas, I think he is also benefitting from the new system. With less ground to cover, he seemed more explosive and quicker over those short distances. His goal was a case in point, but generally I thought he did his work brilliantly and was the best player on the pitch, even allowing for the performances of Arnautovic and Lanzini.

I always think that laymen like me probably make far too much of formations. I strongly doubt whether professionals care too much about the concept of a 3-4-3 vs a 3-5-2, but instead focus simply on their tasks and the space on the pitch they are either supposed to attack or defend. Because ultimately, football is really just a game about space and trying to gain supremacy of it.

But if you divide the pitch up into five sections lengthwise, I think you can visualise why Noble seems to be better utilised in this system. None of this is an advanced tactical revelation, by the way, but instead just something I've been thinking about for a while.


If you look at the pitch in this way - and I stress again that I am not a qualified coach or the second coming of Ron Greenwood - I think it's easier to see that in this 4-2-3-1 formation you demand a lot of your central players. The two central midfielders have to laterally cover all five sections between them, unless the advanced three are hard workers and prepared to track back all day. Of course, if they are Dimitri Payet, Sofiane Feghouli and Manuel Lanzini then you might as well cast a couple of spells and get yourself a pet hippogriff to do it.

Similarly, the two centre backs need to be able to provide a solid, mobile base and allow the full backs to roam high up the pitch and try and get overloads out wide. We worked this pretty well in 2015-16 when Noble and Kouyate were imperious, and we had one of Europe's best players drawing all sorts of defensive cover on our left wing. With two mobile full backs, and a generally weak division, we were able to ride this formation all the way to the cusp of the Champions League.


But in the intervening years, the ravages of time and injuries have taken their toll. Certain players have visibly declined, and I counted Noble among them. But in this new system, there are some obvious advantages for him. Firstly, he can now park himself in the middle of that midfield three and have a greatly reduced amount of space to police. Now Obiang and Kouyate can drift out wide to provide support for those isolated wing backs. Noble, meanwhile, can sit in the middle and control possession against the weaker teams, and he did that here splendidly.

It helps, too, that he has a solid three behind him meaning that his backtracking should be reduced as well. There are flaws of course, and the wide areas continue to look a vulnerablity that we have seen repeatedly exposed, but as an overall platform it all seems pretty stable, although even as I write this all out, I feel like we might need to check that Zabaleta's legs are still attached given all that running he has to do.

I don't know how much weight any of that would carry with qualified coaches, but to my uneducated mind it makes some sense. That deep lying style allows us to compress the space well, and reduce the stress on older legs, but does also rely on the front men having to cover lots of ground ahead of them. In that sense, the renaissance of Arnautovic has relied as much upon his off the ball work as his goalscoring. Note that he was missing and Hernandez started at Wembley, when it looked like we couldn't have hurt them even with a Sherman tank. Which is kind of ironic given that Obiang unleashed a Howitzer to open the scoring.

As I mentioned above, I'm not entirely sure all of this is sustainable, but it feels very much like Moyes has cut his cloth to fit the players he has available to him. A better centre back and he might be able to revert to a back four, a better central midfield and he might be able to go to a pairing in there and push forward another body to help Arnautovic. Whatever he decides, I still think we need to some warm bodies this month.

***

"I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together"
- The Beatles, "I am the Walrus"

So for all of that praise directed towards Noble and the defensive shape of the team, the most eye catching piece of our performance was the front two of Lanzini and Arnautovic. By deploying them as a pair, Moyes continued his policy of slinging players into advanced positions when he doesn't trust them to do any tracking back, with Antonio being the first deployed in this manner.

Talking to a Newcastle supporting friend on Monday morning, he said something which made me laugh, but actually makes some sense. He said that we were using Arnautovic in a similar way to Ronaldo.


The Portuguese Arnautovic

After I stopped screwing up my face, I thought about it, and it's not quite as insane as it seems. It's insane, of course, but not as bad as, say, turning to Robert Snodgrass as the answer to your January problems.

Anyway, both Arnautovic and his Portuguese doppelgänger are tall, strong and quick wide forwards who have been converted into central strikers and both possess unusual gifts for someone in the position. Now let's get that into perspective - Ronaldo has almost refined the role of what a central striker looks like, so to compare him directly with a player in the bottom half of the Premier League after a good game away at Huddersfield would be well Tim Sherwood.

But what my friend was getting at, was more that we have abandoned the traditional demands of our strikers and are instead playing a very different way. Arnautovic is certainly strong enough to compete for balls and do the traditional grunt work of a striker, but where we really want to get him is isolated with defenders so he can run at them and beyond them. In a similar style to Ronaldo, if nowhere near the same level, we are asking him to use his physicality to lead counter attacks and stretch teams.

Take our last goal for example. That is not a goal that can be scored unless he has the pace, skill and power to get to the ball and then bulldoze into the area. None of our other players could have done that and it is a huge feather in the caps of Moyes and his coaching staff that they have engineered this development.

And yes, that third goal.

When did you last see us play like that? I can't remember a move of that ilk since the Carlton Cole screamer at Wigan, and while we played well in that 2015-16 season, we haven't mustered up anything that good since moving to the London Stadium. What was encouraging was that the goal actually showcased exactly what you want from a team in our situation. We pressed high, won the ball back, our midfielders shuffled it around until finding Arnautovic in space and a stepover later Lanzini was showing Chicharito what he's missing. A perfect goal on a perfect day.

***

"This is a tale of two city situations, a mutual appreciation 
Away from narrow preconception"
- Super Furry Animals, "Juxtaposed With U"

Which brings me to our transfer window. I'm not necessarily climbing the walls at the lack of activity, because the team's resurgence has lessened the threat of relegation considerably and if they can finish the month unbeaten we should be in full ascent up the side of Mt Mediocrity. An unheard of state of affairs when Brighton were pulling us to pieces all those weeks ago.

That being said, I think we need players still, but I'm starting to develop a weird, zen like faith in Moyes' ability to mine points from the most unpromising of situations. In the same way that when Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle came out and suddenly they could all fight like Neo from The Matrix without any explanation for it, I feel the same way about Moyes. I don't know what he's doing, or why it's happening but let's just go with it.


That West Ham back three

But the strangest rumour abounding about West Ham at the moment is the one linking Andy Carroll to Chelsea. When this emerged initially I assumed it was simply the sound of column inches being desperately filled or Carroll's agent angling for a new deal and overshooting the runway a little bit, but now it refuses to die down.

Like most Hammers fans I'd be prepared to drive him over there myself except I don't own an ambulance and I can't be doing with him pulling a hamstring turning over the radio when we hit traffic on the M25. I know plenty might keep him, but he's a disruptive force to the team purely because he confuses how we want to play. Send him West and let Conte sort that out, and if we get Batshuayi back in exchange then I could certainly live with that. Besides, the Champions League deserves to see Andy Carroll. They've had it too easy for too long, with their perfectly manicured pitches and slick passing football and now it's time for their Hawaiian Missile Warning. Here comes General Zod, Europe. Prepare to kneel.


Big Andy - Stick that up yer bleeding San Siro

But tragically, the other January tale that I seem to be hearing on repeat is the story of us trying to get Robert Snodgrass back from his loan spell. Not content with slagging him off for a year, and ignoring the not insignificant question about where he would play in this line up - it is really twisting my melon that after their fucking shambles of a transfer window this time last year, these dickheads have searched every inch of the globe, scanned YouTube into the wee hours and decided that the answer to their problems is.....the same guy that they signed last year and didn't know how to utilise. 

Never change West Ham. I love you. You're perfect. 

*I'm sorry this one was late and indeed was written as we were playing Shrewsbury. Life gets in the way sometimes. Still, chapeau Reece Burke. 

Friday, January 05, 2018

Spurs 1 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"And your God is only a catapult, waiting for the right time to let you go
Into the unknown, just to watch you hold your breath
Yeah, and you surrender your fortress"
- The War on Drugs, "Arms Like Boulders"

Dreams aren’t supposed to look like this. Stalwart defending, cheering brief moments of possession, holding midfielders channeling Bobby Charlton, and all the while clinging grimly to a point as though it were a life float chucked overboard into a tumultuous, stormy sea. But there you go – welcome to the new normal in the Premier League, where those who have orchestrated two decades of inequity are finally seeing the fruits of their labour being beamed into billions of homes all round the world. Here you go Asia and America, it's the best league in the world! Except we made these two teams play 48 hours ago so please don’t ask for entertainment – that wouldn’t be fair. 


Niche reference alert. More ahead too. 

Of course, there was plenty of entertainment on display last night if you dream in claret and blue and didn’t mind getting behind the sofa for large swathes of the action. Missing Cresswell, Antonio and crucially, Arnautovic, we were reduced to an extended exercise of attack versus defence anchored around a supreme performance from our back three, with only a brief pause for respite as Pedro Obiang scored the best goal that Wembley will see this season.

Perhaps in an alternate reality we would have lost this game by bucketloads. Maybe Harry Kane would have converted one of those myriad half chances into a goal with some typical opportunistic brilliance and, forced to chase the game, we would have been picked apart at will by a counterattacking Spurs team. But, even allowing for Andre Ayew, alternate dimensions don’t exist and thus we only have to concern ourselves with this one, and here we defended resolutely and with no little courage to grind out another draw. Another point. Another inch on a road to safety that none of us can believe we are actually travelling once again.

In the end, games such as this will fade from the memory and become little more than footnotes in yet another lost season of turgid struggle. But right here and now, in the middle of a relegation battle that sees nine teams within five points of each other, this point looks like a precious jewel. Add to that the satisfaction of slamming the brakes on another Spurs season, and leaving Wembley undefeated for a second time this season, it's hard to argue that this wasn't a pretty good night all round.

***

"All this talk of getting old
It's getting me down"
- The Verve, "The Drugs Don't Work"

Now that the dust has settled on a Christmas league programme that required us to play four games in thirteen days, it is possible to look back and assess how well we have fared over a crucial, but heavily demanding period of the season. All things considered, a return of a win, a loss and two draws is reasonable, even if the swings in fortune during that run were fairly sizeable. While we may bemoan Andre Ayew going full Diana Ross and Bobby Madley's self importance, we are also indebted to Asmir Begovic's sudden bouts of vertigo and Andy Carroll suddenly discovering he had a functioning right foot. It could have been better, it could have been worse. 123 years of history summed up in that one sentence.



How many shots have we had Zaba?

Given the compressed nature of the schedule, one might have expected David Moyes to ring the changes in order to keep his team fresh, but the reality is that he simply doesn't have the personnel available to do that effectively. The bench for this match featured £35m of strikers who don't fit our style of play, four kids without a league appearance between them, a travelling acrobat, a badger, a life size cut out of Keita Balde, and of course Joe Hart, taking up a massive part of our weekly wage budget because he is the best keeper David Sullivan has ever worked with.

So, Moyes rotated where he could - in central defence and up front - and then said a couple of Hail Mary's for the rest. Below is a table from today's Telegraph which gives an interesting breakdown of the number of changes made by each team over Christmas, and how many injuries they each suffered. We lead the latter category, naturally, and if we do it for a 50th consecutive year in 2019 we get to keep Jack Wilshere as a prize. 


TeamChanges in 4 gamesInjuries sustainedPoints won
Arsenal746
Bournemouth845
Brighton1215
Burnley232
Chelsea1018
Crystal Palace855
Everton1422
Huddersfield1223
Leicester1144
Liverpool16410
Man City11410
Man Utd1046
Newcastle1717
Southampton1132
Stoke1224
Swansea1044
Spurs9310
Watford623
West Brom842
West Ham765

Each team has their own approach, but our low rotation policy in theory should have ensured some consistency of performance. In reality, things didn’t pan out that way and it is instructive to see that Newcastle did so well having rotated heavily. Their ability to mix and match with lots of average players of roughly the same ability served them in good stead, whereas Moyes has neither the depth in numbers or talent to do that. At the top end of our squad – Lanzini, Arnautovic – we have much better players than our rivals, but most of the team are not at that level, and furthermore, ours is the second oldest squad in the division. 

Evidently, that lack of mobility and athleticism really shows up when we play lots of games in quick succession like this. Given all of that, a five point return will suffice for now, primarily as it gives us some breathing space over West Brom and Swansea, and helped draw struggling teams like Southampton and Stoke back into the scrap. That said, this period was mainly about surviving intact to take on our vital January fixtures. 

Many of you may disagree, but the rightful casualty of all of this will probably will be our FA Cup run. The brutal reality is that none of the players who played in these two matches should appear on Sunday, because the risk of injury is so much greater when players are fatigued. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned shallow squad depth we don’t have the quality of reserves to call upon to realistically challenge an upwardly mobile lower league side like Shrewsbury. That’s an embarrassing admission for any Premier League team to make, but as we discovered at Nottingham Forest a few years ago, the gap between Premier League Under 23 teams and good lower league sides is pretty big.

So, if I was Moyes, I would be apologising to those fans travelling on Sunday, forcing the club to subsidise their travel or tickets or buying them a fucking burger or something to prove they aren’t all soul sucking vampires, and then acceding to the wishes of those who have been demanding game time for the untried likes of Martinez, Quina, Haksabanovic and Makasi. I understand those who make the argument that for a club like us, the only thing we have is the chance of a cup victory, and indeed I agree with it. But there is an underlying reality to our situation which also has to be considered, which is that we have a far higher chance of being relegated – about 25% on present bookmaker odds – than we do of winning the cup.


Take it, I'm going to win the FA Cup!

Therefore, when people say that they would happily accept relegation if we were to win a trophy, they are operating in a fantasy world. That would be like me saying I would happily accept my house being repossessed if I took my mortgage money and sunk it into lottery tickets and won. What this ignores is the far more likely option that I lose the house and don’t win the lottery. None of which is to say that I want us to lose on Sunday, but if we win we will only face this dilemma again in the next round when our match would take place just before a five day spell when we face a home game with Palace and a trip to Brighton. Picking up Premier League points from those games is more important to the club than a fourth round cup game. I know plenty will disagree, but maybe check in with a Wigan fan before you make up your mind fully. In summary, I think Moyes’ priority this weekend is to preserve a team to get some points at Huddersfield, and our righteous anger about that should be directed at the idiots who assembled this ageing squad and thought it could survive a season as unrelentingly demanding as this one, which has been compressed to give England a longer preparation period for the World Cup. 

***

"I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don't understand"
- Neil Young, "The Needle and the Damage Done"

On which note, it seems only fitting to actually look at what happened here in more detail, because whatever the situation, this is a fine result and one that few teams will match this season. Unlike Slaven Bilic, who regularly troubled Spurs by pressing them in their own high intensity style, and frequently found them wanting in the middle of the park, Moyes instead chose to retreat into a defensive shell and invite them on. 

Where the likes of Stoke and Southampton were torn apart on their recent trips to Wembley, we were instead beautifully compact and hard to break down. We dropped so deep we were almost subterranean, forcing Spurs to play in front of us, and shorn of the ability to hit us on the counter attack and with no space for Christian Eriksen, the hosts looked thoroughly uninspired. The cost of this approach was that we almost entirely gave up on attacking, and we were noticeably abysmal when in possession, with Javier Hernandez the poster boy for receiving the ball and then doing nothing other than trying to win free kicks with it. The Mexican was so bad here I thought I was at a seance and Mike Newell had turned up to haunt me. 

On the other hand, our back three were masterful, with Angelo Ogbonna outstanding again, and Declan Rice turning in the kind of mature, composed performances that we assumed we were getting when we spent £8m on Jose Fonte this time last year. I have been agnostic on the youngster up until now, but he has turned my head firmly with this display. It is incredibly rare to see teenagers looking this assured at this level. Alongside him Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku did just enough to keep things on an even keel, even if the former was heavily indebted to some excellent cover work by Cheikhou Kouyate to manage the dynamite Heung Min Son. Winston Reid did not get injured. 


Everything about this picture is brilliant

Reading between the lines after the game, it seems that Moyes wanted the team to be more offensive but with no way of getting up the pitch this kind of performance was perhaps inevitable. The value of an Antonio or Sakho type player was never more evident than this game, as every clearance was returned back with interest, and Spurs must have been sorely tempted to play rush goalie, so unthreatening were we. After an hour Moyes gave up on Hernandez proving the broken clock theory correct and stuck on Andre Ayew, who did more jogging on than the Mexican managed all day. After just six minutes on the pitch, the Ghanaian pushed Spurs back with some good running, and the ball was eventually recycled back to Pedro Obiang some thirty yards from goal. Perhaps thinking that it was a bit embarrassing that we hadn't had a shot all day, the Spaniard advanced without any pressure on the ball from Spurs - to be fair, why would you - and smacked a thunderous, brilliant, joyful, rising drive into the top corner and had West Ham fans of a certain age yelling about traction engines. A moment to remind us to dream. 



Kouyate really should have doubled the lead not long after, when Obiang picked him out unmarked at the back post but the Senegal captain stooped for the header with all the enthusiasm of Anne Boleyn kneeling for the executioners axe and put it wide. It was to prove costly, as Spurs would snatch a point with just five minutes remaining when Son, their best player by a distance, smashed home a stunning long range effort of his own. I can't help but like Son and frequently have to try and forget that at the same time  we were signing Andy Carroll for £15m he was joining Bayer Leverkusen for €10m. Sigh.

Even allowing for bias it's hard not to say that Spurs deserved something from this game, but to have got as close as we did made it a tough pill to swallow, even if we'd have all taken a point - Allardyce style - before the game. There was even a doubt about the validity of the Spurs goal as Aurier looked to have fouled Lanzini in the build up, but Moyes was unconvinced after the game so I won't die on that particular hill. The Caley Graphics shot map above tells some, but not all, of the story as that Spurs xG was more a product of having loads of half chances rather than a few very good ones. This was death by a thousand blocked shots. By contrast, we actually created the two best chances of the game for Kouyate and later for Ayew. It might seem counter intuitive, but if you were to ask Pochettino if he wanted to replay this game and swap chances with us, he might actually take it as you'd imagine Kane and Alli would do better with those chances than we did.

Helpfully, Mike Dean also didn't award penalties to Spurs for a couple of shouts in the second half. Both involved Dele Alli and therefore immediately demand greater scrutiny given his propensity for falling over like he's in an episode of Miranda. The first was a challenge with Reid that I don't think could ever have been given, and the second involved Adrian clattering him when he'd headed over after an offside Kane had flicked on. That was a better shout, but I'm not yet ready to live in a world where players are going to be punished for punching Dele Alli in the head. After the game Tim Sherwood said he thought both were penalties, thus confirming that Dean was correct not to award them. 

***

"And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down"
- The Velvet Underground, "Heroin"

Long after the game had finished, pundits were still debating the recent trend of lower rung Premier League teams "parking the bus" when faced with the Top Six. Leaving aside for a moment that the greatest exponent of this is at Old Trafford, the best summary I've found was this article by Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian. Wilson correctly identifies that teams like us have been willing to cede possession at historic rates, with the sole aim of keeping games tight and then striking on the break. Part of this stems from watching Leicester do it brilliantly for an entire season, and win the league, although it must be said that we have none of their pace. Watching Hernandez try and outpace Sanchez after intercepting a misplaced pass on the halfway line here was like watching the tortoise and the hare if the tortoise gave up halfway through and started sulking. Oh, for some of these players who can play game after game at such high intensity and mysteriously never get injured.


Hernandez races away from the Spurs defence

Amid the indignation contained in that article from the likes of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville is a failure from them to properly address exactly why this has happened. When money is so integral to the game, and shared so unevenly around the sport, it is hardly surprising that it has an effect far beyond the company accounts. Because the English game does not properly fund lower league football, it means that the cost of dropping out of the Premier League is disproportionately severe and thus even ludicrously well funded but appallingly run teams like West Ham will turn in embarrassingly defensive shows like this in order to preserve that status. 

Doubling the problems for relegation threatened teams is the fact that those at the top have revenue streams they cannot access. Champions League teams take home prize money, or more accurately UEFA subsidies, each year that push them ever further from the rest of the pack, and subsequently have commercial opportunities that the rest can only dream of. With that inequality has come a growing acceptance from everyone else that trying to live with these teams is a bit of a waste of time, and we are now at a stage where the cup competitions can't compete with the primacy of the league, as I've outlined above, and teams like us dream of finishing sixth. 

Suddenly, the likes of Carragher and Neville are upset by this, because they want their armchair fans to be entertained. It is telling however, that neither of them ever left the sweet embrace of such privilege during their playing careers, preferring to remain where they had every advantage and never had to pick and choose which competitions to attack, or had to contend with their team mates being tapped up like Virgil Van Dijk.

Yet, including Spurs in this is a little unfair, as they have made their way into that elite tier by actually buying and developing players. Spending £100m on Romelu Lukaku isn't a difficult thing to do. Growing Harry Kane or spotting Dele Alli actually is. That said, they have commercial revenue streams that the likes of Burnley will never have, and still joined their new peers in demanding a greater share of the league television money last month. It didn't take long for them to get their snout firmly into the trough.

Every year that passes without any attempt to address these discrepancies is a further dagger into the heart of the league as a competitive entity. The likes of Carragher and Neville can't complain about negative small teams unless they also support some or all the possible solutions. So let's hear them advocating for greater revenue sharing, or salary caps, or luxury taxes, or squad size restrictions, or limits on loans, or a draft of young players left off those restricted squads, or liquidating Chelsea or any other suggestion that would make the game fairer, and by extension more entertaining.

Sadly, that will never happen and such egalitarian notions will remain the sole preserve of the dreamers on the second page of the Match of the Day league table. It just feels a bit of a pisstake to hoover up all of the money in the game, steal all the best players from small clubs, swipe up the best managers and then call us names while they're doing it. To Huddersfield, Swansea, Bournemouth and, sadly, unbelievably, West Ham, I say...carry on.


Once more for luck? Oh, go on then

Thursday, January 04, 2018

West Ham 2 - 1 West Brom (And Other Ramblings)

"I'd rather see the world the way it used to be, a little bit of freedom all we're left
So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back"
- The Byrds, "Goin' Back"

I'm not into ruining your enjoyment of films, so if you haven't seen Mad Max: Fury Road and want to avoid spoilers then feel free to skip down until you see a shot map and start your West Brom experience there. You won't miss much.

But for those who have seen it, or don't care, then you'll know what I mean when I say that this game had an oddly familiar storyline. Fury Road is built upon a fairly flimsy plot that sees Charlize Theron, playing Imperator Furiosa, escape from a post apocalyptic Australian warlord by the name of Immortan Joe, with a handful of his "wives" in tow. Along the way they pick up Tom Hardy's Max Rockatansky, and battle their way past various pursuing forces to escape to a mythical Green Place where they presumably all plan to change their names to something sensible. The problem is that when they get there, it's just as barren as the rest of the world.


I was feeling a bit Furiosa myself until that last minute winner

Realising that only place around with any water and plants is Immortan Joe's hideout, they do the craziest thing possible....they turn around and go back.

Which not-at-all-crowbarred link brings me to David Moyes and this performance. Because we've made a bit of progress ourselves recently, and depending on how generous you feel, one could make the argument that we are a good penalty taker and a competent referee away from sitting comfortably in mid table. All of which has been achieved without Andy Carroll, and based largely on a more solid looking defence and a surprisingly decent number of goals scored, primarily due to Marko Arnautovic sparking into life.

And yet, with all of that in the bank, Moyes took the seemingly crazy decision here to revert back to the old Bilic style of play. Carroll was chosen up front at the tip of a particularly blunt spear, and we went back to that disastrously hopeless hybrid style of play where we smash lots of ineffective crosses in Carroll's general vicinity, while also trying to pass the pall through him as though he were a different type of player altogether. As it was, we reverted all the way back to last season and pulled out one of those typically awful Bilic wins with a late goal and we're mighty grateful for it, but...still.

This Moyes reign has been built on attempting to move past those familiar flaws and creating something different. What the last three games have told me is that with this particular set of players, and against similarly mediocre opponents to ourselves, we still have some enormous problems that have to be remedied this month.

But for all that, if this was a backwards step it was still a pretty productive one. Last minute winners have that extra frisson of wonderment because you know the opposition cannot come back, and in that sense are beautifully liberating. Your mind doesn't immediately start to process how long you have to cling on, and instead you can just hand yourself over completely to a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness. In such moments we remind ourselves of how even the most moribund game can be rescued by a fleeting moment of joy, and remember precisely why we fell in love with this whole bloody thing in the first place.

Wet Tuesday nights aren't generally great for epiphanies, but in the buffeting winds and constant rain of Storm Eleanor, it sure was nice to steal a win and take a step forward in our relegation struggle, even if we did it by going back.

***

"I'll never forget you, although at times we couldn't shake it
You're my joy, always remember me"
- The Noisettes, "Never Forget You"

I won't lie. When I saw that Carroll was starting this game, my heart sank. So much of his play this season has been uninspired and immobile, that to watch him now is to be reminded of Boxer being taken slowly and unwittingly to the knacker's yard. Truthfully, and this may sound ludicrous considering his goals, I didn't see much in his open play to suggest that analysis is particularly flawed. Sure, that's very "what have the Romans ever done for us?" and there were certainly occasional lovely moments of chest control and laying off, but by and large he looked forlorn and isolated as the game generally seemed to pass him by.



But, for all that, this shot map from Caley Graphics shows we did actually create a decent number of opportunities in the box, even if the low xG is reflective of how many men West Brom tended to get in front of those chances. Our first half attacks mainly relied on Manuel Lanzini arriving late and pouncing on second balls after Carroll had crashed into something in front of him, and the visitors were reliant upon some good saves from Ben Foster as a result. One piece of skill in particular from Lanzini, to pluck a swirling high ball from the sky, belonged to another, better, game.

Despite our pressure, West Brom had their own opportunities and after Rondon went close, James McClean picked up a loose ball and went on a long, mazy dribble that should have led to him taking a pointless long range shot in front of our goal. Instead, it hit Obiang, looped up and caught Adrian flat footed and gave the visitors the lead. They celebrated this by all running to the sideline and standing there drinking water until the referee eventually coaxed them back to the pitch. Thus began another long, boring exhibition of West Brom timewasting.

But football is a strange mistress and her whims cannot always be predicted or rebuffed. After that generally dreadful first half we were rejuvenated slightly by the half time introduction of Mark Noble for Pedro Obiang. I felt the Spaniard was a little bit unlucky insomuch as Cheikhou Kouyate was once again playing as if being remote controlled by an uninterested spaniel sat in the crowd, but he does always offer the mobility that is sadly lacking elsewhere in the team.

But with Noble came control, and finally some structure to our forward play beyond simply giving it to Masuaku and hoping for him to beat five men. And as poorly as I felt Carroll did in terms of linking up play, there can be no doubting the sensational quality of his goals. The first was what we once might have termed a typical Carroll goal, as Cresswell swung in a sumptuous cross and he greeted it like a pissed Geordie pirate swinging from the deck of one ship on to another and smashing opposition sailors into the sea. It was a thing of murderous, visceral beauty and even though he seems to do it less frequently than ever, there is still something irresistible about watching such a goal unfold.


Andy casually waits for a cross

I felt the second was better, if only because it required a more difficult technique. Noble and Lanzini combined to free Arnautivic down the left and his cross eluded everybody except for the exhausted Carroll, who brilliantly turned it back into the goal from the narrowest of angles with his weaker right foot. It was harsh on West Brom, although relegation battles are no place for sentiment, and also vindication for Moyes. For while I thought Carroll's inclusion simply sent us back to halfway house of Bilic's worst days, the man scored twice and won us the game, and that's not to be sniffed at. It's also likely that Moyes eyed up our stupid playing schedule and decided that playing him here against a knackered, slow team like West Brom, was preferable to having him play at Wembley against Spurs.

The worry with these brief resurgences from Carroll is that they have tended to cloud manager's minds and cause them to persist with him for long barren spells that we can ill afford. Equally, it's hard to ascertain whether he has reined in his crazily physical style because his body can no longer take it, or because Moyes has told him to for the sake of his disciplinary record, but there is no doubt that he seems slightly diminished as a physical threat at present.

But until we get a new striker who can offer more than the seemingly one dimensional Carroll and Hernandez, then we will have to go with what we have. And, if nothing else, Carroll doesn't ever give up and keeps working as hard as he can. I wouldn't play him, but I can see the appeal.

***

"Pack it up, pack it in, this is who I should have been
But instead I waste my time"
- Turin Brakes, "Timewaster"

There is a rule in association football which states that goalkeepers may not hold on to the ball for longer than six seconds. This rule does not apply to Ben Foster. Instead, he simply holds on to the ball for as long as he decrees is reasonable because the concept of linear time is beneath him. Even as you sit reading this, Ben Foster is wandering around the eighteen yard box at the London Stadium while referee Mike Jones looks lovingly at him, taps his watch and then fails to add any time on. 

Far be it for me to agree with Eric Dier, but Foster pulled this exact same shit with the exact same referee last month in a game at Wembley, and he got away with it here too. 


So, it's actually possible?

I don't hate West Brom. In fact, they're not too dissimilar a club to us in the sense that they've had to play second fiddle to local rivals, while having to battle with a lack of finance and boardroom competence. To me, there is always a spiritual connection between those of us who have to be permanent whipping boys for the Top Six. But...and I say this without meaning to offend any Baggies fans, I fucking despise this iteration of their team. 

It's not even much to do with the players, but simply a legacy of having Tony Pulis as a recent manager. And so it is that they waste time, foul cynically, play boringly and generally do everything that you would imagine the Patron Saint of Anti Football would instruct them to do. It's Alan Pardew's team now, of course, but it will take a while for him to rid them entirely of such DNA. 

I asked Mark Segal of Opta about the stats for this game and he confirmed that out of a game time of 97:59 the ball was in play for just 57:34. In fairness to West Brom, this was nowhere near as bad as Newcastle who managed to restrict our recent game to just 50:31 of game time with a world class display of procrastination. In both cases the referee added just four minutes.

But it's a frustrating trait either way, because it is so rarely punished effectively by officials. I wrote after the Newcastle game that the authorities must do something about this and move to a straightforward system of playing for sixty minutes and discounting any time when the ball is dead. There is no doubt that Pulis types would find a way to try and game that particular system, but it would be nice if they at least tried to give paying spectators something close to a full match for our inflated tickets. 

All of that being true, I still do sympathise with West Brom having to play us just two days after their last game while we had five days rest. The problem for us will come when we play Spurs on two days rest, and then go to Shrewsbury to play our under eleven team in the hope of getting knocked out and reducing our fixture load. Giving sides such disparate preparation time is manifestly unfair, and it was greatly to the visitors credit that one would have been hard pressed for most of the game to determine who exactly was supposed to be the rested team. That said, who cares. Thanks for the three points, Pards. 

***

"Don't let it bring you down, it's only castles burning
Find someone who's turning, and you will come around"
- Neil Young, "Don't Let It Bring You Down"


Kouyate, Reid and Madley. Not much good stuff happening here

A distinctly depressing part of our season so far has been the precipitous decline of some of our older players. Here Kouyate was once again atrocious, and Winston Reid joined him with yet another inconsistent and worrying display. Both are on long contracts that no other Premier League team would ever offer them, so it's hard to imagine them moving on purely because their financial situation is so strong here. This is the folly of having the 13th biggest wage bill in Europe and spending it on the second oldest squad in the Premier League. Indeed, Reid was even given a contract extension earlier in the season which he immediately celebrated with a soft muscle injury at Southampton. Sometimes we really are like a parody of ourselves. 

But their inconsistency leaves Moyes with a headache. Reid will almost certainly play at Spurs because Cresswell is injured, meaning we may revert to a back four which has generally seen us leak like the post iceberg Titanic. Even Angelo Ogbonna's marvellous recovery tackle here to stop Oliver Burke making it 2-1 was only necessary because our defence had been totally split open by a straightforward central ball over the top. I'm not sure Harry Kane will be so profligate. 

As for Kouyate, you'd imagine he will play too, because he can't seem to function alongside Obiang, and therefore with Noble a certainty to return it will be the Spaniard who drops out. This is all made more difficult by the fact that Moyes has no depth in central midfield whatsoever, meaning that he only really has an apparently declining Kouyate or a wildly inconsistent Obiang to choose from. I actually think the latter has been miles better when partnered with Noble, but if his passing disappears as it did here then he's not really a great deal of use, especially when we have so few genuinely good attacking options these days. 

Geo at Hammers Chat put together this video on our central midfield options, which I think does a decent job of capturing how rubbish Kouyate has been all season. This was really highlighted here when Noble came on, and seemingly revolutionised our play by simply putting his foot on the ball and looking for effective passes. By contrast, Kouyate - never much of a passer on his best day - simply ran around a lot and then made more two yard passes than I think I've ever seen. The guy who destroyed Spurs almost single handedly at the end of last season is not the one we are seeing now. In an odd way, you'd hope he is injured because if not then we might have to face up to the reality that he is another one who has fallen off that same cliff as Carroll, Zabaleta and Reid. What a squad we've constructed.

One player who isn't in danger of stumbling off any cliffs is Marko Arnautovic who has gone full circle from being a £24m waste of time to terrace hero all in the space of about four weeks. His work rate is impressive and visible, meaning that he was getting ripples of applause in the first half silence simply for running about a bit and pressuring defenders. At times, we can be very easily pleased. 

What he continues to do well, and where he is more useful, is popping up in areas of danger and linking cleverly with Lanzini. You sense that those two will have to do most of the attacking work in the absence of Antonio, but given that we've scored ten goals in our last four games there are certainly signs that we are carrying more threat. The indications also seem to be that Hernandez isn't going to be a Moyes player, as he's been reduced to a bit part role whereby he comes on late and hangs around in the box waiting for Carroll to maim someone and give him a knock down. The main thing I've drawn from watching our attacking in these last couple of games is that the single biggest boost we could get in January would be a fit and firing Michail Antonio back in the team. 

And on that point - while these points are precious and have inched us closer to safety, and importantly, away from Swansea and West Brom, there can be no doubt that we need help. While I am still not convinced that we have any money, and I can't wait for those accounts, there can be no argument any more that we shouldn't be adding players. Sneaking past a knackered West Brom in the last minute is all good fun, but hardly the signal of a burgeoning renaissance. 

So, it's the worst time to buy, and we have the worst recruitment team in the league, but we still need bodies. We are ludicrously exposed to injuries and suspension, and if Lanzini or Arnautovic were to go down for the season we would have next to no creativity available to Moyes. Although there is no chance that Stoke will sell to us, a reported bid for Joe Allen does make a sort of sense given that he would immediately become our best option in the middle. As much as I'd like to see Sakho get a chance that seems to be a dead duck, so he needs to be replaced, and we could really use some mobility in that back line too. And with our January fixtures being against Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Palace, we could really do with those reinforcements arriving as soon as possible. 

***

"And yet he tries so hard to please, he's just so keen
For you to listen, but no one's listening"
- Blur, "Charmless Man"


I am so sick of this shit. 

Honest to God, I am fed up of the constant barrage that West Ham fans have to face because a section of our support cannot behave in a manner that is consistent with the standards of civilised society. 


The latest excuse for the world to pile in has arisen because Jake Livermore was substituted here and then went into the crowd in an altercation with a fan. I saw none of this, because I sit in the upper tier and thus would need a high powered telescope to see anything that far away. Therefore, the first I knew of it was the following morning when I began to read accounts on social media from fans of other clubs. Most of these were insistent that the cause of the ruckus was racial abuse, while others were equally sure that it happened because a fan abused Livermore over the death of his infant son. The only thing that most of these accounts could agree on was that they had no idea what was actually said and were guessing based on their own prejudices. That's what you get for reading social media, I guess. 

Having followed it more closely today, both clubs have now issued statements, with West Brom explicitly stating that Livermore reacted to a comment from the crowd about his son, while West Ham's just says that they are looking into it and removed the fan at the time. Having read a couple of accounts from people around the scene, each state that this in fact wasn't what was said and that actually Livermore misheard a comment referring to him as a "Yid". That hasn't really percolated through to the majority of media outlets, who have simply reported the West Brom statement and little else. 

As a West Ham fan, I feel I need to point out that if the version of those supporters is true it doesn't really reflect much better on the supporter in question. Calling someone a "Yid" is pretty much always done pejoratively by West Ham fans, and symptomatic to me of a problem that we have with anti Semitism among a small, but loud enough section of our support. I know that there are those who may dispute that, but when we were 2-0 down at Wembley I heard that godawful hissing bullshit again and we'd be better off to admit we have that element among our fans than try and deny it and allow it to bubble under. 

So what we're left with here is another unsavoury incident that drags us all through the mud and fills up our social media timelines with yet more broad brush characterising of West Ham fans as scum. Of course I should ignore that and rise above it, but the problem is that these days, that is how a lot of people consume their news and opinions. I haven't read a hard copy newspaper in a long time because I read everything online. And with that ease of access comes the democracy of opinion - which is to say that everybody has one, and now we have to hear it. So my frustration is that these actions by individuals or small groups just tar all of us with the same loose tag, and continues to diminish the standing of the club. 

So let's get this in perspective - this was apparently one person in a crowd of fifty thousand screaming reprehensible things. Whether he used the word "Yid" or kid doesn't change that, but it was just one person. No West Ham fan condones that, but a few too many of us get involved in screaming abuse at players of all stripes. I've been thinking a lot about this recently, and in particular this notion that the game of football is all about opinions. And I am forced to ask myself - why?

Because here's the thing about that - the opinion of this guy who yelled at Jake Livermore wasn't really worth hearing was it? The opinions of the fans who threw bananas on to pitches in the Seventies weren't worth hearing either. Richard Keys opinions have never been worth listening to. So I guess what I'm saying is that I really don't understand why anyone would think it's okay to stand five feet from a professional footballer and scream personal abuse at him. I think that makes you a dickhead. And there you go, that's my opinion. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Bournemouth 3 - 3 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Night, night after day
Black flowers blossom"
- Massive Attack, "Teardrop"

There is a universal truth about being a sports fan, which is that when we pay our money to enter an arena and watch our event, we believe the encounter we are about to watch will be fair. We have to believe the fight won't be rigged, or that the race is straight or the competitors aren't cheating, otherwise the whole thing is a waste of time.

Now, let me state here and now that I don't believe that a game between Bournemouth and West Ham would be worth fixing. Of all the things the Bilderberg Group are doing, I have to imagine this would be quite a long way down the list. We have again been the victim of more poor officiating, and because our minds are conditioned to remember negative things more than positive, it feels like such an overwhelming weight of misfortune that we then begin to wonder if it truly is bad luck or something more sinister. For when a player who is offside scores a last minute equaliser with his hand, and a referee seemingly overrules his linesman to award that goal, then it's hard not to do a double take. 


Brown envelope out of sight

So let me invoke Hanlon's Razor here - never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. It is bizarre to suggest that referee Bobby Madley was bribed to turn this game in Bournemouth's favour, but I equally don't have any qualms in saying that his performance here was appalling. His first error was to fail to send off Simon Francis for a head high, studs up challenge on Cheikhou Kouyate. I don't think Francis was intending to catch Kouyate, and had his eyes firmly on the ball, but when you raise your studs to that height you also have a responsibility to ensure you don't land them on a fellow professionals face. Rather than consult another official or take his time and weigh the decision up, Madley instead brandished a yellow card immediately, which has the added effect of ensuring Francis won't even get the retrospective ban he deserves. And for anyone who hasn't seen it, and thinks perhaps I'm being a little melodramatic - you can judge for yourself here: 


Just a yellow - nothing to see here

Similarly, Madley chose not to act on Josh King accidentally elbowing Pedro Obiang in the face off the ball. That probably sounds crazy, but the Norwegian flung his arms out in frustration at a decision and caught Obiang unaware, knocking him to the ground. I don't think there was any intent in the actions of King either, and that is more relevant in his case because the laws clearly state that a player must be dismissed for "deliberately striking an opponent". It doesn't seem unreasonable to me that players should refrain from throwing their elbows around, but they are also people and if we try to remove all joy and human emotion from football then we run the risk of turning this whole thing into BBC1 on Christmas night. 

But where Madley fatally impacted this game was in the dying moments. We had floundered and fluked our way to a 3-2 lead, and with just seconds remaining a hopeful ball was pumped into our box. In truth, we hadn't dealt with that line of attack very well all day, and true to form Nathan Ake won the header. He looped the ball back across goal and a marginally offside Callum Wilson diverted the ball in with this arm. 

The referee's assistant (oh the irony of that title) immediately raised his flag, and the goal was all set to be disallowed. At that point Madley trotted over to the sidelines. That, in itself, is fairly unusual given that he has a radio link with his assistants and I'm not sure I've ever really seen a referee do that for a straightforward offside decision. After a lengthy enough deliberation for a video referee to have reviewed the incident in real time and made the correct decision, Madley awarded the goal, because of course he fucking did. 

Delving into the world of conjecture for a moment I have to suspect that the following happened: the assistant flagged for offside, Madley intimated that he didn't think Wilson touched the ball, the assistant pointed out that this couldn't really be true as the ball wasn't going in until Wilson used his arm to push it in, Madley disagreed because Callum Wilson is a theoretical concept and awarded the goal and the stadium announcer promptly told the world that Callum Wilson has just scored the equaliser. Some fucking magic, that. 

In the end, I don't believe this was anything more than poor officiating but it's easy to get drawn into thinking otherwise. After all, I believe that there is an institutional corruption that sits at the heart of most sport. Had this happened against Manchester United, for example, I think that Madley would have disallowed the goal purely because human beings typically do the things that allow them the easiest lives. Referees know that they can make a decision like this against West Ham and be in the news cycle for one night. Do it against Mourinho and you're infamous for months. 

So there you go: I think that elite level football is ludicrously tilted towards the rich; I believe that pretty much every high level athlete is using performance enhancing drugs and just because it started with track and field, swimming and cycling doesn't mean it won't be football and rugby soon enough; I believe that cup draws are probably at least partially fixed to satisfy the demands of television, sponsors and Vladimir Putin; and I think that one reason that governing bodies in football are so reluctant to introduce measures to help referees get more decisions correct is that big clubs don't want that to happen - why, after all, would you give up one of the inherent advantages of being a big club - namely that you can rely on most line decisions going your way? 

But for all that might make me a tin foil hatted conspiracy theorist in your eyes, I can honestly say that I don't think referees are biased against West Ham for the simple reason that there would be no point. So when you boil all of that down, the reality is probably just that Bobby Madley is a bit of a shit referee. 

***

"This is the highlight of your miserable life
A pessimist is never disappointed"
- Theaudience, "A Pessimist is Never Disappointed"

I could write yet more about the decisions in this game, and how I can't see any difference between the "deception" of Manuel Lanzini and the "magic" of Callum Wilson, but fixating too much on officiating would detract away from yet another disappointing performance. It may seem strange to say that when we scored three goals, but we spent most of this game clinging on to the coattails of a decidedly poor Bournemouth team and were particularly fortunate to pull level at 2-2, when Marko Arnautovic took advantage of Asmir Begovic wearing clown shoes in the driving rain.

We started well enough, with James Collins celebrating his recall by thumping home a trademark near post header from an Aaron Cresswell corner. I especially enjoyed this because Bournemouth placed a man on the post to specifically prevent this and he moved far enough from his spot to allow the ball in. It is worth remembering stuff like this when we question how managers can't organise their teams to defend properly - some footballers are so poor at concentrating that they can't even stand still when they're told to.


God bless men who can't stand still

That early lead didn't look particularly secure, however, as our back line seemed to have over indulged at Christmas, and the home team flooded forward in search of an equaliser, creating plenty of opportunities. King should have scored from one such chance, before Dan Gosling latched on to a weak Collins clearing header and rifled home the leveller. Oddly, we really should have been two ahead by this stage as Arthur Masuaku produced another trademark run before picking out Andre Ayew, who put the ball narrowly wide. On such slender threads can satisfactory Boxing Nights hang.

By this stage the rain was hammering down like Blade Runner, although even Roy Batty might have seen some new things here. After Ake scrambled home another shittily defended set piece to give the home side the lead their pressure warranted, it looked as though we would have yet another disappointing trip to the coast. Enter Begovic, who casually controlled a backpass before falling over his own feet, allowing Arnautovic - who hadn't stopped running - to capitalise with a neat left footed finish. Score one for the Moyes school of sergeant majoring the fuck out players.

Better was to come when Masuaku again went roaming with just a minute to go and picked out Chicharito who made a complete Benteke of it, but was saved when Begovic again lost control of his limbs and Arnautovic poked home his fifth goal in as many games. With just injury time to come, it seemed as though we had done enough to steal a win we didn't really deserve - a trait that Moyes would be very welcome to bring with him from all those years at Goodison.

Unfortunately, there was still some Truly, Madley, Deeply action to come and as it was we are left to ponder what kind of world we live in where we can take four points from Arsenal and Chelsea but just one from Newcastle and Bournemouth, and that the only consistent thing about this team is that you don't ever know what they are going to do.

The worry is that these were two games where we could reasonably have expected to have shown a little more in attack. Sitting back and soaking up constant pressure is fine against the teams with several hundred million more to spend on their squads, but these were supposed to the games where we showed we could punch back against our fellow strugglers. And so we scored five and conceded six and the only thing we know is that we know nothing.

***

"Am I moving back in time? Just standing still?"
- The War on Drugs, "Pain"

High up on my list of concerns is the way in which our team seem to be ageing in front of our eyes. Pablo Zabaleta had to replaced here because Bournemouth targeted him in much the same way as Newcastle did, and got nearly as much joy from it. He gets a light ride from the London Stadium crowd because he's enthusiastic and runs around like a toddler on Fanta, but the truth is that his positional play still leaves a lot to be desired and we are forced to expose him as a wing back because we can't defend without playing three in the middle. The chances of him being able to play twice in three days strikes me as minimal, meaning that I suspect we'll see Rice at Wembley against Spurs, and seriously - are Sam Byram's hamstrings made out of spaghetti?


Zaba's going on a run again!

Zabaleta has also been booked seven times already this season, opening him up to red cards, and when players like Ryan Fraser can give him the kind of torrid afternoon that he did here, it bodes poorly for the remaining eighteen months of that characteristically stupid contract. Likewise, Winston Reid didn't even make the team here as he dropped out for Collins and we are now reduced to hoping that he didn't injure himself in doing so. With Fonte also out long term, it would explain the apparent interest in Alfie Mawson who might cost £25m but can at least still go on an 18-30 holiday if he wants to. I don't know much about Mawson, but it would be lovely if Moyes could target a centre back who can actually pass the ball rather than hoof it in the general direction of Andy Carroll irrespective of whether he is on the pitch or not. 

In front of them, Cheikhou Kouyate had another afternoon to forget, as his Catherine Wheel impression continued to have little impact on the game. Pedro Obiang has attracted a lot of opprobrium for his performances in these last couple of games, but I thought it was noticeable how much better he played alongside a proper central midfielder - Mark Noble - than we saw here. There is quite a lot of pressure on that central midfield area in this formation, given that we are giving up a body to play in the back three, and it asks a lot of the defensive midfielder. After a promising start, in which Obiang looked like he might actually improve a little under Moyes, he has regressed and was replaced here by Carroll - our Goliath for all seasons. I'm not quite ready to judge the Spaniard in this system until we see him get a run out alongside a better midfield partner, but I don't think it was a coincidence that we looked much better when Lanzini went deeper and started our attacks. Either way, I predict some reinforcements will be arriving soon. 

The double substitution of Carroll and Chicharito was supposed to galvanise us, but in reality just highlighted the paucity of attacking options that we currently seem to have. With only Lanzini and Masuaku able to create from deeper areas, we have to either rely on the mobile physicality of Antonio and Arnautovic or resort to the long range bombing approach and launch mortars at Fort Carroll and hope for something to land at the feet of Chicharito. And while we do that, the plan was that the sturdy defensive setup constructed by Moyes would allow us to keep clean sheets. 

If we can't maintain any defensive structure while being more expansive, then Moyes will have to apply the handbrake and revert to a less attacking style to try and give us a chance of winning games like this 1-0. It might not be pretty, but relegation scraps never are. In the driving rain of the South Coast, we dropped two very precious points because of some awful refereeing, but also because we were defensively all over the place. 

***

"Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is, I wish they'd cut it out quick, but when they will I can only guess"
- Bob Dylan, "Idiot Wind"

It's nearly January everyone, and that means that David Sullivan is going to be staying up really late ringing agents in South America and furiously flicking through YouTube highlight reels in search of the next Nene. As every West Ham fan knows, the New Year generally brings yet more stupidity in the boardroom, and with the team waist deep in relegation trouble, this time will be no different. Brilliantly, someone in the West Ham/Sullivan PR team decided that a great way to kick off this particular transfer window would be to carry a story in the Mail about how Dave Sullivan Jr lives in a £40m luxury flat and "works harder than anyone he knows".


Another heart warming Christmas story

In fairness to the kid, I'd hate to be judged on things I said and did at the age of twenty, and so I'll choose to ignore the generally crass theme of the article and the incredibly tone deaf decision to celebrate unfathomable, undeserved wealth at a time when so many people in the country are suffering in a stagnant economy. But, honestly, who the hell thinks this stuff is a good idea? Why do these kids keep getting repeatedly exposed to public scrutiny of their lives and activities when it is such a red rag to a fanbase who already think their father is tight and screwing money out of the club? None of this is complicated - but when we're about to enter a month of transfer activity which will define our season, why would you be in the media boasting about your wealth...


...if you're going to do things like this?

Can you see how these two pictures cause problems, Dave? It doesn't matter whether the N'Zonzi story is true, or the fact that I agree that a loan approach is better, because the account that carried it has over sixty thousand followers and this cheap looking style fits a club who seem to have no money.

There were also lots of rumours today about Reece Oxford moving permanently to Germany, although we may now apparently recall him to play for us instead. The rumour there was that Moyes was keen to move the kid on in order to get some cash in for new signings. Quite why we should need cash given that we spent such a low sum in the summer is an issue in itself, but beyond that it also highlights the total stupidity of allowing a potentially temporary manager to make such decisions. Ask yourself whether you would want the substitute teacher expelling your kid, and that will give you an idea of how good a decision making set up this would be. 

Moyes doesn't need to worry about what our squad will look like in 2020 because he knows that if we  go down this summer he won't be here to worry about it. Once again a Director of Football would be best placed to make such a decision, and once again we don't have one. Let's therefore hope that the Oxford recall is with a view to turning him into a better West Ham player, rather than with a view to turning him into enough cash to buy declining 29 year old players for a relegation battle. We already have a squad full of them. 


It's unimportant that one of these can get you a Mirallas

Yes, Oxford might have an attitude problem, and maybe he has a difficult agent, but those things are true of lots of teenage players. In the end, this is a chance for us to get a potentially high quality player for nothing, and flogging him to allow Sullivan to waste yet more funds on his idea of good footballers doesn't do anything for me. Oxford will mature one day, and we'll regret it immensely if he does so somewhere outside East London. Ultimately, when teams who are better than you want your players, that should tell you something about the asset you have. If we truly don't think we can get the best from an eighteen year old then I guess we should move him on, but in turn I would be asking some questions about exactly why that was the case. 

So, who should we target? Well, I've outlined above how I'd like a centre back - although that is a slightly difficult assessment to make given that we don't really know how highly the club rate any of Reece Oxford, Reece Burke or Not Reece Declan Rice. A right sided defender to cover Zabaleta and Byram's incredible Chinese noodle hamstrings would also be useful. But we also clearly need a central midfielder who can get about the pitch and create something, while a striker that Moyes can trust to do some Diafra Sakho type things without being Diafra Sakho would really be helpful too. 

There is absolutely no chance of us getting all of those players in January, so to my mind they absolutely have to target the midfield as we are currently only playing a three man midfield and still had to play strikers in there for the Arsenal cup game. N'Zonzi wouldn't have been a bad short term acquisition but at 29 he would be yet another to add to the phalanx of ageing one-last-contract types that clutter up our squad. 

A better approach, for this season only, might be to target the big clubs and look at non playing member of their squads who are borderline choices for their countries and taking them on short loans. Anyone wanting to play at the World Cup will need game time between now and May, and we would be the ideal place for someone to stage a revival, provided we don't introduce them to Joe Hart. 

As such, the link to Andre Schurrle makes sense, as would a return for Andre Gomes - a rumoured target around the time of the William Carvalho debacle. I like the idea of getting these hungry, motivated players, who can arrive and have an immediate impact. Of course, historically this has never worked for us but if the alternative is buying another Robert Snodgrass, then I'm happy to give it another whirl. 

***

"But the drumbeat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new born day"
- Al Stewart, "The Year of the Cat"

Some of you may have noticed that I didn't post an article for the Newcastle game. This wasn't a fit of pique but more because I decided to spend Christmas Eve with the family rather than spewing out 3,000 words on how our midfield was overrun by Mo Diame. I did, however, vent a little on Twitter which you can find here. 

I've also been asking for some recollections from fans on Frank Lampard Jr, for a retro piece I'm writing at the moment. Any contributions would be gratefully accepted.

And with that, all that remains is for me to wish you all a very Happy New Year and to thank you for reading The H List in 2017. See you in 2018 - it's West Brom to start, so that's bound to be hugely entertaining.