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

Monday, December 04, 2017

Man City 2 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"So how could I ever refuse
I feel like I win when I lose"
- ABBA, "Waterloo"

Well then. How does one assess a match in which your team is at longer odds to win 1-0 than the opposition is to win 7-0? A game in which your team takes a half time lead and defends tenaciously, but ultimately loses late on and drops more precious points? An away fixture in which we have to measure our progress not through tangible rewards like points, but instead through more prosaic measurements such as how long it took to concede? Glorious defeats are still defeats after all, and lots of games like this litter the fixture lists of relegated teams. How can it be then, that I feel somewhat more positive about life than I did this morning? How can it feel like a win when we lost?


Can four people dressed like this really be wrong?

At the most base level, this is simply a result of us not caving and losing by the tennis scores that have been the customary outcome whenever we have gone up against bigger teams lately. In fairness, that hasn't tended to be the case away from home, where there is less onus on us to come out and attack and as such we can keep a better defensive shape. For fifty minutes here, we performed a very impressive impersonation of a top flight football team as we kept Man City at arms length and forced them into ambitious shooting from long distance. In fact, I haven't seen so many shots fly over a bar in such quick succession since I last made the mistake of going for a drink with my Polish mate, Pete. 

But putting aside all of that, I think what was really the most encouraging part of all this was that there seemed to be clear evidence of a plan and a commitment to sticking to it by the players. Ask yourself, when did you last see that? Even the glorious high of that cup win at Spurs seemed to be driven by some kind of magic pixie dust that settled on a couple of players and took the crowd with them and just blitzed us through. And while we might not like to admit it, that can happen in knockout games when opposition players get distracted and start to focus on the weekend and teams can take risks they might not otherwise take. But here, we did it on a day when it really mattered. Whisper it, perhaps, but we looked a little like one of those old David Moyes sides. 

***

"We all disagree, I think we should disagree, yeah
Is this it?"
- The Strokes, "Is This It"

But how excited can we really be about "it" when we lost the game? After all, eight minutes from a point might as well be eighty for all the impact it had on the league table. In fact, as a result of this weekend we are now below Crystal Palace in the league table despite the fact that they played the first month of the season using their ballboys as a back four. 

My take is that we at last displayed some level of discipline in our defensive duties and, crucially, the team were prepared to trust the system and each other to carry it through. It wasn't pretty or terribly ambitious, but when your opposition literally have a billion more pounds than you to spend on their team then I don't really feel like that should be a factor. City players and Pep Guardiola can make all the snide asides they want about time wasting and parking the bus but when we are but a month removed from the nation state of Abu Dhabi demanding that Brighton and Bournemouth give them a larger share of the Premier League television money they can, quite frankly, fuck right off. And when they get there they can fuck off again, as the great Malcolm Tucker might say. 


Parked the bus did we Fabian? Fuckety bye, son.

In fact, Pep, if you hope that more teams will attack you then why don't you give us David Silva and a wage cap? Until then, slip on your hipster Adidas sambas and your Northside t-shirt and piss off on your skateboard back to your cave of oil money bullion and stop telling teams with 5% of your resources how to play. 

As it was, we went into this game in the middle of our customary winter injury crisis and emerged with yet another muscle injury as Cheikhou Kouyate limped off in the first half. All hail Gary Lewin! That withdrawal had a big impact as it pushed Antonio out wide where he was pressed into lots of defensive work, which is usually a prelude to something disastrous like a rip in the space time continuum or a new Robbie Williams album. 

Oddly, Man City looked nothing like the glorious attacking force that we are used to seeing as they huffed and puffed their way through the first half, with lots of possession and territory but very little by way of clear cut chances. Indeed, the best chances of the half came when Antonio got free at a corner and was unable to guide a flick on into the roof of the net and Manuel Lanzini pounced on a loose ball to fire at Ederson. With just a minute to go, however, Lanzini and Aaron Cresswell worked a short corner to allow the latter a better angle with which to hit the first man. Instead, he surprised us all by finding an unmarked Angelo Ogbonna who thumped home an opener that might not exactly have been deserved but did not flatter us. 


I realise that not everybody puts much faith in Expected Goals, but this map from Michael Caley pretty much adheres to my view of that first half and highlights the excellent defensive performance. There seems to have been some view of it as us playing a three at the back system, with Cresswell as a centre back and Antonio as the lone striker. I didn't see it quite that way, as I thought it was a traditional flat back four with the full backs tucked in very tight and the wide players instructed to get back and provide cover at every opportunity. Arthur Masuaku did this pretty well and also managed his customary thing whereby he made several long weaving runs upfield, going past three or four players, and then following them up with periods of play where he looked like he was in a Testimonial. 


Unfortunately, we couldn't keep that level of solidity and eventually we were simply overrun by a team who possess brilliant attacking players at every turn. The winner came just eight minutes from time and was wonderful, as Kevin de Bruyne picked out David Silva at the back post with a ludicrously pinpoint cross, and the Spaniard athletically volleyed it home. Scant reward for all that effort, but evidence enough that the gulf in class was pretty wide. 

The equaliser was truly the goal that sank us, as the longer we went without conceding after half time, the more we had to cling to. It came from a free kick awarded for a Fabian Delph dive (Delph, the last bastion of footballing morality) meaning it was a passage of broken play when there are players in the box who aren't normally there. And so it was that Jesus made a run and crossed for Nicolas Otamendi, of all people, to stab it home. Until that point, Adrian had looked fairly unbeatable in a way that Joe Hart has never yet done in claret and blue. 

We still had a couple of half chances to snatch something when Marko Arnautovic broke late in the half but his first cross was too high for Antonio and his second was turned just past the post by Diafra Sakho. By such fine margins can relegation seasons hang. 

***

"We're movin' up, we're movin' up
It's been a lot to change, but you
Will always get what you want"
- Two Door Cinema Club, "Something Good Can Work"

What really needs to happen now is that these brief elevations in performance levels actually need to start producing something. It's tough on David Moyes, who has not had a preseason and has inherited a team that look knackered, unfit and lacking in confidence, but there is no time for sentiment. Turning this around is a huge job, and these are spirited baby steps, but sadly, getting the team to perform to a level just below that of the opposition is still a recipe for going down. It is a sobering thought that for all of these small, incremental gains, we are currently in a worse position than we were under Avram Grant, Patron Saint of the Incompetent, at the same time in 2010/11.

The half time TV analysis of this game was interesting, as Jamie Carragher suggested that West Ham were deliberately not advancing from their defensive shape to engage City's attackers. What this ensured was that we left no space behind our defenders and instead kept them in front of us. This led to lots of pointless passing and those long range shots that Adrian was happy to wave into the stratosphere. 

Now, I'm sure that Slaven Bilic tried to instil those sorts of plans in his players too, but to a layman like me it never looked like they stuck. Yet here was a defensive plan frustrating the worlds best coach and forcing him to switch to a 4-2-4 system that eventually overwhelmed us. While it may not have worked today, what games like this can do is give players confidence in their management staff that they have some workable ideas that will serve them better against lesser opposition in the future. Very few teams have a David Silva to turn to, after all. 


This won't happen every week, Declan

I also have to hold my hands up and acknowledge that Declan Rice was more than worth his starting place. I have generally not joined in the clamour for young, inexperienced players to be thrown into the team, but the Irishman was outstanding here and stood firm against world class opponents. Certainly, Sergio Aguero seems to have gone off the boil - not the first man to pay the price for a long weekend in Amsterdam - but Rice was assured in his defensive work, even allowing for an early booking, and he deserves an extended run, if only because both Reid and Collins are so injury prone that the disruption caused by their frequent absences is an increasing problem. 

The booking for Rice was interesting as referee Mike Dean refused to apply the same rigidity to his decisions for City defenders. Both Otamendi and Mangala should have been booked for first half fouls, which would have at least forced them to be a little more timid in their second half tackling. As they weren't, City just kept fouling us with impunity on the rare occasions we forayed forwarded. It's a little trick that served Ranieri's Leicester well in the season they won the league, and is an oft underplayed element of Premier League defending these days. 

However, where we really lost out in the second half was in the way we dropped deeper and deeper, inviting them on to us with no real way out. Giving Antonio defensive responsibility is fraught with danger, especially when he is such a strong outlet at the other end. There is a dream I have where he and Sakho terrorise less progressive teams with their pace and power. However, even Arnautovic was sucked back into defensive roles and what that meant was we could never relieve pressure by advancing further up the pitch in possession. Lots of aimless balls went into the corners and by the end we were basically putting on a touring version of Zulu

***

"Let me go on, 
Big hands I know you're the one"
Violent Femmes - "Blister In The Sun"

One thing that was also different this week was that we had Adrian in goal. David Sullivan's £4m summer vanity project, known to his mum as Joe Hart and "Good try, Joe" to his defenders, was ineligible as he is technically still a Man City player, although Pep seems to have more time for Nathan Redmond than he does for Hart these days. 

The Spaniard did nothing to deserve being dropped in the first place, and was excellent here again. Neither goal was his fault and he pulled off a number of excellent diving stops to keep us at parity. He has no weakness to his left, unlike Hart, and seems to inspire a certain level of confidence in the team that isn't there when the "England No.1" is between the sticks. It's a bit harsh to blame Hart as the defensive set up in front of him this season has been mostly imaginary, but it was still a vainglorious signing by Sullivan in an attempt to get some big names into his side to deflect criticism from his prior failures. 

The folly of that policy was laid bare here, as it was tempting to imagine how that £4m of wages could have been better utilised as we got to seventy minutes and an exhausted Antonio desperately needed replacing and we had only untried youth players available. 

There is a rumour doing the rounds that Hart has a clause in his deal that demands he is played when he is available, and if so, he'll return on Saturday against Chelsea. I don't blame him for that, by the way, as this is a World Cup year and he couldn't run the risk of losing his England place due to not playing. However, for us to agree to that is ludicrous. He was never anything more than a minimal upgrade over Adrian, at best, and by not playing the Spaniard we have cost him his own chance of regaining his position as 3rd choice Spanish keeper. Given that, he will be off at the earliest available opportunity, and who can blame him. What a nonsense. 

This is the kind of crap that so frustrates me about the way the club operate off the field. A completely unnecessary signing that wasted valuable funds in a transfer window where Sullivan presumably knew he was going to be significantly reducing our net spend. I'm sure it's tedious for you all to hear me vent about this, but we are teetering very close to a catastrophic situation for the club and the hubris of Sullivan in believing he is suited to overseeing the situation is a huge factor in that. Take the injury to Kouyate - the continual loss of first team players to muscle damage should be a huge warning sign to a thoroughly modern club. A qualified Director of Football would be investigating that and demanding an upgrade to performance in that area. Sadly, at West Ham, unless a question can be resolved with a phone call to an agent, it simply doesn't get asked. 

Interestingly, a reader asked me on Twitter during the week what were my criteria for a Director of Football and I struggled to answer because of the character restriction. This in itself is telling, because it should be a huge job that encompasses broad and wide ranging responsibilities across the club, with responsibility for lots of different staff members. 

I would start by saying that the departments of recruitment, scouting, analytics, sports science, medical, player development (Academy) and player welfare should all report to that position. It's a role that requires an ability to manage across a wide area and has a pseudo CEO look because delegation and flexibility seem key to me. Rather than hiring an ex manager who is looking for a short cut back to the dugout, the person would probably be someone with a business background and experience in sport, without any requirement to have played the game at a high level. Perhaps most importantly of all would be the requirement that this person shape the philosophy for the entire organisation. It's hard to overstate how demoralising it can be to work somewhere with no direction and no obvious plan for the future. Employees like certainty and structure - even those at football clubs. 

What I wouldn't suggest is a club chairman with five relegations to his name, who never leaves his house or speaks to junior staff and holes himself up in his office ringing agents until 4am trying to drive down loan fees for players that any reasonable analyst could tell him won't fit his side. 

I'm sorry for continuing to bang this particular drum, but in this odd time we live in where the club appear to be canvassing opinion from every possible corner, the single best thing West Ham fans could do right now would be to turn their attention away from the lack of places to rest their pints at half time on the concourses and demand some proper corporate governance and leadership from those who own the club. 

***

"Don't give me love or, no, none of that stuff
Cos, it's yer money I'm after, baby"
- The Wonder Stuff, "Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More"

So as we leave today behind and look forward, we return home for back to back games with Chelsea and Arsenal. The former seem a bit more mortal this year, and probably represent our best hope of getting something even though Eden Hazard's return to form seems a bit terrifying. 

But perhaps the most interesting part of our return back to the stadium is the report that was issued by the Mayor's office last week into the costs around the conversion of the Olympic Stadium to its current state. Jon Lines writes a good review of the situation at Brace The Hammer which fills in a lot of blanks you may have. I've added a few bits here, but where I get anything wrong please let me know. It's a complex area and I have really only skim read the report. But a lack of expertise certainly didn't stop any of the people involved in the deal so I'm not worrying either. 


Cheers lads

The report, by Moore Stephens, should be read through the prism of the political situation in London at present. The games were won under the Labour Mayor, Ken Livingston who made the decision - along with Tory Seb Coe - that the stadium would maintain an athletics track after the games and that no concessions would be made to the desire of Premier League teams to be involved in the process. This fateful decision would end up costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions, as it would become evident in later years that a stadium with no anchor tenant would be the white elephant the British bid had promised not to leave behind. 

Ironically, IOC President Jacques Rogge would later state that there was no firm requirement for an athletics track to be retained as part of the stadium design, confirming that at least in some part, this was an ideological decision on behalf of former Olympic champion, Coe. 

Thereafter, the political landscape changed as Boris Johnson was elected Mayor, meaning that the entire world could watch our opening ceremony and say "My God, he's their Mayor?". Johnson would reopen the stadium issue once again by seeking an anchor tenant to provide a greater legacy than a 25,000 seater athletics stadium that would likely rust in the London rain. In 2011, he selected West Ham as that tenant with an agreement that we would effectively take over running of the stadium, with responsibility for the costs of conversion and maintenance in exchange for retaining all profits associated with the deal. 

This proposal, as revealed in the report, was markedly different to the version we have now and essentially involved West Ham agreeing to play in the Olympic Stadium as was, athletics track and all, with a canvas roof above. I don't know either. 

However, fellow bidders Spurs and Leyton Orient and an anonymous complainant would appeal this decision, quoting EU State Aid rules (oh, the irony). Amid a feverish political climate, Johnson shelved that idea in between insulting some foreigners, and re ran the bid process with the central plank being that the Government would retain full ownership of the stadium and run the business profitably for the taxpayer. This would mean that a tenant such as West Ham would gain access to the ground for a small number of days each year, with the rest of the time being taken up with other profitable events to make money for the taxpayer. 

In reality those appeals from Spurs and Leyton Orient saved West Ham hugely, as the reality of playing in the stadium with next to no money spent on conversion would have been horrendous. What they also did was cost the taxpayer an incredible amount as those costs would later spiral wildly, as West Ham's demands increased substantially now that we weren't paying for it. The decision to rerun the bid process would generate huge costs for the taxpayer - a point that the current Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was looking to highlight with the publication of this report. 

Even more ironic was that Spurs never had any particular desire to move to Stratford, but instead merely wanted to use it as a stalking horse to get the Mayor to commit to providing funding for their own stadium redevelopment in Haringey. That was successful as they are now receiving tens of millions of public money to assist with their project - you'll remember that irony I mentioned earlier - and had the added effect of convincing Karren Brady to commit to keeping the athletics track as part of West Ham's bid. 

My own feeling is that West Ham were, not unreasonably, concerned that if the Spurs bid were to be chosen and if they were to move into Stratford it could signal the end of our dominance of the East London and Essex catchment area. As such, they sought to differentiate themselves by committing to the track, even though grounds that have done this are usually as atmospheric as morgues. What does become clear reading the report is that the fan experience is not central to anything that has been done with the stadium. 

Fast forward to 2017, and what the report is showing is that the deal West Ham negotiated is so ludicrously one sided that the best projected year for E20 - the company running the stadium for the Greater London Authority - is a ten million pound loss. Much of this is due to the fact that West Ham's annual rent is £2.5m, when the cost of running the ground is closer to £11m. Additionally, the famous retractable seating has proven to be a disaster, with the company contracted to deliver it going bust and the replacement system required at short notice for the Rugby World Cup an expensive exercise. West Ham fans will also realise that it doesn't retract. Johnson's fingerprints are all over that process too. 

The summary of the report is essentially that the current situation is not tenable, with so much public money being used to prop up a poorly negotiated, one sided deal that hurts the taxpayer. The problem with that is there aren't any terribly good options available. Sadiq Khan has announced that his office will take control of the stadium from E20 which I suspect will mean a squeeze on any of the services provided by the landlord. Expect to see stewards, safety officers, security officers and any other staff reduced as much as legally possible by the Mayor. Great news for fans. 

In Jon's summary article above he suggests that West Ham will inevitably end up paying more due to Khan's desire to rescue the situation. I disagree with this, largely because there isn't anything Khan can do to renegotiate the deal unless he offers up something in return. That might be a greater slice of naming rights or a reduction in the amount due to the Treasury in the event they sell the club. Therefore, Khan can talk about a new deal but in all likelihood nothing much will change. There may be an attempt to leave the stadium in athletics mode after the next event, but presumably that will be met with a strong legal challenge from West Ham on the grounds that they will have sold season tickets to fans in those seats. 

Given all of that, and there is a whole load more to this which I'd encourage you to read about on this excellent thread at KUMB, I can only really see a long term solution whereby we take over the stadium. Let's face it - the Mayor could save millions for the taxpayer now simply by giving Sullivan and Gold the keys. Of course this won't happen because the political nature of the situation prevents it, but it does it mean there is going to be a public focus on the costs of the London Stadium. Generally, such PFI arrangements can be loss making forever, but now that Khan has made it so public I do wonder if something will happen further up the line. 

There is then a question as to exactly why Sullivan and Gold would ever bother to take on the ownership of a ground when they could stay as they are and reap all of the same benefits for just £2.5m a year. But while there are plenty who will think that this is a great deal for West Ham, it should be noted that I don't support a balance sheet, and what's good for our owners hasn't generally translated into good things for the team, and furthermore West Ham fans are taxpayers too, and have every right to be as outraged as anyone else about this appalling waste of public funds. 

Should the owners buy or acquire the ground, I don't see them investing in making it the arena for football that we want to be with proper retractable seating and (somehow) a steeper rake for the stands. But, if they were to own it, then it would make the purchase of West Ham a far more attractive proposition for external investors. It's a long way to go from where we are now, but in the longer term I can't really see that it's palatable to the public purse - and those Newham resident West Ham fans who saw their council chuck £40m into the pot - to continue setting fire to ten million quid a year. If they were going to do that they could have just bought us Robert Snodgrass last January and called it quits. Nothing will happen quickly, but something will happen there. Keep an eye on it. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

West Ham 1 - 1 Leicester City (And Other Ramblings)

"Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya"
- Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah"

It's a start. A stuttering, hesitant, uncertain start. Three months late, of course, but still a start. Akin to watching new born foals emerge blinking into a copse through the morning dew, and taking their first tentative steps into a brave new world. While 50,000 people scream "Could someone just fucking mark Jamie Vardy!" at them.

But still, a start. A punch thrown back. We at last got off a shot at the duel. It's a building block.


If they don't run, they don't play

I watched this one from the comfort of my front room, as I couldn't make it in person, meaning I had to turn down an invitation from Sky Sports to take part in a pitchside discussion before the game.  That conversation focused on the current unrest and while I wasn't able to launch a 45 minute rant about the lack of a competent Director of Football, Dan Silver did a much better job by simply laying out the facts of the stadium move and the unfulfilled promise that underpinned the whole thing. "I don't see West Ham as a Champions League team" said Jamie Carragher, reasonably. "Well, neither do we, but they brought us here and told us we would be, so everything has to be viewed through that prism" countered Dan, equally reasonably. Amen. A job well done. And fair play to Sky for asking the questions too. And while I'm here I should add that their football coverage would be about 800% better if every match was covered by Kelly Cates, Gary Neville and Carragher. 

***

"Don't wanna let you down, 
I've been lucky, I was lost, but now I'm found"
- Embrace, "My Weakness Is None Of Your Business"

But pre match discussions do not Premier League points win. That was still to come, in a game that ranged from tepid to thunderous and took a swift detour via frenetic as well. The atmosphere before the match was so thick with poison and rancour that Sky featured it heavily in their build up, with Neville wandering around outside taking the temperature of fans in an attempt to gauge exactly how toxic it was all likely to become. 

Much of the pre match analysis focused on the importance of not allowing Leicester to score early, meaning that they naturally took the lead after 8 minutes. This was so predictable that it didn't really engender the kind of rage that people were concerned about, but instead rolled over the crowd like a gentle wave on to a shoreline. C'est la vie, seemingly, and given it's the fourth time already this year that we've gone behind inside eleven minutes, I guess it is.  

It was yet another goal fashioned from our leaky right hand side, as Pablo Zabaleta was drawn infield in an attempt to win the ball and start a counter attack as though he were playing for a much better side. I don't know how much longer the Argentine is going to keep confusing Andy Carroll with Sergio Aguero but I think we'd all benefit from him wising up a little. As it was, Vardy drifted into the vacant space and a speculative cross was adroitly slotted home by Marc Albrighton. Angelo Ogbonna should have blocked the cross but whoever was holding his voodoo likeness at that particular moment had twisted his legs around so they didn't work and we were behind again. 

This pattern would continue for much of the half, as Leicester took advantage of our defensive fragility without really fashioning any chances. They should, however, have had a penalty when Arthur Masuaku went full Ogbonna and brought down Albrighton. I'm pretty sure that the only reason referee Martin Atkinson didn't award that one was out of pity. 

At that point, West Ham had been largely poor, playing as they were with the weight of a fear so obvious it was almost visible to the naked eye. Our passing was tentative and our movement was obvious, leading to a feeling of frustration inside the Thunderdome. It's easy to think that players don't care, but relegation means upheaval for them too. Some go on to better paying deals elsewhere, but plenty don't. Some have to give up football altogether and move to places like West Brom or Sunderland to get a new contract. Kids have to leave their schools, houses have to be sold, maybe whole families have to leave the country. On nights like this one, it was easy to see the nervousness and tension and that was only heightened by our early setback.

If ever the fans were going to turn, it was now. 

***

"Maybe then I'll fade away and not have to face the facts
It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black"
- The Rolling Stones, "Paint It Black"

And then they didn't. On the face of it, applauding football fans for not turning on their own team seems like the faintest of faint praise, but there was something worth acknowledging here. This entire week was coloured for fans by the discussion of protest. At this point, there are a number of groups and viewpoints, all seemingly united in their distrust of our Board and all determined to be heard. The media had picked up on this, and so had the Leicester players with Danny Simpson openly stating that a tactic would be to try and turn the fans on the team. 

It is a sad truth that opposition teams have been doing this to West Ham for years with some success, and you could hardly blame Simpson for saying it, galling as it was. Maybe some Hammers were galvanised to prove those people wrong, maybe some were harnessing the spirit of anger into something positive and maybe some had just been drinking since midday and were determined to enjoy their Friday night. Either way, there was an undeniably uplifting effect as the crowd united squarely behind the team and finally generated some atmosphere in the great vacuum of the London Stadium. For what it's worth, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to hear and see our fans doing what I always believed as a kid we were preternaturally brilliant at doing - connecting with, and lifting up our team, from nothing. Thank you to those who were there. We'll always have Leicester. 

And so it was that Cheikhou Kouyate scrambled home a goal from a Manuel Lanzini corner right on the stroke of halftime and soothed the fraying nerves of the masses, even if the visitors had effectively ceased to be an attacking threat at this point. 



Once again, xG suggests that this was a poor game with few real chances, and I'd agree, but there is something to be said for keeping Leicester this quiet. They are a decent team who are probably better than their league position suggests, and we were marginally better than them here as we went on to dominate the second half, without creating the killer chance that would have won us the game. On another night, with better luck in front of goal we might have fashioned a winner to have illuminated the gloom and cut through the icy East London night. If nothing else, we might have been awarded a dodgy penalty ourselves when Andre Ayew fell under the lightest of touches from Harry Maguire. It wouldn't have been fair, but I think we're past caring about that now.

And so we take the point, and move on to Everton for a game where we should have a great chance given their inherent shittiness, lack of a manager, lower recovery time and the fact that we have their returning manager. We also desperately need to win given our upcoming fixtures. But you've all been around long enough to know how this particular episode will end. So while a point isn't bad, it's also not good. We really could have used this win. 

***

"Get high up on the mountain, feel your lungs start burning as you rise
Sometimes when you get to this height, you will see another hill to climb
But sometimes all you can see, is the road you didn't take"
- Stornoway, "The Road You Didn't Take"

So what are we to make of a draw like this? It's an inbetweener of an outcome that neither disheartens nor satisfies. It's a Big Mac of a result is what it is.

On the face of it, we have to be happy with a point in the face of a decent opposition and such terrible form coming into the game. I think this was probably our best performance of the season, which is kind of like saying Gary Barlow was the best one in Take That. It might be true, but that doesn't mean there's any quality involved.

But it's also true that we needed a win. With this draw and their own late win, Palace have pulled to within two points of us despite making the worst start to an English top flight league season by losing their first six games without scoring. They could be above us by the time you read this.

But taking the performance in isolation there were some things to be pleased about. The team worked hard, with a clearer defensive structure and a definite plan to get wide and bombard the visitors with crosses. I don't much rate that as an offensive tactic, but I'll accept that it's better then smashing it in the general direction of Chicharito and then whipping out the rosary beads.

Elsewhere, Marko Arnautovic seemed to work pretty hard and was a willing outlet on the right, while the likes of Obiang and Cresswell recovered from poor starts to gradually grow into the contest. These were baby steps but we at least looked like a professional team rather than the playground rabble we've been resembling for the last few months. Ironically, the best bit of defending all night came when Arnautovic chased down Vardy after another of Zabaleta's magical mystery tours. If Moyes can extract that kind of attitude on a permanent basis from the squad then it will speak well of what he and his staff are getting across on the training ground. Caveat emptor, however - the view from Shark Towers might not have allowed me the full range of vision to truly assess whether our artists were truly turning into artisans, but it looked acceptable on the telly.

There was some guile among the sweat too, as Arthur Masuaku played in midfield and oscillated wildly between dazzling breaks and strolling around like he was in an art gallery. He has a lovely ability to retain possession under pressure, and as a result has the priceless ability to carry the ball from midfield areas to the final third. Too often that merely ended up with Lanzini or Creswell swinging an aimless cross towards the distant Carroll, but it was, yes, a start. 


West Ham break down the right

Watching all those crosses go begging did rather put me in mind of the famous failure Moyes suffered at Manchester United, when his team swung in over 80 crosses during a game with Fulham and managed only a draw. I've written and shared links previously about the inefficiency of crossing as a way of scoring goals and I know not all of you agree, but this seemed like a pretty good example of the point. We put in 31 crosses, with just 5 being successful, one of which led to Kouyate's goal. I suppose the fact that we scored from one might make it odd that I am decrying the tactic, but over 90 minutes of huffing and puffing I found it disheartening to see this being used as our main attacking weapon. As a short term fix I can see the attraction due to the simplicity, but I struggle to see this kind of approach worrying better teams who will have so much more possession than us.

As a tactic it was a bit like watching a Roman Testudo formation being used to storm a Normandy beach. It is organised, with clear planning and you can see the thinking, but nobody does this anymore. It's a relic of a distant past when it made sense to get the ball wide because football was played on terrible pitches and the only parts of the ground not under water were the wings.

In examining this I did a quick check on SofaScore to see what the best teams around were doing in this regard. Close to home, Leicester put in 18 crosses and scored with the only successful one. Further up the league the numbers were as follows:

Crosses

Man City -17
Arsenal - 19
Liverpool - 18
Chelsea - 26
Spurs - 35

Now as a study that's pretty useless but I found it interesting that the only good team who outcrossed us were Spurs who were desperately chasing the points against a West Brom side set up to force you to do this by playing 8 centre halves and pushing you out wide. I should also note that they only drew. As did Chelsea, another team chasing the game.

None of this is definitive, and it's just an opinion, but I have a feeling that a season of this might give us an illusory sense of dominance in certain games, but it's a hard way to score goals.

***

"Watch it all go down, like a stone in a stream
If you fall for your reflection, you will drown in a dream"
- First Aid Kit, "King of the World"

And I think there's a specific reason for that at West Ham. 

We need to talk about Andy. Big Andy. The pissed Geordie Samurai who hasn't really looked like Andy for quite a while now. Perhaps the cumulative effect of all those injuries was always going to result in him losing a step, or maybe he's just stumbled off another barstool, but he looks lost as a player. When I think of Carroll at the moment the most useful part of his game seems to be his defensive presence at set pieces. Not quite what we were expecting for £100,000 a week. 


Steamin'

His essence was magnificently captured by Barney Ronay in The Guardian after the game. He wrote:

"Carroll does not play football. He inflicts it. He wreaks football...appearing dramatically in the centre of things like the fuselage of a burning Messerschmitt tumbling from the skies"  

And now I want to give up writing because I'll never produce anything that good.

But at some point Moyes will surely need to cut the cord with Carroll. There has long been this feeling that there was a way of playing that suited him, that simply eluded us, or which Bilic refused to play due to our status as footballing puritans. At what point do we accept the alternative truth, which is that he is a man out of his time, whereby no modern, progressive manager can play to his strengths because battering goalkeepers into the net while they hold the ball ceased to be legal about the same time as slavery? Carroll is a footballing Siren, calling managers to him with the wild eyed promise of a rampaging centre forward, and then wrecking them upon the rocks of his slow link play and faltering aerial power.

The thing that I notice most about him nowadays is how rarely he seems to do the things that we all think he is good at. Where have the towering headers gone? Whither his physical dominance? Morgan and Maguire handled him so well on Friday that as cross after cross rained down like fireballs over the castle walls, by the end he wasn't even trying to head them, instead lining up speculative volleys. Whatever the faults of Diafra Sakho, I struggle to see how he would be a worse option than this, and he certainly should be getting more than two minutes at the end of games to show his worth.

Perhaps Carroll will run riot at Everton and force me to eat my words, and I happen to think his hold up play remains pretty decent but a team with our problems needs more than that. On occasion we need a central striker who can run in behind, or run into channels to win or retain the ball high up the pitch. I'm not tactical genius, but I can see that Carroll is incapable of this, meaning his entire output at the moment seems to be taking the ball just inside the opposition half with his back to goal and a five man midfield staring at him dolefully. It's perhaps little wonder that he hasn't scored since April.

In an ideal world I guess you would want our wide players to run past him and feed off him, but we have no pace out there so they struggle to get beyond him and as a result he gets caught trying to bring the ball down while outnumbered, and then just ends up getting frustrated. I'd also say that his aerial threat has been effectively neutered by the red card at Burnley and the elbow that slipped the net at Watford.

I feel sorry for him, in so much as I don't think this is all his fault. He's just an electric guitar in a symphony orchestra. It could work, I suppose, but I don't see how. But if the Moyes predilection for playing Carroll and Kouyate as our most advanced attackers and smashing endless streams of crosses at them continues, then I could easily see the Geordie talisman falling out with the crowd again.

***

"Yeah, said it's alright, I won't forget
All the times I've waited patiently for you
And you'll do just what you choose to do"
- Love, "Alone Again Or"

Which brings me back to the crowd and the off the field adventures almost as though I had planned it.  I wrote before the last game that I was greatly concerned about the prospect of open revolution in the ground, not because of any great love for the Board, but simply because fans can't just switch effortlessly between spewing vitriol at the Director's Box and then encouraging the team. As it transpired, the support was excellent and if that continues for a while then I think the chances of the team hauling us away from this current mess greatly improves.


Let me guess...he wants a Director of Football

But that hasn't stopped thing progressing apace off the pitch. I implored you all to join WHUISA last time out as I think that proper engagement with the club is important and doing it through a democratically elected group is the way forward. At present their membership stands at 800, which is impressive in a short space of time but needs to continue climbing up into the tens of thousands to truly give the committee the heft they need to press the issues they need to press. They are meeting with the club on 30 November and you can contribute to the discussion around agenda items here.

However, other groups are also in dialogue with the club, including the Real West Ham Fans group who are due to meet with members of the Board next week. This was a group created by Andy Swallow and attracted over 7,000 members in just a couple of days. I have no affiliation with them, but a couple of people I know have suggested it's the real deal and that the group will be an effective rallying point for dialogue with the Board, and will coordinate their efforts with WHUISA.

Their current request is for people to suggest five topics for them to take into the meeting, and as such I thought I'd have a go at sketching out some ideas for discussion. My self imposed rules were that it had to be a realistic area for dialogue (selling up is not a realistic request, nor apparently is demanding Westfield treat us like humans) and should be reasonably broad in nature so as to both facilitate discussion and also try and reflect what I think are concerns from the wider fanbase.

To the extent I get anything factually wrong here, please tell me and I'll update. 

1. The Stadium

We need to a have a frank discussion about the stadium that can't simply be based on the premise that the move was a rip-roaring success and that some arbitrary percentage of fans plucked from nowhere are happy with it. I think there are some very specific things about attending matches that others can comment upon, but I think there is a simple truth that a lot of fans who have to sit behind the gangways feel like they are a hell of a lot further from the action than they were at Upton Park. Offering to relocate people is fine, but the general trend seems to have been to move down closer to the pitch and I'm guessing that eventually these seats will become like gold dust.

So can the club please explain their plan to install the retractable seating originally promised, with a particular focus on their plan to install seating that can be retracted rather than dismantled, ensuring that we never again have to start the season with three away games in order to accommodate a minority sport that doesn't contribute to the upkeep of the stadium.

2. The Finances

My understanding of the terms of our lease are that we could not have any external debt at the time of our move, meaning that the owners were forced to make loans to the club. Unlike, say, Stoke where the Coates family have done this at a zero percent rate of interest, the club is paying between six and seven percent at present to our owners.

Whilst I am not necessarily suggesting that the loans should be at nil rates, it does not sit comfortably with the owners desire to project themselves as owner-fans when they are charging the club a rate of interest similar to that paid by other clubs to external lenders. Why do the owners feel this rate of interest is appropriate and would they consider lowering the rate in order to free up more cash for the club? As they seemingly value the club at over £600m, this would be a relatively small sum for them to give up each year prior to a sale, but impactful to the club given our small net spend this season.

3. The Fans

How can the Club justify not taking up a full allocation of away tickets to away games, including a League Cup quarter final at Arsenal? It's outrageous...but (*).

(*) The Club have ceded on this one today, so I've deleted my main diatribe on the topic. This gives me the pleasing sense of having achieved something.

4. The Academy

West Ham's academy is not functioning at a level commensurate with our status or needs. Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs are producing Premier League players at a rate far beyond us, and in doing so have an income stream that is not open to us.

Put simply, what are the club proposing to do about it?

5. The Team

Ah yes. The area where I'm most likely to fall foul of my own rules.

Well, the team is mediocre and has been for a number of years. Since taking over the club and appointing himself Director of Football, David Sullivan has presided over a relegation, a promotion and a succession of bottom half finishes. The exception to this was 2015/16 when we finished 7th. Leicester won the league that year. We have had one semi final appearance in the League Cup where Man City scraped past us 9-0 on aggregate.

During that same time our transfer activity has been dubious at best, with barely anything recovered from external sales relative to our outgoings. Our largest sale was when Dimitri Payet left the club six months after his triumphant Euro 2016 campaign. We received less for him that Newcastle received for Moussa Sissoko the year before. The last four transfer windows have been unsuccessful.

We have employed four managers in that seven year span, with the Board's first choices rejecting the job on each occasion. We are currently employing a manager on a short term deal to try and keep us up, and as I write this we sit in the relegation zone.

The club currently have a higher wage bill than Dortmund, Valencia, Inter and Roma. The chairman was so delighted about this that he tweeted it out to all of us. I am assuming that someone on the Board actually realises that paying lots of money to be average is a bad thing but, at this stage, who knows.

So, my question is straightforward. We have changed the manager, the players, the scouts and the coaches. At this point the only person to have retained their position in this structure for the last seven years is our Director of Football. So, can we have a new one please?

Please feel free to add your own comments below, or perhaps better yet, tell the organisations directly. I'm not entirely sure I fully understand all that is happening with the Board, and truthfully think their desire for approval is really a weakness, but it is what it is and I'm happy to stick my two penneth worth in. Don't be shy of doing the same. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Watford 2 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

Let's not fuck about. We're in desperate straits. I'd love to tell you that I saw the green shoots of recovery in this game, but in reality it was the same show we've all been watching for two years, with merely a different conductor. And, by the way, it didn't take David Moyes long to look like an extra from Full Metal Jacket did it?


I. What. How. Jesus H CHRIST

So let's examine the anatomy of this relegation battle, because that is where we are right now, irrespective of the pie in the sky nonsense that is being spouted by the club. What are the key areas we need to address?

***

Refusing to accept we are in a relegation battle

In 2010/11 we were relegated bottom of the league having allowed Avram Grant to manage the team all season because of *spins wheel* <incriminating photographs>. At this exact point of the season our records can be compared thusly:

2010/11
Played: 12 
Goal Difference: -11 
Points: 8
Position: Bottom

2017/18
Played: 12
Goal Difference: -14
Points: 9 
Position: 18th

It should be noted that with their current record this year's team would be bottom of the 2010/11 league as well. They are only presently being saved from that fate by the fact Swansea and Crystal Palace are so bad. 

So, by any definition of the term we are knee deep in shit, and yet the team and hierarchy are parading around with the familiar overconfidence that we have all come to know and love. "Look at our attacking options" they say, "That squad is way too good to be down there" I hear, and even as that misplaced bluster floats out into the ether, we continue to lose games like this. 

For shitty 2-0 defeats at Watford are the building blocks of relegation. It happens, we deserved to lose, Watford were the better side and we move on, but the problem with that is one then looks up in February and such defeats are scattered everywhere throughout the season. 

We have managed just three away draws so far this campaign, and when you play your home games at an abandoned nuclear bunker you don't get much home comfort. I'm really beginning to think that Karren should have put "Too Good To Go Down" on the new club badge, given I hear that said an awful lot more about West Ham than I ever hear the phrase "London".

***

Civil War

Ah yes, the third rail of West Ham politics. The board. The fans. The players. The bloggers. The flags. The stewards. The poisonous atmosphere that hangs over the club like our own private ozone layer. As soon as we fell behind yesterday the "Sack The Board" chants started up closely followed by "You're Not Fit To Wear The Shirt". I'd heard something similar at Spurs when we went 2-0 down, and other more regular away followers may be able to pinpoint earlier instances too. 

I will defend to the death the rights of football fans to protest about their club. I despise the patronising "well what do they expect, they should be grateful" media types who parachute into clubs for brief moments, shake hands with the owners and then disappear again like weekend tourists. The prime difference between the fans at the game yesterday and those talking heads is that the former have paid to be there. Both literally and emotionally. So if West Brom fans want to be entertained for their entrance fee then they are entitled to say so, and if West Ham fans want to understand exactly why we gave up our ground to actually get worse on the pitch then that is also perfectly reasonable. 


"But Zabaleta used to be good for City so how could he be bad for us?"

But I will also say this - such division never ends well for us. I was there for the Bond Scheme and the anti-Cearns protests and all it does is transmit a "get the fuck out of Dodge" vibe to the players on the pitch. It leads to fearful, nervy performances like we saw yesterday where a team bereft of confidence look petrified to get on the ball, and eliminates any synergy between the crowd and the team. And ultimately all any of us want is for the team to do well. 

For those who were at Spurs you will know what I mean when I say that there was a sense of inevitability to that comeback once the first went in. The fans abandoned their pursuit of the Board and instead turned to the team and a force of millions couldn't have stopped us. I'm not suggesting it's as straightforward as everybody going all Harry Potter and thinking positive thoughts to make bad things go away, but I'm also certain that history tells us the team cannot win while there is an open war between fans and the Board. 

So, as we go into Leicester at home on Friday the risk is that we let in a an early goal again, Jamie Vardy gloats again, and suddenly all that vitriol is on display once more. All of which might serve to make us feel a little better in the very short term, but with every game that we flush down the drain and with every point we let slip away, we stumble a foot closer to the trapdoor. And the ultimate sad truth is that if we go back down, the future makes for very grim reading. 

Now before anyone accuses me of being a stooge for the Board, let me say this. I'm not saying don't protest, I'm simply saying that protesting while the team is playing is just about the most self defeating thing we can do. I take a back step to nobody in holding up a spotlight to the failings of our Board, but whatever you are thinking about the value of getting your message across while we lose on the pitch, I'm here to tell you it isn't worth it. Inevitably what happens is that the message loses direction and starts going toward those on the pitch, and if you think we're getting out of trouble as sixty thousand of us slaughter Andy Carroll for 90 minutes then I don't know what planet you're on. 

So how do we protest? Well, there are quite a lot of ways. First among them has to be to join the West Ham Independent Supporters Association (WHUISA). It is a minimal cost of £3 that is charged not to make money, but to cover running costs and to give leverage to the group, and takes you all of about two minutes. 

Giving them numbers gives them credibility as they engage with the club, and the WHUISA board are all West Ham lifers with the best interests of the club at hand. If you don't like the cherrypicked nature of the SAB or the Bloggers Meetings then join up and demand that the club engage with your elected representatives. 

At this point I cannot understand why any West Ham fan would not have joined WHUISA. I hear those who say that they think it's pointless, but the group are already building links with the club and have succeeded in getting a platform with them too. From little acorns and all that, but you only need to look at the success of ISA's at places like Spurs to see what a force for good they can be. Don't sit outside the tent pissing in - sign up now. An ISA representing fifty thousand fans is a hell of a lot more credible than one representing a few hundred. 

Secondly, those other meetings that are run by Karren Brady are also platforms to air views. I know that Graeme Howlett of KUMB and Geo Mackie of Hammers Chat have attended past meetings and will willingly put forward questions on behalf of their readers. Engage, contribute, participate - standing in the away end and calling Karren Brady a tranny really isn't the Wildean contribution to this debate that you think it is. 

And on that very point - don't make the attacks personal. I really struggle to understand how Brady gets the same abuse as the Chairmen. She didn't choose to move the club, they did, and she has no involvement in on the field matters. Every time someone calls her a slag or a bint or a dyke or any other misogynistic, homophobic term, I tune out and ascribe it to the fact that lots of men don't like women. When you resort to attacking her gender, you're really showing you have nothing at all to say. 

Equally, let's refrain from going to peoples houses and hanging up flags, especially when there are young families inside. It's a nonsense. 


Sacking Karren Brady will definitely sort out our defence

If you must protest, and I'm not denying there are plenty of reasons to do so, then do it after games, or boycott the clubs commercial activities or do everything you can to get the media to acknowledge the depths of feeling, but ultimately I would suggest steering clear of anything that harms the team. To put it bluntly, we've got a better chance of winning on Friday with the Spurs atmosphere than we have with the one from yesterday. If we splinter now - we are done for. 

***

Incompetence

So, yeah, digging out the Board while the team flail away on the pitch isn't all that helpful but it sure is deserved. 

The frustrating thing that continues to drive me to despair about our Board is how they seem so impervious to outside forces. Having moved the club to the London Stadium they still seem to want to be judged as if we are at Upton Park, and scrabbling around for a few spare pennies from the Sky table. It is as though the clock stopped for them the moment they took over in 2010 and football has remained static ever since. So while English clubs have established a financial dominance over European clubs due to our TV deal, West Ham have shied away from dealing with overseas teams and instead tethered ourselves to the English market where everybody else gets the same bloody income and we have no advantage. That way Robert Snodgrass lies. 


The best thing we could do would be to buy a right load of old shit in January

Similarly, while other clubs look to scoop up promising young managers and snaffle their prime years, we instead look backwards to the distant past. I don't necessarily know if Moyes is a busted flush but he was last good about five years ago, which coincidentally is a rough match to where David Sullivan seems to think we currently are. From the transfer policy to the youth setup to the recruitment process to the interaction with fans - everything is retrograde. 

And people are swift to mock David Gold and his tweet about Champions League football but, to my mind, it's the only sensible thing they've ever said. It is, after all, the one time they've actually shown a scintilla of the ambition needed to match moving to that stadium. 

It was perhaps fitting that this game was against Watford, who seem to be a maelstrom of chaos but are actually a progressively modern organisation with a far better idea about where managers should fit into the structure of a football club than we do. So while Marco Silva is one of those young, progressive managers he is also fairly disposable within the Watford way of working. They have acknowledged that managers have a short shelf life and that asking them to spend all the clubs money is a short cut to having exasperated replacements on the touchline bemoaning the lack of pace in the team they have inherited. 

By contrast, we seemingly put the manager at the epicentre of everything. Truthfully, our transfer policy is opaque so it's impossible to know who is buying the players - a massive problem in itself - but if rumours are to be believed, then this is a Bilic team. But Bilic doesn't work here any more so what fucking use was it to give him £40m to spend ten weeks ago when this risk was always there? And watching this painfully slow team play in exactly the same manner as they did under Bilic, just highlights even more the lunacy of not having a proper Director of Football in place. 

When we moved from Upton Park, we were stepping up a level. A London club with fifty thousand season ticket holders, plenty of money, a playing staff good enough to have made the Champions League the season before. And what did we change off the pitch to match our newer, broader ambitions? Nothing. We persisted with the same structure and set up, meaning that our Director of Football was the man who led Birmingham to being a yo-yo club. That's it. That's his sole qualification for the job. I have said it repeatedly but it must be said again now - David Sullivan would not get the role he currently has at any other Premier League club, just as I cannot envisage any other top flight outfit employing David Moyes. 

For a club so desperate to break into the Champions League, we seem remarkably reluctant to employ any people who've actually done it. 

Consider this. When Sullivan took over in 2010, the following clubs were in the Championship or lower - Brighton, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Swansea, Leicester, Bournemouth, Southampton, West Brom, Palace and Watford. Burnley were also four months from relegation. 

So in the intervening seven years these clubs have all had to climb to the Premier League. We had an advantage over all of them at that point, simply by virtue of our loftier position. And yet, what has happened in that time is that smaller clubs have been forced to become smarter to bridge the gap to the monied elite. And while the smaller teams have got more intelligent, those larger beasts who have refused to adapt - helloooo Aston Villa - have fallen by the wayside. And once those smaller teams get here, and start making proper money, then they start to outperform us because they simply have better people making crucial decisions for them. 

So, look, we may go down this year or we may not, but until we show some desire to drag ourselves kicking and screaming out of the 1970's and into the modern world of professional football - where the chairman sits in the Director's Box and stays out of the managers office, and where we have proper scouts and not agents - we are always going to start every season on the back foot. The panic hiring of Moyes simply reflects the tearing up of yet another plan drawn up on the hoof, when the sad reality is that they should have been planning every aspect of the stadium move from the day they won the contract. But they weren't, and they didn't and this current mess is what you get when amateurs mix it with professionals. 

***

Bad luck

So with all of that whinging out of the way, I can honestly say that this was a very strange game to watch. I don't think any West Ham fan would dare suggest that we we deserved to win, but if you worship at the altar of xG then you would have to at least acknowledge that we really did create some outstanding chances. The Caley Graphics model below displays that rather nicely, and doesn't even adjust for the fact that the second Watford goal should have been ruled out for handball. 


Cheikhou Kouyate was deployed in an advanced role and had the kind of movement one usually associates with a bee trying to get out through a closed window. And yet for all that wasted energy, he had two glorious chances. The first produced a wonder save from Heurelho Gomes and the second was skied into that poisonous ozone layer like he was wearing a pair of flippers. 

In between Marko Arnautovic forced an incredible double save from Gomes, and when it's not your day you may as well give up and go home. Sadly, the Austrian didn't and instead broke his thumb and David Moyes is about to find out that every Christmas West Ham get a nightmare run of fixtures and every Christmas West Ham get a nightmare run of injuries and as such I'm already counting down until we hear his first "I've never known anything like it". 

But while we may have been a bit unlucky with our finishing there was precious little else to get excited about. What was most disappointing was that our tactical setup looked pretty much identical to that under Bilic, which rather begged the question of why we bothered to make a change. Andy Carroll was still isolated up front, displaying the temperament of an irate toddler denied his lunchtime Calipo, and should have been sent off before half time. Behind him we essentially deployed a flat midfield five, wasting Lanzini on the left and even then, didn't manage to offer up any more cover for the defence than usual. 

So the team ran the furthest they had all season, and Arnautovic sprinted about a bit and it still didn't make any difference because Watford still scored twice down his right side and running about a lot in and of itself, is actually fairly meaningless. Players need to be running with a purpose, to press or to harry or to get back from attacking positions into a tight defensive shape. I can't say that I noticed any of that - it just looked like the same thing I've been watching for months. 

But that said, we are probably due a bit of luck. A sending off or a penalty or a deflected goal or just something to cling on to. Because although all football fans collect examples of misfortune like coins in a purse, I feel like we've been on a bit of a tough run lately and when I think back to those relegation seasons of years past I can't help but think that there was quite a bit of ill fortune along the way. 

***

Confidence

Which brings me, mercifully, to the end. And I want to talk a bit about confidence because it's so hard to define but it's so clearly important, and we are a team demonstrably lacking in it. When assessing football games it's wise to remember it's a game played by humans. They behave weirdly and are affected by different things of which we know nothing. 

Who among us knows which player is suffering with injury or is playing in fear of losing his place in this team and then maybe his World Cup place? None of us knows who is an alcoholic or going through a divorce. I've made all these points before, but this is simply to reinforce that there is an awful lot going on that we don't see. Andy Carroll named his new born son Wolf Nine during the week, so it's safe to say that he probably has a lot on his plate just now like maybe a visit from social services, and he played like it. 

But confidence springs from lots of different places. Self confidence is one element, obviously, but there is confidence in your team mates too, or your manager, or the recruitment team who will provide you with some help in January, or in your home stadium where you simply know you will pick up points. And yet, as I lay all of that out in black and white it's pretty easy to see why our players might be on the floor right now. 

So many of them are out of form, playing for a manager they probably don't trust a great deal given his chequered history and knowing that there isn't any help coming in January because there never ever is under Sullivan, and playing at a stadium they all hate. That's the worst combination I've seen since some monster decided to put pineapple on pizza. 

Confidence can also come from believing in your team structure or tactics, or knowing that you are a fit team who can outrun any opposition. And I'm drawing a blank again. 

So for all the running that Moyes may have them doing, it's worth noting that fitter is not faster. And while there may be a lot of work getting done on defensive shape, that isn't going to make our midfield suddenly creative. And for all those four managers on the bench, if you just play 4-5-1 and get no service to your striker and your goalkeeper can't save anything low to his left, then it's hard to see change there either. 

Which brings me rather neatly back to where I started. I think us fans have a part to play here. Things are pretty desperate and it feels like it might get worse before it gets better. Plenty of you tell me that these columns are too negative and that's fine but your negativity is my reality. And I would call upon all fans to pull together now and forget that other shit. The team needs us. West Ham needs you. We need an atmosphere to pull the team up on Friday night and not force them back into their shells. 

I want a change in structure at West Ham but it's not going to happen now, and the most pressing matter we all face is beating Leicester. And if you don't do it for me, well, do it for poor little Wolf Nine. 

Monday, November 06, 2017

West Ham 1 - 4 Liverpool (And Other Ramblings)

"When your heart is black and broken 
And you need a helping hand
When you're so much in love you don't know
Just how much you can stand"
- The Stone Roses, "Ten Storey Love Song" 

***

There is, in Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus, a man condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity due to his trickery and deceitfulness. I don't think we can reasonably ascribe either of those two characteristics to Slaven Bilic, but I think the Croat would identify with the frustration and futility of the punishment. 

Given that Hollywood are gradually rebooting every story ever told by man, I suspect that when they eventually update Sisyphus he will be a Croatian Premier League manager doomed to play in a cursed graveyard every week, with the slowest team ever assembled, and a Chairman determined not to sack him but at the same time, never support him either. He'll be played by Gerard Butler because a thing that happens sometimes is that people pay Gerard Butler to be in films. I do not know why.


Wait, did we just concede from....our own corner?

So let's briefly address this game. 

We were destroyed. 

The thing is, you don't need me to tell you anything about it because you've seen it so many times before. Would you need me to describe for you the plot of a horror movie? Why bother - you know that some of them won't make it out alive, nobody should go into the forest and going downstairs is a bad idea. Well, spoiler alert guys - we went downstairs, in the forest, drunk, lost sight of our chainsaws and only Lanzini made it out alive. 

So this game didn't particularly move me in any way because it doesn't even crack the top 5 of worst home defeats under Bilic. The Board have made it perfectly clear over the last fifteen months that these kinds of results were not a problem for them. It can be dressed up in terms of wanting to support the manager but the reality is that so long as he didn't steer us into a genuine relegation battle, getting beaten 5-1 at home was an acceptable price to pay for mid table mediocrity and another £100m cheque from the Premier League. 

People might scoff at that and think I'm being too harsh on the Board, but what other conclusion is there to be drawn from how long this has been allowed to continue? If you think the image of everyone being hacked apart with a chainsaw is distressing, I should warn you now that I am getting ready to hit you with some STATS once I've finished fleshing out how truly Greater Anglia Rail we were in this game. 

***
"Nobody said it was easy, it's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard"  
- Coldplay, "The Scientist"
Things didn't start terribly as the East Stand did an excellent job of holding up some claret and blue plastic bags prior to kick off to create a moving tribute for Remembrance Day. I sound like I'm being sarcastic there but I'm not - it was genuinely lovely. 


We weren't totally shit

Sadly, that was the most coordinated move that anyone in a West Ham shirt would manage all day, as we were soon two goals down for the TWENTY SIXTH time under Bilic. We actually started with a slight spring in our step and Lanzini soon set up Andre Ayew to hit the outside of the post. This created a film of optimism around the ground that had all the rigidity of a Fairy Liquid bubble and was soon popped when Liverpool opened the scoring. 

The manner of the goal was a thing to behold as we somehow managed to turn our own corner into a three on one breakaway for the visitors, which ended with Mo Salah easily beating Hart at his near post. My daughters U10 team played a game this morning where they lost by so many that nobody had any idea of the score at the end and I still didn't see any defending as bad as for that goal. 

Here is Aaron Cresswell attempting to repel that particular attack, for anyone who missed it:



We then defended a corner by having all our players close their eyes, hold hands and offer up a prayer to Sauron, and somehow that didn't work either and Liverpool scored again and now every time I see Joe Hart I can only imagine how much he must hate his agent. 

So even as Manuel Lanzini briefly dragged us back into this game with a splendidly taken goal at 2-0 down, and then when we blew all of that up by conceding a third one fucking minute later, I couldn't even muster an angry epithet. This has happened so frequently, with such predictability and regularity that it simply doesn't register anymore. And truthfully I don't believe the Board are that fussed about these games, which in turn bleeds over into the crowd who can't get up for matches that we all know the team can't win, as well all accept that there is nothing in the running of the club which can change that. 

None of which is to say that the players and manager don't care, or didn't try to win but only that if these massive home losses were of any relevance to the decision making at the Club they wouldn't have allowed so many to pile up. I think it's fair to say that right now the Board don't think that we can compete with the Top Six (we can't) and that the gap between them and the rest is so large (it is) that those results can't be a barometer of how well a manager is doing (here we disagree). 

Truth be told, as I saw £35m Salah combining with £34m Mane, £29m Firmino and £35m Oxlade-Chamberlain I found it hard to disagree. Other clubs have managed it, of course, but then again we are not Burnley.

I say again - we are not Burnley, and the Burnley manager isn't going to leave them to come here. Ayew carumba indeed. 

Quite how all of this led to the Board deciding to vote to give Liverpool a greater share of the Premier League television money is a question for another day, but right now we are in the same league as these teams in only one way and it isn't in a playing sense. 

The visitors added another somewhere towards the end, when people in hockey masks and torches appeared and the walls started bleeding, and could have had several more but for Hart and the fact that most of the chances seemed to fall to James Milner. On another day I would probably attempt to describe how Liverpool didn't actually seem to play that well in this game but, you know, 4-1 does send something of a message. 

***
"Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings 
But you push too hard and even numbers got limits" 
- Mos Def, "Mathematics"
So, about those stats. Let's dig into the records of our time at the London Stadium, which I think we can all agree has unquestionably been built on the only Indian Burial Ground in Britain ((c) @LeBigHouse).

Let's start with our overall league record (I've ignored the Cups as this article is going to struggle to get an 18 rating as it is):


London Stadium Record
Played24
Won9
Drawn4
Lost11
For25
Against41

Before you all lose your shit over that, please remember that this doesn't include any adjustment for the size of our digital screens.

How about goalscoring:


Teams to have scored 4 goals in a game
Manchester City (x2)
Liverpool (x2)
Watford
Arsenal

We're not on this list. Watford are. The athletics were fun in the summer though.


Teams to have score 3 or more goals in a game
West Ham (x3) - Domzale, Crystal Palace, Bolton
Manchester City (x2)
Liverpool (x2)
Southampton
Leicester
Spurs
Brighton

So, to be clear, we have scored three times in a league game at our current ground as many times as Brighton have and fewer times than Liverpool. We are top of this list though, so let it not be said that we have been totally hopeless at our new home.

And lastly, a little look at a particular bugbear of mine, namely our first half performances:

Half Time Record
W2
D12
L10
For5
Against20
0-011

And just to put this little lot into perspective, what this is showing you is that West Ham have had a half time lead at the London Stadium as many times as Liverpool have.

***

"I don't feel bad about letting you go, 
I just feel sad about letting you know"

- Billy Bragg, "A New England"

While those tables might make for worse reading than Andy Carroll's medical records, they do unfairly discount Bilic's first season when we were still at Upton Park, Payet was still here, the sun used to shine and there was nothing wrong with the world. But, the sad truth is that his tenure has to be split into two halves - there and here. The first bit was an amazing glimpse into a brighter world, that now seems like it was about two centuries ago. When I watch video clips of those games I an amazed that they aren't in black and white with visible film breaks.


Who else remembers when we were good?

But no matter how great all of that was, the sands of time continued draining away inexorably and we've all paid for new season tickets, the owner has a new stadium and what have you done for me lately, Slav? And the sad answer to that question is...nothing but oversee decline.

Even the most ardent Bilic fan would have to accept that the team look listless and lacking in structure. I understand the flares of hope that go up when we win at Wembley or play well at Burnley with ten men, but that cannot be enough for a team with sixty thousand fans, the 18th highest turnover in world football and a squad that has so many of the 2014 Fantasy Premier League's top performers.

As I write this, Bilic remains in a job, but by the time you read this that may change. In many ways, I don't see why he is losing his job now given that this defeat was no different to the similarly lame capitulation against the same opponents at the end of last season. But if this was the end, then I will breathe a sigh of relief. There would be some, admittedly faint, sense of comfort that perhaps we might now improve and also for Bilic himself who will no longer have to stand alone on the touchline at the Terrordome, hands on knees, flicking his jacket out behind him in frustration as Mark Noble looks up again to find none of his teammates want the ball off him.

Can it be as simple as Payet being responsible for everything good that happened in 15/16 and once he left that was that? Can a manager who took his tiny country to two European Championships really have been solely reliant upon one player? We'll find out when the inevitable book comes out and Bilic reveals the true horror of what West Ham is really like behind the scenes, but I struggle to believe that. Whatever happens, he has carried himself with dignity in the face of working for people who have used him to mask their own failures.

In the end, the fault lines were too wide and too pronounced and we are now in a highly precarious position, bereft of confidence and with no discernible pattern of play. We're up shit creek without a boat.

But even if Bilic gave us all those two goal deficits he also gave us lots of high points too, and he deserves to be remembered for that. It's a shame that one of those - the Spurs 1-0 victory last May - was enough to convince our hopeless Board to stick with him into the new season. That mystifying decision has now left us adrift, with nothing to attract in any managers of high regard who have so far taken one look at the ageing playing staff, the board room interference and the fact that they will have little chance to reinforce the squad and all suddenly remembered that they have an urgent appointment but will definitely call Mr Sullivan back when they get a minute.

***

"There is a wait so long, you'll never wait so long
Here comes your man"

- The Pixies, "Here Comes Your Man"

So against the backdrop of all this turmoil, one man has emerged confidently into the spotlight.


My defence is how old?

As I write this David Moyes is the odds on favourite to succeed Bilic tomorrow, leaving us all with the thrilling prospect of having Darren Gibson and John O'Shea in the fold come January. There is so much about this which is odd, but not the least of it is that our Board searched the entire globe and decided that Moyes was the answer. And when I say the entire globe I of course mean the contacts list of British managers represented by whatever agent is in favour with Sullivan today. What a stultifying lack of imagination, and what a hospital pass to a manager who will get no honeymoon with a disbelieving fanbase.

Still, Moyes worked wonders at Everton on a mid sized budget, which in turn led to the Manchester United job. That's a significant achievement and whilst he didn't last long, with the benefit of hindsight I'm not sure his tenure was the failure it was deemed at the time. Thereafter he did what so many Brits do and decided to take himself off to Spain, where Real Sociedad were waiting to hammer another nail into his coffin shaped reputation.

Having left La Liga he decided to give up professional football management altogether and instead took over at Sunderland. There he presided over an absolutely shambolic campaign which ended in relegation as Moyes tried his best to reassemble his Everton side of 2009, which might have worked better if any of them still had their own hips.

There are those who would defend Moyes and say that Sunderland are a joke club with no direction, a ludicrous board, an ageing and uninterested playing staff and systemic off field problems that run far deeper than anybody knew. To which I say - yeah, does any of that sound familiar?

However, Sullivan is an apparent long time admirer of the Scot and we know that he has neither the wit, self confidence or ability to pluck a young up and coming manager from overseas or the lower leagues. He prefers the safety of getting a known quantity, meaning that we will forever be subjected to the known quantities of the British manager threshing machine. This same decision making process has delivered us to 18th in the Premier League, which is two places lower than we were when they took over. Ho fucking hum.

But worse than that is the news tonight that Sullivan is now reconsidering his decision in the face of a social media backlash from West Ham fans to the leaked news of Moyes arrival. This is not something that professional organisations do. They ignore the wishes of fans because fans do not have access to the information that would allow them to credibly form those opinions. That might include details of finances, availability of other targets and even things like the health of the candidates. Why on earth would Sullivan be taking into account the views of a crowd who, two weeks ago, were booing the team for smashing aimless long balls at Andy Carroll and then booed any players who declined to do that on Saturday and instead passed it backwards? Why listen to a crowd who were booing Mark Noble for being the only player brave enough to actually get on the ball in the middle of the park?

Fans are fickle, emotional, easily swayed and the last people who should ever be considered when making choices such as this. No other team does it. No other team is so insecure in their decision making processes that they subject it to the whims of Twitter. Indeed I would suggest that the very suggestion of doing so is evidence enough that those people shouldn't be within a million miles of a decision of this importance.

Properly run teams can trust the process of their selection and analysis, and put faith in the talents of the people making the decision, meaning they can ignore public sentiment because they are sure of what they are doing. The West Ham board (correctly) realise this doesn't apply to them, but instead of changing those people, they instead farm the decision out to bloody Facebook, with the seeming aim of blaming the fans if it doesn't come off. What a joke. What a Tyrannosaurus Shambles. What an embarrassment. Consider for a moment if Southampton Twitter would have wanted Mauricio Pochettino and then realise what a nonsense this is.

What's somehow even worse is that I do object to Moyes joining the Club on the grounds that at Sunderland he threatened a female reporter. "It was getting a wee bit naughty at the end there so just watch yourself. You might still get a slap even though you're a woman. Careful the next time you come in" he said, charmingly, to BBC reporter Vicki Sparks, and though he apologised to her the fact that Moyes can seemingly stroll into a job like ours just shows how little professional football cares about domestic violence or misogyny. What message does this send to our female supporters? What message does it send to our female employees?

Naturally when he was interviewed on TV this weekend about the job it was by Richard Keys on BeIN Sports in Qatar. Tell me, how's the sisterhood these days, Karren?

So, Moyes may join, most likely because he's cheap and he's prepared to work for Sullivan, which in itself probably suggests that he's going to struggle. Anyone decent would tell them where to go. And indeed, they frequently do, by all accounts.

***

"But there is really nothing, nothing we can do
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew"

- MGMT, "Time To Pretend"

One viewpoint that tends to gain prominence at such times of crisis is that somehow getting relegated wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. It's hard to overstate how untrue this really is. Going down decimates clubs as they lose their playing staff, support staff, recruitment staff, community staff, youth coaches and so on all the way down to match day employees. None of that is worth the fleeting thrill of winning a few more away games, which will quickly lose it's lustre the first time you see Lanzini or Antonio score for Spurs.

If you want a real life example, the England U17 World Cup winning star player Rhian Brewster hails from Chadwell Heath and plays for Liverpool. This is what happens when you have to reduce your scouting and development network as we did after our last relegation.

One way to make sense of all of this madness is to begin viewing all decisions made at the Club through a very specific prism. Assume the club has no money.

I have no inside knowledge here, no smoking gun and no knowledge of things unseen but merely a simple theory that I've been working on for a while. It was Sherlock Holmes who once said that when all possible solutions to a problem have been eliminated whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. Now Holmes was a fictional character so he should shut up really, but it kind of works here.

Why was our net spend so low in the summer? Why would we have resisted firing Bilic despite all evidence suggesting he should have gone in the summer? Why would we now be looking to avoid paying compensation for a replacement? Why bring them in on a short term contract that leaves the club in limbo yet further?

All of these can be answered logically in a number of ways, but one way to cogently explain them all is to assume we're broke. And don't forget to sign me up for your company annual seminar as a motivational speaker, folks.


"And no, Toni Martinez ain't the answer either"

I'm truly sorry to end up writing such a negative and gloomy piece but I suppose that's the reality of supporting the House of Sullivan these days. I hope they prove me wrong.

***

On a final, cheerier note (for me) I was thrilled to be nominated for "Blogger of the Year" at the Football Supporters Federation annual awards. This is a prestigious award ceremony, which offers up the pleasing prospect of me having to attend a formal dinner where my place setting will say "HeadHammerShark". 


Anyway, if you would like to vote for me, I'd be delighted to accept and if you wanted to get your family, extended family, neighbours and tarot readers to do the same that would be just dandy too. You can just click on this link and do it in 30 seconds. Many thanks in advance.