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, October 16, 2017

Burnley 1 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

Two steps forward, two steps back. And so the dance continues.



West Ham with ten men? Yes, no, very strong

In the lead up to the 2012 Olympic Games, the BBC launched an under the radar mockumentary called "Twenty Twelve", which very neatly satirised the delivery team for the Games and successfully captured every type of office stereotype imaginable in doing so.

Once the games were over, the idea probably should have died but instead they moved the subject on to the BBC with a different-but-similar series called "W1A". Against my expectations I found it pretty funny as the series continued to nail all the office politics, incompetence and misplaced entitlement that pervade most large professional organisations. And I say that as an avowed lover of the BBC.

As such, when series 3 arrived I stuck it on looking for some mild amusement and instead...I have never been more frustrated watching a TV show in my life.

Instead of having the characters do or say anything interesting or believable, they just repeat catchphrases at each other for the entirety of the show, while a couple of them are now so stupid that I'm beginning to wonder if the writers are actually attempting to mock people with mental health issues.

And what, I can sense you wondering, could this possibly have to do with West Ham? Well, as with W1A, I am getting very fucking frustrated with this season.

***

West Ham played well in this game. There can't be any disputing that given the circumstances. Indeed, should anyone disagree bring them before me and we shall duel with pistols at dawn. This will, I imagine, be a lot less dangerous than it sounds given that if we're both West Ham fans I strongly suspect we'll both miss.

But here we are again basking in the glow of lost points and reduced to wondering about tomorrow, while bemoaning the caveats of the present.

We finally got an answer as to how Slaven Bilic was planning to fit all his attacking options into the team as he just selected every single one of them, and then had them all play Rock, Paper, Scissors in the changing room to determine that Cheikhou Kouyate would play the defensive midfield role.

This seemed particularly bonkers given that Burnley started with a five man midfield, but in fairness to Bilic it was all looking fairly rosy when Michail Antonio opportunistically latched on to a Joe Hart hoof to round Nick Pope and open the scoring.

I particularly enjoyed the Route One nature of the goal as you can't get caught short in midfield if you just smash it over the top of them, after all. "UEFA badges, I shit 'em" yelled Slav in celebration.

But again, in defence of Bilic the real assist on the goal belonged to Kouyate whose prodigious work rate in midfield saw him break up a Burnley attack and it was his backpass that Hart howitzered into the home half, and past the sleeping Ben Mee for Antonio to finish.


I could have sworn I had a brain in here when I left this morning

Sadly, having taken the lead in the 19th minute, we were allowed all of eight minutes of happiness, because West Ham, before Andy Carroll decided that was quite enough of that and got himself dismissed for two identical challenges in the space of 99 seconds. 

In defence of our pissed Geordie Samurai, I felt the first challenge was fairly unremarkable and was itself identical to a challenge by Burnley's James Tarkowski on Carroll just moments before which went unpunished. Several years of watching Carroll have probably inured me somewhat to the sheer physicality of his play, but I felt he was a victim of his reputation on the first yellow card. 

Having been booked however, it would generally be considered sensible to play within yourself for a while and only go into challenges where you're absolutely certain of winning the ball. Instead, Carroll brainlessly launched into another clash with Mee, leading with his arm albeit with his eyes fixed on the ball, and was rightly sent off. 

Thus, just like that, we lost the opportunity of seeing how could play with all this attacking talent on display or how we would perform with the comfort of a lead and instead had to watch yet another resilient, brilliantly organised and ultimately heartbreaking rearguard action courtesy of a frustrated front player too selfish to channel his anger into anything constructive. 

And so it was that we channelled W1A. The frustration of watching and waiting. Of knowing yet another opportunity to progress had been spurned. And now it's the same old catchphrases - "Yeah, no, sure" for "wait until we get everyone fit" and "so that's all good" for "you can't judge us with ten men". Great stuff, but can we hear something new, please, before I completely lose my shit?

We must now wait another week for a first chance to decide what we have here, and yet we're in October and other teams have long since been through all that fine tuning. So, unlucky though he might-sort-have-been, Carroll deserves nothing but opprobrium for leaving his team to spend an hour defending a lead in a game they could easily have won. 

***

I reckon the very best and worst of Slaven Bilic was on display here. 

The strength of his management seems to be very much around how he relates to his players and converting that into a loyalty towards him and the wider cause. The reason I thought Newcastle was the end for him was that it was the first time I felt I had visibly seen his team stop playing for him, in a game where they had no reason to do so. 

But, whether you agree with his team selections or the fact that he falls out with fringe players with a frequency rarely seen outside of Game of Thrones, it can't be denied that there is a resilience to his team. Here, as at Southampton, they battled gamely for over an hour with a man down and were again only denied at the death. 

I often attempt to use statistics and metrics in my analysis on here, but I think this is a weekend to abandon that in favour of some amateur psychology. Let's face it, people like me write about tactics and Expected Goals because we have no insight into what goes on in the changing room or within the team dynamic. I write about those things because it's legitimate to have an opinion about them, but when fans talk wistfully of 4-4-2 or 3-4-3 we should always remember that we know nothing really. 

We have no idea who is carrying an injury, who is in the middle of a bitter divorce, who is suffering with depression, who is in debt to local bookies, who has a family member with a terminal illness, who is trying to engineer a move away and who is little more than a drain on the morale of the wider group. All of this is hidden away from us and it's worth remembering when we clamour for the likes of Diafra Sakho to be in the team, that the dynamics of a football team probably don't differ that much from those of the office, the building site or the oil rig.

Still, in looking at Andy Carroll, it's tempting to try and figure out what is happening there. Here is a man who has gone six months - but typically, just six games - without a goal, and who had the indignity of being booed by his own fans when named Man of the Match last time out. He has seen the arrival of Chicharito and hears the jeers when the Mexican is withdrawn instead of him. 

But beyond all of that, Carroll must see the team and the players in it and realise that he is the odd man out. He can't have failed to notice how much more attractively we played yesterday after he went off, even with a man down. Twice in the early stages of the second half Michail Antonio could have doubled our lead after splendid team moves. 

The first, in particular, was a joy as we put together a move of angular precision, the likes of which we haven't seen since the Zola era and which nearly culminated in a goal that would have been a spiritual cousin to Carlton Cole's wonder strike at Wigan. 

And I think Carroll sees all of that and feels the frustration that we all do. I sympathise with him because even when we play long ball we don't do it all that well, and when we try and play shorter it doesn't really suit him. Equally, he hasn't had Lanzini to play off either, and no doubt would be looking for the Argentine to provide him some of that service he has been so sorely lacking. Indeed, we are eight games into the season and only Chicharito of our attacking royalty has been available for them all. Carroll might very well feel that he's entitled to get a crack playing alongside them all as well. 

So, it's amateur psychology alright, but if I was looking for evidence of a player frustrated and unhappy with his existence I might look at the guy who smashed into two opposition players in a minute and got himself sent off when we were 1-0 up away from home. 

***

But if the best of Bilic is seen in how his players stick with him, the worst most be in his tendency to crowbar players into the team rather than make more difficult decisions about dropping them. Antonio at right back was the start of all this but we've also seen Hernandez and Lanzini marooned out wide and today it was his deployment of Kouyate in a holding role. 

I thought Kouyate did well in the first half but it doesn't seem like the best use of his talent or mobility to deploy him this way. It also feels like it would be borderline suicidal to do this against better teams than Burnley. The dismissal of Carroll forced a change as Obiang was introduced at half time in place of Arnatuovic, who I imagine was fairly sanguine about the whole thing, and we looked far more solid from that point on. 

The problem with that was it pushed Lanzini out wide, although one would hope that was simply the necessity of the situation. But in the grander scheme of things, I would like Bilic to return to a basic stratagem of playing his men in their correct positions and only when completely, undeniably fit. 

In my rush to live and die by the merits of xG and xA metrics, it's true that from time to time I think I've forgotten some of the more intangible things in life. Confidence is a good example of this, being as how it's somewhat immeasurable but you sure as hell know when a team doesn't have it. 


Passion. But also brown shoes with a blue suit

And so it goes that I think Bilic can sometimes impinge on the confidence of his own team, simply by virtue of his apparent belief that good players can play anywhere. The irony of this is apparently lost on him, who as a rugged centre half didn't spend many games playing wide on the right.  

I like Bilic, even if I think he should have been dismissed a long time ago. He is erudite and articulate in a second language, and engaging in his manner. He doesn't seem to lean as heavily on ranting at his players or some nebulous concept like "passion", in the same way as the typical British manager. I still want him to succeed because if he does, I can at least accept that it will be enjoyable for me as a fan. That's slightly different to his predecessor Sam Allardyce, where success frequently meant further entrenchment of an already unwatchable style of play. 

But we can't complain about this result or performance. His team did him proud here, and having too many players for the spots available, and a multitude of possible formations isn't actually a bad thing. When that happens at Manchester United and Chelsea, it's considered a positive thing, after all. 

***

For all that, we rode our luck a bit here at times. Just after Carroll was dismissed, Joe Hart appeared to bring down Chris Wood with a challenge that was about as well timed as Donna Karan's defence of Harvey Weinstein. 

Referee Stuart Attwell waved that one away, perhaps still considering that he'd just sent Andy Carroll off but possibly left the referees changing room unlocked, and our luck held when a second half Gudmundson effort hit the post, then hit Hart and somehow didn't go in. 

All in all, I think we have to be happy with a point as the Burnley equaliser was deserved and a long time in the making, even if our defending looked pretty knackered by the time it went in. Winston Reid and Jose Fonte having earned the right to be exhausted by virtue of a day of dominant defensive work. 

Many seem to be pointing the finger at Aaron Cresswell for his failure to prevent the cross from coming in, but I think that ignores the fact that Arnautovic and Lanzini in front of him have the kind of work ethic that makes The Stone Roses look like Amazon employees. 

In the surge of demand for Arthur Masuaku it's surely worth remembering that he too would have nobody in front of him as cover, whilst it seems eminently likely that Bilic has told his full backs not to press too far forward as everybody else in his team is already doing that. 

***

I'll tell you what else I could do without; the now trademark Chicharito shake of the head and mini strop every time he gets substituted. While I appreciate the desire to play and the overall general lust to remain on the pitch, it's not really that egregious to take off a centre forward who hasn't scored or looked like scoring, especially when his strike partner has already been sent off for throwing an elbow around like he was trying to break the emergency glass. 


This is what Ben Mee looks like to Andy Carroll

Of course, if there is an upside to Carroll being dismissed it's that Bilic will be forced to try and find a way to play without him next week. We have those opening thirty minutes against Spurs to fall back on, as some kind of evidence that hope lies this in this direction, or at least it did until Antonio pulled damaged a hamstring and apparently also the fabric of time between the London Stadium and the Underworld and the next thing we knew we were 3-0 down to Spurs. 

Whether Bilic plays Sakho or Hernandez as the rapier point of his attack, he will surely restore Obiang to the line up for a bit of defensive ballast and deploy the others in advance of him. 

In that scenario, I see Carroll as a near perfect supersub upon his return. It's not so much that Carroll is a knife being brought to a gunfight, but that he is an old fashioned cannon from a Lord Nelson era warship. He's big, heavy, cumbersome, slow to load and absolutely deadly when you eventually get it lined up properly, but don't take too long because the other guy undeniably has something quicker. 

That kind of option off the bench could be gamebreaking against tiring defences, but the idea that he can do that from the start seems fanciful, and mostly destroyed by the evidence of 2017. If there is encouragement to be gleaned from history, one can look at the 2014/15 season when Sam Allardyce was forced into playing a diamond behind Sakho and Valencia due to injuries to Carroll and Nolan, and we were fourth at Christmas. 

That side had Alex Song in the holding role, which is a touch of quality missing from this current outfit, but you'd also think that between them Antonio, Lanzini, Arnautovic and Hernandez offer more quality than was available then. 

But we can't spend too much time looking back. This is the time to start our season and get some - any - forward momentum. Whatever Bilic does it would really be rather brilliant if it wasn't frustrating or in the style of a mockumentary. 

After all, I don't want to be frustrated any more - I want our season to start and not be waylaid by yet more setbacks and excuses. 

To paraphrase Ian Fletcher - another false start? 

Yes, no, that's not all good. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Questions They Don't Want You To Ask

"Jim stops and gets out the car, goes to a house in Emperor's Gate
Through the door and to his room, then he puts the TV on
Turns it off and makes some tea, says "Modern life, well it's rubbish"
I'm holding on for tomorrow"

- Blur, "For Tomorrow"



Those plucky underdogs win again

The Premier League clubs are meeting today, with a view to taking a decision so momentous it has the possibility to change English football forever. I had originally planned to write a series of articles laying out my proposals to make modern football fairer, and less rubbish, but time passed by and now we're here on the day of the vote. As such I've slung this together and I'm hoping for the best. A little like Slaven Bilic and his West Ham squad.

You may know about this vote, but if not this is a primer. Put simply, the self styled "Big Six" (Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool for those who aren't immediately sure) want a bigger slice of the TV income to reflect their belief that they are the primary reason for such riches.

That money is currently shared equally among all the Premier League teams, which those at the top somehow have the temerity to label as "unfair".

Equal sharing of revenue is unfair. It should be divided on "merit".

Spurs last won the league in 1961. Liverpool in 1990.

I have questions.

Many questions.

And these are questions they don't want us to ask.

***

High Cool

What, I wonder, is the point of being a modern day fan of a smaller Premier League club?

The Premier League makes much of it's competitiveness, but my team cannot win it. For those fans of the select few clubs at the top of the money tree it promises to be a season of great excitement, and for the rest of us it will be the customary race to 40 points and praying for a decent cup run.

For this privilege we get to pay...the same ticket prices as everyone else.

Why, I wonder, do we so meekly accept this?

West Ham splurged plenty of money this summer, with their customary lack of planning and "darts into the Panini album" style of scouting, and yet would have to spend another £300m to even dream of nudging their way up against the top four. Everton spent heavily and will most likely finish seventh again.

This is not enough for The Big Six.

It's not even a case that there is an established cycle of success and we smaller Joe's just need to wait and bide our time to get good again. European football doesn't work that way. Nobody even pretends that it does. And still we come, in our droves, to watch our teams playing in a competition that doesn't even pretend to be equitable or fair. We have become so used to being cannon fodder for the rich that we have succumbed to a footballing Stockholm Syndrome where Phil Thompson and Paul Merson stare balefully at us and tells us we've had a great year if we come 8th.

Not for me, Jeff.

How, I wonder, did we all come to accept this as perfectly normal?

By now I'm sensing a few furrowed brows. Am I suggesting we all just give up and go home? No, I want to end the dominance of Big Clubs™. Let's fix modern football. And by "fix" I mean "mend" rather than conspire to rig it in favour of certain teams. That's pretty much the problem as it stands now anyway.

For you see, there is a cancer at the rotten core of European football. An environment has developed in which an elite cabal of teams have, with UEFA's blessing, carved up the modern game for their own ends. Money, players, sponsors, success - they all flow firstly to this small group of clubs, and then trickle down to the rest of us.

The Champions League - a misnomer right up there with the People's Game - was the seismic shock that changed the game irrevocably. Suddenly, those elite teams who already ruled Europe due to their huge fanbases and commercial advantages, were now being subsidised by UEFA. With every passing season, and every £30m cheque from the continental governing body, those teams separated themselves yet further from the rest of us.

The prize money for simply being big enough to qualify for the Champions League then became the guarantee that ensured that qualification forever more. It was a beautifully circular arrangement, supplemented nicely when the UEFA Cup was reconstituted into the Europa League, a competition so arduous and difficult to win that it rendered those clubs on the cusp of the Champions League unable to take the extra step up to the Promised Land. There were lots of near misses, and many a team has nearly destroyed themselves in the pursuit of such riches. But the elite have largely survived, with another large cheque arriving each summer to allow them to buy those players from any teams genuinely threatening the arrangement.

And when the likes of Manchester City and PSG arrived, with oil revenues dripping from their pockets, the Financial Fair Play rules were drawn up to try and enshrine the principle that the only allowable way to be good was to be rich, and the only allowable way to be rich was to always have been rich.

What a bunch of charlatans.

What, I wonder, were we thinking when we let that happen?

For fans of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern, Dortmund, Roma, Juventus et al it is probably hard to understand what I am saying. They will hold a belief that their teams have earned their dominance and supremacy. After all, to paraphrase the wonderful Marina Hyde, nobody wants to accept they were born on second base when it's easier to believe they hit a double.

This is the upshot of privilege.

So now, as the rest of us stare in bemusement as Manchester United genuinely try and convince Swansea to give up their TV revenues so that United can better compete with Barcelona, we have to remember that this is the simple outcome of allowing such privilege to go unchecked for so long.

Manchester United can't understand that we want to keep the Premier League competitive because in reality it never has been. So why not just accept that they will always finish in the top four and give them a better chance of winning the Champions League? This seems to be a genuine part of the argument.

And this stranglehold has conspired to make football smaller for the rest of us. We aren't allowed to measure our success in terms of league titles and instead our aspirations have had to be revised downwards. For us it is now the small triumph of avoiding relegation or a once in a generation cup final appearance. The simple thrill of our players being in international squads or the emergence of a decent young player.

Put simply, we don't matter as much as them.

This is the upshot of privilege.

But, what can we do?

And folks, I know that none of this will ever change. There is too much power and too much money tied up in the current structure to ever allow the likes of West Ham, Getafe, Lorient or Padova the chance to dream of winning the league or making Champions League finals.

This is little more than the ranting of an angry and frustrated man, watching in utter disbelief as Chelsea bring a begging bowl to our doorstep and ask the rest of us to give them money to have a better chance of beating Bayern.

The state of it.

***

Repetition

If we take the creation of the Premier League as an entirely artificial starting point for "modern football", then we can see that the major European leagues have been won as follows across that twenty five year span:


EnglandGermanySpainItaly
Man Utd13Bayern15Barcelona12Juventus11
Chelsea5Dortmund5Real Madrid8AC Milan6
Arsenal3Werder Bremen2Valencia2Inter5
Man City2Kaiserslautern1Atletico Madrid2Roma1
Blackburn1Stuttgart1Deportivo La Coruna1Lazio1
Leicester1Wolfsburg1



(*) No title in Italy in 04-05 due to the Juventus match fixing scandal
(**) I have excluded France for the moment as their resurgence is more of a recent development, although Lyon and PSG still account for roughly half their titles in this period. 

So of the last 99 titles awarded in the main four European leagues, 51 (52%) have been won by the single most successful team in that country. That number rises to 75 (76%) if we include the second most successful team in each league.

To lay that out starkly, eight clubs have won 76% of the main European league titles for the last quarter of a century. As far as entertainment goes, this doesn't strike me as being terribly, well, entertaining and instead seems a bit more "Ed Sheeran headlining Glastonbury for the next seven years".


Man Utd are on the telly again

Stereotypes

And what about that prize money? Well, in 2014-15, UEFA paid out a cool €1.08bn to the 32 participants in the group stages of the Champions League.

Of that, a stunning €543m went to Juventus, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Dortmund, Man City, Roma, Bayern, PSG, Barcelona and Chelsea. A third of the clubs trousering half of the money. That's some nice work if you can get it.

Particularly galling was Liverpool taking home €33.5m for getting knocked out in the group stages, whilst Porto received €27m for making the quarter finals. This was due to UEFA rules favouring teams from countries with bigger TV deals and giving a nice insight into what it must be like for Hollywood actresses when they try and negotiate their pay.

What's great about this is that you'll remember that the Big Six want a bigger slice of the English TV money because they "merit it". But when they play in Europe they feel they should just get more money for the simple fact that they come from a country where BT Sport were stupid enough to shell out a billion quid for the rights to the competition.

Worse still, is the latest development whereby part of the Champions League prize money will in future be distributed with the amount being dependent upon the historic success of the club involved. That's right folks, we're now giving more money to Real Madrid because they were good in the past.

IT'S LIKE A FUCKING BOND VILLAIN IS WRITING THESE RULES.

At some point I feel I have to ask fans of these clubs...is this actually fun any more? What kind of mental gymnastics are you having to perform to convince yourself that winning is actually an achievement for you? You're cheering for the Empire to beat the Rebel Alliance. You're screaming for the house in a casino. You're standing at the side of the road lauding the naked Emperor. Don't look now guys, but you're in Slytherin.

I'm not being facetious when I say this, but I honestly don't understand how being a fan of one of these clubs can be as enjoyable as supporting a smaller team. Our victories are fewer, but they aren't earned with loaded dice.

I'm Just A Killer For Your Love

But, I hear you say, why does any of this actually matter? We've had imbalance for years and stadiums are still full and the great God television continues to rule all. If this was all so unfair then why has this construct persisted for so long?

Well, it matters because when we pay for our tickets, or buy our Sky subscriptions nobody is giving us a discount because our teams won't win anything. In fact, they love us right up until it's time for us to take our seats, at which point we immediately become less important than Liverpool fans. And that's a club that haven't won the league at all in a quarter of a century, although it's not for the want of UEFA giving them money.

The table below, which I've picked up from a Daily Mail article, highlights the point. West Ham and Spurs fans are paying way more at the top end for their tickets than Manchester United and Manchester City and yet neither have won the league in this time. In fairness, Spurs are giving it a good go right now, but are well behind rivals Arsenal in terms of actual silverware over this time span, and yet had the second highest average ticket price in the league in 2015/16. West Ham, meanwhile, are just incompetent.


West Brom though. Still a rip off. 

Of course each club has it's own financial model and supply and demand, metropolitan location and demographic all play a huge a part in what clubs charge their fans. But the broader point is this; football fans are treated identically in every area except one - expectations.

If you are a fan of a Big Club™ you are entitled to expect success. Manchester United not challenging for the league for two seasons is considered a genuine issue by the British press. It takes up a lot of time on Monday Night Football and Sunday Supplement. 

But compare the prices shown above for Manchester United and Southampton and see if you can figure out why one set of fans are "entitled" to demand success and why the other must be content with getting a good price from Liverpool for their players.

It feels to me like paying money for an Odeon annual cinema pass but being told I can't see the 3D releases, unlike other customers who are also paying less than me because they once won a competition thirty years ago. We are in a curious thrall to a world order that was created either many years ago by old money (Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal) or on the whim of billionaire new money investors (Chelsea, Manchester City).

There Are Too Many Of Us

It also matters because there are more of us than them. If you take the Big Six then they comprise about 44% of last years Premier League attendances. That percentage drops hugely once you factor in the entire football pyramid - particularly well supported clubs like Newcastle, Aston Villa, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday - and it's amazing how often those fans are ignored completely.

At no juncture in this latest power grab has it ever entered the discussion that concentrating more money in England's six biggest clubs might be detrimental to the wider game, despite the fact that the vast majority of those who attend football games in this country don't watch the Big Six.



TeamTotal Attendance
Man Utd1,430,502
Arsenal1,139,177
West Ham1,082,464
Man City1,026,358
Liverpool1,007,311
Chelsea 788,645
Sunderland784,450
Everton746,890
Leicester605,968
Spurs601,143
Southampton587,787
Middlesbrough578,539
Stoke521,230
Crystal Palace478,052
WBA453,646
Hull394,466
Swansea391,766
Watford390,849
Burnley390,609
Bournemouth212,464
Big Six5,993,136
Others7,619,180
TOTAL13,612,316

As you can see, the Big Six have big attendances - it's almost as though they are resident in huge metropolitan areas with a massive population base to call from - but they aren't the majority. And, sure, they have big followings on Facebook and Twitter, but the notion that armchair supporters of Arsenal are more important than fans who actually attend games at Bournemouth isn't one I'm prepared to accept.

So yeah - the "Big Six"? More fans don't watch them than do.

No Distance Left To Run

What all of this does is to bring in to focus the existential questions I raised above. Put simply -  why do the majority of us still bother to follow our football teams?

For some, simply asking this question is treasonous. We follow because we are, and we are because we follow. The team is part of our blood, and we a part of theirs. It is simply not a question that one asks. A bit like when my daughter tells me about her favourite YouTubers and I ask the unaskable by saying "What do these people actually do?".

Crucially, the very absence of winning anything is worn like a badge of honour because it proves our worthiness as fans. We look down upon those Surrey based Man Utd fans who pretend their fathers were from Stretford in order to attach themselves to a winning club. We measure our mettle as supporters not by the number of Cup finals we have attended, but instead by miserable, unsuccessful away trips on frozen midweek nights when lesser men or women would have simply given up. And when we do make a Cup final we are told that we are “tinpot” for caring at all. This is our lot.


"Tinpot"

But to me, that badge of honour is a symbol of stupidity. We all have a neon sign saying “idiot” writ large upon our breast. We buy our tickets that are more expensive than those sold to Man City fans, we buy our TV subscriptions that cost the same as they do for Arsenal fans and we wear replica shirts sold on the same rack and for the same price as Chelsea’s and we still accept it as a central core of our fandom than our teams do not have any right to compete with those same Big Clubs™ because of history.


"Not tinpot"


***


To The End

So, with that context offered and those problems identified, how exactly is it possible to make football fairer? Well, look, I have lots of ideas about that and at some point I plan to get round to publishing them. I have them drafted and some great other writers lined up from other teams to tell me why they will or won't work, but ultimately this vote got here before I could finish up. Very basically they involve limiting squad sizes, limiting loans, fairer distribution of income and probably abolishing Chelsea.

But let me be clear - opposing this is important for all English football fans irrespective of any future changes. It isn't a West Ham thing. It's a football thing.

Put simply, I think Richard Scudamore should be fired because his dumbass plan is predicated upon making his six biggest members more successful in a different competition to the one he is responsible for.

Put slightly less simply, here are the reasons this proposal must be rejected:

1. The Premier League has convinced the world it is more competitive than other leagues, and foreign audiences seem to agree. The act of taking £15m a year income from Bournemouth and giving it to Liverpool will inevitably damage this, although it would be helpful if Bournemouth stopped doing this themselves voluntarily, ahem, Jordon Ibe. Once the league becomes even more utterly predictable than it is now, and the Big Six enshrine themselves in the top six places, those TV rights will no longer be as valuable because the league will no longer be able to sell the idea that anyone can beat anyone.

2. The counter argument that having more than two big clubs will always make the league more attractive than La Liga is bullshit. It's been thirteen years since one of Liverpool, Spurs or Arsenal won the league. The table above shows that having more big clubs hasn't changed the balance of power in England.

3. Leicester wasn't proof of parity. I can't explain Leicester other than to say I think it was the perfect confluence of luck, planning and every good force in the universe coming together at once. A 5,000-1 shot winning the league doesn't strike me as great evidence of equality, however. And the very fact that the Big Six now want more money to stop another Leicester should tell us all we need to know about how much they value competition.

4. They already play in a European Super League, so they aren't going to create another one. Liverpool won't give up playing Everton. Spurs won't give up playing in the FA Cup. And there won't be room for all six of them anyway.

5. English clubs are disadvantaged when playing in Europe, they tell us. Fuck 'em. They've rigged it so the rest of us can't qualify and now they want us to care? Don't let the door hit you on the way out, lads.

6. The West Ham board think this is a good idea. This should give anyone in support of this pause for thought.

7. When foreign fans tune in to watch Burnley play Manchester United, they actually are tuning in to watch Burnley. Otherwise, it would just be a Manchester United training session. Competitions need, you know, competitors.

***

I suspect this proposal will be rejected, even though Everton, West Ham and Leicester are allegedly in support, but the very fact it is on the agenda is bad news. We will now hear the rumblings of discontent for a while until the next power grab.

But, in the meantime, we need to make ourselves better heard. We, the fans of the majority of English clubs, need to stop silently acquiescing to the idea of our own inferiority. These clubs take the money, the players, the power and now they want the very soul of the game.

So, ask the questions they don't want you to ask.

And then demand some answers. 

Monday, October 02, 2017

West Ham 1 - 0 Swansea (And Other Ramblings)

One of my favourite time waster websites is Awkward Family Photos which pretty much does what it says on the tin. I believe this to be the masterpiece of the oeuvre:


Hernandez, Carroll, Lanzini and Antonioooooooo

I urge you to really focus on this picture because it is absolutely the best thing to emerge from this game. There is quite a lot going on.

It is also a rather magnificently apt pictorial representation of the problem that Slaven Bilic is currently encountering. No matter what he does to try and make this team slot together, any movement in one area seems to cause a disaster somewhere else. His early season ambitions of squeezing all his attackers in and letting the cards fall where they may has backfired spectacularly as our defence proved as porous as a paper umbrella. He then shifted the other way by focusing on that back line, with some success, but this meant that suddenly our attack - a red headed toddler if ever I saw one - was face down on a beach. I have some sympathy with his predicament, although it is primarily of his own making.

***

I have been much concerned lately with the concept of listening and what happens when people stop hearing what you have to say. This has been partially triggered by the number of people taking the time to tell me they no longer read The H List, apparently due to the lack of positivity, but also because that very point feels inextricably linked to the fact that Slaven Bilic no longer seems to be getting through to his players.

On the first point - c'est la vie. There are plenty of places you can go for people to tell you how well things are going at West Ham. That's their prerogative of course, because none of us watch games of football for xG or shot locations but because we want to dream, experience joy and lose ourselves, however briefly, in the endless Elysian fields of possibility.

I understand that and it's why I don't look down my nose at the "Three positive things to come of our 4-0 defeat to Manchester United!" articles. But at the same time, that's not me. I reckon I am perfectly capable of getting excited but I'd argue that this last eighteen months has been enough to test the resolve of all but the most optimistic Hammer. I don't watch games solely for the electric rush of immediate gratification that follows a win. I enjoy that, of course, but I want the feeling of momentum and the all encompassing notion that we are being swept along as part of a bigger overall strategy. For the first time since the late Nineties, I felt that way in 2015/16. It's been a sobering feeling to have fallen off that wave quite so spectacularly.

None of which, by the way, is to ask for praise or comment or anything else. If I am entitled to write these columns then people are equally entitled to dislike them. That's pretty much how it's supposed to work and if you write things on the internet then you'd better have a thick enough skin to cope with the resulting scrutiny. It's a shame to lose readers, but if that's the price of doing business then that's how it will have to be.

I also know how many people read The H List and it's quite significantly less than a number of other West Ham sites. In the end, people vote with their (cyber) feet.

But as I pondered all of this last week, it did occur to me that, in the same way that I'm running out of synonyms for "inept", and struggling to find new ways to say the same thing, maybe Slaven Bilic is similarly reaching for fresh inspiration to convince his team to rouse themselves from the footballing doldrums.


A kiss before dying?

***

I never had much doubt that West Ham would win this game, although my confidence began seriously wavering around the hour mark when Andy Carroll seemed to be briefly playing in midfield,  Chicharito was on his mobile firing his agent and the crowd had taken on the friendly, jovial tone that one traditionally associates with the Colosseum. In fact I even predicted a shitty 1-0 win on an appearance with the chaps from Hammers Chat, during the week. 

This was yet another of those typical Bilic games, so synonymous with his reign that he is almost becoming defined by them. A high pressure match that he apparently has to win, even though it's early in the season, the board pretty clearly don't want to fire him and Crystal Palace exist. So it was on to this familiar terrain that we all clambered and the teams didn't disappoint. 

This might be the single worst game of football I've ever seen, although in fairness this will take some beating. My criteria here is that both teams must be fairly - oh fuck it - inept and in that vein I have to rule out all those 7-1 away defeats because you'd have to accept that the opposition in those games were probably pretty decent. 

No, for a truly awful game you need both teams to be conjoined in futility and apparently bereft of inspiration. And, well, here you go: 



Say what you will about Bilic, but he seems to know how to win these sorts of game. By my record he has faced these win or die games against Palace (a), Hull (h), Burnley (h), Swansea (h - twice) and Huddersfield (h) and won them all without conceding a single goal in the process. I'm not sure what I think about this, but at some point we might have to acknowledge that there is a certain skill to this. Of course, a better skill would be to not need to win them in the first place, but we're a bit past that now. 

As per this shot map from Caley Graphics the first thing to acknowledge here is that Swansea were absolutely woeful. Not a single shot from inside the box, and all the attacking threat of the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, who got all the way to Earth and immediately crashed. This, by the way, was considered perfectly acceptable because they were all incompetent and the Golgafrinchans just wanted to get rid of them. 

For as disjointed and frustratingly patchwork as our play was, you can't compare it to Swansea. And it should be pointed out they looked a hell of a lot more dangerous playing away at Spurs than they did here. Actually, now really I think about it, they were fucking useless here. 

Our back four were impressive and, whilst it's easy to dismiss the weak opposition, both Abraham and Bony are reasonable strikers. However, they were easily contained by Reid and Fonte, whilst Pablo Zabaleta contains to render my pre season warnings about his fitness as foolish. He was outstanding here, and whilst Aaron Cresswell still came in for plenty of stick it seems pretty likely that he was simply ordered by Bilic to hold his position in order to keep the shape of the flat back four. 

The febrile atmosphere in the stadium didn't help. Cresswell and Fonte both fell victim to the boo boys as they were forced back by aggressive Swansea pressing - the only thing the visitors did well all afternoon - and the atmosphere generally teetered on the edge of full rebellion all afternoon. For a team playing with their confidence in their boots, it was a difficult day on which to perform. 

***
So, what was happening further up the field?

Well, Bilic employed the 4-4-2 formation that had briefly served him well in the closing stages of the Spurs match. That was against ten men, and a team already 3-0 up, but he saw enough to convince himself that it could work here.

And then he deployed Michail Antonio and Andre Ayew as the wide players. 

It will smack of 20/20 hindsight but I am amazed that Bilic thought this could ever work. Neither Antonio or Ayew do enough defensive work for that position, and neither does Marko Arnautovic for that matter, who was due to play there until eating some Spurs lasagne and coming down with a sickness bug before the game. 

Thus it came to pass that Ayew was chucked on with limited preparation time, and played out of position once again. If the definition of a manager is to put his or her employees into the best possible position to perform their job, then Bilic is failing at this. 

There is no doubt that this was a formation tried to try and extract the best from Andy Carroll and Chicharito, but given their strengths it was a regression all the way back to the previous century. When English football evolved away from the 4-4-2 obsession it was by virtue of, typically foreign, second strikers who dropped in between the lines of attack and midfield and became link players in a 4-4-1-1 system. Think Bergkamp and Zola. 

This wasn't what we were trying to do here. 

Instead we were trying to replicate the Kevin Phillips/Niall Quinn partnership that worked so well for Sunderland, and which involved the second, smaller striker running on to flick ons and link play from his bigger partner. And to start with, I thought Carroll did his part fairly well. He put himself about in the fashion of a rhino in a soft play area and generally reminded Swansea why he tends to always score against them. 


Big Andy 

But we weren't doing the things one would expect to make that system work. No long diagonal balls from full backs for Carroll to flick on or knock down, and no drives to the byeline from which the wide players could deliver crosses into the box.

Instead, I don't really know what was going on. The players are low on confidence and playing their third different starting system, just seven matches into the season. We could argue that teams should be able to flick back and forth, but there seems little doubt that they were uncomfortable in this formation and the output was dire. Everywhere you looked someone was having a stinker. Cheikhou Kouyate looked like he had been dragged out of the crowd by a hypnotist and told he was a Premier League midfielder, and Mark Noble just continues to fade from view like the vapour trail of a vanishing jet. 

Shockingly, a tactical plan stolen from Sunderland wasn't working. 

A decent chunk of this can be explained away. To my mind the best wide players in a 4-4-2 would be Byram and Masuaku, who can do enough defensively to justify letting the full backs push up a bit and would lend some nice solidity when the opposition have the ball. The issue is that with Kouyate and Noble inside them, there is a serious lack of creativity there. 

As it was, our attacks unfolded like a slow time lapse photograph - you had to keep staring at it to figure out if the bloody thing was moving at all. And then, on came Masuaku, who ran at the Swansea defence and didn't manage much until he did, and one beautiful sweeping cross bypassed everyone and found the lurking Diafra Sakho at the back post. 1-0, 91 minutes, redemption. Just like that, we're off to a better start than last season. 

For a manager much maligned for his substitutes, they sure do seem to paying some dividends lately. 

***

That feeling of rebellion in the crowd was there all day, and seemed to have been festering for a week, perhaps as a result of the post Spurs autopsies that split the fanbase. After half an hour of this game, it was evident that the system was not working. I would argue that modern managers are far too slow to make changes in such situations, and that if ever a team should have been changed quickly it was this one. Swansea were matching us in formation and the rows of four were making it impossible for anyone to pass to each other, apparently.

Yet, despite the game crying out for something different, it was allowed to rumble on. Taking players off after half an hour isn't a recipe for a happy squad but this might have been an exceptional case. The problem was compounded by the fact that Antonio looked like he was carrying an injury for most of the day, highlighting once more the folly of asking players to play when half fit.  

The problem I see with Bilic is that he gives off the very strong impression of picking his eleven players first and then trying to choose a formation to shoehorn them into. As such, Carroll and Chicharito were going to play no matter what, and thus he stumbled upon 4-4-2 as the least worst option available. One wonders if this might be the decision which finally loses him the crowd.

Read some of the articles about Bilic, and ask around a bit and a familiar theme emerges, however. The players like him and continue to play for him but are baffled by the tactics. They also sympathise with the pressure that comes of working for the Kim Jong Sullivan family, and don't appreciate the continued interventions from Pyongyang-on-Thames. 

But be that as it may, the word is that anyone going in search of concrete instructions from the coaching staff is generally met with platitudes or motivational speeches and, well, none of that is hard to believe watching the team play. 

But, I suppose we can't ignore the facts. This was a third clean sheet in four games and Bilic's substitutes have contributed two goals and three assists in that span. The crescendo of boos that greeted Chicharito's replacement was remarkable given how little impact the Mexican had in the game. We can argue over whose fault that is, but he wasn't doing anything and I didn't really disagree. I thought it more important to try and get Sakho and Masuaku on than pandering to a crowd who were already in a fickle mood, and felt it should have happened far earlier. 

Carroll subsequently showed his worth by hitting the crossbar in the latter stages with a lovely improvised flick, and whilst I wouldn't be starting him so unquestioningly as Bilic seems to, I also wouldn't boo him for being chosen as a sponsors Man of the Match. 

That incident capped a remarkable afternoon as some poor bastard in a box somewhere chose to give Carroll a bottle of Moet so he could get a picture with him and a quick chat and somehow managed to generate a tidal wave of boos for one of our own players. I'm all for supporting your team in whatever way you want, but figuring out that Man of the Match awards are meaningless might be a good fucking start.


This is not important

***

But all of this shouldn't detract from how insipid and soul destroying this afternoon was. I know there were injuries, I know Lanzini and Obiang are coming back, I know the opposition were terrible, I know the confidence was low, I know we're grinding out points and I know that Bilic is a nice guy who carries himself with dignity and class. Those things all matters but I'm not sure they matter as much as the fact that we are going absolutely nowhere. 

I don't know how anyone could watch this latest victory plucked from the jaws of mediocrity and see anything resembling a plan. Sure, the substitution of Masuaku has been influential for two games running, but anyone who thinks that he would be putting in those touchline crosses in the ninetieth minute of games while playing at left back hasn't been paying attention. He has been able to do that because the presence of Cresswell behind him, and the situation of the game has allowed him to advance that far upfield. 

Hands up anyone fancying another crack at 4-4-2 next week at Burnley? Keep them up if you fancy that Arnautovic is the answer to the disjointedness? And keep 'em there if you can see an easy way to slot Manuel Lanzini into this team? And keep them up still if you believe Bilic has a clear understanding of how he's going to make all of that work tactically?

Now let me see who's still got their hand up. Ah - how nice to see you, Mrs Bilic. 

I retain a healthy admiration for Bilic because I think he has to work with intolerable interference from our owners, but at some point we have to ask why we are permanently drifting instead of heading toward some sort of identifiable end point. I think a lot of that comes back to a question I have been asking of him for a while now - what sort of team does Slaven Bilic's West Ham look like?

If we are a fast counter attacking team, then Carroll cannot play and arguably Chicharito might also be a bit of a luxury if we can't find a way to get him on the ball in the box. Alternatively, if Bilic wants a physical, direct team that plays off a big striker, then he should just pick one and find a way to make it work. 

The problem with the current bastardised hybrid is that it is neither. We can't play quickly because hardly anyone in the team has any pace, and we don't play long ball because it's not really how any of them want to play. So we drift along in the middle, and it's good enough to beat teams like Swansea and Huddersfield and it's not even close to good enough for teams like Manchester United or Spurs. 

Perhaps the saving grace here might be Lanzini, who returned on Saturday and did more in his brief cameo than any of the four midfielders who started the game did all day. If our season truly does hinge around the fitness of a solitary player, however, then it might be time to stock up on sleeping bags because it's going to be a long winter. 


Have you tried telling them to be more passionate?

***

One interesting piece of news from last week was that Reece Oxford has come back from his baffling loan to Borussia Mönchengladbach, a team better than the one he was leaving. I remain convinced that the club are approaching loans wrongly, with barely any attention being paid to exactly what benefit the youngsters are going to derive from them. 

What is perhaps timely is that West Ham have a gaping hole at the defensive midfield position currently. Noble is out of sorts and Pedro Obiang is currently demonstrating the recovery powers of a leper and William Carvalho is in Portugal and that doesn't leave much else. Perhaps I'm a fool, but that brief wondrous glimpse of Oxford two years ago continues to eat away at me. It's more than Declan Rice has ever shown, although he now seems to be favoured. Perhaps those rumours that Oxford is too big for his boots are true, but to see that type of talent and then watch it shrivel would be a painful cross to bear. 

***

We had the relatively interesting development late last week when a new owner joined up with the Kim Jongs and the Golds. American asset manager Albert "Tripp" Smith purchased the balancing 10% stake previously held by Straumar dating back to the rip-roaringly successful Icelandic takeover. 

Smith is a billionaire, courtesy of selling his company GSO Capital Partners to the Blackstone Company in 2008. This makes sense, because you'd really have to be billionaire to call yourself Tripp and not have everyone laugh at you. 

I don't really have much idea of why he's done this beyond the fact that men in his line of work don't typically make investments for sentimental reasons. He must see some value, either in the form of a future sale or an increase in expected revenue streams, which would both be welcome developments. 

One additional point to mention is that the club will doubtless be hugely more valuable now than when Gold and Sullivan purchased their shares in 2010. The amount that Tripp has paid for his shares probably won't be a million miles away from the individual investments made by the owners back then. In case you're wondering why anyone would ever invest in Premier League football clubs. 

If he brings only one thing to the club, then I would welcome some of the dead eyed professionalism that characterises people in his industry. It might be a laugh when our owners shoot their mouths off and get called The Dildo Brothers, but it all hurts our wider standing within the game. I wonder if 10% buys him the right to pull the reins on the Sullivan horses at any time?

Monday, September 25, 2017

West Ham 2 - 3 Spurs (And Other Ramblings)

In the classic three act story structure, we typically see a standard set of touchpoints through the course of the tale which give us the basic framework for events to unfold. The opening act requires the storyteller to establish the world in which the story will take place, give us the characters and a basic understanding of what is motivating each of them. This part of the story will generally end with an "inciting incident" which kicks the story into gear and pushes us toward the midpoint.

Act two will then typically take these characters further into that world, but with their circumstances worsening until all hope appears lost. Then, another inciting incident finally drives us into the final act where our heroes salvage their lost cause from the apparent jaws of defeat. Unless, of course, you are writing a tragedy.

The Matrix is a pretty good example of a standard story, if you feel like you want a real life look at a tale that operates this way. Or you could just support West Ham and feel like it's imprinted upon your soul.


There is no spoon, Neo. Or Christian Eriksen

So, anyway, welcome to West Ham, the Kingdom of the Not Quite, where we came pretty close to pulling this off against Spurs but fell short of the actual "salvaging" of the disaster, although it should be said, we remain pretty adept at getting the "lost cause" part right. With that in mind, let me break down the basic three act tragedy we saw unfold here on Saturday.

***

ACT ONE

The London Stadium is not a great place to watch football. It's an impressive venue but a poor football ground. I know some disagree, but I think it's fair to say that most feel once the game kicks off then our home advantage is substantially lessened. But it's not the girders or the steel or the terraces or the scaffolded retractable non retractable seats that make an atmosphere. That belongs to the people in the ground. 

For the last couple of the seasons, this fixture has been played in the evening and Spurs have visibly shrunk from the occasion. There was an edge to those games which rendered them more hostile and unwelcoming for the visitor than is customary. For this game, played at 12.30pm in the warmth of the autumnal sun rather than the cool of late winter or early spring, no such feeling was discernible. Where I sit, up among the cirrus clouds and the Chinese satellites, the feeling was mainly one of nervousness, as people openly expressed their fear that we would get the shoeing that we all thought was coming here last season.

Quite why the general timbre of the place changes with early kick offs is open to debate. I'd say it's probably as straightforward as saying that early starts preclude much heavy drinking and also increase the number of children in the crowd. It's not bad, it's just different. 

Perhaps it was no surprise then, that Spurs looked a bit more up for this game than recent iterations. Whilst we dominated possession and territory in the first thirty minutes, we didn't create too many chances, although neither did the visitors. It was mostly two evenly matched teams cancelling each other out. 

We started with Andy Carroll on the bench. Our Geordie howitzer, watching and waiting for the final throes of the game when he could be unleashed on a tiring defence. For the first time this season, I felt I could understand Bilic's set up. Arnatouvic and Antonio either side of Hernandez offered mobility and invention, and in particular lots of opportunity to attack the wide open spaces behind the high pressing Spurs wing backs. 

And so it proved for much of the opening exchanges as Arnautovic continually ranged into the inside left channel and should really have done better with some promising openings. That wastefulness would prove costly.

ACT ONE - CALL BACK

Now, all good storytellers like to drop in to their tale something known as "call backs". These are oblique or passing references to events which will return to be important in the latter part of the story. Thus, here I should point out that the space we were exploiting down the Spurs right was being left by Serge Aurier. The wing back was playing suicidally high, and whilst he managed a couple of dangerous looking interceptions, he also left acres of real estate behind him for players to run into. 

On the rare occasions he was in the general vicinity of one of our players, he fouled them, but referee Michael Oliver chose not to book him. *INSERT GIANT THEATRICAL WINK TO CAMERA*

ACT ONE - INCITING INCIDENT

With half an hour gone and the teams in a stalemate, Michail Antonio tried to latch on to a through ball and pulled up limping. In the time honoured tradition of West Ham United, he then left the field with a muscular injury, sporting what the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists must surely by now be calling the Boleyn Walk (Hand on back of thigh, limping, accompanied by sheepish looking physio).


"Let me guess - a muscle injury? What a fucking surprise"

Upon Antonio pulling up lame, Bilic had immediately sent Rice and Carroll to warm up so it wasn't any surprise to see the latter come on, although with Ayew having started the season well, and Sakho apparently fit and available either of them would have seemed a more natural replacement. Instead, on came Carroll, lumbering on to the pitch like the Indominus Rex breaking out of her pen in Jurassic World.

As with that story - owning such creatures seems great in principle but you'd better have an idea of how to look after them or they just cause havoc.

ACT TWO 

With Antonio gone, and the threat of anybody running in behind disappearing with him, Spurs pushed up and took control of the game. In his first action Carroll flattened Davinson Sanchez, and with his second he gave the ball away to Eriksen and watched as Alli fed Kane for the opener. Shortly after, he was dispossessed by Jan Vertonghen and the Alli/Kane duo combined once more to make it 2-0.

Half time came and went with no obvious change and Eriksen latched on to a fortuitous bounce from an Aurier cross *GIANT THEATRICAL WINK TO CAMERA* to coolly make it 3-0. At this point, our heroes were facing their dark night of the soul. A two nil deficit is almost impossible to overcome, but three is impregnable. These days Spurs are chock full of good players, and also Moussa Sissoko, and to expect a comeback from that point would have been akin to asking for a miracle.

What we really needed was divine intervention.

ACT TWO - INCITING INCIDENT

With the game slipping away, we got our first foothold when Eric Dier lost Jose Fonte at a corner and Chicharito lost Sissoko and the result was a close range headed goal. With our tails up, enter the sympathetic villain - Serge Aurier *GIANT THEATRICAL WINK TO CAMERA*

The Ivorian decided that while we were showing signs of life, the only sensible way to deal with any problem he encountered was to foul it. He duly picked up two yellow cards in quick succession and picked up a red card so stupid that it felt like it had wandered in from a less intelligent script.


Somehow, this took 70 minutes

What was interesting about the red card is that it took an hour and three fouls for Oliver to issue anything at all. On the day West Ham players committed ten fouls and picked up four yellow cards, while Aurier made four fouls and was only booked for numbers three and four. In the fairy tale land of "what if" it's tempting to wonder if he shouldn't have gone earlier, for all the difference that would have made. 

ACT THREE

With the villains in retreat, we had our chance at last. Even at 3-1 this was the longest of long shots but we pushed forward and generally rained hell and brimstone on to the Spurs goal. This culminated in a Kouyate header so towering it should be remained the Empire State Goal, but in the end we came up short. 

And thus ended the great London Stadium performance of 2017. A classic tragedy in three acts.

***

But what can we make of this game? So much happened, with so many caveats and additions that it feels almost impossible to draw safe conclusions. 

I would say that the first thing to do is to remove emotion from any such analysis. Football might be the drug, and the London Stadium might be our opium den, but in the end it's only a game. Six people were attacked in an acid attack later that day in Stratford, hours after I was there with my daughter. It's going to be rough when we see our Spurs supporting mates, but still. It's only a game. 

That said, I can't think of anything more West Ham then losing this match and then the US and North Korea going to war, meaning that we all have to spend our lives wandering in a post apocalyptic wasteland knowing this happened the last time we played them. 

For many, this game seems to have thrown up lots of positives. We started well and gave a glimpse of what we might be capable of when we get everyone fit. Likewise, we battled back gamely, with a rousing finish that could easily have yielded a last minute penalty for a fairly obvious shove on Carroll by Sanchez. Elsewhere, I thought Fonte was excellent again and our midfield duo played well until being overrun. So, in that sense, there were plus points to be drawn. 

Contextually we will also have to grudgingly admit that Spurs are a good team and, while I think it's unlikely that they will win the league, they will beat better teams than us this season. 

So, yeah, that's one way of looking at things. 


What a near come - diddly - back!

The issue I would take with this way of viewing the result, is that it seems bereft of any attempt to assess this performance alongside the rest of Bilic's reign. 

So while we started well, we didn't actually create anything in that time. We were simply on top in a fairly mediocre encounter. And while injuries continue to plague any attempt to get our full team on the pitch, this is really nothing new. Dealing with a weakened squad is simply par for the course if you manage West Ham. Likewise, you can't manage Oasis and then complain that they're off their nut half the time. 

So while I too enjoyed the comeback up to a point, it seems ludicrous to me to try and paint being constantly 3-0 down as a positive thing. We have played six games this season and conceded three goals during four of them. It is not possible to stay up playing like this. 

There is research around that suggests that, at best, teams have a 5% chance of winning when they go two nil down. That number actually gets lower depending on what minute the second goal is scored. In short, given when Kane got the second on Saturday we had around a 2% chance of winning that game. 

Not for the first time this season, or under Bilic, the inability to defend properly is what continually undermines our attempts to win. Saturday was his 82nd league game in charge of West Ham, and according to my research we have gone two nil down on twenty five separate occasions during his reign. Put another way, in about 30% of the games. If you want to know why we're struggling so much then look no further than that porous defence and woeful organisation. 

The other thing that happens when you go two goals down is that the opposition withdraw. No longer needing to score, they will frequently sit and allow us to have the ball knowing they can pick us off on the break. This leads to a slightly artificial sense that we have gained an upper hand when, in reality, teams are drawing us on to them. I think sometimes West Ham fans forget this because we are rarely two nil up, and don't have the pace to be a good counterattacking team. 

Additionally, had Aurier not got himself sent off I highly doubt we'd have been able to push forward down our left as forcefully as we did. It took quite a lot of material changes to the circumstance of the game before we got back in control.

Beware this illusion of ascendancy.

***

Much of the discussion after the game centred on the decision to bring Andy Carroll on for Antonio instead of someone more mobile like Ayew, Sakho or the Bobby Moore statue. The common reading of this seems to be that when Carroll came on we abandoned our shorter passing game and instead went long. 

Interestingly, this isn't supported by the facts. We actually attempted more long balls as a percentage of our passes before Carroll came on, and only really resorted to throwing crosses into the box at the end during the last, desperate scramble for a point. What happened in reality is that we replaced Michail Antonio with Andy Carroll and then tried to continue playing exactly the same way.

Think about that for the moment. Antonio, all pace and power, strong running and lung bursting surges into unorthodox areas. It's not hindsight to suggest that Ayew or Sakho would have been a better replacement there, if we intended to continue trying to do those things. 

Instead, Bilic put on Carroll but made no tactical changes to accommodate him. So we continued to try and do the things which had put us on top early - running the channels, exploiting the wide spaces, pressing high and playing through the weak Spurs central midfield - but all of a sudden those things stopped working because we didn't have the personnel to execute them any more. Carroll can't link play or turn defenders like Antonio, he can't run in behind like Chicharito (who can't do it much either) and he can't range from wing to wing like Sakho at his bullocking best. And nor should Bilic be asking him to. It's madness. 

In the end, as observers, we know nothing of form, fitness, confidence or the personalities involved. We have no idea which player has lost form because he's going through a divorce, or has gambling debts, or has a sick child or has a tender hamstring and can only manage twenty minutes (all of them from the bloody looks of it). 

So maybe there were lots of very good reasons to choose Carroll over Sakho, not least that the latter wants to leave. Maybe Bilic has never fancied Ayew but has to humour him because he's Sullivan buy. As I say, we really know nothing of the factors involved. 

But, on the pitch, we can see the results and they are dire. A league table put together for just 2017 shows us fourth bottom, with just two points separating us from Palace who really have been dreadful this year.

Carroll is not being utilised as he should be. We might not want to see it, but if Bilic really believes that he is worth building a team around then he needs to play in a way that suits him. It is noticeable currently how often Carroll receives the ball deep, with his back to goal and plays the ball backwards. Indeed, trying to do precisely that was the root cause of the two opening goals here. In a traditional centre forward role, presumably he would be looking to flick balls on for runners or spread the play wide for high wingers. Indeed it's not hard to reimagine long floated balls to the edge of the box for him to knock down for a Kevin Nolan type, as that's what we saw for years under Allardyce.

We do none of these things. 


The last temptation of Bilic

Instead we persist with a 3-4-3 that requires a far more mobile central forward, and displaces Chicharito to achieve this. It is an odd hybrid, style of play that somehow manages to play to nobody's strengths. 

The comparison here is that when Allardyce also built his team around Carroll, he was forced to find another solution when he got injured. His use of a diamond formation with Downing at the top worked brilliantly, until he abandoned it all when Carroll came back and results plummeted. It's therefore interesting to me that Bilic seems to get a free pass for doing much the same thing.

On a slightly related matter, I'm not as high on Chicharito as lots of others - although I enjoyed the Herculean effort on Saturday - because he presents some similar problems to Carroll in that he requires a certain type of play. He reminds me a little of Michael Owen in so much as his contribution outside the box is minimal, but once he gets into the penalty area he becomes invisible to defenders. It's hard not to feel a little giddy about the prospect of a striker who can score twenty goals a season. It's harder to see how we'll ever fashion enough chances for him to do that. 

***

Where Bilic is failing is in not determining a path and remaining true to it. He's equivocating constantly, flipping back and forth tactically and falling into the trap that has ensnared a lot of other managers whereby he seems to be struggling to identify which players need to transition out of the first team to being squad players. 

I don't think much of our board but I can see how they struggle to place any long term faith in a manager who spends his entire pre season planning to play a specific way and then drops half his back four after one game, and changes the system entirely after three games. There's making necessary changes and then there's apparently picking numbers out of a hat. 

He seems to have determinedly hitched his wagon to the stars of Carroll and Noble, who are now the two most divisive players around. If Carroll is the siren bewitching Bilic with the promise of hat tricks against Arsenal and bicycle kicks, then Noble is his shop steward, the old faithful who knows how things are done and does it quietly. 

I thought Noble played well on Saturday until his legs failed him after too long spent covering the holes left by Arnautovic. Spurs were weak in the centre with Dier and Sissoko well short of Dembele and Wanyama and it was a shame that we didn't exploit them better. Indeed trying to pass off Sissoko as a replacement for Wanyama is like me sellotaping some plastic knives to my knuckles and claiming to be Wolverine. 

Dier, meanwhile, sees Cheik Kouyate holding a red balloon every time he looks in a sewer vent and all of that early dominance was in part because those two grabbed the centre of the park. Our problems began when Eriksen started to get on the ball and we never really had got close enough to him to stop the inevitable. While Kane and Alli get most of the plaudits, it's Eriksen who seems to me to be the tick of the Spurs clock. We missed Obiang's mobility in trying to stop him and seem to have a fairly large Carvalho sized hole there right now. 

***

So as much as we may want to feel otherwise, this was really a story as old as time. The Bilic West Ham experiment ran its course some time ago but will continue until the end of the season unless things really get desperate. He enters a soft run of fixtures now, and with Palace seemingly determined to go full Sunderland this season, there might only be two places up for grabs in the relegation zone. 

One would hope we'll have enough to stay afloat, at which point the board will doubtless wave him goodbye, maintain their proud run of not firing underperforming managers, waste another season, and then do their best to attract a high class proven manager to a club where a teenager will sit in strategic meetings with them. The death of a thousand cuts continues. 


So Mr Tuchal, let's talk money

But watching this game really only served to reinforce to me how much of what we have seen before continues to be repeated. The familiar themes of the Bilic regime were on display again - individual mistakes, injuries, defensive lapses, some bad luck and a confusing tactical setup that leaves me no closer to understanding how he wants to play. I'd be genuinely interested to hear from a pro-Bilic fans who still want him to stay. I'm sure there's another story on the other side of this coin, but I'm fairly sure I've lost the bloody coin by this point. 

We're well into Act Three by now, and whether it's Romeo and Juliet, Maximus, William Wallace or Jay Gatsby it's heart wrenching to see a tragedy unfold and a popular hero disappear. But truth be told, I'm more than ready for someone to bring down the curtain on this particular show. 

THE END