In the end, this was the kind of game to make you question your short term memory. I got home and immediately began to worry about why I could barely remember anything of the ninety minutes, before reassuring myself that this was less likely to be due to amnesia and more due to the fact that barely anything happened.
And for those of us who went into this expecting a largely traumatic experience, that was pretty good news.
Matches against Everton - or "make Romelu Lukaku your Fantasy League captain day" as they are known locally - have been largely depressing affairs for quite some time now, with just two Hammers victories in the last nineteen encounters. These came courtesy of last years burglary at Goodison Park and a Bobby Zamora long range beauty as part of the 2007 Great Escape. Overall, we have just seven wins from forty one Premier League encounters with the Toffees, meaning that there have been more Olympic Games than West Ham victories in this period.
So a draw, and a comfortable one at that, is not to be sniffed at in the context of our historical ineptitude in this fixture. Interestingly the first of those victories came in 1994, when the Sylvester Stallone film Demolition Man was knocking about in cinemas.
Slightly incredibly this movie was partly based on an Aldous Huxley novel, and involved people being cryogenically frozen and then waking up years later in a dystopian future where swearing is outlawed and guns no longer exist, and then loads of stuff explodes because Hollywood.
I'd like to shoehorn some questionable comparison here whereby I imagine waking up a West Ham fan from 1993 and showing them the current lot, but primarily I mention it because I think Arthur Masuaku and Edmilson Fernandes went to the barbers with a picture of Wesley Snipes' character from that film and said "make us look this stupid please".
Apparently, Arthur and Edimilson like them some Demolition Man
2. The Two Men
There was a slight shock before the game when it was announced that Adrian would be replacing Darren Randolph, after the latter managed to concede two goals to a Sunderland team genetically incapable of scoring last week.
In the end we could have put a bag of flour in goal here and kept a clean sheet, so inept were the visitors, but it was somewhat reassuring to have the crazy Spaniard back between the sticks. Things started serenely enough but after a full fifteen minutes of peace he decided that was quite enough of that and signalled that Fernandes should lob a thrown in back to him.
As Lukaku wandered in to close him down with all the intensity of a teenage boy making his bed, Adrian promptly miscontrolled the head high pass, stuck a false moustache on, produced a bowler hat, did a quick mime and put a curly red wig on before finishing his routine up with a knee high lunge at Kevin Mirallas as the Belgian bore down on a open goal.
This was simultaneously heart stopping, as it reminded us all of the slightly frenetic air that always surrounds the Spaniard, and marvellous as this was literally the closest Everton came to scoring all game.
I have felt for a while that Adrian needed to come back in to the team as Randolph seemed not to have that crucial ability to keep us in games by producing big saves at big moments. By contrast, Adrian is unorthodox but effective and if he can revert to last years form it would be a huge boon for these last few games. Whether either will survive the summer is perhaps questionable as Joe Hart ticks all the David Sullivan boxes (heard of him, expensive, possibly in decline, no one else wants him), but in general I think that upgrade would be so marginal that it really wouldn't be worth the cost involved.
3. He Never Expected Much
Ahead of this game it seemed the height of optimism to expect a positive result. Byram and Noble were suspended, while Obiang, Antonio, Carroll, Snodgrass, Feghouli (Our wingers! Our ineffective wingers!) and Ogbonna were all absent with late season West Ham syndrome. This led to a number of youngsters being on the bench and had the effect of making an already deeply unimpressive squad look like they were having a "bring your child to work" day.
But then a funny thing happened - the game started and we weren't terrible. In fact, far from it. This was the kind of determined, "fuck-the-circumstances" type of performance that fans love but West Ham seem to so rarely produce.
Havard Nordtveit was the best player on the pitch, despite a start where he looked as nervous as Ross Barkley in a nightclub. The Norwegian grew into the game and by the end had so thoroughly subdued Barkley that it's entirely possible he took him home in his back pocket. No mean feat given the Evertonians impressive recent form.
We managed to stop Lukaku from scoring for the first time ever as an Everton player (not an exaggeration), primarily by snuffing out his supply and if that failed by swarming him with rugged centre halves.
The returning Winston Reid was supreme in this role and was ably assisted by Fonte and Collins, each of whom benefited hugely from the extra layer of support provided by the 3-5-2 system. Outside them Masuaku was excellent, in spite of his terrible hair, whilst Fernandes provided the athleticism and near total lack of positional awareness that Bilic seems to demand from his right sided defenders.
As the below shot map from @11tegen11 shows, we were pretty dominant all game without really carving out the one big chance we needed to secure the points. Our best hope was probably a Lanzini effort that was blocked by the excellent Phil Jagielka, quite possibly at the expense of some of his teeth. As for Everton - nil shots on target nil hope, and a big LOL at those shot locations.
Sadly, up front Jonathan Calleri endured an afternoon to consign to the wastepaper basket as he toiled in a lone striker role to no noticeable effect. More than any other player, he seems to visibly lack confidence and will presumably disappear back to the bench once they get the plaster cast off Sakho or Carroll next week.
Behind him, however, Andre Ayew actually started to look the part as he benefited from the lack of mobility in Everton's back four to float around and, startlingly, link our play with some effectiveness. With Lanzini a constant menace, it would be a significant boost if Ayew could step up his play to provide a second player in the final third with the ability to carve out chances. He still seems ponderous at times, and is infuriatingly slow to run at defenders but he worked hard here and his high pressing was one of the reasons that Everton never looked remotely threatening. With all of that being said, he should be leaving the free kicks to Lanzini though.
Still, all things considered, I'm going to take Sam Allardyce's advice and respect the fuck out of that point and order a nice pint of wine to celebrate being a point closer to mid table oblivion.
4. Moments Of Vision
There was a moment in the second half that demands a little commentary all of it's own. Manuel Lanzini - our light in the gloom - picked up the ball on the left and cut inside to loft a pass to Ayew, who in turn flicked it back to him via an aerial backheel.
The Argentine sprinted through in pursuit before pulling another magical Rabona cross from nowhere. Naturally it went in to an empty box because we have no strikers, but in these days of respecting the point and hoping Hull lose at Stoke, it's nice to see some bona fide brilliance from time to time.
I hope the chaps at @westhamsocial won't begrudge me illustrating the point.That bit of play with the Ayew flick & the Lanzini rabona 😍 pic.twitter.com/dIJxov4SlT— West Ham Social (@WestHamSocial) April 23, 2017
5. The Self-Unseeing
Over lunch recently with a friend, we got on to the topic of Ross Barkley's hair. Having stuck rigidly to local law by having the same haircut for 25 years, the youngster has suddenly allowed his locks to grow out a little. We posited the theory that this was due to the arrival of Tom Davies and his long flowing locks and low shin pads. Davies was Barkley's Summer of Love, his sexual revolution, and now young Ross is sporting a barnet like a mushroom and getting knocked out in nightclubs. Good for him - Stevie G will be proud. But somehow, that little act of growing his hair seems to symbolise a new found belief in Barkley and has coincided with a very good season, or had done until this stinker of a performance at least.
I don't have huge amounts of time for the more unscientific side of analysing sport. I have written before of my disdain for the concept of passion, and I subscribe to Mike Atherton's view that "team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in victory". In both cases it strikes me that these are stock phrases used by people to cover up a lack of knowledge or because spouting cliches is far easier than thinking about things.
As an example, it strikes me that quite often James Collins is reduced to making full length diving blocks because of a poor bit of positional play, rather then because he's full of passion. But one is easier to explain than the other, so here we are.
However, one area which I do believe impacts on the game hugely is confidence, both of individuals and a team. At the start of this game, two of our players were obviously struggling - Nordtveit and Calleri - but only one overcame it. Nordtveit is a better, more experienced player and you could see that he wanted to ease himself into the match. He barely attempted anything other than a five yard pass and was robbed at least twice in dangerous positions. But as the game progressed he started to feel his way and by the end of the second half was using his physicality impressively to regain possession in our defensive third, and starting attacks wisely with intelligent use of the ball.
He is actually a more naturally defensive midfielder than any other player we have, and he screened our back three superbly. This solidity has been lacking all season, and it was actually refreshing to see a good performance against a good team being built on such foundations. Although Obiang and Noble offer much going forward, neither of them quite have the positional awareness or physical gifts of Nordtveit and with SARS sweeping through the dressing room, he has a chance to cement a place for the next few games.
By contrast, Calleri looks lost. He looks like a cockney Atlas, with the world on his shoulders except for the fact that if that were true he would have lost possession of it by now. I suspect he'll go on to play elsewhere and have some success. There is the germ of a good player there, but here he just looked unathletic and bereft of any self belief.
The lesser spotted goalscoring Calleri
6. Song Of Hope
Confidence takes many forms and it seems that the team are starting to rediscover some after a long fallow period. Some of that may just be because the some of them are getting fit again and can now trust in their bodies to do what they want them to. It certainly seems to be the case that we have rushed far too many players back from injury and paid the price when they have either had relapses or simply taken an age to get up to speed.
Think of how frustrating it is to try and play a sport with an injury and an unresponsive body, and then multiply that by a million for these men who rely on their health for their living. Fans see a player on the pitch and expect him to be completely fit and capable, without ever really giving any grace and favour period for recovery.
Both Nordtveit and Ayew suffered injuries early on in the season and only now seem to have recovered. Likewise Sakho returned here and looked fairly ginger as he ran around, presumably wondering where the fuck everyone had gone from the last time he played a home game. Aaron Cresswell, meanwhile, doesn't appear to have recovered at all and was only seen here in a late cameo at right wing back because it's required by law that West Ham always have someone in that position who doesn't know how to play there.
That failure to have a fully fit squad has exploded in our face this year as several players without obvious replacements (Byram, Carroll and Ogbonna) got injured, necessitating either panicky transfer business or ludicrous decisions to play people out of position to cover them. When the time comes to fire up Jack Sullivan's Xbox in the summer and search on FIFA 17 for new players, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to put health as a main criteria for any new purchases.
Ignoring our ongoing fitness travails, however, there was a pleasing solidity to this performance as the players at last looked as though they had some belief in the system they were playing. It was slightly odd that Everton didn't try to exploit the spaces out wide behind the Demolition Men, as this is traditionally how teams nullify wing backs, but without Seamus Coleman they probably lacked the personnel to do so.
Whether this form will continue next week, or survive intact against the better teams to come, is another story but one worth keeping an eye on. For all his flaws, Bilic has successfully got the team able to switch from system to another without much of an issue, and deserves praise for that.
7. The Dead Man Walking
Talking of the manager, this nascent unbeaten run seems like an opportune moment to reflect on his position and wonder whether he will make it all the way to next year. The signs are that he will, although my fears over his tactical shortcomings would lead me to move him on in the summer, given the choice. Which I won’t be. So ignore me.
However, it's a nuanced situation when one considers the vagaries of the stadium move, the Board he has to work for, Payet, the terrible transfers and the oft ignored fact that the top six in the Premier League have absolutely destroyed everybody else this season. You could cogently argue that Bilic himself must take some blame for those issues, but in the end the point here is that all of that stuff has made his job incredibly difficult this season. In the circumstances, perhaps time will show he has done a better job than we are currently acknowledging, although as I write this we have won just once in ten games which still feels very Allardycian.
Perhaps the most galling part is that for so long last year we felt we were on the verge of joining that elite, but the harsh reality is that one misstep in the fast moving world of the Premier League can cost a team badly. Think of Newcastle's tumble from Champions League contenders to Championship runners up, if you need a live example of how hubris and boardroom incompetence can kneecap a promising revolution before it gets any momentum.
Even standing still isn't enough - as Arsenal are finding out now – and the reality is that given our low starting position we have little hope of getting back in touch with the top six any time soon. Indeed, ignoring the evidence of this game, we have a huge job on our hands just to get back in touch with Everton. So the question with Bilic is how much blame must he take for the transfer window and how much do we think he can improve in that area? The sad fact is that none of the other people involved in our summer transfer shambles will pay the price for our failures there, and thus it is Bilic who is always at risk.
As an outsider I would guess that this is probably one of the reasons why Bilic agreed to safety first, uninspired signings this January when we probably needed to push the boat out and try to attract some younger, less rounded players in the hope of later harnessing their upside, as Spurs have done with Dele Alli and Saints have done with Nathan Redmond.
Sullivan and Gold don’t like to fire managers, so I suspect he may get another year. However, as our season will open up with three games on the road next year due to the stadium not being ready after the summer athletics – God bless that track – it will be very difficult to get off to a good start. I can’t help thinking that any hint of a repeat next season will be met with a fairly swift visit to the executioner.
8. Night In The Old Home
There were some noticeable moments where the atmosphere on Saturday was edging towards decent. In fact, I suspect if you were in one of the noisier hotspots you might even have felt it was pretty good altogether. Sadly, the London Stadium is so large that it has yet to truly ignite and take the whole crowd with it, and it wasn’t about to do that for a game so dreary it could have been written by Ed Sheeran.
But there were signs, as the home fans grew in belief after each minute that ticked past with Lukaku no closer to breaking a sweat, that the general mood was turning a little. There’s no doubt that the stadium can be intermittently loud, but it doesn’t have that same capacity to swell with excitement as Upton Park did. I have a theory that this might be due to the upper tier spectators being divided from the action by an obvious and distracting thirty foot gap, covered by claret tarpaulin, temporary gangways and comatose stewards. But here, in the sun and facing a team on their holidays, there was a hint of life.
For those pining for the Boleyn, this is all grist to the mill, but perhaps the Spurs game on a Friday night might be the spark that sets the whole fire roaring. On the flip side, I’m fairly friendly with a senior Met Police crowd control officer who will be working that night, and when I asked him how he felt about it he went pale, whispered "the horror, the horror" and put his head in his hands. Good ol’ Sky Sports.9. Leipzig
An interesting conversation from Saturday.
How much would you be prepared to put up with in the pursuit of glory? For some fans we already know that the stadium move was a leap too far, and they’ve abandoned us – possibly for Leyton Orient, which I imagine is working out well.
But what of the rest of us? Looking at the Premier League, realistically the only way we can dare to dream is with new ownership pushing us upwards with the help of a cash injection and the strategic thinking that is evidently beyond the current board. I won’t go over all the old ground of recent weeks, but events of the last season would suggest that the Board have done a very good job with the balance sheet, but have probably reached a level in terms of team affairs where it has become evident that they don’t have the strategic vision, experience or self-awareness to make the necessary decisions to push the team forward. To be honest, there is no shame in that particularly, but rather more in the failure to internally critique their performance and either hire in people who can do the job or standing aside for new investors.
On that point, remember when the Club announced they had turned down a £650m bid via a teenagers Twitter account, as all top tier businesses tend to do? The assumption at the time was that this was a bid from Red Bull, the Austrian soft drink company who have cornered the market in weird flying events and producing mixers for vodka that can convince middle aged English people to dance at weddings. However, they also do an interesting sideline in footballing ventures, with clubs owned in Austria, the US and most successfully of all, Germany.
There they took SSV Markranstädt, a team from the fifth tier of German football, to the very tip of the Bundesliga. They created enemies all over Germany as they went, as well as renaming the club RB Leipzig. I don’t claim any level of expertise on their rise and would recommendthis as a primer on why they are so hated, but it did make me think a little about how West Ham fans might have taken to such a takeover.
For me, the support of my team has become tarnished by the fact that the very league they play in is determined not have any competitive balance. And I say that knowing full well that West Ham are a well-funded, well supported team who benefit from this in our own way. (Also Leicester - but fuck Leicester as their victory made zero sense). As an example, our general incompetence this year will net us a whopping £90m of TV money while a team like Huddersfield in the tier below won’t pick up even 10% of that, despite being far more successful, relatively. Such is the iniquitous nature of English football.
But to jump up again we need money. Even Spurs, who I laud for their off field thinking, are supplementing that policy with enormous sums of cash. Nowhere the likes of the Manchester clubs, but still many multiples of what a team like Burnley can spend. It’s a rigged casino and the only way to challenge the house is to have more money. So, it’s a worthwhile question to ponder – how much change could we stomach? A new badge and a new ground have already been and gone. No more claret and blue? How about RB West Ham? What about staying as West Ham United but finding Manuel Lanzini has joined RB Leipzig in a cut price deal because they are in the Champions League and we aren’t?
I’d probably need several thousand more words to properly articulate how I feel about all of that, and there isn’t a right and a wrong answer anyway, but if we truly want the investment required to get us to the top trough of English football, at some point we might have to face up to some hard truths. Everything has a cost.
The view from the top tier of the West Stand at the Red Bull Stadium
10. The House Of Hospitalities
I can't finish up without admitting I watched this game from a hospitality suite. This might well render everything I have ever said, or will ever say again, redundant but I don't care - it was ace. I'll happily point out the flaws of West Ham's transfer policy forever, but I won't hear a word against their chocolate orange brownie.
My sincere thanks to Andy Ellis for the invite. I have no qualms at all about saying that the meal was more entertaining than the game.