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, September 18, 2017

West Brom 0 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

I am a terrible Englishman.

I do not drink tea or coffee, and society is simply not able to cope with that. I have lost count of the conferences, meetings and social visits that have ended with me drinking nothing while a host looks on disconcertedly, or worse, scrabbling round in a distant cupboard for some Ribena. Which I also do not drink, but am now forced to out of a desire not to be impolite.

But, to an outsider, context is everything.

I'm not sat in that front room drinking the purple teeth destroyer because I want to, but because it's the least worst thing available to me.


"Who said you could attack?"

And so to the footballing caliphate of West Bromwich, where modern practices are eschewed and shunned in favour of a safety first football that will one day be studied by great physicians of the future as the first cause of mass eye-bleeding in the English Midlands.

Or put another way, this was so terrible a game of football that shortly after the final whistle blew, ISIS claimed responsibility for it.

But all of this has to be placed in a wider context. I'm not sure Slaven Bilic wants to drink this particular brand of Ribena either, but he is left with little choice. The start to the season has been so dreadful and his team so inept that he simply had to act, and the basis of any such self renewal is always the defence.

And so it has come to pass that Bilic has returned to the 3-4-3 formation that best suits his slow backline and least suits his current attackers, and the results have been two clean sheets, four points and great swathes of existential anguish.

Whatever your opinion on the quality of these last two games, one can't deny that it feels an awful lot better to have four points in the bank and to be moaning about the manner in which we gained them rather than being, well, Crystal Palace.

***

This was a curious game in so much as it felt that we were very clearly the better side but the xG map below from Caley Graphics doesn't agree. This is a reflection that while we came closest to scoring, those chances themselves weren't really very good. Instead we relied on individual excellence to fashion something from unpromising situations. Sort of like when Susanna Reid rolls her eyes at some shit Piers Morgan is saying and somehow continues to be professional while working with an hyperactive adolescent orang-utan. 


Entirely appropriate

And so Pedro Obiang brilliantly spotted Ben Foster trying to tunnel his way out of the stadium to play for a team where he wasn't the main creative force, and audaciously lobbed him from all of 40 yards, only to see it crash back off the bar. Chicharito also burst through on to a Carroll flick on and was cynically hacked down by Foster when through on goal, albeit heading away from the danger area. 

But as far as goal scoring chances go, we didn't create too much that would usually result in a goal. Our xG of 0.2 is the lowest I can ever remember from us, which will be hard to comprehend for some given we hit the bar, but if you think about it this makes sense. If Obiang were to try that shot again (which he did in the second half), he would be very unlikely to score (he put the second effort on to the roof). All this is saying is that we didn't create much by way of high quality chances even if we by and large dominated the game in most ways. 


Our best chance was probably a glancing header from Fonte that, on another day, could have flashed into the corner. This is promising because we relied heavily on set pieces last year, although the gap between Payet and Cresswell in terms of delivery is, um, noticeable.

But mostly this was fairly agricultural fare. There were long balls to Carroll once more, and a near complete reliance on Antonio to carry the ball and fashion chances from deeper positions.

Furthermore, Chicharito was once more banished to the left as we continue to sacrifice all our attacking options at the altar of CarrollBall. There was a moment in the second half when Bilic had Arnautovic, Antonio, Hernandez and Carroll on the pitch at the same time during a brief foray into the realms of Ossie Ardiles. This came about because James Collins was injured and Bilic replaced him with Arnautovic and returned Antonio to right wing back AS THOUGH LAST SEASON NEVER HAPPENED.

It boggles my mind, but we're apparently back there again.

***

Reactions to these columns are always pretty interesting, even if not always complimentary. Some of you were upset last week that it was all too negative - why can't you take more positives out of being bottom of the league? - while others think it's all a bit repetitive. For the former I offer no apology, but the latter is, I think, a problem. Some of that is the natural spin off from writing match reports about the same team, which will always lend itself to repetition, but also because we do seem to be stuck in some sort of footballing Mobius Strip. I can't quite figure out if I'm doing thirty eight different match reports a season or the same match report thirty eight different times.


West Ham's road to recovery

For that reason, I can see some glimmers of hope from Saturday, which is kind of ironic because I'm pretty sure that some West Brom fans were engaged in a mutual suicide pact towards the end.

It wasn't much by way of hope, admittedly, but the faint whisper that Bilic is at least seeing what his problems are and making some tangible moves to fix them. We remain a see saw of a team, whereby walking up one end simply causes the other to shoot up. As such, two clean sheets and barely any chances given up suggests that he's temporarily fixed the defensive side of things, but it's clearly been done at the expense of our attack.

In reality that's the right way round, because if you don't concede you can still pick up points, but when you concede two goals every week it places an intolerable strain on the attack. So we have gone with three centre backs and for the most part we look very comfortable although it should be acknowledged that both Huddersfield and West Brom had all the offensive ambition of the Swiss Navy.

Spurs will be the acid test of our nascent recovery. They are a proper team who will be smarting from their last visit and who need a result to stay in touch, even at this early stage. Defensively all our success against them has come with a high press, so I don't really know how we will get on with that on Saturday if Carroll is playing. He doesn't offer the mobility of Calleri and Ayew, who did it so well last season, which causes concern as we don't really want Spurs to have time to pick us apart.

Behind him, with just two in the centre we run the risk of being outnumbered again, leaving Kouyate and Obiang to do too much physical work. It also seems feasible to expect Spurs to target those wide open spaces in behind our full backs. West Brom didn't do this because the last one of Tony Pulis's full backs to cross the half way line was stapled to a horse for a week as punishment.

So, you can say that Bilic picked a fabulous time to get his defence in order, by doing it against two of the least ambitious teams around. Alternatively you could posit that he wasted a great opportunity here to kick the season into a higher gear with an away win at a team who were actively avoiding attacking as if they were some kind of Gandhi tribute act.

***

In examining why we play three at the back - everyone is old and slow and doesn't really know what they're supposed to be doing at any given moment - it's probably worth considering why the 4-2-3-1 has stopped working.

Usually in this formation the two full backs bomb forward, and the deepest lying central midfielder drops into the back line to make a three. There are those of you with coaching qualifications who can better expound on what this does to the game, but looking back to 2014-15 and 2015-16 when we were at our recent peak, we had Alex Song to superbly fill this role. Looking more widely around world football you will also see players like Mascherano - the Catalan Hayden Mullins - Sergio Busquets and David Luiz floating around in these roles.

This fluidity of movement is what separates the elite from teams like us, but it does explain why centre backs quite often appear in midfield roles without explanation. Song fell away for us in 2015-16 but Noble was outstanding that season, and furthermore having Dimitri Payet in your side can help detract from a lot of other deficiencies.

I suspect that Havard Nordtveit was bought for this purpose last year, and it might also explain why Bilic has been so keen to blood the likes of Reece Oxford and Declan Rice. Each are converted centre backs who can play in midfield, and should be able, theoretically, to drop back and assist without the mass panic and confusion that seems to accompany it these days.

With none of these options really paying off, Bilic targeted William Carvalho and might well have got him if everyone involved in the process wasn't a fucking lunatic. But he didn't, and as a result, with Obiang the only player fit enough and impressive enough to occupy the role, Bilic seems to have decided that the chaotic defending being offered by the four at the back can't continue.

What is noticeable, however, is that going to a back three seems to render us pretty impotent going forward. However, that is in contrast to last season, when we actually looked quite fluid at times and produced our better displays with that line up.

The Geordie in the room here is that when we played that way we didn't have Andy Carroll as the focal point of our attack. Playing him, and smashing long balls in his vague direction, seems to negate other players. Hernandez, as seen below, is visibly uninvolved in games when shunted out wide and Kouyate too seems strangely neutered.


Times Javier Hernandez touched the ball and then pondered firing his agent

So while I respect the point, and acknowledge the necessary evil of getting down into the mud and sewers to battle with Huddersfield and West Brom, I'll also add that I really struggle to see how this formation beats better teams.

***

I'm guessing that the coach journey back from this game was an interesting one. Earlier, Carroll went off shaking his head in disgust at the notion of being substituted, with all the self awareness of a man who has actually dyed a section of his pony tail blonde. Already we had seen Chicharito withdrawn, trudging off with demeanour of a man hired to perform magic tricks at a party but then being asked to serve the trifle instead. Neither Ayew or Sakho will be happy on the bench, while the notoriously zen like Arnautovic isn't going to last long as a substitute before going apeshit in some highly public fashion.

That just leaves Antonio, who was shunted back into his least favourite position and suddenly I am left to wonder if Bilic is going to achieve the stupendous feat of giving all these players gametime and somehow keeping none of them happy?

Adding Manuel Lanzini back into the mix further complicates matters, although the reality there is that the Argentine walks straight back in and the rest must fight it out. In the end, I can't really tell you what I think Bilic will do because none of these forward players beyond Antonio and maybe Arnatouvic make much sense for this system.

My biggest gripe with the use of Hernandez isn't so much that he is starting out wide because he can drift infield, but more that he is so deep. It doesn't seem like it should be beyond the wit of man to conceive of a system whereby we get our penalty box striker into the box.

In real terms, it's actually hard to make a case for Hernandez playing if this is going to be the system we employ from here. Arnautovic would do the wide job better and is a more natural fit. Antonio is untouchable on the other flank, leaving only the central position to decide. I suspect Bilic will go with Carroll even though the fans will clamour for Hernandez, and Sakho is going to stay in a bench based purgatory until he can resume his transfer wanderings in January.

In reality, that's probably a sensible decision because I just can't see Hernandez as a lone central striker in this formation. All of which does rather beg the question - what formation did they buy him to play in?

***

It's never a great sign upon entering a football stadium when you are presented with a rock hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster and given the option of "doing a Shawshank" at some point in the second half if it all gets a bit much. But that's the way of it at The Hawthorns.

I actually feel rather sorry for West Brom fans, who are trapped in what I call the "Scudamore Snare" - the club is reliant upon Premier League status and thus this must come before all else. No notion of entertaining football can be considered without first weighing up if it would jeopardise their safety. It is the way of things for mid table sides and we were there ourselves just a couple of seasons ago.

And so it comes to pass that even when they have a good transfer window and make exciting signings like Kieran Gibbs, Oliver Burke and Grzegorz Krychowiak (taking the well trodden path from Seville to Paris to West Bromwich), there is still a feeling that Pulis has only done all of that with a view to turning them each into a centre back. Even Gareth Barry popped up, so slow that he could play for us, and sat in front of the back four looking to break up play. There wasn't much ambition on show.

But for all that, they are a team who know how they play. Each of their players understands exactly what is required of him, and each carries that job out diligently. It's not interesting to watch, but it's effective.

By comparison to us, one would say they are at least in possession of an identity, and an obvious path forward. Buy better players and add some attacking intent and it's not hard to squint and see them in the top ten regularly.

By contrast, Bilic is behind them now. He is striving to find that sense of self and is presumably aware that while his current system seems tailor made to extract the best from Jose Fonte, it is similarly rendering Cheikhou Kouyate almost totally ineffective.

Bilic is a bright man, and will know all this, and the advantage he holds over Pulis is probably that if he gets his system right his attacking players will deliver more for him in the long run.

But perhaps the most pertinent question of all is this: if the way forward from here is to take this Allardycian approach to the game whereby we fixate on defence, respect the point and try to build on top, then why would you ever employ anyone other than Allardyce to implement it? Bilic is hampered here by the fact that he took an Allardyce team and advanced it, before regressing with terrifying speed once Payet downed tools. Few would argue that the current team, in this vein of poor form stretching back to the beginning of 2017, are much different to any of Allardyce's teams.


Miss me much?

And here's the rub. You can play like this to steady the ship for a while but eventually fans will want more. There has to be more to life than respecting the point at West Brom. Thus, the search for an identity goes on but it strikes me that the one you probably don't want to take on at West Ham would be that of Sam Allardyce.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

West Ham 2 - 0 Huddersfield (And Other Ramblings)

As a kid growing up, one of my favourite films was "Big Trouble in Little China". Being a boy from Essex, I'm pretty sure that the attraction revolved around being shown a world totally unlike anything I had ever even imagined before. Up until I saw Kim Cattrall battling the Wing Kong, I'm pretty sure the most exotic thing to have ever happened in Harold Hill was when my mate Danny's dad bought himself a new Fiat Uno and promptly crashed it into a skip.

The plot is bananas, featuring warring Chinese clans, mystical warlords, metaphysical battles and Kurt Russell running around in a tank top. I do not know what else you could possibly want from a film.

I would estimate I have seen it roughly 3,000 times.


The 1980's - rubbish for everything except movie posters and Alan Devonshire

One of the many running gags is the nice subversion of the movie trope of the time, whereby the all American hero (Russell) has to be constantly rescued and kept alive by his Chinese allies. During the course of all this they tell him that "China's got a lot of Hells". They then relay these to him at various points in the ludicrous plot to scare him. The list includes the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces, the Hell of Boiling Oil and the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners. 

To this list I would also like to add - The Hell of Having To Watch Slaven Bilic's West Ham play Must Win Games. 

***

By my estimation, this was the fifth such game that Bilic has faced since the start of last year. Hull, Burnley, Swansea and Spurs were all presented at the time as being of such great importance that should we have lost them, then Bilic would have been sacked. 

The ironic thing is that these games were mostly dreadful - Spurs excepted - but we won them all 1-0.  I'm almost tempted to say that perhaps Sullivan and Gold should make every game like this except for the fact that I'm not entirely convinced they wouldn't take that seriously, the crazy bastards.

Now, twenty fours hours on, I am still unsure exactly how I feel about this game. We won - WE WON - and you don't take that for granted these days as a Hammer. On the other hand, Huddersfield made West Brom look like AC Milan '94 so it's hard to gauge whether this chaotically oppressive performance was indicative of an improved ability to snuff out teams or just a lot of hard work to blow away an awful opponent.

Mostly though, I just want something to dream on. It's draining to always be stumbling from one self inflicted crisis to another, like the newest action hero of our time, Wayne Rooney - Uber Driver Man. And in the end, that's where I've landed. Let's enjoy that all too rare feeling of wandering out of a stadium and being able to excitedly discuss a win.

***

Individually, there were some cheery moments as Michail Antonio turned in the kind of performance to make you mutter "Michail, these men have families" under your breath as the Huddersfield back line were introduced to what I am reliably informed the kids call "Beast Mode".


Exhibit A M'Lud.

Whilst I have described this as the slowest West Ham team I've ever seen, that's not a charge that can be laid at the door of Antonio. He was the central cog of this performance, such as it was, transitioning us from unpromising midfield possessions to advanced territories with either outrageous strength and skill or just via jet fuelled bursts.

As tactically incoherent as I find us to be under Bilic, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that this is the best way to use Antonio. The bottled lightning he poured into our attacks looks to me to be exactly the kind of break that would best utilise Javier Hernandez, or would do if he wasn't wandering about on our left side like a horse who'd got confused and roamed out of his paddock.

What's interesting about that is that when I looked up Chicharito's heat map over at Sofascore.com he actually spent more time infield than it seemed at the game. I wonder if that's because he made several fruitless breaks inside looking for passes and flicks that never came, as we became overly fixated on smashing the ball towards Andy Carroll.





Either way, what is evident is that the Mexican is more defensively diligent than I gave him credit for, but in reality I'm not sure I wanted to find that out. I remain perplexed as to why a renowned, proven penalty box striker would not be the most advanced player on your team.

***

Behind all of this, we lined up with three at the back. I would say that this is really our best defensive alignment because it allows our slow, ageing and disorganised backline to individually only have to cover a smaller area of real estate. Jose Fonte, in particular, seems to thrive in this system and once again looked every inch the European Championship winning centre back that he actually is. Like, really, it's on Wikipedia and everything.

James Collins remains our sturdy umbrella, carried around for conditions such as these where the rain teemed down with such strength that it caused the game to look as though it was being played behind a shower door. On sunnier days, against better opponents who will move the ball with greater penetration he will probably be an unnecessary piece of kit, but here he was in his element.

But the issue with playing this way is that if you have three centre backs you really want at least one who is comfortable advancing with the ball at his feet, or distributing the ball forward with some alacrity. This isn't true of any of our four available centre back options. As such, teams can press heavily against our midfield players and then let our back line keep it, safe in the knowledge that at some point Collins is going to get bored and launch one in the general direction of Andy Carroll, whether he's on the pitch or not.

It also asks a huge amount of the wing backs, as they must perform their defensive duties whilst offering the width that won't be provided by a narrow midfield three. Here, Pablo Zabaleta confounded his critics (including me) by showing off a suitably lung busting capacity to do just that. Some of his forward raids were of the Blackadder-General Melchett-Goodbyeeeeee variety, but perhaps on a night like this he had correctly determined that a bit of headless running about might not be the worst thing in the world.


I see Zaba's gone again

Better teams will exploit those gaping holes behind our wing backs, but for this particular game it was fine as Huddersfield seemed content to keep it scoreless for a while and then rely on the Shitty Late Goal Syndrome to work its magic. As it was, they never threatened and as outrageously fortunate as Obiang's goal was, it felt like the least we deserved.

***

The Spaniard was partnered alongside Kouyate in the most mobile midfield pairing we can put out. They needed to be too, given that the full backs were charging forward like Scalextric cars when your nan has a go at them on Christmas. With Mark Noble mysteriously absent, there was a noticeable increase in mobility but a decrease in actual meaningful passing through that area, not helped by the back three going aerial more often than not. 

Kouyate was somewhat anonymous, getting about the field well but failing to really impose himself on the game as we know he can. I suspect that the lack of play through the middle made it tough for him to get into the game. Obiang, by contrast, got on the ball a lot more but found it equally as difficult to pick passes to get us moving. For all those who want Noble out of the team, tonight was a salutary reminder that central midfielders who can pass and carry the ball aren't to be dismissed lightly. 

It's also worth mentioning that a number of this team were returning from injury. As is customary, the line up resembled a rehabilitation centre as Reid, Obiang, Kouyate, Antonio and Carroll all got minutes under their belt after disrupted pre seasons. It's probably not an unrelated point that because our pre season work seems so amateurish we end up with players trying to get up to Premier League speed during competitive fixtures. 

We tend to eschew the money making tours to the Far East and US but if nothing else, playing a higher standard of opposition before the season starts might get the players a bit sharper. Each of the last two seasons have been characterised by this failing. 

***

So, that's a lot of tactical chat but what of the match? Well it was a scrappy, nervy, tentative affair which seems like a predictable by product of deeming a game a "must win" affair and telling the world that the managers position was "under review" and then having the maddest transfer window possible.

For all that Huddersfield were disappointing. Set up to contain, they did this moderately well for an hour although we went close in the first half when Kouyate narrowly failed to convert a Carroll cross-shot, and Hernandez hit the bar after some more Antonio bullying of the Terriers back line.

But we look a team bereft of confidence and ideas. Our 3-4-3 line up stifled any forward progress from the visitors, but led to some confused attacking patterns too. I would describe us as a footballing Rubik's Cube just now. Whenever Bilic puts something right within the team, he is doing so at the expense of somewhere else.

So the defence was shored up, but the midfield weakened. Perhaps this was precisely why William Carvalho was targeted so strongly. On nights like this he would have been our key player. Shorn of Lanzini and Arnautovic we lacked creativity and guile, but made up for it with a willingness to smash the ball long and play through the driving rain. Say what you will about Bilic, but he keeps winning these games and his team, by and large, continues to play for him.

If Zabaleta truly can play at wing back then that opens up another set of tactical possibilities, and if Antonio plays like that for the rest of the year then he will win plenty of points on his own. But, and you knew this was coming - there are some fairly significant problems in there too.

***
Despite the win, and all the good stuff mentioned so far, I still found this a fairly baffling performance. Most of this revolves around one player - the pissed Geordie elephant in the room - Andy Carroll.

Bilic hitched his wagon to that particular star many moons ago. The beginning of his falling out with Diafra Sakho was when he dropped him for Carroll in the 15/16 season despite Sakho being at the heart of all those famous early wins.

Like many before him, he was suckered in by the siren song of a player who would be worth building a team around if he could ever stay fit and this was a different team. Because of Carroll's persistent injuries it's not possible to set a team up to play completely to his strengths and so we have a curious halfway house. The 15/16 team was flying with an attacking game plan built around giving it to Payet at every available opportunity, and putting pacy mobile forwards in front of him to either create space or latch on to the inevitable inch perfect pass.

This worked splendidly for a long time, and carried on after Carroll was inserted into the team even if he looked as uncomfortable with that style of play as an Australian in a library. But the house of cards couldn't survive the hurricane that was the 2016/17 season. Carroll played in that same system once more, but those other pacy forwards were gone and soon, so too was Payet.

That left us with a team designed to play one way, with a centre forward very obviously suited to another way. There were moments of excellence - we'll always have Boro away - but most of the time, the disconnect between a midfield trying to play a style suited to galloping, mobile forwards floundered as they discovered that they were actually playing with the Angel of the North.

All of which leads me to the question that all of us were asking after last night - what is the plan for Javier Hernandez? Here he was a nominal left sided forward but got about a bit, but rarely into the box. This last bit is crucial, as the entire reason we signed him is his ability to snaffle goals from nothing. Here he was shunted wide and asked to try and link with Carroll. It did not work.

Presumably Arnautovic will replace him on Saturday, and with Antonio rolling on the other side that leaves a straight choice between Hernandez and Carroll as the solitary striker. Ironically, both might better as a pair, but that too is an impossibility because that would give deeper defensive responsibilities to Antonio and Arnautovic which is the sort of thing to give a man Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Quite where Lanzini fits into any of that is beyond me. Can he play as part of a solitary midfield two? Can Steve Parish rap? Sure, but I don't imagine anyone thinks it will end well.


Now, having too many good players isn't a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue that the squad as currently constructed is too thin but does have quite a decent level of consistency across the personnel. The drop off from first teamer to their replacement is generally minimal but it's a problem that some of them don't really have a replacement.

But bigger still is this issue of style. Are we a team who like to play 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3? I don't really know what Bilic wants, and whilst there is value in versatility and tactical flexibility, there is more value in your players having some sort of consistent idea about what you want them to do. We won this game by winding up Carroll like a clockwork rhino and letting him loose against a defence who hadn't seen it before. The idea that will work against West Brom or Spurs seems fanciful to me.

To my mind, the answer seems to obviously be that Carroll should be an impact sub, meaning that when he gets injured the disruption is minimal. This hybrid solution of setting the team up to play without him and then just sticking him into the team anyway...well, that way relegation lies.

***

All of which suggests that our optimal line up has Hernandez leading the line. I think that's defensible but only in a world where we play with Lanzini close to him, and in a way that allows Arnautovic and Antonio to join quickly from wide positions. Maybe that's possible but it feels like a long way from where we are. The greatest irony of all is that our most flexible and adaptable striker is probably Sakho, but he seems destined to remain on the naughty step for the rest of his time here. 

One name I haven't mentioned is Andre Ayew who actually changed this game. Most were unhappy with Hernandez going off, but that's the reality with so much invested in Carroll. Instead it paid dividends as Obiang fluked one off a defender and then Ayew tapped a second in from a corner, on the line. I have struggled to define Ayew as a player but his predominant and obvious skill is the ability to score goals. Looking solely at time on the pitch, he is scoring a goal for us once every 224 minutes. That amounts to a goal every two and a half games. Not bad for a player who may or may not exist in this dimension. 

In all the permutations I ran through above, it never once occurred to me to put Ayew into the team, and yet the man has an undeniable something whereby he continues to contribute even when he's not playing well. This feels like something that will be very useful at West Ham.

***

And where does all of this leave Bilic? Everywhere and nowhere, baby. The cynic in me suggests that this will just perpetuate his death of a thousand cuts, as this win staves off the axe for another few games until the next time. It's never far away because our form, fitness, confidence and tactics just don't lend themselves to consistent performance. 

As an example, I can't even hazard a guess at the team on Saturday, for a game against a West Brom team who aren't very good but were 4-0 up in an hour in the corresponding fixture last year. 

So this win doesn't really change anything. If you were a fan before then you'll have been pleased at the obvious togetherness on the field, and are probably of the belief that the securing of the three points overrides all else. Win, get the points, build from there. I'd have some sympathy for that it wasn't for the fact I've heard that at least four times before. 

I keep waiting for the building bit. 

For those, like me, who advocate change then I'm not sure this will have moved the needle either. A disjointed, confusing performance that led to a thoroughly deserved, basically dominant win isn't the easiest thing to process. It's kind of like that time Johnny Depp appeared in the Vicar of Dibley. I just don't know what to do with the information.


Another three up top configuration I don't understand

I'll tell you what though. These games are painful. The constant strain of going into that stadium, a stadium where it already requires a massive effort just to get any atmosphere into the place, and having to watch these knife edge encounters is debilitating. Whatever the circumstances of the 2015/16 season, it was joyful because everybody had the shackles off. 

For Bilic to survive he needs to recapture some of that. I don't think he's going to do it without a better plan than he had here. But in the moment, here and now, that matters not. A win is a win is a win. I'd just as soon not return to Hell any time soon though. 


Friday, September 08, 2017

West Ham and The Year of The Long Knives

If your household is like mine, then you will have a bin in your kitchen. And if your family is like mine then they will stuff things into it until it seems no more can possibly fit inside, and then continue piling things on top of it until it starts glaring at them like some kind of erupting rubbish Sauron in the corner of the room.


The corner of my kitchen 

This will not move anyone to empty the bloody thing, of course. Instead somebody will casually suggest that Dad needs to empty the bin whilst lobbing another empty Hula Hoops packet in the general vicinity of our new rubbish bin overlord and keeper of the One Ring.

Now I know you all love an analogy, and never has there been one so apt as the rubbish bin of Mount Doom and the relationship between West Ham fans and their club at present. It won't surprise you to learn that I view us as being inside the bin, wondering quite how much more can be tipped down on top of us and thinking we had reached the end only to find that, no - yet more detritus is heading our way.

I had been planning to write about the recently finished transfer window pretty much immediately upon it closing but so bewildering has it been attempting to keep track of the shenanigans at the Olympic Stadium that I chose to wait for the dust to settle before writing it all up. And then the President of one of the most famous clubs in Europe called our chairmen the "Dildo Brothers" and I decided that trying to make sense of all this would be like trying to catch a bat with a tea towel.



If you haven't seen the above I urge you to watch it (with sound) as it is not only brilliant, but also a nice metaphorical reflection of me trying to catch up with all the crazy West Ham related news of the last week. But fear not, I am your Derry, and I have donned my shorts and pulled up my socks in the pursuit of some sort of sensible analysis of the window.

***

It seems to me that a timeline might be helpful here. After all, we are just humans and only able to process so much stupidity in one go. So let's try and summarise the madness as best we can. Updates in real time:

Deadline Day T -1 (AM) - Diafra Sakho goes all Odemwingie

August 30th arrives with the news that Diafra Sakho has flown to France. Apparently the club don't know about this, which seems unlikely, but in any case it's unfortunate as Sakho is there for a medical with Rennes. He has apparently organised this himself, which is remarkable for a guy who nearly burnt his flat down when he arrived because he couldn't use the kettle.

Should Sakho leave, our striking options will be Javier Hernandez and whatever is left of Andy Carroll in the club morgue.

Deadline Day T -1 (PM) - Robert Snodgrass is upset that he, a left footed winger, was played on the left

Former Hull legend Snodgrass is loaned to Villa and announces in an interview that he's not a massive fan of Slaven Bilic, seemingly incredulous that West Ham could have bought him without knowing what position he played. At this, fifty thousand West Ham fans burst out laughing, possibly recalling that our due diligence is generally so good that we once bought a player from Oxford who got homesick.


No seriously, come here. What's your name?

Apparently on his debut, Bilic asked Snodgrass where he wanted to play which conjures up a lovely image of Bilic as a Sunday League manager bringing on a ringer. One can half imagine him telling Snodgrass that if he got booked he was to give the name "M-A-S-U-A-K-U" and to make sure he spelt it right or we'd all be in trouble.

Anyway, Snodgrass thought that his exploits at Hull meant he was too good to stay and fight for his place so now he has to play for Villa as punishment.

Deadline Day (AM) - Everton reject loan bid for Kevin Mirallas

On Christmas morning in my house we have champagne and toasted ham sandwiches. It's a tradition my wife brought with her from New Zealand, along with a remarkably laissez faire attitude to speed limits. Likewise, on transfer deadline day West Ham like to get in a shit loan signing and they ain't changing for anyone.

Mirallas fits the bill rather nicely having been discovered by Tony Henry, being 29, being in decline and having a notoriously moody attitude. Sadly Everton turn us down perhaps because, unlike us, they have noticed that we don't have any wingers and thought that this might be a reasonable opportunity to nobble a notional rival. Or maybe Mirallas took one look and just said "Nah, I don't think so". Either way he's not coming and one of my kids has just stuffed half a watermelon into the already full bin.

Deadline Day (AM) - West Ham agree to loan Domingos Quina to Sheffield United

I may be a petty man. I may be a small man. I may be driving myself slowly mad by clinging to a rage from years gone past. But...fuck Sheffield United. Fuck them right in their Ched Evans supporting eyes.

Of all the teams in the world they could have chosen to loan one of our most promising young players to, they chose...Sheffield United? What, when you get the chance to send a player to the team that developed Wayne Quinn you just don't pass that up? Christ on Henry Winter's tandem, read the room guys. In the event the move is scuppered by a greedy agent which I, for one, find shocking.

My only faint hope here is that we were planning to loan them Quina with a view to him being their best player all season and then recalling him with ten games to go, ensuring they went down. Truthfully, I'm not sure we have that kind of vision at the club.

Deadline Day (PM) - Diafra Sakho is at the races

Remember Sakho? Yesterday he was in Rennes negotiating a move there, with the French club suddenly flush after receiving a slice of the Ousmane Dembele fee. Sadly whatever he agreed with West Ham has fallen through, with the club now strongly denying that he had permission to go anywhere. They then issue formal denials through the usual channels, namely the Sullivan kids Twitter accounts for actual fucks sake.


Got to stay at West Ham. Won £500 on the horses

Diafra is still persisting, however, and flies back to London today. Sadly he can't come immediately to the club to resolve his fairly obvious issues because his agent has a horse running at Chelmsford race course. He therefore has to hang around in the car park while Mark McKay gets his equine fix. With that kind of work ethic and attention to detail I am beginning to understand how McKay is in the middle of so many of our deals.

The pair eventually make their way to the club where they can't find any Directors. This is a real thing that actually happened.

Sullivan is apparently on holiday in Marbella which is fair enough. No reason a Director of Football would need to be around on transfer deadline day.

Meanwhile, I am considering setting the bin on fire.

Deadline Day (PM) - William Carvalho is not coming

The faint hope that outstanding Portuguese midfielder Carvalho will join us flickers out. He instead joins the long list of potential signings who Sullivan might have been able to sign on Championship Manager, but couldn't get close to in reality: Ruud van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez, Alexandre Lacazette, Carlos Bacca and Keita Balde all sounded great in the tabloid gossip columns and not a single one got close to joining. Remember that next time you get excited over a transfer link.

Anyway, Carvalho doesn't sign and I can't imagine we'll hear any more about that.

Deadline Day (PM) - we are linked with Andre Gomes and Jack Wilshere

These don't happen either. Wilshere is probably too young and healthy at present.

Deadline Day (PM) - The U23 team lose 7-2 to Spurs

This might not be quite so funny if it weren't for the fact that it is now becoming painfully obvious that we won't be able to make a full 25 man squad without dipping into the Academy.

We also managed to miss two penalties in this game. The bin is now on fire.

Deadline Day (PM) - West Ham Twitter goes postal

Twitter, always a haven of good sense and reasoned debate has not taken the failure to sign anyone very well. West Ham fans are spitting blood and the mood isn't improved when some tweets critical of Bilic emerge on the West Ham Way account, with the location showing as Marbella. You may remember that this is where the Sullivan family are on holiday.

Initially, the account administrators seem to suggest that the reason for the weird locations are because someone is tweeting from an aeroplane. With tweets apparently being sent from Northern Ireland, Malta and Marbella this seems a little unlikely unless they're on a plane being flown by Wayne Rooney after a night out. As it transpires, there are people with access to the account in all of those locations on the night, but by now the account is saying that the aeroplane thing was a joke and it is in fact the person in Northern Ireland who has posted all the tweets. Fair enough - Twitter does weird shit sometimes.

The West Ham Way website has some ties to the club in so much as the Sullivans have previously appeared on their radio show and also carried out a Q&A on Twitter, and although the tweets are quickly deleted it doesn't stop the rumour quickly spreading that they have come from the Sullivan clan.

I ask ExWHUEmployee, the main man on the account and he says that the Sullivans have denied it was them. Apparently Jack still has a log in from the time he did a Q&A for the site, and they never changed the password, which could explain why Marbella came up if the location services on Twitter are playing up. I have no reason to doubt anything that Ex would say, but I suppose the fact is that he can't categorically rule it out simply because they do still have a log in.

If you believe the guys at the West Ham Way - and I do because this would be devastating for them if it was later found to be untrue - that it was them who sent the tweets, then this all really is a mountain out of a molehill. However, if I was in any way associated with the club my biggest concern would be that when it was suggested that the Chairman's son had posted derogatory comments about the club manager on Twitter, nobody suggested that this was simply too outlandish to be true.

I should also add that Ex wrote this piece explaining his side of the story, and also making a lot of balanced comments about the situation at West Ham in general.

Oh well, after that insane incident, we can all go to bed and take comfort from the fact that things can't possibly get any madder.

Deadline Day +1 (AM) - West Ham summon Diafra Sakho to a meeting

After his exemplary behaviour leading up to the deadline, Bilic demands that Sakho attend a meeting so he can fine him and discuss his future. This is critical because the day after the transfer window has closed, the West Ham manager appears to have at last noticed that he doesn't have enough strikers.

Ordinarily, Sakho would be extradited to the youth team for his behaviour but instead there is now somehow discussion of incentives and a possible new deal. All this for an obviously troubled guy who seems fairly intent on leaving the country.

I have decided to no longer question any of this, particularly given that this won't even come close to being the stupidest thing that West Ham do today.

My wife has now noticed that our bin is on fire.

Deadline Day +1 (PM) - David Sullivan releases a statement

With deadline day in the rear view mirror and no further additions made, those same West Ham fans who were busy lapping up the club propaganda about this being a wonderful transfer window have suddenly noticed that when you get rid of nine players and bring in only four, that might have knock on implications. Social media is therefore ablaze. Open letters are being drafted, votes are held, Facebook groups are formed and memes are produced. The word is out - the Board have failed us.


They called me what?

But here's the thing - social media is not the world. A few hundred people taking a vote on Twitter is not a representative sample. I am silently praying that David Sullivan does not decide to respond publicly to the criticism.

I might as well pray for a decent Robbie Williams song.

A statement is released late on September 1st. It is startling for its stupidity and flagrant disregard for the privacy of the process of transfers. It takes just eleven words to maroon Bilic, as he is rendered the culprit for the failure to add to the squad while the Board are credited for the additions. So far, so Sullivan.

Then things take a turn for the bonkers, even by West Ham standards. Sullivan describes how Sporting Lisbon accepted a bid for Carvalho late on deadline day but left them with no time to complete a medical. Premier League rules state that medicals can be completed after the deadline. I am confused.

He then goes on to state that Bilic turned down Grzegorz Krychowiak and Renato Sanches. To what end only he knows but I cannot think of another club who would announce such details in such a way. Oh well, that's the end of that then. What a bizarre transfer window.

Deadline Day +2 (AM) - Sporting fire back. "We're just as insane as you!"

If you woke on September 2nd 2017 to the sound of rolling thunder, you might have been surprised given that there was no rain evident. This is because it wasn't thunder, but instead the sound of a million West Ham fans yelling "We told you this would happen" in anguish at the sky.


Bruno de Carvalho - Probably our new Director of Football

Sporting, it turns out, are every bit the basket case that we are. Nuno Saraiva, their Director of Communications has posted a statement on Facebook in which he calls Sullivan a liar, and states that no bid for Carvalho has ever been received.

He also makes several allusions to the pornographic background of our owner, and a number of obtuse references to "parasites" which I read to be more about Carvalho's advisors than West Ham, but it's translated from Portuguese so who knows. What a time to be alive.

Deadline Day +2 (PM) - West Ham respond as professionally as one might expect

We decide to draw a line under this debacle by releasing a non-committal vanilla statement that blames everything on intermediaries and allows everyone to save face and move on.

Nah, just kidding - we announce our intention to sue them via teenager David Sullivan Jr's Twitter account. This is exactly what any other team would do. Shut up, yes it is.

I have noticed that the fire has spread to our kitchen workbenches.

Deadline Day +3 - Nobody does anything mental for a while

Respite.

Deadline Day +5 - Everybody goes mental again

West Ham decide to respond to the Saraiva comments by leaking some emails to Sky purporting to confirm the bid. Interestingly, the "To" field is redacted meaning that it doesn't prove remotely that the offer was made to Sporting. This is likely to be because the email was sent to an agent working on behalf of the club. It is unknown whether said agent had any horses racing around this time.

The emails, sent on 10th and 11th August, suggest that we were offering £23m over two years, with £7.6m up front and a 10% sell on clause.

William Carvalho, I should highlight, apparently has a £40m release clause in his contract.

I am by now thinking back fondly on the time that Newcastle appointed Joe Kinnear as Director of Football and wondering if he would come and do the job for us. Joe, I should point out, once tried to buy one of his own players who was out on loan.

He'd fit right in.

Deadline Day +6 - Sporting go the full Mariah Carey

Having established that Sporting are run by lunatics, it is little surprise that they fire back with all the gravitas of Kerry Katona on GMTV.

President Bruno de Carvalho refers to the chairmen as "the Dildo Brothers" and "these offended virgins". I'm beginning to like him.

Sporting follow all of this up by threatening to report West Ham to FIFA for tapping up their player, while we respond by calling them attention seekers, presumably via a teenagers Instagram account with a link to Rise of the Krays included.

The fire has spread to my cupboards now. I really must look at that bin.

Deadline Day +7 - West Ham suggest they may return for Carvalho in January

It's nice to know we have a sense of humour. A West Ham source suggests to The Sun that we may try and buy Carvalho again in January and I think I speak for all of us when I say that this is a brilliant, clearly thought through idea and I can see no way that this won't work. Go with glory.

My house is now entirely on fire. I may need to replace the bin

***

It may surprise you to know that I have some sympathy with the Board over all of this. If nothing else, they chose the worst dance partner imaginable in dealing with Sporting. Like when a woman begins a relationship with a guy and then on their first holiday finds out he wears white socks with flip flops. It's also true that had Sullivan and Gold carried on as Sporting have in the last week, there would be all sorts of opprobrium flying their way.

But that doesn't excuse the overall stupidity, and mind boggling lack of PR savvy. Our problems began when Sullivan dragged this all into the public domain with his ludicrous statement. Why on earth does he insist on continuing to air his thoughts in this way, and why is it that nobody at the club seems able to stop him? PR is one of those maligned and undervalued jobs that people are happy to ridicule and dismiss until someone is calling them The Dildo Brothers in public and then it has a value again.

So once more, why am I being given David Sullivan's intimate thoughts on all this? Who exactly thought this was a good idea? This is as interesting and necessary to me as hearing Dane Bowers thoughts on Proust.


"A la recherche du temps perdu? Overrated!"

All of the issues with Sporting stem from the Sullivan statement. Here he gave answers to questions that weren't asked, put forward information that didn't need to be leaked and gave a commentary that nobody wanted to hear. Apart from that it was brilliant. 

I wonder if a FIFA charge will be enough to prevent these outbursts, which seem designed solely for him to shore up his own position and are released for his own edification? I'm guessing not. 

***

It is also worth asking at this point where the rest of the Board are. I have heard from a couple of separate sources that Gold is incensed by all of this, but if he continues to play the role of the kindly uncle while Sullivan and his kids lead us into these scrapes then he is just as guilty as them. 

Whither also, our CEO? Karren Brady has been noticeably absent all summer, perhaps wisely as her deal of the century sent us off to three defeats on the road. But here is a woman who makes a living - amongst many other things - criticising inept business practices on television. This is like finding out that Mary Berry works for Greggs. 

The true role of a Board of Directors is to challenge and interrogate the decision making at a company. They are supposed to offer direction. Gold and Brady are part of the troika who have taken the club to this point, and for them to abrogate responsibility now and allow Sullivan to have a mid life crisis in this way is a dereliction of duty. 

West Ham's misfortunes over the last year have been characterised by the failure to ask three questions that every successful organisation must ask itself constantly. 

Firstly, are we doing what we do in the best way possible? Secondly, do we have the appropriate people in place to deliver that work and lastly, the appropriate means of making that assessment? I'll leave it to you to decide if you think West Ham can answer any of those affirmatively. 

Either way, Karren Brady is paid a lot of money for her role and David Gold is taking a share of £7m a year in interest on loans to the club. Their inertia is not acceptable. 

***

Fellow West Ham blogger Alex V wrote this interesting take on the window, and I find much there to agree with. I was going to pick out a few choice quotes but in the end I decided that I agreed with it all so you should just read it if you haven't already. 

He rightly hits upon the lack of planning and forethought that has led us once again to this seeming crossroads. The combination of a terrible transfer window last year and now an appalling start to the season has focused the minds of some supporters. They are beginning to demand more, and want to know precisely why the trauma of the stadium move was inflicted upon us if the club did not have the off field strategy to accompany such a giant leap forward. 

Noticeable too is that our net spend this year is way down, although this is largely due to us being in the unusual position of having players worth selling, and also because football has a No Returns policy which means that Tigres can't send Enner Valencia back. 

Alex also correctly highlights the part played in all this by Slaven Bilic. He has a curious relationship with the Board in so much as they love him because he is popular and deflects attention away from them, but they also seem to distrust him because he is popular and deflects attention away from them. It is this odd dynamic which has inspired this Year of the Long Knives, whereby the Board seem to have been constantly maneuvering themselves into a situation where Bilic can be blamed for everything, in particular the failed transfers, such that when they eventually make their move they will be deemed to have been left with no choice.

None of which can disguise the fact that Bilic hasn't been up to it for quite some time, but one wonders at the working atmosphere in an environment where he knows his employers are openly touting his job around behind his back.

Bilic was nowhere near the first choice for the job, but that magical voodoo 2015/16 season seems to have inured him against too much of a backlash from supporters. The Huddersfield game will be interesting in that respect, because it feels like something has changed but it's hard to know now whether that anger will be directed at the touchline, the Boardroom, or the pitch. Maybe we will win 3-0, Hernandez will score a hat trick, Hart will save a penalty and Zabaleta will break Aaron Mooy and everyone will forget why they were angry in the first place. Such is the transient nature of the football fan group think. 

But in the long term, the Board must surely be terrified. Whilst I thought our summer business was awful as far as long term planning went, I did think it would most likely be moderately successful in the short term. Then we shed more players without replacing them and so far we look tactically inept, physically unfit and mentally drained. 

But the squad is neither strong enough or balanced enough. Whilst the first eleven looks decent, we are a Hernandez injury away from the Doomsday scenario of James Collins playing up front. Scoff all you like, but remember that Ian Pearce played there for a ridiculously long time in 2002/03 because of the same squad building ineptitude. If Bilic is truly responsible for that then must carry the can for such largesse, but there is a horrible feeling that he has had his legs chopped out from underneath him in this window, with Sullivan deciding in the end not to invest heavily in the choices of a manager he wan't planning to employ much longer. 

Such decisions might be entirely sensible, but lend themselves to the feeling that we are no longer watching a cohesive management structure and instead are viewing the death throes of a year long power struggle. Our descent into high farce. Our Year of the Long Knives. It is a dreadful shame to have gone from the unadulterated joy of 2015/16 to this in such a short time. We deserve better. 

***

While you're here - I wrote this for FourFourTwo while I was waiting for West Ham and Sporting to stop doing crazy things. Unsurprisingly, our transfer nonsense makes an appearance.