Man City 3-1 West Ham: Why the International break should spell optimism.

After a shocking result on Thursday, Hammers fans were understandably pessimistic about our chances of going to Manchester City and getting a result. With an injury list longer than Peter Crouch and a team not fully settled into a system that played to their strengths, it was important to ensure that the effort and performance of the players was evident heading into the international break.

Sadly, this was not the case. We have made a habit this season of starting poorly, and yesterday was no exception. By the 18th minute it was 2-0 and it felt all but over. The defending for the first two goals was extremely poor, and once again, there was a disturbing lack of attacking creativity. The second half, however, was much better. We looked far more organised at the back, and offered a lot more going forward. Continuous pressing from the wing backs and a resurgence in our build up play kept the City defence guessing, and it was only a matter of time before a Masuaka cross found the head of Antonio and we were back in it. The ‘nothing to lose’ attitude was evident, and attack minded substitutions emphasised our desire to chase an equaliser. However, unfortunately, this occasionally left us vulnerable at the back, and with a nice bit of interplay, a slight lapse in concentration from Adrian and a cute finish from Sterling the game was over. There is no doubt that the second half performance was far more encouraging, and I’m sure every West Ham fan will hope that this is the mentality in which to build on when returning from the international break.

For me, these were the key talking points after the game:

  1. 3-5-2 does not work: I am in no way criticising Bilic for trying something new. In a team that is down to it’s bare bones, it is very difficult to create a system that is consistent when the team is forever changing. However, this choice seemed unjustified. Not only had Collins/Ogbonna/Reid never played together as a three, but the lack of positional understanding throughout the pitch left huge pockets of space, which City easily exploited. What started as a 3-5-2 quickly became a 5-4-1 due to City’s ruthless pressing, and their use of wing play stretched our defence out wide, keeping us on the back foot for almost the entire first half. A welcomed switch of Tore for Byram saw another experimental 5-2-2-1 and the signs were far more positive. We defended better as a unit, and the attacking build up was confident and composed. I hope we see this formation after the break.
  2. Jury is out on Tore: As a foreign player, I keep thinking that Tore will get better. As each game goes on, I keep expecting him to adapt quicker but his progress is frustratingly slow. Yes, he was placed in a bizarre central midfield/help out on the wing position, but the man looks terrified on the ball at times. He does not look confident and seems to always struggle when offered the decision of pass or run. I know Bilic has experience of managing the player, but how he can think he is worth £12 million is beyond me. It was a good piece of business by DS to loan him instead and it will be very interesting to see how he develops. I really do hope he improves with time, but with the imminent return of the likes of Payet, Lanzini and Feghouli, I cannot see him getting ahead of any of them.
  3. Masuaka and Byram superb again: Our defence without question improved with the inclusion of Byram at right back, and we looked far more resolute overall. Both looked to overlap the wingers, and offered support when necessary. Byram shows so much composure considering his lack of experience in the Premier League and he MUST start in order to allow Antonio to roam forward with zero fear. Masuaka once again highlighted his strength and power, especially when roaming forwards and was so deserving of his assist. He is making an instant impact, and I truly believe Cresswell will have to be at his very best to get back into the side once fit.
  4. Lanzini is a game changer: When Lanzini came on, there was no doubt we possessed a greater attacking threat. Like Payet, he has the ability to bring people into the game  and I am sure that when they both return we will be a different side. He is so comfortable with the ball at his feet, and has a great passing awareness to open up defences. Hopefully he will be back to his best after the break.
  5. The ‘Antonio Debate’ is dead: Any last gasp hopes that Bilic or fans had of Antonio becoming a right back has been dealt it’s final blow, and that is mainly down to Antonio’s unrelenting ability to show how good he is further up the field. Defensively he was once again poor, and his lack of defensive awareness no doubt cost us the first goal. This all changed second half however, when he was pushed up the pitch to his natural position of right wing. He was fantastic as always, strong and powerful running forwards, great 1 on 1’s, consistent crosses and an absolute beast in the air. I know I am of course biased, but I believe he is swiftly becoming one of the best wingers in the league, and if needed, I genuinely believe he could do a very decent job up front. As rumoured, (as always by @ExWHUemployee) the likes of Debuchy and Chambers have been linked with us, and I hope Bilic gets one of them to add cover for Byram, as it is now 100% clear, Antonio is not a right back.
  6. Aguero should have been sent off: A very minor point, as in fairness, unlike the Chelsea fixture, I don’t think this would have changed the result of the game. However, it was a nasty elbow to Reid’s throat and I am baffled that the referee hasn’t spotted it. No doubt the FA will take action against Aguero, but it is worth noting that once again we have been on the wrong end of another poor decision.

So yesterday marked our second defeat in three games, with no points picked up away from home and an team structure that looks far from cemented, should there be pause for concern? Absolutely not. I am normally very disappointed to see an international break break up the Premier league routine, especially so soon after returning, however, this year it is without question a blessing in disguise for West Ham.

Bilic was quoted after the game as saying: “We can’t play much better than this, when we are missing 6 or 7 key players. When they come back after the international break, we will be much better and it will be a different West Ham.”

I must admit I have to agree with him. Excluding refereeing decisions, our start to the season has looked lack lustre and uninspiring,  and on the surface, unimpressive. However, take into consideration that we have already faced two teams that will no doubt be challenging for the title this season, 3 points isn’t such a bad total. Especially when you you look at the ridiculous number of injuries Bilic and his staff have had to contend with. By the end of the international break, Payet, Lanzini, Feghouli, Nordveit and maybe Carroll will be back to first team action. There is no doubt our attacking line up will be back to it’s best, and not forgetting the new additions of Fernandes and Zaza, Bilic will be spoilt for choice in who to select, giving us the depth and creative spark we so desperately crave.

I have no doubt that Payet will stay, and his absence from the first team very much seemed precautionary so as to make sure he is 100% fit for the home game against Watford, where our season really does begin. He is by far our best player and his ability to make others around him better is something we have been in desperate need of. The break will also allow the new players to gel within the squad and it should create a solid team dynamic when moving forward into the next run of games. Speaking of games, if you look ahead to our next 6 fixtures, (Watford, West Brom, Southampton, Boro, Crystal Palace and Sunderland) there is no reason why we can’t take maximum points and with an almost fully fit squad, we should be looking to the next few weeks with a real sense of optimism and excitement surrounding this new chapter in our club’s history.

Final Thoughts

I am unbelievably delighted for Michail Antonio who has been called up to Sam Allardyce’s England squad for the first time. He is so incredibly deserving of this accolade and his rise from non-league to England is something that should be congratulated and celebrated.

I am of course devastated for Mark Noble who once again has missed out on a place in the England squad. For me, Noble has been playing as consistently as Henderson, Drinkwater etc but for the last 4-6 years. It’s a farce that he hasn’t been given an opportunity to shine, and I really hope he continues to impress in time for the next England selection in 2017.

 

Thanks for reading. COYI.

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West Ham 0 – 1 Astra: Is there a silver lining to no European football this season?

Like many, if not all West Ham fans; I woke up this morning with a  huge sense of disappointment. Another lacklustre performance has seen our side crash out of the Europa League qualifying rounds for the second time in a year to an incredibly average Romanian opponent.

I think many fans will agree, last night was probably one of the worst, if not THE single worst performance I have ever seen from a West Ham team. Much like the away leg, we looked sluggish, unconcerned and worst of all complacent throughout the game. Bilic said in the build up to this fixture that we would not sit back on our away goal advantage, but until Astra scored, I saw no desire or hunger from the players to actually go out and win the game. Our build up play was extremely poor, and once again it was the simple passes and team work ethic that seemed drained from the players. It honestly reminded me of ‘Space Jam’ when the aliens steal the players ability to play the game! But jokes aside, it was embarrassing. Some may argue that we were due a penalty, and Astra’s goalkeeper had the game of his life, but who are we kidding?! We should be putting this game to bed 2 or 3 – 0 comfortably. With fans dreaming of many European nights at our new ground and enjoyable fixtures away, we looked a total shambles and the disappointment and anger of ‘what might have been’ from Hammers fans is entirely justified.

For me, these were the key talking points after the game:

  1. Ashley Fletcher looked superb – Without question our best player on the field last night, and arguably should have started from the beginning. His desire to get forward and make attacking runs really gave a much needed urgency to the team and he was unlucky not to win a penalty/get on the scoresheet too. He possesses a huge amount of pace and his substitute appearance reminded me of Rashord’s against Iceland. In truth, he was the only player who could hold his head high after last night and say he did his best.
  2. Reece Burke is not a left back – With Masuaka rested, Cresswell injured and Page sent on loan to Coventry it was once again up to Burke to slot in and cover as left back, and the results were not great. With his natural position being centre back, he looked nervous and out of his depth at times, especially when making attacking runs down the wing. Although not his fault, his lack of experience at wing back was evident, even to the point where he almost didn’t trust himself to put a cross into the box.
  3. Reid has another poor game – In my last post regarding the Chelsea game, I said how disappointed I was to not see Collins and Ogbonna starting, and once again, this seems a valid debate. With combinations of Collins/Reid and Ogbonna/Reid providing poorly organised defensive cover, I question when Bilic will realise the common denominator is Reid. Not only was he foolish enough to get booked extremely early in the game (27th minute) and be forced to play with caution, but he was also a continuing catalyst for playing without any urgency and when there was no options just booting it up and losing possession. His performances have been incredibly frustrating and I hope this doesn’t go unnoticed for much longer.
  4. Tore & Nordveit still not cutting it – It is easy to excuse some of the newer players for not adapting the Premier League straight away, especially when looking at the pace of the league. However, once again, Tore & Nordveit were unable to do the basics correctly. Inaccurate passing and an simple inability to keep hold of the ball were continuous throughout the game, not to mention the fact that Tore cannot seem to get the ball higher than the first man in any form of crossing. I know both had better games against Bournemouth, but they simply have to improve if they are going to cut it in this league. I just hope that if this continues, Bilic’s loyalty to Tore does not stagnate longer than it should.
  5. Calleri lack of adaptability – After a decent run out against Bournemouth, I was excited to see what Calleri could offer from a starting spot. After a lung busting run from the half way line, I was defensive of his last minute effort, especially as he had done everything right but put it in the back of the net. As we had practically won the game, it was easy for our fans to think that it was just a minor glitch. But it seems we could be wrong. Despite having positive movement, Calleri had two GOLDEN opportunities to put the ball in the back of the net, and he failed miserably. At a time when our attacking numbers are so fragile, this really was his moment to step up and he just didn’t take it. Unless Zaza or another attacking reinforcement is brought in, I hope Bilic goes for Fletcher up front against City, as he simply seems far more capable of doing what he is paid to do; score goals.
  6. 4-1-4-1 is not the answer – Another game, another 4-1-4-1 formation, another poor performance. Unlike 4-2-3-1, this leaves us heavily dependant on Nordveit, encourages wing backs to run out of position, (which saw Byram do an ‘Antonio’ and run so far up the pitch he was unable to track back on the counter attack for Astra’s goal,) and most importantly, it means that the lone striker is left isolated and made redundant of any creative influence. I hope we switch back to a 4-2-3-1 for the game at City, and really look to get the wingers linking up with the striker to create some genuine chances instead of relying on long ball and dead ball opportunities.

So for the second season in a row, the European adventure is over before it has even begun. What we had been promised as a stepping stone to achieving far greater things in our new home has come to an abrupt end. But could an argument be made, that actually, this is a blessing in disguise? Or even, dare I say it, that we haven’t shown any reason to deserve it. I mean after all, if it wasn’t for a fair play rule last year, and Manchester United winning the F.A cup, we wouldn’t even be talking about European football yet.

Last season, Slaven Bilic made it clear that European football was not his priority. Fielding a mixture of youngsters and substitute players, it was clear his priority was without question the Premier League, or in terms of expectation, just simply keeping us in the division for our move to the Olympic Stadium. He past expectations, finishing 7th and (with a little bit of luck) ensured European football would be an option for the coming season. This time, his intention was clear. We will be taking the competition seriously. Fielding strong teams full of first team players in our first qualifying round. But then, like any typical West Ham team; the injuries came, and they came fast. Now this in no way excuses yesterday’s performance. We were awful and should have won comfortably, but looking ahead to Astra’s group, you cannot help but think how badly our injury deprived squad would have suffered in the league with games being played in Czech Republic, Italy and Austria. With some positions only currently possessing one additional cover if any, adding fixtures can only spell trouble. It is all a matter of opinion, but I would much rather see us have a real go at qualifying off our own backs and finishing in the top 6 with players coming back to fitness, than slump to 11th (like Everton) and go out in the group stage or quarter final of the Europa League.

There is also the discussion of actually deserving to qualify. No matter how many fans (myself included) say how ridiculous the game was last night, and that we should have won, but the bottom line is we didn’t. We lost, and we lost with an strong side. Apart from Adrian, Masuaka and Noble, yesterday’s team was currently the strongest team we have available for selection. This should clearly show us, that despite finding it hard to accept, we simply are not ready to compete at this level. Yes we have a new stadium, and yes we are eventually going to reap the financial benefits from it, but not yet. I feel we need to remind ourselves, that just because we have a new stadium, it does not equal success. That what we do on the pitch matters more than all of it put together. It is going to take time, a long time before we are completely settled in and are able to call it ‘home’, before we financially build and before we grow as a club to create a squad that is capable of competing in both competitions.

I just hope that the new stadium is not continued to be made a scapegoat for the club’s failure. Last night had nothing to do with the stadium, the board, or even the manager. It was the players. They didn’t turn up, end of. We lost at Upton Park a year ago, so blaming the stadium is pointless. Despite an old cliche, I firmly believe there is no point being in a competition unless you are in it to win it, and right now, we are nowhere near close to winning it, therefore, a solid Premier League campaign and cup run is what we should be striving for. This is a process. No one said success would happen overnight…

On a more postive note, I am delighted for Adrian being called up to the Spain squad. He is thoroughly deserving and I hope he gets a chance to shine.

Also with Fernandes signed and Zaza on the way, I hope these reinforcements will strengthen our squad and give us that much needed lift we need.

Thanks for reading. COYI.

 

 

Chelsea 2 – 1 West Ham: When will Referee’s be made accountable for their actions?

I haven’t posted something like this in a very long time, however, yesterday’s game brought about so many talking points I felt there was a good basis to write an article.

First off, this article is not purely centered around slandering Anthony Taylor. I thought we were poor, very poor in fact. What annoyed me most about last nights display wasn’t that the result went against us, but that actually, the performance was shocking.

Let’s start with the Line-Up

  1. Antonio at RB: Possibly the biggest question on everyone’s lips since it was introduced late last season. Despite countless protests, Bilic still believes he can turn him into one of the best right backs in the country, and quite simply this is not going to happen. His constant desire to get forward leaves us so wide open at the back and one could argue that this gap caused Ayew’s injury.
  2. Reid over Ogbonna: Personally, I was delighted to see the return of James Collins. We weren’t the same team without him last year, and his constant organisation and dominance in defence are traits that fully deserved to see him return to the side. However, last year, his best games were undoubtedly with Ogbonna, and for me, Ogbonna is by far the superior defender to Reid. Therefore, I was amazed to see him dropped to the bench.
  3. No Feghouli: This of course cannot be helped from a tactical point of view, but we most definitely missed him last night, and I hope he returns to the side soon. I think he has looked by far our best signing so far this window, and like Payet/ Lanzini offers a huge amount of creative threats going forward. Something that we will need to get the best out of our ‘main striker’ Carroll this season.
  4. Starting Enner: I hate to admit sometimes, but I am actually someone who (only on occasions i should add) quite likes Valencia. I like him because he cares. Unlike Sakho, despite a huge amount of media/fan coverage surrounding his future, he has got on with his job and grafted extremely hard for the team, and for that I praise him. There is however, the slight problem that he isn’t actually extremely talented, at all.Which does beg the question, why oh why did Bilic start him? Yes Payet might not have been fit enough, and Feghouli was supposedly injured, but surely pushing Antonio further up the pitch with Ayew, and starting Byram at right back would have been far more beneficial, in both an attacking and defensive sense.

Talking Tactics

1. 4-1-4-1 did not work: Despite many expecting a 4-3-3, it seemed Slav had gone for a 4-1-4-1, with Nordveit sitting just in front of the back four. Unfortunately, this meant that there was no overlapping from the wing backs, and therefore no crosses into the box. It left Carroll so incredibly isolated, leaving the defenders feeling to only option was to boot it up to him. At large majorities of the match it seemed the gameplan was defend, clear it, lose the ball, repeat. Something we haven’t seen since the new England manager was in charge.

2. Ayew injury: There must be a record signing injury curse hanging over West Ham. After the likes of Ashton, Bellamy and the big man himself, I think most would be forgiven for fearing Carroll’s fitness during his first game after an immaculate pre season regime, but definitely not Ayew. I couldn’t help but think how unbelievably typical West ham it was, to see our record signing hobble off after 35minutes. We didn’t see enough of him to get a good idea of what we can expect, however, I have no doubt we missed his creative talents and more importantly his composure on the ball going forward.

3. Nordveit & Tore showed worrying signs: I was very excited to see these two in action, but it’s safe to say it was a night to forget for both. Nordveit had a huge job on his shoulders. I said at the start of the game, I felt Nordveit’s performance would dictate how well the game would go, and it pretty much showed. You can forgive him for feeling the pressure to keep the defence protected from the likes of Willian, Oscar, Kante and Hazard, but he was struggling with the basics. On a number of occasions, he lost the ball through poor simple passes, and as a CDM there was no sign of comfortably carrying the ball once possession had switched. I am sure he will regain composure for Bournemouth, but it was not a great start. Again, we can forgive Tore for being thrown on in the deep end to replace our record signing and make an immediate impact, but he looked lost at times. There was no link up play with Masuaka, and he was sitting so deep, that even when Carroll did win the ball, he was nowhere to be seen to pick it up and make a run. Pressure on his shoulders now with potential injuries to both Ayew and Feghouli.

4. Masuaka/Byram showing very positive signs: Despite it seeming rather negative from an attacking perspective, I thought defensively we looked great, and that was largely down to the two wing backs. Firstly Masuaka, despite no pre season friendly with his new club, he looked very solid at the back, making some very important challenges. I also think he will link up very nicely with Payet once he returns. For now at least, Cresswell’s position looks in safe hands. Secondly Byram. He was absolutely fantastic when brought on, composed both going forward and when coming up against the likes of Hazard, and most importantly, looked confident in his position. It would be fair to say we looked a far better side when he came on, and balance between the defence and attack seemed restored. For me it was a no brainer to bring on Byram for Ayew and push Anotnio up to RW, but Slav obviously had other ideas. Watching Antonio be subbed off for Byram was probably Bilic’s lowest moment as West Ham manager so far. Most importantly, because it looked like he had completely destroyed Antonio’s confidence. I think most fans will hope that was the final nail in the coffin of the ‘Right Back experiment,’ and Byram can establish himself as the first choice, with Antonio pushing further up the pitch and doing what he does best.

5. Fit or not, Payet made a difference: I don’t think anyone was surprised to see Payet left on the bench last night. Despite having a good half hour against Juventus, Bilic wanted to make sure that after an incredible Euro campaign, his star man would enter his second Premier League fully fit. However, it was so clear to see that on the 67th minute when he was subbed on, we changed as a team. The long ball started to disappear, and there were clear sparks of intricate passing all started by the great man himself. I think it would be naive to say his corner set up the goal, as there was a huge scramble before the hero that is Ginger Pele put it in the back of the net, but again, he was making things happen. This leaves me to believe that if we line up next week in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Tore, Payet and Antonio (we can all dream) sitting behind Carroll, we can expect a far more positive impact going forwards.

Injustice once more

I should probably say we should be used to it by now. I can’t count the number of times last season that unfair or incorrect decisions had gone against us. One of course being the dubious decision to award a penalty to Chelsea (Ruben Loftus-Cheek) when it was clearly outside the box. Even Mark Noble said before the game, ‘You don’t forget decisions like that.’ At the start of this season, new laws of the game were laid out for everyone to acknowledge and understand. These included clearer guidelines for awarding a card, but for me the most important was the referee’s ability to award a red card for ‘swearing or abusive language.’ I believe this is a very welcomed rule, as for too long, we have seen players crowd an official and hurl abuse for a decision, regardless of whether it was correct or not. Therefore, it seemed that with this safety blanket rule, referee’s would go into bold decisions without fear or pressure. So step forward tonight’s official Anthony Taylor. In my opinion, Referee’s today are the most protected individual on the pitch every time a Premier league game is played. I don’t mean from an abusive standpoint, but simply in terms of decisions. For example:

Last night, Anthony Taylor made two huge errors.

  1. Not awarding Kante a second yellow: Despite being on a yellow, Kante clattered into Payet flooring him in the middle of the centre circle. I saw tweets last night claiming ‘it’s not a second yellow card offence.’ This is not a thing. Whether it’s a first yellow or a second yellow is irrelevant, the tackle that was made on Payet was a yellow card offence and should have resulted in Kante being sent off.
  2. Not awarding Costa anything?!: ‘It’s late but it’s not reckless’ said the Sky Sports commentator. Well, if this tackle is not ‘reckless’ then I don’t know what is. This tackle is a red card. It’s high, his studs are up and Adrian is very lucky to have not come away with a broken leg. Again, the commentator said, ‘He’s tried to play the ball.’ I have never understood this? Many times i’ve heard the phrase, ‘he tried to play the ball,’ but so?! 99% of tackles see a player ‘trying to play the ball’, but he didn’t he took Adrian’s leg instead. Regardless, it is MINIMUM yellow card offence. Which left the bitter taste of injustice when Diego Costa buried the winner. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fantastic finish, but the truth is he shouldn’t have been on the pitch at all. If someone else had scored, fine. But I can’t help but think that with 9 men, Chelsea would have defended deeply and we would have taken a point. Ugly-Diego-Costa-tackle-on-Adrian.jpg

Now, i’m not going to sit here and write these decisions cost us the game, because quite frankly, we don’t know what would have happened. But it is impossible to say it wouldn’t have drastically changed the attacking mentality of Chelsea. Therefore, my question is, when are referee’s going to be held accountable for their actions? Whether you are a player or manager if you make an error like that on the pitch you are either fined, dropped or sacked. Why is this not the same with our officials. Yes you can argue they have a second to make a decision, but if they aren’t up to it, I am sure there are plenty that are. In a game that has a rulebook as clear as day, why do so many refereeing decisions seem clouded by grey areas of debate and lack of clarity?

A mate of mine who was watching the game yesterday said, “We should introduce the option of post match referee interviews. If they justify their actions backed up with facts or rules then not only does it highlight their ability to do their job, but it will also make other referee’s better.’

I have to say I totally agree with him. I think it would allow referee’s to not only explain their side of events, but also, it gives them an opportunity to hold their hands up and say ‘you know what, I got it wrong.’ Video refereeing (which I personally think is a good idea), will never come to fruition until referee’s admit that they need help. But regardless, it may at least stop fans going away from a game feeling so robbed of a positive result. Especially when we are all paying so much money to follow our teams. I would almost go as far as to say I think it’s fully deserved.

Final Thoughts

I totally agreed with Slav when he came out and said they were the better side, they were. But I was slightly concerned with his insistent tone that we are finished in the transfer market. I personally was very happy with Ayew being our ‘marquee player’ even if he isn’t an ‘out-and-out striker.’ But with his injury looking like a potentially lengthy spell on the sidelines, I don’t see how we can head into the new campaign with only Carroll and the soon to be Hammer Calleri up front. Not only because Calleri is unproven at this level, but also because we are featuring in 4 competitions this season, starting with another European trip this Thursday. I don’t think we can even think about Sakho as he looks so unfazed by playing for us it’s untrue. Despite a lack of confidence from some fans, I think Benteke would be a great addition. I feel it’s unfair to judge him on his time at Liverpool due to being played in a system that doesn’t reflect his strengths. If he can regain his Aston Villa form, he would be a welcomed addition, even if it does mean taking a bit of pressure off Carroll to deliver in all competitions. Only time will tell…

 

Thanks for reading. COYI!