Crystal Palace 0-1 West Ham: So that’s what winning feels like.

After another lacklustre home performance last week, which saw Dimitri Payet once again save us from embarrassment with a ‘goal of the season’ contender against Middlesborough, West Ham fans were understandably pessimistic about our chances against an in-form Palace side. With our London rivals hoping to make it 6 games unbeaten, I was extremely worried about our chances of getting a result, especially with the powerhouse Christian Benteke up against our fragile and unconfident defence. However, 5 minutes into the game, and it was clear West Ham were extremely keen to take the game to Palace and turn things around. The West Ham faithful were no doubt delighted to see Aaron Cresswell return from injury, and right from kick off showed exactly why he is so pivotal to the shape and balance of the team. In every article this season, I have been incredibly critical of West Ham’s poor start to a game, however, this time, something clicked. As soon as the first whistle blew, West Ham were on the front foot. Getting it wide when possible to the wing backs of Cresswell and Antonio, who surged forwards looking to get balls into the box and create intricate build up with Payet and Lanzini. Setting up in a 3-4-3, it was clear West Ham were dominating the midfield areas, pressing Palace’s defence deep into their half, and when losing possession; battling from the front to win it back. Zaza at times looking like a man possessed in winning the ball back. Very impressive to see. Finally, in the 19th minute the Hammers unrelenting pressure was rewarded. A nice piece of skill from Payet took two Palace defenders out of position, laying it off to Cresswell who provided an inch perfect pass across the box to Lanzini, who cutely opened up his body and placed the fizzing ball into the open net and giving West Ham a thoroughly deserving lead. 1-0. Despite Palace’s persistence to get balls into the box during the first half, West Ham seemed comfortable in dealing with the danger. It looked too good to be true, and sadly, it was. Right on the stroke of half time, Ogbonna looked to clear a loose ball on the edge of the box, only to collide with Benteke sending him crashing to the ground, and giving the referee no option but to award a penalty kick. It seemed so typical that he would score against us. Particularly as we had dodged the opportunity to sign him over the summer. However, much to the delight of the away support, Benteke blazed the ball over the net, and left the Palace fans mortified. It honestly reminded me of the first time I attempted a penalty on the new Fifa 17 system. Just terrible.

The second half seemed to be much of the same. Palace continued to pump balls into the box for Benteke, but Reid and Kouyate were dominant in the air and constantly dealt with the unrelenting danger. It seemed to be all going so well. But West Ham never do it the easy way. 74 minutes in saw Cresswell cut inside the Palace box, and with a swift piece of footwork, was clearly brought down by Cabaye. The referee however, deemed it as a dive and decided to award the West Ham left back a yellow card. Without question a ludicrous decision, as it was clearly a penalty, and could have allowed us to close the game out with 15 minutes to go. It didn’t get much better for the Hammers, as the ball was quickly cleared up to Wilfried Zaha on the right hand side. With a burst of pace, he tried to sprint past Cresswell, but to no avail, slipping in the process on the wet surface and sent tumbling to the ground. In 99% of cases this wouldn’t have been considered a foul, let alone a yellow. The referee called it as a foul, but as he began walking over to the linesman it was clear he had other ideas, encouraging the referee to award a yellow card, which of course, he did. Unjustly treated, West Ham were now down to 10 men with 15 minutes to go away from home. A position they did not want to find themselves in, especially after the poor defensive performances this season. Nordveit, Calleri and Fernandes all came on for Lanzini, Zaza and Payet providing fresh legs to an already tired yet persistent West Ham side. With hearts in mouths and blood pressure rising for Hammers fans up and down the country, West Ham showed signs of last season’s defensive dominance, demonstrating incredible resilience and fight to keep Palace at bay. An exceptional save from Adrian against a powerful Connor Wickham header topped off a fantastic all round performance from West Ham giving them a deserved 3 points and their first win away of the season. West Ham fans were understandably ecstatic and the celebrations with the players were a joy to see. At last, our team is back and we finally look up for the fight.

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

  1. 3-5-2 works: Bilic has been no stranger to tinkering his formation this season. But it may have finally paid off. In my last article, I spoke about Bilic’s lack of a Plan B option, but when you start on the front foot like we did in this fixture, there is no need. It was great to see Kouyate, Obieng and Noble in the same team, and I thought the back three were solid and Obieng once again gave cover to allow Noble to press forward and help out with his passing ability when in attack. Payet and Antonio have looked stifled and isolated in previous games on the wing, but giving Payet freedom to roam with Lanzini, consistently helped to create space for the wing backs in Cresswell and Antonio. This also helped Zaza to get more involved in the game, and use his strength to hold up the ball and create space for the wingers. It was a very balanced and stable line up that showed the determination and passion of last season. I hope Bilic sticks with it for our upcoming fixture against Sunderland.
  2. Oh, how we’ve missed Cresswell: I think it’s fair to say that all West Ham fans have been looking forward to the return of Cresswell, not only blessed with an incredible left foot that is so dangerous when used going forwards, but his positional play and consistency in tackling show how much our defence have missed him. It was a superbly placed cross for the assist and I am sure we will be seeing more of that ability across the season. No question that both of his yellow cards were utterly ridiculous, and it seems incredibly unfair that we will miss him for another must win game against Sunderland. But for now, we can all take a huge amount of joy that he is back, match fit and ready to tear up the left hand side of the pitch.
  3. Solid defence: There is no getting away from how poorly we have defended this season. It has looked utterly shambolic at the back and I was fearing the worst for our back 3 against the powerful and dominant Benteke. However, they dug deep to produce a solid and commanding performance for the entire 90 minutes. I was so impressed with how well they communicated and organised, especially during deep crosses and dead ball situations. Winston Reid looked back to his absolute best and it was fantastic to see him throwing himself in front of shots. Ogbonna and Kouyate also showed glimpses of last season’s form, and really put their bodies on the line to grind out the result. Any fan who was questioning how much they care have well and truly had their question answered. Hopefully the start of a successful partnership.
  4. Zaza shows promising signs: For a man who has an illusive appearance clause hanging over his head, Zaza looked like a man who had something to prove in this game. I’ve been doubtful about him up until now, but I can honestly say I have never seen a striker work so hard. He pressed from the front, threw himself into tackles, tracked back beyond our own box. Quite simply, he looked like a man possessed at times and his passion has totally won me over. His reaction at full time, celebrating and throwing his shirt into the crowd, really highlights his determination to succeed at West Ham and I think the only thing he needs to add is a goal. His confidence should be high after that game, but when faced with the opportunity to shoot, he always takes an extra touch. Sunderland is a big opportunity for him to grab a goal, as despite being incredibly impressed with him, there is no justifying £18 million on a  striker who can’t find the net.
  5. Obieng superb again: Considering we were linked with selling this man in the summer, I think every fan can breathe a sigh of relief that we didn’t. Mainly used for Europa and Cup tournaments, Obieng has forced his way into the team by sheer graft and there is no way he’s being dropped any time soon. He is pure class. Calm, comfortable and confident on the ball, he really sets the pace of the game, also giving solid cover to our defensive line, allowing Noble to roam freely and stop us being vulnerable to the counter attack. He is quickly becoming a fan favourite and I have no doubt that he will continue to shine as he becomes more and more comfortable with the English game. Long may it continue.

 

So with our first away win under our belt, what next? Many will say that playing away from home indicates less pressure for the players due to the London Stadium issues, but surely that performance on the pitch can indicate that we can move past all of this now. At least, during the games themselves.

There is no hiding the fact that issues off the pitch are still on-going and potentially will be for the remainder of this season. However, fans must look to put this aside for the sake of the team. Passion, determination, desire are all words that have been removed from Hammers fans vocabulary since the start of the season, but the Palace fixture shows that if we all get behind our team and concentrate on the thing that matters most; the football, then we can really achieve great things.

With the next fixture coming at home to Sunderland, the stakes really couldn’t be higher. After a fantastic away win against Palace, fans and pundits alike will no doubt be predicting a West Ham win, especially considering Sunderland’s horrendous start to the season. Bilic spoke after the game about ‘confidence’ and how deprived we have been of it in recent weeks, but this victory will no doubt put us firmly back in control. This next game is well within our hands, but it will no doubt be aided by a solid and unified atmosphere at our new home that should get us over the finish line.

We have a real opportunity to go to two wins in a row and three unbeaten, so enjoy the game and let’s give our team the support they deserve.

 

Thanks for reading, COYI.

West Brom 4-2 West Ham: The cracks are beginning to show.

After a surprising home collapse to Watford, an away trip to West Bromwich Albion was a welcomed fixture. After winning comfortably last season, travelling Hammers fans were hopeful of a similar result. With Bilic having highlighted in his pre match interview that ‘extended meetings’ had taken place, it was only natural for the West Ham faithful to assume that we had learnt from our mistakes, and last week’s horror show was a minor blip in our hopes of improving on last year. We were, of course, absolutely wrong. Again. West Brom started the brighter side from kick off, and were unrelenting in their attacking intent. Individual mistakes cost us dearly last week, and it seemed nothing would be changing this week. If Masuaka’s first handball to give away the free kick wasn’t bad enough, his second handball seconds later inside the box was utterly embarrassing in front of the home support. With no challenge in sight, the former Olympiakos left back managed to totally miss the clearing header, allowing his flailing arm to collide with the ball, gifting a penalty to West Brom within 8 minutes. Chadli cooly slotted home. 1-0. Many fans, including myself, were delighted with the return of Ogbonna to the starting line up, however, his horrendous clearance fell straight into the path of Chadli, passing it straight back to Rondon, who buried it into the bottom corner. Once again questions will be asked of James Collins, who should have closed down Rondon far quicker, shutting down any hope of getting a shot away. Any hope travelling fans had of getting a result was quickly dealt it’s final blow, when 7 minutes later, a corner kick shockingly cleared by Collins fell into the path of Chadli, who’s controlled effort was drilled low, ricocheting  of James McClean and giving West Brom a surprising but fully deserved 3-0 lead going into half time.

For a man who is known for his collected nature and lack of rash decisions, Bilic was in need of a desperate reshape. Breaking the mould of his conventional approach, he decided to remove captain Mark Noble and ‘marquee’ signing Zaza in favour of the unproven Calleri and Premier league new boy Sofiane Feghouli. For the most part, it seemed to be working. West Ham’s dominant possession was starting to pay off, and confident runs from Feghouli, were allowing the likes of Lanzini and Payet to link up, creating gaps in the West Brom defence, giving West Ham an increasing chance of scoring. However, this desperation to score quickly saw our entire defence press too high up the field, only to allow a terrible Masuaka cross to find Chadli, setting up an clear runway for Rondon to roam unchallenged between the half way line and Adrian’s goal. It was a good finish from the big man, but once again individual mistakes cost West Ham dearly. However, this imminent defeat did not stop the magician that is Dimitri Payet trying to upset the party. After having another free kick rattle of the bar, his patience paid off, when an inch perfect cross found the head of Antonio, who thumped the ball into the back of the net for a consolation goal. Feghouli once again was making things happen down the right hand side, and another cute piece of link up play with Payet, allowed him to cut inside, clearly being fouled along the way by James McClean and winning the penalty for West Ham. With Mark Noble being substituted, Lanzini took over the responsibility, calmly slotting the ball into the keeper’s right hand corner bringing the score to 4-2 on 65 minutes. Sadly though, it seemed little too late for the players. Other opportunities came, the best of the bunch coming from James Collins who latched on to a fantastic Antonio cross, but Ben Foster was equal to it. If that had gone in, it would have been a very interesting last 10 minutes but sadly it wasn’t to be, and West Brom saw out the game comfortably despite West Ham having 70% possession in the game, and 23 shots on goal. It is very much back to the drawing board for Slaven Bilic and his players, but the fans will no doubt continue to question the players’ intent after that performance, with the biggest query being: Where has it all gone wrong?

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

  1. Individual defensive errors cost us again: Last week Bilic was incredibly critical of our defence and this week was no different. In his post match interview, he used words like ’embarrassing’ and ‘amateur’ to describe his side’s defending and I 100% agree with him. Masuaka no doubt had his worst game in a Hammers shirt by a mile, and I have no clue what he was doing for the first or fourth goal. Ogbonna, although certainly our best defender, should have put the ball into row z but instead gifted West Brom their second goal. I never enjoy criticising him, but James Collins looks a shadow of the player he was last season, and it really does beg the question that he can still cut it at this level. For a defence that looked so organised and determined last season, you can’t help but feel complacency or lack of preparation has caused this incredibly frustrating start. I hope they wake up and put the work in soon before it’s too late.
  2. Feghouli must start: There is no question that after a fantastic game against Domzale, everyone was keen to see how he would adapt the Premier League, and he did not disappoint. Full of pace, skill and desire to run at defenders he showed exactly what he is capable of, and a front three of Antonio, Payet and Feghouli could be a devastating prospect for opposition defences. I don’t know who Bilic would drop, but he has definitely done enough to highlight his value to the team and I hope he continues to impress. One of the very few positives from the game.
  3. Nordveit still not up to it: After being tested at both Centre Back and Defensive Midfield, a late injury to Byram meant Nordveit was asked to slot in at Right Back and do a job. At first, I was incredibly worried, but after reading that he had covered that position in Germany I was keen to see how he would get on. The conclusion however, is that you would never have guessed he’d covered it before. Constantly out of position, nervous on the ball and lacking any form of ability to pass seem constant descriptions of his performances since joining, and I’m starting to feel that he just does not have the ability to cut it in English football. I really hope I am wrong, but the other worrying thing is that Bilic’s desire to keep experimenting with his position can only show that he was brought in as a cheap option to cover all of those positions and he hasn’t succeeded in any of them.
  4. Zaza signs are worrying: Despite a nice bit of hold up play here and there, Zaza has looked almost invisible during both games. Despite being totally isolated at times, which I know isn’t always his fault, I definitely felt that Calleri, (who I haven’t rated since he signed), gave a much better account of himself in this game and really got stuck in and worked hard. I know it is early days, and people have been saying to get off his back, but let’s not forget that if we continue to play him for 13 more games we’re going to have to buy him and for a substantial amount of money. Therefore, he needs to start showing something to give justification to his price tag. It’s all well and good showing some very decent finishes in training videos, but if he can’t produce it on the field when it matters then we are in big trouble. I hope he can turn it around for the next game.
  5. Dominating possession does not equal a win: With 70% possession many would be forgiven for thinking it was a typo. But no, we dominated the possession. Yes, there were a lot of cautious balls being held by the back four, but equally, with 23 shots on goal, you’d expect us to win this comfortably. However, it is the 5 shots on target that is the concerning statistic. Especially when comparing that to West Brom’s 8 shots on goal with 6 being on target, scoring 4 of them. Quite simply, there is a distinct lack of clinical finishing from our side and it needs to addressed immediately. Last season, we played an expansive and open game and it worked, especially when hitting teams on the counter, however this year we look lazy, and lacking any hunger or desire to start the game on the front foot. I’d even goes as far as saying that we have started second best in all of our games this season, and the majority we have been trying to play catch up from the moment the second half kicks off. If we’d of started how we ended this game, we’d have won it, comfortably.

 

So, where do we go from here? This morning I read an interview on West Ham’s official website with Michail Antonio saying ‘Our season starts against Southampton.’ But I have definitely heard this sentence regurgitated over the last 2-3 games. Yes, it is early days, but there is no ignoring the fact that we cannot keep delaying the ‘start of our season’ when it suits us. It sounds like that friend you have who; half way through a game of FIFA, suddenly decides he’s “going to start playing properly now.” It’s ludicrous, because like we all know with our ignorant friend on FIFA, they don’t improve, they just say they do. Ignoring this season’s previous mistakes is denying our ability to move forward as a football club. Ignoring the lack of discipline at the back, and the lack of creativity when going forwards on the training ground is not going to help us get better. We need to accept it, correct it and then move forward.

Speaking of accepting mistakes, I could not help but applaud yet grimace at Tomkins scoring yesterday. Despite accepting that Bilic didn’t see him as a first choice, there is no doubt that in hindsight, it was a terrible decision to sell him on. Not only a solid centre back but also a very versatile right back when needed, and my god could we have used him this season. But even when we did sell him, for what I would consider a very decent amount of money at £12 million, we didn’t even reinvest. With much of our attention being focused on the attacking side of the market, we completely missed opportunities for players such as Ashley Williams and Daryl Janmaat. Despite lacklustre bids they slipped through our fingers and it is a real shame. With some players deemed as too much money or others being considered not up to Bilic’s standards, we will soon see how well our use of the loan market and foreign investments will shape up, but for now it is not looking great.

With a 3rd round tie in the League Cup against Stanley tomorrow, I hope Bilic experiments with the likes of Arbeloa, Oxford and Fletcher, and if proven, could see them slot into the team for the home game against Southampton.

We are in desperate need of a mix up, motivation and drive to see this team back to winning ways. If our season starts now lads, then bloody get a move on.

Thanks for reading. COYI.