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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.