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.