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.

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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.

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.