Talking Point

Successful rallying cry or imminent good-bye?

It’s early December and it has already been a long, long, tough and so far disappointing season. In November West Ham couldn’t muster a single win home or away, and they spoiled the party when the Austrian Irons celebrated their fifth anniversary on the evening of the game against Tottenham in a Vienna pub called the Tube Station. Conceding two late goals after leading Spurs 2-1 at White Heart Lane was a very bitter pill to swallow, but shipping nine goals in the last two games was a devastating backlash. Nevertheless I am looking forward to my upcoming trip to London and my first visit to the Olympic Stadium when West Ham play Hull. The time has come to turn the corner at last. But we could also see Slaven Bilic’s depart after this game.

Well, all could have been so fine if the signs of improvement that West Ham showed in October and in the November league games against Spurs and Man Utd had not been like bubbles that fade and die too quickly. To be honest, in the last two games West Ham have been awful for most of the 180 mins, and the team exposed their defense and got outplayed the second half of their respective matches when they were desperately seeking an equaliser. There have been some glimpses of what could have been if … (e.g. if Ashley Fletcher had scored against Arsenal when the hosts trailed a 0-1), but all in all the performance in these two games lacked pace, commitment and confidence.

I was interviewed by the GermanGunners podcast in the wake of the Arsenal game

I tried to explain that, despite the 1-4 defeat in the League Cup last Wednesday, things were already coming good for West Ham and that I expected them to climb up the table and Slaven Bilic’s job to be safe. In the game against Arsenal West Ham’s cause wasn’t helped by James Collins’ early injury, but shipping another five goals just three days after a heavy 1-4 League Cup defeat – that unfortunately proved me very, very wrong!

Now Slaven Bilic has admitted not only the obvious fact that the players have not shown enough commitment in the last two games, but that they are not applying themselves in training either. This confession is a very risky move. It could be seen as a last attempt of a more or less helpless manager to avoid being made responsible for the current predicament and getting the sack.

But the plea of guilty made by Bilic himself in his press conference after the Arsenal game could also have an immediate effect and help to rally the troops before the next game against Liverpool. If the players respond to the gaffer’s allegation with increased commitment to the cause and try to prove the manager and all their critics wrong we could see a very much improved performance next weekend.

I think the board still backs Bilic, as do I, but without significant signs of improvement in the next few games the manager (whose 2-year-contract has not been renewed so far) will be gone! I hate to say that because I dislike the hire-and-fire of managers we see too often in football today, but if the squad does not respond to the manager any more, a new manager is to come in. This would have to happen by the beginning of January at the latest to give him the transfer window to bring in his own men.

But we cannot only hold the manager responsible for West Ham’s problems, also too many players are injured, out of form or really seem to lack commitment and determination. Not only Dimitri Payet comes to mind when I say that, but he really does not look the same player he was last season and at the Euros in summer. Too often his body language seems to show that he doesn’t care anymore…

In contrast to Payet, Michail Antonio always seems to care, but it was the manager who didn’t care and played him out of position much too often. Antonio has to be played in an offensive position and not as a full back! Everybody knows that, but the manager has not taken this obvious fact into account in summer. If James Tomkins had not been sold to Crystal Palace West Ham still would have a proved and experienced player who often has stepped in as right back quite successfully!

The season has been a big disappointment so far, and when my eagerly anticipated first visit to the London Stadium will take place in less than two weeks time against Hull City I could already have to watch a team that has slumped down into the relegation zone. So let’s hope Slaven Bilic’s plea of guilty at his last press conference has been the rallying cry that immediately lets us see signs of improvement in the tough away game against Liverpool and in the really important midweek game against Burnley afterwards. Let’s hope the players train and play with greater determination and finally turn the corner before Christmas!

Four points from the next two games, and I would fly to London with a much better feeling than I have today!


I just want to play football

After the Arsenal game, I went out for dinner. Driving back home I had The Late Tackle on from Talk Sport, listening to an interesting interview with Olivier Bernard, former Newcastle and France defender. He was being interviewed as someone who’s investing his time in grass roots football up in Durham. (He bought non league Durham City back in 2013, and has been passionately developing the teams, both youth and adults for 3 years).

But it wasn’t the main subject of the interview that caught my attention. It was something that came up about his time making his mark into the Newcastle first team in early 2000s. He was asked about how he felt from starting life at Newcastle as a winger to then being moved to play at left back after several games. His answer: “I just wanted to play football, I was happy wherever the gaffer felt I should play”. (unofficially quoted…it was the car radio, I couldn’t write it down…)

When asked how he was able to adapt, or did he find that difficult from effectively an attacker to a defender his reaction was similar. He loved playing, and just wanted to play football. Just wanted to help his team win. And win they did… Bobby Robson era… finished fourth, third and fifth as well as knockout rounds of the Champions League and the semi-final of the UEFA Cup…

Olivier Bernard

“One of the biggest things we’re missing right now, is passion, drive, determination. I mentioned this loosely in my first guest post.

It’s been mentioned and noted significantly this past week by many both on here, in the media and even by Slaven himself.

Now, the phrase “I just want to play football” could be a bit of a throwaway one. It could mean very little. But lets have a think for a minute.

Imagine a 9 year old with dreams of scoring every game, they cannot wait for the day to come, dreams of being scouted by the local professional team, or even bigger teams. For me, that kid’s dreams centre around one huge statement. They just want to play football. Get better, win games, score goals, make amazing saves, play football.

The same is throughout grass roots football, of all ages, from the 9 year old’s school friendly, to the adults Sunday league pub team. We love the game. We love the excitement of pulling on our boots on a Sunday morning. We love (weirdly) the smell of deep heat around the dressing room, bits of tape wrapped around your ankles and the top of your socks, downing Lucozade sport and running around on Wanstead flats, Hackney Marshes or your local park, wondering if that amazing player from last time you played this lot is still on their team…

We just love playing football. That’s what Olivier meant. That’s what helped him adapt. That’s what allowed him to contribute to the team and be part of such a success in the mid-2000s with the Magpies.

Watching us today was awful, painful even. It was the peak of what we’ve seen of the past few games.

We’re making poor mistakes, simple footballing strategy is non existent. Not tracking back, not playing as a unit, no strategy, no evident game plan, or if there is, we’re forgetting it the minute we get past the white line and the whistle goes. I can’t see the Olivier Bernard vibe anywhere in the team at the moment, apart from Fletcher. He’s grabbing his opportunity. I bet if you asked him, one of his replies would be “I just want to play football”. Reid, occasionally Obiang and a bit with Lanzini are the only others I think of who seem to have flashes of passion.

A bunch of grapes

The other problem we need to find is the consistent shape of how we play moves. In American Football they create tactics and plays in a playbook…maybe we need to think a little more like that.

Back in October I watched my daughter play her first school game, brand new girls team for the school, only one girl had ever played before? – it was all new to the rest of them. First game of the season they literally all ran like headless chickens at the ball, following it round the pitch wherever it went.
Their teacher kept shouting “stop bunching girls!” “Remember we’re not grapes, girls!”

They lost 7-0.

In recent weeks, a few of the Dads and a couple of the teachers have tried to unpack to the girls some basic tactics, positioning, set plays, general understanding of core tactics of the game. Since their 7-0 drubbing they’ve gone on to be unbeaten in 6 and come joint 2nd in a district 5-a-side tournament.

Today, in mid week, last weekend, and multiple previous games this season, I’ve been so appalled at the lack of shape in play. Even my daughter who watched the game with me on BT Sport against The Gooners said “Daddy, they’re bunching up like we used to aren’t they”.

The 3 at the back worked as we created options, chances, but it worked against teams who weren’t set up to play against it, plus with Cresswell back and Antonio able to fly forward without the absolute requirement to get back to defend, it allowed us to use more space.

Against Manchester United in the league, we were kept a bit quiet, and similar in the cup, but lets just park the midweek game in the past. One of the things we must crack is a strong backbone through the team, we need leadership on the pitch. Reid could be an answer there? – he’s solid. I’m a huge fan of Noble over the years but I’m missing his leadership at the moment? – I can’t find it.

Errors leading to goals

Defensive errors, or is it the style of play?

Defence starts in attack, not on the 18 yard line. We all know that. We have had some bad defensive injuries and throughout the season, and too many of them across the team, plus there’s been some interesting decisions on our right back from Slav, as well as interesting additions who whilst they’ve had moments, they haven’t consistently performed at the level we need/expect.

A lot has been made this past two weeks, and again today, of defensive issues at West Ham, particularly issues where defensive mistakes have led to goals. The problem is, this isn’t a new issue for us.

So far this season, we’re top of the worst performers, with 6 defensive errors leading to a goal. Thats 50% more than both Crystal Palace and Liverpool on 3.

The reality is though we ended last season top of that same table, despite a 7th position finish and one of our most exciting seasons for years in terms of quality of football and great results. Last season we finished in that table with 14 defensive errors leading to a goal, just one more than Aston Villa, and we all know what happened to them…

Interestingly, the pre-Slaven era, looking at data from the same tables, we only had 6,6 and 4 defensive errors leading to goals respectively for 2014–15, 13–14 and 12–13 years. Not that tells us too much, but could suggest the style of play over the past 2 years has been too geared towards attacking that we’ve ignored building from the back.
However, I don’t believe this is a defensive problem at its core – its a bigger problem around the overall shape of the team, the passion to play football and the vision of what style of play Slaven is wanting us to play. I like the vision, but its got to have the right balance.

Last year we setup as a very attacking team. And we bought more in those areas over the summer, Ayew, Feghouli, Fletcher, Lanzini, Fernandes. The only defensive purchase over the summer was Masuaku, and the Arbeloa August addition, both of the latter more in reaction to losing players than a visionary purchase.

I honestly don’t have an opinion on what we need to do next, but we need to do something that solidifies our shape, finds ways of plugging the gaps that we have throughout the team and reignites the desire “to want to play football”. I do believe we need to find someone to get us 15–20 goals a season… That might be a post for another time.

Is this a defensive issue at its core? Or is it a wider team-shape problem?

What do you all think?

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The HamburgHammer Column

Numb and number: Watching a car crash called West Ham

Now then, I never truly believed we would or could beat Arsenal, not at the current time with our current issues at hand – but this ? If Arsenal had been a bit more clinical and ruthless in the first half we could have well conceded ten. Even considering our injury woes (with another name added to the list in Collins) a team in the Premier League simply shouldn’t ship the amounts of goals we do, those teams unfortunate enough to still do it usually are the ones who get relegated eventually.
At this point I cannot even muster the effort to feel much anger or frustration anymore, it’s more like a casual shrug of the shoulders, accepting the fact that this is what happens when you make the decisions our board (mainly) and our manager (to some degree) have made in the past few weeks and months.

The injury issue has gone way beyond the ridiculous and bizarre status now, we keep on losing players to muscle injuries, so someone needs to take a long, hard look at the way we train and how we prepare our players for upcoming matches, including basic stuff like warming up and warming down properly. That’s where it all begins really as we will probably not win another game this season if we have to field a different starting XI time and time again for injury reasons.

It’s a vital element of successful teams that they start the same group of defenders every single game, that breeds confidence and a natural understanding between the players where everyone knows exactly what his role is, which opponent to pick up, what runs to make etc.
If you have different a different set of defenders in every game chances are there will be more mistakes, misunderstandings and holes for the opposition to exploit.

Also, why can’t we keep the ball for any significant length of time ? I have rarely seen so many of our players give so many passes away cheaply like our lads have done this season. Neither have I seen us leave the opposition with so much space to express themselves in, over and over again – is there a strategy behind not chasing or attacking opposition players anymore ?

Watching Bilic’s face and body language on the touchline these days is utterly painful, I really feel for the guy, especially as I can sense his suffering – I truly believe he loves this club a lot (surely more than most of the players) and every one of those goals we keep conceding must be like another dagger through his heart – or another nail in his coffin if you want to be cynical at this point. I’ll firmly nail my colours to the mast here: I am still a massive fan of Slaven, I’d love to see him stay for a long time (a lot longer than our board anyway or Payet for instance), being given more support to turn things around, alas I reckon our board will be more than happy to use him as a welcome scapegoat to deflect some major flak away from themselves.

Carroll returning and scoring almost immediately after running onto the pitch was about the only bright spot in the game, but how long will Carroll be able to play before going down with yet another knock or injury ? And besides: What good is it to see Carroll scoring two goals a game if we continue to ship four or five at the other end ?
It’s comical how our board have let down Bilic in the transfer window as all the glaring squad needs we had and still have were merely patched up, and badly at that, but not solved.

We are now officially in a relegation scrap and as we all know from plenty of experience in the past, these relegation battles can be tough and they usually last longer you may want or expect them to – and sometimes of course they end not with the result you hope for. Do we really have enough guts and fight in our squad to prevail ? I surely hope so, but I’m not overly confident I have to say. As mentioned in my column previously I don’t mind a relegation scrap, it’s what I had to get used to from the very beginning of my West Ham supporting days and in a way it feels quite natural to face yet another uphill battle.

The problem is that with our stadium move we simply weren’t supposed to be in this position to begin with. That stadium was supposed to host glorious footballing feasts featuring West Ham playing their opposition off the park more often than not, giving the claret and blue faithful top performances galore, provided by a team filled with quality players from top to bottom. There’s no way around it, our owners must finally put up or shut up (and preferably sell up too). Like 20 years ago we need to bring in a Hartson/Kitson combo to save our season, this time though we might need a striking combo plus a defensive combo as well in order to survive. It probably won’t be plain sailing once again, but I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world!

As for Concordia thankfully they saved my weekend and gave me plenty of reasons to be cheerful, five to be exact! A solid no-nonsense 5:0 home win against FC Suederelbe helped to cement Cordi’s top spot in the Oberliga Hamburg, no goals from Kevin this time (but he had a great assist for the first goal), however, our goal machine (and leading goalscorer in the league) Benjamin Bambur more than stepped up to the plate by scoring four goals in this one.
I hope the link to the videos works this time, you may have to endure a bit of online advertising in the process, but the goals are worth watching of course, if you fancy it, plse copy the following into your browser (for some reason the HTML link doesn’t work):

As you all know by now I’ll be coming over again to East London this Friday, for a full 9 days too this time! Thanks in advance by the way to certain people on here who have already made sure that part of my itinerary in England has been taken care of splendidly, like sorting out my ticket for the Liverpool game or organising a lovely Christmas lunch in the company of fellow WHTIDers, you all know who you are! Cheers for that! My most recent record when watching the Hammers in person ain’t too shabby either, a win against Burnley, draw against Palace, plus wins against Man United and Bournemouth. If I should indeed manage to get through the upcoming three games without seeing us lose in the process I shall be as happy as a toddler in a ball pit.

Bournemouth to their credit have shown that Liverpool are not invincible, with the right spirit and application West Ham too surely can get a decent result against them, despite the recent shambles on and off the pitch. I for one will be singing, shouting and cheering my lungs out, especially as it’ll also be my first ever Hammers away trip (unless you want to count a preseason encounter against Hamburg SV in the town of Flensburg a few years ago). Anfield is supposed to be one of the best football stadium experiences ever, so I shall cherish the occasion, whatever the final score is going to be. I will be amongst my fellow Hammers and I will be watching West Ham, what more could I want ? Other than a cheeky away win of course!


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The Mike Ireson Column

Rotten to the Core

I’d been listening to an interview with Harry Redknapp earlier where he bemoaned the fact that there was no honesty in interviews by managers anymore. People always looking for the positives when there were none.

Well Slaven Bilic proved him wrong this evening with a frank post-match interview that has blown our season wide apart.

Normally managers have to be coaxed in to answers but from the first question Slaven was ready to talk and tell. He wasn’t going to stop until he said what he needed to get off his chest.

He looked a broken man. A man that was hurting deeply, and, as we were about to find out, wanted to let it be known where he felt our problems lay.

He said and I quote

“I’m not looking for excuses, you have injuries and mistakes but we were not good enough. It is a big disappointment, a big humiliation. I feel sorry for the fans and the club. We played some good games this season, and we had some good moments today, but we have to be honest and say that we don’t have the intensity. From the intensity comes the dedication and the quality, we don’t have it like we had it last year”

Then as the microphone was taken away for another question he carried on, he wasn’t finished venting his spleen….

“We don’t have it in games and we don’t have it enough even in training. That’s why we have it occasionally in games, and that is why we are so up and down, and in my opinion that is the main reason why we can’t do it for 90 minutes”

So, there you have it. We’ve been searching for the reasons why we are so poor this season. Slaven has laid the blame squarely at the players’ feet. He states they are not applying themselves either on match day or on the training ground.

Immediately after in the BT studio Ian Wright and Rio Ferdinand looked rightly shocked at what they had just heard. Rio said that if he were a West Ham Player he would take that as a personal insult.

Too damn right Rio. Our manager has just called the players out. He has basically said they are lazy and living on the achievements of last season.

If he is saying the players are under achieving in training, then we have no hope of putting in a performance in matches.

This is a man at the end of his tether (and possibly at the end of his job) who decided to come out fighting.

So, has he lost the dressing room? Or was he trying to snap his players in to action by calling them out in public?

Either scenario is deeply worrying. We either have players who have lost their drive and are too big for their boots, a manager not good enough to motivate them or both.

We are dangerously close to the bottom of the table and as Ian Wright pointed out other teams will now smell blood. They know something is wrong and will exploit it.

The 5-1 scoreline did not flatter Arsenal, it could have been 8 or 9.

Something has to change and it looks like it is a simple choice of either replacing the manager with one that can rouse this squad, or jettison the rotten apples and bring in fresh blood that will fight and scrap for the claret and blue jersey.

Not trying to be melodramatic but I think we can now safely say we are in crisis.

I feel this is not going to get better quickly. Prepare for a bumpy ride.


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Zaman Siddiqui's Match Review

Sanchez's 15 minutes of fame

MATCHWEEK UPDATE: Bournemouth have won 4-3 against Liverpool at the Vitality Stadium. The Cherries were 2-0 down after 22 minutes. What a comeback! Our players need to take note.

The expression used in the title is credited to pop artist Andy Warhol who famously said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” I suppose the equivalent of that in a football match would be when a player scores a hat-trick. As the moniker suggests, Sanchez scored three goals in a quarter of an hour – 14 minutes and 29 seconds on the clock to be exact. The Chilean fulfilled Warhol’s prophecy quite well, as I dug deeper with my research. In 1966 (not the football World Cup), a crowd gathered trying to get into the pictures and Warhol supposedly remarked that everyone wants to be famous, to which Finkelstein (his photographer) replied: “Yeah, for about fifteen minutes, Andy.” You remember the West Ham ball boys trying to snap a selfie with Sanchez right after the game? Warhol experienced the same circumstances. Talk about allegiance. But to be fair, who could blame the youngsters? Our fate was sealed early on in the match.

Whilst we have been unlucky with our injuries, and have partly put it down to bad luck, the fact of the matter is that we are our own worse enemies. Just about every player is creating records against us, and understandably so, as we conceded an average of over two goals a game in the Premier League this season. Theo Walcott has scored five goals against us in the PL; the most against any opponent he has faced. The amount of defensive errors which have led to goals is simply appalling – and it’s not just this season. Now, most will think that last season was absolutely incredible, and that we were good all round, as we finished 7th. But if you look at our last few matches, we conceded more than average.

According to Squawka, we made the most defensive errors last season with 14. Not sure how Aston Villa managed to get less than us. Additionally, we are still top of the pile (well, scrapheap) this season with 6. Palace and Liverpool are joint second with half that! What this tells us is that our players need to make themselves more accountable in defence. This is a problem that Slav has struggled to deal with, as we were 14th in that table in Sam Allardyce’s last two seasons.

With both teams coming off the wrong end of a EFL Cup quarter-final, I’m sure many would’ve expected a tighter match. Carroll scored a hat-trick against Arsenal last time out in less time than Sanchez! He scored it in exactly half the time the Arsenal forward did in 7 minutes and 14 seconds. Prior to the match, his return was a good omen. In a way, I still believe it was, as he scored a goal – if only we didn’t concede three beforehand. We have been desperately missing a striker. Playing with just the one forward meant that we couldn’t create many chances.

Something that I touched on in my previous match review was that we couldn’t afford to give Arsenal many chances like we did against a lacklustre Manchester United side last Sunday who have drawn last four home league matches. Arsenal have the highest conversion rate in the league for a reason. The Red Devils had 17 shots compared to Arsenal’s 19. The difference? Another four goals conceded. Granted some of their goals were of tremendous quality, they are the sort of team that will pounce at every opportunity presented. And apart from the opening quarter of an hour, they most certainly did. But they pounced very well. We have conceded five goals in a PL home match for the first time since March 2002, when we lost to Man United 5-3.

There is no doubt that some will be thinking about the formations that have been implemented, and how we ought to line-up. But, the reality is that we have made far too many changes with our players. Bilic has been at the club long enough to know what our players are capable of, yet he is making changes to the starting XI more erratically than Bob Bradley, the new Swansea manager. Some of our players are a complete shadow of the players they were last season. Noble is the obvious culprit here. If the gaffer fails to get ahold of the team, and use players effectively, he is likely to get the sack. An example of this indecisiveness was when he couldn’t make his mind up on whether to play Carroll or not. He did when we were 2-0 down.

Second season syndrome could explain why we are struggling. We had it under Sam Allardyce in his second PL season with us, as we were 19th with half the games played, and ended 13th – not such an unlucky number it seems. In his post-match interview, Slaven said the team lacked intensity not just in games, but on the training field as well. This is that lack of control over the team that I was referring to. If he can’t manage us properly, why should he stay? We aren’t the only side to be experiencing this phenomenon. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City have failed to live up to the hype of last season. Their 13 points from 14 games is the worst defence of the title in PL history. That said, I’m sure their fans will be going to the bookies asking: “What odds on Leicester to be relegated and win the Champions League?” They had 29 points at this stage last season. By comparison, we lost 8 league matches last season, but have managed to do so this season in only 14. The problem is more than just Kanté leaving without a replacement or the inconsistent players we have. Forget about signing the player who will sell the most kits, get the players who will bolster the team gradually.

I think this is the time when the manager really puts his foot down. He can’t put players on that aren’t performing well enough. He has done well by leaving Adrián and Zaza on the bench. I think the time has come for Noble. For the past few games, he has not been at the races. Lanzini and Obiang make a much better partnership than our skipper. Even in this mauling, he connected the midfield and attack well. Our midfield have been outplayed a ridiculous amount of times this season. This is one aspect of our game that showcases our lack of intensity that Slav was talking about.

Finally, I would like to extend our support to the Chapecoense team. Unity and solidarity are just two values that encapsulate the Beautiful Game. They embody the spirit of the sport. Clubs have offered their players on loan to the Brazilian club for free, which says it all about how supportive the football community is.

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