The performance at Stamford Bridge was pretty abject in most respects.The only highlights being the form of Byram (when he came on for Antonio) and Masuaku, respectively at right and left full-back; together with the excellent half volley by James Collins to grab the equaliser. However, it is still early days and we have probably been spoilt, by the flyer that we got off to last season, with the outstanding 0-2 victory at the Emirates. That type of opening away day success is not going to be repeated every season and, regardless of the unpalatable reality of how badly we played versus Chelsea, the fact remains we only ended up losing 2-1. In bygone seasons that performance would have ended in a 3-1 or 4-1 defeat. So, perhaps it does represent progress of a sort. Unfortunately the only served to pile pressure on the squad ahead of Thursday’s Europa League match and, more crucially, Sunday’s first PL match against Bournemouth. And that is regrettable. The Astra match performance was marginally better than Monday night’s and it is likely we will finish the job at the London Stadium. But what is needed is a really big performance on Sunday to comfort those fans of a more nervous disposition and stop them hitting the panic button far too prematurely.
Arguably, one of the outstanding features of the Chelsea defeat was how badly we dealt with their high pressing game. Under Conte’s tutelage, Chelsea adopted a very aggressive, high pressing tactic, which saw their forwards systematically hunting down our players in possession. This resulted, at best, in too many square passes and aimless punts forward and, at worst, enforced errors and the cheap loss of possession in dangerous positions. Yes, our players looked a yard slower than Chelsea’s, but the key thing for me was our inability to cope with this tactic.
The solution to pressing is fast, accurate passing of the ball, using the full width of the pitch. No player can move as fast as the ball in transit and a successful counter-tactic should be passing and movement. That did not happen on Monday night, we just did not seem to be able to pass the ball well or early enough; and, admittedly, movement ahead of the player in possession was nowhere good enough to provide them with many options. It was correctly observed by some fans that we appeared to resort to an over dependence on the speculative long ball forward in this match; but arguably that was largely a product of the success of Chelsea’s pressing tactics and our lack of a more sophisticated response. Although Carroll leading the line was another contributing factor; as is the absence of our two best play-makers, Payet (for most of the match) and Lanzini. With Sakho’s movement and industry up front and Payet and Lanzini’s artistry on the ball we might have been able to counter it. As it was, we were way too far off the pace, sloppy in possession and erratic with our passing..
In considering this important aspect of the match, my mind wandered back to last season’s 4-1 away defeat to Tottenham Hotspurs. In that match, Spurs adopted a very similar approach and we also struggled badly with it. The pattern of play was very similar in both matches, namely, too many enforced errors, loose balls and loss of possession in dangerous positions; together with an inability to move the ball effectively. That led me to ask the question, do we might have an enduring problem with high, pressing tactics? And if we do, is it an Achilles heel that other opponents will exploit?
Well, possibly, one does wonder if opposition coaches will have seen Monday’s match and identified it has a way of playing West Ham. To avoid it, we need our players to demonstrate their technical skills to pass the ball quicker and more efficiently; in combination with greater movement and running off the ball to afford better options for the decisive forward pass. We need our better players available, particularly Payet, Lanzini, Ayew and Feghouli; plus a return to favour of Sakho and his intelligent and industrious link up play and tireless running of the channels. It is something of a cliché to say that we need to make the ball do the work, but nevertheless it is true. And if we play the right type of sharp, one touch, passing game, then the bigger pitch at the London Stadium should prove an asset that we can exploit. West Ham have traditionally always been associated with that ‘one touch’ style of football. And it remains the way forward for our club, especially so in the wide open spaces of our new Stadium.
On another note, the long-term injury to Andre Ayew means that there are still lingering concerns about our strike force. We have Carroll and, hopefully, Sakho will return to first team contention soon. We now also have Jonathan Calleri at the club and available for selection; we can only hope that he adjusts quickly to the PL and can make a positive early impact. Perhaps one of Fletcher or Martinez will be able to make an early transition to the first team, but can we rely on that without a back up plan? I feel that the best available ‘back up plan’ is to bid for Wilfred Bony and that deal can be funded by moving out Enner Valencia. Valencia is obviously not ‘cutting the mustard’ as a PL striker, so should we continue to keep faith or off-load him in this window? We might be able to negotiate a loan deal for Bony or, alternatively, there is a rumour that Man City will accept a fee in the region of £12-13m for their out of favour striker. Yes, Bony’s form has suffered at Man City (as seems to be the fate of many players that join them) but he does have an excellent prior goal scoring record at Swansea. Arguably he is exactly the type of 15-20 goal-a-season striker that we need and, most importantly, he is tried and tested in the PL. All we need to do is restore Bony’s self-confidence and give him the extended run of matches he needs to hit top goal scoring form.
Finally, our full-back situation is precarious and we really cannot afford for it to continue. Ideally we need both another right-back and left-back. I am not overly concerned about adding to our central defenders, but the full-back situation really does need to be addressed, even if it is via taking a couple of players on loan. Not to address the issue is taking a massive risk and with our current bad luck with injuries, do we really want to chance it?