The Blind Hammer Column

The Fear Factor

Blind hammer argues that we all need to manage expectations.

What are the common factors which unites our last game against Swansea with our notorious game against Hull in 2014? Well in both games there was a clear expectation that West Ham should win. In both games we were in the end considered to have and below par performance. In both games we ultimately won all 3 points. Arguably the 3 points gained against Hull was our luckiest ever. We went ahead after 30 minutes with a penalty which should have been disallowed for handball earlier. As a result the Hull keeper was sent off yet despite this double setback Hull dominated the game, equalised and West Ham only won through a flukey own goal scored on a rare foray.

Swansea also dominated possession and the game for long periods, only succumbing to a last gasp winner from Sakho. In both games our supporters condemned the team with a chorus of boos, famously against Hull even after full time when all 3 points were secured. This is the time that Allardyce finally fell out with many West Ham fans by sarcastically cupping his hand to his ear.

This was the time that Allardyce lost a lot of credit with me. This had nothing, however, to do with his cupping his ear antics. I was instead stunned when he widely announced, 24 hours before kick-off that this game was a “must win” game and that not winning would have disastrous consequences for the club. Prior to this game West ham had suffered 3 successive defeats. It was yet another season with which we were flirting with relegation.

For Allardyce, a competent science led sports technician in so, many other areas to get such basic sports psychology wrong was staggering to me. I groaned when I read Allardyce’s comments and predicted that we were going to suffer a fear laden performance, with players paralysed by the season defining consequences of a misplace pass or mistake. The script was laid out for a cautious effort with apprehensive players fearful of errors. Players sought the safe rather than the inventive, the wary side or back pass rather than more risky, daring and ultimately more successful move.

Allardyce got an entirely predictable performance after the cack handedness of his psychological preparation. If anybody was lucky in how events panned out
In our unlikely victory it was Allardyce.

So you can imagine my chagrin when I learnt that the club hierarchy had similarly designated the Swansea game as a “must win” with implied consequences for Bilic arising from any failure.

The paralysing impact of this was immediately obvious for all to see in the first half against Swansea. Rather than relying on play that was instinctive and decisive, we were instead laboured and predictable. It seems we find it difficult to learn the lessons of even recent history.

Bilic is not stupid. He will not need to be told of “must win” games. If he truly needs this pressure then it should be applied privately out of sight of both fans and team. If Bilic is really a manager who needs pressure poured on him to perform then perhaps we do have the wrong manager. I think it is more likely that Bilic, an intelligent man is perfectly aware of expectations. What we saw from Allardyce in the case of Hull, and the Board in the case of Swansea, was seemingly an attempt to distance themselves from the likely performance of a team not yet firing on all cylinders. . In other words get excuses in early, making statement that appears to absolve responsibility for any negative performance.

Personally I thought some of the weirder and wonderful predictions of our result before the Swansea game had, in any case, rather more to do with wishful thinking than any serous football analysis. This led to completely unrealistic expectations. Whatever their weaknesses may be up front, clement had organised Swansea into one of the most difficult defensive outfits in the league. They had nullified the Spurs attack at Wembley, forcing a 0-0 draw, a defensive feat which we had singularly failed to replicate, conceding 3 in our own game against the self-same Spurs line-up only 7 days earlier. I had no idea on what form book those forecasting a goal feast for West Ham were relying on.

The problem is that fear is one of the most crippling problems in football. For a period Roberto Martínez managed Wigan Athletic to an extent where they massively punched above their weight in the Premiership. Martínez himself ascribed this success to the fact that he consistently was able to motivate his Wigan team to play without fear, without the weight of expectation, and as a consequence they consistently exceeded hopes. Martínez was unable to consistently achieve the same result against the weight of expectations when he moved to Everton. Ronald Koeman identified a similar problem and described a recent below par performance in the Europa League as due to his players being “scared.”

This is why I have never personally booed either players or the team. This is not because I am not disappointed but because I believe it is massively counterproductive. By erecting a wall of hostility towards our team we are simply providing one more obstacle for them to overcome if they are to become ultimately successful.

Allardyce actually described this well in his analysis of booing in the 2014 Hull game. He explained’

“We don’t need them on players’ backs when we are coming off three defeats. They have to stay and help them win.”

He added:
“At half-time, the players were talking more about fans booing them than the game. I had to make sure they kept focused on the field.”

So booing made it harder for a team to perform in a way that pleased the crowd. It is odd that Allardyce could understand this but fail to grasp his own counterproductive psychological methodology.

The constant brinkmanship of Bilic’s future is probably causing lapse of judgement. In recent weeks both Antonio and Carroll have played despite obviously not being 100% fit. Bilic is probably motivated to play these key players, even whilst unfit, in response to the pressure he is under.

The West Ham Board must show decisiveness. They should either back Bilic or not place pressure on the team, or they should show resolution now and sack him. What is crippling for the team’s confidence and development is the drip drip of leaks about games being “must win” games, or the 4 games to save Bilic’s job scenario from alleged insider sources. This ultimatum must at least remain private.

We are playing in the most competitive league in the world. It is sheer nonsense to imagine that there are so called “easy games”. We should manage expectations accordingly. Our next opponents Burnley have delighted in shocking several “big clubs” who have underestimated them. However we have quality players who have all recently demonstrated their undoubted abilities in the recent internationals for their national sides. If we want the free flowing instinctive football we would all have joy in then we need to eliminate the fear of failure. We must dare to succeed.

COYI

David Griffith


The Blind Hammer Column

The Day I Met Clever Trevor

Blind Hammer remembers an unforgettable days.

Back in 2003 I was the Ophthalmology Manager at Whipps Cross Hospital. One of my duties was to Project Manage the opening of the eye Treatment Centre there. This was a major new department which in my days of managing it performed nearly 4,000 surgical procedures, mainly cataracts, and saw 52,000 people in Outpatients a year. I suspect it treats even more people now, but I left in 2007.

Because it was a major new department we wanted somebody suitably famous to formally open it. We invited local MPs, mayors and other dignitaries to attend but the man I really wanted to headline the event and do the honours were Trevor brooking.

I contacted his Office at the FA, and to my amazement I then received a message that he was willing to perform the ceremony. I instantly felt like a kid with butterflies in my stomach. Trevor brooking was a player I idolised from the terraces, alongside Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Billy Bonds. Alongside this famous trio he formed the emotional core of my support for West Ham.

I received a message from his office asking me to provide a detailed briefing of the proposed function of the new Eye Unit, with which I duly complied. I then buried myself in the myriad of other tasks which had to be completed before the Centre could open. Anybody who has been involved with this sort of thing knows that apart from the vast array of tasks involved in making sure a new Unit functions, there is also an enormous amount of choreographed planning to sketch out for the opening event itself.
The night before the opening I did not sleep well at all. Not only was I anxious about all the things which could go wrong, I also had a paralysing fear. Trevor brooking was part of my emotional core in supporting West Ham. He was an admired figure through which I could claim justified pride in my club. During the night I suddenly had a dread come over me. What if I did not, in real life, up close and personal, not like Trevor Brooking? There are loads of accounts of people meeting footballers and ex-footballers and finding the experience disappointing. If we think about it this is not that surprising. It takes an unusual toughness and resolve to make it in Professional football. It is not always the nice guys who succeed.

So I was genuinely terrified that I was going to meet one of my footballing idols and find that I did not admire him. I was preparing my rationale; you do not have to be a nice person to be a great footballer.

Cometh the hour and the great man arrive at our new unit. Within 5 minutes all my personal anxieties had disappeared. Trevor Brooking in real life is little different I found from the genial football expert who commentates in the media. What you see is what you get. What you also realise is his depth of passion for West Ham and his instant embracing of all those like myself who declared themselves as Hammers. As far as he was concerned we were all instantly part of the West Ham family.

What I did not expect was the keenness of the intelligence that Brooking showed. I don’t know in retrospect, why this should have surprised me so much. You don’t achieve success in the roles Trevor Brooking has succeeded in without being highly intelligent. Brooking revealed this sharpness and attention to detail as he met all the lead clinicians from the unit and conversed knowledgeably about their specialities. He had clearly done some research.

Then we came to the opening event itself. I made a short speech outlining the hopes for the new Unit and introducing the great man. I expected Trevor Brooking to make a few token words and simply pull the curtain to reveal the opening ceremonial wall plaque. What instead followed was a highly intelligent and informed talk during which I realised that Booking had not only read and understood all the briefing notes I sent him but also cleverly wove this information into a football context. For example he talked about Diabetic retinopathy as an issue that we were attempting to confront, and spoke about the importance of Football other active sports as a key preventative activity to help keep this condition at bay. This speech was delivered in normal speech without reference to notes so it was clearly a set of ideas he had taken on and assimilated. He certainly was a Clever Trevor.

Above all the warmth and commitment of the man shone through. He was scheduled to stay only for 2 hours in the morning but stayed well into the afternoon. He made sure to meet those other West Ham supporters from elsewhere in the Hospital who could not attend our opening event. To coin a phrase he was terrific and the day was a great success.

At the end of the day I was exhausted and whilst part of me could barely move, another part felt I could walk on air. My childhood hero had come through for me, rather than being disappointed I had my belief and faith reinforced even further. We are Hammer for life no matter what. However this is a man we should all be especially proud of.

COYI

David Griffith

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The Blind Hammer Column

Dodging the Bullets

Despite fresh criticism after Tottenham Blind Hammer looks at where Bilic is getting some things right.

Walking away from the London Stadium on Saturday I felt very flat. I was still a bit dejected on Sunday. Losing to Tottenham definitely hurts. However I noticed that we were not the only supporters disappointed last weekend. Despite Aston Villa overcoming, an out of form Nottingham Forest, this has not stopped widespread criticism from Villains of Snodgrass’s performance.

Snodgrass had quite a lot to say about the alleged failings of West Ham and Bilic when he arrived at Villa. Yet he has taken the poor form that he demonstrated for both us and Scotland to Villa. He is reported as having little impact throughout the game. He was described as lacking fitness, whilst repeatedly surrendering possession. He was variously described as “poor”, “out of form”, “shocking”. And as “not at the races”. His departure from West Ham appears not a day too soon.

This made me reflect on the importance of our succeeding in making key transfers out over the summer and equally importantly not bringing dead wood in.

Many of us were disappointed to see Fletcher go. Yet Fletcher, like Snodgrass, has not set the world alight at Middlesbrough. He also has received negative comments from fans that are comparing him unfavourably to Patrick Bamforth. He has been denounced as “anonymous” and “simply not good enough”. He has at least scored one goal but this is his sole return in 8 appearances for Middlesbrough. I personally hope that Fletcher recovers from this poor start and makes it. However Bilic’s judgement that he was not ready to make the step up into the Premier League appears completely correct.

In fact Bilic seems more and more vindicated as the season progresses. Famously David Sullivan in his “throwing Bilic under the bus” statement defensively pointed out that Renato Sanchez had been offered as a loan option to Bilic which the manager had refused.

In the end Sanchez with his enormous £60 million price tag was sent on loan from Bayern Munich to Swansea. Despite his alleged huge potential, Sanchez has been underwhelming. Occasionally he demonstrates his renowned strength on the ball but his end product has disappointed. On debut commentators were unanimous that he had made no impact. The most striking aspect of his play was unforced errors and repeated loss of possession. Since then his mistakes and erratic passing has plagued him, especially in their games against Newcastle and Tottenham. One theory is that he is a young man, trying too hard to justify the transfer hype which accompanies him. Yet the Premiership, as he is finding, is a tough arena to learn your game and strengths in.

It seems unlikely that Sanchez would have fared any better for us, certainly it is difficult to see how he could have helped us in our own defeats at the hands of Newcastle and Tottenham. So despite the pressure endured by Bilic through his refusal to take Sanchez he now appears completely justified.

Bilic was placed under similar pressure over his refusal to sign Kelechi Iheanacho, despite the Board having apparently agreed terms. Yet Iheanacho appears to have also sunk without trace at Leicester, He has so far managed only 3 appearances and has yet to register a single goal for the Foxes. It is difficult to tell definitively how Iheanacho is playing as there is literally nothing I can find which praises or even condemns his performances. He seems anonymous so far. All I could find was a brief statement from Craig Shakespeare that he will “come good in the end”. What is undeniable is that Iheanacho is not winning matches, creating headlines or “pulling up trees”. So far, Bilic’s decision to instead plump for Chico, seems vindicated. Chico, despite our losing start has already grabbed 3 goals for the Irons.

So to be fair, I have been vocal in criticising Bilic for not recruiting central defensive cover, and reacting slowly to the defensive crisis we suffered in early games. There has also been a thinly disguised complaint from the Board that Bilic has frustrated their transfer ambitions.

However we should now give credit where credit is due. I cannot think of a single player we have released over the summer that we would now regret leaving. Bilic correctly steered the pruning of the squad. So far he also appears vindicated in rejecting the alternative Board transfer offers. If Sanchez starts to become worthy of his hype in the game against us, or Iheanacho starts to score a hatful for Leicester then we make have to reassess. At this time, Bilic’s ability to make the right call is supported by performances elsewhere.
COYI

David Griffith


The Blind Hammer Column

Bilic–Round Pegs In Square Holes?

Blind Hammer asks if Bilic really has a flaw in playing Players out of Position?

The encouraging performance against Bolton gives further evidence that our season is recovering after a horrible start. Nevertheless criticisms persist that we are wasting Hernandez’s talents, marooning him out wide on the left. Bilic has been slated for allegedly misusing Hernandez in much the same way as he previously experimented with Antonio at Right Back.

There is little evidence that Chico is enjoying his current role yet playing players out of position is not necessarily a managerial flaw. In some cases it may actually represent managerial genius. Moses at Chelsea and Valencia at Manchester United have both thrived when converted to Wing Backs. We can forgive Bilic for attempting the same with Antonio but perhaps not for how long he continued with the experiment.

We also have an honourable and illustrious tradition, as a club, at effectively switching players from one position to another. Ron greenwood was particularly adept at recognising where players could thrive in alternative roles. Geoff Hurst did not start out as a Centre forward; it took the vision of Greenwood to transform him from what would now be described as a defensive midfield player into a World Cup hat trick hero. Similarly Trevor Brooking started his West Ham career as a striker alongside Geoff Hurst. I remember Shoot Magazine celebrating how brooking had “taken the pressure off” Hurst. It was the astuteness of Greenwood and lyall which transformed an ordinary striker into a world class midfield player. The history of West Ham is sparkled with examples of player’s successfully switching position. Billy Bonds was a legend whether he played at right back, central defence or midfield.

So playing players out of position is not necessarily wrong. Football is not like a game of Tetris where pieces simply have to be in the right places for success. It comes down to judgement. Playing Moses at Right Wing Back was good judgement, playing Antonio there was not.

So the real question is one of assessing Bilic’s judgement. Most importantly this judgement has to extend beyond any particular game to strategic recruitment and squad design. It is here that we can find the reason for Hernandez’s seemingly strange role.

Some transfers have been peculiar. Players have been, on the face of it, recruited to play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Snodgrass was bemused that Bilic did not understand where he preferred playing after signing. His record of success came largely from a role on the right. Yet playing on the right was a berth from which he was unlikely to depose Antonio. The transfer was muddled, Snodgrass should not have been signed as a Payet replacement given he had no record of success in the Payet role.

Similarly Zaza had no successful track record as a solitary striker, preferring the second striker role. Yet it was this lone striker role, to his advisors apparent perplexity, that West Ham expected Zaza to thrive in.

Now Hernandez, famed for his operations in the penalty area, is tactically playing wide.

So what should perhaps be criticised is not the playing of people out of position but the apparently confused recruitment policy. Developing talents in your clubs by testing them in different roles is one thing, to significantly invest in players and then play them in roles in which they have no record of success seems strange.

To be fair Bilic has denied deploying Hernandez as a winger and has instead described him as developing a partnership with Carroll. He has also admitted it is not an ideal situation. This is probably true but at the start of the season it was Hernandez who had the central striker berth around which the team was to be built. The horrible start to the season caused a late SOS call to Carroll to instead fulfil this role.

What is really driving the playing of Hernandez wide left is the early crisis in defending which beset our team. Bilic admitted he was thinking about the sack before the Huddersfield game and probably realised that even the West Ham Board would part company with him unless he managed to repair what was then the worst defensive record in the league.

The sticking plaster, given our defensive fragilities, is to play 3 at the back. Whilst this has addressed the crisis in defensive performance, it has left us depleted of creative midfield resources. Bilic has little choice but to adjust for this by relying on the direct approach deploying the skills of both Antonio and Carroll. Hernandez is the sacrificial lamb who has to try and fit into this system. This is probably not what he anticipated. Other teams will be designed around his skills, here he is trying to adapt to the skills of Andy Carroll.

Despite the encouragement of the Bolton game I believe Bilic has little choice but to pursue this course for the time being at least. It would be the height of folly to abandon 3 at the back against Spurs based on the challenge Bolton presented. He is paying the price for not addressing the weakness in central defensive cover over the summer. Collins injury has exposed this particular foolishness even more now.

The real weakness at West Ham is not so much the playing of players out of position but confused transfer recruitment over the last 18 months. We need to more accurately identify the players to play in the system we need. Three at the back as an option was completely disregarded over the summer despite the fact it was a critical element in our eventual survival.

What is clear that the number one priority for the team was to stop the disastrous shipping of goals and build a team strategy that all could draw confidence from. In the short term it is unavoidable that Hernandez has to either fit in with this defensive solidity or feature from the bench. We do not currently have the squad talents to fight fire with fire and play “gung ho” attacking formations. A heavy defeat to Spurs could jeopardise the green shoots of recovery we are now witnessing.

COYI

David Griffith

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The Blind Hammer Column

Three’s A Crowd

Blind Hammer Celebrates Bilic’s return to 3 at the back. And argues that Arnautovic has to wait.

There is a school of thought that our victory against Huddersfield was due to luck. I couldn’t disagree more. When I arrived at the LS on Monday night and heard the team announcement, a weird calm serenity swept over me. All my nervousness and anxiety about the match dissipated. Possibly this had to do with the strong pain killers I had taken for my hip but I think it was much more to do with relief. At last Bilic had returned to a tried and secure defensive formation.

In the days before the match I was shouting in frustration at my keyboard as I heard website after website, pundit after pundit, all recommending variations of a flat back four. It made me want to tear my hair out. I could not understand why people seem blind to an obvious reality. With 4 at the back we are a defensive nightmare, shipping all sorts of goals from all sorts of positions. With 3 at the back our record is not at all shabby.

Three at the back was tried and failed in away games against Chelsea and Manchester City last Season but at least the margin of defeat was not humiliating. In recent months we had much more success. We defeated an in form Spurs 1-0. We shut out and similarly in form Everton, including and on fire Lukaku in a creditable 0-0, a result crucial at the time to allay fears of relegation. Now again with three at the back, we achieved a crucial 2-0 win against Huddersfield. In other words by using three at the back in recent games at the LS, we have achieved 3 clean sheets in 4 games.

The exception was of course the heavy defeat to Liverpool but even here we only experienced our eventual predictable thumping when, after falling behind, we switched to a flat back 4 in a failed effort to chase the game.

The game against Huddersfield was interesting for a number of reasons. First of all the idea that Zabaleta could not play alongside 3 at the back was actively, for the time being at least, disproved. The second was the realisation that just as in the games against Tottenham and Everton, Fonte immediately transformed from an apparent slow and aged “has been” into a quality Premiership performer.

Time after time I heard Fonte Collins and Reid all covering each other. If Reid slipped or was beaten, Collins was there to cover and vice versa. Fonte was able to operate smoothly with Zabaleta whilst Cresswell showed that he could operate at the standard he previously showed at the Boleyn. Post match both Zabaleta and Collins publically supported the three at the back system. Collins in particular seemd extremely relieved that we had returned to what had worked at the end of last season.

The result was that the familiar dramatic chaos around our goal virtually disappeared. Huddersfield mounted no serious threat throughout the entire first half. They were literally crowded out.

If anybody denigrates the challenge of |Huddersfield we should remember that this team had, until their visit to the LS, conceded no goals and were sitting in a very respectable table position.

With the attacking threat of Huddersfield nullified it was a question of matching our offensive quality against their proven defensive solidity. Huddersfield actually had a majority possession statistics for the match but it did not feel like that, especially in the first half where West Ham was from a secure defensive base, was able to completely dominate the game.

In the second half Huddersfield managed to enter the game more, a fact I largely attributed to lack of peak match fitness for several of our crucial players. I still felt confident though. Unlike all of our previous games our defensive solidity meant that we were not chasing the game, not behind and having to take increasingly desperate risks to get back on terms.

Even then, though, I would not have predicted Obiang and Ayew in particular as our match winners. Ayew’s performance has come under recent scrutiny with suggestions he has “fatigue”. However if he can continue to make a similar impact from the bench I will be happy. Above all though his impact proved what can happen when a team start from a sound defensive platform.

Moving forward Bilic will soon have some attacking options. Arnautovic will be available for the West Brom game, and Lanzini will hopefully return to fitness. Yet the biggest threat to the progress finally made on Monday night is their availability. If Bilic is tempted to revert to his disastrous defensive setup to accommodate Arnautovic then he would have proved he has learnt nothing. Others are also reluctant to learn. Even after the game on Monday I saw a post on Claret and Hugh calling for a return to a back 4 against West Brom.

We must resist the disruption to a stable defence. To my mind Arnautovic would do well to ponder the consequences of his stupidity against Southampton from the comfort of the bench.

It is clear that 3 at the back will not allow all of Carroll, Chico, Lanzini, Antonio, Arnautovic and even Sakho to play if we want to retain at least a modicum of midfield cover.

I want Bilic to succeed so that he can retain his job. For me this requires that he understands that, for the time being, Collins organising a back 3 is more important than the talents of Arnautovic or Lanzini. My hope is that eventually Lanzini will become the complete centre midfield playmaker able to dominate games, but in the meantime we may need Obiang more.

The attacking riches are there for Bilic to refresh and deploy from the bench. I only hope that Collins avoids his habitual hamstring injury. Rice may soon have to learn very rapidly on the job.

COYI

David Griffith


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