The Blind Hammer Column

Options Against Fulham

*Blind Hammer reviews team options for the visit to Fulham *

Last week we achieved, in just one week, nearly a quarter of the points needed to guarantee our Premiership survival. The result is that we should have a squad which confronts the rest of the season without fear, certainly for the squad and hopefully for the fans in the London Stadium. For once positivity reigns.

The most impressive aspect of this achievement is that it has been realised against a staggering list of injury setback. On top of long term injuries to previously automatic first team picks, Lanzini and Reid, Pellegrini has seen his summer investment plan decimated. Sanchez is out for the season, as are possibly Yarmolenko and Fredericks. Wilshere, sadly, predictably has also barely figured. Perez participation is in doubt after picking up an injury against Palace. On top of this Arnautovic is not expected to return until January.

Without tempting fate, Balbuena and Diop have proved more robust recruits in defence and will again feature automatically. Ogbonna will continue an important squad role but not for this game.

Pellegrini declared that Zabeleta would need resting during December. Yet with a 7 days breather since his last outing he should be fine.

. Pellegrini famously hooked Masuaku at half time against Manchester City. Despite this Pellegrini has shown surprising faith. Masuaku was retained for Palace despite Creswell’s availability. To be fair Masuaku did little wrong. Despite this Cresswell offers more defensive solidity. Fulham have little confidence at the moment but this could change in a flash if West Ham gift them an early goal.

Defence is still a concern. Palace managed to score twice despite only rarely threatening. Whilst Cresswell has his share of defensive howlers he offers more solidity. His return may be important for our success on Saturday.

In midfield Rice is another who Pellegrini has signposted for a rest. Yet Rice’s ability to provide not only calm distribution but also to recover possession is an important part of our current composure.

Obiang is waiting in the wings to step in. However Rice’s rest, and Obiang’s chance is more likely to come in the Cup against Birmingham.

Up front, Perez’s likely absence will probably provide Antonio the opportunity to again show his versatility. I suspect that combination play with Hernandez will have featured prominently in training this week.

Carroll’s return provides a welcome bolstering to the squad. Still he seems unlikely to start despite his pivotal role in our success against Palace. One Palace commentator considered Carroll’s mere presence allowed West Ham to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Haunted by his previous success against them, Palace’s defenders were preoccupied. This allowed Snodgrass and Hernandez the space to turn the game on its head.

Despite this critical influence, Carroll showed he is still some way from peak fitness. His rehabilitation into the squad, for the foreseeable future, lies with his providing options and impact from the bench.

Fulham will be scrapping and fighting every inch. Notwithstanding, if we can avoid gifting goals there is no reason why even our depleted squad should have enough to secure a result.

COYI
David Griffith


The Blind Hammer Column

West Ham 3 Cardiff 1-Pellegrini Calling The Shots

Blind Hammer reflects on a vital win against Cardiff.

Football can be a game of fine margins. West Ham’s stop/start performance in the first half could easily have seen us fall behind and this could have been a much more difficult night.

Yet before Ward feebly addressed his penalty attempt I was strangely confident that Fabianski would deal with it. In the end he gathered it fairly comfortably. It was telling that at half time that the obvious candidate for man of the match was our goalkeeper who in addition to dealing with the penalty made some fine saves, including a crucial twisting adjustment to cope with a deflected Cardiff effort.

Many were underwhelmed by Fabianski’s recruitment in the summer, arguing he was little better than what we already had. Pellegrini’s judgement and faith has been richly vindicated.

Pellegrini’s judgement has come under some scrutiny in recent games, especially in the home defeat to Manchester City. His surprise decision to start with Masuaku backfired badly then, resulting in his hooking at half time. Even more questionable was his decision to persist with Arnautovic throughout a second half when the cause was clearly hopeless. More pragmatic Managers would have protected Arnautovic from his eventual injury.

Possibly because of this injury Arnautovic has looked diminished in both the Newcastle game and here tonight against Cardiff.

Apart from injury problems there does seem to have been a change in Arnautovic’s body language. He seems rather more petulant and his clumsy concession of a penalty against Cardiff tonight was odd. It is possible that his Brother’s attempt to engineer a “big money” move has just taken the edge off his commitment. Ironically he has in the event become more rather than less injury prone as evidenced by His pulling up with a probable hamstring strain tonight.

As soon as Carroll was judged fit, a couple of weeks ago there was an expectation of a rapid return into the team. Yet Pellegrini has made it clear both against Newcastle and here tonight that both Hernandez and Perez are ahead of in the pecking order.

This judgement was vindicated against Newcastle where Hernandez fired crucial goals. Tonight he was far less effective.

Tonight was Perez’s turn. At half time I wondered aloud what Perez offers the team. In the first 9 minutes of the second half he replied with an emphatic statement of2 goals.

Pellegrini’s faith in both Hernandez and Perez in preference to a returning Carroll was justified, though Carroll’s entry into the fun against a by now demoralised Cardiff late on provided him with a useful workout.

Antonio’s performance at right back was solid enough for me, despite Cardiff’s obvious attempt to target him. Cardiff’s lack of threat for large parts of the game allowed him to launch some telling rungs. His performance was rightly rewarded with a goal though tougher challenges will await him at right back.

Masuaku, in contract, remains a concern. He had a crucial role in our second goal but that is never the issue with him. He is often excellent going forward and can be a handful for many defences. The problem is that he is a disaster waiting to happen in defence. I think there may be a real case for retaining Antonio against Palace but return Zabeleta and ask him to fill in at left back. I shudder at what Townsend and Zahra may accomplish against Masuaku.

Finally a word for our returning Captain Noble. I loved the way he commanded possession, especially in the lead up to our second goal. Noble never uses possession for its own sake and can be as incisive with his passing as anybody.

So Pellegrini is calling the shots and getting more judgements correct than wrong at the moment. He has engineered the first back to back wins for 2 years despite a spiralling and increasing injury list. Wilsher’s return to the list of crocks with a recurring ankle problem after only 5 minutes against Newcastle is a depressing reminder of his glass like fragility.

Yet despite the stretching of our squad with so many injuries a spirit of resourcefulness is emerging at West Ham. Few in the summer would have predicted that we could be looking with some positivity to the challenge of Palace, despite the absence of Fredericks, Arnautovic, Wilshere and Yarmolenko. Pellegrini’s ability to coax out performances from the like of Robert Snodgrass and Grady Diangana, who also gained some useful minutes, is as important as his recruitment of the big name stars.

COYI
David Griffith


The Blind Hammer Column

Carroll - A New Life Under VAR?

*Blind Hammer looks at a new twist in the long running Carroll saga *

Last Saturday’s wearyingly predictable defeat at the hands of Manchester city was, in the end, somewhat more interesting for what it showed about Pellegrini’s thinking about his squad.

Like most, before the game, I commented that Cresswell must be training an absolute stinker to enable Masuaku to force his way in. The relative defensive calmness Cresswell offered in the second half made the decision to start Masuaku even odder. All Managers appear to have blind spots, remember Billic persistence with Antonio at right back? Yet Pellegrini’s hooking at half time seems to indicate his myopia will not persist.

The other striking decision was Noble’s exclusion in favour of Obiang, Confirming the suspicion that Pellegrini sees our Club Captain as a squad rather than a starting option.

However, arguably, of most interest was Pellegrini’s decision to deploy both Hernandez and Perez from a bench top heavy with strikers, in preference to the rowdier talents of Carroll.

There was a time that Carroll’s return from injury would presage an automatic stroll into the forward line with an immediate adjustment in style to suit his talents.

No more, Carroll’s previous squad authority was conspicuously absent. This was despite the fact that, once 3-0 in arrears there seemed little point in risking the talents of Arnautovi?. He should have been preserved for the upcoming challenges of Newcastle, Cardiff and Palace. Pellegrini’s lack of pragmatism in protecting Arnautovi? from injury, despite a hopeless match position, does give me some concern.

Arnautovi? consequent, unnecessary, struggle to recover fitness has sparked speculation that Carroll may feature against his erstwhile teammates at Newcastle. Pellegrini’s preference for both Hernandez and Perez against City belies this. Currently both seem ahead of Carroll in the pecking order. A bench position seems the most Carroll can hope for.

Carroll’s reported £85,000 wages has prompted some to claim that he should therefore be release in January at whatever price.

Yet despite all the previous disappointments Carroll may, with the advent of VAR, just become an Ace in the hole in the second half of this season and potentially as VAR expands, in the seasons ahead.

We saw, last summer, how in the World cup, England deployed the advantages of VAR to become lethally effective from set pieces. Ironically it was future Hammer Carlos Sanchez who was suckered into grappling with Harry Kane and conceded a crucial penalty.

As VAR enters the game it will transform the potential for creating havoc from set pieces. Whilst VAR will provide some peril for Strikers, especially those who dive, in all other respects it will heap more pressure on defenders. The option to grapple opponents will become not just less effective but also self defeating. The ability of defenders such as Leicester’s Morgan and Huth to rely upon the strengths of their arms in holding attackers will diminish.

VAR will radically transform the relative risks of holding in the penalty area. Forwards who hold a defender will at worse concede a free kick and possibly a yellow card for persistent offending. A defender, in contrast, risks a penalty every time they grapple with forwards. Referee’s past tendency to give defenders the benefit of the doubt will come under increased pressure.

Carroll’s extraordinary physical characteristics may just then become one of West Ham’s most potent weapons in the upcoming age of VAR. There is no doubt that, physically, he is one of the most difficult forwards to deal with. Certainly in a VAR age I would far rather have Carroll as an option for us rather than see him deployed against us.

The first opportunity to test this hypothesis will come in the New Year and the FA Cup. VAR will continue its trial at Premiership Grounds. Carroll’s £85,000 a week wages translates into just over £4 million a year. This is relative small potatoes in today’s transfer market valuations. VAR may just provide the opportunity to revive Carroll’s flagging career and finally provide some value for money.

COYI
David Griffith


The Blind Hammer Column

Why Capacity Matters.

Blind Hammer looks at why this week’s agreement is a significant victory for West Ham

The agreement that West Ham can now apply to increase seating to 60,000, and further can now plan investment to increase this to 66,000 will unlock a key part of the new Stadium Project.

There are of course pessimists who dismiss West Ham’s ability to sell these seats. Pessimists predicted, before the Stadium move, that we would not sell the required Season Tickets. Many, as recently as last year, claimed that we would not even sell out this season.

However these pessimists have consistently been proved wrong. West Ham already has the largest number of season ticket holders in London. This figure will now rise.

I am convinced that we will fill not just 60,000 but the 66,000. What is certain is that games against Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool Manchester United and City will continue to sell out even at 66,000.

West Ham are rightly confident because of the demand for Premier League Season Tickets and the relative competitiveness of the prices they can offer. This is the massive advantage that the London Stadium and the lack of a requirement to repay Capital costs provide. MY own season ticket offers extraordinary value at £299, a concessionary price for a Blind Supporter.

There are 2 unforeseen consequences of this policy. The first is that West Ham have attracted adverse comment because not all seats sold are always filled. I think that club insiders have admitted that there is an issue with the 10,000 £99 Season Tickets sold to children. Not all of these seats are filled for every game, especially midweek fixtures. Despite this I personally support this investment in building a new generation of supporters. They are West Ham’s future. However expanding the Children’s scheme still further should not be a priority now.

I understand that the club is also taking steps to monitor those enjoying these reduced prices, but who do not attend. People who regularly miss games because they have a cheap ticket in effect devalue their rights. It is an enormous privilege to attend Premier League fixtures on these terms. People who regularly miss fixtures should expect to have their continued right to a ticket queried.

Secondly, the doubling of the Season Ticket Holder Customer base attracted some who were not necessarily lifelong supporters. I have personal knowledge of a Disabled Season Ticket Holder who supported Liverpool. He was attracted to purchase a Season Ticket because of the excellence of the Disabled Access and the ability to watch Premier League teams at an affordable price.

Yet an interesting thing is happening to this supporter. Despite his previous allegiances he is now turning up wearing a West Ham shirt and scarf. He is no longer a “neutral”. He is now celebrating goals and suffering disappointment alongside lifelong supporters like me.

This is part of the natural evolving and building of a new supporter base. People who start to attend games may not initially present an encyclopaedic knowledge of the clubs history and traditions. This will come over time. My father was a West Ham supporter when they played at the Memorial Ground, and was a supporter when they first moved to Upton Park. At both these ground traditions and history had to be built. The same will happen at the London Stadium.

The London Stadium now offers thousands more the opportunity to watch West Ham. These extra thousands, especially the younger new supporters, will evolve their passions and history in the same way as supporters have always done.

The great attraction for West Ham is that the infrastructure is largely there. Extra toilets and services will be required, but seating areas are already existent in the ground. Filling these will improve atmosphere still further.

Finally capacity really does matter. . Manchester United organised 75,000 seats at Old Trafford. Tottenham were determined that their new 62,000 ground was bigger than Arsenal’s 60,000 Emirates Stadium. Chelsea are fretting because they are trapped on 42,000. . Newcastle with 52,000, Liverpool with 54,000, and Manchester city with 55,000 all invest in Stadium Capacity because it matters. A recent analysis attributed Everton’s long standing competitive disadvantage to Liverpool as directly attributable to the inequality in capacity between Goodison and Anfield. Liverpool’s entertainment of 14,000 more supporters creates a massive commercial advantage over not just one season, but decades of seasons. Over time hundreds of thousands more supporters will watch Liverpool as opposed to Everton. Engagement and passions of supporters will always build greater in a Stadium as opposed to the more passive TV experience. That is why Everton are so determined to build a new ground.

Brady’s bravura performance at the London Assembly, allied to the disaster awaiting any continuation of E20 ill-fated legal obstructionism, has finally forced an abandonment of previous petulance. Both LLDC and E20 will apparently now seek a positive commercial partnership with West Ham. The scandal of their failure to attract a naming rights sponsor for the Stadium should now be resolved. There is no doubt that a stadium with a capacity of 66,000 should have a far greater opportunity to sell these rights.

COYI
David Griffith


The Blind Hammer Column

Can VAR Help West Ham?

Blind Hammer looks at the evidence for VAR aiding West Ham.

This season José Mourinho has trotted out a number of excuses. His explanation for the inept performance against us was the lack of VAR. He insisted that it would have disallowed 2 of West Ham’s goals.

It is fascinating that Mourinho should favour VAR. It is especially interesting given the benefit that Manchester United have received from referees over the years. You might expect that Man United, more than most, would lose out under VAR.

We should remember the 2016 FA cup quarter final at Old Trafford. Then our Payet inspired team were denied by 2 crucial refereeing mistakes. Firstly Payet was denied a clear penalty when Rojo slid in from behind and was nowhere near the ball. The second error was arguably even worse. Bastian Schweinsteiger held goalkeeper Darren Randolph immobile and prevented him responding to Martial’s late equaliser.

There is a wide perception that Referees favour bigger teams with key decisions. Some try to deny this. They argue for example that Manchester United and other “bigger” clubs receive more free kicks and penalty awards as a natural consequence of spending more time in and around opponent’s penalty areas. It is their reward for pressure and attacking play.

Recently Mark Halsey angrily denied on TalkSport that Referees are biased towards the big team. He insisted Referees entered games with no agendas and tried to adjudicate as objectively as possible.

Yet Halsey completely misses the point. Nobody seriously suggests Referees are consciously biased. However there is increasing evidence that they are unconsciously persuaded. There is academic evidence, for example, that Referees decisions are affected by the pressure of home crowds.

Graham Poll admitted as much in a recent interview for the Daily Mail. He described his belief, whilst refereeing, that there was no favour shown towards big team. Now however, he is retired he can see that bigger teams benefit. However he insists this is an unconscious process that Referees are not aware of.

The point is that there is, now, enormous scrutiny on referees. Any contentious decision given against a high profile team will expose a referee to a tremendous examination. This inquest will be led by pundits across the media. Videos will be inspected microscopically to identify the slightest error.

This scrutiny places a pressure to err on the side of caution when making a key decision against a “big" team. In contrast, the consequence of making a contentious decision against a lower profile team is far less.

All this is supported by 2013 Leicester University research which tested referees by asking them to adjudicate on key decisions by watching videos. In one sample they asked Referees to make decisions with sound muted. They then played these incidents with the full crowd noise associated with the incident. Not surprisingly the research showed a clear influence from crowd noise which influenced referees to adjudicate more in favour of the home team.

All this proves is that Referees are human and can be influenced by pressure as much as anybody else.

The safety net of VAR may just give Referees the confidence to make decisions they may otherwise feel too intimidated to make. Manchester United, alongside other big clubs may become the biggest losers under VAR.

On the face of it, the impact of VAR on West Ham, as opposed to the bigger clubs, is not so clear. There is little reason to expect that, in the general round of matches, West Ham will benefit more or less. The often quoted cliché is that “over a season these things will even out”.

Yet this indifference ignores a deeper consequence of VAR. If West Ham are to ever win another Trophy they will almost certainly have to overcome a bigger team like Liverpool, or Manchester United or City.

This task is difficult enough without a referee unconsciously pressurised to make mistakes which favour the bigger teams. In 2016 Martin Atkinson allowed this pressure to force him into key mistakes which prevented West Ham progressing to a Semi Finals.

Although we will suffer as well as benefit from VAR in the years ahead, it is precisely against the bigger teams, in these key matches, that VAR may just help to even things up.

COYI
David Griffith


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