The Blind Hammer Column

Possession is nine-tenths of the ….?

Blind Hammer looks at West Ham’s Evolving Style.

There is no doubt that Pellegrini has a vision for West Ham. This evolving vision is only in its infancy.

Yet there is early evidence that he is adapting West Ham to compete with a functioning style. Against Chelsea he freely admitted that West Ham had to adopt what he described as a “practical” mode. The result was that Hazard, arguably the best player in the world at the moment was largely nullified. This was in sharp contrast to his subsequent impact in 2 games against Liverpool. Here he scored spectacular goals. It annoyed me that commentators described Hazard’s performance against West Ham as evidence of his inconsistency. This view gave no credit to West Ham and rendered their management of him invisible.

Slightly more credit was attributed to Rice and Noble for their neutralisation of Mattic and Pogba. Even here more column inches were focussed on Pogba et al’s failings rather than West Ham cancelling of multiple world class midfielders in the space of 6 days.

There is a legal phrase to guide disputes over ownership. Possession is nine tenths of the law. Possession can also shape the destiny of football games. The comparative possession statistics against Chelsea and Man United were revealing. . Against Chelsea West Ham achieved only 28.2% possession. This reflected typical previous possession statistics against top six sides.

This is not that surprising. Not just Hazard but Chelsea’s World Cup winning French midfielder N’Golo Kanté are current shoe in for midfield berths in a Fantasy World 11. Winning with such possession performance is possible but unlikely.

Pellegrini argues that this practical approach of lesser possession is not his preferred style. He commented that it is not enough to defend deeply against the top six . He argued that we must, if possible, take these teams on to win.

This approach was vindicated against Manchester United. A squad, increasing in confidence saw their possession leap from 28% to 49%. . West Ham fought toe to toe, high up the pitch.

Possession is not in itself the Holy Grail. West Ham “enjoyed” 52% possession against Wolves but lost in one of our more disjointed performances.

Nevertheless possession, by itself, does count for something. Our respectable 44.1 % possession against Everton set the backdrop for a potentially season defining win.

It is often remarked that it is more draining to chase and cover without the ball than to play with it. Late goals against teams starved of possession are common.

Indubitably, retaining possession prevents teams scoring against us. If we have the ball they cannot score. Brendan Rogers in his successful spell as Swansea manager drilled this philosophy into his squad. The successful adoption of this strategy meant that Swansea were not only easy on the eye but punched way above their weight .

So Pellegrini is slowly revealing his philosophy. Where necessary he will adopt the “practical” approach but as a preference he wants a team which competes high up the pitch and fights for possession.

If this is to be the style of the future then bring it on.
David Griffith

The Blind Hammer Column

Reflections on Macclesfield

Blind Hammer looks at Prospects after a spectacular night

What a result. I love the way the BBC described the score as 8 (eight) -0 with brackets. I hope nobody downplays this performance. Despite Macclesfield’s lowly position, similar modest opponents have provided big challenges to West Ham in the past. For most Macclesfield players this would have been the biggest stage they have ever played on. The consequent effort they expended would have reflected this. Harry Redknapp always feared the enormous effort lower league teams would exert in these kinds of ties.

Before the game I was actually worried about where the goals would come from. I certainly did not predict that Snodgrass and Diangana would provide 4 of them.

Diangana is a player about whom I knew absolutely nothing. Like most West Ham supporters we were looking more to the talents of Nathan Holland as the next cab offthe Academy rank. Injury provided the opportunity for Diangana and he has taken his opportunity brilliantly.

Of course we must keep perspective but just sometimes players flourish more with better players around them. Older supporters will remember how Alan Taylor was plucked from Rochdale to provide the goals to fire West Ham to a famous cup win in 1975.

What is clear is that the competition is opening up. There is still some big beast left in the competition. Manchester City cruised past Oxford and Arsenal eventually dealt with Brentford. However Derby accounted for Manchester United and Liverpool fell to the talents of Hazard and Chelsea. Oddly we have to wait until Saturday night for the 4th round draw.

Yet whatever our opponents the no extra time and straight to penalties format means that any PL team has a better chance of competing with any other PL team. We showed only a few days ago that even at this stage of the season we are able to compete with and hold Chelsea for 90 minutes. Further even if we are drawn against one of the bigger beasts there is a probability that they will be distracted by the demands of European football.

For the first time in a while we can look forward to the bigger challenges in the Cup in the week ahead. The team on Saturday will have only a passing resemblance to this team but Squad morale is contagious and we are definitely better for this result. Enjoy the feeling and lets be positive.
David Griffith

The Blind Hammer Column

Whither Wilshere-Dyer or Parker?

*Blind Hammer suggests the example of Scott Parker should provide comfort for Wilshere *

On Sunday we saw, much too all our relief, the first tangible returns from a record breaking summer investment. What was not anticipated then was that the “gelling” of an effective midfield would be facilitated by the forced removal of Jack Wilshere.

Our early matches were tough. Liverpool and Arsenal are rarely happy hunting grounds. The good form of both Bournemouth and Wolves have placed our reversals against them in some context.

Nevertheless this should not blind us to our early structural weaknesses. We were terrifyingly open, conceding more efforts on goal than any team but Burnley. We forced Fabianski to make more saves than any other PL goalkeeper.

Finally the combination of Rice, Noble and Obiang appears to have provided the solidity and protection our overstretched defence craved. Noble received wide praise for the way he organised this midfield. He spread play but crucially organised, allowing both Rice and Obiang to flourish. Rice added defensive solidity whilst Obiang reminded us that he can provide lovely interchanges on his day. Above all this unit provided the platform for our offensive trio to flourish with security.

Yet if Wilshere had not succumbed to yet another ankle injury it is unlikely that this midfield would have clicked. Wilshere’s position as one of the club’s highest wage earners indicated he was central to Pellegrini’s plans. Noble in particular seemed under pressure for his place.
Pellegrini hinted as much in pre-season. He commented that whilst Noble remained club captain and was an important squad member he would not necessarily feature regularly.

In early lack lustre performances Noble and Wilshere seemed unable to effectively partner. Yet
Few believed that the removal of Wilshere was the key.

For the next 6 weeks Wilshere’s problematic ankle will provide an opportunity for Noble to, yet again, defy his critics and cement his place. Assuming we overcome Macclesfield, (probably tempting fate) Wilshere will most probably find his route back to first team action through the Carabao Cup. This is precisely the opposite of what we expected in pre-season, Noble, not Wilshere, was aimed more for a Carabao Cup campaign.

Wilshere was the heir apparent to Noble. Like Noble a lifelong West Ham supporter, he had youth on his side to cement a place leading midfield. He was envisioned as eventual club captain. Now only a few games in and Rice is looking the more likely heir apparent.

Despite his current setback, Wilshere’s wages means his eventual finding of some effective form remains important.

Arguably he could succeed in an advanced rather than deeper role. If so he is competing more with Anderson and the returning Lanzini rather than Noble.

If nothing else Wilshere has previously shown dogged determination to overcome injuries. He should not be written off too early. His day may still come. If he wants inspiration he should, as a West Ham supporter, remember Scott Parker as motivation.

Parker, like Wilshere, arrived with an indifferent injury record. Parker, like Wilshere, suffered early injury at West Ham. Yet Parker, like Wilshere, had classy ability . This eventually, allowed him to flourish to an exceptional level. Parker was a shining light in an otherwise dysfunctional team. He achieved the extraordinary feat of winning the PFA player of the year award playing in a struggling, eventually relegated team.

Wilshere has the chance to shine over the next few years in a team with more secure investment. Most imminently he has the chance to shine in the later rounds of the Carabao Cup. For the first time in years West Ham have the squad strength to mount a realistic challenge. If Wilshere can inspire glory in the cup, his wages can be justified by success in this competition alone.

Yet another Hammer from the past hangs as a less favourable spectre over Wilshere. What we need in the months and years ahead is the reincarnation of Scott Parker rather than the ultimatley failed investment in Kieron dyer. Much will depend not on just on Wilshere’s deterrmination, but also on the treatment room and the soundness of West Ham’s initial medical assessment. .

David Griffith

The Blind Hammer Column

Will Third UEFA Competition help West Ham?

Blind Hammer looks at UEFA Proposals.

It may seem odd considering European Football whilst we are languishing at the foot of the Premier League. Yet if the Pellegrini project, over time, is only moderately successful, participating in the new UEFA plans for a Third tier European competition may become a possibility.

European football, an occasional dream for so many PL clubs outside the top 6 or 7 may, for the first time, become a regular strategic ambition.

West Ham certainly has ambitions to compete in the upper reaches of mid table. It seems likely that any blub looking to finish in the top 10 could strategically embrace some more realistic European ambitions.

Details about the new competition are skimpy, which is surprising given that there are reported plans to introduce it as early as 2021. The new competition will involve 32 clubs, with 16 new places in addition to 16 clubs re-directed some the present 48 clubs in the Europa League. There will be some focus on helping clubs from smaller leagues. However it would be odd and unexpected if absolutely none of the extra 16 European places are allocated to the Premier League. UEFA are likely to have a commercial interest in extending PL representation in this new competition, especially in view of the appeal in the global brand of PL clubs.

What we know so far is that European Club Association (ECA) chairman Andrea Agnelli, who is also on Uefa’s executive committee, said the “the green light has been given” to the new competition.
Speaking at the annual general assembly of the ECA in Croatia, he said the third competition would increase the number of clubs involved in European football from 80 to 96.

Of course those of us who remember West Ham’s previous European campaigns will also realise that 3 European Competitions are not new. We competed in an era where the European Cup sat alongside a Cup Winners Cup and an Inter Cities Fairs Cup. Uefa has also experimented with the Inter toto cup in the past, a competition we also won.

The positive possibilities for teams like West Ham are obvious. This new competition is pitched as a “Third Tier” competition. It is a competition in which European Super Rich clubs will not feature, making progress in, and even possibly winning the competition a more realistic possibility.

The other main benefit is that it offers the opportunity for more consistent exposure to, and adaptation to the rigours of European Football. Not just West Ham, but many other mid-level PL Clubs have struggled to adapt to the demands of launching a European campaign whilst at the same time protecting their form against the rigours of domestic PL and Cup competition. It is no coincidence that Chelsea won the league whilst free of European commitments. The new competition could provide experience over time which could help transition to higher level European Competition.

West Ham’s involvement will not be motivated by prize money. The current Europa League rewards are derisory compared to the riches of the PL and the champions League. This inequality will almost certainly persist into the new UEFA competition.

Other problems will need serious consideration. Commercial TV rights for even Europa League matches are not guaranteed. Not all of Burnley’s early matches this year were televised. Further problems will emerge with identifying a distinctive TV schedule which does not conflict with existing commitments. It seems likely that this new competition may have to share the currently crowded Europa League Thursday scheduling.

However there will be opportunities for growth in West Ham. It is unlikely that the lack of TV interest in Burnley’s ties will be replicated with West Ham. When we were relegated to the Championship we had arguably greater domestic TV exposure from companies eager to include us in their Championship coverage.

The advantages for West Ham are not, then, in prize money. It would rather become an arena which could deliver realistic possibilities of success, an arena not dominated by the predictable dead hand of super rich Premier League clubs domination of existing silver ware.
The Devil, as ever, will be in the details of the competition. Pending this I will be extending a cautious welcome.
David Griffith

The Blind Hammer Column

Substance over Style

Blind Hammer argues that Pellegrini must make West Ham harder to beat.

The Pellegrini revolution aims to transform West Ham’s style. He has pledged to return attacking flair. This was always going to be a tough gig in a first 4 fixtures which included away games against Liverpool and Arsenal. The reverses in the theoretical winnable games against Bournemouth and Wolves reminds us of how difficult delivering this will be against all teams in the brutal and harsh competitive environment of the Premier League. There really are no easy games. The reality is that despite his huge experience and successful CV Pellegrini is facing a combination of circumstances he has never faced before.

Recently in his London Standard column Mark Noble reflected how extraordinarily difficult the premier league is compared to other European Leagues. He reported how Ogbonna had revealed that the physical demands of playing in the PL bore no resemblance to playing in Italy. There He would have no difficulty playing game after game with little if any physical strain. Whereas in the PL Noble claimed a player will in contrast find it difficult to walk for 48 hours whilst they struggle to recover.

This is one reason why Pellegrini’s experience at Malaga, much cited as a template for West Ham, will in reality have little relevance. There is though another more important reason why the Malaga template may not apply. When I reviewed European turnover figures last year I showed Bournemouth as the minnows of the PL with a turnover of only £96 million, yet this was vast in European terms. They had more financial muscle than nearly all but the most elite of European Clubs. They far outstripped for example Ajax. More relevantly Bournemouth’s relatively small PL turnover massively surpassed nearly all Spanish clubs. Characteristically Spanish clubs had only a fraction of this financial clout, typically earning a turnover of between £10-£20 million.

The Spanish League apart from the giants of Real and Barca is tiny compared to the PL. This meant that the investment Pellegrini received at Malaga was massive compared to nearly all his competitors. In general the competition was much weaker and less resourced. In distinction the best players in the world are sprinkled across the Premier League, drawn in by the lure of the wages paid out by even the smallest PL clubs. . At West Ham we arguably have Austria’s best player in Armi and Mexico’s best player in Chico. We sold the Captain of the Senegal team as he was not considered good enough. Portugal’s Mario struggled to convince at West Ham despite featuring in the latter stages of the World Cup. Newcastle have Venezuela’s best player, Salomon Rondon, who is failing to regularly make their first 11. Everton have Iceland’s best player Gylfi Sigurðsson, other examples are spread throughout the rest of the league.

This in no way resembles the competitive challenge Pellegrini faced with the ultimately failed project at Malaga. West Ham does not resemble Manchester City or Real Madrid either. Pellegrini delivered at City and Real with a massive transfer advantage. The transfer investment whilst at record levels for West Ham is matched and exceeded by many other clubs. The competitive challenge of the PL is more brutal harsh and consistent from week to week. Both Aston Villa and Sunderland fell into their dizzying fall from grace not because of lack of investment but because they faltered at the false altar of “ambition”. Aston Villa were relegated paying more in wages than West Ham whilst Sunderland also struggle because they over invested in player wages but received little back in performance.

None of this means that Pellegrini is necessarily doomed to walk the haunted path of the ghost of Avram grant, at least not yet. It does mean though that the tried and tested strategies of previous appointments may not work. He needs to learn and adapt fast. He may have to adjust and move into unfamiliar territory.

The problem is that West Ham cannot really claim that we have been unlucky. Despite flickering briefly against Arsenal we are terrifyingly open at the moment. Clubs are finding it far too easy to mount efforts on our goal. Only the form of Fabianski has saved us from more humiliating defeats. We continue not only to have the worst defensive record since the start of last season but this season are the second worst team in the Premier League for allowing completed attempts on our goal. Apart from shredding all our nerves this openness and vulnerability will over a season deliver certain relegation. In 4 games played, West Ham has allowed 29 efforts on our goal. This must be controlled to more manageable levels.

I am not sure whether midfield consolidation is needed or whether Pellegrini will finally have to revert back to a back 3, but a system has to be found which does not allow shots and headers to constantly rain down on Fabianski. In other words Pellegrini may need to show tactical flexibility. The hunt for a sweeping Attacking styles may have to go, in the short term, on the back burner in order to claim more substantial, if less exciting improvement. This will be necessary to prevent the collapse of squad confidence and morale. .

So far Pellegrini has shown more interest in shuffling personnel rather than systems in AN effort to bail out the sinking ship. Some change is understandable given poor results. However if the problem is really one of players gelling, not treating each other like strangers, then chopping and changing will not help. As a policy squad rotation should cease immediately. I was amazed at the numbers of changes made for the Wimbledon game. Although we ultimately scrapped through against 10 men with late goals, we should have, in the interest of “gelling” gone with our first 11. A similar principle should apply for the Macclesfield game. This team must stop behaving like strangers and should play together as much as possible at all competitive opportunities. The League Cup may ironically finally provide the green shoots of recovery which helps us in the Premiership.

David Griffith

David Griffith

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