David Hautzig's Match Report
The buildup to a match is often amplified by whatever rational or irrational dislike I have for the opposition. Which made today’s game a little different. I don’t really have anything against Sunderland. I remember going to my local pub in Manhattan at something like 6am to watch Freddie Kanoute score in a 1-0 win in the FA Cup, and the Sunderland supporters there were fantastic to be around even in defeat. Barry Glendenning of the Football Weekly podcast, my favorite guest on the pod, is a Sunderland supporter. And even though his reign was short by any measure, Di Canio’s time there made every West Ham supporter look out for Sunderland results. I have no issues with them.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t anything of intrigue about today’s match. When Sam was supposedly a dead man walking last year many bookies had Gus Poyet as the favorite to take over at Upton Park. As for the guys on the pitch, last week we got to see Andy Carroll take the stand and tell the jury why the debate about him or Bony ain’t quite over. This week Diafra Sakho had the opportunity to show Connor Wickham why West Ham bought the right guy. I’m pretty sure he has already convinced Sam that he’s lucky he can’t always get what he wants, and that instead he got what he needed.
Keith Richards would do well in the transfer market.
With basically a fully fit squad to choose from, the anticipation for the 2pm announcement of the starting eleven wasn’t that exciting. There was speculation that Mark Noble could return and Kouyate could start on the bench. The fact that such a suggestion about a key signing didn’t send shockwaves through the supporter community spoke volumes about how different the club is now and how we all feel about it. As it turned out, Noble wasn’t quite fit enough to be selected.
Sunderland looked more comfortable on the ball in the opening five minutes, with West Ham comfortable to deal with the pressure and settle themselves down. For the first time in many years, we have the kind of attacking options and prowess that can erupt at any moment. Which is what happened in the 6th minute when the ball broke to Jenkinson near the back post, but his shot was saved by Pantilimon. A few minutes later Sakho sent a cross into the box that had nobody there to meet it, and then Carroll had a shot on target that was easily handled by Pantilimon.
West Ham continued to apply the pressure when Aaron Cresswell made his way down the left hand side before passing to Downing. Carroll made a run in the box, and Downing found the most expensive skull in history but the attempt went over the bar.
The Christmas season has many predictable features. Shops are dressed up in lights and holiday decorations, the same Christmas music is played over and over again in virtually every public space, and Kevin Nolan gets a three match vacation. In the 12th minute, Santiago Vergini was brought down by Captain Kev and while I knew it wouldn’t be a red card, I thoroughly expected a yellow. However, Phil Dowd decided to have a word with him instead and he escaped a booking. Maybe that’s an ancillary benefit of being higher up the table?
The words “Song passes to Jenkinson down the right side” are becoming so commonplace I wonder why defenders more often than not look utterly unprepared for it. I mean, if we know its gonna happen shouldn’t they? This time, instead of a ball into the box, Jenkinson cut back and attempted a shot. With good players in and around the area, our fullbacks have options. And those options will create chances. Nothing came from this mini chance, but it made the moment stick out.
When he is on his game, Adam Johnson can be a handful for defenders. He’s quick with the ball, able to turn defenders around and create just enough space to either shoot or make an accurate pass. In the 21st minute, he did that to James Tomkins on the right side of the penalty area and got behind our central defender. Tomkins then tried to recover, put his forearm on Johnson’s back, and the striker went down. I may take some stick here…actually I will certainly take some because every one of my Twitter friends were furious at the call. But I immediately expected Dowd to award the penalty. It was a matter of positioning in my opinion, and once Johnson got behind Tomkins we were in trouble. Maybe if JT had not touched Johnson and let him continue his run, the resulting cross would have been dealt with. I, for one, had no problem with the call other than being upset we would likely go down 1-0. Which we did.
Sunderland 1, West Ham 0.
For the third consecutive match, West Ham had conceded the opening goal. We all know how the last two ended up, so unlike previous years the depression that settled in was replaced by resolve. Fine, we’ll just make you feel that much more disappointed when you don’t win the game.
When Stuart Downing scored his goal at Crystal Palace, the jokes about him being fined by Sam for shooting from outside the box were plentiful. So when the television screen showed our rejuvenated playmaker collect the ball from Kevin Nolan outside the box in the 29th minute and cut to his left before firing, you could have superimposed the goal at Selhurst Park over the action today and it would have been hard to tell the difference. Yeah, the ball took a deflection. Yeah, that needed a bit of luck. But players make their own luck with hard work and skill, and Downing has done that all season.
Sunderland 1, West Ham 1.
The Hammers were certainly energized by the equalizer. In the 38th minute Kouyate put a ball downfield that at first glance looked like a clearance. Until, that is, Sakho came into the picture to chase it down and have a crack at goal. It was easily handled, but Sakho is making it clear that when there is even a sniff of nylon in the air he will go for goal. It’s how he is wired.
The first name to be written down by Phil Dowd was Winston Reid when he took Jozy Altidore down right after my fellow American flicked the ball forward to Larsson. Dowd played the advantage, and Sunderland had the ball in a dangerous area for more time than I was comfortable with. Thankfully for us, all that time amounted to nothing.
Two minutes of injury time were added to the end of the half, and both teams tried to sneak into halftime with a second goal. First Jordi Gomez collected a quick free kick that caught West Ham by surprise. It also, however, caught most of the Sunderland players by surprise as well so nobody attacked his ball in the box that was there to be slotted in. Carroll then earned a free kick after receiving a pass from Downing but couldn’t create a real chance from it. The pendulum swung back to Sunderland when Larsson found Altidore all alone in front of Adrian. The ball was a shade behind him, and he couldn’t control it. West Ham escaped that one, and Altidore’s woes in the Premier League continued.
West Ham started the second forty five minutes the better side. Early on, Jenkinson made a very tasty pass to Sakho down the right side and his cross was deflected out for a corner. Downing took it, and the ball floated across the penalty area, which included Winston Reid laying on the ground clutching his head. Replays showed Wes Brown giving him a little tug which sent him to ground, and then Brown’s boot caught the side of Reid’s head as the Sunderland defender fell over our defender. No autopsy, no foul I guess. A second corner went to Carroll, but his header went right to Pantilimon.
In the 53rd minute Sunderland took their turn on attack. A nice one-two for Larsson led to a shot that was deflected out for what would be the first of three quick corners for the home side. Carroll cleared the first one with his head, reminding us that he can use that part of his body on both ends of the pitch. The second presented itself to Connor Wickham who couldn’t finish the job, and the third was cleared out of danger. If anything, it got the home crowd to make some noise.
Some things in life happen so infrequently that if you miss it, you may never see it again. A comet streaking through the sky comes to mind. Return trips for them are measured in the thousands of years. So too are absolute foul ups by Alex Song. That happened in the 54th minute when he misjudged a looping ball to him so badly it bounced off his upper arm inches outside the penalty area, resulting in a Sunderland free kick. Adrian punched the ball away, and moments later West Ham were on the counter with Downing running the ball up with a full head of steam. Jordi Gomez would have none of that, and tripped Downing from behind to earn himself a place in Phil Down’s book.
Connor Wickham had a half chance in the 58th minute when he was played into the box, but Jenkinson took the half a chance and turned it into no chance by getting between Wickham and the ball as it rolled out for a goal kick. West Ham then had a full blown chance in the 60th minute. Song fed Downing on the left side of the box. Downing found Cresswell making an overlapping run, but Pantilimon came out to meet the left back’s attempt and made the save. It was the best chance of the second half for either side up to that point.
I have a soft spot for Jozy Altidore, so I was disappointed when he was subbed for Steven Fletcher in the 62nd minute. I’d like Altidore to show the side of him we here in America have seen many times, although not against West Ham. I also hated to see Fletcher come on because he is a goal scorer, and him nicking one would not have shocked me at all.
Carroll came close to giving West Ham the lead in the 64th minute when Downing got on the end of a ball on the right side just before it went out for a goal kick. He crossed to Sakho, who went down from a Wes Brown challenge but not before flicking the ball to Carroll whose chip over Pantilimon was so close you could hear the gasps throughout our community. A minute later, Reid tried a back header from a corner that also went over the bar. Then Song and Nolan played a one-two that ended up on Cresswell’s boot. His cross was intended for you know who, but O’Shea steered it out for a corner. Nothing came from it, but we were far better than the hosts.
The football gods love to play jokes. Just when we think they are against us, they show that while we play our little games they play theirs. Larsson curled a cross into the box that looked to hit Reid right on the arm. The Stadium Of Light illuminated with cries for a second spot kick, but Dowd ignored them. Maybe he remembered Sam’s protests on the penalty in the first half and decided our manager would burst a blood vessel in his huge neck at another one and such a scene would best be avoided.
The minute Andy Carroll was fit and returned to the side, I have wanted to see him on the pitch with both Sakho and Valencia. That is not to say I have any tactical nous to explain why I think it would be a good idea. I just think that if it worked, then we could be so deadly on attack it would defy our wildest dreams. In the 81st minute I got my wish when Valencia replaced Nolan. There was no way ANYONE could accuse Allardyce of doing anything but going for the win.
Larsson showed his worth on the defensive end of the pitch in the 84th minute when he tracked back to chase down a dangerous run from Downing. After winning the ball and getting it to Fletcher, the Scottish international laid the ball off for Connor Wickham. Would this be his moment like Carroll had his last week against Bony? No, but it was close as Adrian pushed it out for a corner. A few minutes later West Ham were back on the front foot when Carroll collected a deflection inside the penalty area. His low shot was just a few inches wide of the bottom right hand corner. Both sides wanted it, but would either get it?
Five minutes of added time saw Sakho win a header from a free kick, and Reid break up a last ditch effort by Wickham. Those same joking gods wanted a draw, and they got one.
Final score. Sunderland 1, West Ham 1.
In sales, sometimes slow and steady growth is better than explosive growth. The same can be said for football. In that vain, a draw today should not be looked as two points dropped. Either team could have won, and either team could have lost. Overall, West Ham were the slightly better team with more meaningful possession and intent with the ball. But Sunderland had their chances as well and showed why they don’t fall over when the likes of Chelsea come for a visit.
My weekend mood is dictated by our club. Not easy on the family, I know. But it’s how I’m wired. I wanted to win. But I’m still feeling ok.