Talking Point

Searching for a solution

First, let me start by wishing everyone a happy new year. Work and family commitments haven’t allowed me to write as much as I hoped for recently, but I’ll be doing the best I can to contribute on a regular basis again.

The problem

Our issues have been widely reported and well covered by the writers on here. Moral, effort, passion, concentration, consistency are all under scrutiny and the team seems disorganised and uninspired far too often.

Too many players have become passengers and it feels like the squad lacks in leadership and discipline.

The questions about Payet’s commitment and motivation can’t be ignored, neither can the impact they are having on the team. Bilic has publicly backed Payet as our best player, consistently praising his ability in press conferences and various media outlets. With Payet appearing disinterested at times and with several questionable interviews where he fails to show commitment to the club, how does that affect the team? I wouldn’t feel too pleased if I was part of the squad and felt that our talisman was looking to jump ship.

One question I’ve been asking recently is, “is Bilic too nice?” An impossible question to answer, I know, but it does worry me. Are the best managers disciplinarians? Conte, Mourinho, Koeman, Diego Simeone, Guardiola, Klopp (the most charismatic of the managers but still a disciplinarian), Ferguson; you wouldn’t want to cross any of these would you?

At the start of his tenure, Bilic exiled Amalfitano for apparent disciplinary issues. This set the tone and as an unknown entity, Bilic demanded respect. Since the end of his first season, his image became considerably softer, especially over the Euros with his charismatic and unorthodox style of commentary.

Is this a factor in our recent struggles? It’s very hard to say, but Bilic’s demeanour this season has seemed repressed, and it could very well be an issue.

Another area under the microscope is Bilic’s efforts in turning the new training ground into a family friendly environment. Is this sending out the right message? Are we implementing tried and tested methodology here or are we breaking new ground in untested areas? The same could be asked of our fitness coaching and methods. With such a high number of injuries, and players almost consistently appearing far from full match fitness, does this need addressing?

It’s possible to go on all day speculating, and I really don’t mean any of this to come across negatively. They are just areas that stand out to me.

The players

There’s not enough time to evaluate each player individually, but it’s fair to say that aside from Reid, Randolph, Obiang, Fernandes and Antonio, the players have struggled to varying degrees.

Some have struggled with form, others with effort and some with both. Too many need to look inwardly and demand more. This comes down partly to Bilic and his ability to motivate and get the most out of his players. It doesn’t appear at present that he is, but with new arrivals in January and some departures, he has the perfect opportunity to catalyse change.

The club

Arguably the biggest overhaul needed is within the club. The owners, the engagement with the fans, the stadium, our image and our PR all need considerable work.

Again, I won’t go into this now, but it’s clear for all to see that our image needs improving as well as our conduct in the media.

The solution

This is my personal view on what steps we should take to move forward successfully.

Become humble. Our owners have to understand the damage that some of their conduct is causing. We are a family club and there is no problem with ambition, but it has to be plausible and build on a solid foundation. We can’t just brand London on the badge and roll into a new stadium – which itself is a bone of huge contention within the media – and start claiming we’re a big club. Like most things in life, success has to be earned.

Reconnect with the fans. The transition to the new stadium has been handled very poorly and steps need to be made to address the numerous issues. Other than the stadium itself, none seem insurmountable and this will provide an opportunity for the board to show the fans that they’re making positive steps in the right direction.

Outs and in’s

A shake-up in the squad is necessary and an injection of talent, coupled with an ejection of deadwood, can provide a huge confidence boost.

It’s been widely reported that Feghouli cold move on. If the rumours of a £10-11million sale to Roma are correct, then that represents a good return on a player that came in for free in the summer. I personally think that he has more to offer than we’ve seen but if that money can be reinvested wisely, then it represents good business.

I’m a big fan of Robbie Brady and a player with his experience and grit would add a lot of fighting spirit to the squad. He’s capable of playing anywhere down the left and even centrally or on the right wing if needed.

I also think it’s important that we have a left winger in the team. Payet dominates this spot but I think we need to bring him central, behind the striker/strikers. He is an expert at playing in-between the lines and he wouldn’t need to track back as he does on the wing. He would need to defend from the front but this is different and he would be afforded more freedom in this role.

With Zaza, Tore and Calleri looking certain to depart, we free up £110,000-140,000 in wages and three spaces in the squad. If Feghouli departed then we will need three to four new faces, but will have another £35-40,000 in the kitty.

Another player under question is Ogbonna. For me, he has failed to improve sufficiently since signing and although I don’t think January is the time, should a suitable opportunity arise, I would consider selling him and bringing in another centre back. Next season will be Collin’s last, if he remains, and with Oxford and Burke pushing for the first team, a one-in-one-out should be ample over the summer.

Right back

The first area we need to address is at right back. Jenkinson on loan to the end of the season seems sensible. Trippier would be a great buy, but I cannot see Spurs allowing him to leave, especially to us.

Jenkinson would bring experience and stability. Arsenal seem happy to sanction a loan or permanent deal, so we would have the option to make it permanent in the summer should he impress. He would also settle quickly, having spent time at the club previously.

Other options would be Debuchy, Iorfa (Wolves) or an attempt to bring in Glen Johnson or Sagna who are both reaching the end of their contracts.

Striker

The second area we need to strengthen is up front. Defoe would be a superb signing, but I cannot see this happening. He is arguably Sunderland’s only hope of survival, and I’m not convinced that he will try to force through a move.

Scott Hogan appears to be an exciting prospect and I like that fact that he has Championship experience. Both the Championship and Premier League share a similar level of physicality and this can help players, especially strikers, adapt quickly.

This transfer comes with risk, of course. A high fee, reported to be £12.5-15million, and an inconsistent injury record leave cause for concern, but there’s something about this I like and it’s another home grown, British player that will hopefully bring plenty of fighting spirit.

Another player that I rate highly is Shane Long. For around the £10million mark we could get a proven Premier League striker and a player that ticks most of the boxes we need. He’s a poacher, he plays on the shoulder of the last defender and his pace unsettles defences. He could realistically be our best and safest option in January.

Javier Hernandez, previously of Manchester Utd and currently at Bayer Leverkusen, is an ambitious target, but worth a mention. An article by HITC mentions that Bild – a reputable and leading source on German football – reported Leverkusen were considering his sale, with a reported fee in the region of £21million (http://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2017/01/09/despite-denials-west-ham-untied-should-try-and-lure-javier-herna/). This would be a long shot, but he’s a proven goalscorer and may be tempted back to a league in which he enjoyed several fruitful seasons.

Winger

As mentioned previously, I’m a fan of Robbie Brandy and think we could do far worse than bring him to the club. He would again inject some steel and fight to the team and provide cover across several positions. He’s got pace, a superb delivery and can score goals. Snodgrass has also been covered by the media and while he is a good player, his lack of pace concerns me.

If we did sell Feghouli then we would need to bring in another winger and Brady could be a good option if we can prise him away from Norwich.

Conclusion

January can provide the foundation for an improved campaign. The squad is disjointed and refreshing the ranks with good quality players has the potential to reinvigorate the players, as well as cover huge gaps in the squad – right back and striker – that have proved costly all season.

The second half of the season can be seen as a fresh start and a new challenge. This psychology can be used to our advantage and with new faces and competition for places, we can really kick on.

The team need to pick themselves up after the City game and prepare for Palace. For the first 30 minutes of the City game we were a well structured, aggressive, potent team. We need to learn from what happened afterwards and focus on what we did right and find a way to replicate this consistently.

Allardyce deserves a warm welcome Saturday, but let’s make sure that’s all he walks away with. Palace aren’t on top form either, but they’ll be well structured and hard to break down. Hopefully, Byram will be match fit and we can start with a full back four for the first time in a long while. This will make a lot of difference and I’m confident that we can kick on from here, with a big piece of the puzzle back in place. The rest needs work, but let’s stay confident and get behind the team and the manager, no matter what.

COYI


Match Report

Reflecting on Arsenal

However you interpret the comments made by Bilic in his post match interview, his demeanour was that of man in pain. I admire Bilic for his honesty and he comes across as someone that cares deeply about his players and the club. It must be difficult to see so many individual errors – the most of any team in the Premier League – leading to costly goals, as well as the continued lack of confidence projected by the players.

When Bilic said that our intensity in training, as well as matches, has been inconsistent, that struck a chord with me. OK, it seems obvious, but there have been spells of varying length where we have played well as a cohesive, structured unit. We’ve looked controlled, composed and sharp. We have just not been able to do it for long enough spells.

Perhaps the answer is simpler than it appears. Maybe the team are just not fit enough and are therefore incapable of producing the output required to compete at the highest level.

I’m not naive enough to think that by simply improving our fitness levels we can reignite the form of last season, but it could be a fundamental problem from which other problems are manifesting.

It seems like a shake up is needed to get the season back on track, and with the transfer window and the new year around the corner, we have the perfect opportunity for change.

Fitness levels

If the team aren’t committed in training, or if training is not of the necessary standard, then the team will struggle in games. “Train well, play well” is a phrase commonly used in team sports, and for good reason.

What happens on the training pitch shapes what happens in the games and it’s crucial that the players commit to every session.

I found Enner Valencia’s comments regarding the low standards of our training, when compared to Everton’s, quite out of place at the time of reading them. A player may wish to impress his new club, but it’s a dangerous play when on loan and one has to wonder, now, if they had substance. I watched Everton play Man Utd on Sunday and his cameo was impressive enough for Everton fans to take to Twitter in their numbers to request more game time for our loanee. That, alone, is no proof, but I felt it was worthy of mentioning.

Maybe the players are failing to accurately interpret Bilic’s and his coaching teams tactics or coaching methods, or perhaps it is them that are failing to create the correct environment. Either way, change at this point seems like the sensible option.
Covering ground

Distance covered statistics do not provide a direct correlation with league position, although all of the current top five are in the top ten teams in the league for this statistic. Sprints made per game, however, correlate fairly accurately with league position and we rank bottom for this and 14th for distance covered.

There is an interesting article?
covering this in the Telegraph for anyone interested in reading more:

Last season Sakho was ranked as the 8th best player for sprints made per match, providing a key component to how Bilic likes to play. Closing down from the front and pressing high up the pitch were huge factors to our success last season and they demand high levels of fitness from the whole team in order to be effective.

A general lack of fitness could also be a factor in the high number of injuries we’ve sustained. Although that is just opinion and an argument could easily be made the other way.

However we look at it, addressing the fitness levels of the squad appears a must and I’m certain that Bilic and Miljenko Rak will look to improve on the current situation.

Ponderous passing and failing to transition quickly

Interestingly, we made and completed more passes than Arsenal. We out-passed them 393 to 384, with a success rate of 80% – 0.5% better than the visitors. The possession stats were similar, with us edging it marginally 50.5% to 49.5%.

What does this tell us? It tells us that Arsenal used the ball far more effectively than we did, and a key part of that was the speed of their passing and transition.

We have some technically proficient players – Payet, Lanzini, Obiang, Noble, Ayew etc – yet we are struggling to move the ball quickly.

Noble has come under criticism, and it’s easy to see why. He has not lived up – like many – to last season’s performances and as captain, it is imperative he leads by example and uses his influence in the dressing room.

Predictability

Payet and Lanzini were the top players for pass combinations, sharing more passes between them than any other two players – 20 and 21 respectively. Our following seven two player pass combinations all favoured our left flank, with five involving Payet or Lanzini.

Now, it makes sense so utilise your best players but Arsenal were allowed to defend in numbers down this side of the pitch and all too often we played into their hands.

Payet and Lanzini shared some exquisite interplay but unfortunately it was a bit too predictable. Granted, we were handicapped by our right flank slightly considering the injury to Collins – which forced a rusty Arbeloa on the pitch, along with a formation change – and the inexperience of Fernandes, but we lacked guile and failed to adapt.

Tackles

We are currently 19th in the league for tackles made – and 1st for defensive errors leading to goals – which is aiding our current slump in form. The Arsenal game highlights this well. We were successful in only 12 of our 28 tackles, less 43%, whereas Arsenal were successful in 17 of their 21, giving them an impressive 81%.

Winning the ball back, or stopping an attack by tackling the opposition is crucial. Football is about creating space and then utilising that space to create opportunities. Winning the ball and catching a team out of shape is an effective way for most teams to create chances and therefore win games. There are other philosophies such as tiki-taka, or the possession tactics of Guardiola, Bielsa, Cruyff et al, but generally, an interpretation of the former is most common, and certainly what we employ under Bilic.

Our poor tackling could also be connected to our poor positioning, fitness – inability to press at high intensity or for long spells – and also confidence. All three areas will be marked for improvement I’m sure.

Digging in for Christmas

It feels like a solid run over the Christmas period will be vital if we plan to start the new year afresh.

After our trip to Anfield, we face Burnley (H), Hull (H) and Swansea (A) and Leicester (A). Five or six points can propel us away from the relegation zone, so tight is the league with just six points currently separating 17th from 10th. The psychological advantage of starting the new year in touching distance of mid-table, rather than relegation, will be notable.

All of the aforementioned teams are struggling to varying degrees, but one thing we’ll need to do against all of them, in order to gain vital points, is maintain our discipline. Facing well-organised, defensive and counter-attacking teams requires discipline, and we must remain focussed on our task.

Conclusion

With returns planned for Cresswell, Kouyate and Antonio, and with Carroll’s return to fitness, we should feel as positive as we can. Yes, the Arsenal defeat was painful and humiliating, but even with a full strength, in-form, team, the odds would never been in our favour to win. Injuries, also, played a huge part. Forget the talent of a player, playing players in their natural positions is crucial, as well as fielding a consistent defence as often as possible. We could not come close to that against Arsenal, and we have struggled most of the season on both fronts.

Players and managers do not become bad overnight. Yes, Bilic has his faults and we have been leaking too many goals for a long time – dating back well into last season. But he has brought us something we craved so deeply in previous years. He has brought excitement, hope and attacking football. OK, things aren’t currently working out the way we hoped, and it is worrying – of course it is – but Bilic has earned our support and faith, and I personally think he’ll turn it around.

Regarding the players, my thoughts on this would take up another article, but the core of it is this; some need to wake up and take responsibility, some need to ship out and find pastures new, some need to consider what brought them success and others need to fire themselves up and show us all what they’re made of. All is solvable, and nothing fuels the fire of redemption better than a win, a good performance and points on the board.

Let’s start the ball rolling against Liverpool at the weekend and see what our manager and players are made of.

COYI

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Match Report

REFLECTING ON MANCHESTER AND ADAPTING FOR ARSENAL

Two games in four days against Manchester Utd produced very contrasting performances. Our first was energetic and well-executed. Sakho was excellent, as were several others, and we fought back from a slow start to deliver a commendable performance. Our second was the polar opposite.

Something was missing on Wednesday. Several players were out of form and we struggled from the start. Utd pressed high up the pitch, pinning our wing backs deep and funnelling our play centrally. We lacked the energy, discipline and imagination to overcome their tactics and intensity and collapsed to a morale-damaging defeat.

Injuries to Cresswell and Antonio rubbed salt into our wounds and we can only hope that neither are serious. The loss of Sakho for six weeks is a devastating blow and robs us of a crucial skill set, invaluable to the style of football we want to play. Fletcher and Carroll are very different players to Sakho and we will miss his energy, defending from the front and use of the channels.

Tweeking the existing system

According to reports, Ayew missed the midweek game to continue an intensive training programme, designed to get him up to full fitness. I think he’s the player that offers a similar threat to Sakho. He performed well when brought on in our first game against Utd and showed glimpses of his talent. He could be played in a front two with Fletcher, using a 3-2-3-2 formation – retaining the wing-backs as we don’t have cover for a four at the back formation unless Arbeloa returns – which would allow Payet a more central role where he could roam freely, covered by Obiang and Noble/Lanzini. Ayew and Fletcher would drop into midfield when defending and press their central midfielders, creating an overload in midfield when we don’t have the ball. Ayew and Fletcher are both energetic, quick players and capable of performing this role.

With news that Antonio and Cresswell will miss the Arsenal game – and potentially the Liverpool game too – we will need to bring Masuaku in for Cresswell and Fernandes in for Antonio. Neither player will offer the same threat going forward, but both are well equipped defensively. Masuaku appears to be a very solid defensive full back and I’ve been impressed with his performances since he joined us. He’s far from the finished article but to come to one of the toughest leagues in the world and hold your own is admirable. However, he is not an attacking full back/wing back, and Fernandes isn’t even a full back or wing back, so we need to be aware of this and adjust accordingly.

Playing a system with three at the back and two wing backs is normally reliant on those wing backs providing the width and an attacking threat. Failing that we face a situation similar to our cup match; getting funnelled centrally. This isn’t necessarily a problem if our central players can transition quicker and use one and two touch football – which we were not doing on Wednesday. That’s why, for me, a holding pair of Obiang and Lanzini/Noble with Payet ahead of them is perfectly suited. Having two up front won’t allow Arsenal to press us so high, as long as they put in a shift, and unlike Utd, Arsenal’s plan A won’t be to get down the wings and pump balls into the box. They may surprise us and try this with Giroud, but our defence should be well equipped to deal with it. If we get it right then we will congest the midfield and there we can use our superior strength and aggression to unsettle Arsenal and slow the tempo of the game to the level we desire.

We were very sloppy against Utd, probably the most complacent I’ve seen us this season, and I’d be surprised if Bilic allowed this to happen again. One positive to take from the game was Ashley Fletcher’s performance and his first goal for the club. It was an excellent and instinctual finish from a very promising player and it must have meant a lot coming against his old club. May this be the first of many.

Onwards and upwards

We face a difficult challenge against Arsenal on Saturday but one we can win if we execute our game plan correctly. Arsenal will be looking to bounce back after a shock cup exit against Southampton and it’s up to us to use that to our advantage. We have got the better of them before under Bilic and he’ll be desperate to do so again. We have our injury problems which won’t help, but we have the ability to pull results from the jaws of obscurity, so I’m remaining positive.

Regardless of the result, I think we’d all be happy as long as we see the effort, commitment and passion that were all lacking on Wednesday. It’s time for the players to start taking responsibility and turn our season around.

COYI

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Match Report

Reflecting on Spurs

This result was one of the hardest to swallow in my lifetime as a West Ham fan. We didn’t deserve to lose this game. We didn’t even deserve to draw. We deserved to be celebrating a historic win, breaking Spurs’ unbeaten run and walking away from our last ever game at White Heart Lane victorious. It wasn’t to be. A couple of individual errors combined with a touch of bad luck cost us dearly and robbed us of valuable points.

Spurs delivered a lesson on being clinical and taking your chances. We would do well to learn from this.

Bilic

Make no mistake about it; this will have hurt Bilic as much as anyone. He set the team up perfectly and tactically he outwitted his opposite number – no mean feat against a manager of Pochettino’s calibre.

Every player had a defined and specific role, masterminded by Bilic and engrained by his coaching staff. We are at our best as a counter attacking team and playing teams that set out to dominate possession suits us. Tottenham obliged and we employed tactical pressing, allowing them to keep the ball in their own half, bringing their defence higher up the pitch. We then pressed aggressively when their transitional or attacking players had the ball. It was beautiful to watch and the players executed it expertly.

Yes, we can criticise his substitutions. It seemed risky to play Nordtveit rather than Collins, and replacing Sakho – rusty from his lack of game time but still the best performance by a West Ham forward this season – with Zaza was always going to be a risk. Both, sadly, proved extremely costly.

However, we cannot blame the manager entirely. Nordtveit’s tackle was a terrible decision and Zaza’s inability to play in Payet, with what seemed like a lifetime to pick the pass, were out of Bilic’s control and he could not have expected either player to make those errors.

Randolph, too, made a mistake by palming a shot into the path of Harry Kane, but he also made one excellent save and looked fairly assured when needed. He must have felt a lot of pressure under the circumstances too.

In my opinion, Bilic has suffered the most here as he did everything right, other than taking the risks with the substitutions. Fletcher for Zaza and Collins for Payet may have worked out better, but we don’t know that. Tactically Bilic got this one spot on and deserved a lot more than what he ended up with.

Key performers

Bilic exploited Tottenham’s lack of width and funnelled them into the centre of the pitch where Obiang and Lanzini, among others, did an exceptional job of breaking up the play, slowing down their attacks and winning the ball back.

Lanzini made the most tackles in the game, winning five of seven. Obiang and Ogbonna were just behind him with four of five. Ayew made three of four and he completes the top four for tackles made in the game.

Lanzini also made 17 ball recoveries, more than double that of any Tottenham player. He was the perfect replacement for Noble and has everything in his game. He helped us retain the ball and transition quickly, he is quicker that Noble and technically better. In this formation it is hard to see anyone improving on Lanzini if he continues to play as he did.

Reid was a monster. Truly one of the finest centre back displays I have seen and he lead the team by example. He will be badly missed against Man Utd after picking up an insulting second yellow.

Antonio is another who simply has to be praised. His goal, constant energy and domination of Danny Rose were sights to behold. He continues to go from strength to strength and his attitude, commitment and loyalty is refreshing and commendable.

Payet got a little more room in this game and contributed some magical moments. I know some on here don’t like the term, but he really is world class and even when not on top form he’s capable of turning a game in an instant. Had Zaza not been so hesitant, I’m confident we’d have been celebrating Payet putting us 3-1 up.

Looking forward

Zaman and Hamburg Hammer have covered some excellent points in their articles and from a tactical point of view; we know what an excellent performance we put it. We just couldn’t get the result. It hurts and it’s a lesson well learned, but one I’m confident will make us a better team.

With that in mind, I wanted to look forward to the January transfer window and throw some ideas out there and get peoples thoughts.

In my opinion, our key focus should be to sign two players of the highest quality we can – a striker and a right back.

Recruitment

Forget the price tag, we need to focus our energy on the players that the scouting team, analysts and experts believe are the best fit for the style of football the manager wants to play and someone that will be motivated to give their all for the club.

We are fortunate to have one of the finest directors of recruitment in Tony Henry. He was responsible for bringing players such as John Stones and Seamus Coleman to Everton, paying only £60,000 for the latter. He was heavily involved in the discovery of Ronaldo and was cited by David Sullivan for offering him the chance to sign him at his time at Birmingham, shortly before he went to Man Utd.

Sakho, Antonio, Lanzini, Cresswell, Kouyate, Payet, Ogbonna and Obiang have all been signed under his stewardship and all for very humble fees relative to their ability.

Unfortunately, we have failed to sustain such high levels of recruitment this summer with most failing to adapt or considered not good enough for the Premier League. Some players can take time to adapt, especially to our league, and it is unfair to write them off entirely – Obiang is a fine example of a player that many thought wouldn’t make the grade initially, but given playing time he’s developed into our most consistent central midfielder.

My point is this, whatever went on over the summer needs to be reviewed and compared to the success of previous windows. Hopefully there is a clear answer and we can overcome the mistakes made. I’d also like to see Tony Henry back to his best and fully supported by the board to unearth us some more gems.

With this in mind, here are a few possible solutions for our striker and right back problems.

Striker:

Premier League experience

Daniel Sturridge
Siedo Berahino
Javier Hernandez

From Europe

Anthony Modeste (FC Cologne)
Mario Mandzukic (Juventus)
Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan)
Sandro Ramirez (Malaga)

Right BACK:

Premier League experience

Darmian (3 years remaining on contract)
Sagna (out of contract in the summer)

Emerging talent from Europe

Mitchell Weiser (Hertha BSC – 2 years contract remaining)
Ricardo Pereira (2 year loan from Porto to Nice – can this be affected?)
Joao Cancelo (4 year contract but huge prospect – could cost big money though)
Tin Jedvaj (4 years remaining – Croatian – plays high level for Bayer Leverkusen)

There are pros and cons for each player and whether we try and attract an experienced Premier League player, or take a gamble on someone with no experience in England’s top flight is another question.

My shortlist would be:

Striker: Sturridge, Hernandez or Modeste

Right Back: Sagna, Mitchell Weiser or Tin Jedvaj

I think we need experience up-front but could afford to take a more calculated gamble at right back. As we’re currently playing with 3 at the back, employing wing back’s ahead of them, it feels like we could afford to bring in an emerging talent and between them and Byram have our flank covered for the foreseeable future.

However, I think Sagna still has one/two more seasons at the top of his game and I think he’d prove an excellent and experienced addition to the squad if we could attract him.

We’ve got a tough run of games coming up but we’re set up well to play the big boys. If we can maintain the performance levels we showed against Spurs then I fully expect us to get points on the board against the odds, and book our place in the next round of the cup. We just need to pull together and keep the faith.

COYI

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Match Report

Reflecting on Stoke

Neither team was at their best on Saturday. Stoke were missing two key attackers in Shaqiri and Arnautovic and struggled to break us down. Bojan started on the bench leaving Bony to lead the line against an improving West Ham defence, but one disrupted by the absence of Reid.

Bilic made one change and chose to start with Ayew up front while moving Antonio to right wing back. We again lined up in a 3-4-3 (5-2-2-1) formation as Fernandes made way to compensate for Ayew.

The game lacked energy from the start with both teams struggling to penetrate. We enjoyed the lion’s share of possession – something we struggle with – as Stoke defended deep and in numbers, looking to expose us on the counter attack.

Other than Obiang and Payet there were no star performances or any threatening more than 6 out of 10. Payet again came under criticism for his display, which we’ll look at later, and calls for Adrian to be dropped have risen.

Stoke have been in excellent form leading up to this match and are a team we have struggled against over the years. On most days, a point would have been a respectable result, but a lackluster performance and individual errors made it feel like two points dropped.

With no cup game midweek the players should have been at full match fitness and ready to put in an energetic display. Sadly they did not and Stoke were allowed to dictate the tempo and the game was played at a very slow pace.

Possession and passing but not cutting edge

Our lethargy and lack of one and two-touch passing meant that for all our possession (58.1%) most of it was in the middle or defensive third of the pitch. Of our 410 successful passes, only 79 were in Stokes final third. Even though Stoke only completed 267 passes, 82 of those were in our final third. As a percentage, this means that only 19% of our passes were completed in the attacking third, while Stoke enjoyed 31%.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. As mentioned above, Stoke are a team in top form. The game may have been flat but we did a good job of stopping them imposing themselves and aside from Adrian’s mistake, they posed little threat to our goal.

The pieces of the jigsaw will fall into place soon and the fractured performances will become more fluid. We are creating chances – not the best game to highlight that but we are – and we are passing the ball well, just not effectively. All the pieces are there, we just need to get them into place.

Obiang and Payet

Obiang was once again excellent. His passing, pressing and tackling were exemplary and he controlled the midfield well.

Completing 48 passes, three take on’s, six tackles and one interception, his performance was the best of the match. The image below shows Obiang’s performance compared to Noble’s. Noble didn’t have a bad game and posted some solid stats, but what’s evident is Obiang’s combative nature and his ability to win and recover the ball in crucial areas of the pitch.

Although he’s come under criticism recently, Payet’s creativity was an improvement on the Everton match. Over doubling the amount of chances he created, Payet’s delivery from corners and crosses was greatly improved but a poor team display and heavy marking from Stoke limited his impact. He was the joint highest rated player on whoscored.com, along with Obiang. Both achieved 7.7 out of 10 for their contributions.

I think Payet has come in for some unfair criticism in recent weeks. At times he has cast a frustrated figure and some have interpreted this to be the body language of a man uninterested and unmotivated. I think he seems discouraged sometimes by the contribution of those around him. As a team, it’s no secret that we’ve been off form and since his return, the weight of expectation on his shoulders has been immense.

It’s time for other creative players to up their game and their work rate. Lanzini is a special player, but another that has found form hard to come by. I’d like to see more from him but at the moment I’m not convinced that we can afford him and Payet starting every match, especially with the run we have coming up. Defensively we sacrifice too much.

Effort and application

We are simply not covering enough ground and even though our recent formation change has brought more defensive solidarity, we need to work harder with and without the ball.

We currently sit 14th in the table of distance covered and I wanted to put some figures down to put that in perspective. I have chosen a few teams to stack our efforts up against below:

Team distances covered:

*West Ham 1186.7km
*Chelsea 1222.8 km – (36.1km)
*Spurs 1245.5km – (58.8km)
*Burnley 1254.2km – (67.5km)
*Liverpool 1282.4km – (97.7km)

Figures in brackets represent the difference in distance covered

To think that our players have run almost 100km less than the Liverpool players over 11 games leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That is 8.9km per game.

I’m not saying that every team sets up, or desires, to play the high pressing super energetic football of Klopp, but that was a big part of our identity and success last season. It is something we need to get back as it’s not just crucial to playing well, it allows us to offer more when playing poorly or if suffering injuries. Our injury plagued patch from last season that saw us grind out a string of well-fought draws is a prime example.

Conclusion

With all said and done we got a draw and a point from a tough fixture on paper. Bilic would have learned from this and I’d be surprised if we didn’t see an improvement against Spurs. We will need to be at our best to get anything from that game, as well as our imminent fixtures beyond it, but I think we’ll come out fighting. There is a reason that we performed so well against the big teams last season, and that’s because they attack us, try to control the game and that suits us down to the ground. We can play our natural counter-attacking football and players like Payet and Antonio will get the space they have been denied in so many games so far this season.

I see the Stoke game as something we needed to get out of our system and now we can show everyone what we’re really about. With Carroll and (hopefully) Sakho back in the frame we’ll have more options up front and I think we’re in for a rollercoaster ride up to Christmas!

Let’s stay positive and look forward to an away fixture at the Lane where we can put a real dent in the season of an old foe!!

COYI

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