The S J Chandos Column
The current squad boasts higher profile and arguably more skilful/celebrated players such as Lanzini and Hernandez, but in terms of sheer power, physical presence and functionality we literally only has one player like Kouyate. He is a powerful box-to-box midfielder, with the ability to add steel and coherence to the midfield unit and get forward to grab some important goals. He is also blessed (or some would say cursed!) with a wonderful adaptability, being able to play as a holding midfielder, a centre-back or even at right-back. But it is in this box-to-box role that he has the greatest impact. It was noticeable last season how crucial his midfield presence is to the team and how we suffered when he was absent or played out of position. That is a subjective observation on my part, but it would be interesting to see how many points we dropped in his absence last season (especially during the ACON campaign last winter). However, his importance is surely reflected in the fact that his pending surgery, at the end of last season, was delayed until after the home victory over Spurs that assured our PL status.
It was this observation that led me to suggest last season that we needed to recruit another player of similar qualities in the January window to provide cover/competition for the Senegalese international. And it seems that Bilic has reached a similar conclusion and is doing something about it with the pursuit of William Carvalho and, according to various social media sources, a number of alternative, midfield power houses targets (if the deal for the Sporting Lisbon man stalls). In truth, the insipid performance last Sunday was a typical ‘in absentia of Kouyate’ display, with the midfield losing possession far too easily and lacking the sheer power and drive to seriously trouble our opponents. It was more apparent due to the quality of the opposition, but in the PL we will continue to drop points to less accomplished teams if our midfield unit continues to play like that. Indeed, it speaks volumes that the introduction of 18 year old Declan Rice, as a substitute, only served to emphasise the palpable lack of confidence, technique and sheer application demonstrated by much more experienced team mates. There are a number of senior players who should be taking a long, hard look at themselves after Sunday’s debacle. I can tolerate losing to the likes of Man Utd away, but for god’s sake make a fight of it, if not for the players own professional pride then for the sake of the wonderful travelling claret and blue army!
I could not travel on Sunday, due to health reasons, but observing the match on Sky Sports, the experience was all too familiar from previous such bygone fixtures. It was observed during the Sky commentary that statistically it was a case of the PL club with the highest number of winning opening fixtures versus that with the least. I do not feel any pressing compulsion to clarify ‘which club is which’ in this particular case! Indeed, why is it that so many times over the years, and stretching back to the days of the football league, West Ham invariably look less fit and unprepared for a new season than their opponents? Certainly, that is how it appeared to me on Sunday. The team looked like a rapidly assembled collection of strangers (which I suppose they were to a certain extent, with four debutants), who are still half-way through pre-season. The Manchester United players looked far fitter and sharper, not to mention organised, more motivated and hungry for the ball. What happened to all the careful pre-season fitness work and the cohesion that should have accrued from the matches in Austria and Germany? It was called the ideal preparation, and probably it was in terms of avoiding injury, but was it actually a demanding enough programme and did we suffer on Sunday as a consequence?
The player I felt most sorry for was undoubtedly Hernandez, he really did apply himself up front and tried until the final whistle. However, ultimately you have to feed a goal poacher like the Mexican international and on Sunday the service was virtually zero. I also felt that Arnautovic grafted for the team and made some intelligent forward runs, but the crucial early balls forward were either not there or too easily intercepted. Zabaletta played like he still had the likes of Vincent Company to cover his adventurous and pulsating excursions down the right flank and duly got caught out of position on occasions (especially in the build up to Man Utd’s first goal). Hopefully, the return of Antonio and the addition of the likes of Carvahlo will rectify that problem. Alternatively, especially away from home, we might look again at implementing three at the back and give Zabaletta and Cresswell the licence to go forward more readily. But at least in Zabaletta’s case he did apply himself and make the necessary effort, even if he did not reap the rewards on this occasion. I would also give Sakho the benefit of the doubt, he only played two or three games last season and has endured a considerable injury lay off. I am not surprised that he is looking to ease his way back in to the action in those circumstances. By rights, he should be doing that with a run of U-23 appearances, but with Carroll still out and Bilic apparently choosing not to sign another striker, I suppose ‘needs must’. It is better to judge him after a few more appearances, not at this early stage of the season. similarly, Reid looked unfit and decidedly out of sorts, I would not be surprised if he is struggling with a niggle or, alternatively, he has just come back too soon. Hart did fair to middling and, as stated, Rice was excellent, but rest of the line up really did not win any battle honours on the day.
Still, never mind, upwards and onwards. On the bright side, our next fixture is distinctly winnable (if we can sort ourselves out on the training ground this week); we have some key players coming back in the shape of Antonio, Lanzini Carroll and Kouyate, who will improve us significantly; the existing new signings should benefit from another week of training and better build understanding with their teammates; the caravahlo deal is hopefully still in the pipeline; and it is possible there could be further additions, especially if Snodgrass is sold/loaned out. Who is favourite to come in? Well, as I said, at the time of writing, the grape vine has it that Bilic does not want to sign another striker (lets hope that Sakho and Carroll’s fitness justifies that decision). That is fine if it means that Martinez will be in the frame for a first team debut at some point. I suppose Bilic also reasons that Antonio and Ayew can both play as auxiliary central strikers if circumstances necessitate, which is a fair point. If Snodgrass does exit we will need another wide player. We have Antonio and Arnautovic and promising youngsters like Holland, Samuelsson and Quina as cover. I feel that those three should take a step nearer the first team this coming season (although most thought the same about Burke and Cullen) and they should be encouraged to do so.
So, I reckon one additional wide player is necessary and the favourite seems to be Jota of Brentford Town. A Spanish winger, who was their creative font last season and has the very handy tendency of weighing in with his fair share of goals. The player allegedly wants the move to the London Stadium and has resisted overtures from Newcastle Utd (The frozen north does not appeal apparently!). So, the scene looks set for a deal, possibly on deadline day? A new defensive/box-to-box midfielder is likely to be signed if recent reports are to be believed. Lets hope it is the option that we all prefer. Apart from Ogbonna, we lack pace in central defence and is that surprising with both Fonte and Collins still at the club. Rice can play at centre-back, but at this stage of his career is he ready for that position; or would he better deployed in midfield? I am still to make my mind up on that point. In my view Burke should have stayed and provided cover. Remember this is a young player with a number of competitive first team appearances under his belt and he looked the part in pre-season. Still it is notable that the Burke/Cullen loans to Bolton are only until January, so it could be that they will be recalled and figure in the New Year. We shall see? I suppose the safest option is to sell Collins and sign another centre-back, but they did seem reluctant to do that, presumably in the knowledge that they have three such outstanding prospects as Rice, Oxford and Burke emerging from the Academy. However, this evening the news story broke that we are interested in signing Man City centre-back, Mangala. I cannot say that I am very keen on that potential deal, but lets see what transpires.
So, we have hardly ‘hit the ground running’ but it is correct to preach patience and look at the bigger picture in terms of the new squad gelling in the coming weeks. Talking of poor starts to a season, I was reminded recently of the 1974-75 season. It was the early post-Moore/Hurst period and we were in a difficult transition to the succeeding Bonds/Brooking era. In addition, Lyall had just succeeded Greenwood as manager, with the latter becoming General Manager responsible for scouting/transfers amongst other wider club matters. In 1973-74 we just avoided relegation with a 18th place finish, accumulating 37 points from 42 matches, and we started the following season poorly with defeats versus Man City (A – 4-0), Everton (H – 2-3), Newcastle Utd (A – 2-0), Sheffield Utd (H – 1-2) and Spurs (A – 2-1). By mid-September 1974 we were languishing at the foot of the table with 3 points, gained from a 2-0 home victory over Luton Town and a 0-0 away draw with the same opponents. Believe me things looked very grim indeed at that point!
Yet, Greenwood worked his magic and regenerated our prospects with the acquisition of Billy Jennings, Keith Robson and Alan Taylor, as they quickly gelled with the likes of Gould, Paddon, Brooking and Bonds to create a new exciting unit. The change signalled itself as a single, advanced swallow in the form of the 6-0 home demolition of Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup. And summer quickly followed with goals and exciting displays in a run of league victories over Leicester City (H- 6-0), Birmingham City (A -1-3) and Burnley (A – 3-5), amongst some very memorable performances/results. In fact, up until 28 December 1974, we only lost another two matches. Admittedly, the ‘wheels did come off’ results wise in the New Year, but we finished in a relatively comfortable 13th place and by then the 1975 cup run had fully gripped our attentions.
1974-75 will always be one of my favourite seasons, primarily because of the way our season turned around, the quality of our football and that memorable Cup victory over Fulham. I know that performance/progress in the PL is crucial these day, but this example does serve to illustrate that it is not always wise to get too depressed based on initial results because the fortunes of clubs can and do change for the better. Some times beyond the scope of what fans imagine possible at the time of the opening defeat(s).
Lets hope for all our sakes that these prove ‘wise’ and not ‘famous last words’ on our prospects for the 2017-18 season.