The S J Chandos Column

Click! - Now consistency is the objective!

Well, the squad did choose the Everton match to ‘click’ and produced a very good away performance and victory. I am sure that most Hammers fans felt a overwhelming sense of relief at the final whistle. As I stated in last week’s article, the club needed the result on a number of levels, not least of which was the need to take the ‘wind out of the sails’ of the media and social media negative feeding frenzy around our club. Even in the midst of such a notable away victory, Sky still felt the need to make the allegation about Perez supposedly refusing to warm up to come on as a substitute in the second half. Both Pellegrini and Perez have since refuted the allegation and that is the end of it. But it does demonstrate how our club appears to be the media’s current favourite PL target for controversial stories/headlines. At the end of the day, it is only sustained good performances and results will change that.

The result vindicated the selection of Rice and Obiang in a dual defensive midfield partnership. They really impressed and combined well with ‘old war horse’ Mark Noble in a more advanced midfield role. Both players deserve credit for recovering from underwhelming starts to the season (Rice’s substitution against Liverpool and Obiang’s initial non-selection) and are now underlining their obvious qualities. We all knew Obiang’s credentials in this role, but it is a relatively new one for Rice, after playing at centre-back in his debut season. The youngster has had to adjust to the demands of the role, but he is obviously a quick learner and that is one of the things that I like about Rice, his ability to learn his lessons and quickly put them in to practice. That is a sign of footballing intelligence and sheer class. All things being equal, Rice is going to become a top player and we need to ensure that he is signed to a new, long-term contract. So, my advice to the board is to stop quibbling about the £30,000 a week and get the deal done as soon as possible.

That said, one thing that does trouble me slightly is our current lack of overall strength-in-depth in midfield. With Wilshere’s reported ankle injury, we definitely lack options there if stretched. We are fine at present with Obiang-Rice- Noble, with Sanchez for cover, as long as they all stay fit. If not, then we could find ourselves in the grip of a injury crisis. What are the available options then? Utilise Zabaletta in midfield or draft in Oxford? In retrospect, was it the correct decision to loan out Cullen, Browne and Fernandes? We need to keep a watching brief on that situation.

The Everton win also underlined the true potential of Anderson, Arnautovic and Yarmolenko as our front three. We all know Arnautovic’s ability and he is almost proving a bargain buy at £25m. The truth is that in Arnautovic, we have a player who is easily a ‘top four’ type of quality striker. Hence, why Man Utd were actively sniffing around him in the summer. Respect to David Moyes, last season, for spotting the Austrian’s ability to play centrally and converting him from his accustomed wide role. We all know Yarmolenko’s track record and it was never really a gamble to sign him from Dortmand. He was obviously struggling at the beginning of the season from both his disrupted pre-season and the legacy of a lack of playing time in Germany last season. As a consequence, Yarmolenko had a bit of a ‘stop-start’ commencement to his West Ham career. However, he really demonstrated what he is all about on Sunday and his fitness and form (plus goal scoring) will only improve. Finally, Anderson illustrated the skill and technique at his command and the reasons why we paid a club record fee to Lazio for his signature. He appears most effective when directly running at defenders. When he does that he causes chaos in their ranks and they are forced to double mark him, which frees up extra space for his colleagues to exploit. Anderson probably needs to work on two aspects of his game, his decisions in making the key pass/assist and his finishing. There is little doubt that he can become a top class creative force, but can he also weigh-in with his share of goals? We shall see?

Another pleasing factor was the improved cohesion in defence. The defence obviously benefited from the assurance of Rice-Obiang playing in front of them, but they also looked more solid in their own right. Fabianski is proving a very reliable custodian and a presence that breeds confidence in his defenders. In addition, Diop looks stronger and more commanding with each appearance. Diop’s centre-back partner on this occasion, Balbuena, also looked solid and competent. Yes, he probably should have beaten Sigurdsson to the header, for Everton’s goal, but apart from that he did not put a foot wrong. I had anticipated that Pellegrini would go with a Diop-Ogbonna CB partnership and that could yet emerge as the preferred option. Nevertheless, it is always good to have strength in-depth and competition for places, although I have a feeling that CB selection this season could become a case of Diop plus one other.

With regard to the full-backs, I must admit that I prefer Fredericks-Cresswell as a combination. However, you can not knock either Zabaletta or Masuaku on the basis of Sunday’s performance. At the end of the day, it is very much a squad game these days and the name of the managerial game is using the resources available in the squad to the best effect over the course of the entire season. And it is almost a certainty that both Fredericks and Cresswell will get their fair share of game time this season.

In terms of other squad members that have not hitherto featured much, one can only hope that they buckle down and fight for a starting slot and prove their point on the pitch. I am principally thinking of the likes of Perez and Hernandez. They are both very talented strikers and when their chance comes they need to be ready to grab it with both hands. That will give Pellegrini the type of selection headache that managers welcome. In that respect, I like the attitude of Antonio, who has reportedly stated his determination to play himself back in to his best form and secure more playing time. That is the type of positive attitude we want to see right throughout the squad.

Finally, having put the Toffees to the sword, we now face a tough (home) double-header against Chelsea and Man Utd. As stated, we saw the side ‘click’ last Sunday – now we need to see something else – consistency. That needs to be the objective. We need to demonstrate that we have turned a corner and can replicate or even supersede the Everton performance. As a challenge, both matches are a step up from the Toffees, but that is what it is all about – pitting yourself against the PL top four and getting results.

They are admittedly very tough back-to-back fixtures, but the performances/results should tell us something definitive about the mettle of Pellegrini’s Hammers. I am going to be uncharacteristically cautious and predict two very entertaining score draws! COYI.

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

Will Everton (away) be the match where we finally 'click?'

We can only hope so! Few Hammers fans would have thought that they would be looking at four straight defeats at the beginning of the season, but that is the way that it has played out and we just need to get on and rectify it as soon as possible. If the losing run continues much longer then the pressure on Pellegrini, the players and the board will just continue to build up and no one wants that.

This could prove to be a good possible opportunity to start turning things around, with a number of Everton first teamers allegedly absent due to injury and suspension. We really do need the win to ‘take the wind out of the sails’ of media and social media feeding frenzy around our club. At the very least we need a draw to get a point on the board and stop the rot. However, three points would be preferable with the Chelsea and Man Utd matches following on from Sunday. Mind you, it would be just like the contrary nature of West Ham to rise to the occasion and win points from the latter two fixtures. It has happened in previous seasons, where we have looked at a run of very tough fixtures (with everyone predicting nil points) and they actually end up getting some good results. Lets hope that particular aspect of West Ham history is repeated in the coming weeks.

It is easy to become very gloomy and pessimistic when results have not gone your way. But not everything is negative. Fabianski has looked a bargain buy so far this season and I have lost count of the ‘almost cert’ goals he has saved in our first four PL games. Fredericks has taken time to settle in to the right-back role and is now starting to perform to expectations. Cresswell has returned from injury well and looks by far the most solid available option at left-back. Diop played extremely well against Wolves and demonstrated his potential with a commanding overall display. While Anderson played his most effective game at Arsenal (in the No.10 role), running at the opposition and creating chaos in the Gooners rearguard. I would argue that Anderson must be given greater freedom to replicate that type of performance. Finally, Silva is looking an absolute bargain and scoring regularly for the U-23s. It can only be a matter of time (if he continues to impress) before he is selected for the bench for a PL game. Might his time come earlier than expected against Everton?

In terms of other areas of play, we probably need the greater experience and mobility of Ogbonna, alongside Diop, in central defence. Obiang and Rice should arguably be selected to start on Sunday, in a dual defensive midfield role; allowing Wilshire to be pushed in to a more advanced midfield role. Up front, we need an attacking three of Arnautovic, Yarmolenko and Anderson. This trio looks a potentially devastating combination, with their collective skill, power and technique, but they need to start realising that rich potential soon. In particular, they must start converting the chances that fall their way. Against both Arsenal and Wolves we missed some very good chances and, but for that profligacy, both matches could have had very different results.

While we wait and hope that Pellegrini gets it right soon (on the pitch), the unfolding conflict between West Ham and their landlord (off of it) continues to rumbles on. With publicly released correspondence, statements/counter-statements and on-going legal processes, it is all getting very fractious and counter-productive. And so far, it has to be said that the landlords are coming over very clearly as the unreasonable party in this whole unfortunate saga. Yes, the landlord obviously resents the content of the deal signed with West Ham United, but the club have a legally water tight contract that still has 97 years to run. If huge future debts are to be avoided then a new line is necessary.

The landlords should respect the terms of that contract and opt to work productively with the club to make the stadium a commercial/financial success. They can do that by: fostering improved relations between Tenant and landlord; accepting the offer from the club to pay for the pitch surround (whether claret or a combination of Club and landlord branding); drawing on the club’s in-house commercial/sponsorship expertise to get a major naming rights sponsor and secure other necessary commercial opportunities; and hold meaningful discussion about the club purchasing additional rights at the Stadium. This also means the landlord dropping the illegal tactic of trying to load additional payments on to the club (outside of the terms of the existing contract); engaging in childish behaviour like confiscating the club’s honours board and refusing to reinstate it before they receive payment of non-existent debts; ceasing to irresponsibly waste public monies on futile legal cases where the club have a ‘water tight’ case; and convincing Mayor Khan of the need to be more conciliatory and take a co-operative and partnership line in order to solve the Stadium’s current financial issues.

If that cannot be done under the existing arrangements, then perhaps the landlord will eventually find themselves in a position where they will have to ‘cut their losses’ by negotiating an acceptable deal for West Ham to purchase the Stadium outright?

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

Was it a mistake selling Cheikhou Kouyate?

There is presently something of a media and social media ‘feeding frenzy’ around our club. The media love promoting stories on the ‘crisis club’ of the moment and we have duly obliged in providing them with their early season focus. It is predictable that the media would be ‘all over’ our current woes and it has been compounded by endless negative conjuncture on social media. At the moment, West Ham related media stories are the on-going financial/Legal disputes with E20, Defra Sakho’s discarded ‘super car,’ the absence of suitable training facilities and a coherent scouting/recruitment system at the club and the estimated timing of Pellegrini’s sacking. If anything, social media is even more painful to read, characterised as it is by the most profound and thoroughgoing negativity. The best example of which is the depressing (and defeatist) conjecture that we may well remain without a PL point until the end of October!!

In addition, former professionals are also adding fuel to the fire, with Tony Cascarino urging the club to sack Pellegrini, Tony Cottee arguing that David Moyes should still be in charge, and Craig Bellamy speculating about our inability to retain Arnautovic’s services beyond the end of the January window. Another ex-professional, with strong views about our current predicament, is ex-Gooner and Sky Pundit, Paul Merson. Merson has been scathing about our performances so far this season and, in a recent edition of Sky’s Sports’ ‘The Debate, he has specifically criticised the decision to sell Cheikou Kouyate to Crystal Palace, for a reported fee of c.£11m. Merson forcefully argued on the Sky programme: ’I think if there was one player that could get around midfield and hurry people up, it was Kouyate who has gone to Crystal Palace. He went for a cup of tea, I think it was about £8m, which is nothing.’

Is Merson right about Kouyate’s sale? I would say both yes and no! I do firmly believe that West Ham are missing a powerful, box-to-box, type midfielder. The type of player that contributes the graft/energy to compliment the more creative midfield players. We are currently being outfought in midfield and that was clearly demonstrated in both home defeats against Bournemouth and Wolves. As well as losing Kouyate, we have crucially also sent both Fernandes and Cullen (as possible alternative options) out on loan, leaving us with Rice, Obiang, Sanchez, Noble and Wilshere as our available options. You cannot criticise either Noble or Wilshere for not fulfilling this midfield power house role, they can both graft, but they are arguably more technical players, with the ability to pass the ball and orchestrate play. While Obiang and Sanchez are specialist defensive midfielders, whose role is to shield the defence and break up opposition attacks. Could Declan Rice suit the role? Potentially yes, in time, but we must consider his age and relative inexperience. So, yes, we are definitely missing an experienced, Kouyate type player.

Indeed, I would undoubtedly have argued for retaining Kouyate if he was still the power house player that performed so well in his first two seasons at the club. He was particularly impressive in 2015-16, when he was a major factor in our successful campaign. However, over the subsequent two seasons he was quite never the same force and was frequently criticised by fans for his decreased work rate and tendency to cheaply lose possession. As such, I was fairly open to his sale this summer, but I had anticipated that he would be replaced by a box-to-box midfielder who could perhaps be considered an upgrade. Unfortunately, that deal did not materialise and we are presently living with its consequences, a squad with a obvious lack in that department.

One piece of social media conjecture that I did find interesting was the reports that we presently have a first team squad of 23 players (i.e. two short). This has led to the suggestion that one or two free agent signings could still arrive at the club. I am not sure if this is correct, but if it is then the priority must surely be to identify whether there is a suitable free agent who could add some much needed work rate and grit to our midfield. If not then, then that may well be one of our priorities in the January window, if we definitely cannot find a solution within the resources of the current squad.

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

To 'three or not to three' - that is the question (or is there a tactical alternative)?

First of all, apologies to the great Bard for taking liberties with the well known speech from Hamlet! The ‘three’ referred to, of course, relates to the suggestion, advocated in some Hammers social media outlets, that Pellegrini should go with three at the back, and two wing backs, against Arsenal. This is most likely a knee jerk reaction to last season, when the only truly solid defensive formation that we seemed capable of fielding involved deploying three central defenders. In fact, under David Moyes, we got quite accomplished playing that way, by the season’s conclusion, and, one surmises, if he had been appointed in the summer he would have continued with that type of tactical formation.

It is a reassuring way to play, a sort of defensive/tactical ‘comfort blanket’ if you like. And I can fully understand the attraction of setting up that way when playing at a daunting venue like the Emirates, where we have had precious little success in recent years (apart from that stand out Bilic victory in 2015). However, it ignores the fact that Pellegrini has a master plan to get the Hammers playing in a different and more open system and that involves them deploying four at the back. Pellegrini has recruited well and he is trying to establish his own system of play, so it makes sense that (at this early stage of the season) he will persevere playing with a flat back four. To do otherwise would be a clear sign of panic by the Chilean coach and he is undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than that.

So, I expect Pellegrini to continue trying to embed his chosen style of play and not play with three at the back. However, there is an alternative and that involves utilising a player like Declan Rice to move between defence and midfield, turning a 3-1-5-1 (in possession) in to a 4-2-3-1 (out of possession). It was deployed by Terry Venables, when he was England coach, and involved utilising a certain Gareth Southgate in this key role. Basically, it would mean playing with two defensive midfielders and one (ideally Declan Rice) moving back to form a back three in possession. This would, in turn, give the full-backs/wing-backs the freedom to push forward down the flanks (to provide width) and the wide forwards (i.e. Anderson and Yarmolenko) to cut inside to reinforce midfield and support Arnautovic at the apex of our attacking play. Such a system would give us the defensive assurance of three at the back, put an extra man in midfield (out of possession); while allowing the full-backs to get forward, the wide men to cut inside (as Anderson and Yarmolenko are very well equipped to do) and give Arnautovic the support he needs in his lone striker role.

In short, we could potentially have the best of both worlds tactically, if we adopted it, combining three at the back with Pellegrini’s preferred more open system of play. The down side is that it is a more complex tactical formation and it is probably reliant upon a youngster like Declan Rice operating in this key, inter-changeable, back three-defensive midfield role. It would probably also involve Sanchez or Obiang partnering with Rice as the defensive midfield two, Diop partnering Ogbonna (as a standing central defensive partnership), with Rice moving back to create a three and Sanchez or Obiang covering. Then either Noble or Wilshere would pull the strings in central midfield and the Anderson-Yarmolenko combination on the flanks would cut inside to reinforce midfield and/or support the lone striker (preferably Arnautovic).

I have written this blog to promote discussion on this type of system, which has really fascinated me ever since Venables deployed it with England in the 1990s. Could it be the answer to our defensive problems and allow, at the same time, Pellegrini to develop the offensive system to which he aspires?

My preferred XI in this formation would be:

Fabianski, Fredericks, Cresswell, Sanchez, Rice, Diop, Ogbonna, Wilshere, Anderson, Arnautovic & Yarmolenko

Subs: Adrian, Zabaletta, Noble, Snodgrass, Antonio, Perez and Hernandez

The true beauty (and litmus test) of this system is its adaptability and the option of taking off one of the two defensive midfielders (Sanchez or Rice) and putting on either Noble or Snodgrass to reinforce midfield or a second striker to combine with Arnautovic at the apex of the attack.

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

A belated point arising from last Sunday's opening defeat! .....

It is neither of the points hammered home recently in the media that Klopp’s Liverpool are a ‘cut above’ and the main challengers to Man City’s PL dominance (both of which are probably true). No, I am talking about the point (that largely went under the media radar) that even the very best managers need time to get the best individual and team performances from their sides. For instance, lets look at Klopp’s record at Liverpool. He may have made great strides since, but his first season at the club was definitely one of transition. Klopp took over in early October 2015 and I do not need to remind Hammers fans that we beat his team twice that season at the Boleyn in both the PL and the FA Cup. In fact, 2015-16 was a real ‘red letter’ season in respect of how well we did against Liverpool, having defeated them three times in total (once under Brendan Rodger’s management prior to Klopp taking over). In May 2016, Liverpool finished 8th in the Premier league (a place below West Ham) and without a domestic cup victory. Similarly, look at Pep Guardiola at Man City, in his first season in charge he had (for him) a relatively mixed bag of results and finished, by City’s standards, in a mediocre 3rd place. So, both of these (now) PL managerial titans required a transition period to bed in their ideas, adjust their squads (with their multi-million budgets) and get the type of results expected of them.

Manuel Pellegrini is a good manager and he has spent the £100m budget wisely, bringing in some very good players. Surely no one denies that? That his new squad did not instantly click should not surprise us. He needs to perfect his system with the the players and be clear in his own mind which combination can best deliver. You would have hoped that he could have largely resolved that in pre-season, but with the shortened transfer window and the influx of 10 new players, outgoing transfers/loans, some players returning late from World Cup duty and some arriving with knocks/strains, it was probably asking a lot for all of it to be completely resolved before the big kick off. But, nevertheless, I remain confident in the club’s transfer business, Pellegrini’s managerial pedigree and his ability to get the side producing the type of performances/results we all want to see. Hopefully, with the positive, upward curve starting this Saturday.

Last Sunday’s opener was a harsh lesson, but maybe it was one that needed to be learnt early! Personally, I thought that we would probably be beaten, but I hoped that the score line would have been closer and we would have given a better account of ourselves. Two things particularly annoyed me on Sunday, firstly the way we lost concentration just before half time and conceded the second goal. We fell in that trap a few times last season (who can forget Crystal Palace’s late equaliser against us at Selhurst Park) and it needs to stop. With just a minute or two to go until the break, we should be able to ‘batten down’ the hatches and see it out. It was so disappointing to go in 2-0, rather than 1-0 down and it must affect the players psychologically. The other factor was the match officials failing to spot that the third Liverpool goal was off-side by a substantial margin. A very disappointing omission. We would almost certainly have still lost 3-0, if not 4-0, but that is not the point, the officials need to get these straightforward decisions right. It did not need VAR, it was so clear cut.

Nevertheless, ‘we are, where we are’ and Pellegrini would have been left with a lot to ponder at the final whistle. It will be very instructive/indicative to see his selection for Saturday’s home fixture. Will Pellegrini bring in Zabaletta and/or Cresswell (if fit?); replace Balbuena with Diop; retain Rice at DM or bring in Obiang or Sanchez; start with Anderson and Yarmolenko; and go with Arnautovic, as a lone striker, or partner him up front with either Hernandez or Perez? You can certainly guarantee that the mechanics of playing with a high defensive line will have been worked through with the defenders and defensive midfielders to perfect its application. This appears to be a characteristic of his preferred defensive system and it seems unlikely that he will abandon it just yet (or, alternatively, could he surprise us and do just that?). Hopefully, the outputs of the squad’s work on the training pitch this week will be seen against Bournemouth. Personally, I will be looking for far more defensive cohesion, a high % of possession, greater control over central MF, improved adventure/creativity from our forwards and a cutting edge up front.

I know that Pellegrini has taken the opportunity to train the first team squad at the London Stadium this week, to acclimatise his players/staff to the arena. One can only hope that this is the season that the LS ceases to be considered problematic and, instead, becomes a huge asset to the club. I guess that will very largely be down to the fans and the positive atmosphere that is generated. But as I have always said, it is a two way street, if the players give the fans positive performances, than they will get all the home atmosphere/support that they could possibly need. They can be assured of that in advance!

SJ. Chandos.

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