The S J Chandos Column

7 Points from a possible 9 - West Ham confound the 'critics' yet again!

We all know that it was not so long ago that West Ham stood stranded at the foot of the table on an abject zero points. That was the situation before the last international break and the transformation in our fortunes since has been quite amazing. Many were darkly predicting that we could be well in to October before we picked up our first PL point. I was not amongst them because I comforted myself with (a) the thought that it was only a matter of time before Pellegrini found that elusive winning formula/formation and (b) the knowledge that in prior seasons the team have faced a very difficult run of fixtures and responded by accruing a healthy return of points against all the odds. And that is exactly the scenario that emerged once again.

West Ham social media is now suddenly a radically different environment. Where previously fans did not know where the first point was coming from, confidence was shaken in Pellegrini’s managerial credentials and his transfer choices were widely questioned, now only positivity reigns. It is truly amazing what 7 out of 9 points, plus a bumper 8-0 cup victory, can do for the spirits of supporters previously in the deep grip of despair. And that is only positive, in the sense of building fan belief in the players and exciting project being developed by Pellegrini and his staff. I also happen to feel that the debuts of the three Academy youngsters has also buoyed the spirits of the Hammers fan base; the Academy is very important to our supporters and witnessing three debutants making the breakthrough against Macclesfield has only contributed to the growing optimism.

Indeed, the plus column of the West Ham balance sheet really stands out at present. I have identified many of these factors in previous articles. They include: the outstanding form of Fabianski; a defence which appears to be gelling as a unit and securing ever greater cohesion/solidarity; a effective midfield based upon the defensive cover/graft provided by the duo of Rice and Obiang and a revitalised Mark Noble, playing in a more advanced role; the realisation of the skill, pace and power of a front three of Anderson, Arnautovic and Yarmolenko; the steady improvement demonstrated by players such as Antonio and Snodgrass; and the recent advent of Diangana, Powell and Coventry and the rich potential of others such as Holland and Silva.

It is, indeed, a rosy picture in many respects, but there are also dangers and potential pitfalls as well and these need to be acknowledged. Perhaps the greatest single ‘threat’ is the recent injuries to Wilshere and Sanchez and our current ‘thinness’ of options in central midfield. In the aftermath of Wilshere’s injury, I had identified that we would most probably be ok in central midfield as long as Rice-Obiang-Sanchez-Noble remained fit and available. That is no longer the case, with Sanchez likely to be out for the remainder of the season. As a consequence, Pellegrini, and his staff, must be secretly very anxious about Rice-Obiang-Noble staying injury free over the coming weeks. If an injury was to occur to any of these three key players, just how would we cope/respond? Would Pellegrini be happy with throwing Powell or Coventry in to the PL fight or is that move perhaps a bit too premature?

We have good cover at goal keeper and across the defence, so that should not be too much of a problem. Looking at the front three – we have some very able squad options in the wide positions. I am thinking here principally of Snodgrass and Antonio; however, we remain very dependent upon Arnautovic to lead the forward line. Now that both Anderson and Yarmolenko have registered their initial PL goals (along with Antonio and Snodgrass in the cup) one sincerely hopes that the rest of the forwards will start weighing-in with their fair share of goals. However, the fact remains that Arnautovic is our best forward and we are still heavily reliant upon his inspirational presence to lead and give focus to our attack. The situation with regard to Perez and Hernandez remains unclear at present. Perez converted his first goal against Macclesfield and one can only hope that he progresses significantly from this point onwards. While Hernandez as been missing through illness and has been unable to stake any sort of claim to a first team place. The additional factor is Andy Carroll’s impending return from injury, but yet again, there is a distinct lack of clarity about Pellegrini’s intent with regard to his future use of Carroll in his proposed/developing system of play?

Nor do we know what the club’s plans are in doing business in the January window? Having spent c.£100m in the summer, is it likely that the board will sanction further business in January? Perhaps it will be a matter of moving out loanees (like Fernandes and Hugill) and sacrificing players deemed surplus to requirements to raise transfer funds for one or two more inward coming deals? We will have to wait and see what happens on that one.

I pointed to Declan Rice’s contract situation some time ago. I will only repeat my advice to the board that they agree a new long-term contract with the youngster as soon as practically possible. One has to take some of the speculation with a pinch of salt, but there are some fairly reliable rumours circulating that Rice wants a new six year contract, with the first three years on £30,000 per week and the next second three years on £35,000 per week. Considering his ability, and the progress achieved to date, is that unreasonable? I think not, get the contract agreed and that is one potential threat/danger that can be safely laid to rest.

Finally, we face Brighton & Hove Albion in this Friday evening’s Sky match. Last season we suffered two heavy defeats to Brighton and this match will be a good litmus test of how far we have progressed. With Arnautovic leading the line, I am hoping that we will have too much for the Seagulls this season. As such I am going for a 1-2 West Ham away win, securing 10 points from a possible 12 and extending the unbeaten run to five matches. COYI!

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

Intensity, efficiency and ruthlessness - A clear recipe for future success!

Wednesday evening’s Carabao Cup performance was marked by the consistent intensity of our play, the efficiency with which we approached the task and the ultimate ruthlessness with which we dispatched our opponents. This is a clear recipe (if it can be replicated) for the club’s future success. Too often in the past West Ham have struggled with this calibre of opponent, but not this time as the team achieved everything expected of it and much more besides. It was good to see players like Perez and Snodgrass utilise the opportunity presented by the match to shake off the ‘ring rust’ and ‘open up the throttle’ to start firing on all cylinders; and of course, other regular first teamers like Ogbonna, Fredericks and Cresswell also secured invaluable additional game time. However, perhaps the single most pleasing aspect of the entire evening was the first team debuts of Powell, Coventry and Diangana and, particularly, the latter’s two goal return.

This Macclesfield Town match also proves just how crucial luck is in football. Silva and Holland were the U-21 prospects widely seen as most likely to make an immediate impact at first team level. Yet injury strikes at the wrong time and that gives others the opportunity to impress in their stead. Make no mistake, both Silva and Holland remain top prospects, its probably just going to take that bit longer than originally anticipated. Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, it is probably a huge positive that three youngsters (Powell, Coventry and Diangana) have emerged so strongly and, yet, outstanding prospects likes of Holland and Silva remain on the production line. It would seem that the Academy of Football could very well be back and that is a development that will be welcomed by every true Hammers fan.

I must admit that I had initially feared that the Academy might suffer when Pellegrini was first appointed. However, in retrospect, Pellegrini probably knows that the transfer budget at the London Stadium (although substantial) is unlikely to ever rival the riches available at the likes of Man City and that, as a consequence, the Academy supply line remains an essential pre-requisite. Indeed, I have recently been encouraged by Pellegrini’s nurturing of the Academy and the encouragement he has given to our youngsters. The three debuts on Wednesday is a clear indication of that.

Following on from the victory at Everton, and the hard fought draw home against Chelsea, this result has given the whole club a massive shot in the arm. It has nicely set us up for the Manchester United home match and the very real possibility of another eye catching performance/result. Yes, our talismanic striker, Marco Arnautovic, could very well still be missing through injury and, if so, we need to show faith in Lucas Perez and select him to lead the line on Saturday. This is the essence of a squad system, strength in depth, competition for places and players ready and waiting to take their opportunities when they present themselves. If Perez gets the nod on Saturday then he needs to ‘step up to the plate’ and grab his chance with both hands. What is certain is that Perez will be in a far better place to achieve that after his goal scoring performance on Wednesday. Confidence is a huge factor in football and never more so than for strikers, who thrive on self-confidence. Hopefully, we will start to see exactly what Perez can achieve on the bigger, PL stage.

Manchester United will arrive at London Stadium, fresh from the humiliation of exiting the cup on Tuesday at the hands of Championship club, Derby County. Can we add to Jose’s mounting woes? One would certainly hope so. However, I am not going to tempt fate by changing my prior call. I am still going for an entertaining score draw, which will hopefully set us up for an away victory, the following Friday evening, at Brighton & Hove Albion. COYI!

With regard to the fourth round of the Carabao Cup, the draw takes place this Saturday evening (Broadcast live on Quest – Sky 144, Virgin 172 and Freeview 37), at 9pm and West Ham have been allocated ball number 15. Hopefully, we will get another ‘kind’ home draw. The numbers best avoided (if at all possible) are: 2. (Arsenal), 5. (Chelsea),
10. (Man City) and 14. (Tottenham).

The best available draws are probably: 3. (Blackpool), 4. (Burton), 11. (Middlesboro), 12. (Norwich City) and 13. (Nottingham F.).

SJ. Chandos.

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.

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