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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Talking Point

Optimism displaces the usual pre-season apprehension at the London Stadium!

Without a shadow of doubt, this has been an excellent summer transfer window for West Ham Utd. The board finally woke up to the fact the club’s ambitions needed to begin matching the rhetoric that sold the move to the LS. Things were obviously too close for comfort in 2017-18 (in terms of flirting with relegation) and the board belatedly realised that a radical change was necessary. Consequently, they recruited a genuine top class manager and backed him with sufficient resources to restructure the squad. And what a good and professional job the club made of their transfer business. We have recruited some top notch players, who will give us vastly improved quality and greater strength-in-depth. The end result is that the 2018-19 season is now eagerly awaited with optimism by West Ham supporters and that makes a very nice change from apprehension that reigned at the start of the previous two seasons at the London Stadium.

Of all the incoming deals, Anderson, Wilshere and Diop stand out for me But, truth be told, we do not appear to have made a bad signing and I would urge fans to give Carlos Sanchez a ‘fair shake’ before we start pre-maturely writing him off. I know that some fans have reservations about the player, but he is a Hammer now and we need to give him every opportunity to show us what he can do (more on Sanchez later in the blog). I genuinely could not believe that Arsenal were prepared to let Perez go for £4-5m, but they did and I am very grateful for that particular act of generosity. I have seen us on the wrong end of so many deals with Arsenal down the decades (i.e. John Radford, Stewart Robson, Davor Suker, Freddie Ljungberg) that it feels quite novel to have potentially got the better of them with the signing of Wilshere and Perez! Both players are class technicians and have a lot to prove to their former employers. If Wilshere stays fit (which he largely has done for the last two seasons) then he can be a really shine in our central midfield and add a whole new dimension to the side. With regard to Perez, one gets the impression that (for whatever reason) he fell out of favour with Wenger and was not given a fair opportunity at the Emirates. His success depends on him quickly shaking off his Arsenal disappointments and getting back to the form that originally made them sign him in 2016.

Arguably, Anderson is less technician than magician and is the type of player that can really make things happen in the final third. Apparently, the Brazilian is also more than prepared to roll up his sleeves and battle back and cover as well, which is real added bonus. He can beat players with ease, set up goals with sublime forward passes and is effective at set pieces. Anderson will presumably play on the right, with Yarmolenko on the left (although both players have the ability to swop flanks or, indeed, play through the middle if required). They could form a devastating wing partnership, with Anderson’s vision, skill and guile and Yarmolenko’s speed, height and goal scoring ability. I do not envy PL defences coping with that combination running at them!

Issa Diop is an outstanding young centre-back, with the potential to blossom in to an international class defender. Basically, he has the lot in his armoury – including the all-important ability to play the ball out from the back. However, it is possible that Diop might need to transition to the greater pace and physicality of the EPL – if so, we must show patience and hope that he does it quickly with the likes of Ogbonna there to guide him. Indeed, it will be very interesting to see our starting central defensive partnership for the opener with Liverpool. I would anticipate that it will be Diop-Ogbonna, but Fabian Balbuena could equally come in to the equation. I was not familiar with Balbuena prior to him signing for us, but he has had a good pre-season and he looks both a worthy successor and a very significant upgrade on James Collins.

Pellegrini recognised our defensive frailties last season and set about addressing them right from the off. In addition to Diop and Balbuena, we also made two very good signings in Fabianski and Fredericks. Fabianski will provide Adrian with tough competition for the keepers gloves. We now have two very good keepers and, hopefully, healthy competition will push them both to achieve ever higher standards of competency. Because that is what we need – competency, consistency and an absence of silly goal keeping mistakes. We picked Ryan Fredericks up on a free transfer and it was an obvious a blow to newly promoted Fulham to lose him. He is a fast and skilful right-back/wing back with the ability to both defend and get forward very effectively to support the attack. I anticipate Fredericks starting at Liverpool, with Zabaletta on the bench.

Finally, we have Sanchez and the Portuguese youngster, Silva. ‘The Rock’ is a very experienced international class defensive midfielder, with over 80 caps for Columbia. The signing was not universally welcomed by all Hammers fans, but at 32, it is likely that Pellegrini has been brought him in as experienced cover for Rice and Obiang at DM. That is a back up role that some alternative targets might not have been prepared to play. In welcoming Sanchez to the club, the Director of Football, also rather tellingly mentioned Sanchez’s reputation for being a positive influence in the dressing room/training ground. So, that could also be a significant factor. Regardless, Pellegrini’s new West Ham should be a meritocracy and if Sanchez takes his opportunities and shines, he should play. On the other side of the coin Silva has been signed as ‘one for the future.’ It is unlikely that the talented young forward will be named in the senior squad of 25 just yet, because the initial priority is clearly to develop him via the U-23 squad.

It is easy to just focus on our exciting new signings, but lets not forget the excellent players that they have joined at the club. Together they should form a squad with both quality and strength-in-depth. A lot will depend on the time that it takes Pellegrini to integrate new and existing players in to his preferred system/style of play; as well as getting some rare good fortune with injuries and suspensions. Regardless, our transfer business means that we should be confident that the focus this campaign will be on looking up (to challenge the top 6-8) rather than down (to avoid the bottom three). Lets see? If that is the case, then we fans can enjoy the ride and just see what unfolds over the coming months? Who knows, it might be a whole lot better than the pundits are predicting.


SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

A New Era? - It is looking that way!

Prior to last season’s conclusion, I raised the issue of the future of David Moyes in my column. At the time I had not come to a conclusion about whether the experienced Scot should be offered a new deal. but merely raised the issue because it seemed obvious to me that the club had to take a crucial (branching point) decision at the season’s end. If they were to attempt to carry on as they had for the past two seasons (signing free transfers, loans and long shots, mixed with the odd quality buy like Arnautovic, then Moyes was probably as good a managerial choice as they were likely to secure. If, on the other hand, the club wanted to start living up to their previous big statements, and promises, then we had to start showing ambition and push the boat out financially. That latter option would probably necessitate the recruitment of a top class manager to guarantee the success of the endeavour.

We now know that the Hammers board opted for a new course/direction and subsequently recruited Manuel Pellegrini to head it. A top manager like Pellegrini was always likely to insist on a substantial transfer budget and the signings to drastically improve the quality of the squad at his disposal. The Chilean manager is an advocate of an exciting, expansive, attacking style of play that Hammers fans will love. And it was obvious that major additions were necessary to enable him to play that way. That is not to say that the cardboard, that he inherited, was totally bare! The likes of Hernandez, Arnautovic, Antonio, Rice, Lanzini, Zabaletta, Byram (if he can get and stay fit), Mario (if he returns to the club) Cresswell, Masuaku and Ogbonna are all equipped to play in his system. Others such as Kouyate, Reid and Noble also have a possibility of adapting to it. While there is also the bonus of the potential that we have at U-21 level. in players such as Holland, Quina, Pask, Browne, Haksabanovic, Samuelson, Martinez and (even) Oxford that he will assess for first team readiness. Below them are youngsters of arguably even greater potential like Lewis and Johnson that could emerge as first team options over the next couple of seasons. It is significant that the new manager has put an embargo on the U-21s going out loan until he has assessed their potential and current stage of development. Finally, a decision needs to be urgently made on the futures of youngsters like Burke and Cullen that have been around the edges of the first team squad for some time. This needs to be done not only in the interests of the club, but equally importantly, the interests of the youngsters themselves.

At present there are lots of links and negotiations pertaining to flair players like Anderson (at Lazio), Pastore (PSG) and, the youngster, Diaz (Man City). These are presumably at various stages or, in Pastore’s case, proving abortive. Very sensibly, Pellegrini has began by augmenting West Ham’s leaky defence. We only managed to stem the flood of opposition goals, and gain some defensive cohesion, last season by perfecting a three at the back system. The new manager will presumably want to move away from that and play a far more flexible 4-2-2-2 system, with strong central defenders, who can play the ball out from the back and full-backs that get forward and offer width, to allow the wide players (like Anderson and Antonio) to cut insider and attack through more central positions and support the strikers.

To date, he has signed Fredericks (a player perfect for this system), Issa Diop (a strong, ball playing centre back, with huge potential to become a real star) and Fabianski, (the Polish international keeper). In addition, we have been linked with Marlon (of Barca), Mawson (of Swansea) and, another keeper, Jimenez (of Espanyol). It is possible that we could sign another centre-back and keeper to further revolutionise our defensive options next season. There has also been rumours that Rice will be primarily used as a defensive midfielder, rather than a centre-back, and Oxford will be very closely scrutinised before a decision is made on his future. It could be that Oxford exits to Germany (to raise additional funds) and we bring in another player like Anderlect’s Dendocker, who is apparently available for c.£16-18m.

In terms of attacking midfield/wide options, the injury to Lanzini (our most creative player) is a huge blow. And it is a blow that the club has had to adapt its transfer strategy to ameliorate. The seemingly endless haggling with Lazio is nearly at a conclusion. The latest reports suggest that we have offered 30m euros and add on clauses and a 10% sell on that meets Lazio’s demand for a overall fee of 42m euros. If this offer is rejected then the club is likely to reluctantly walk away and pursue other targets. As such, Lazio have a major decision to make. At the time of writing, the Pastore deal looks dead in the water, with the player preferring a returm to Serie A with Roma. While rumours persist that Pellegrini might seek a season long loan for Man City’s young play-maker, Diaz and there is the possibility of Wilshire signing on a free transfer from Arsenal. Plus, there is the outstanding question of Mario’s future and Spurs’ supposed alternative interest in the player, which could derail the prospect of his return to the club next season. The picture was further complicated yesterday by news that we are being linked to a number of other exciting midfield targets.

In terms of strikers, there seems to be an assumption that Pellegrini will continue with the existing striking triumvirate of Arnautovic, Hernandez and Carroll. In practice, that could see a arnautovic-Hernandez partnership up front, with Carroll (injuries allowing) adding something a bit different/more direct from the bench. That, of course, supposes that both Arnautovic and Hernandez remain at the club? As yet the much mooted interest from Man Utd in Arnautovic has not materialised (although there is now another link to Inter-Milan) and one can only hope that Pellegrini can talk Hernandez out of his Moyes induced strop of last season! It is a reasonable question to pose whether the manager will stick with Carroll? is he really Pelligrini’s type of striker and does he fit in to his preferred system of play? In terms of links with new strikers, we have been connected with a number, including Senegal’s Konate, Argentina’s Pavon and Celtic and France’s Moussa Dembele. Whether we move on these or any other striking targets remains to be seen.

In all honesty, I have tried to map some of the key links/negotiations in which we we are involved, but it is a frantic, frenetic process that is chucking up new names each day. Sorting the ‘wheat from the chaff’’ of rumours is difficult and, of course, who we line up/recruit is likely to have an undoubted influence on the players that we put up for sale. And there is always the unexpected developments coming out of left field, like yesterday evening’s reports that agents were ‘offering’ Arnautovic to Inter-Milan. Stories like that are likely baseless, but until they are officially discounted they are a factor for consideration!

There appears to be a consensus that Pellegrini has been handed a c.£75m transfer budget. However, with three players signed and, according to reports yesterday evening, another 3-5 new signings on the way, then it is likely that this will need to be supplemented by generating some funds from players sales. So, who are the main candidates for a departure. Well, Adrian’s future at the club needs to be confirmed. It could be that he will compete with Fabianski next season for the keeper’s jersey. However, if Adrian is not happy with that or the club pursue their interest in Jimenez then he could exit, most likely back to former club Real Betis. Both Byram and Reid would probably be on most people’s list of possible exits, but I hope that they are retained, Reid to provide strength in depth at the back and Byram to be given another chance to get over his injuries and fulfil his potential, especially in Pellegrin’s new system of play. One player that could exit is Pedro Obiang, if we commit to playing Rice in that position and we secure a better alternative like Dendocker. There is interest in Obiang from Italian and Spanish clubs and he could raise a significant transfer fee. If Pellegrini gives the green light, the club could sell the youngsters Burke, Cullen and Oxford. A Crystal Palace bid for Antonio has been much anticipated, but again, he could be a good player to have in Pellegrini’s system. Yes, he was injured for much of last season and, when he did play, his standards slipped in comparison with the previous two seasons, but hopefully he can regain his former fitness and form. One player almost certain to be sold is Snodgrass, who is currently interesting Cardiff City. Although there has been the interesting suggestion on social media sites that we could try to trade him in a part-exchange deal for Celtic’s Moussa Dembele. Then there is Jordan Hugill and, the Swiss international, Emilison Fernandes who could both be off-loaded. And finally, might the club be tempted to accept a £8-10m bid for Carroll, if it came in, from a club like Newcastle Utd? The club will want to raise additional funds and they will need to assess who we can sell, for what fee, based on which players are incoming. At the end of the day Pellegrini has to significantly raise both the quality and the depth of the squad. That necessarily requires a careful balancing act.

So, all the indications are that we are looking at brave new era for the club. There is still a lot of business to transact, but it would seem that the squad will have a major refit prior to the commencement of the new season. Certainly pre-season will be fascinating to follow this season, as Pellegrini finalises his squad and gets down to the business of building team spirit, embedding his tactics and style of play and moulding them in to an effective and cohesive unit.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we have turned a corner and significantly better times lie ahead for the club and its supporters? We can but live in hope – as always! Only this time the hope appears to have some ambition, top-level management, hard cash and quality recruitment behind it.

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

Rice is a quick learner and an 'obscene effort' is required against Man City!

Only West Ham United FC could lose a match so convincingly in the last eight minutes! Seriously though, it does beggar belief the way in which we played so well against Arsenal and were in line to win a vital away point, only to blow it at that late stage. Yes, the team probably tired in the latter stages and the nature of Arsenal’s second goal was particularly galling, but (as Arnautovic has subsequently said) we should have maintained our shape and discipline even after that reverse. Instead we unravelled in a quite worrying fashion.

Still, perhaps we should console ourselves with the thought that we did not expect much at the Emirates and now just move on to the next match, versus Man City, this coming Sunday. Only first, I think it needs stating that overall we deserved the point at the Emirates, but that the same old defensive mistakes (at the very death) cost us the result. Lets hope that we can get firmly on top of those defensive lapses and they do not ultimately prove our undoing in the run-in to this turbulent and frustrating season. Incidentally, my view on the post-match Moyes-Rice controversy is that the Manager was obviously too honest in his response to the media’s questions. He should have delivered a more diplomatic response and saved the frank honesty for the dressing room. As it is, social media have jumped on it and created a big fuss and that does no one any good in this present situation. The truth of the matter is that Declan Rice is a youngster of great natural ability and it is that which underpins his outstanding performances this season. But as a 19 year old, he is (naturally) still short on that other vital ingredient, experience. And it is experience that tells a player what to do in a split second situation like that, if you have it, you react automatically/instinctively and clear the danger. Rice does not have it yet, got caught in two minds and unfortunately took the wrong course of action. Ironically, costly as the mistake probably was, it will ultimately add to Rice’s experience and ensure that in future he will make the right decision in similar situations.

The one thing I do know about Declan Rice is that he is a quick learner, he has amply shown that this season, and this incident will probably be a key lesson in his journey towards becoming a top class international defender. His ability to learn from mistakes/situations and progress is what distinguishes him from other promising players at the club who have not made the same progress. I am a fan of Reece Oxford, but there is no doubt that Rice has superseded him in the race to become a first team regular. And perhaps that is why, it is about a positive attitude, learning lessons and continually progressing your game. One player has, the other, hitherto, has not to anything like the same degree!

Well, ‘thank goodness for Ashley Barnes’ of Burnley (as David Hautzig stated in his recent match review). Indeed! That scrappy Clarets equaliser against Stoke City could yet prove vital to the outcome of the relegation battle. It is pretty much clear that if Stoke City lose to Liverpool this coming weekend (as the form book says they should) then they are going to be relegated. Southampton (as the club presently in 18th place) have shown a consistent inability to win matches and if that trend continues then they should occupy the third and final relegation place. Also in the relegation mix are Huddersfield and Swansea and it is still possible that it could be one of those two (rather than the Hammers) who fall through the trap door if Saints somehow manage to save themselves at the 11th hour. But, lets not rely on the deficiencies and negative results of others.The best possible response is to win this weekend to (hopefully, if Bournemouth do the business in the south coast derby) create a 9 points gap over Southampton. If not, then we need at least a point from the Man City match and hope that we can then complete the job up at Leicester City.

No one denies that beating Man City is a very tough task, in facing both the best team in English football and the newly crowned PL champions. But we are at home and if the history of West Ham United FC proves anything (for example, see Fergie, Man Utd and an obscene effort!), it is that a highly motivated team (playing above itself) can get a result against even the best opposition. Hopefully, Man City will take their foot off the accelerator (now the title is in the bag and they are out of the Champions League) and the minds of all those multi-million pound City Stars will turn to keeping fit for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

I know that is probably wishful thinking, but what the hell! After all, stranger things have happened!

SJ. Chandos.

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