Tony Hanna's Musings

The Full Back Problem

The past few games have had their share of frustrations. Late goals conceded, being caught on the break, penalties conceded etc etc. The teams resurgence after the Payet saga that saw wins against Palace, Southampton and Boro has now diminished and we have now acquired just two points from the last four games. The winter break in Dubai might just have put the boys in holiday mood for the rest of the season? I made mention many moons ago in an article I wrote on the site about club managers and staff not seeing, or certainly not reacting to things that fans see quite plainly on the pitch that are going wrong. Perhaps I am deluded? Perhaps these highly paid professionals do know much better than us what is going on and we are just mere mortals that do not understand? But I am not going to insult anyone’s intelligence here; many of us have been watching football nearly all our lives. Some of us watched West Ham play before some of today’s players and managers were born. Fans, in general know football. Slaven might tell me otherwise? (ps; This article was written prior to Mark Noble’s comments, so perhaps he might tell me otherwise as well)?

So, when we have been saying for two seasons now that we need a right back, why has the club done next to nothing? Sam Byram was always going to be a gamble. Youngsters stepping up from the lower divisions always are. In fairness, Bilic had no intention of playing him as early as he did, against Man City last January, but needs must at the time. He was meant to be one of those “works in progress” and wasn’t even in the squad the day he made his debut. A late injury to James Tomkins got him onto the bench and then an injury to right back Carl Jenkinson in the 13th minute ensured he got an earlier than anticipated debut. Since then Bilic has used him sparingly when he has been fit. The Antonio project failed miserably and so far so has the ploy of playing one of our best midfielders there as well. What other club would play their leading goal scorer at right back? Perhaps in an injury crisis as an emergency, but for months on end when it clearly wasn’t working? So, the summer transfer window comes around and a club of our stature would move heaven and earth to get a right back in, right? Nope! Well, we sort of did in the signing of Arbeloa but he was last seen flying over the Bermuda Triangle! The same thing happened on the other side at the beginning of the season. We went into a full season with one recognised, experienced left back. The only reason we bought Masuaku at the last moment was because Cresswell got a bad injury, otherwise we would have started the season with one left back and no right back, if you discount experiments, an ageing loan and the kids. This is simply not good enough. To make matters worse the winter window arrives and goes and still no developments?

Shifting Kouyate back into the right back role has clearly taken the pressure off Bilic when it comes to determining the midfield set up. If we had a first class right back in place he would have some very difficult decisions to make should Kouyate be vying for one of those places? Whatever the lad might be saying to the media, I can’t imagine he is overjoyed at playing right back and I would not be surprised if he is not at the club come next season. Bilic has been playing a lot of square pegs in round holes for a while now and as I said earlier, us fans are no mugs. We can see things that aren’t working. We can see players when they are out of form, especially badly out of form. Which brings me to my next subject. A few weeks ago I wrote an article on what was our best midfield? Whilst the object was to gain readers opinions on the range of players available to choose from, it was thinly veiled to gauge what fans thought regarding Mark Noble’s place in the team? I will not be as subtle with my next subject – Aaron Cresswell. My personal view is that the player has had a very poor season to date. The inability to stop crosses coming in, the rearing away from any physical challenges and the strange positional play that continually drags Winston Reid out from a central position to cover for Cresswell who in turn runs back to move into the central void left by Reid? This is in no way meant to come across as a personal attack on Cresswell. It is just my view that he is badly out of form. That can happen to any player and when it does occur we should be in a position to act and replace him with a competent alternative for as long as needed.

The marauding runs and clever interplay with Payet are a distant memory. For what it’s worth I have never rated Cresswell as a good defender, but what he brought in an attacking sense was at times superb and very entertaining. However, the master of the whipped in outswinging cross has rarely been seen in recent months and the defensive side of his duties are now being laid to bare. With his cover Masuaku being injured himself for many months now, Creswell has had no competition for his place. Earlier in the season Masuaku did get his chance, but at West Brom he put in an awful performance, coming up with an extraordinary handball in our own area conceding a penalty. Whilst that does nothing for the confidence of the fans or the player himself, the majority of other games he has played he has looked quite an assured player who is very comfortable on the ball. However, his sending off this week in the PL2 match puts another question mark on his suitability. A lot of fans have questioned the form of both Ogbonna, before his season ending injury, and Fonte since his arrival from Southampton. In my view if these central defenders are being let down on the flanks they are not going to be seen anywhere near their best and blaming them may be premature?

Back in my days of playing, at one time we had a superb back four. Booth was a combative right back and decent on the ball, Johnson was a Collins type defender, Myers was our Bobby Moore – tactically excellent and a great reader of the game, and Brophy was a young but very good left back. They all worked well together in front of the best keeper in the district. Then one year Booth decided to quit the club for personal reasons and Brophy joined the Navy. We brought in two full backs that were not really up to the same standard but what was telling was the drop off in play of both our centre backs, Johnson and Myers. From nowhere they were making mistakes and getting pulled ragged at times. The moral of the story is that two very decent centre backs who had always been solid were now a mess playing with two fullbacks that were not quite up to scratch. Ironically, one of the fullbacks really improved when we played him in midfield! I think you can draw your own conclusions from my little story when you relate it to West Ham?

So, no need to hit the panic button just yet, but Bilic must stop playing players that are out of form providing he has decent cover for them, and he must put a squad together next season where every position has a round peg in a round hole and has sufficient cover. At this point in time that means acquiring a proper right back and cover for him should Bilic have no intention of playing Byram if injuries demand. It also means getting a decent left back if Bilic is convinced Masuaku is not good enough. If that is the case get rid. If he does think he is good enough he should be playing him now, if only to refresh Cresswell and send the appropriate message that he needs to get his act together. It also means spending the large part of the kitty on a striker and letting either Carroll or Sakho go. I would love to keep both but history shows that their combined injury records makes that too huge a risk and I doubt both would stay if we got a new first class striker in anyway?

The upcoming Leicester game is another one where I feel the team need to respond and get out of the blocks right from the start to get the crowd behind them. We appear to be starting games very slowly and especially at home we seem determined to play it very tight from the start. This is statistically backed up as we are the worst team in the PL for leading at home half time stats – only once in 14 matches! To counter that, Leicester have been losing a staggering four more matches away from home at half time than any other PL club, trailing in 10 of their 13 away matches at the break. Thoughts?

A few weeks ago I wrote that I would be doing a Q&A with former Hammer Eddie Bovington. Unfortunately Ed has been unwell recently and that is why he hasn’t been able to participate. I am pleased to say that Eddie is now well on the mend and the Q&A has been conducted. It will be published during the two week break after the Leicester game.

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Tony Hanna's Musings

The Break, Predictors and Question Time

Well after the game against West Brom we have two weeks to amuse ourselves until the next game at Watford. Normally it is the International breaks that test our patience but of course this time it is because next weekend is Cup week. It would be nice to be able sit back and watch Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea or the Moaning ones getting knocked out but when you look at their fixtures it is difficult to see any of them not making the quarter finals? Even Man City got a favourable draw and despite the unusualness of the top clubs all getting drawn away, somehow they all managed to avoid each other! Feel free to complain about our luck with Cup draws.

Looking forward to the game against Watford and it will be interesting to see if Andy Carroll is fit to play? Protecting a player from a groin niggle would be the natural course of action for any manager but Andy’s history has often told us things are always more complicated than that. It looks like Fonte and Snodgrass have settled well into the team and Kouyate is proving to be as versatile as Antonio. The latter appears to have dropped his form in the last few and I do wonder if he is struggling a bit with burn out? If that is the case then this trip to Dubai and the two week break should do him the World of good. Whilst we have all been harping on about the right back position for longer than we care, what is becoming as much as a problem is the form of Aaron Cresswell at left back. In my opinion he has never been a top class defender but his attacking threat down the left and his excellent crossing ability has always covered the cracks in his defensive game. I am not sure whether the injury he suffered earlier this season is behind it or whether it is a confidence thing? Either way it is fast becoming another problem for Slaven Bilic.

I had a few moments to spare the other day and I completed a Premier League predictor table. If you want to have a go yourself click here. It calculates the ongoing league table depending on the results you put into it. Just a bit of fun and only takes about ten minutes to complete and you will end up with all the finishing positions for the end of the season. For what is worth my predictions ended up with Chelsea winning the PL and just five points separating Man City, Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal in that order. If I am right then Arsenal and the Moaners will miss out on the Champions League spots. Down the other end Sunderland, Leicester and Middlesbrough go down but anything could happen there as only four points separated 18th and 13th. I had West Ham to finish 11th and at this point in time I would be fairly happy with that considering all the turmoil at the club this season. If you have a go, post your predictions on here and I will look back at this thread at the end of the season to see who fared the best and report back.

Later this week Eddie Bovington has agreed to take part in a Q&A with me. I will post it as an article hopefully during this two week break. Eddie played in the Cup Final win against Preston in 1964 and made 184 appearances for the Hammers in the 1960’s. If any of our readers want to put forward any of their own questions to Eddie just let me know on this thread. If we get a few good ones I will pick the best three to go alongside the ones I have already prepared.

Tony Hanna's Musings

Our Best Midfield?

One of the difficult problems any Premier League manager actually wants to have is who to leave out when he has a full squad of players to choose from. Much better than the problem of knocking on the doors of the physios in the search for fit players in a depleted squad or having to choose between the regular whose form has dipped or the inexperienced youngster who has shown promise. The managers from the top clubs who are involved in the Champions League have rotation policies in place that goes some way to appease the fringe players and give valuable rest time to fatigued players or those harbouring niggling injuries. The fact that they have more games to play is more often than not counter balanced with more depth in their squad of players. But when the big games come around tough decisions still have to be made.

So what of us then? Randolph looks to have cemented his place in goal and barring unforeseen circumstances you would have to think Adrian will be off to pastures new in the Summer. The defence nearly picks itself notwithstanding the continued need for a quality right back who will make the position his own, or at least a reliable back up if Slaven thinks Byram is up to the job full time. Up front Andy Carroll on current form is undroppable and if Sakho comes back from injury with a revitalised attitude towards the club he must surely play alongside him in a similar role to the one employed against the Moaning ones in the last game at our old ground? Supporting Carroll up front when we are attacking and dropping back on the right side of midfield when we are defending. Alternatively, Antonio or Ayew could be options instead of Sakho in the attacking role?

So what of the midfield then? This is the area where Slaven will have the most “desirable” headaches. These will become migraines if he needs to play 4-4-2 instead of a 3-5-2 or a 4-5-1. If we play two central midfielders who will they be? Or more to the point, who misses out?

The central midfielders include captain Mark Noble. Mr West Ham, the Canning Town lad has had his admirers and his critics this season. We rarely win without him in the side say some. He is too slow and plays too many sideways and backward passes say others. If you like Squawka stats they say he has completed 896 passes this season with a pass accuracy of 87% of which 72% were forward. So much for the sideways and backward theory then! Another profile site I read said he likes to play long balls, tackle and plays the ball off the ground often –he has no strengths and his weakness is in aerial duels. I would agree with the aerial comment but my eyes say that he is slow and can be too ponderous at times. He regularly outruns any other player in the side and has a pretty decent penalty taking record. Actually the running stat grates on me a bit as Kevin Nolan had good running stats too in the final stages of his playing career and any self-respecting football fan could see he had lost the yard of pace that in reality makes you a passenger in the Premier League. So, if you look at Mark Noble playing a game of football you can certainly observe he has his weaknesses. Something you can’t criticise is the love he shows for the club, his loyalty and the pure class the man is off the field while so many of the highly paid footballers of today’s generation are making bad headlines. But what about the invisible qualities he brings to the team? Do you believe in them? These include the ability to gel a team together on the pitch, to organise and to command the respect where our players will go the extra mile for the club and their captain. To be the managers commandant on the field of play. Is this the missing link when he is not in the team?

Cheikhou Kouyate for some would be the first name on the team sheet. Big, strong and powerful, he has the ability to go on unstoppable runs but also the craft of breaking up opposition play in vital areas. His energy is used not on continual movement like Noble, but on gut busting surges upfield when we counter attack and then downfield when play breaks down. Good in the air and quick, he is a natural athlete and his concentration on the pitch is excellent. On the downside his control and passing is the weakest of the central midfielders. He has completed 513 passes this season with an accuracy of 84% although it must be remembered he has been deployed to a central defensive role for several matches.

Pedro Obiang is the surprise packet of the season. Expected to be moved on after failing to claim a first team place last season he has matured into quite a physical presence in recent months. For a tall man his control and passing is excellent and in some ways he reminds me of a raw Yaya Toure. He can play a mean through ball as exploited by the pass leading to Carrolls goal against Southampton. In recent weeks he has shown that at his best he can dominate in that central defensive midfield role quite impressively. Like Kouyate, he is difficult to shake off the ball and his tackling and blocking is very good. Obiang has similar stats to the other two but interestingly and quite surprisingly 92% of his passes have been forward.

Looking at the rest of the set up you have to wonder where some of the others fit in when everyone is fit? Does Lanzini come into consideration for a central midfield berth? His control and passing is probably the strongest of all the three aforementioned despite his stats being almost identical to Mark Noble. He certainly appears more comfortable on the ball when pressed. Small in stature he has the ability to break quickly and also release the defence splitting pass. The downside is the engine and physical strength. Does the current set up demand that if he plays in the first eleven he is played wide? Again, look away if you don’t like Squawka stats but their player ratings for the season so far give 4.5/5 scores for Kouyate and Lanzini, a 4/5 for Obiang and a 3.5/5 for Noble.

Snodgrass, Ayew, Antonio, Feghouli and Fernandes all come into the equation for who makes up the midfield numbers, mainly in the attacking side of the optional formations. Nordtveit has failed to impress so far this season and in my opinion does not come into the equation. So, what is your preferred midfield set up and why?

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Tony Hanna's Musings

Back to Three at the Back?

Have you ever known anyone that has had a change in circumstances and moved from their old two bed flat or tiny 3 bed terraced house into a lovely large house in the country? You get an invite and as you arrive you are duly impressed with the large garden and there before you is a stunningly beautiful country manor house. The wow factor hits home. Then you walk inside and the only furniture is the same stuff from the previous abode! All of a sudden the wow has gone and you don’t know what to say. Perhaps this analogy can best describe our football club? The move was supposed to bring in a new era of plush furniture and all we got was some second hand cupboards. Past their best but still sturdy and useful, but you know the woodworm has already started to infiltrate the poor things. Now, Snodgrass and Fonte are decent players. Players that in any other circumstances I would be over joyed with. I actually think they are upgrades on what we have now if you compare to Feghouli and Ogbonna. But it is like replacing the Tallboy with the missing leg with some chipboard put it together yourself unit. Two and a half and three and a half year contracts for a 33 and a 29 year old? What happened to the Chairman’s promise to only buy players with a sell on value in the future? What other progressive club continually buys players around the 30 year age mark and gives them long term contracts? I actually think that Payet leaving was a financial blessing for the club. It may have robbed us of another season littered with some magical moments but he was on a five year deal worth around 6.5m quid each year! In March, Payet will be 30 years old and the likelihood would be that for at least three, probably four of those contracted years, he would have been a passenger and a financial hindrance on our spending power. The top clubs can financially afford to make gambles and even mistakes like this and it is of course the inducement used to get top players to sign and stay with the club long term in the first place. But can we? I think not.

Onto the pitch and it has all been a bit up and down hasn’t it? Well actually it is getting quite easy to predict when you look closely. Discounting draws the following happens more often than not. We play a top ten side at home (OS) and we get beat. We play a bottom ten side at home and we win. We play a top ten side away and we have a small chance of some crumbs. We play a bottom side away and anything can happen. Burnley are the only top ten side we have beaten all season and the reality is they will be bottom half themselves come the end of the weekend! This does not auger well when you look at our remaining home fixtures for the rest of the season. Most Premier league teams nowadays play one of two ways. They play a high pressing game or they play a sit back and contain game, relying on the counter attack. The former can be played home or away and demands that the team work hard together and in unison. It requires the players to hunt in packs and play virtually how as kids we were told you shouldn’t play. “Don’t bunch up, get some width, stay in your positions”. I can still hear the school PE teacher screaming those instructions at primary school. Not in the Premier League though. Bunching and pressing the man in possession can be your teams main tactic. The second option is the containing one. Easy to play away but much more difficult at home when there is more emphasis on the home team to take the game to their opponents and with a baying crowd infuriated at any lack of endeavour. Interestingly, Leicester managed to play this style even at home last season with a very understanding home crowd. Their patience was very well rewarded. I am still trying to work out what style we are playing this season? It seems we try a bit of both without any true commitment to either. We have certainly looked better away from home with the containing style whilst many of our home wins have been remarkably ugly. I actually think it is just the fact that we have better players than most of the lower teams and despite the lack of effective tactics we ride our luck with our class edge. Not many of the lower tier can boast the likes of Carroll, Kouyate, Lanzini, Antonio and for some time Payet?

I firmly believe that this season the second tier of the PL is the worst in some seasons. Last season was a serious blip with a few of the big boys floundering but normal service has since resumed. Last season from a fair way out, only four teams ever looked like getting relegated. I actually think if we were playing like we are now, in last season’s league, we would be serious relegation contenders. This season the relegation battle is really open slather and even we are not completely out of the mix.

There has been a lot of chat about who Bilic will drop out of the central midfield positions? Some have called for Noble to be axed but I doubt the boss will do that to his captain. Obiang, despite a poor game against City has been very good in recent months. Kouyate is really one of the first on the team sheet for me. So who will miss out? In my opinion Slav will probably try reverting back to his favourite three at the back system. This allows both Noble and Obiang to remain in the side and Kouyate can play at the back with Fonte and Reid. This system takes a lot of pressure away from the under performing Cresswell but it does pose the problem of who plays right wing back? This problem however, may be easier for Bilic to solve rather than the prospect of leaving out one of the three aforementioned players. Whether he goes with this format against Southampton we shall see, but I think he will revert to this system sooner rather than later. What do you think?


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Tony Hanna's Musings

The Payet Saga

You could never say being a West Ham fan is easy could you? However we came to be Hammers fans, and there are lots of differing reasons, the long road through life can be hard enough without the heart strings being continually tugged by that lot in Claret and Blue. For every precious moment there are a hundred blows. For every silver lining there are a thousand black clouds. If it was not hard enough watching an underperforming side this season in a new stadium of such discontent, after all the gloss and glamour of last season, now we have Dimitri Payet refusing to play for the team. I remember when Martin Peters wanted out and went to Spurs. Gutted. I remember when it became too hard to hang on to Joe Cole and Michael Carrick and they went off to further their careers quite substantially at other clubs. Gutted. There are so many examples of this trend in our history and the likes of Frank Lampard and Jermaine Defoe have been forgiven by many as the years have passed, for their Judas like actions when they were young players at our club. For the record I don’t buy the excuse that Frank had no option to leave because his dad was sacked. Life is tough enough –suck it up.

But Payet has done this before at St Etienne and does not have the excuse that he is young and does not understand what he is doing. See what I did there? He knows exactly what he is doing. Bilic has said as much – that Payet told him of his intentions on Tuesday and Slav gave him the opportunity to change his mind on Thursday, prior to the press conference. Payet held his ground. Now this has come to a head all the ITK’s and “experts” have come out with their stories. I am no expert and I am not an ITK (though I did have a very real insider many years ago and to be honest he never told me too much). But, if you read all their stories they differ quite a bit. Some claim Payet has been disgruntled all season. Others say that this is a recent thing and the tapping up of the player only occurred just prior to the January window. Going by what Slaven Bilic said in his interview it would appear to be the latter that is closer to the mark. However, many media reports also suggest that a deal was done at the start of the season that Payet could leave at the end of the season as he wanted away then. It is all very confusing and hopefully, one day soon, the true light will be shed. Social media is in a frenzy at the moment and some of the vitriol spat at the player is understandable as fans emotions go into over drive. The situation will calm eventually as time will always heal to some degree, but if the owners are hoping that we can rebuff all offers for the player by the end of the window and he will come back and play his part for us for the remainder of the season, tis wishful thinking I think?

Talking of our owners. You know, the ones we have been banging on about for years to keep quiet – yep, you guessed it. The silence is deafening. Even young Jack must be in a straight jacket, the only way to stop those twiddling thumbs. Lovely though isn’t it? Some have said that they should at least come out and voice a support for the manager. You know, the one they might sack in a fortnight? For once they have done the right thing. Sort this out behind closed doors. An announcement has been made. No bullshit – the truth has come out. Well, as much as they need to tell us anyway at this point in time..

I was one of the ones giving Payet the benefit of the doubt for a poorer season. For me his lack of tracking back, tackling and general intensity was no different from last season. Difference was – we were winning last season. His free kicks, yep, the ones he says he never practices in training, have gone pear shaped and his corners have been even poorer. But then the whole team has been poor on so many occasions as well. I have said on the blog many times recently that Cresswell has not been offering himself anywhere near as much as last season, as an overlapping option. This surely would affect Payet’s performances, the loss of such an important foil in his game? Now I am starting to wonder whether Cresswell just could not be bothered? Why bust a gut for Payet? He isn’t trying anyway and wants away and he gets all the fans accolades to boot! Stuff him. Perhaps this is the attitude of a lot of the players? We will only know the answer to this over the next few weeks. Results won’t necessarily tell us the answer but the players intensity will.

At the beginning of the transfer window I was wondering why we were after Snodgrass? There are three much more important areas of the team that need to be strengthened. Snodgrass is a very poor mans Payet (at anywhere near his best), but he will offer similar attributes to the team with a lot more graft albeit a lot less guile. Obviously someone knew something a few weeks ago? I would not even rule out Ayew yet. I have always thought that wide left in Payets position is where he would be best suited. Time will tell.

I also wonder whether Bilic’s position has actually been strengthened by all the events of this week? He has handled himself with great dignity once again in what has been a difficult season for him. The owners might see that this could be a fresh start for the manager, especially if we can break through and make a few key signings this window. It will be interesting to see firstly how the team react this weekend and secondly how the fans react to this week’s events in the stadium? The expression “you couldn’t make it up” comes to mind with the knowledge that Big Sam is coming to play on Saturday! Those football Gods certainly know how to tug the emotions to breaking point.

Finally, the big decision that has to be made is whether the club let Payet go this window? I guess if the right offer was made we would be foolish not to accept and move on. However, from what has been said so far, Payet wants to go back to France which would rule out a big offer from say Chelsea, Arsenal or the Moaning ones being an option. Personally I doubt Marseille will stump up enough money and that will leave Mr Payet right up the creek without a paddle. Bilic has already said that Payet won’t be sold this January and that may well be the case. But as we all know too well, money talks louder than words.

If you are going to the game this weekend try and make sure that the Super Slav song gets going right at the start. Sing long and sing loud. Make sure Sam doesn’t have to cup his ear. Our current manager needs all the support he can get at the moment.

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