Papering over the cracks: still waiting for a big league win in January
Last season, Slaven Bilic was the giant killer: victories at Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool; home wins against Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool once more. I don’t think anyone expected last year to be matched like for like: new managers and more money meant most of the top clubs came back stronger. But did anyone expect this come January? It is a complete reversal, and what’s more worrying, that reversal doesn’t look like itself reversing.
At least Bilic has changed one thing: he can beat the weaker sides. No win against Norwich last season, a big defeat against Swansea, and a draw against bottom side Aston Villa showed an inability to kill off lesser clubs. The club has seen off Crystal Palace, Burnley, Bournemouth, Hull City and Swansea. Four of those were 1-0 wins, the other was an emphatic 4-1 against Bob Bradley’s Swansea City. He was sacked soon after.
This season is already forgettable. And nothing will change that: we will not get into Europe and I think a top ten finish is still far off. For a year that was meant to be full of promise after the success of last season and the excitement of a new stadium, this is surely the worst outcome for all of us. The fans have been sold short, the owners have been found wanting.
The game against Manchester City was not just an embarrassing team performance: it was an embarrassment all round. So much has been made in recent months of the media conspiracy against West Ham: all they [journalists] want to focus on is the violence, the teething troubles. On Friday, there was no violence, there was no bad media surrounding the ground or the club leading up to the kick-off. It was there on a plate for the club and owners to give their best: show the ground and the team at its best. They both utterly failed. The performance was tepid, just like every other game this season bar Chelsea in the League Cup. That led to talk of the new stadium and its problems. The media is not against the move, but if West Ham continue to perform so meekly – one writer called it a “non-performance” – then obviously talk will focus on the stadium and whether that is part of the problem.
As someone who supported Big Sam and was against his departure, I was happy to admit my mistake last year as we outperformed expectations and anything that Allardyce had ever achieved. But to go from losing 5-0 against Nottingham Forest three years ago in the FA Cup to losing 5-0 again against Manchester City, seems to lack any sign of progress. Yes, City are a much bigger and better squad, but the team Bilic played was a better first team squad than Allardyce’s youngsters. Allardyce focused on the league, Bilic focused on the Cup – and both outcomes were the same. The game against Crystal Palace, against Big Sam no less, becomes ever more important.
Many of us including myself expected us to give City a run for their money. Why? Because we expect it on the basis of last season and because we’re West Ham, we like a giant killing and we like a good Cup run. But it made me realise that this season has seen a majority of poor performances, with the occasional win [Accrington Stanley] or wins [Burnley, Hull, Swansea] used as a boost and made to seem like a turnaround. There has been no turnaround. We are still leaking goals. We are still playing dire football. Nothing has arguably changed enough since the beginning of the season to make me believe anything will change over the next few months. That puts a hell of a lot of pressure on this January transfer window to alter the course of this season.
Perhaps the City game is what the club, the manager and the team needed: no longer are we hiding behind other teams who are performing badly. We became an embarrassing headline and maybe that might force a realisation among the players. What worries me is that every other club around us has either improved or made a change: Hull, Swansea, Palace have ousted their managers. Sunderland have made great strides, Burnley have a strong home form, Middlesbrough have put in good performances, as have Watford. We, for me, remain an anomaly: no change, no passion, and no desire to turn this season around.
The Palace game is geared up to be a big one. But with Allardyce still waiting eagerly for his first win as Palace manager, I fear he may get it at the London Stadium.