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Man Utd 1-1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

Filed: Tuesday, 29th November 2016
By: HeadHammerShark

1. In Dubious Battle

Imagine getting sent off trying to defend this shithousery though.

"Of course this a foul" says Jose "Do you know how much he cost?"

2. The Wayward Bus

The first West Ham away game I ever attended was on March 17 1984 and we lost 4-1 to Leicester. The most recent was our 5-1 demolition of Blackburn in the FA Cup last season. Those two absurd bookends serve as a nice reminder of the riches and rewards as well as the pitfalls of following a football team around the country with any degree of regularity.

I saw us lose 5-0 to Newcastle while allowing Leon Best to score a hat trick. This bordered on the impossible as Leon Best is a large, flat piece of wood and is not capable of kinetic movement. And yet it happened.

I've seen us lose 3-0 to Notts County as the fans staged a sit down protest, blissfully unaware that we would one day lose 7-1 at Blackburn, making that day in Nottingham look like a right laugh.

I vividly recall the 4-2 midweek defeat under Roeder at Charlton that precipitated the legendary, and never successfully answered, chant demanding a new back four.

But I also watched a 3-0 win at Bolton when Danny Williamson ran 80 yards to score a wonder goal and briefly made us dream of home grown talent again, before disappearing off the face of the earth and becoming a "Who remembers" contender on the KUMB podcast. There were soul nourishing wins at Arsenal, Spurs, Man United and that bananas 3-0 win at Wigan that made everyone dare to dream that the Great Escape might actually be possible, and had the added effect of making Neil Warnock cry.

The point is that West Ham have been pretty crap away from home for a long time, but there is always that small kernel of hope that drives us on. This game never really looked winnable, and yet we came within a James Collins aneurysm of nicking it. Those fans who braved the Arctic conditions, the terrible Old Trafford track record and Sunday train services deserve our unstinting admiration.

The reality is that in the last thirty years, West Ham fans travelling to this fixture have seen almost as many six goal defeats as they have victories. To paraphrase Alan Pardew - and why wouldn't we given what he is currently giving to the football world at large - travelling away with West Ham has always been done Moore in hope than expectation.

Does this even need a caption?

3. East Of Eden

Let's be honest, points gained at Old Trafford don't carry quite the same cachet that they used to but when you've been as bad as West Ham have been this season you take what you can get. This was a workmanlike performance that owed much to Darren Randolph, some to good fortune and a lot to a disciplined defensive unit who rode their luck to the last.

It helps, of course, when you have a forward who can score, and Diafra Sakho's 2nd minute bullet header should have been the platform for a stirring away performance. As it was, we seemed a little confused by how to approach the game at 1-0 up, and seemingly abandoned all pretence at going forward. It wasn't a huge surprise, therefore, that Pogba picked out Ibrahimovic twenty minutes later and dreams of an away win turned into seventy minutes of hiding behind the sofa in search of a point.

The big Swede was able to head his equaliser unopposed as James Collins was caught up discussing the new series of "The Affair" with Angelo Ogbonna and thus forgot to pay any attention to the man he was marking, but still, you can't have everything.

There were lots of good things today, however, and while we seem to have lost the counterthrusting ability that served us so well last year this can at least be partially explained by the fact that we've been operating without a striker for three months. Diafra Sakho has remedied that and his hard work and general physical presence was enough to put opposition defenders under the kind of pressure they haven't had to face all season.

Randolph also built on a sort of good start last week by performing well here in the face of much pressure. There were fine saves from Lingard and Ibrahimovic and best of all from Rashford when he was clean through. I'm still not entirely convinced by either of our keepers, and suspect that Adrian probably remains the better of the two, but the Irishman has waited a long time and seem some genuinely postal fuck ups by the Spaniard so he deserves his run.

Curiously, our best part of the game was the last five minutes when we had a couple of decent looking breaks, and Ashley Fletcher nearly stole the points in the last minute but was denied by a fine De Gea save. Rather like the Spurs game last week, had we found Payet on one of those breaks we'd have been going home with the points and this column would need to acknowledge some green shoots of recovery.

As it is...Avram Watch!

2010/11 (Worst West Ham team in living memory) after 13 games: W1 D6 L6 (9 points)
2016/17 (This lot) after 13 games: W3 D3 L7 (12 points).

Relax guys. Everything is fine.

4. The Winter Of Our Discontent

Unrelenting Avram hatred aside, there actually were some green shoots today, and indeed last week. One thorny issue, however, is Mark Noble and whether the captain should remain the automatic selection he has been for so long. Last week, Lanzini dropped deeper and was a key influence on the game as his neat passing helped us pass out of trouble, and he did enough defensively to keep Spurs at bay for 88 minutes before....sobs uncontrollably.

The problem is that with Noble needing to be accommodated, Lanzini was pushed further forward here and reverted to flitting ineffectually in and out of the game as he had done for most of the season. Man United probably aren't as good as Spurs and yet we struggled to create too much today until those last few minutes, and our front players were horribly isolated. Interestingly, I thought we actually sparked into life when Andre Ayew came on, which is handy given that he cost £20m.

What the broader point highlights, however, is the slightly one dimensional nature of some of our players. You need central midfielders to be able to break up play, and then transition you from deep on the pitch into forward areas from which to launch attacks. Noble does the latter, and Lanzini the former and thus we need both of them on the pitch to make those things happen. If you're Manchester United or Chelsea you just buy Pogba or Kante and get them to do both, but without that sort of financial muscle or an actual scouting network, we need two players to do the work that can be done in better teams by just one.

We're hardly unique there though, and must say I consider myself a Noble fan. He has been undeniably less effective this season, however, and it's worth examining why. Maybe his legs have just caught up with his hairstyle, which has been the same since he was 19 and he has actually transformed into the 45 year old man that he has looked like since about 2004. I do wonder if the bigger pitch at the London Stadium is having an effect as there is more real estate to cover and no centre forward to pass to, and that's a recipe for putting miles on the clock.

His discipline and determination is important in keeping our defensive shape but the reality is that we've still been crap at the back. It took Obiang's belated introduction to give us the required ability to regain the ball in central areas, and despite that we have a goal difference worryingly close to Sunderland's - and they're not even a professional football team. It's just Jermain Defoe plus the first ten paying customers to arrive.

Whatever is ailing Noble needs fixing soon. Winning the ball back is not much help if your use of it is then so slow that it can't allow the team to break. And if you review the highlights from this game you'll see that the late Ibrahimovic chance, ultimately snuffed out by Kouyate, came as a result of Noble taking a truly godawful free kick which he floated on to Valencia's chest and then had to watch helplessly as Collins decided the best way to deal with the resulting threat was to have some kind of seizure.

I don't know the answer to this problem, but the beating heart of our team is out of sync. One for Bilic to focus on.

5. The Pearl

I've seen mixed reactions to Payet's performance today. I liked his industry and willingness to do some pretty decent defensive work, all the while shouldering the burden of playing for a team whose tactics whiteboard has one sole entry, simply saying "I dunno - give it to Payet".

Others seem to think he looked uninterested and shirked his duties, but I can't say I really saw that. Having the ball is an underrated aspect of defensive play, and there has been a season long trend of us giving away possession way too easily. Payet remains our best asset in this regard, added to the fact that he can put in crosses that lead to things like this.

At least one thing we all now know - Zlatan cannot defend

It was a bit odd that Mourinho dared to Zlatan there, but dare he did and Sakho capitalised brilliantly.

There is even a mad rumour going round today that Mourinho wants to buy Payet himself in January. There might be a germ of truth in this as United have only spent £400m on attacking players in the last year or two and still can't defend, but nothing they do is surprising anymore.

I'd sell if we can get Martial and Rashford back in the deal but I doubt that's likely. Still, any football executive not ringing up Manchester United and seeing if they'll do something stupid isn't doing their job properly.

6. Once There Was A War

Not to belabour the point, but take a look at our bench today and see if you can spot the common link between the outfield players:

Adrian, Nordtveit, Feghouli, Zaza, Ayew, Fletcher, Fernandes.

When you don't improve your first team at all in a £40m summer spending spree that's terrible business. And make no mistake, this was the worst shopping trip since John Terry's mum said to her mate: "Don't worry - I'll take care of this".

7. To A God Unknown

The absence of Winston Reid could have been damaging today, but our back three generally stood up pretty well except for the couple of times they channelled the lost spirit of Aston Villa.

That said, I think we may be seeing the decline phase of James Collins as a Premier League player. Ibrahimovic simply ran past him for the goal, and whilst there were a couple of typically heroic last ditch interventions, it wasn't a shock to see him then nearly scuttle the whole thing with a terrible late back pass, and it's fair to say that he may have been more successful than Pope Francis in getting East Londoners to pray this Sunday.

It's a shame that Reece Oxford is injured as he could probably have got some playing time this week, which is apparently a sticking point with his new contract. That said, picking up a poorly timed injury suggests an understanding of the Club's history that bodes well for him sticking around a while.

Collins, meanwhile, has been a great servant but with Kouyate, Reid and Ogbonna looking semi decent in the new formation, I don't expect him to play too much for us in the future. Like Noble, it's the glaring lack of pace that causes consternation.

8. The Grapes Of Wrath

No sooner does Diafra Sakho return to the team and provide us with our first goal from a forward all year than he injures himself and is out for two weeks, per David Gold.

Gold also tweeted that Andy Carroll wasn't risked yesterday and will instead be subject to a week of "high intensity training" ahead of the Arsenal game, which doesn't sound like it should be an issue for a guy who once injured himself getting off a barstool.

This means he'll be rushed back half fit for Arsenal, and thus increases the future risk of injury fairly substantially. It's really difficult to see why West Ham struggle so much with injuries.

But, returning briefly to Sakho, his (latest) injury is a killer as we had been so utterly awful in attack this year. Take a look at this:

This graphic is taken from Experimental361, a great website run by Ben Mayhew, who was gracious enough to allow me to use this chart, which highlights the truly pathetic state of our attacking threat.

In fact, I haven't seen anything this tragic since someone at the BBC's flagship political programme Question Time searched through their email address book for a guest to help us make sense of Brexit, Trump, the rise of far right nationalism and the attendant economic uncertainty, and settled upon Huey from the Fun Lovin' Criminals.

What Ben's graphic tell us, in broad terms, is how frequently our players are scoring, and how often we might expect them to be scoring based upon the Expected Goals value of their shots. This last concept may be alien to some, but it's a widely used statistic in the analytics community that looks at a huge range of historic data and then tries to quantify how likely a player is to score based upon how often a player in his position, taking that shot, has historically scored. I might be slightly off in that description as there are some moving parts, but that's essentially it.

For Michail Antonio, he is scoring about 0.5/per game but his XG would suggest that he should have a rate of around 0.35/per game. So he is actually outperforming what we might expect from him. (It should be noted that Antonio is something of an analytical darling due to his tendency to perform exactly as we might expect with great frequency. And also possibly the Simpsons celebration, I don't know). What you should take from this is that Antonio is probably the real deal, and that playing him at right back is absolutely insane.

Elsewhere though - it's a disaster. It's Mariah Carey's acting career. It's that time London decided to celebrate the Millennium by setting the River Thames on fire. It's Southern Rail. It's Eurovision.

We actually don't have any forwards who have either played enough minutes or taken enough shots to make this chart other than Zaza. It also probably highlights that we are not taking enough shots from decent areas which probably isn't too much of a surprise if you consider that Lanzini alone has twice tried to score with a Rabona from outside the area.

That's what makes Sakho getting injured again so frustrating. Now we'll be back to Zaza huffing and puffing, Ayew out of position and Fletcher, the boy being asked to do a mans job. It would be great to get Sakho back for Liverpool, but at this stage it's hard not to wonder about this back/hamstring injury he has and quite why the Club have yet to successfully fix it.

To put all of this in context, Toby Alderweireld is on the Spurs chart. Repeat after me; Our centre forwards are less threatening than Spurs centre backs.

9. Burning Bright

On the subject of Ashley Fletcher, I thought he looked alright yesterday. There has been a bit of a clamour for him to be playing more frequently, which might be more of a reflection of the performances of his fellow strikers than anything specific that he has done.

That said, if Zaza is now persona non grata due to his stupid transfer clause, and Ayew is clearly better suited to a support striker role, then it's possible he may be a stop gap until one of Carroll or Sakho are fit enough to play regularly.

I can't help but feel he might be better served by more regular game time in the Championship, but the sad fact is that we probably need him until the Club can overspend hugely on someone in January.

10. Cup Of Gold

Wednesday sees us return to Manchester for yet another Cup meeting with the Red Devils. With our league position so precarious and our form improving, I wouldn't be tempted to risk anyone important. So no Payet, no Lanzini, and therefore I accept, no hope.

I know plenty of fans who have said to me that they would take relegation if we could win a cup. I've always found this false equivalency as this is a binary choice that doesn't exist, but if there comes a time when Cup games could potentially negatively impact on the league then the latter takes precedence in my eyes.

I know that honours are unforgettable and stay with you forever, but trust me - so do league trips to Rotherham.

Let's face it, our league status is non-negotiable given the stadium situation and the riches on offer for Premiership football. Liverpool and Arsenal will remain in the EFL Cup after Wednesday, so whatever chance we have can't exactly be characterised as more than "average". If this were a more open competition I could see us throwing a bit more at Wednesday but I'd rather play it safe and see how the reserves get on.

Those terrible summer signings were brought in for nights like this and we should live or die by that. The idea of Payet getting injured on Wednesday and missing any time is terrifying. Oh, and I'm sure you're all aware that Kouyate, Ayew, Feghouli and whatever remains of Sakho's body after medical science have picked him apart, are all off to the African Cup of Nations in January.

For all that, we bent but we did not break here, and that's important. We've been to Spurs and Man Utd, scored three times and trailed for a total of one minute. In some regards it's almost impossible to only get a point from that combination but here we are. This is the key part of our season, where we can push away from the bottom three and off up to the promised land of mid table mediocrity, or slide down with the dead men and prepare for a relegation fight.

So yes, I want us to prioritise Saturday over Wednesday, and I duly apologise to the dreamers amongst you.

* Read more from HeadHammerShark at thehlist.blogspot.co.uk and/or follow him via twitter.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.

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