Filed: Tuesday, 17th January 2017
1. Time For Heroes
Prior to this game, if someone had asked me to describe the atmosphere at the London Stadium this season, I would have said it was as though a great blanket of negativity had gradually, slowly enveloped the ground over a period of months.
Going to games has been difficult with the transport not up to scratch, the stewarding largely a nightmare, dealing with the ticket office a brief venture in haphazard psychosis and the games themselves being largely dismal affairs played out on a pitch that is miles away from most fans.
And as time has passed, it has gradually dawned on us, that blanket has slowly settled on our heads, that none of that is going to change.
We're always going to have to queue for the trains for ages, we're never going to be able to generate that same Upton Park roar, and as much as we might will it to happen, that pitch isn't getting any closer. This is it.
And amidst that backdrop there has been so much else to be negative about. The transfer disasters, the insipid football, the Board generally dismaying fans with an alacrity that Martin Cearns could only dream of, and now Dimitri Payet turning his back on us.
I hope you don't judge me too harshly then, when I tell you that I skipped this game. I just couldn't take it. I've read this book before folks and I knew how it ended. Big Sam in town, Allardycing us to death in a lousy 2-0 defeat while Palace fans sang Payet songs into the cold January evening.
For 70 minutes I felt pretty justified in my decision, as the game was a stifling mess, bereft of the sort of touches that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named would usually bring to the stage.
But football is a wonderful, unpredictable, changeable mistress and she was no different here. Mark Noble was recalled for this game, as a kind of Cockney counterpoint to Payet and he released Michail Antonio into Payet's now vacated inside left channel. Wayne Hennessey was so distressed by this that he came charging off his line with the kind of speed you only usually see from Payet when he spies his wife is flicking through his phone, and with that rush of blood came the opening we craved. Antonio skipped past the crazy fucker and crossed to a possibly offside Sofiane Feghouli, who clearly can't be trusted with anything further out than two yards, and we were in.
The drama is draining and the negativity a constant weight on all our shoulders, but nothing beats a goal. The release was palpable from 10 miles away.
Forget the circus - a weight had been lifted.
2. The Good Old Days
Being one nil up against Sam Allardyce teams is a nice place to be. For 70 minutes his tactics worked superbly as his 5 man midfield forced us into long periods of nothingness, and everything seemed set for the inevitable late Palace winner.
But once behind, Allardyce teams look lost. Told to sit in and frustrate the opposition, it is hard for them to expand on that and throw off those shackles in pursuit of a goal. He's only had Palace for four games and it shows, as they pushed forward and we picked them off with pleasing ease. For a brief moment it was easy to forget about Payet and Zaza and the fact we have no right back, and instead imagine that it was 2015-2016 all over again. Crowd noise, an atmosphere, a genuine striker and West Ham counterattacking like Napoleon at Austerlitz.
If the Feghouli goal was a slight loosening of the pressure valve, then Andy Carroll's goal smashed it open and nailed it to the sky. Noble, Lanzini and Antonio combined once more down the Payet channel, but the latter's cross looked largely optimistic.
Not so said our pissed Geordie octopus, who backed away and fashioned a frankly incredible bicycle kick that was fit to grace any game of football. The ball flew into the roof of the Palace net with the velocity and accuracy of a Patriot missile, and six months of frustration was vented into the skies above East London. Sam Allardyce would later describe this with his customary good grace as a "goal we gifted to them". Hokey dokey Sam, have another pint of wine.
I'm gutted I missed it. Even on a shaky looking stream the place looked to be rocking, and everything I've read since only confirms it.
Good. We deserve it. In a season of unremitting gloom this was as welcome as seeing Diego Costa fall out with Antonio Conte after two days of hearing about Payet from lifelong Chelsea fans, who think football was invented in 2003 and that Mickey Hazard is something to do with Rohypnol.
3. The Man Who Would Be King
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Payet's Paul Ince homage has been Manuel Lanzini, who has suddenly become a playmaker destined to benefit from the opportunity to play without Payet. This is a bit barmy, as at least one benefit of a player like Payet is that he draws defenders to him and leaves space for players to Lanzini to exploit.
The Argentine's best performance in a West Ham shirt came at Chelsea last year when his ability to break from midfield was crucial, and should have seen us win comfortably. However, that day he had Kouyate all over the place alongside him, and Payet and Cresswell destroying Chelsea down the left.
This season he has been in and out of the side, with injuries and form being a problem, as well as trying to find a place to fit him into a misfiring midfield. His best turns have been playing deeper, alongside Obiang and using his dribbling to carry us forward. In other words, the glowing accolades suddenly bestowed upon him haven't exactly matched the reality of the matches.
Here he was given licence to roam, with Payet absent and Noble and Obiang behind him to provide ballast, and he was outstanding. His quickness of foot is wonderful, and when the time came to do something, anything, in the final third it mostly fell to him to do it.
His goal was a thing of simple, devastating beauty. The corpse of Loic Remy was raised from the dead by Allardyce for this game, and in the space of a few seconds he lost the ball in our box, and between Reid and Antonio, suddenly Lanzini was breaking free. He carried it to the edge of the box before dinking it over Hennessey - who by this stage had had quite enough of this shit - with impish brilliance. It was a perfect goal to seal a game and the perfect fuck you to Payet, Marseille, agents, Chelsea and all the other evils of the world.
After his 80 yard sprint he then carried on and jumped into the crowd to celebrate, meaning that the overall distance run on the goal was something like two miles.
I can see why fans want to latch on to Lanzini as the perfect replacement for Voldemort, but I'd urge some caution. He seems to function best when paired with others - previously Payet, and here Feghouli - and we'll need to put some equivalent talent around him to get the best out of him. I'm sure that sounds familiar, but I can't figure out why.
4. Don't Look Back Into The Sun
The off the field battle was almost as interesting here as the stuff on the pitch. Bilic has actually beaten Allardyce in both their meetings, and here he did well to adjust on the fly to the Palace tactics.
The first half was largely tedious, with a half chance for Carroll and a golden opportunity for James Tomkins that he Feghoulied wide from about 8 inches.
At half time Bilic introduced a lesser spotted right back and suddenly off we went. Michail Antonio, who had a temperature of 101 on Friday and was rewarded for his determination to play by being stuck out at wing back again, was released to play alongside Carroll and suddenly we were in business. Sam Byram might not be the answer at right back, but he's a better answer than any of other options, and the simple presence of an outlet ball was disproportionately pleasing after a season of watching a succession of square pegs jamming up that particular hole.
The truth is that if we played this game again tomorrow we might just as easily lose. I don't think we were noticeably that much better than Palace but we took our chances, and our manager showed an ability to get his team to play in more than one fashion. You might also reasonably argue that those two fashions were "bad" and "good" but that in itself might sum up the Bilic/Allardyce comparison perfectly.
Palace played okay but never looked like they could transcend that. We were crap and good in the same game. That wild fluctuation seems to be a Bilic trademark as opposed to the steadiness (or tedium, depending on your viewpoint) of Allardyce.
This is really how I view these two. Allardyce can get a team into a certain range in the league and probably not much higher unless he has a lot of time or money. Bilic seems capable of getting higher, but also carries the risk of finishing up lower too, as we are seeing this season.
In the long term it doesn't matter much as Allardyce doesn't manage us anymore, but it felt like an interesting counterpoint, and Bilic deserves credit for the way he changed things up and altered the seemingly inevitable flow of the game.
5. Heart Of The Matter
Mark Noble had an interesting day. He is a lightning rod for those who would affect wild and sweeping changes on the team, with most seeming to think that his lack of pace is career limiting, but on days like these his qualities are evident.
I'm not sure he should be playing ahead of the Kouyate-Obiang-Lanzini axis, but here he did what he does very well. He tackled, worked hard, chivvied and played one or two sublime passes to create the first half chance for Carroll and the through ball that released Antonio for the opener.
His pace is waning, and at this point he has all the speed of Jeremy Hunt answering his phone on a Sunday, but he still has plenty to offer the side. The willingness to get on the ball and make passes, and take responsibility in a struggling side is a significant plus. It strikes me that in a team so low on confidence that it is odd to criticise a player who is willing to do that with regularity. Noble never hides and on days like Saturday that is important, when it feels like an opening will never come, and the tension is palpable.
His role might need to change over the next couple of seasons, but in this week of all weeks it's hard to dispute that the man is committed to the cause.
Also, anyone prepared to lift up a ball boy by the bib deserves some patience.
Nobes 😂 pic.twitter.com/axaxNBl95y— West Ham News (@WHUFC_News) January 16, 2017
6. What A Waster
Goodbye then Simone Zaza. We hardly knew ye, except for the fact that you once took a penalty for Italy whilst riding a unicycle, and you have tattooed knees. The issue of Zaza is curious as it seems to be simultaneously the fault of David Sullivan that he failed, due to the ludicrous pressure of being asked to prove himself in 14 games, whilst the chairman also gets credit for not wasting £20m on a player who couldn't find the net with shoal of fish.
In retrospect, the whole Zaza saga reflects poorly on the Club. We signed him late in the summer when it became clear that our ploy of telling everyone that "we've got a load of money and baby we intend to spend it" somehow didn't end up with us being offered top players at knockdown bargain prices.
Thus Zaza arrived, and I have no idea if he was ever a real target, but he played because everyone else was already injured. It was September after all.
I really have no idea how he was ever supposed to fit into our system. He never showed the mobility to play as a lone striker and his link up work was decidedly patchy. I refuse to believe that he was as crap as he looked, but I think he was also symptomatic of the panicky nature of our summer business. Along with Ayew he seemed to have been brought in for entirely the wrong reason.
Ayew to keep Payet company in the canteen and help him argue for TV Monde5 to be on the dressing room telly, whilst Zaza was simply there because he was available. That's a bad sign and a poor reflection on Bilic for agreeing to it. Sadly, I suppose the natural in house replacement - Antonio - was already been deployed at right because of his own managerial fuckwittery, meaning he probably felt he had little choice.
As it is, he is off to Valencia and will probably bang one in against Barcelona soon. C'est la vie.
7. What Became Of The Likely Lads
Two weeks into the transfer window and I'm still trying to balance my opinion on us not having made any panic signings yet. Clearly I am against us doing stupid things in the transfer window - paying £15m for 35 year old Jermain Defoe would be a textbook example of that - but I also do acknowledge that we need some help. Moreso now that Payet has turned footballing quisling.
The thing about Antonio being brilliant on Saturday, and Byram being healthy is that it could easily convince Bilic et al that there is no need to bring in reinforcements. The reality is that most projections for the rest of the season give us about a 2% chance of going down, which doesn't seem that ridiculous as Hull are Hull, Sunderland are also Hull and Swansea have the defensive solidity of Donald Trump's iCloud password.
So I can see the temptation to stay put, tempered with the knowledge that if we do, Byram and Carroll will be involved in a tragic hoovering accident on February 1st and our cover for both of them is the same player.
It's a bit like seeing Katie Hopkins on television. On one hand that's a reason to perforate your own ear drums, but on the other you're also thinking that there's a chance someone might see her and take the opportunity to rob her house. That's a tough choice, and one you shouldn't even have to be thinking about in the first place. Much like buying Jermain Defoe.
I can't really decide what I want from this transfer window. I see little value and the reality is that we're not in much danger any more. All things considered I'd rather that they didn't make any moves and kept the money for someone sensible to make some decisions in the summer. Given that will never happen, I expect to shortly see Defoe and Glen Johnson holding scarves above their head on the West Stand concourse, with the touchline twinkling in the distance behind them.
8. Campaign Of Hate
All of which reminds me that this weeks events have rather neatly detracted away from that nascent anti board movement that was springing up. Despite me thinking they don't seem to know what they're doing, I generally can't fault the board too much. I grew up with the Cearns family, Terry Brown and the broke Icelandic billionaires. I have seen things. I remember.
The problem has never struck me as one of penny pinching or general cheapness - although I'm more sympathetic to that view the more time I spend in the stadium - but more a lack of thought over how their money is spent. But those failures of judgement around how to run a Club pale into insignificance next to the prospects we faced before they took over.
Intellectual heavyweight Scott Duxbury was hosting barbecues and planning for the Champions League whilst failing to notice that new Director of Football, Gianluca Nani, only had one phone number in his book - that of his old club, Brescia. In short, we were fucked.
We've had rank incompetence and borderline criminal negligence in the past and what we have now is different. Most paint the new West Ham as a slick, new brand focused corporate monolith with no soul and a desire to treat us as customers. You can take whatever side you want on that, but that deviousness has come in handy this week.
The more I hear about the Payet business, the more I think the Club have done pretty well. My initial response to be flabbergasted that we would banish him to the reserves whilst telling the world that he wanted to go. This seemed destined to crash his transfer fee, and put us on to the back foot.
However, at that point I didn't know he was on strike, and by doing this they've pretty much cornered him and his agent. He can't now pretend to be injured as nobody will believe him, and the Club can leave him unselected and save themselves plenty of cash by fining him for being on strike.
Tonight we learn that Payet's wife and children are already back in France, leaving him with the prospect of living apart from his family whilst not being paid and being called a mercenary arsehole by model footballers Robbie Savage and Chris Sutton. What's odd about that is that he doesn't seem to want to go for money, he just seems to want to go back to Marseille, which I think most West Ham fans would find eminently understandable.
If I was Payet I would fire my agent and replace him with someone more capable - like Natasha from The Apprentice who said “Do you know what guys, I can’t find my underwear. Just trying to work out if it will be any benefit to us whatsoever.” - and begin mending some fences.
Dimi's new agent
I cannot for the life of me work out why he didn't just announce he was homesick and wanted to go home, but promise to stay until the summer so as not to leave us in the lurch. His manager was the inventor of that bullshit! The Club could have worked in the background with Marseille to structure a deal and he could have left a hero, not that he gives a shit but it has to be at least slightly better than what he has now.
The word is that Marseille have today upped their initial £19m bid to £20m which I find hilarious, and just about the most David Sullivan thing ever. I'm not sure they actually have enough money to afford Payet, and if they don't then he really doesn't have much choice but to try and come back into the fold.
I still think this saga might have some legs left. Unlike Dimitri if he tries to buy a pint in The Carpenters anytime soon, mind you.
9. Can't Stand Me Now
One thing to consider about Payet, however. Don't be swayed by this belief that we don't need him solely on the basis of one good game. He leads the team in key passes per game this season with 4.1 per game. Next is Lanzini is 1.3 (all stats per WhoScored.com) and thereafter it's a fucking wasteland.
That is a huge creative component suddenly removed from the side, and it's not an easy thing to replace. Feghouli might well be a capable replacement in the longer term but he's a very different type of player and he also can't score unless he's behind the goalkeeper so that hampers his effectiveness somewhat.
We are off to Middlesbrough on Saturday and you might remember that we required the goal of the season to score against them in the first game. I don't care if you think Carroll's goal was better than Payet's - you are wrong. Payet had to do several things brilliantly, whilst Carroll did one thing. If we're one down after an hour again, you might find yourself casting wishful glances at the left wing and wishing that a certain Frenchman wasn't being a dickhead.
10. The Saga
I'm exhausted after all that, so here you go. Here's a Libertines song in honour of those who stayed and fought on Saturday and gave us something back. Not to be melodramatic but we needed that. And don't look now but we've only lost two of our last seven Premier League games.
Thanks West Ham, I cherish you, my love.
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