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Stoke 0-3 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)


Filed: Monday, 18th December 2017
By: HeadHammerShark


"Honey, it's been a long time waiting
Such a long, long time
But I can't stop now"

- Embrace, 'Gravity'

We may be into territory where we need to admit something here. It's been around eighteen months since I started writing The H List again on a regular basis, inspired by the nascent exhilaration of the 2015/16 season, and during that time the club have managed to get pretty much everything wrong.

The stadium move was a painful disappointment, the transfer dealings have resembled a Brewster's Millions remake and the ongoing saga over when Slaven Bilic would be fired did little to suggest that the Directors of the club had any idea what they were doing.

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I've finally found a manager in a worse position than me!


But as David Moyes' new look West Ham side swept away a woeful Stoke City, it occurred to me that we probably need to acknowledge that David Sullivan may have played a blinder here. When Moyes was first mooted as a possible successor to Bilic I fell into the same trap as many, painting him as a cheap, busted flush who had failed for five years and somehow managed to threaten a female journalist in his last job.

I'm still uncomfortable at the last point, but that might be a discussion about contrition and punishment for another day. As it is, Moyes seems rejuvenated. He no longer has the thousand yard stare of a three tour Vietnam veteran and instead looks like a man in control of his own destiny once more. By contrast, Mark Hughes wears the permanent sneer of a man who haggles in Poundland, and I don't mind admitting I'll raise a glass when he gets his P45 for Christmas. I suspect it will be bitter, much like the Welshman.

It's too soon to be feting Sullivan as a genius, especially given that the reason for the precarious nature of our current position is that he persisted far too long with Bilic when he'd clearly lost his way. But if he has to carry the can for that inertia, then he should also get the credit for this - currently - good looking appointment.

It has been a long time since I've seen a West Ham team go away from home like this and simply dismantle an opponent with fast, incisive counterattacking and a solid defence. It won't always be this way, of course, but if we can't take a moment to drink in a victory like this, and simultaneously revel in the disappointment of our vanquished opponent, then what the hell are we here for? It's this misplaced sense of superiority which binds us all together as football fans, after all.

***

"I went out into the night, I went out to find some light
Kids are swinging from the power lines, nobody's home so nobody minds"

- Arcade Fire, "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)"


This game ended up kicking off an hour late because Mark Hughes got into an argument with a traffic warden and staged a one man sit in outside the Britannia Stadium gates. This prevented electricians from getting in to restore power to the area and the stand off was only ended when some local children agreed to pay the 60 fine for Hughes. I imagine.

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Uncle Mark's coming for Christmas, kids!


It's always a little disconcerting for fans when things like this happen, as you never quite know how players will react to small changes in routine. The extra hour of warming up, or physio or sitting around listening to music affect different people in different ways. We came flying out of the traps, however, and settled into a nice looking style of play where Manuel Lanzini was able to get forward in support of Marko Arnautovic and Michail Antonio. Without the constant need to worry about losing the ball and not getting it back for ages - as with recent weeks - we pushed our wing backs further forward, and noticeably sought to play higher up the pitch than we did against the good teams we've been playing lately.

I am slowly coming to terms with our front two comprising a pair of converted wide forwards, because both are physically strong and have enough mobility to stretch defences. It is a far cry from watching us smash it long towards Andy Carroll in the manner of kids launching water balloons at an abandoned tree house, after all. So it was that we had a number of early long range chances, as we used our smaller share of possession much more incisively than the home team. Antonio and Lanzini had sighters and generally we carried a sense of menace that has been absent for a while, as that front pair pushed and pulled the immobile Stoke backline out of their preferred positions, and received a few bruised ankles for their troubles.

We were very fortunate to take the lead, however, as Ryan Shawcross took a break from kicking Antonio to head a cross against a post. Thereafter followed the big controversy of the game as Lanzini carried the ball seventy yards before falling under the challenge of Erik Pieters. I thought that Masuaku committed a foul before it got to the Argentine anyway, but there's no denying that his run was brilliant and also that Pieters was stupid to go to ground in the box and not get anywhere near the ball.

But we also have to accept that diving is a blight on the game and, while I feel no sympathy for Stoke, we do need to try and eradicate it because decisions like this can just as easily go against us. So, although I thought Lanzini went over slightly in anticipation of a physical contact that never really came, he bought the penalty with a dive and had it been at the other end I would have been fuming.

As I write this, Lanzini has been charged and will miss the next two games. I'm not unhappy about divers being punished but there are a couple of points to observe here. One is that players will now have to take oncoming contact in incidents such as these. I guess that's fine until you have to play against, well, Stoke and Ryan Shawcross comes a knockin'. Secondly, this creates a huge imbalance in the disciplinary process whereby players who are booked for a foul cannot be punished later, even when a red card is merited. Therefore we get a situation where Harry Kane and Dele Alli can commit red card tackles in the game at Manchester City and yet neither will miss a match, while Lanzini misses two for an offence that didn't physically endanger anybody. That isn't fair.

It's worth keeping an eye on who gets punished under these rules too. We all like to highlight opposition players who dive - Kane, Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling and Ashley Young off the top of my head - but don't like to accept it when it's closer to home. Lanzini dived and deserves a punishment, but there will be plenty of others who will do the same this season and I will be very interested to see how many Top Six players are hit under the same rules. I'm also slightly perplexed that players who go down in a game and are noticed will get either a booking or nothing, but players punished retrospectively get a two game ban. That seems...inconsistent.

After all of that, Mark Noble stepped up on his 300th Premier League appearance for us and gave us a deserved lead. As we saw at Everton a couple of weeks back, it's very useful to have a man who can hold his nerve in such situations.

***

"But now it's come to distances and both of us must try
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye"

- Leonard Cohen, 'Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye'


Stoke fans have not reacted well to Marko Arnautovic heading south in pursuit of fame and glory and, well, yes loads more money. We're in no position to talk, of course, given that there are West Ham fans who were not born until the Nineties but still boo Paul Ince's son, for reasons they know not why. We hold grudges better than anyone, and in fact I feel it might very well be our defining feature as supporters. Cross us and we will boo the shit out of you forty years later when you're trying to buy a mobility scooter.

What is odd though, is that even the most one eyed Stoke fan can surely see the logic behind his decision. West Ham can pay far more in wages than Stoke, so it's perfectly logical that a 28-year-old, signing his last long term deal, would plump for the club that can pay him the most.

I won't even descend into the parochial rabbit warren of arguing whether London is a better place to live than Stoke, but just purely from a financial standpoint it is an obvious decision. Stoke fans will of course argue that West Ham is a basket case club, but when the options on the table are "earn the same and stay at this middling Premier League club" or "earn more and move to this basket case middling Premier League club" I simply cannot see how there can ever be any surprise when a player chooses the latter.

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Arnie, here, Adebayoring it very nicely indeed


It probably didn't hurt that good ol' Slaven was doing the buying because you get the sense that Moyes wouldn't ever buy a player like Arnautovic, even if he is doing a substantially better job than Bilic of utilising him. It also couldn't have hurt to have been leaving Mark Hughes behind, given that he has the permanent expression of a man who heckles children at school assemblies.

What is even stranger about all this is that the Stoke fans then dished out all the abuse they could manage and then still seemed utterly shocked - SHOCKED I TELL YOU - to discover that Arnautovic would then want to give them some back when he scored. Even better was Hughes giving him some abuse as he walked off, and then later expressing his disappointment that Arnautovic had responded at all. Then we got the usual bullshit about how Stoke had "taken a chance" on him when nobody else would, and he should have repaid that faith.

Yeah, calm down Sparky - you're making it sound like you recruited him to the Dirty Dozen from Death Row. Arnautovic is a professional footballer who was playing for Werder Bremen at a level very similar to the one he found in England. Football fans and managers love to pull out the sanctimony card, but the reality is that clubs like Stoke can drop 2m on a player like him without blinking an eyelid, so portraying that as a huge risk is mendacious and patronising.

So, he played very well for Stoke and then saw an opportunity for a big payday and took it, and in doing so displayed all the loyalty to Stoke that they would have shown him if he'd broken his leg six months from the end of his contract. And talking of that, it's worth remembering that when Stoke fans try and clamber on to the high ground they do so as a bunch who booed Aaron Ramsey for having the temerity to have his leg shattered by one of their players. Football fans are a strange bunch.

This is a ruthless business and while I understand the frustration at losing players to a team they think (incorrectly) that they are better than, I struggle to get how Stoke fans feel that some type of blood oath has been shattered. I would give them the same advice I give myself whenever we encounter our own Arnautovic types - Hi Dimitri! - forget about the players, we're cheering for laundry.

***

"Well, I'm so tired of crying
But I'm out on the road again, I'm on the road again"

- Willie Nelson, 'On The Road Again'


I feel I should also point out, for any of you who missed the game, that although a 3-0 win where the opposition are restricted to no shots on target sounds like a comfortable win, it didn't necessarily always feel that way. This was primarily due to us missing more chances than one could have conceivably believed without prior knowledge of a match fixing scandal. Arnautovic alone had five clear chances before scoring, and hit the woodwork twice, and generally looked like he would never score, until he did. After Diafra Sakho was introduced he also had a couple of good chances himself, including one where he attempted to manoeuvre the ball in using just his groin, which was an admittedly interesting development.

Thus, there was a cavalcade of "Mighty Ducks" style misses before Arnautovic finally scored in the 75th minute. He then left the field four minutes later to the sound of Hughes berating him for not signing up to his petition demanding that spikes be placed in doorways all through Stoke to deter homeless people from sleeping there, 'cos "they'll never learn otherwise, Beryl". Probably.

Sakho then popped up with a third, and we could easily have grabbed a fourth but for Hernandez shooting from a tight angle when Lanzini was unmarked about eight fucking inches from goal. It is superbly churlish to say it, but we actually missed out on a chance to massage our goal difference a bit in this game.




The Caley Graphics shot map does show that Stoke had some decent chances, albeit they never managed to direct any on target. The best of them fell to Ryan Shawcross when the score was still at 1-0, but because he was unmarked in the area he had nobody to kick, and thus with all his focus on an actual footballing skill, he headed it over.

What is immediately noticeable about our chances is how many were inside the box and how many were really high quality chances. By contrast, Stoke had a lot of efforts but had nine blocked compared to just one for us. We managed to get seven efforts on target, compared to none for Stoke, and also hit the bar twice. That is a good day at the office.

We also absorbed the loss of Winston Reid to suspension by bringing in James Collins, a man with the distribution qualities of an Amazon delivery driver. Still, even with Collins smacking it over the neighbour's gate every so often, we still built nicely from the back, and really got purring late in the day when Stoke advanced and left space for Lanzini to run riot. I continue to be astounded at the deathbed conversions of Ogbonna and Cresswell who have transformed themselves from shell shocked Tommies to confident SAS types in the space of a month, and it says much for the system that Moyes is building that this was the third different iteration of his three at the back system, and we've still only conceded to Manchester City using it. Rice for Reid for Collins and everything has kept on rolling as it is. That's how it's supposed to be.

When Bilic left we had one wheel firmly in the ditch by the side of the road, the airbags had gone off, the hazard lights were flashing and someone had left the radio tuned to bloody Capital, with a broken volume setting. In short...hell. What Moyes has done is dragged us out of that ditch and put us firmly back on the road again. We're only at the beginning of the journey, but I'm certainly encouraged by the fact that the driver at least appears to know which way he's supposed to be going.

***

"No sweeping exit, or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter, or treat you unkind"

- Gram Parsons, 'Wild Horses'


With a corner definitively turned and everything on the up, it could be argued that we could really have done without an away cup quarter final at Arsenal. Unfortunately, given the size and quality of their squad it's hard to see that we'll get much change out of a well rested set of Arsenal reserves, especially without Lanzini and Arnautovic who both look like they will be missing.

It's worth pointing out that if we didn't get bad draws in cup competitions we wouldn't ever get pulled out of the hat. Of course, we can't say for certain that's what happened this time as Carabao conducted entire thing offscreen in a not-at-all-suspicious draw that miraculously kept all of the biggest teams apart. Presumably someone had overheated the balls before hand and one had burst in to flames and set the whole set on fire.

As it is, our draws since the beginning of the 2014/15 season are as follows:

2014/15

League Cup
Sheffield United (h) : 1-1 (Lost on penalties, those useless bastards)

FA Cup
Everton (a) : 1-1
Everton (h) : 2-2 (Won on penalties, those wonderful bastards)
Bristol City (a) : 1-0
WBA (a) : 0-4 (That's right - four. FOUR fucking nil to West Fucking Brom)

2015/16

League Cup
Leicester (a) : 1-2

FA Cup
Wolves (h) : 1-0
Liverpool (a) : 0-0
Liverpool (h) : 2-1
Blackburn (a) : 5-1
Man Utd (a) : 1-1
Man Utd (h) : 1-2

2016/17

League Cup
Accrington Stanley (h) : 1-0
Chelsea (h) : 2-1
Man Utd (a) : 1-4

FA Cup
Man City (h) : 0-5

2017/18

League Cup
Cheltenham (a) : 2-0
Bolton (h) : 3-0
Spurs (a) : 3-2
Arsenal (a) : Erm

FA Cup
Shrewsbury (a) : Double erm



"Do you think they'll notice we haven't actually done a draw?"


So for anyone keeping score at home that's each of the self styled Big Six, including Manchester United twice away from home in quarter finals. In addition, we managed to get Leicester away in their title winning season, and of the eighteen draws made in that time we've been away on twelve occasions. I've not got too much time for conspiracy theories on that last point, as rigging draws to keep us from playing at home really would be a spectacular waste of time and effort, but in general nothing would surprise me less than a revelation that Cup sponsors are able to request that bigger teams are kept apart in the draw.

So it's a bit unlucky, and tomorrow nights game comes in the middle of a run of important league fixtures where we absolutely have to pick up points. At this early stage, with Lanzini suspended, Noble and Fernandes apparently injured, and Kouyate still a doubt, it does rather beg the question of who plays in midfield. People might be yelling for Sead Haksabanovic and Domingos Quina, but chucking two 18 year olds in to face Arsenal seems like a recipe for disaster, especially as another - Declan Rice - will presumably be playing as well. It's at times like this that it seems even more foolhardy to have the likes of Josh Cullen and Reece Oxford warming the benches of other clubs when they could be playing in games like these, but perhaps that's hindsight gone too far.

So we travel to the Emirates more in hope than expectation, although that was pretty much the same deal when we went to Spurs and that turned out alright. If nothing else, this will be another chance for the now famous Moyes defensive resilience to be tested, as well as a chance for a run out for Joe Hart which will be nice, so long as nobody shoots in that one side of the goal where he can't save anything. And here's a thing I noticed on Saturday, that gives me a little bit more confidence going in to this game than I probably should own up to - there were players laughing and smiling at Stoke, during the game. There was a confidence in the team that I can't really recall seeing for a year or two. PLayers like Cresswell and Lanzini suddenly look as though they are living their lifelong dreams once again, rather than being pressganged into a bank robbery that they really think is going to end badly.

Contrast that with Mark Hughes, a man replete with a face like he's just stung a bee.

***

It occurs to me that I never mentioned my big night out at the FSF Awards. I appreciate that not all of you waste your time on Twitter so may not know that I didn't win the Best Blogger Award, despite investing in an expensive and - I now realise - fraudulent Russian hacking scam offer.

I would, though, like to thank all of you who voted for me either for the nominations or in the vote itself, and I am very appreciative of all the good luck messages on the night. Kieron at The Swiss Ramble won the award and is a very worthy winner. Still, one should never turn down a free meal and I did get a nice cheer in the room from the Hammers in situ. My thanks to all, it was a nice ride.


This is not me, it's Ledley King, but I forgot to take any pictures


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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