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Huddersfield 1-4 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)


Filed: Thursday, 18th January 2018
By: HeadHammerShark


"Just a perfect day, problems all left alone,
Weekenders on our own, it's such fun"

- Lou Reed, "Perfect Day"


And that will do very nicely indeed.

In a season that seems to have been tinged with a sense of disappointment from the moment that we started the year with all the well drilled organisation of the Hawaiian Emergency Alert team, and then slammed shut the transfer window with a slightly incredulous "Is that it?", it must be said that in those brief, tantalising moments when things have been good, they've been almost perfect.

Embed from Getty Images
Mark Noble. His legs have gone. Literally, in this case.


Two down to Spurs at Wembley and then roaring back to triumph 3-2; that thumping 3-0 win at Stoke; Chelsea kept at arms length and poked like a tiger for a 1-0 victory; the last gasp home winners against Swansea and West Brom that masked the inadequacy of what had gone before. All moments to remember and a reminder that when the stars align and the gods are with us, then West Ham can serve up great days just like anyone else.

And what was even better about this one was that it almost sprang from nowhere. After twenty minutes of this game it wouldn't have been a surprise if a great celestial hand had appeared from the clouds, picked up the John Smith's stadium, turned it upside down and shaken it, while yelling "IS THIS THING ON?".

It wasn't for a lack of effort on behalf of either side, but the stars weren't aligning for anybody. The home team huffed and puffed but never looked like causing us any damage, while we continually got Manuel Lanzini on the ball in dangerous positions, only for his radar to malfunction. Shades of that Hawaiian Emergency Alert team once again. Overall, I'm not sure I've seen so much effort produce so little of value since Madonna last starred in a film.

In such circumstances, the tropes demand that you either need a moment of individual brilliance or catastrophic error to conjure up a goal. And so it was that Huddersfield keeper Jonas Lossl lined up a goal kick, noticed that all his defenders on the edge of the box were marked and still passed it to the one of them anyway. This is a tactic which the Terriers have used regularly all season, and for all I know it could be a key component of why they have done so well. But in that moment, with the way that Lanzini, Arnautovic and Noble were aligned, it was fairly clear that we had set ourselves up with the expectation that they would try this, and thus just looked ludicrous.

So Lossl found Joe Lolley, Arnautovic hassled the young man, and Noble stole it from him and ran through to coolly bend it round the keeper for a barely deserved lead. It was an interesting passage of play because we had already forced Lossl to go long from goal kicks previously and won the ball back as a result. What I liked about this was that we were prepared for it and it worked so well it resulted in us scoring. I might be doing Bilic and his staff a disservice, but that feels like exactly the kind of attention to detail that was so frequently missing from his latter day teams. By contrast, whether it's towels on the sideline for long throws, or minimising the gaps between midfield and defence, you sense that there are no stones being left unturned by Moyes in the search for an edge. This goal would be Exhibit A for why that's a Very Good Thing.

***

"When I'm outside in a real good mood
You could almost forget 'bout all the other things"

- Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, "Over Everything"


It was at this point that I started to get a nagging sensation that I'd seen that goal somewhere before. I'm always hugely appreciative of opposition goalkeeping incompetence, as I often mention to my eldest daughter Barthez, and Lossl was definitely ringing some bells here. And then it came to me.

Finn Harps.

I shall say no more, but I shall simply invite you to watch this clip. Thirteen year old me nearly burst a blood vessel laughing at this the first time round. I think Lossl might have been channelling his inner Finn Harp here.





***

"Are you hoping for a miracle?"
- Bloc Party, "Helicopter"


So with a one goal lead to protect and Huddersfield looking insipid, it felt very much to me like we could sit on that advantage and possibly snatch a second on the break. This is why my opinion should always be taken with a Super Sized pinch of salt.

Approaching half time, we were still playing disjointedly when Lolley picked up a loose ball wide on our left, cut into the box under minimal challenge and curled a sumptuous equaliser inside Adrian’s far post. The finishing in this game really deserved a better showcase – similar to when when you see a band you like on The Andrew Marr Show at nine on a Sunday morning and Chris Grayling is tapping his foot away on the sofa. If that was a goal from nothing, then it at least better reflected the balance of play in a game where neither side was really doing anything of note.

But if goals from nothing are your thing, then Marko Arnautovic seems to be your man. It took him just eleven seconds of the second half to latch on to a speculative Kouyate flick on, pull it out of the air, baffle Tommy Smith and drill home a fine low left footed shot. In that moment the entire Huddersfield team talk was consigned to the waste paper bin, and we could once again retain our shape and look to hit them on the break. It was a moment of sublime skill and a far more difficult finish that it looked at first glance.

Thereafter, we looked like we might score with every attack, as Huddersfield decided to give defending a miss and move to a "Rush Goalie" formation that I haven't seen since leaving school. We duly took advantage with a beautifully crafted first goal for Lanzini, which he finished smartly. He then helped himself to a second when Arnautovic went full "T-Rex out of the enclosure", leaving a trail of mangled bodies behind him until his strike partner arrived to smash home the loose ball like some glory hunting Velociraptor. The Austrian celebrated with all the relish of a dad who had just discovered his kids have changed the Sky Q pin.



Marko celebrates Lanzini's second


But here's the thing about Moyes' West Ham. We continue to win in very unlikely ways. Now hold on, because I know you might be spluttering at the mouth and wondering how I could possibly find fault with a 4-1 victory, so let me firstly say that I am not. This was a wonderful win. A perfect day. But let me sound a note of caution, because this is The H List after all, and you can go elsewhere for cheerleading if that's your thing.




As this shot map from Caley Graphics shows, while there wasn't much of a threat all day from Huddersfield while we displayed almost unheard levels of ruthlessness in our finishing. I was somewhat shocked when I saw the low xG of our chances, but that is kind of the point of xG - to remove the inherent biases of our own opinions. And so hats off to Noble, Arnautovic and Lanzini for their classy finishes. As it was, our best chance actually might have fallen to Kouyate who couldn't redirect an Ogbonna header just inches from the line, after a corner.

But the reason for my nagging concern is that we won't score four goals every week from six shots on target. We won't score last minute winners every week. We won't keep Chelsea quiet for 85 minutes every week. We won't have three shots to Spurs 31 and get a 1-1 draw every week. And if you think that is all just a load of overly negative shit, then ask yourself whether either of Bilic or Pardew were able to sustain their habit of going a goal down all the time and still winning. Regression to the mean is a bitch, yo.

And yet, with every passing fixture Moyes seems to conjure up ever more unlikely results. And here we are, with one defeat from our last eight fixtures and up to eleventh in the table. It is truly impressive what he has been able to achieve with a simple devotion to proper organisation and an ability to actually coach and improve players. I'm not yet ready to commit to Moyes on that long term deal, primarily because this sample size isn't anywhere near big enough, but also because I would like to see more of those wins like we had at Stoke. An impressive, dominant, no doubt about it, "Alexa beat these fuckers like a piñata", kind of a win.

Because, for all the excellence on display here, I'm not sure it's entirely sustainable in the long run to lean so heavily on keeping things tight and hoping that our midfielders cum forwards will conjure something up. And in fairness to Moyes, perhaps the best thing about this little resurgence is how underwhelmed he seems to be with it all. As if he can't quite get over how low the bar is in East London. He reckons we have a long way to go until we're close to the level he wants us at and I reckon he's right. That said, if the road is going to be long, then a few pleasant diversions such as this will go a long way toward easing the burden.

***

"Oh, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now"

- Bob Dylan, "My Back Pages"


If the calling card of the Moyes regime has been his ability to rejuvenate players, then perhaps the shining example has been Mark Noble. I remain convinced that Noble was either injured or unfit at the start of the season, as it turns out that a 70 yard Croatian long jumper might not have been right at the cutting edge of elite athlete fitness preparation. Since his return to the side under Moyes he has been exemplary, and has done a marvellous job of thumbing his nose at unbelievers like me.

What I really noticed on Saturday was how much sharper he looked during the many short sprints that are the staple diet of the modern day Premier League midfielder. While Noble always has loads of time on the ball and always looks to retain possession in tight areas, I think he is also benefitting from the new system. With less ground to cover, he seemed more explosive and quicker over those short distances. His goal was a case in point, but generally I thought he did his work brilliantly and was the best player on the pitch, even allowing for the performances of Arnautovic and Lanzini.

I always think that laymen like me probably make far too much of formations. I strongly doubt whether professionals care too much about the concept of a 3-4-3 vs a 3-5-2, but instead focus simply on their tasks and the space on the pitch they are either supposed to attack or defend. Because ultimately, football is really just a game about space and trying to gain supremacy of it.

But if you divide the pitch up into five sections lengthwise, I think you can visualise why Noble seems to be better utilised in this system. None of this is an advanced tactical revelation, by the way, but instead just something I've been thinking about for a while.




If you look at the pitch in this way - and I stress again that I am not a qualified coach or the second coming of Ron Greenwood - I think it's easier to see that in this 4-2-3-1 formation you demand a lot of your central players. The two central midfielders have to laterally cover all five sections between them, unless the advanced three are hard workers and prepared to track back all day. Of course, if they are Dimitri Payet, Sofiane Feghouli and Manuel Lanzini then you might as well cast a couple of spells and get yourself a pet hippogriff to do it.

Similarly, the two centre backs need to be able to provide a solid, mobile base and allow the full backs to roam high up the pitch and try and get overloads out wide. We worked this pretty well in 2015-16 when Noble and Kouyate were imperious, and we had one of Europe's best players drawing all sorts of defensive cover on our left wing. With two mobile full backs, and a generally weak division, we were able to ride this formation all the way to the cusp of the Champions League.




But in the intervening years, the ravages of time and injuries have taken their toll. Certain players have visibly declined, and I counted Noble among them. But in this new system, there are some obvious advantages for him. Firstly, he can now park himself in the middle of that midfield three and have a greatly reduced amount of space to police. Now Obiang and Kouyate can drift out wide to provide support for those isolated wing backs. Noble, meanwhile, can sit in the middle and control possession against the weaker teams, and he did that here splendidly.

It helps, too, that he has a solid three behind him meaning that his backtracking should be reduced as well. There are flaws of course, and the wide areas continue to look a vulnerablity that we have seen repeatedly exposed, but as an overall platform it all seems pretty stable, although even as I write this all out, I feel like we might need to check that Zabaleta's legs are still attached given all that running he has to do.

I don't know how much weight any of that would carry with qualified coaches, but to my uneducated mind it makes some sense. That deep lying style allows us to compress the space well, and reduce the stress on older legs, but does also rely on the front men having to cover lots of ground ahead of them. In that sense, the renaissance of Arnautovic has relied as much upon his off the ball work as his goalscoring. Note that he was missing and Hernandez started at Wembley, when it looked like we couldn't have hurt them even with a Sherman tank. Which is kind of ironic given that Obiang unleashed a Howitzer to open the scoring.

As I mentioned above, I'm not entirely sure all of this is sustainable, but it feels very much like Moyes has cut his cloth to fit the players he has available to him. A better centre back and he might be able to revert to a back four, a better central midfield and he might be able to go to a pairing in there and push forward another body to help Arnautovic. Whatever he decides, I still think we need to some warm bodies this month.

***

"I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together"

- The Beatles, "I am the Walrus"


So for all of that praise directed towards Noble and the defensive shape of the team, the most eye catching piece of our performance was the front two of Lanzini and Arnautovic. By deploying them as a pair, Moyes continued his policy of slinging players into advanced positions when he doesn't trust them to do any tracking back, with Antonio being the first deployed in this manner.

Talking to a Newcastle supporting friend on Monday morning, he said something which made me laugh, but actually makes some sense. He said that we were using Arnautovic in a similar way to Ronaldo.

Embed from Getty Images
The Portuguese Arnautovic


After I stopped screwing up my face, I thought about it, and it's not quite as insane as it seems. It's insane, of course, but not as bad as, say, turning to Robert Snodgrass as the answer to your January problems.

Anyway, both Arnautovic and his Portuguese doppelgänger are tall, strong and quick wide forwards who have been converted into central strikers and both possess unusual gifts for someone in the position. Now let's get that into perspective - Ronaldo has almost refined the role of what a central striker looks like, so to compare him directly with a player in the bottom half of the Premier League after a good game away at Huddersfield would be well Tim Sherwood.

But what my friend was getting at, was more that we have abandoned the traditional demands of our strikers and are instead playing a very different way. Arnautovic is certainly strong enough to compete for balls and do the traditional grunt work of a striker, but where we really want to get him is isolated with defenders so he can run at them and beyond them. In a similar style to Ronaldo, if nowhere near the same level, we are asking him to use his physicality to lead counter attacks and stretch teams.

Take our last goal for example. That is not a goal that can be scored unless he has the pace, skill and power to get to the ball and then bulldoze into the area. None of our other players could have done that and it is a huge feather in the caps of Moyes and his coaching staff that they have engineered this development.

And yes, that third goal.

When did you last see us play like that? I can't remember a move of that ilk since the Carlton Cole screamer at Wigan, and while we played well in that 2015-16 season, we haven't mustered up anything that good since moving to the London Stadium. What was encouraging was that the goal actually showcased exactly what you want from a team in our situation. We pressed high, won the ball back, our midfielders shuffled it around until finding Arnautovic in space and a stepover later Lanzini was showing Chicharito what he's missing. A perfect goal on a perfect day.

***

"This is a tale of two city situations, a mutual appreciation
Away from narrow preconception"

- Super Furry Animals, "Juxtaposed With U"


Which brings me to our transfer window. I'm not necessarily climbing the walls at the lack of activity, because the team's resurgence has lessened the threat of relegation considerably and if they can finish the month unbeaten we should be in full ascent up the side of Mt Mediocrity. An unheard of state of affairs when Brighton were pulling us to pieces all those weeks ago.

That being said, I think we need players still, but I'm starting to develop a weird, zen like faith in Moyes' ability to mine points from the most unpromising of situations. In the same way that when Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle came out and suddenly they could all fight like Neo from The Matrix without any explanation for it, I feel the same way about Moyes. I don't know what he's doing, or why it's happening but let's just go with it.



That West Ham back three


But the strangest rumour abounding about West Ham at the moment is the one linking Andy Carroll to Chelsea. When this emerged initially I assumed it was simply the sound of column inches being desperately filled or Carroll's agent angling for a new deal and overshooting the runway a little bit, but now it refuses to die down.

Like most Hammers fans I'd be prepared to drive him over there myself except I don't own an ambulance and I can't be doing with him pulling a hamstring turning over the radio when we hit traffic on the M25. I know plenty might keep him, but he's a disruptive force to the team purely because he confuses how we want to play. Send him West and let Conte sort that out, and if we get Batshuayi back in exchange then I could certainly live with that. Besides, the Champions League deserves to see Andy Carroll. They've had it too easy for too long, with their perfectly manicured pitches and slick passing football and now it's time for their Hawaiian Missile Warning. Here comes General Zod, Europe. Prepare to kneel.



Big Andy - Stick that up yer bleeding San Siro


But tragically, the other January tale that I seem to be hearing on repeat is the story of us trying to get Robert Snodgrass back from his loan spell. Not content with slagging him off for a year, and ignoring the not insignificant question about where he would play in this line up - it is really twisting my melon that after their fucking shambles of a transfer window this time last year, these dickheads have searched every inch of the globe, scanned YouTube into the wee hours and decided that the answer to their problems is.....the same guy that they signed last year and didn't know how to utilise.

Never change West Ham. I love you. You're perfect.

*I'm sorry this one was late and indeed was written as we were playing Shrewsbury. Life gets in the way sometimes. Still, chapeau Reece Burke.


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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