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The week of waking up


Filed: Wednesday, 3rd October 2018
By: HeadHammerShark


I don't know about you guys, but I'm quite enjoying this good start to the season that we have made, whereby one must discount the actual beginning to the season and instead pretend it all kicked off last week.

"My mind is open wide
And now I'm ready to start"

- Arcade Fire, "Ready to Start"


Act One - Zabaleta Earns Hazard Pay : West Ham 0 - 0 Chelsea

Chelsea were the first to arrive, kickstarting our week of waking up by strolling into the Kitten's Den with a 100% record and leaving with just a point, and a great deal of appreciation for Andriy Yarmolenko's aerial ability. Our first home point of the season was hard fought and well earned, and a generally optimistic glimpse at a slightly brighter future.



Worst game of "Simon Says" ever


That said, I think we have to be realistic about what this point says about us, and what it says about the wider landscape of the Premier League. This was a counterpunching performance, whereby we allowed Chelsea's dreamy midfield to dominate possession, relied upon channeling their most dangerous players into places we could deal with them and then looked to our counter attacking ability to create chances.

Such a strategy is perfectly in line with where we are as a team, with where Chelsea are under Maurizio Sarri, and also with the ever widening gulf between the Big Sixô and the rest of us. While we may wish for something more offensive, the truth seems to be that opening up against these sorts of teams rarely works well for middling types such as ourselves. So Manuel Pellegrini kept the structure tight, and watched as we bundled Chelsea up quite nicely in a shrewdly put together defensive blanket.

Key to all this was the midfield trio of Declan Rice, Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang, who ceded possession to the fabulous Jorginho - Mateo Kovacic axis in the middle of the park, but brilliantly blocked off passing lanes and made important tackles and interceptions when needed. Because of the way Chelsea play, their midfielder with the most licence to roam is N'Golo Kante, of all people, and we were probably fortunate that two of their better chances fell to him. He popped up in our box with all the confidence of your parents trying to cope with series linking a recording on Sky Q, and duly deleted all your stored episodes of Band of Brothers, blazing over both times.

Interestingly, Eden Hazard was kept largely under wraps by the outstanding Pablo Zabaleta - with some help from Fabian Balbuena and Rice - and even though the FA Level 1 coach in me was purring at his ability to "hide, manouevre and reveal" the ball - he had little impact until late on when he switched sides and started getting in behind Arthur Masuaku. As it was, the best chance of the game for the visitors fell to Alvaro Morata who capitalised on a piece of defending from Yarmolenko that can charitably be described as "worse than Farage turning up for dinner", only for Lukasz Fabianski to rush off his line and save with his face. I should note that Morata was so impressive when he came on that it took me four days to realise it was him and not Giroud who missed the chance. Sixty million quid. Modern football.

Meanwhile, our first half counterattacks were working now and again, and a lovely piece of skill from Felipe Anderson set Michail Antonio away, only for him to blaze wide. Shortly after, Rice and Yarmolenko combined to get him much closer to goal, but Kepa blocked his shot, and his afternoon was best summed up by him being substituted just as he was starting to physically dominate David Luiz. Those chances remained the sum of our threat until substitute Robert Snodgrass picked out Yarmolenko late on with a sublime cross that found the Ukrainian totally unmarked at the back post. With the goal at his mercy, he somehow achieved the impossible by heading wide and actually making me yearn for Andy Carroll.




This weeks xG map from Caley Graphics does a good job of showing that while we certainly could have won, it's not entirely accurate to say we should have done. Chelsea had lots of shots from good locations and on another day might have sneaked one in. Let's, gulp, respect the point.

***

"He knows so much about these things"
- The Smiths, "This Charming Man"


Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this performance was the overwhelming feeling that Manuel Pellegrini had finally hit upon a tactical system that made sense in the context of the match. At Liverpool it seemed be the case that he wasn't budging from a flat back four playing high, and we were duly treated to an afternoon of chasing after disappearing Scousers. This time, he took a more pragmatic approach and cut his cloth according to the situation. Thus we restricted the attacking excesses of Masuaku, and focused our midfield efforts on stopping Hazard.

Is it entirely inaccurate to suggest that this was the kind of performance one might have expected if we were still managed by a furiously masticating Brummie, swigging from a pint of wine on the touchline? Maybe not, but we set up to stifle Chelsea and stayed in the game with the intention of hitting them on the break. It wasn't quite the cavalier attacking we were promised during the glorious summer, but then again, those statements are a lot easier to make when the whole season is pregnant with possibility. When you've lost four of your first five games, however, and a winter relegation battle is beckoning then pragmatism is a much more comfortable bedfellow. And fair play to Pellegrini for finally compromising when it was needed.

Further abroad, Antonio was deployed up front in the absence of Marko Arnautovic, and struggled along manfully. I didn't think he did as badly as some people felt, but I also remain unconvinced that he is fully recovered from his hamstring injuries. As a player he rather resembles a toy electric car, wound up and left to ping explosively about the place, crashing in to things and generally causing havoc. On days such as this, we missed the slightly cooler thinking Arnautovic.

And imagine how panicky you have to be if you're considered less clear headed than a 29 year old man who dyed his hair peroxide blonde.

***

"Cause I ain't gonna be made to look a fool no more,
You done it once too often, what do you take me for?"

- Chas n' Dave, "Ain't No Pleasing You"


I should admit that I am often wrong about things. I write down my thoughts after each game, committing them to cyber stone, and thus they can be thrown back at me when they later prove incorrect. And this happens frequently. And it has happened again.

I've written about the mixed bag of a summer that I felt we had. Issa Diop and Ryan Fredericks are my favourite signings, and I hated the decision to take on Jack Wilshere. The others all lay on a line somewhere between those two points, including Lukasz Fabianski. about whom I was largely ambivalent. And I was wrong. Totally.

Adrian, a man who plays as if permanently chasing after an imaginary raccoon, is someone who I love like a brother, or a friendly newsagent, but whose time has sadly come. Fabianski exudes calmness. Indeed, such is the feeling of serenity that he engenders that I found myself watching this game and thinking fondly of the Seinfeld episode where all the characters yell "serenity now!" when they get angry, and then slowly go crazy through repression.



Serenity now! Insanity later!


As it is, Fabianski simply radiates a feeling of security through the team that even seeps all the way to the crowd. For all Chelsea's late pressure I don't ever recall thinking that they were remotely close to scoring, such is the confidence I had in the big Pole. Barring peak Robert Green or Ludo, I can't really remember feeling like that for an awfully long time.

So, a point gained. Traction. A foot on the ladder at home, and a journey begun. I'll take it.

***

"Dream it while you can,
Maybe some day I'll make you understand"

- Oasis, "Fade Away"



Act Two - Not Shrewsbury : West Ham 8 - 0 Macclesfield

As I get older, I like to think that I've grown as a person. I no longer see opposition fans in the same way as I did when I was a kid, as enemy combatants to be taken on and somehow beaten. Now I just see other people exactly like me, who happened to be born elsewhere. In other words, I am no longer thirteen.

And so as we smashed eight goals past Macclesfield I began to feel rather sorry for their supporters. Bottom of the league or not, they still would have harboured hopes for this game. It is the trick we all pull on ourselves as football fans - to conjure belief where none really ought to exist. And thank goodness we do, because a lot of stadiums would be empty if we didn't. So we can all sympathise with their predicament here, as they would have spent the day finding a way to view this game through a prism of optimism, only to have that view shattered by three first half goals.

From our perspective, the joy in this game came more from the unexpected nature of it all, as we eschewed our usual policy of not scoring against lower league teams until extra time and instead starting smashing goals in from the start. While we have generally stopped our habit of losing to smaller clubs, we have instead tended to make interminably heavy weather of it, even managing to go two nil down to Spurs at one point, before managing a second half revival at Wembley last year.



Nobody has ever looked this happy to score against Macclesfield


In truth, just about the only way for a game like this to mean anything for a Premier League team is if this happens. Winning 8-0 is almost pointless, but it is infinitely preferable to sneaking past in extra time as we recently did against Accrington Stanley and Shrewsbury. Worse still was that we turned in those awful, laboured performances with players like Payet, Lanzini and Arnautovic on the pitch. Those games tended to shine a light on our glaring inadequacies, rather than allow us to build any confidence.

This time around, we played the guys who needed minutes and not only did they sweep Macclesfield away as one might expect, but everyone who needed the confidence boost of a goal got one. Michail Antonio, Lucas Perez, Angelo Ogbonna, Ryan Fredericks and Robert Snodgrass all scored, with the latter managing a particularly joyous double. Better still, perhaps, was the debut of Grady Diangana, who played out wide and linked up with fellow youth team new boy Joe Powell rather well. Both looked as though they have enough in their games to play at this level, although the question remains as to whether beating a team who would rather have been at the dentists is much of a barometer.

My favourite moment amid the carnage was the sheer joy shown by Snodgrass at scoring his first West Ham goals. It's easy to be snide and condescending about goals against Macclesfield, and players signed from Hull, but isn't Snodgrass everything that we want in a player? He cares, he tries, he wants to be here and he takes joy in our successes. A player like that in a squad can be invaluable, especially when he is prepared to bide his time as a substitute. His brief cameo against Manchester United roused the entire ground as he chased fruitlessly after the ball for a full minute before needlessly fouling someone. And how the supporters seemed to be galvanised by this. If the divergent careers of John Moncur and Freddie Kanoute taught me anything, it's that you need to look like you're showing effort, irrespective of what you're actually doing. Snoddy has this nailed, and I rather like him for it.

Elsewhere, there was a pleasant hue to the evening as Powell, Diangana, Declan Rice and Conor Coventry all finished the game, giving us the merest hint that maybe our decrepit Academy might be about to splutter into life once more. Our reward for this jolly run out is a home tie with Spurs, just as their fixtures take a turn for the brutal. What's past is prologue, dear friends - history awaits us.

***

"Whenever I'm asked who makes my dreams real
I say that you do"

- The Temptations, "Get Ready"



Act Three - The Pay Off : West Ham 3 - 1 Manchester United

Isn't this the point of it all? Isn't this why we go? Why we moved ground? Why we pay over the same money to watch our team as Manchester United fans, even though they're the casino and we're the idiot pensioner about to blow our savings on the roulette wheel? This is it, friends, and I'd advise you never to look past such moments. Savour them. Revel in them. Drink them in. This is why we do this.



I enjoyed this


Things started well, as the marvellous Zabaleta took a pass from the equally marvellous Noble on five minutes, drove in behind Luke Shaw and crossed for Anderson to flick brilliantly past David De Gea. After that start, we continued to push the visitors back, as their play was as weak as their godawful salmon pink strip, and we duly scored a second when Yarmolenko's shot took a heavy deflection off Victor Lindelof just before half time. I googled it and Lindelof is actually a professional footballer, as opposed to a competition winner, by the way.

What was interesting was that this was another game against a decent side, where we showed we actually had the ability to throw a couple of punches back in their direction. Whether it was Arnautovic bullying their many and varied centre backs, Anderson and Yarmolenko getting in down the sides, or Mark Noble reinventing himself as a central playmaker, we continued to pose problems all game and were well worthy of the 3-1 scoreline, earned against a team full of players who are hugely pricey and used to be good when they played for other teams. Tellingly, our own version of that player - Jack Wilshere - has missed all three of these games. One wonders where he will fit in when he returns.

Once more our tactical setup was both thoughtful and successful. The visitors played with three at the back, and consequently were able to create lots of crossing opportunities for Ashley Young wide on the right. He drifted in behind Anderson frequently, and with Masuaku engaged in the inside right channel by either Fellaini or Martial, this looked to be their best hope of scoring. This in itself was odd given that Romelu Lukaku was playing, and he scores a goal a game against us, but such was the excellence of Issa Diop that he was almost invisible. Ironically, Mourinho congratulated "the scouts who found Diop" after the game, which means we are about two weeks away from David Sullivan claiming credit for his signing.

However, for all those moments of success for the visitors out wide it amounted to little and our midfield trio were once more excellent in controlling the centre of the park, with Noble repeatedly finding himself alone in acres of real estate. He responded by creating the first and then picking out Arnautovic for the third, when the Austrian calmly drew De Gea before sliding it past him with ease. Whisper it quietly, but that front three is starting to look the part, as well they might for the £80m they cost us.

What Anderson's failure to track back also did, was give him a head start on Young whenever we broke, and it was noticeable in the second half how frequently he got the ball in advanced areas and just failed to pick out a pass. On other days, in colder climes, we might find ourselves getting a lot of joy from such swift counter attacks. If the manager was to blame for the underwhelming start to the season then he ought to get credit for things like that. I loved the way we played in the second half here.

To wit: I saw something today that I hadn't seen yet this season - the sense of a beginning - and Pellegrini deserves credit for that. I was fuming after the Wolves debacle, but this was clear progress even allowing for the woeful way in which Manchester United played. We have seen plenty of underpowered visitors waltz off with the points from our new home, so what a distinct joy it was to see this bunch of expensively assembled charlatans sent back empty handed. And all the while, there was Jose Mourinho, weeping, moaning and dissembling, desperately trying to get fired so he can move out of his Manchester Travel Tavern and get back to his hobby of shouting at the weather. What a lovely day it was, and what a fine week for us to have woken up. Lovely football, a stadium with a pulse, the hints of promise as new players settle down. Savour this. Revel in this. Drink this in. It's why we do this.

***

"You can't play it safe
And still go down in history"

- Emmylou Harris, "Belle Starr"


The three men that Manchester United took off cost them a cool £180m, and serve as a gentle reminder that sides such as these have privileges and head starts that we can only dream of. It is also why a result such as this is always presented as a Manchester United defeat and never as a West Ham victory. Don't get upset about it - instead, savour the moment we gave a bloody nose to the elite and won a hand even though the deck was stacked.



Hazard doesn't play for United yet as he's still good. Give it five years.


But we shouldn't get too carried away in lauding our attackers, when the base for all of this came from our increasingly decent looking defence. We shouldn't ignore the early season fragility, as there was a reason for that, but a couple of recent fixes have certainly helped an awful lot. Fabianski is wonderful, of course, and his save here from Fellaini was the equal of anything we will see from De Gea all year. But Zabaleta has returned on the right hand side and although he still plays as though he is twenty three and at Manchester City, he has added some undeniable zest to that side of the pitch. I don't think it's a coincidence that Noble has drifted wider and is playing so well in the space being created inside by the Argentines "Han Solo chasing after stormtroopers" style overlaps.



Cover me Andriy!


Inside him Fabian Balbuena has really settled in, and has given us the kind of solidity that we might have got from Jose Fonte had we bought him before he became a cast member of New Tricks. The Paraguayan has brought some physicality to our back four that has been needed, and has slightly more recovery speed than the likes of James Collins or Ogbonna, which has proved useful when he's been needed to cover Zabaleta's Death Star frolics.

His partner, Diop, has been equally good and his sixty yard accidental burst forward with the ball at his feet here was my moment of the match. It's been a long time since we had a central defender who could carry the ball in any meaningful way. The fact he looked terrified for most of his run shall not deter me. I want to see more.

Perhaps the only concern is the way in which Arthur Masuaku has curtailed his forward surges to take a more conservative left back role. While that is probably a good thing for us defensively it does rather beg the question of why we would have him in the side, given that Aaron Cresswell is a better defender but doesn't offer the same threat going forward. Masuaku, we should remember, was quite literally one of the most successful dribblers in Europe last season.

Perhaps the answer lies in who we have been playing, and we might get the more adventurous Arthur back once we start playing sides at a similar level to ourselves. For now, I shall take a watching brief - without that attacking threat, I am not sure I value Masuaku highly enough to play him over Cresswell.

And in front of them is the glue that binds the whole thing together. Declan Rice, at the tender age of nineteen, already looks like he might be the most important player in our side. Certainly Arnautovic and Anderson are more eye catching, but each have understudies with some degree of competence. If Rice gets injured we will be reduced to stabbing voodoo dolls of opposition number tens, as the only way to stop them.

His assurance on the ball is spectacular, and his new found ability to play passes off both feet is really the thing that has elevated him to another level. His ability to read the game is good, but with that range of passing he is no longer an attacking black hole, and indeed has started a decent number of counter attacks, simply by getting rid of the ball quickly and efficiently. I'm fairly ambivalent about the contractual impasse that we find ourselves in with him, reasoning that both sides are probably leaking equally, and that this is simply the culture of West Ham at present. I highly doubt that his contract negotiation is all that different to any other player, but for all of that, the club desperately need to make sure he sticks around. He is fast becoming indispensable.

***

"Every minute, from this minute now
We can do what we like anywhere"

- Snow Patrol, "Open Your Eyes"


And there we have it. The week of waking up. The week when things came together and the fruits of that summer labour were finally borne. Perhaps that much lauded promise of playing attacking football was actually a distraction for a manager and a team who were getting to know each other, and couldn't realistically be expected to get into high gear without first turning on the engine. Perhaps we just needed to play bigger teams so that we might get into that counter-punching mode, and take our first baby steps that way. Perhaps I just need some new metaphors.

In the end, I am just relieved that we are off and running. The very notion of taking seven points from fixtures against Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United seemed crazy just ten days ago, but there we have it. Picking up unlikely points was what propelled us up the league in 2015/16, and dropping them where we shouldn't was what curtailed our Champions League hopes. Maybe more consistency lies ahead, or maybe we'll just continue to be totally unpredictable. For all the joyousness of the last week, I still think a top ten finish would be a significant achievement for Pellegrini.



Worth more of your time


A word too, for West Ham women, who picked up their first win of the season with a 2-1 win over Yeovil, to complete a fine weekend for the club. It is a strange situation that the women are in, having come up two divisions into the Women's Super League, and having to build a squad from scratch. Given that, they have recruited unusually well for a West Ham side, and presumably the teenage Managing Director Jack Sullivan deserves some credit for that. Players like Claire Rafferty and Gilly Flaherty are outstanding signings for the team, although it was rather fitting that it was Rosie Kmita who scored the winner, as she is one of the only players held over from last season. In true West Ham fashion we missed about five outstanding chances in the first half alone, which suggests that the new girls are settling in to the West Ham Way quite nicely.

I will be writing more extensively on the women's team now that I have my season tickets sorted out to go and see them. They deserve a bit more support than they seem to be getting from the West Ham fanbase. Perhaps we've all still got some waking up to do.

***

"You'll never know just what you wanna do
Or where you wanna go, I think it's time"

- The Stone Roses, "What The World Is Waiting For"



Epilogue: The H List, An Announcement

As you may have noticed, this article is late and free wheeling and not at all what any of us are used to. It is those final weird series of Scrubs when everything was the same, but not really the same, and none of the jokes were funny.

This is partly because I've been ill this week, but also because finding the time to write so frequently about the club is proving difficult. My children are getting older and are demanding more of my time, and indeed my daughter's Year 8 homework now includes quadratic equations, and that alone took care of me writing anything after Chelsea.

So The H List can't continue to be the weekly match report that it has been recently. Instead, I'll move to a less regular opinion piece, where I talk more generally about the club and less about specific matches. That will take some of the pressure off me to produce something each Monday after we have played, and also expose you to fewer articles that might well be reasonable but totally depress you on your way to work.

It will also allow me some more time to research a book that I have been thinking of writing for some time. I have finally decided to dip my toe into that murky stream, not allowing myself to be put off by my lack of experience, publishing deal or literary agent. If it's good enough for best selling author Katie Price, it's good enough for me.

I hope you'll all still keep reading.


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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