Friday, January 05, 2018

Spurs 1 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"And your God is only a catapult, waiting for the right time to let you go
Into the unknown, just to watch you hold your breath
Yeah, and you surrender your fortress"
- The War on Drugs, "Arms Like Boulders"

Dreams aren’t supposed to look like this. Stalwart defending, cheering brief moments of possession, holding midfielders channeling Bobby Charlton, and all the while clinging grimly to a point as though it were a life float chucked overboard into a tumultuous, stormy sea. But there you go – welcome to the new normal in the Premier League, where those who have orchestrated two decades of inequity are finally seeing the fruits of their labour being beamed into billions of homes all round the world. Here you go Asia and America, it's the best league in the world! Except we made these two teams play 48 hours ago so please don’t ask for entertainment – that wouldn’t be fair. 

Niche reference alert. More ahead too. 

Of course, there was plenty of entertainment on display last night if you dream in claret and blue and didn’t mind getting behind the sofa for large swathes of the action. Missing Cresswell, Antonio and crucially, Arnautovic, we were reduced to an extended exercise of attack versus defence anchored around a supreme performance from our back three, with only a brief pause for respite as Pedro Obiang scored the best goal that Wembley will see this season.

Perhaps in an alternate reality we would have lost this game by bucketloads. Maybe Harry Kane would have converted one of those myriad half chances into a goal with some typical opportunistic brilliance and, forced to chase the game, we would have been picked apart at will by a counterattacking Spurs team. But, even allowing for Andre Ayew, alternate dimensions don’t exist and thus we only have to concern ourselves with this one, and here we defended resolutely and with no little courage to grind out another draw. Another point. Another inch on a road to safety that none of us can believe we are actually travelling once again.

In the end, games such as this will fade from the memory and become little more than footnotes in yet another lost season of turgid struggle. But right here and now, in the middle of a relegation battle that sees nine teams within five points of each other, this point looks like a precious jewel. Add to that the satisfaction of slamming the brakes on another Spurs season, and leaving Wembley undefeated for a second time this season, it's hard to argue that this wasn't a pretty good night all round.


"All this talk of getting old
It's getting me down"
- The Verve, "The Drugs Don't Work"

Now that the dust has settled on a Christmas league programme that required us to play four games in thirteen days, it is possible to look back and assess how well we have fared over a crucial, but heavily demanding period of the season. All things considered, a return of a win, a loss and two draws is reasonable, even if the swings in fortune during that run were fairly sizeable. While we may bemoan Andre Ayew going full Diana Ross and Bobby Madley's self importance, we are also indebted to Asmir Begovic's sudden bouts of vertigo and Andy Carroll suddenly discovering he had a functioning right foot. It could have been better, it could have been worse. 123 years of history summed up in that one sentence.

How many shots have we had Zaba?

Given the compressed nature of the schedule, one might have expected David Moyes to ring the changes in order to keep his team fresh, but the reality is that he simply doesn't have the personnel available to do that effectively. The bench for this match featured £35m of strikers who don't fit our style of play, four kids without a league appearance between them, a travelling acrobat, a badger, a life size cut out of Keita Balde, and of course Joe Hart, taking up a massive part of our weekly wage budget because he is the best keeper David Sullivan has ever worked with.

So, Moyes rotated where he could - in central defence and up front - and then said a couple of Hail Mary's for the rest. Below is a table from today's Telegraph which gives an interesting breakdown of the number of changes made by each team over Christmas, and how many injuries they each suffered. We lead the latter category, naturally, and if we do it for a 50th consecutive year in 2019 we get to keep Jack Wilshere as a prize. 

TeamChanges in 4 gamesInjuries sustainedPoints won
Crystal Palace855
Man City11410
Man Utd1046
West Brom842
West Ham765

Each team has their own approach, but our low rotation policy in theory should have ensured some consistency of performance. In reality, things didn’t pan out that way and it is instructive to see that Newcastle did so well having rotated heavily. Their ability to mix and match with lots of average players of roughly the same ability served them in good stead, whereas Moyes has neither the depth in numbers or talent to do that. At the top end of our squad – Lanzini, Arnautovic – we have much better players than our rivals, but most of the team are not at that level, and furthermore, ours is the second oldest squad in the division. 

Evidently, that lack of mobility and athleticism really shows up when we play lots of games in quick succession like this. Given all of that, a five point return will suffice for now, primarily as it gives us some breathing space over West Brom and Swansea, and helped draw struggling teams like Southampton and Stoke back into the scrap. That said, this period was mainly about surviving intact to take on our vital January fixtures. 

Many of you may disagree, but the rightful casualty of all of this will probably will be our FA Cup run. The brutal reality is that none of the players who played in these two matches should appear on Sunday, because the risk of injury is so much greater when players are fatigued. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned shallow squad depth we don’t have the quality of reserves to call upon to realistically challenge an upwardly mobile lower league side like Shrewsbury. That’s an embarrassing admission for any Premier League team to make, but as we discovered at Nottingham Forest a few years ago, the gap between Premier League Under 23 teams and good lower league sides is pretty big.

So, if I was Moyes, I would be apologising to those fans travelling on Sunday, forcing the club to subsidise their travel or tickets or buying them a fucking burger or something to prove they aren’t all soul sucking vampires, and then acceding to the wishes of those who have been demanding game time for the untried likes of Martinez, Quina, Haksabanovic and Makasi. I understand those who make the argument that for a club like us, the only thing we have is the chance of a cup victory, and indeed I agree with it. But there is an underlying reality to our situation which also has to be considered, which is that we have a far higher chance of being relegated – about 25% on present bookmaker odds – than we do of winning the cup.

Take it, I'm going to win the FA Cup!

Therefore, when people say that they would happily accept relegation if we were to win a trophy, they are operating in a fantasy world. That would be like me saying I would happily accept my house being repossessed if I took my mortgage money and sunk it into lottery tickets and won. What this ignores is the far more likely option that I lose the house and don’t win the lottery. None of which is to say that I want us to lose on Sunday, but if we win we will only face this dilemma again in the next round when our match would take place just before a five day spell when we face a home game with Palace and a trip to Brighton. Picking up Premier League points from those games is more important to the club than a fourth round cup game. I know plenty will disagree, but maybe check in with a Wigan fan before you make up your mind fully. In summary, I think Moyes’ priority this weekend is to preserve a team to get some points at Huddersfield, and our righteous anger about that should be directed at the idiots who assembled this ageing squad and thought it could survive a season as unrelentingly demanding as this one, which has been compressed to give England a longer preparation period for the World Cup. 


"I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don't understand"
- Neil Young, "The Needle and the Damage Done"

On which note, it seems only fitting to actually look at what happened here in more detail, because whatever the situation, this is a fine result and one that few teams will match this season. Unlike Slaven Bilic, who regularly troubled Spurs by pressing them in their own high intensity style, and frequently found them wanting in the middle of the park, Moyes instead chose to retreat into a defensive shell and invite them on. 

Where the likes of Stoke and Southampton were torn apart on their recent trips to Wembley, we were instead beautifully compact and hard to break down. We dropped so deep we were almost subterranean, forcing Spurs to play in front of us, and shorn of the ability to hit us on the counter attack and with no space for Christian Eriksen, the hosts looked thoroughly uninspired. The cost of this approach was that we almost entirely gave up on attacking, and we were noticeably abysmal when in possession, with Javier Hernandez the poster boy for receiving the ball and then doing nothing other than trying to win free kicks with it. The Mexican was so bad here I thought I was at a seance and Mike Newell had turned up to haunt me. 

On the other hand, our back three were masterful, with Angelo Ogbonna outstanding again, and Declan Rice turning in the kind of mature, composed performances that we assumed we were getting when we spent £8m on Jose Fonte this time last year. I have been agnostic on the youngster up until now, but he has turned my head firmly with this display. It is incredibly rare to see teenagers looking this assured at this level. Alongside him Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku did just enough to keep things on an even keel, even if the former was heavily indebted to some excellent cover work by Cheikhou Kouyate to manage the dynamite Heung Min Son. Winston Reid did not get injured. 

Everything about this picture is brilliant

Reading between the lines after the game, it seems that Moyes wanted the team to be more offensive but with no way of getting up the pitch this kind of performance was perhaps inevitable. The value of an Antonio or Sakho type player was never more evident than this game, as every clearance was returned back with interest, and Spurs must have been sorely tempted to play rush goalie, so unthreatening were we. After an hour Moyes gave up on Hernandez proving the broken clock theory correct and stuck on Andre Ayew, who did more jogging on than the Mexican managed all day. After just six minutes on the pitch, the Ghanaian pushed Spurs back with some good running, and the ball was eventually recycled back to Pedro Obiang some thirty yards from goal. Perhaps thinking that it was a bit embarrassing that we hadn't had a shot all day, the Spaniard advanced without any pressure on the ball from Spurs - to be fair, why would you - and smacked a thunderous, brilliant, joyful, rising drive into the top corner and had West Ham fans of a certain age yelling about traction engines. A moment to remind us to dream. 

Kouyate really should have doubled the lead not long after, when Obiang picked him out unmarked at the back post but the Senegal captain stooped for the header with all the enthusiasm of Anne Boleyn kneeling for the executioners axe and put it wide. It was to prove costly, as Spurs would snatch a point with just five minutes remaining when Son, their best player by a distance, smashed home a stunning long range effort of his own. I can't help but like Son and frequently have to try and forget that at the same time  we were signing Andy Carroll for £15m he was joining Bayer Leverkusen for €10m. Sigh.

Even allowing for bias it's hard not to say that Spurs deserved something from this game, but to have got as close as we did made it a tough pill to swallow, even if we'd have all taken a point - Allardyce style - before the game. There was even a doubt about the validity of the Spurs goal as Aurier looked to have fouled Lanzini in the build up, but Moyes was unconvinced after the game so I won't die on that particular hill. The Caley Graphics shot map above tells some, but not all, of the story as that Spurs xG was more a product of having loads of half chances rather than a few very good ones. This was death by a thousand blocked shots. By contrast, we actually created the two best chances of the game for Kouyate and later for Ayew. It might seem counter intuitive, but if you were to ask Pochettino if he wanted to replay this game and swap chances with us, he might actually take it as you'd imagine Kane and Alli would do better with those chances than we did.

Helpfully, Mike Dean also didn't award penalties to Spurs for a couple of shouts in the second half. Both involved Dele Alli and therefore immediately demand greater scrutiny given his propensity for falling over like he's in an episode of Miranda. The first was a challenge with Reid that I don't think could ever have been given, and the second involved Adrian clattering him when he'd headed over after an offside Kane had flicked on. That was a better shout, but I'm not yet ready to live in a world where players are going to be punished for punching Dele Alli in the head. After the game Tim Sherwood said he thought both were penalties, thus confirming that Dean was correct not to award them. 


"And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down"
- The Velvet Underground, "Heroin"

Long after the game had finished, pundits were still debating the recent trend of lower rung Premier League teams "parking the bus" when faced with the Top Six. Leaving aside for a moment that the greatest exponent of this is at Old Trafford, the best summary I've found was this article by Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian. Wilson correctly identifies that teams like us have been willing to cede possession at historic rates, with the sole aim of keeping games tight and then striking on the break. Part of this stems from watching Leicester do it brilliantly for an entire season, and win the league, although it must be said that we have none of their pace. Watching Hernandez try and outpace Sanchez after intercepting a misplaced pass on the halfway line here was like watching the tortoise and the hare if the tortoise gave up halfway through and started sulking. Oh, for some of these players who can play game after game at such high intensity and mysteriously never get injured.

Hernandez races away from the Spurs defence

Amid the indignation contained in that article from the likes of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville is a failure from them to properly address exactly why this has happened. When money is so integral to the game, and shared so unevenly around the sport, it is hardly surprising that it has an effect far beyond the company accounts. Because the English game does not properly fund lower league football, it means that the cost of dropping out of the Premier League is disproportionately severe and thus even ludicrously well funded but appallingly run teams like West Ham will turn in embarrassingly defensive shows like this in order to preserve that status. 

Doubling the problems for relegation threatened teams is the fact that those at the top have revenue streams they cannot access. Champions League teams take home prize money, or more accurately UEFA subsidies, each year that push them ever further from the rest of the pack, and subsequently have commercial opportunities that the rest can only dream of. With that inequality has come a growing acceptance from everyone else that trying to live with these teams is a bit of a waste of time, and we are now at a stage where the cup competitions can't compete with the primacy of the league, as I've outlined above, and teams like us dream of finishing sixth. 

Suddenly, the likes of Carragher and Neville are upset by this, because they want their armchair fans to be entertained. It is telling however, that neither of them ever left the sweet embrace of such privilege during their playing careers, preferring to remain where they had every advantage and never had to pick and choose which competitions to attack, or had to contend with their team mates being tapped up like Virgil Van Dijk.

Yet, including Spurs in this is a little unfair, as they have made their way into that elite tier by actually buying and developing players. Spending £100m on Romelu Lukaku isn't a difficult thing to do. Growing Harry Kane or spotting Dele Alli actually is. That said, they have commercial revenue streams that the likes of Burnley will never have, and still joined their new peers in demanding a greater share of the league television money last month. It didn't take long for them to get their snout firmly into the trough.

Every year that passes without any attempt to address these discrepancies is a further dagger into the heart of the league as a competitive entity. The likes of Carragher and Neville can't complain about negative small teams unless they also support some or all the possible solutions. So let's hear them advocating for greater revenue sharing, or salary caps, or luxury taxes, or squad size restrictions, or limits on loans, or a draft of young players left off those restricted squads, or liquidating Chelsea or any other suggestion that would make the game fairer, and by extension more entertaining.

Sadly, that will never happen and such egalitarian notions will remain the sole preserve of the dreamers on the second page of the Match of the Day league table. It just feels a bit of a pisstake to hoover up all of the money in the game, steal all the best players from small clubs, swipe up the best managers and then call us names while they're doing it. To Huddersfield, Swansea, Bournemouth and, sadly, unbelievably, West Ham, I say...carry on.

Once more for luck? Oh, go on then


  1. "It just feels a bit of a pisstake to hoover up all of the money in the game, steal all the best players from small clubs, swipe up the best managers and then call us names while they're doing it."

    My favourite English football sentence that I have read in some time. Another great article.

  2. On the money. Great well balanced article.

  3. Anonymous11:24 AM

    but I'm not yet ready to live in a world where players are going to be punished for punching Dele Alli in the head......genius!

  4. That Anne Boleyn line is fantastic.

    Considering your recent (justified) criticisms of WBA and Newcastle for their time-wasting tactics, it's worth mentioning that we were just as guilty of that sort of thing against Spurs. Carroll did get booked for kicking the ball away, but there were plenty of others who did the same and went unpunished, and there was that corner where no-one went over to take it, Zabaleta taking an eternity to put his boot back on etc.

    I personally don't think there's nothing wrong with employing those tactics, but it feels a bit hypocritical to have a double standard.

  5. RDR late of ITBS5:24 PM

    Great report but the pedant in me has to point out that Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword not an axe (or guillotine...)

    1. And people think we're not well educated in the East End. :-)

    2. Cheers all.

      The great irony is that I originally had guillotine and then changed it to axe after some correction on ITBS. Lesson here is that you should never base your history quips off half remembered episodes of the Tudors.

      TCM - yes to everything you say. I don't think West Ham should ever be excused from any of my whinges!

      In that same way, the financial inequity applies equally to us in the sense that we leech off smaller clubs just how the big ones do to us.

  6. "The likes of Carragher and Neville can't complain about negative small teams unless they also support some or all the possible solutions. So let's hear them advocating for greater revenue sharing, or salary caps, or luxury taxes, or squad size restrictions, or limits on loans, or a draft of young players left off those restricted squads, or liquidating Chelsea or any other suggestion that would make the game fairer, and by extension more entertaining."

    My feelings exactly. It is to the point now where small teams are nothing more than research vehicles that the Champions League teams use for tactical experimentation, light training, squad rotation, loan player development, and potential player recruitment via tapping up. We have a role to play, and are are condescendingly characterized by commentators and pundits with adjectives like "plucky", "resilient", "compact" and a "family club"... Like you, H, I don't see any chance that this football capitalism will change for the better.

  7. Anonymous1:44 PM

    Without doubt the most entertaining, informative, and pertinent football reads around. Pointless to pull out highlights as the article is one big sparkling gem. A sadness of reading this though is the fact that so many parts of the game we love are administered by others, rather than thoughtful, intelligent, football-loving fans such as yourself.
    Anyone writing so well about football is to be welcomed. The fact that you're a Hammer is, to me, fantastic.

    1. Cheers, all - I appreciate the kind words.

  8. HHS. I need to take umbrage with you over this relegation/cup business. You know that's the side of the fence I fall on and I'm not having the way you've portrayed Team F.A.Cup above.

    To say we're "operating in a fantasy world" comes across as rather belittling for you, though technically I suppose any talk of a potential future qualifies it. The simple fact is that I and many others want a cup win bad enough (and are so disillusioned with the “competition” that is the PL, which you yourself describe so vividly) that we would gladly swallow a relegation should they both occur in the same season.

    It's not stating terms of a deal, one for the other, and it’s not a decision to gamble the league on a cup win as a calculated risk, though I realize that sentence quite literally describes the process of prioritizing one above the other.

    It's actually "if it came to it I would definitely get over a relegation season if it meant us winning the cup." There's a subtle difference here, and your analogy/metaphor/whatever about having the house repossessed is inaccurate too I'm afraid.

    The lottery odds are nothing like the odds on winning the cup for a start so it’s hardly the same thing even piling a mortgage on it. You know this. Further, no one ends up homeless here as you would in the worst case there. Of course we’ve considered going for broke and not winning the cup AND getting relegated. But “all” we're betting (losing) is our right to be the servants to the sickeningly rich toffs in their big expensive house. And if we do lose, we still end up in the second biggest house in England - a smaller house, yes - but one where we’re sitting at the main dining table for every meal (and usually at least some of the time getting to be the one that carves, or at least proposes a toast).

    Then you mention Wigan, again... they are a TOTALLY different kettle of fish to us as a club and well you know it, and to say others are living in a fantasy world and then to infer if we went for the cup but got relegated we'd end up in Wigan’s current predicament is, dare I say, a bit "be careful what you wish for"...

    But further, I took your suggestion at face value, and actually did check in with some Wigan fans. I’ve registered with one of their forums and openly posed them the question.

    Results at the link below…

    1. Stu - fair play on the Wigan point. I'm genuinely surprised, but you've highlighted the rather flippant way I'd ascribed my own views on all of this to another teams fans without actually checking it. I suppose there is a difference in the sense that maybe they all felt they were on a temporary ride to the PL anyway, but that's not what I said, so I concede - hoisted on my own petard.

      In respect of some of the other points, let me try and address them:

      The point about the "fantasy land" wasn't about the idea, but more about this slightly odd thing that people say where they contend that "I'd willingly take relegation if it meant winning the Cup". Well, nobody is offering that. It's not a binary thing, as you say. It's a fantasy.

      So what I was trying to say, was that people need to approach this point in terms of what really happens. We could attack the Cup this year, and possibly do ok, and maybe even win it, but there could be a very real cost. We could pick up injuries, or fatigue players and lose crucial league games all in pursuit of a trophy we might not win (see league cup 2010/11).

      Since 1988 - the FA Cup has been won by the following teams: Arsenal (9), Man U (6), Chelsea (6), Liverpool (4), Man City (1), Everton (1), Portsmouth (1), Wimbledon (1), Wigan (1) and Spurs (1 - but all those years ending in 1!)

      So, while it might not be lottery ticket territory, there is a good argument that a Cup win this year is unlikely. I think it's too long odds to risk playing the team that Moyes did at Shrewsbury - I think it was irresponsible to play those players again who played on Tuesday and Thursday.

      With all of that being said - let me also state that West Ham are the abso-fucking-lute PRIME example of a team who should be able to exist comfortably in the PL every year, and challenge for both trophies. It should certainly be within our capabilities to do so. Look at our wage bill - I guarantee you that there isn't a Roma or Dortmund blogger out there having this debate with anyone.

      But there you go. West Ham. The fact that you and I are forced to even have this debate just shows how dreadfully we are run. But, and I say this with due deference to those who disagree - because I know there plenty - if the club is so poorly run that we have to choose where to focus our energy, I want it to be on the League.

      It is the PL which provides the money, which provides the players and keeps the infrastructure of the club going. It pays for the youth system and the ladies team and so on, and while the shot at glory is enticing, it's not enough for me to forego all of that.

      I hate being in the lower leagues. I like that our games are all on TV, and that we don't have to sell our best players, and that we see the best players in the league at our ground, and that the profile of the club is high.

      I know that not everyone will feel that way, and I meant no offence to "Team FA Cup", but I do. The romance of being in the Championship generally wears off in November when we're 15 points behind fucking Reading, and desperate for a play off spot.

      And I say all that as someone born in 1978 who hasn't seen us win a thing. As I say above, it's such a damning indictment of the club that we have to even make these kinds of bartering arrangements with ourselves as fans. So, I don't know if that's enough to lessen the umbrage but I apologise if I can across as belittling anyone - that's poor writing on my part, if I did.

    2. Thanks for such a thorough reply fella, it's appreciated - and no need to apologise, I was 99.9% sure you didn't intend that phrase that way.

      My issue really boils down to the fact that as you say, it's a trophy we MIGHT not win, versus one we definitely won't (fuck off Leicester) (no, really, FUCK OFF). We've discussed that you don't like the Championship and I do elsewhere and I won't bore you with the counter argument here because end of the day it's each to their own and the merits or otherwise suit different people different ways. Really, I just want us to win something. Take a look at that Wigan site again, read how amazing that day still is for them, five years on - and it always will be.

      I. Want. Some. Of. That.

      We could honestly dance round and round on this one, couldn't we? Where we DO agree 100% is on the fact there should not have to be a choice to make. To my mind, if you're playing a game of football, you should be setting out to win that game. There shouldn't be any prioritizing, any saving your best players for other games - there shouldn't be any debate. The most important game should always be the next one you play...or what are any of us even bothering for?

      Although I do like the idea of a burger off of Moyes. A burger off anyone. No. No, it's not the bloody same.

      Anyhow, quality reply, thank you, and as ever an absolutely top-notch match report which I thoroughly enjoyed.

      Ooh, one last thing. Bringing the statistical side in for a second, I wouldn't be using recent winners as any sort of yardstick as to whether we might win a trophy. "Past performance is not a guide to future returns."'s what I do... ;0)