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Watford 1 West Ham United 4 (28/12/2021) 29/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- It’s been a while, what with one thing and another.

In the meantime, there’s been stuff.  Christmas, specifically, and I hope yours was acceptable.  Also panto,  an annual thing the significance of which in the calendar the word “panto” almost utterly fails to convey. From a distance there’s (normally) a traditional story and dames and “it’s behind you” and other familiar tropes.  These conceal a cathartic satire focused on our employer (a satire that said employer is smart enough to encourage, let alone tolerate), no kids whatsoever, a social activity that’s the focus for much longer than the festive season and the year’s most dependable piss-up.

Panto 2020 was kyboshed like everything else, so this one had been two years in the making.  The build up is always a slow burn, gradually getting stuff ready, keeping plates spinning, building up to a crescendo.  This year the filter provided by the world we’re living in made things all the more precarious… rehearsals, costume fitting, prop building all restricted by hybrid working patterns.  As the day approached cast and crew pursued rigorous LFT programmes that would permit the show to go on.  All clear, negative tests results confirmed with relief every two days on the team WhatsApp.

Until the day of the show.  Two positive tests.

2- Back at Vicarage Road then, finally.  But while we benefitted at the start of the season from kicking off at home to Villa on the opening day, riding the wave of delighted relief at the resumption of football to three points it feels before kick off as if we might suffer here.  Suffer from resuming at home after our eighteen day break.  It would be different, perhaps, if there was a sense that the unicorn variant was “done”, if it was finished.  Then we’d be looking forward optimistically but it isn’t, so we’re not.

The new normal had prompted some novel routines even before our recent hiatus.  The most tiresome of these is to find ourselves kicking our heels once again at the top of a blocked off Occupation Road as coaches duck up and down the hill and discharge their contents.  The whole process is safer and better supervised than it was a few weeks ago but the lack of jeopardy doesn’t make it any more exciting.  We opt, instead, for entry through the GT stand;  this presents Daughters 1 and 2 the opportunity to pick up a margherita for lunch, so they’re happy enough but the Rookery, as we reach it, is not.

At every stage of the build up the stand is significantly emptier than it should be.  There’s an anxiety, even amongst those at the more cavalier end of the “attitudes to this sort of thing” spectrum that no masks can conceal.  As far as the on-pitch stuff is concerned we suffer further from having Brentford freshest in our minds, arguably the only real disaster of Ranieri’s command to date.  We are not coming into this on a high, and a fortnight’s “rest” has to be weighed up against the impact of COVID on a squad that was looking flimsy in certain positions in any case.  The available roster has seen the names Ngakia, Rose, Troost-Ekong, Cleverley and Elliot struck from it, presumably by the virus.  We name eight substitutes, only one of whom – the untried left back James Morris – a defender and two other youngsters making up the numbers.

There is no defiance, no “come on”-ness, no move to swell the efforts of the 1881.  Meanwhile the away end is both fuller and noisier than the home stands.  Travelling support tends to be more bloody-minded and less analytical, both of these properties serve the Hammers well.

3- So Emmanuel Dennis’ fine early strike is particularly welcome, the more so since it involves Craig Dawson being left on his backside before the Nigerian pumps a shot into the top corner.  Daughter 1 celebrates more than most – through a combination of stuff, things, circumstances and a particularly unfortunate choice of games she hadn’t seen us score in almost two years and was long since convinced that she was the cause of this particular drought rather than merely the subject of it.  “Already?!?” was her first beaming reaction, a blank scorecard a given in her head.

“Already” was the long and short of it, since this was as good as it would get by some distance.  We didn’t even get a happy afterglow to bathe in, since within thirty seconds of kick-off West Ham were ploughing what was to be a well trodden path down our right flank.  The ball stumbled its way via Kiko’s first alarming catastrophe of a difficult forty minutes, to Jarrod Bowen, unmarked and startled plumb in front of goal.  The ball was stuck under his feet in his surprise at finding himself unmarked on the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot at Bachmann.  Such breeze as there was died in our sails.

We held the lead for 23 minutes, none of them comfortable.  West Ham gained in belief as they kept coming at us; our supine midfield didn’t lay a punch on theirs and the lack of defensive shape was such that the most perfunctory of attacks caused yellow shirts to scatter like marbles.  Much play continued to be focused down West Ham’s left, either because of the threat posed by Benrahma – who provided the nearest thing to an equaliser before there was one, smacking a shot off the top of the bar – or because of a perceived vulnerability in Kiko or both.  There’s got to be dollops of mitigation ladled in here by the way, since however horrific we don’t know who and how much and in what way individuals were affected by viruses;  given the absence of Ngakia from the bench, the drop in Kiko’s level from the kick-off and the Spaniard’s withdrawal five minutes before the interval, it’s difficult to suppose anything other than a case of “well I’ll give it a go, boss”.

But by the time Kiko left the fray we were behind.  The equaliser when it came was suitable calamitous; Cathcart was drawn left, Sierralta failed to cover, Sissoko let his man, Souček, wander through and prod the ball almost apologetically inside Bachmann’s near post.  It was a goal that left no room for doubt as to the destiny of the result and so it proved as within a minute the ball found its way to Benrahma on the edge of the box.  It’s all too easy, and yes it gets a deflection that deprives Bachmann of any opportunity to react but the best way of preventing an unlucky deflection is by not leaving yourself with a left back feeling the need to stand in front of his goalkeeper on the right hand side of the box in the first place.  West Ham took their foot off the pedal immediately.  Their work here was done.

4- Our defence has been a problem.  This may not be news to you.  Our defence has been a problem even in circumstances other than being down to the last five (four-and-a-half?) senior candidates for a back five position.

In such circumstances – and particularly given that our forward line retains such manifest threat even in otherwise miserable performances like this one – a functioning midfield is essential.  This season, the only times we’ve approached having one of these have been with Imrân Louza sitting at the back of the midfield.

It’s very easy to watch from a distance and pass judgement of course, deprived of full knowledge, without the responsibility associated with making decisions.  That’s half the fun.  But given that caveat, I find the benching of Louza for the last two games difficult to understand.  His run of four league starts – for all that we only one won of them, for all of the aggravations of Leicester – produced as consistent a run of credible performances as we’ve managed all season, form that he was a pivotal part in. Contrast his impact with that of the miserable Ozan Tufan, who has scarcely influenced a match in a positive way; something is clearly wrong there, since a player with his reputation whose few bright spots have seen him threaten to dominate a game completely, has been a passenger far too often.  You can’t carry passengers in a three-man midfield.

With Louza on the pitch – and Juraj Kucka doing a committed if rather one-dimensional job of standing in at right-back – we carried a threat in the second half.  West Ham would extend the scoring eventually…  Jarrod Bowen found the net before being pulled back by VAR for a foul on the halfway line which David Moyes bafflingly chose to question after the game.  The reversal prompted the first semblance of a roar from the sparsely occupied stands since the goal, the reprieve having energised the home support.  Seven minutes later another defensive calamity – to which Daniel Bachmann contributed significantly in a generally passive performance – saw the same player’s quick thinking and movement win a penalty.  Mark Noble converted from the spot for the third successive iteration of this fixture.

Perversely, at 3-1 there were shards of light… the first suggestion that we might take something from the game since the ten seconds following Dennis’ opener.  Louza’s presence – and Tufan’s withdrawal, albeit for a rusty Ken Sema – energised our forward line and West Ham suddenly looked heavy legged and vulnerable.  Who knows what a goal might have provoked, but we weren’t destined to find out.  João Pedro had come on at the break in another trade-up for the willing but impotent Cucho and was involved in much.  His decision making wasn’t always the best, but he provoked opportunities simply by demonstrating some determination sadly lacking elsewhere in combination with a magnetic touch.  He was involved in a spinning, spiralling break that saw Sissoko twice involved before forcing a decent save out of Fabianski.  His positive break released King whose shot across Fabianski’s face from the right was on target but lacked power to trouble the keeper.  With Louza’s set piece delivery giving us the suggestion of a threat against a very tall West Ham team the Brazilian flicked on a header that the ever-willing King was unable to nod the right side of the post.

It was a straw to cling to as far as what comes next is concerned, but nothing more.  Instead West Ham broke to score a fourth that reflected their superiority, the difference in mindset between the excellent Bowen and the horribly exposed Sierralta clear as the winger danced past the leaden Chilean to set up Vlašić.  A final break which saw João Pedro break free before teeing up Dennis who was smothered by Fabianski summed up both sides’ afternoons quite succinctly as a footnote.

5- Returning from the circus to the panto.  Conscious of general unicorn-related anxiety amongst our potential audience we had already arranged for the afternoon show to be live streamed.  Improvised understudies in place the decision was made to perform to an empty theatre… not the easiest thing for a panto, but better than no show at all.  340 signed in to the live stream, a number of which broadcasting to full meeting rooms back at the ranch.  Those offstage did their damnedest to fill the void, hollering and cheering and booing from behind the flats.  It wasn’t what you’d have chosen, but it was a fine thing.

Digging ourselves out of our current circumstances is going to require similar levels of co-operation, determination, making do and bloody going for it.  It’s going to demand more than that of course; more bodies in the building for one thing, both a return to fitness of the injured and waylaid and the much dreamed of squad strengthening.  See the List for the vast number of centre-backs and left-backs we’ve been associated with in recent weeks.  As an aside, for all of William Troost-Ekong’s recent challenges it’s significant perhaps that, playing without him, we looked less organised than ever (if no less error-prone).  A bit of reliable leadership is needed back there.

But to reiterate.  Staying up, as unlikely as it feels after that performance, only requires us to be better than three other teams.  Our forward line is such that this remains more than a theoretical possibility.  We remain, after all, outside the relegation zone, and many sides are going to struggle with availability as we have.

Hang in there.  That post-panto piss-up was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Oh yes it was.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 1, Femenía 1, Masina 2, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 2, Kucka 2, Sissoko 3, Tufan 1, Hernández 2, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: *Louza (for Femenía, 40) 3*, João Pedro (for Hernández, 45) 3, Sema (for Tufan, 62) 2, Gosling, Fletcher, Morris, Conteh, Angelini

Comments»

1. Harefield Hornet - 29/12/2021

West Ham had played several times in the last week and rather than it going against them in terms of fatigue (and a disappointing run of results undermining their confidence) it seemed to have the opposite effect. They were basically better, more together and hungrier all over the pitch. We, by contrast, hadn’t played for well
over a couple of weeks and allegedly during that period had completed only one training session . You’re never going to get away with that at this level, even against a team on a bad run. Add that to an inferior midfield, a rubbish defence and no leadership anywhere on the pitch and it could have been an even worse score line . Reading Troy’s book this week has focussed my mind on the leadership angle and boy did we miss that yesterday . Mitigating circumstances yes – and lets hope that was indeed a major factor – but we need some leadership on the pitch – and quickly .

2. Don - 29/12/2021

Keep The Faith. One and all. A hornet is for life, not just for Christmas,

3. David - 29/12/2021

Happy Christmas Matt and other Bhappy readers.

It’s hard to see us finish outside of the bottom 3, we simply don’t have enough talent in the squad. Games in hand are rather academic at this stage unless we can find 3 players in January who can augment, the 5 prem standard players we have in Foster, Dennis, Louza, king and Sissoko.

Having said that, there is still a chance IF we can find a style of play that covers up our deficiencies and 3 other teams continue to capitulate.

4. Vaughn Smith - 30/12/2021

Very disappointing…perhaps Noble will come and play for us when he’s released in June. How we could do with someone like him bossing our midfield (and the referee)…

5. Harefield Hornet - 30/12/2021

Correct – no leaders on the pitch. Mitigating circumstances indeed but midfield ineffective and the defence was a shambles again . West Ham, instead of being potentially disadvantaged by having played a few games in a short timeframe, were far tighter and match ready all over the park. You can’t get away with training once in 3 weeks at this level.

6. Weymouth 'Orn - 30/12/2021

Hi Matt,

I very much enjoyed your piece in the Observer last Sunday.
However, living down here, I have a number of Bournemouth ‘acquaintances’ who are looking forward to replacing us in the Premiership next season.
I’m getting a little anxious about who will end up having the last laugh…..

7. PEDantic - 31/12/2021

Telling that, three days after that ‘performance’, just one comment has been posted. I hope people haven’t given up just yet.
Despite the sparse attendance in the Rookery, it was startling how few chose to wear a mask in the concourse given the current Covid situation.
Happy New Year all.

Matt Rowson - 03/01/2022

This owes a lot to somehow me not receiving email notifications any more (or confirmation of purchase receipts from cineworld for that matter… somethings up) . Apologies all.

8. Graham French - 01/01/2022

Thanks for report as ever, Matt. It can’t have been that easy to muster the motivation to write anything, let alone such an (but you always do) eloquent piece, after that disappointing game. Having watched on tv I can only hope that it was covid & the enforced lay off that caused such a ragged & error-prone display. Surely today will be better – we are setting off in an hour or so, but with some trepidation…


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