After an excellent pre-season and solid start over the first two games, the visit of Stoke City really brought Hammers fans back down to earth with a sickening thud.
It wasn’t just the disappointing result, which in fairness Stoke City did deserve but the fact that they were able to expose just how limited our offensive options are. To call us one-dimensional would be to suggest that we had a discernible shape and plan, but sadly this was hard to detect as we just engaged in a largely unstructured, bitty encounter where there was no sense at any stage that West Ham were going to unlock the Potters’ cage.
Even worse, despite our seemingly endless supply of midfield options, N’Zonzi bossed the midfield, reminding us of last season’s encounters against the Frenchman. Thankfully, the international break provided some time to lick our wounds and reconfigure – except that will now be without Alou Diarra for the rest of the season and, at least temporarily, Joe Cole and Stewart Downing.
Added to the difficulties in identifying new attacking options and the emerging news that Andy Carroll’s injury woes will continue ‘for an indefinite period’ suddenly all is not so chirpy around the Boleyn.
The spectacle of a Hammers side coming out on top in an away trip to Barcelona (albeit in a friendly against Espanyol rather than the mighty Barca!) has done little to lift the spirits as this was really a run out for the kids rather than a collision between two combative first elevens. So where are we in the Premiership pecking order right now and what can we realistically expect from this season?
First up, dreams of European adventures are premature – the current squad is woefully lacking in attacking options both in respect of personnel as well as an effective plan B for matches where our preferred physical approach fails.
Sure, Jarvis, Cole, and Downing can provide exciting attacking options but they are unlikely as individuals to provide a steady stream of goals as they are better designed to provide assists than to fill the onion sack themselves. Captain Kev can be expected to chip in with a decent haul of goals but his legs are ageing and last season’s double figures tally was considerably bolstered by a meaningless final day hat-trick against already relegated Reading.
On the bright side, Ravel Morrison looks like he can be a real attacking threat from midfield but in his first Premiership season it would be unreasonable to expect too much and Sam does tend to be frustratingly conservative when introducing young talent to the rigors of the top flight. So, after failing to land a striker before the closure of the transfer window, we have been left to trawl through the left-overs.
The arrival of Mladen Petric provides some cause for optimism. Although now in the autumn of his career at 32 years of age, he has a pretty consistent record of a goal every three games across the Swiss and German leagues over more than a decade and his time at Craven Cottage last year could be seen as a useful acclimatising period for the pace of the Premiership.
But it’s hard to get too excited by the signing of a player deemed surplus to Fulham’s requirements. Maybe Carlton Cole can yet prove his fitness and add to his modest Hammers tally of a goal every four games? Either way, it’s hardly a season-changer! On the positive side, whatever happens up front, we can expect to remain solid in defence. The back four is not only experienced and well attuned to each other, but strengthened by the arrival of the experienced Ratzvan Rat.
Moreover, the presence of Diame and Noble provides that important extra layer of protection. Jussi is simply too long in the tooth to change his reliable ways! Finally, it’s worth considering whether we could we find ourselves involved in a nasty relegation battle? Think of the worst case scenario – Carroll’s injury persists, Cole and some of our other injury-prone squad experience niggly injuries that prevent us from playing a consistent first team and, God forbid, any of Reid, Collins, Diame or Nolan get injured.
Could we find ourselves in real trouble? Big Sam is a big fan of statistics and a little intelligence gathering from the Premiership over the past five seasons makes for interesting consideration. Much as goals win games and games won really push on the points tally, it is interesting that a comparison of the three relegated sides versus those who fared next worst (i.e. finished 15th to 17th) in each season really highlights how goals conceded contribute to a club’s relegation much more than a deficit of goals scored.
The fifteen sides relegated over the five years scored 2.6 goals less per season than the three surviving relegation battlers, whilst for goals conceded the difference between these two groups was a massive 25 goals per season. In fact, for two of the three seasons the three relegated sides outscored the next three survivors. For the ever so parsimonious Hammers this is good news since, despite our offensive limitations, we remain a tough unit to score against.
In conclusion, mid-table obscurity beckons but so does the Olympic stadium and all the while we are moving further and further away from the nearbankruptcy of the preGold/Sullivan era. Patience my friends, patience!