West Ham faces battle for survival
This Premier League season is almost 10 games old, the first point at which it is really permissible to scan the table and suck your teeth as you read the names at the bottom. The last one you'll reach is West Ham United, which has taken six points from the first 27 available.
The good news is that the table is incredibly compact and a couple of good results will drastically alter horizons for anybody at this stage. Moreover, the Hammers only took six from the first 27 last season, too, and they've rarely been top-flight big-hitters. Even in the 1960s, when West Ham produced the backbone of England's World Cup-winning team, it was a midtable outfit (albeit a cup-winning one) -- so it's hardly time to hit Caps Lock and tap out C-R-I-S-I-S.
And, West Ham fans may wonder aloud, would anyone be saying anything was wrong had Saturday's meeting with Newcastle ended in victory instead of a 2-1 loss? But that's a slightly facetious question: it didn't, and didn't look likely to for 80 minutes of a 90-minute contest that was, by most measures, a must-win. Three points would still only have hauled West Ham up to 19th.
Bear in mind, the club only just survived relegation last season, staying up by one place -- and thanks largely to Portsmouth, Hull City and Burnley going into rapid free fall. There aren't three obvious candidates to do the same this time around, and West Ham's average league position has been 17th since the start of last season. That's a long time to be in relegation form without wondering what's up.
Here's a look at the key issues facing the club:
And the Hammers haven't had the easiest start to the season -- trips to Villa Park, Old Trafford, the Britannia, plus home matches against Chelsea, Spurs and Bolton. None of Wolves, Liverpool, Blackburn and Fulham (which currently sit 16th-19th) has yet faced those tests and done better.
But those teams have entertained either Arsenal or Manchester United, visited Stamford Bridge, Eastlands or St Andrews -- all comparable challenges - and come out with at least equal points. They've all scored more and conceded fewer goals. They all have some form to lean on (Fulham and Rovers have been better on the road, Liverpool and Wolves at home). West Ham is relegation fodder wherever it turns out.
Avram Grant's signings have been a mixed bag. Lars Jacobsen has done a decent job at right back, but fellow defender Winston Reid hasn't played since struggling with his Premier League baptism in August. Further up the field, Pablo Barrera, Frederic Piquionne and Victor Obinna have all shown at least some promise for a relatively low spend. They deserve more time before being judged.
West Ham isn't a splash-the-cash kind of club, but in the past it developed talented academy products that went on to become regular England internationals. This is the club that molded Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand and a list of household names that goes back to Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Bobby Moore. Mark Noble has been excellent in midfield, but the current crop doesn't really compare.
Saturday's capitulation to Newcastle was frustrating not because it put the club more than one win from climbing out of the relegation zone (which it did), but because the crowd didn't see its own passion and pride reflected on the pitch. Having gone ahead, West Ham backed off and failed to register another shot on goal.
Last season's 3-1 home defeat to Wolves is generally regarded as the nadir in West Ham's recent history: the Hammers were 5/6 bookies' favorites to win but were completely taken apart by their fellow relegation candidates. Angry chants of "You're not fit to wear the shirt" rang across Upton Park.
Yet last weekend's performance is now being talked about as a new low, an unbeatably witless, anaemic showing. The turnaround against Stoke, in Wednesday's Carling Cup match (a 3-1 win for the Hammers), is as infuriating as it is consoling. Conversations about the benefits of relegation -- namely, the kind of renewed for-the-cause attitude that drove Newcastle straight back into the Premier League -- are cropping up.
Defeat to Newcastle came after a four-match unbeaten run that included two valuable away points at Stoke and Wolves, and a hard-fought home win against Tottenham Hotspur -- the first in four years. The omens had started to look ... if not good, at least less brutally ugly.
Playing Obinna and Piquionne together upfront, with Luis Boa Morte and Kieron Dyer alongside Noble and Parker in midfield, Grant watched his side harry Spurs from front to back, chasing possession and moving the ball around at sufficient tempo to dictate much of the play. Dyer hinted at the liveliness he was known for before injuries became his calling card; the front pair produced 10 shots at goal.
It did not require tactical genius to pinpoint the danger players in Newcastle's lineup, or to foresee Joey Barton's influence on the game if he was not well ushered. Anyone who watched Newcastle's midfield own the middle of the pitch at Everton would have known what it was about. But Grant, by fielding Behrami, Parker and Noble (who pulls in right next to Parker in the center), surrendered the wide areas to Barton and Jonas Gutierrez.
Dyer wasn't fit but there was still scope for a better, four-man, midfield using Barrera and/or Boa Morte. Operating with Cole between them, there was little of the understanding that Obinna and Piquionne had looked like developing. Cole's presence down the middle encouraged a long-ball game that Newcastle lapped up.
Perhaps Grant is guilty of underestimating the opposition as much as anything, and he seemed bemused by the hollow-cheeked submission of his team after taking the lead. "Our game was not good in the second half, sometimes you don't know the reason," he said, before offering a reason that chimed. "We didn't push so much, we didn't press well. We give them too much space."
Gold has given Grant his backing and knows a change of manager is unlikely to reverse West Ham's fortunes alone. Whoever's at the reins must tease the best out of players who have admitted to being scared by the club's position. A run of form is needed and up next are trips to the Emirates and St Andrews. Such is the inconsistency of West Ham's performances this season that you wouldn't bet against it getting something out of these matches. However, equally ominous is the fact the club hasn't chalked up back-to-back away wins since December 2007.
The fixture list at least offers hope that the others won't pull too far away in that time -- Blackburn and Liverpool both host Chelsea and Wolves meet both Manchester sides. And, though January spending always feels a little like papering over the cracks, Boa Morte, Upson and others arrived in January 2007 when the Hammers were 18th and helped the team survive that year. The worry this time is that the fight is tougher than a spot of shoestring retail therapy can handle.