Manuel's milestone: a manager not for turning

Manuel Pellegrini was 66 this week, so it's highly appropriate that he should want to celebrate his 50th match in charge of West Ham United in the right way on Sunday.

And if you are looking for yardsticks or turning points, a home game with Manchester United is about as appropriate as you can get.

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The season has started well by any standards, just that first day mauling by Manchester City, the bookies favourites to win the Champions League and arguably now one of the best half-dozen sides in the world. What did you expect there?

Since then West Ham are unbeaten, have kept three successive clean sheets and conceded just twice in the last five games.

Managers do not usually get time, the Premier League is demanding to say the least, but maybe this is about the time - with his 50th game on Sunday - to assess the Chilean's tenure. And after 49 games you can see where we are going, what the plan is, what the tactics and system are and pretty much know what the manager considers is his best team.

Those previous 49 games make decent reading. Won 21, drawn nine, lost 19, goals for 76 and against 70. Last season was tough to make any judgements. The injury situation was dreadful, the Marko Arnautovic pantomime derailed the best laid-plans to the extent that 10th place was more than acceptable and five more points would have put us in Europe.

That cost around ?90million; this summer ?80million more has been spent, ?170million (gross) on new players overall in Pelle's time in Stratford and nine in their mid-to-late 20s, all with good resaleable value. And when have you been able to say that about our transfer dealings?

Yes it's easy to be critical, and the stupidity and nonsense on social media underlines that. Sometimes you watch West Ham and feel they are very close to something special, other times more like an incomplete jigsaw.

So let's be positive for a change. One defeat in our last ten in the EPL, two defeats in our last 13 at home (six in the last 23) and a policy of playing on the front foot that the manager is clearly not going to change.

Additionally, he has selected the same side now for the last three league games and is adamant that the 4-2-3-1 system is pretty much set in stone. And no, I don't want to hear the expression 'the West Ham way', please.

It was a phrase invented by journalists back in the 1950s more to underline the European style lightweight boots, kit and training methods from the Malcolm Allison era.

During the '60s it took on a new life form when we actually won things, but just two major trophies since 1965 suggests it was never all that it was cracked up to be and frequently just an excuse for bad defending in the decades that followed. I know, I was there!

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But Pelle is determined to play two attacking wide men and two holding, which casts a shadow over Jack Wilshere's overall part in things. I feel a bit sorry for the lad actually. Injuries have taken their toll on his strength and physicality and he was clearly targeted in those first two games of the season in which he started both matches but was hooked twice.

It showed that without Mark Noble we struggle for organisation, game management and midfield tenacity. The day we buy someone better, as my son keeps on saying, we will have reached the next level.

But these past few games have shown a collective mentality, even in adversity after Arthur Masuaku was sent off at Aston Villa. Very unfortunate that because he never touched Ahmed Elmohamady, who made a real meal out of the incident - just as Pelle had warned our players Villa would. But that's Mike Dean for you.

We were the better side with ten men by some distance and could have won it in the end. Ryan Fredericks was shoved in the back by Tyrone Mings in the box, right in front of us in the away section. No question in my mind. But that's Mike Dean for you.

And when young Pablo Fornals came on he showed pace, invention, put his foot in and attacked down the right and almost made a late winner for the excellent Seb Haller.

I've always been sceptical of bright young things getting the big build-up coming out of European leagues that lack intensity and physicality. Goncalo Cardosa was supposed to being going straight into the first team squad, wasn't he? But clearly needs more time.

But Fornals has only started one EPL game and some on social media are already doubting him. A bit harsh that. He played the full match against a big, physical Newport side, scored a goal and took it all in his stride. He's played just 254 minutes of first team football so far, so let's give the kid a bit of leeway.

It's fair to say that we would have lost at Villa under similar circumstances in years gone by, we have a dreadful record there. But not this time.

The best bit was really the performance of the spine of our side. It almost goes without saying these days that Lukasz Fabianski was outstanding, making half-a-dozen top saves.

In front of him Issa Diop was immense and alongside him, Angelo Ogbonna is having one of those spells when he plays like an Italian international rather than an Italian waiter in a beach kickabout.

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Further forward Declan Rice grew in stature and was outstanding, snuffing out danger and acting as an excellent screen. Alongside Noble they managed to negate the threat of Jack Grealish, forcing him deeper and deeper.

How the Daily Mail guy could make the Villa skipper man of the match escapes me.

And up front Haller was outstanding. Strong, powerful, winning most in the air and when we were down to ten men, he ran himself into the ground defending and attacking.

Having played in the Bundesliga he isn't phased by the physical side of the Premier League and can certainly look after himself. He's the best striker we have bought since Dean Ashton.

And right through the side there is cause for optimism. Fredericks has taken his chance and looks a real prospect, and even Arthur - target of so much abuse - has had a decent season until that rush of blood. A rash challenge that gave Dean the chance to produce the 102nd red card of his EPL career, the most of any referee and 35 more than the next on the list.

But that's Mike Dean for you.

The bravest Pellegrini decision maybe is a determination to play both Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko on the flanks, both attackers who have to be reminded about tracking back, in particular the Brazilian.

But it's a statement of intent from the manager of how he aims to play. And it's started to get noticed. I see Harry Redknapp is saying this West Ham side looks the part with their attacking options. A whole host of pundits seem to agree.

Pellegrnin's comments after the Villa game sum up the objectives. "I am happy with the personality and performance, I want to see in every game the attitude we saw at Aston Villa," he said.

"I am happy with the way we are improving. We aim to play this way, with this system and these players. We will win games and points. We could have moved into a Champions League place if we had won at Villa, that is still the aim."

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And maybe if Anwar El Ghazi had been sent off for headbutting his own colleague, Tyrone Mings, things might have been different. But that's Mike Dean for you.

The folly of VAR and Dean was obvious here. If El Ghazi had done that to an opponent he would have walked. What is the difference when it's his own team mate. Violent conduct surely, regardless?

Our fans have a real problem with this referee. "It's all about you" we sang from the away section. His appearance now for any game involving West Ham is almost too toxic for the everyone concerned.

There was once a famous manager in the north who, with his equally famous chairman, made sure a certain referee who had caused their displeasure was not appointed to any more of their games.

I have no intention of naming club, manager or chairman, but I know that happened. Maybe we should try hard to keep Dean a million miles from our matches. And even that would be too close.

And now for Manchester United, fourth despite being constantly ridiculed this season. Still a big, big club. Still one of the world's best clubs, I don't go along with the theory they are in terminal decline.

But we beat them at the Olympic Stadium (or whatever it's called or will be called) last season and Pellegrini's side can do it again. Yes, I know, that's put the mockers on it!

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