- by by Paul Walker
- Filed: Tuesday, 18th January 2022
Well, was that the pivotal moment? Jarrod Bowen’s awful, last second miss from inches away - has it ended our Champions League dreams?The anguish on his face, the disbelieving aghast of the Bobby Moore Lower, just how could he miss equalising from there?
Now I have no wish to be critical of Bowen, he’s scored another fine goal and has been in outstanding match-winning form for months. As David Moyes said, these things happen - but it doesn’t make it any easier to take.
And that’s why the gut-wrenching disappointment felt by us all after such a shattering defeat to a very well-drilled, effective Leeds United – a game frankly that we didn’t deserve to win anyway - has created such a painful far-reaching inquest.
We all knew just how important it was to beat Leeds, didn't we. The stars had aligned, just this once. Just this moment in time, probably never to be repeated. Chelsea had lost, Manchester United had thrown away a two-goal lead and Arsenal had squirmed their way out of playing the north London derby.
Win last Sunday and the season-long bid for European qualification could have become a serious bid for a top four place. Something never really seriously contemplated before.
Win and we would hit 40 points. Win and we would be just three points behind Chelsea. Win and we would be five ahead of Arsenal, seven ahead of Spurs, eight ahead of Manchester United and, quite importantly, nine in front of Wolves in eighth, the cut-off point for European qualification.
But that one moment in time was wasted, sadly. And with games in hand, all our immediate rivals can overhaul us now.
So the predictable inquest is under way. All the varying deficiencies we have are laid bare to prolong the self-inflicted agony. The squad does not have enough depth, not that it’s any smaller than most, but it doesn’t have the quality back-up to make a difference.
Six youngsters had been drafted onto the bench, the latest being 19-year-old Pierre Ekwah Elimby, a defensive midfielder picked up from Chelsea last summer. But in these last nine matches, Alex Kral has only got off the bench once and clearly wasn’t considered good enough to replace Covid victim Tomas Soucek against Leeds.
Not surprisingly Aaron Cresswell looks a little rusty after so long out with his back problem and two games in four days was a step too far. Craig Dawson has been carrying an injury but with Kurt Zouma and Angelo Ogbonna both out, has manfully played on. Leeds, who may well have worked that one out, gave him a difficult afternoon with their pace, pressing and inter-changing.
And then there was Issa Diop, whose game was cruelly unpicked by Leeds. It looked like a week of solid preparation there. It came to the point when they were happy for Diop to have the ball, no pressing, because his distribution is not his strongest point. Leeds just shut down the targets.
What I don’t like is hearing one of our own jeered as he is replaced. Anyone who puts on our shirt and is clearly giving everything for the cause, deserves our support. You can never doubt his effort and commitment.
We certainly made enough chances to have got something from the game, you always will against Leeds. Bowen was offside when going for the rebound from Alex McCarthy, regardless of Andriy Yarmolenko’s header finding the net. Dawson missed with a clear header.
But it wasn’t enough and the real sub-plot afterwards was the diabolical handling of Covid postponements. Now I don’t mind who upsets Spurs, just as long as someone does, but they were understandably furious with Arsenal’s successful request for Sunday’s game to be postponed.
And Arsenal have done nothing wrong. How the Premier League drafted a rule that was so easily manipulated is beyond many. Only one Covid victim needed for a review and then a whole host of other reasons can be added.
Injuries, suspensions, players recently loaned out, players away at the ACN. There was nothing to stop Arsenal utilising every avenue. Tiredness, no time to recover, they are all discussed. Those like ourselves and Leeds, who have naively considered only Covid cases can be utilised, have been made to look mugs. Thirteen players plus a goalkeeper is the rule, reached seemingly anyway you like.
Clubs don’t want to use academy players to protect the integrity of the competition. The thought of a group of 18-year-olds facing a full strength Manchester City, for example, doesn’t bear thinking about and would be deemed unfair by other clubs as relegation and European places are up for grabs.
There is a real imbalance about the situation, as Moyes has been saying. Our game with Norwich is the only one of 20 cancellations to have been shoehorned into the fixture schedule. We played three times in a week and Leeds just once.
Burnley, for example, have had four games called off, Leicester five, Spurs three plus their European match with Rennes, which the League refused to allow them to stage the week after the postponement because they had a game with Leicester (which was eventually called off anyway, but too late in the day).
These sort of discrepancies have allowed bad feeling to creep in as clubs believe others are trying to use the situation to their advantage.
Arsenal used to have a reputation for sportsmanship and doing things the right way. That’s been shot to pieces. They are still angry, it seems, with being forced to play, and lose, at Brentford at the beginning of the season with a worse Covid problem than they have now.
They have enraged the rest of the Premier League and there are calls for a re-think of the rules at their meeting on 10 February. Good luck with that, changing rules mid-season would lay the way open for legal action.
If this goes on, and clubs feel aggrieved, the game has a problem. It seems you don’t even have to name the players with Covid, data protection laws and medical privacy stops that. So the League do not even know who has tested positive.
This has become an administrative disaster. Some clubs are already taking legal advice. It seems that back in 2009, when we paid Sheffield United £20m to waste on rubbish players, there is a precedent of team selection, strength and availability being an issue. Of course, you knew it would be our fault!
But Moyes has a point. We have now played 12 games since 1 December, that’s 47 days, with various Covid problems and with all of our first choice back four out at some point due to Covid or injury. Said Benrahma is away on his African jaunt - that could end this week if Algeria fail to qualify for the next stage - and we’ve had Vladimir Coufal suspended, wrongly, during that spell.
And there has not been a peep from us. Moyes admits he wanted the Norwich game off, but maybe didn’t make enough noise about it. Could Leeds have been asked to play one of their two postponed matches last week? Seemingly not.
Moyes was clearly very annoyed when interviewed after the match, and opened up a little more when talking to the national writers.
He knows, too, that there is an ever-pressing need for reinforcements up front, in midfield and at the back. But trying to get players that improve us rather than just clog-up the bench on high wages is another matter. I find it hard to see why any club in the top half would let us have players that would strengthen us.
But what we can fall back on is the amazing resilience of our side. They were poor on Sunday, outplayed at times, but they stuck in there and very nearly got something in that final 20 minutes. Michail Antonio was on his knees having played three games in a week while Declan Rice was everywhere trying to salvage something.
When we lost three on the trot to Arsenal, Spurs and Southampton, previous West Ham sides would have crumbled. But despite the increasing problems, we fought back and won the next four. Sunday was a bridge too far, but would anyone these days bet against us getting something at Manchester United on Sunday? I doubt it. That’s why we are where we are.
We have picked up 100 points now since the beginning of last season. This is the first time since 1966 that we will enter February still in the FA Cup, still in Europe and in the top flight. That shows how far we have come under Moyes, so maybe a bit of reality and patience is needed out there folks.
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