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West Ham United 0 Aston Villa 0
Saturday, 2nd November 2013
The first game of November always seems unduly symbolic.
The passing of the halcyon days of summer, with any last remnants of autumnal cheer fading to grey along with the skies, and with the wind gusting a fanfare we commence - what I like to think of as - Serious Season (the less attention-grabbing marginally older sibling of Silly Season). This is where those in the running get running, and those in the stumbling begin the time-honoured ritual of tying their shoelaces together and heading up the M6 to Eastlands...
But today was different. Today was about subverting those expectations, both on and off the pitch. The afternoon begins with a pub lunch in a gloriously sunny beer garden. Yes, in November. No doubt this was brought up in the post-match press conference, and I expect Big Sam to have taken full credit for his unconventional and inventive weather formation. Say what you like about future Real Madrid manager Sa??el Allardici, but he's always innovating.
On the field of play things similarly confounded received wisdom. One team played fast, close-controlled possession football; regularly linking together numerous phases of play in an unconventional but mostly effective formation, with sideways passing, always aesthetically pleasing and entertaining throughout. The other played lump-ball to the big fella and desperately hoped to fluke something on the counter attack, bereft of ideas, creativity, and with no evident Plan B when it clearly wasn't working.
Can you guess which way round it was? Of course you can, because you're mostly intelligent and erudite sophisticates who know a well-signposted switcheroo when you see one.
We were, in the main, an unexpected delight to watch. The side doing as much right as could be expected of them, with the almighty Dumbo-on-the-sofa sized exception of putting the spherical thing in the rectangular netted cavity.
It wasn't for the want of trying. There was noting remotely negative about the formation, the tactics or the performance. We pressed, harried, passed, moved and created opportunities. But we could still be playing now and we wouldn't have scored. Even if the opposition had left when I did.
Villa looked even less likely, despite arguably coming closest in the second half with a shot against the bar from one of a handful of counter attacks that always looked threatening, but were more against the run of play than a song and dance number half way through a Henrik Ibsen.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
First things first, we lined up with our fully customised striker-less formation, but with the occasionally interested Mo Diame dropped in favour of Jack Collison. This meant the false nine, whilst fluid, most frequently fell to Nolan with Morrison playmaking from a deeper Pirlo-style position, Noble breaking-up play, Collison himself nominally sitting deeper than Nolan but seemingly with a box-to-box remit and Jarvis and Downing providing natural width as inside-out wingers.
The early exchanges were exciting end to end fare, with - in fairness - the better initial chances falling to Villa. Firstly Weimann found himself one-on-one with enough time to rustle up a side salad to serve with the opportunity that had presented itself on a plate. Jussi was out smartly to save though and disaster was averted.
Moments later Weimann once again found himself baring down on goal, but was thwarted by an exceptionally and uncharacteristically mature piece of defending from Morrison who kept his composure and used his strength to get the better of the Villa forward where many a respected centre-back would have panicked and dived in early. Despite howls of derision from the Brummie faithful and some petulant toy-throwing from the German, Howard Webb demonstrated why he's streets ahead of his counterparts by correctly waving play-on. After that Weimann barely had a kick all game.
From that point the Irons settled and assumed control of the match. Once again the rotation of the attacking players meant that Villa, although organised, struggled to pick up the spare man which lead to a number of promising attacking positions. Breaking the opposition down wasn't causing much of a problem, finishing the move was however. Part of this was down to the much-discussed lack of clinical composure in front of goal, but equally responsible was a lack of killer final ball.
It wasn't until Nolan nudged a world-class through ball for Jarvis to latch onto and blast into the side netting that the game had its first moment of great attacking quality. This is the Nolan quandary all over: Large swathes of the game seem to pass him by, but his intelligence and vision make him the only player on the pitch who can anticipate movement well in advance and split a defence with a side-rule through ball. We have better technical passers in the team, but where someone like Noble finds a man, Nolan can find a space and calculate a player's chances of getting there. It's a different skill, and one we lack on the rare occasion he's not in the side. I'd just like to see more of that, and more of him.
Noble on the other hand was having an excellent first half. Doing all that good stuff that he does, running around, throwing himself in the way of anything that looks hostile, but he was keeping the ball magnificently, creating space and time for others looking every bit the composed central midfielder. Morrison looked lively buzzing about, but was struggling to pick out a meaningful final ball, too often opting to knock it sideways only for a cross to come in that failed to beat the first man.
As the half pressed on, the flanks were becoming an uncontested battle ground with Downing, Demel, Rat and to a lesser extent Jarvis increasingly effective. Our set plays remained predictably and infuriatingly pointless, with one apparent training ground move ending up looking like some kind of Benny Hill outtake, whilst corners caused the Villa defence about as much concern as the Andrex puppy in a bar fight.
Half time came and the possession and shots stats confirmed our dominance, even if that failed to tell the full story. The second half was more of the same, with the Hammers turning up the pressure further whilst rarely threatening to put the ball in the back of the net. Our best move came when Nolan and Downing linked up with a skilful one-two that Nolan - despite starting the move - should have done better with the finish.
Jarvis was scythed down having beaten his man in what looked like a great opportunity, but that excitement abated as soon as it collectively dawned that we now had a free kick in an excellent position and Noble wanted to take it. The audible exasperation that inevitably followed the failure to beat the first man was tangible.
Sam made a double substitution bringing on the Coles to replace the solid Collison and Jarvis who had just started to really make inroads having finally decided to take on his man a bit more, which had proven fruitful. The changes provided a focal point, and C Cole looked to have a strong penalty case when hauled to the ground when sizing up a shooting chance. Technically it looked a definite pen, but in practice you might get them 50 per cent of the time at best.
However, it's difficult to make the case that the changes improved us. Carlton (gawd luv 'im, as I feel contractually obliged to say) last looked a serious goal threat in about 2009, whilst J Cole was looking every bit the player that Liverpool couldn't wait to shift, rather than the one we couldn't wait to welcome back. In fairness to him, he did produce one of only four efforts on target all game, but that was meekly punted straight into Guzan's waiting breadbasket.
Downing produced one of the moments of the match when he chased down a seemingly lost cause from a rangy cross-field diagonal, controlled sublimely before beating a man and then winning a throw off the second. In effect in mattered little, but those are the kinds of move, especially from a player that had given everything for the full 90, that lift the crowd.
Having seen the pace drop after the substitutions (another likely reason for J Cole's probably justified lack of starting berth) that was briefly rectified for the last couple of minutes with Diame's introduction for Rat. If Diame can look half as interested for 90 minutes as he did for the final 2 minutes he was on, he'll be the first name on the team sheet.
And that was pretty much that. Occasionally frustrating, but always enthralling. Some will focus on the positives (of which there were many) whilst others will point out the failings (of which there were less in number, but as great in significance).
A performance like this, with someone to finish off the move, would make for a delectably intriguing proposition though, and one that we must live in hope we'll start seeing eventually. Get well soon Andy, by God we need you!
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Who would have thought that one of our best recent signings would have been the Bolton reserve keeper? As consistently excellent as he's been all season, and kept his concentration to save smartly on the rare occasion he was called upon, which is all you can ask from a keeper really.
Another excellent game from one of our unsung heroes. Defended calmly and confidently, but really came into his own as an attacking force.
His radar seemed a little wayward to start with, but once he found his range he was able to pick out some glorious cross-field passes and was always a threat breaking forward. Seems to be acclimatising well.
Hardly noticed he was there, which is accolade enough for a centre back, together with Tomkins he kept their main attacking threat quiet, although his distribution lacked the culture of his defensive counterparts.
Caught out of position a couple of times, which could have been punished early on, but provided a much better attacking threat with intelligent passing out from the back and once he settled into the game looked solid.
A very accomplished first half demonstrating all his best qualities. Less effective second half, and there are still those pretty dismal set pieces blotting his copy book, but all in all did everything you'd look for in a Mark Noble performance.
A competent display not short of endeavour, but nothing here to demonstrate that he's much more than a very good Championship player or reliable if unspectacular Premiership squad member.
One of those wonderful players to watch where the ball always seems to stick their feet, like di Canio and Brady before him. But this time lacking an incisive final pass or shot. Too many balls were getting knocked sideways relieving pressure on the opposition, where an occasional piece of assertiveness, or even selfishness might have potentially unlocked something special. Lovely bit of defending first half though.
Textbook frustrating first half for the man with the millstone price-tag. Seemed bereft of confidence and too willing to be dominated by a robust full-back. Second half was a transformed man though, finally having the confidence to take on his man, which he often did with consummate ease. Why he can't do this all the time remains a mystery. Really starting to have an impact just in time to be hauled off, which seemed an odd decision.
A classy display. Worked his socks off all game, never found hiding and his attacking instincts and willingness to take on his man eventually seemed to inspire Jarvis to try the same. A slightly better final ball and this would have been the complete winger's performance.
A perfect through-ball provided one moment of exquisite quality, plus a good piece of creative second half play set up an opportunity for himself, but apart from that mostly huffing and puffing. No shortage of effort, but struggled to impose himself on the game. Looked the most likely candidate to be subbed, but once again stayed the full 90. Definitely worthy of a role in the first team on quality alone, but whether that role is a full 90 every week is up for debate.
Does what we expect of Carlton, causes a nuisance without ever really looking like scoring. Should have had a pen though.
Pretty insipid unfortunately. Failed to pick up the frenetic pace of the game, and ended up slowing the game down making us look less effective. A good player to bring on if we're winning or holding onto a point as he keeps the ball well, but never really looked like unlocking the defence.
Looked up for it in the 2-3 minutes he was on, clearly demonstrating he has the ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck when he wants to. I just wish he wanted to more often.
Did not play.
Joey O Brien
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
West Ham United:
Jussi Jaaskelainen, Guy Demel, Razvan Rat, Winston Reid, James Tomkins, Mark Noble, Jack Collison, Ravel Morrison, Matt Jarvis, Stewart Downing, Kevin Nolan.
None booked. .
None sent off. .
Brad Guzan, Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark, Matthew Lowton, Yacouba Sylla, Ashley Westwood, Karim El Ahmadi, Leandro Bacuna, Andreas Weimann, Christian Benteke.
Subs not used:
Nicklas Helenius, Jed Steer, Chris Herd, Jordan Bowery, Aleksandar Tonev, Daniel Johnson.
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