West Ham United 3 Hull City 0
Sunday, 18th January 2015
After the heartache (and, for Evertonians, heartbreak) of the cup, could we manage a comfortable win for once? Having chucked away four leads, could we hang on to one for a change? Being West Ham, the answer is, of course, both no and yes...Having trotted out a few cliches for the replay, one inescapably presents itself for the return to league action - "a game of two halves". Hull could easily, probably should, have been in front at half-time. Afterwards, we came out with an energy and intent that were sorely lacking before the interval and took the game away from them.
So yes, we could hang on to a lead this time, but it wasn't what I would describe as a comfortable win. Hull have inherited our injury crisis of this time last last year, and languish as a consequence, as we did. They gave the lie to their place in the table, though, for the first 45, at least.
Aluko was intent on making Tomkins life a misery at the start. Twice he beat Jimmy in the first couple of minutes, scorching past him. On 5, he ran beyond him again, pulling an acute pass back from the goal-line. Elmohammady pulled his shot wide from 14 yds; a let-off.
Tomkins had had enough of that malarkey, methinks! Aluko did beat him once more, in the middle of the half, but though he's not quite 26, JT has enough experience to quickly work out how to deal with such things. Collins saved him that last time, coming across to belt the ball out for a corner. Aluko had little opportunity to shine after.
Hull had one more very good opportunity only a couple of minutes later. Playing too intricately in our area, Ginger was allowed the chance to block out the final pass. It's not that we didn't create, but the Tigers were tigerish, pressing us higher, faster, tighter (as the Olympic motto might almost be) than we did unto them.
Our best play came 5 minutes before half time. First, Valencia made McGregor push a header onto the bar. Seconds later, their keeper goes down well to hold a header from Tomkins, under pressure from Collins and Valencia.
Some brief booing greeted the whistle for half-time. I don't doubt that will upset some fans who think there should never ever be any of that. But how else can fans voice their displeasure during the game? We did not play well in the first period and, or so it seemed to me, it was literally one brief round of catcalls, enough to express disappointment with what they'd seen and no more.
There was no reason to repeat it. We came out for the second 45 showing everything that was missing in the first. Almost immediately, Downing, played through by Jenks, pulled the ball back across to Nolan. He could only hit it over on the half-volley.
The chance didn't go begging for long. Two minutes later, McGregor couldn't hold an awkward, low shot by Valencia from around 22 yds. Unfortunately for him, he parried inwards, rather than outwards, and Andy said "Ta, pet!", snaffled up the rebound, and tapped in from just inside the 6 yard line.
The wind going out of the Hull sails was almost visible. We had pinned them back immediately, taken the lead shortly after and, suddenly, the balance of the game had entirely tilted.
Valenica broke through 10 minutes into the half, slotted home easily... But was offside by about the width of his shirt. Amalfitano replaced the tiring Noble on 65; a minute later Valencia could only hit the back of the side netting when gifted the ball by Dawson.
Then two goals in the space of three minutes put the game to bed. In the best move of the match, a still off-colour Song picked out Valencia, Valencia fed through Amalfitano and Morgan, instead of taking too long as his did against Everton, neatly dinked the ball over the Hull keeper.
On 71, Tomkins intercepted as the Tigers tried to come forwards. Song picked it up and played Downing through the middle... An ironically easy finish, given that, once again, neither Song nor Downing exactly sparkled during the match.
The remaining twenty minutes were fairly quiet. A thoroughly deflated Hull scrambled away a good Valencia cross. Neat Hammers' interplay was ended with an awful Jenkinson cross. A few minutes before the end Nolan made one of few notable contributions, hitting the bar from an acute angle, having worked hard to get on the end of a Downing ball that was just slightly too heavy.
So why the difference between first and second halves? Sam already wants to claim that we may have been a bit tired, but his tactical genius changed things at half time. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that.
We could not have been less tired at the start of the second half, as compared with the first half, so where did the extra energy come from? In my view, it is solely down to the formation. We started with Nolan, Noble, and Song, three central midfielders. Downing was pushed out to the flank.
Where was the balance? What was the shape? Was Valencia supposed to be playing on the left with Nolan feeding off of Carroll? It wasn't a diamond, that's for sure. Sam admitted as much in his post-match remarks, when he said that he changed it to a diamond at the interval. Downing was back at the point; by far and away, that has been his best position this season. Unsurprisingly, he improved and so did the team.
So why did the tactical genius not have him playing there from the start? The equation seems quite simple to me. We're back to an undroppable Nolan, and how do you play Nolan and Downing together, whilst keeping Downing at the point? Sam managed it for 45 minutes, but usually he doesn't.
I'm not overly generous where Nolan is concerned but, one game aside, he has been OK lately. There's been none of his usual gobbiness, petulance, or nastiness. And yet... He can't play on the wing, and he can't box-to-box either. If he's defending (which is where he has done much of his good work recently), he is not supporting the forwards, which is supposed to be his forte.
So if he is playing, what happens to Downing? Shoved out on the flank, for the most part. Unless Sam chooses to recognise this, we are going to be disjointed in midfield. It's not just a question of the team defaulting to hitting balls at Andy; Nolan disturbs the balance of the midfield now.
Sam has underhandedly solved one of his "Must pick Nolan" problems by shipping out Zarate. Jarvis isn't worth a starting berth, given the form he's shown recently. But how is Nolan starting in front of Amalfitano? Why does Downing keep getting pushed out wide?
It was a better result than it was performance. Three to nothing flattered us, and was more than a little harsh on Hull, given their first half performance. Them's the breaks. They were the breaks we were all too often being handed last season.
One can feel a certain amount of sympathy, but the Tigers have never scored away during January in the Prem, losing seven of eight games. Once we scored the first, it didn't look like either stat was going to improve.
Next up is the cup, but after that we have a tough run of games. Liverpool away to end January. Man Utd, Southampton, Spurs for the first three league games in Feb. Palace at home isn't much of a respite before the one-two of Chelsea - Arsenal again.
If we play as we did today, we will not see many points from that sequence. It's as simple as that.
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Player RatingsAdrian San Miguel del Castillo
Had to be alert in the first half, especially in the first quarter of the game. In truth, though, didn't have a heck of a lot to do.
Good enough, but no more.
Solid in defense, a frequent threat up the flank. Though the strange formation helped in that.
After suffering at the hands of the pacy Aluko, actually put in a pretty decent performance.
At half time, I had him down for Man of the Match. Saved Tomkins at least three times, never mind doing his own fair share. But then had to go off as a precaution. Still nearly MotM!
Worked hard, but a bit laboured at times.
Still off form, despite a couple of excellent passes.
Not his sparkling best today, not least because, for half the game, he wasn't being played where he has shown to be most effective.
Showed a little more in attack than in recent games, and did OK, but still wouldn't be in my starting 11.
Another good game up front, holding the ball up, bringing his team-mates into things. Getting another non-headed goal will do his confidence no harm. Tap-ins are his favourite, apparently!
Man of the Match. Constantly busy, frequently dangerous. Didn't have any especially good chance of his own, but kept testing the Hull defence, and will be credited with two assists presumably.
(replaced Collins) Had a decent enough game, replacing Collins just after half-time.
(replaced Noble) Didn't set the game alight, but did a job replacing Noble for 25 minutes, and a neat finish for the second goal.
Joey O Brien
(replaced Tomkins) Wasn't impressed with his efforts at DC last season, but JT needed to be subbed after pulling up starting the move for the 3rd goal. Did an adequate job in the face of little pressure for 15 minutes or so.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Match FactsWest Ham United: Adrian San Miguel del Castillo, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Cresswell, James Tomkins, James Collins, Mark Noble, Alex Song, Stewart Downing, Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll, Enner Valencia.
Goals: Andy Carroll 49 Morgan Amalfitano 69 Stewart Downing 72 .
Booked: Mark Noble 21 .
Sent Off: None sent off. .
Hull City: .
Subs not used: .
Sent off: None.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
Man of the Match: Enner Valencia.