I could be accused of being mellow-dramatic but I believe that last night could have been the last time for a generation that West Ham played in a major European Competition. Few fans who watched the game will feel that the decision to field the team they did was justified in terms of the “long game” of ensuring Premier League survival. If that was ever an issue, then why have the owners sanctioned such pre-season signings as Lanzini, Payat and Ogbonna or even recruited Slaven Bilic? In his post match interview the Croat said he was “bitterly disappointed” to have lost but showed complete contempt for the competition, the opponents and the West Ham fans who traveled to the far reaches of Romania for the game against FC Astra by fielding a team that would have been considered “inexperienced” in Capital One Cup terms. When perennial fence-sitter Michael Owen says “I think West Ham may have made a mistake here” prior to kick-off you know that you have a problem.
Last week the Hammers were cruising at 2-0 up at The Boleyn Ground. Collins is then sent off and the team fall apart. Players get sent off week in, week out and don’t lose, or even concede a goal. The footballing guru David Pleat always tells us it’s harder to play against ten men than eleven. That’s the theory of Numerical Disadvantage. But why did it all go wrong? If you were lucky enough to see the game you will notice that both goals came as a result of West Ham standing off the player with the ball, allowing them far too much time to in the first instance shoot and for the second goal, play the ball into the area. It’s all very well in having flair players such as Zarate, Payat and Jarvis in the side (you could add Lanzini in that but he didn’t play last week) but if none of them are prepared to close down the man on the ball you are asking for trouble whether you have 10,11 or 12 players on the pitch. A few years ago that would have been Mark Noble’s role. Today?
Bilic had already made his mind up before last week’s game that the match versus Arsenal was far more important than the Europa League tie against the Romanians. Yet that should have given him even more incentive to take the competition seriously and reach the Group Stage. Let’s face reality. Arsenal, like they have for 18 out of the last 19 seasons, will finish in the top 4 at the end of the season. Why? Because they are a good team, with a good manager who despite seeming reticent to use it, has funds at his disposal. Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd are in almost the same boat. It would take a brave man to suggest the title, or even the top four will not feature one of those four (or all in the case of the Champions League qualifiers). Liverpool and Spurs may say otherwise but it is for the top four to lose rather than the other two to win. West Ham’s record away to these top teams in the past few seasons has been poor – four defeats, ten goals conceded last season for instance. It would take a very brave man to bet on anything apart from a defeat on Sunday. In all reality there are games that the management will target as “must wins”, others that are “should wins” and some that are “could wins”. Arsenal away is unlikely to be in those. So why rest players for the second leg? And what is the ambition this year? Finish in the top six or seven just to qualify for the Europa League and go through the same thought logic next season?
The most annoying aspect here is that Bilic used twenty first team players in a pointless friendly last Sunday against Werder Bremen. Why? A meaningless game played in front of a crowd of 10/15,000 at the expense of putting out a decent team who would make a fight of the game in Romania and whilst the chance of reaching the final is slim, every game they play in in Europe they earn cash. Whilst not in the same league as the Premier League TV money, it is still cash.
“Bring back Allardyce” someone suggested to me today. But let’s not forget that he did something similar in a televised cup game away at Nottingham Forest two seasons ago where they were beaten 5-0. Whilst managers will outwardly say they they listen to the fans, they only really answer to one master. And if that voice is saying that Premier League points are the most important thing in the world then there can be no room for any risk in a tournament such as the Europa League.
Just like the campaigns of 1999 and 2006, it was fun whilst it lasted. But with an outlook that the Premier League is so important, we are hardly likely to take any cup competition seriously and thus denying any further route back into Europe. Hull City fans only know too well from painful experience last season that treating the Europa League with disrespect ultimately meant nothing as they were relegated nine months later. Was that down to playing competitive matches in July? Of course not.
Update – so we go and beat Arsenal against all the odds. What do I know about football anyway. Come on you Hammers!