1. Jose’s Tactics
The natives, I think it is fair to suggest, are becoming restless.
Alan Smith comes across as one of the more tolerable followers of Other West Ham, being a cove not really given to the hyperbole of the majority of his colleagues on the telly-box, and a choice phrase of his yesterday neatly encapsulated the essence of Jose’s Tactical Mastery, trimmings and all. “The end justifies the means”, he opined, like an owl of the particularly thoughtful variety, and it was hard not to disagree.
No two ways about it, surrendering possession and defending for dear life, for an entire dashed game, saps the spirit and makes the eyes bleed. Watching a player as talented as Harry Kane receive the ball and promptly belt it into the atmosphere, falling to ground in the Wolves half a good fifty yards from anyone in lilywhite, felt like an act of treachery against the traditions of the club. But if it got us to near enough the summit of the table, then a good swathe of the lilywhite hordes would swallow it. Turning a blind eye, and all that. The end justifying the means.
Except that it’s now two defeats and two draws in the last four games. It would take a PR rep at the absolute peak of their powers to spin that rot as ends justifying means.
By the grace of God – and a few humdinging away days early in the season – we somehow remain fifth, and all is not lost. And despite the ghastliness of it all, I am quite open to accepting that against the likes of Man City, and Chelsea away, the tactic of defending at 18 yards and countering is a reasonable approach to life.
But when boasting two of the best strikers in the world, a fellow like Ndombele simply brimming with on-ball quality, some of the more progressive full-backs in the league, a raft of attacking options on the bench, and so on and so forth – to toddle up to a team slap-bang in the middle of the table and treat them with the defence of peak Barcelona is an absolute nonsense.
What the absolute devil would it have cost us to have tried to put together a couple of attacks between minutes 20 and 85 yesterday, in order to increase the lead and protect the three points thusly? I’m not talking about all-out attack with every man and his dog pouring forward and Hugo considering adding his presence in the area for corners; but simply trying to retain possession and work something around the edge of their area, something that might have allowed Kane and Son actually to receive the ball within shooting distance, rather than on or before the halfway line and without a soul ahead of them.
The percentages are stacked against us when trying to defend deep for an entire game, relying as it does not on not making a single mistake (or being on the wrong end of a ricochet or deflection) and being absolutely clinical, with zero room for error, when the one or two counter-attack chances do come our way.
And on a final side-note, for Jose then to face the cameras and declare that the fault lay with the players for not trying to score again was rot of the highest order.
In theory this ought to have been a good opportunity for Winks go peddle his wares. With a back-three behind him and a little less onus on him to spend his day putting out fires, it seemed there might be opportunity for him to dial into the ghost of deep-lying creative midfielders past and produce one or two Luka Modric impressions.
To his credit, Winks did have a stab at picking progressive passes. The criticism regularly bellowed at the lad from the AANP sofa is that he too often goes for backwards or sideways passes when a forward option is perfectly viable, but yesterday one could not fault his intent. He received the ball, he looked up, he passed forwards.
Alas, far too often, that was the extent of his success. Far too often those forward passes missed their mark, and possession was surrendered as a direct result of his input.
It must be a tough gig I suppose, suddenly starting and being under the spotlight after so long on the sidelines, and no doubt he was eager to please, but yesterday things just did not fall into place for him.
At this juncture I would normally be inclined to pat him sympathetically on the head and trot out something along the lines that there will be further opportunities – except that with a bizarrely vindictive man-child like Jose at the helm one never really knows if he will decide that he has had enough of Winks and cast him aside like an unwanted Christmas toy.
3. Ben Davies
The switch to a back-three featuring Ben Davies was an unsubtle nod to the talents of Adama Traore in opposition. Traore, a man whose muscles themselves have muscles, was tormentor-in-chief last time we faced this lot, so one understood Jose assigning to him his own private security detail.
When not pinging them in from long-distance in Carabao Cup Quarter Finals, Ben Davies earns his living by delivering 6 out of 10 performances with metronomic regularity, so I have to admit that his selection up against that Traore lad did have me shooting a nervous glance about me pre kick-off.
And in the first half, perhaps a little unfairly, I was a tad critical of his efforts. He held his position well enough, but it struck me that whenever Traore wished to breeze past him he did; whenever Traore wished to deliver a cross he did. Ben Davies did not neglect his post, but neither did he do much to prevent Traore that a life-size cardboard cut-out of Ben Davies would not also have done.
As mentioned, this was probably a harsh appraisal, particularly coming from one who has not walked a mile in the shoes of Ben Davies – or indeed the shoes of anyone up against Traore.
And in the second half, I have no hesitation in admitting that my cynicism was replaced by healthy admiration. Ben Davies warmed to the task and was not for wilting, no matter how much Traore twisted and turned and shoved and battled. It actually turned into quite the contest, and while he might have needed to have a sit-down and catch his breath afterwards, there can be no doubting that Ben Davies earned his weekly envelope.
Just a shame, then, that he did not quite keep track of his man sufficiently at the corner from which Wolves scored – but while that was a error on his part, I am not about to blame him for the two points lost. If anything, he was possibly our stand-out performer.
Another of the more eye-catching performers – a small band, ‘tis true – was Monsieur Ndombele.
As is his way, he rather faded after half-time, and was duly euthanised on the hour, but in the early stages what attacking spark we had originated at his size nines. The body swerves and balance remain things of delight, easy to spot but seemingly near-impossible to stop. But I suspect we were all pleasantly surprised to see that burst of his from well inside our own half to well inside theirs.
There is something about Ndombele’s gait that gives the impression of a man whose lungs are about to breathe their last, and who will at any moment collapse to the ground and commit his soul to his maker. Put bluntly, the chap never looks fit. But I do sometimes wonder if this is an optical illusion. Sometimes drooping shoulders and hangdog expressions will make a professional sportsman look like anything but. Followers of leather-on-willow who are of a certain vintage may remember one Angus Fraser looking similarly exhausted every time he bowled for England.
So it is with Ndombele, and for that reason that sixty-yard burst of his was as surprising as it was pleasing. Even with the ball at his feet, he managed to outpace the chasing pack. A shame (very much the phrase de jour) that he picked the wrong option at the end of it, Reguilon boasting a goalscoring record slightly inferior to that of the other spare man, Harry Kane, but it did provide further evidence to the notion that Ndombele might turn out to be Mousa Dembele with added attacking prowess.