Going into the game against West Ham, who’ve worked their way into the European conversation this year, it was clear that only a win would do following a week when every result imaginable went against us…
We knew it was going to be hard, but the task became instantly harder when the teams came out. Following a January where Scott cited the need for more attacking firepower in almost every press conference I saw, both Aleksandar Mitrovic and new recruit Josh Maja, on loan from Bordeaux, were named as substitutes. It meant we were going to be playing the large bulk of a must-win game against an in-form side with no recognised striker, and Ivan Cavaleiro would once again provide the outlet upfront. No offence intended, he can be very good on his day, but it’s lucky restaurants are shut right now given his numerous struggles to finish his dinner this season (not to mention chances being put on a plate for him).
Interestingly, Anguissa was dropped as well, in favour of Mario Lemina. Bobby Decordova-Reid also returned in place of Ola Aina, and it looked as if we’d be playing with a back four. I was particularly curious to see what these changes meant for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, as it initially looked like he’d get the chance to impress in central midfield from the start.
The game itself got off to a quick start, and both Loftus-Cheek and Lookman saw efforts blocked in the opening exchanges. It looked as if we had finally begun to play with the urgency of a team threatened by the prospect of relegation, but as the half went on, our visitors grew into the game and began to limit any threats we were initially posing. Frustrating, as we were by far the better side, yet couldn’t seem to fashion anything more than a few half chances.
One thing the Sky commentators did pick up on was the fact that we had striking options on the bench, which West Ham didn’t, and I thought to myself that that would be because although West Ham aren’t blessed with strikers, much like us, at least theirs was playing. I worry that this’ll be one of the games that we look back on and wonder if the team selection cost us an extremely valuable 3 points. Sometimes it feels as if every team in the league is making huge strides forwards, whilst we continue to struggle, whilst being competitive in most games.
Going in at 0-0, after half time we looked rejuvenated. Decordova-Reid went close with a sumptuous volley that arrowed over the crossbar following a lovely pass from Andersen. Loftus-Cheek also went close but couldn’t quite convert his angled dink over the onrushing Lukasz Fabianski. West Ham then displayed their ability to create something from nothing when England midfielder Declan Rice crossed from deep on the left-hand side and dropped the ball almost perfectly into Vladimir Coufal’s path, whose header crashed against the crossbar.
Tosin also went close from a Lookman corner, but his header flew narrowly over the bar. It was with 12 minutes to go that the golden chance we had been waiting for came. Some lovely interplay down the right from Reid and Tete resulted in Cavaleiro receiving the ball in the box, but his effort flew over the bar.
It was at this stage that Parker finally decided to make some changes in order to impact the game. Mitro and Maja were introduced as we tried to work a way through a stubborn West Ham defence. In my opinion- what is the point of first making changes with only 10 minutes to play? What are Mitrovic and Maja going to do in 10 minutes that they couldn’t do in 20 or 25? Yes, the team we had out on the pitch had done well and kept us competitive throughout the game, but it is getting to the stage where there is nothing to be had in being competitive if we are only picking up one point at a time. This league is ruthless, and I feel as if Parker is aggrieved by just how ruthless it really is. We play well in games and have drastically improved since September, but we have won just twice all season. No team with that sort of record stays up in this league. Since beating Leicester on November 30, we’ve played 12 league games and picked up 8 points all from draws. The facts here don’t lie. We could have been utterly dominated in the 9 games that followed, but won our last 3 and we’d be in a marginally better position than we are currently, not to mention confident and on the ascendancy.
The game finished 0-0, but wasn’t without its added time drama, as has become customary in fixtures contested between the two sides this season. Tomas Soucek was sent off for an elbow on Aleksandar Mitrovic that never was. Just because he plays for the opposition, I’m not going to say it was a red, which it wasn’t. I don’t think he gets sent off if Mitro stays on his feet, but I think if I felt an elbow (intentional or not) defending a free kick in the last minute of the game, I might be inclined to hit the deck too. The depressing reality of the situation is that Mike Dean will search for opportunities to make the game all about him, and I don’t see how that can still be allowed to be the case in 2021. The best league in the world should have the best referees and that’s just not the case as it stands.
All in all, it was another two points dropped and we have to go to Everton on Valentines Day, a place where we haven’t picked up a single league point since 1959. London buses anyone?