Ahead of Liverpool’s trip to the London Stadium on Sunday afternoon, I spoke to West Ham supporter Richard Kane (@Richard97Kane) to get some insight into the on-goings at West Ham and how he sees Sunday’s match panning out.
First of all, how would you assess West Ham’s season as a whole?
To put it simply, disappointing. After our brilliant final season at The Boleyn, I think many of our fans were expecting us to kick on and be fighting for Europe again. It became evident at the start of the season that this wasn’t going to be the case as we struggled to pick up points and those that we were getting were really a struggle. This is how most of our season has gone and to be honest, a lot of us wanted the season just to end early. However, after our recent upturn in form, the mood around the place has picked up a bit but most fans are just happy for us to be safe now and for this season to end and get prepared for the next.
Many have highlighted the stadium move as a factor in West Ham’s drop in form this season – how confident are you that home form will improve next season, having had a year at the London Stadium?
A lot of people have been putting the blame on the new stadium for our poor season and although I do think this has been a contributing factor, in my opinion the main reason lies in our summer signings. Two years ago, we brought in Payet, Antonio and Lanzini just to name a few, two of which have been our previous two POTS. Compare that to last summer and not one player that we signed got into our starting 11. Edimilson Fernandes won our signing of the season award a few days ago, a young midfielder who wasn’t even signed to feature in our senior squad straight away and has only played 762 minutes in the league so far.
However, getting back to the London Stadium, yes there have been many problems with it for fans in relation to stewarding, yes you aren’t anywhere near as close to the pitch as you were at the Boleyn and the atmosphere at the beginning was rather strange, but I think the main problem has been due to the increase in size of the pitch, as The Boleyn had a pitch size which wasn’t up to PL regulations so we could keep the game compact. This I think has been a factor for our poor defensive record, however, in recent weeks you can see that we seem to have found how to cope with this.
How would you assess Slaven Bilic this year – do you think he will stay? Would you be bothered if he didn’t?
I personally wanted Slaven as our manager from the beginning and last season reinforced that, although you can’t hide the fact that this season hasn’t been good enough. At times he’s been tactically naive and his substitutions have been questionable, something that Besiktas fans had told us about when he first came here. Only a month or so ago, support for Slaven was 50/50 but with our recent form, I would say a 70 or 80% majority are now for Bilic to stay and I would think that this will be the case. If he were to be sacked, I’d personally be disappointed as it’s been a long time since we’ve had a manager who really knows what the club is about and can relate to the fans. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt this season as he’s had a lot to contend with, back him in the summer and see how next season goes.
Just how big a loss was Dimitri Payet’s departure in January and do you think it would’ve been better, in hindsight, to have kept him until the end of the season against his will (as Liverpool did with Suarez) when plenty of thought could have been put into finding a replacement?
The Payet situation really summed up our season. Personally I’m glad we got rid of him and considering the circumstances, around £30m was a good price for him when you think that we paid just a third of that to get him 18 months beforehand. Strangely, even though Payet is undoubtedly in my opinion a world class player and easily one of the best we’ve had in recent times, I feel that his departure benefited the team as a whole and our form actually did pick up once he was out of the team. Keeping him would have simply harmed morale in the dressing room and Noble had even said that Payet stopped talking to him for weeks and that he was isolating himself from the rest of the squad. He was skipping training sessions and often turning up late. This is where I feel that the Payet situation differed from Suarez. In regard to holding onto him until we get a replacement, I don’t think we could possibly get someone in as good as Payet and keeping a player who is refusing to play would’ve just caused more problems and been poor financially.
You’re just off the back of a fantastic win over Spurs – what do you think clicked last Friday night that hasn’t for the majority of this season at home?
Friday night’s win against Spurs under the lights has really changed the mood among the fans. Our fans were really up for the game as you naturally would be for a derby, but the potential to confirm our Premier League status for next season and to derail Spurs’ attempt at catching Chelsea made the atmosphere that little bit extra special – something which has only happened a couple of times this season, all of which games we coincidentally have gone on to win. We went into the game with decent form, having had three clean sheets from our four previous matches, but as to what clicked for this match I think it was actually a couple of games ago that it clicked when we changed to a three at the back formation, which seems to have given a much better structure to the team. It was good to see such desire from our players, which seems to have come back in recent games and long may it continue.
How has the centre back partnership of Fonte and Reid fared this year? Is it something Liverpool are likely to exploit, in your opinion?
When Fonte originally signed I was very happy as it’s a player who knows the English game as well as anyone else and he had just won the European Championships with Portugal. Unfortunately I have to say that I, along with many other West Ham fans, was very disappointed in his performances where he seemed slow and unaware. However, once Reid returned from injury we went to the three at the back formation with Reid, Collins and Fonte and since then, all three of them have been immense. I personally feel as though Reid is one of the most underrated centre backs in league and is someone who we missed dearly, along with Collins who can often be an unsung hero. Yes he’s not the easiest on the eye but he’s good at what a defender needs to be good at – defending. So if you’d asked me this question a month or two ago my answer would have been yes straight away but now I have good faith in our defence and believe that we have the ability to cope with Liverpool’s weakened attack.
We played a Watford side a week and half ago with nothing to play for who seemed to be on the beach – do you think the team will be overly bothered on Sunday with nothing really at stake? Or is there an appetite to finish the season strongly (even to derail Liverpool’s hopes of a top four finish)?
It’s hard to tell really. For a while we’ve simply been striving to get over that 40 point mark and confirm our safety and now that we’ve done that, some people could see the season as effectively being over. Hopefully the players don’t see it this way as we could still finish as high as 8th but as low as 16th, so what is seen as a poor season could potentially not look so bad if we get points from our last two games. I do, however, fear that some players feel the sense of relief of finally getting over the line and are now just looking forward to their holidays. Cheikhou Kouyate who has been playing with an injured wrist since AFCON had an operation on it after the Spurs game due to our safety being confirmed and Mark Noble is to undergo a double hernia operation, something he’s been playing with for four months but kept from Slaven until, again, we were safe. To me, this shows that we are prioritising next season rather than potentially derailing Liverpool’s top four hopes and having a strong end to the season. However, a win against Liverpool at the London Stadium after what happened last Friday night against Spurs would really give some people a different view on the stadium going into next season, something which I think needs to happen, especially for our board.
Liverpool’s attack has looked a bit toothless of late with the absence of Mane and Lallana. Having kept out free-scoring Spurs, I assume the gameplan for Sunday will be something similar?
I imagine our game-plan will be similar to the Spurs game, as even without Mane and Lallana which does seem to have had quite an effect on your goal-scoring, you still have the likes on Coutinho and Firmino who when they want to, can really cause a lot of problems. Giving them as little space and time on the ball as possible will be key to how this game plays out, much like the Spurs game where it was Alli and Eriksen who we had to stop and limit the amount of times they could get the ball into Kane. The 1-0 win against Spurs and the fact that we’ve kept four clean sheets in our last five games will give us confidence going into the game and I’m sure we’ll be looking to get a result.
Finally, who’s the man we should be most wary of on Sunday afternoon?
There’s only really one person it can be for me and that’s Lanzini. Ever since Payet left in January, Lanzini has taken on the responsibility of being the main focus of our attacks superbly. He’s the one that wants to get on the ball and be direct, find those little pockets of space between the defence and midfield and create something. With Andy Carroll and our POTS Michail Antonio both being out, our attacking threat has somewhat been lacking, but if we are to do anything on Sunday, it will most likely be through Lanzini, or ‘The Jewel’ as he was nicknamed back in Argentina.
Richard’s predicted West Ham lineup:
Adrian; Fonte, Collins, Reid; Byram, Nordtveit, Fernandes, Cresswell; Lanzini, Ayew; Calleri.
Richard’s redicted score: West Ham 2-1 Liverpool