The Hammers tussle with Southampton at Upton Park yesterday evening certainly was a game of two halves. Southampton could and should have been two or three goals up at half time as a clueless Hammers lacked a clear plan and stumbled in at half time looking dazed. However, Slaven Bilic was brave and made two major substitutions at the break bringing on Carroll and Lanzini for Zarate and Song. This delivered a remarkable result as the Hammers slowly took over and totally turned it around for a 2-1 victory where, in fact, they could have won by more at the end! The performance was very revealing about the nature of our squad and among the important insights gained were;
1. Michail Antonio can be a major Premiership force. The lad has struggled for game time since moving from Notts Forest. There have been glimpses of his ability but he is far from the finished product. Last night he deservedly won the MOTM award after terrorising Southampton's defence in the second half where, once he received some decent possession, he ran at a hapless Southampton back line to devastating effect. Sides will adapt to his directness (probably) but his innate physicality and enthusiasm will give his mentors much to work with. How you wish Teddy Sheringham was still helping out as a forward's coach!
2. Alex Song is better suited to a more defensive role. Bilic played Song in an unusual position at the front of a midfield triangle but the experiment did not work out as we looked sluggish moving forward and did not create a single decent scoring chance in the first half. Song has a career total of just 11 goals in 411 games which speaks volumes for his relative offensive versus defensive abilities. BTW, that record should read 12 goals but his perfectly good strike against Arsenal was bizarrely disallowed last season.
3. Carl Jenkinson is regaining his confidence. Jenks has had a torrid season - despite scoring twice, his defensive performances have been erratic and resulted in him being dropped in favour of James Tomkins at right back. He has featured as a sub in our two previous matches where he performed well but Last night Jenks was given the daunting role of starting at left back and then switching to the right. He was solid in both positions (if a little one-footed for the left sided role) and looks to be returning to his former performance levels. Let's hope that this trend continues.
4. Bilic can weather a crisis and use it to develop his squad. In contrast to Sam Allardyce, who responded to adversity by parking the bus and bringing in over the hill journey men (Roger the Relegator springs to mind!), Bilic has been realistic about the impact of our injury epidemic and adapoted our style accordingly. We have had little joy over the past eight games with refereeing decisions and the likes but still maintained a decent defensive record and blooded some new talent with Antonio finally getting his opportunity to show what he can do. In addition, Reece Oxford has slipped in some game time while Song and Valencia are getting back to match fitness.
5. Lanzini has a crucial creative ability and should be signed on a permanent deal as soon as possible. There is much to like about the Noble-Kouyate-Song combo in midfield which makes it super-difficult for opposition sides to score against us, but we need an incisive force if we are to create enough decent scoring opportunities to win games. Lanzini looked a bit off the pace for the first few minutes after he eneterd the fray last night but soon adjusted and suddenly we started to tick in atack and started to ask serious questions from a Southampton defence that had been cruising up to that point. Returning to the Lanzini-Payet combo as our offensive engine is a delicious prospect that we will hopefully get to realise over the near future. Tasty!
6. Mauro Zarate does not justify a starting place when we have a fully fit squad. The little Argentinian is certainly a better performer than his time under Allardyce suggested but he is a frustrating player who holds on to the ball too long and often tries to dribble out of dangerous situations in his own half. His concession of the ball to Davis towards the end of the first half last night very nearly provided Southampton with the two goal cushion they deserved! With a full squad available he presents primarily as a useful impact substitute.
7. Bilic can get it wrong sometimes. James Collins had fallen down the pecking order since Bilic arrived and looked set to join Big Sam at Sunderland until injuries forced Slaven's hand and the Ginger Pele got to strut his stuff. Is he the best shot blocker in our defence? Yes, he is! His recent two year extension may not be big media news but it represenets very good business for the club. With Tomkins impressing at right back, Collins has a more obvious role in the squad.
8. Mark Noble's set pieces are very average. Lanzini took over responsibilities once he came on and suddenly we looked more dangerous. Noble's corner kicks all too frequently fail to get past the first line of opposition defence and lack the 'whip' that creates better opportunity. Payet and Lanzini will assume primary responsibility for firing in our set piece missiles. Captain Claret is our heartbeat but he can't do it all himself!
9. James Tomkins should be in the England set up. The lad has grown in maturity and positional sense over the past two years and that TOWIE incident is well behind him. Maybe Alex Song should loan Roy Hodgson his funky spectacles so that the England boss can see some of the talent at West Ham that he has been ignoring.
10. Mark Noble should play for Ireland (We couldn't resist this one!). At 28 and with Hodgson looking comfortably ensconced as head honcho at International level, it's time those Cork relatives explained to Nobes the many delights of the Emerald Isle. Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane are still smarting over the Jack Grealish affair and would love to capture Noble's services as they lack a natural partner for James McCarthy in midfield ahead of the Euros where they are in the group of death with Italy, Belgium and Sweden. It's approaching last chance saloon for Noble and it seems a terrible waste that such a quality player may not get a single run out at full international level. Hmmm. Stop this nonsense - sign him up, NOW!