Welcome to the bubble factory. Where dreams are made and almost dashed. We have finished the EPL in fourth. And we have secured a European Champions League place (in the group stages).
Yes, I know the big news has been revealed early but the interesting thing is how the hell did we do it. We did it through a lot of good, some bad and a small amount of ugly.
Our opening match was against league champions Manchester City. I took to Twitter to profile how we got on. We narrowly lost 0-1 to a late Mauro Icardi goal. To almost come out with something against Zidane’s battle-hardened Man City. I was very impressed with the performance.
I wasn’t too impressed with the fixtures list mind. As our next match was away to Pep Guardiola’s Arsenal. I feared the worst, and in the seventh minute Justin Kluivert scored for Arsenal. They kept the lead going into the half time interval. The first period had been another battle, with both my left and right backs getting booked for rash challenges late in the half. I noticed Mason Mount was struggling to get into the game and Right back Nathan Swift had got himself very wound up. I took both off at the break. I brought Tim Castagne on at Right Back and I switched to an attacking 442 with Sergio Aguero coming on for Mount.
We did receive some fortune for all our effort. Arsenal midfielder Marco Benassi received a yellow card for persistent fouling on 52 minutes. Two minutes later the boy got sent off for more of the same. This gave us confidence to play our game. And with the extra man we soon took advantage with Callum Wilson striking a shot inside the box courtesy of an Aguero cross.
Seventeen minutes later Sergio Aggggggguerrrrrro! scored. He scored his first competitive goal for the Hammers and a winner. Harvey Barnes had his cross blocked for Castagne to receive the loose ball and cross to Aguero. This performance and switch in tactics during the game would mark our first points of the season. And provide us a platform for the next stint of matches.
Next up was some daft friendly cup that the club had arranged. Mainz, Brest and Academica de Coimbra were the other teams to attend the brief competition. We drew Brest in the semi-final. We would draw confidence from the Arsenal match and put in a decent team performance. We would win 2-1 youngster Oliver Moncur and oldster Willian netting for the Hammers. The final would see us play Mainz. Sticking with the 4141 formation would see West Ham play with control of the ball and a swagger in attack. We won 4-1 Anderson, Mount, Solanke and Alessandrini scoring for the Hammers.
This newfound confidence was taken into the next EPL match, home VS Derby. Mount and Panzo scoring the goals.
We would then win our next two matches with a 6-1 win away vs Leicester and then a 3-1 victory over Watford at Vicarage Rd. Callum Wilson scoring five across the two matches.
We would the host Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at the London Stadium. A lucky Naby Keita goal would separate the two teams at the end of the match. I was beginning to wonder if we had a better chance of winning things with two forwards on the pitch rather than playing the formation that had brought me success in the lower leagues. I had a lot to learn but remained confident that the idea I had would work so we persevered with the 4141 formation.
We would go on a nine-match unbeaten streak granted we would draw five and two of the victories would be in the Carabao Cup, but an unbeaten streak is an unbeaten streak.
The blue half of Liverpool, Everton, were the team to burst the bubble. A lack lustre performance and a Lookman goal were the reasons behind our loss on the surface. I would say the loss was coming a home goalless draw to Brighton the week before along with a loss in confidence and what felt like too many tweaks in the tactics could have been the main contribution.
The next match was a damp Tuesday night in Stoke on Trent. The cuppa at half time was probably the best part of this match as Stoke City would win 3-1 and knock us out of the Carabao Cup in the fourth round. We may have used a “cup” team for the match, but the performance overall was worse than the Everton match. The hope for a spark by someone trying to push harder for a first team spot never surfaced and barring a Harvey Barnes goal we would have very little positivity to take from the two defeats. The only thought I had was that I needed to put a halt to the lack of goals for and seek away of turning the draws in to victories.
I quickly went back to the drawing board with the tactic. My TS Sport’s 4141 tactic was not working as efficiently mainly due to the different types of players that I now had at my disposal. My main issue I had realised was that none of the attacking wide right players were out and out wingers. They were either Inside forwards or Attacking Playmakers. Neither role really keeps the player wide. And simply slotting a left footed right winger as a right winger was never really going to work. So rather than breaking the bank I looked at changing the tactic to fit the players I had strength in numbers.
The “Iron Diamond” was born. Enabling the use of the two strikers which I had seen work effectively during periods of play when we altered things. And the introduction of an Attacking Midfielder albeit in the SS role. With no longer using wingers of any capacity I looked to sell or loan out the ones that I did have and reinvested in players that were more comfortable with the wingback position.
We went with the new tactic for the last match in October, before the two months break for the World cup.
The instant impact was devastating. Well for Newcastle United. Aguero and Wilson combining to score our three goals within the first half. The second half was a much nervier experience as the wingbacks tired the more Newcastle began to find a foothold into the match. We held firmish and conceded the one in the second half. The most important thing for me was that we won. The three points and the air of hope due to the changes made would make the mid-season break an important one to get the new tactic/formation played as much as possible. Familiarity would be very important for when the competitive matches returned in the new year.
The results of the thirteen friendlies were not important, although the positive morale that it brought was good. The only friendly I took notice of was the last one. Real Madrid at the London Stadium. We won 3-0. I hoped that the performance of the final friendly would help the boys set a standard for themselves for the next wave of competitive matches. The New Years day match came with a bump. Either the boys were still nursing hangovers, or my naivety was slightly exposed. We would lose 3-2 to Sheffield Utd in a match that felt like we were off the pace. We would concede then get back in to the match to then make another basic error to see the ball back in the net. Which would mean doing it all again.
I stuck to my guns and the new tactic for the next match, in the hope that repetition would help the team during this transitional period. We would take the initiative with an early Aguero goal for Wolves to equalise through their Arsenal loanee Alverez.
Before I get all excited with how the second half of the season went, I must interject with what we did in the transfer market in January. We would sell Anderson, Vidal, and Alberto Moreno along with loaning out Trott and Zhegrova.
We brought in Julien Weigl and Kyle Walker from Manchester City. Josh Earl from Derby and Krzysztof Piatek from Atalanta.
Our first home match in 2023 would see us play Chelsea. The match was a tight one with plenty of needle which you would expect from a London Derby. We picked up four bookings. The important numbers were the two goals that we scored to Chelsea’s none. The two oldies scoring and making the difference. (Aguero and Willian).
This win was the catalyst for the rest of the season. We would go on to play Manchester United, Man City and Arsenal in the league. Where we would take nine points out of nine. Twelve out of twelve if you include the Chelsea match. This sudden change in fortune and results would propel us up the league and rather than sitting in seventh or eighth we were now catching and challenging Chelsea and Arsenal for the fourth/fifth place in the league.
Along with victories against the “big four” we would also win against Derby away along with two cup wins against Doncaster Rovers and Millwall respectively. The cup games were again used to rotate the squad and it would provide valuable game time for emerging youngsters Nathan Swift and Matthew Dowse.
February would see us stutter to Eddie Howe’s plucky Leicester side. We drew 1-1. A 4-1 home win against Watford would soon eradicate the thought of lost points as Piatek scored two goals which would show that the forward would be at home in the EPL.
We then got revenge on Michael Laudrup’s Sheffield United. We thrashed them 5-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Dominic Solanke scoring his second hattrick in the competition which would bring his goals and performances to the fore as up until this point he had shown little consistency and certainly little eye for goal. Dowse would also score, but due to an injury whilst playing for the under 23’s his season would be cut short. His promise is hopeful as we will look to retrain him as an AM (SS).
We would then go to Anfield. With our tails high and feeling confident that we could get something out of this difficult fixture. We didn’t we lost 4-2. The Mane, Firmino, Salah trident were hot and each one of them put a hammer blow into our dreams of finishing in a Europa League spot.
We got to fight the demons within days with another local derby. This time away to Crystal Palace. The notable change was the inclusion of Declan Rice and the dropping of Weigl. The decision was vindicated as we not only won convincingly (3-0) but Rice would score too.
The Liverpool game would end up being a blip as we would go on to win the next nine league matches. Which would see us sail past Chelsea and Arsenal in the league table and fight toe to toe with Liverpool for third.
The FA Cup story would end in the very next round as Manchester United would beat us 3-0 at Old Trafford. Our old boys would show their age and struggle, Willian and Noble showing signs that maybe the pace and challenge of a high paced Manchester United was too much.
Back to the EPL. May would see us play three matches and the winning streak would end courtesy of two big teams seeking revenge from earlier in the season. Chelsea would beat us 1-0. The result could have been much different if only Piatek hadn’t missed a late penalty. But it was never to be. Then Man Utd would beat us and beat us and beat us until we were completely battered. 6-0!!! This must be my heaviest defeat. (Ever!!!) Simeone’s United were awesome. I had scouted them for a few matches and could see how devastatingly brilliant they were. But our boys had nothing in the tank and nothing to stop the juggernaut of Hazard, Belotti, Everton and Co.
Due to the defeats we lost our grasp of third to Liverpool and had to find inspiration to perform in the last match of the season to ensure we finished fourth. Wolves were our victims. We won 4-0! Just like earlier in the season, Willian, Wilson and Aguero would combine to bulldoze our way to victory. Sergio Aguero would score two in his final match with Willian and Mark Noble both playing a part before they sail into the sunset.
With our bubble now blowing much bigger than expected we have Champions League football to look forward to. I also have to look at replacing the old guard that have retired, along with trying to further blood some youngsters into the first team without hindering the results.
We also see Jonathan Panzo collect Young Player of the Year. (Well Deserved).
And somehow I collect Manager of the Year. (not sure how Zidane didn’t win it).
On that bombshell I bid you farewell and see you soon in Season 2023/24.
Ta’ra Me Duck!