A bit of a mixed bag. OK, but not great. Early days and all that, but the doubts hover.
For West Ham, in particular, early season optimism is now officially over. An ugly battle for a mid table place seems the best prospect. Still, I only predicted 8th and that’s still not out of the question.
The problem is twofold.
First, it still hurts to see West Ham play such direct, risk-averse, functional football week-in-week-out. According to the stats, we have attempted the fewest passes of any Premier League team, and when we do, we have the lowest pass completion rate. Before today’s grim 0-0 at Southampton, the pass completion rate was 72.4%. Today it was 68%. That’s OK if you just want to let the other side have the ball, hoping to nick it and break quickly. But is that all West Ham are going to do? It hurts!
Second, we do have a lot of our best players – our forwards – out injured. The talismanic Andy Carroll, who cost £15m to keep, is out it seems, for the rest of this year with a recurrence of an ankle/foot injury. Stewart Downing, £5m from Liverpool, is crocked. Joe Cole has another hamstring injury. In four games, the team has drawn blanks three times. After an assured start, 2-0 against promoted Cardiff, it’s been 0-0 at Newcastle, 0-1 at home to Stoke (Stoke!) and another stalemate today at Southampton.
Still, looking on the bright side, that’s five points, we’re tenth, and if we kept up that points-to-games ratio for the rest of the season, we’d stay up, no problem.
Benefit of the doubt because of the injuries, but come on Sam, give us some excitement! Even Stoke played better football…
The rugby season is only two games in, and there’s nothing really to worry about – yet. I missed the 16-15 win over Wasps at Twickenham, but Quins were pretty lucky to escape with the points, as Wasp fly half Andy Goode had a conversion attempt with the last kick of the game – and hit the post. Could have been 17-16 to Wasps. Still, fine margins and all that…
Fortunes were reversed in Quins first home game, on Friday night, against much-fancied Northampton. In filthy conditions – fizzing rain for most of the game – both sides mostly kicked, but did a good job of giving us some entertainment. Quins attacked more, with Nick Evans putting in some probing chips to the wing, but Northampton looked more dangerous when they went forward. Both sides missed penalties, but Quins missed more. Three looked easy (two for Evans, one for Botica), but I imagine that it must have been difficult to plant your standing foot steadily with so much surface water on the pitch. Saints ran out 13-6 winners, scoring the only try. That was a right shambles, with a comedy of errors on both sides in the Quins 22, before Saints managed to get it out wide for a simple touchdown.
Before the game, when the teams were read out, Northampton’s line up sounded awesome. They had a decent side last year and have strengthened, with notable signings, George North (hero of the Lions), Alex Corbisiero (another Lions star) and Kahn Fotuali’i, top Samoan scrum half. Quins have mainly relied on the continuing progress of their youngsters, which is fine, because they are so good. But Saints just looked that bit bigger. Not better, but probably suited to the nasty conditions on Friday.
I have a lot of faith in the Quins strategy of mainly developing their own academy players, with, of course, a touch of external embellishment – Nick Evans, the New Zealander, is still our main creative force. But there is a risk that it will consign the team to a battle for fourth place, with Leicester, Saracens and Saints grabbing the top three places on the basis of brute strength and resources – again. Shades of the football Premiership. Quins as Arsenal? The most exciting to watch, when on form. But just short when it comes to the crunch. Quins are mentally – and physically – tougher than the Gunners and did of course win the Premiership final as recently as 2012. But relative to the other contenders, they rely on wit, speed and guile rather than brute force and that is harder to sustain as a season progresses, injuries bite, and the internationals take their toll.
So two games in, I’m confident of another playoff place in the Premiership, but I’m not sure I’d risk my money on anything better then fourth in the regular season, with a hope, then, of something happening in the knock outs. And then we’re in the group of death this year in the Heineken Cup. Clermont d”Auvergne, Racing Metro of Paris and Llanelli Scarlets of Wales. Will be great games to watch, but tough, tough, tough to get past both French teams.
Lots to look forward to with Quins, then. Challenging, but it is still possible to dream. And there will be dazzling moments. With West Ham, we need a bit more style, a bit more entertainment. Trouble is, that is risky and Big Sam doesn’t do risk. But too many more scoreless bores and the fans will begin to grumble…
As fans always do!