In part three of our weekly 2016/2017 Season Review, we look at the turbulent months of September and October and how they helped to set the tone for a dismal first season at The London Stadium.
The second month of the Premier League season would not see League action until September 10th, as England left it late to overcome Slovakia in Sam Allardyce’s first and last game in charge of The Three Lions. However, many Hammers fans were disappointed at Michail Antonio missing out on his first England Cap after being called up to the squad for the first time on account of his superb start to the season.
As the first proper Footballing action of the month was getting underway, we faced a chance to bag to consecutive home wins in a clash with Watford. The taste of redemption was in the air on a hot September day in East London, as we got off to a blistering start against The Hornets. Dimitri Payet’s fifth-minute corner was met by the head of Michail Antonio, who just managed to squeeze the ball inside Heurelho Gomes’s far post. The goal was Antonio’s third in as many games and he celebrated in customary fashion with a worm dance. As the atmosphere began to ramp up inside The London Stadium, it was to be two before long. Payet was again the provider of one of the assists of the season with a dazzling Rabona cross which left Antonio with an open goal to nod into for his second. As half-time approached, Slaven Bilic’s men were cruising on the pitch until the boys in white fought back. Forward Odion Ighalo was allowed space to turn on the left side and when his shot deflected off of James Collins, Adrian stood no chance in stopping Watford’s root back into the game. A nervy period would follow before half-time and two minutes into added time at the end of the half, The Hornets were level through Troy Deeney. The Hornets skipper capitalized perfectly on a defensive mix-up between Adrian and James Collins, lifting the ball over the pair and into the top right-hand corner of the net. The visitors were to start the second-half in the same vein that they ended the first, with a ferocious Etienne Capoue volley stunning The London Stadium to give Watford their first lead of the game. The Advantage was doubled just moments later, as a Holebas shot was spilled into the bottom corner by Adrian. Hammers fans left the Stadium that day shocked and angered at an embarrassing 2-4 home defeat to Walter Matzzarri’s men, but little did they know that the worst was yet to come.
Just seven days after the home embarrassment against Watford, Slaven Bilic took his team to The Hawthorns in a game that would have felt like De Ja Vu for any member of The Claret and Blue Army. Surely a third successive League defeat wasn’t on the cards? Or was it? Many Hammers fans would soon found out as a shambolic defensive display would lead to us being 4-0 down within 56 minutes in The Midlands. West Brom had achieved the feat thanks to a brace from Nacer Chadli, plus goals from Salomon Rondon and James McClean. The travelling Hammers faithful quickly turned on the depleted players, with mistakes from the likes of Arthur Masuaku and James Collins leading to the West Brom goals. However, there was to be a sign of fighting spirit from Slaven Bilic’s men, as Michail Antonio’s fourth header in as many games and a Manuel Lanzini penalty made things interesting at the highest ground in The Premier League. However, the home side held out for the convincing victory and we had lost two successive League matches 4-2 for the first time in our Premier League history.
Suddenly, the relatively irrelevant EFL Cup Third Round home clash with Accrington Stanley had taken on a whole new importance. The game was now a must win and a must perform for under the cosh strikers like Simone Zaza. A dire affair was played out in front of 38,000 under the lights in Stratford and after a poor performance against the League Two side, the game looked to be heading to extra time. That was until Dimitri Payet stepped up, with the Frenchman curling in a 96th-minute free kick against the Northern club to secure a vital win for Slaven Bilic and a place in the Fourth Round of the Cup.
A sense of newly felt optimism was oozing out after the late but significant win over Accrington and many Hammers were keen to get back to League action the following Sunday at home to The Saints. However, the feeling of euphoria was quickly dismissed in another shambolic afternoon to forget at our new home. A weak Hammers side were never able to get a grip on the game at any stage and it was no surprise when Charlie Austin slotted the visitors into the lead on the stroke of half-time. A fourth successive Premier League defeat was on the cards and was near confirmed when Dusan Tadic easily poked The Saints 0-2 up after some pathetic defending Cheikhou Kouyate. Several Hammers chances and a penalty appeal would follow, but when none were successful fans began to flood to the exits. James Ward-Prowse rounded off a stellar Southampton performance with a third in stoppage time, but by then the angry Hammers faithful were already home-bound.
All in all, September 2016 will forever go down as one of the worst months in our Premier League history after three shambolic League defeats. However, there was to be some unlikely flicker of hope in the month of October.
The month of October would see a Hammers revival and a climb out of the bottom three, as winter began to set in and the games came quick and fast.
There was to be more home Premier League action on the first day of October with the visit of Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough. After a run of four consecutive League defeats, the game was far more than a must win as Slaven Bilic was waking up to rumours of his sacking daily. It was to be another lacklustre Hammers performance in the first-half and fans were left disappointed at the dull half-time scoreline of 0-0. There appeared to be a lack of urgency and concentration from Slaven Bilic’s starting 11 and this showed when Boro took the lead on 51 minutes through a Christian Stuani header. However, as the game burst to life, it would be a quick response and another moment of magic from 2015/2016 Hammer of the Year Dimitri Payet. The France international received the ball on the left flank after a Winston Reid long ball forward, the 29-year-old then went on a tantalizing run in which he beat six Boro defenders before slotting the ball past Victor Valdes. The Goal of the Season contender proved pivotal in securing a point in our third game at our new home. Our on-going search for a second win of the 2016/2017 Premier League season would have to wait until mid-October due to an international break. Michail Antonio retained his place in the England squad but still failed to earn a first appearance for The Three Lions under new boss Gareth Southgate.
As the drab international break came to an end, focus now turned to the away game against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. The encounter was another must-win tie and this time, the outcome would be a bit more satisfying in a racy encounter in South London. We started the game well and managed to silence The Eagles faithful fairly early in the game with a couple of good moves. As the game ebbed and flowed, Manuel Lanzini grabbed a deserved opener on the 19-minute mark. A brilliant move that started on the half-way line culminated in the ball reaching the returning Aaron Cresswell on the left, with the former Ipswich Town man firing a stunning low ball in for Lanzini to flick into the far corner past Steve Mandanda in the Palace net. The game looked to have reached a turning point on the stroke of half-time when Angelo Ogbonna brought down Christian Benteke in the area and Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot, but the big Belgian could only blast high and right over the bar to secure our lead at the break. A nervy second half would follow, with chances falling to either side and the fate of the game still hanging in the balance for the whole of it. The last 15 minutes were made even more terrifying for Slaven Bili when Aaron Cresswell was wrongly cautioned twice in the space of 30 seconds and sent off. A late string of superb Adrian saves would prove the difference and a momentous away victory had been secured to finally lift us out of the bottom three.
The following week brought a massive opportunity to make it two wins in a row when we faced a struggling Sunderland at The London Stadium. However, it would prove to be another disappointing home performance as we continued to struggle at our new home. Early chances fell to the likes of Dimitri Payet, Cheikhou Kouyate and Simone Zaza, but none could capitalize before the break. The second-half brought a wave of Hammers pressure but to the frustration of the Hammers faithful, no clear-cut chances were created. However, there was to be something from a very unlikely source to celebrate very late on. In the dying embers of the tie, we threw the dice one final time with a corner on the right side, which was taken short and fell to Winston Reid via Payet on the edge of the box. The New Zealand skipper turned and unleashed a powerful low shot with his left-foot which flew into Jordan Pickford’s bottom right corner for a vital last gasp win. Finally, we were out of the woods for the mean time with two consecutive wins and our third League victory of the campaign.
We were back in EFL Cup action just four days after the victory over The Black Cats, but this time we faced much sterner opposition in Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. We had already been beaten by the West London club once in the League and were out for redemption on a chilly Wednesday evening in East London. We started the game on the front foot against a strong Blues side and soon led through Senegal captain Cheikhou Kouyate. A free-kick had been blocked by Chelsea on the right side with the ball falling back to Mark Noble, the skipper then sent a quick delivery into a dangerous area where Kouyate unleashed superb header that managed to beat Asmir Begovic from range. The super start had set the tone for the rest of the tie and Chelsea never really had a sniff of an equaliser for the rest of the half. Early in the second period, we were able to hit The Blues with a second sucker-punch in the form of a delicious low strike from Swiss youngster Edimilson Fernandes to double our lead on 48 minutes. The rest of the second half brought a game of defence against attack, but we were able to weather the Chelsea storm and limit the future Premier League Champions to a 94th minute Gary Cahill constellation. The victory brought up three wins in a row in all competitions and a major confidence boost as a busy November approached.
Despite the up-turn in form during the month of October, there was to be one more obstacle to dodge in the form of a tricky trip to Goodison Park to face Ronald Koeman’s Everton. The Blue Boys were on a good run of form after reaching 6th in the Premier League table under their new boss. The hosts got off to a slow start, as we wasted the best opportunities of the first-half and most notably Pedro Obiang failing to slot the ball home from a fantastic position. However, Adrian was forced into one of the Saves of the Season to deny Ross Barkley late on in the half. The second-half started perfectly for Everton, as sloppy defending from Winston Reid allowed a simple cross to be scrambled to Romelu Lukaku who could not miss to put The Toffees ahead. As the game grew older, we went in search of a leveller and left ourselves open to a counter attack with Everton using this to their advantage on 79 minutes. Lukaku turned goal scorer to goal provider when he found space on the right side, the Belgian was able to play a delicate cross into Barkley to finish well and secure the win.
So, it turned out October was to end on a disappointing and sour note on Merseyside. However, it had been a month that contained three wins and a re-assurance of Slaven Bilic’s position as manager. Nevertheless, the coming winter months would only prove to be more challenging for Slaven Bilic and his team.