What an irony, we got into Europe through fair play and then get two players sent off in four games, we must become more disciplined. dg
— David Gold (@davidgold) July 23, 2015
The irony of West Ham collecting two red cards in their two opening rounds of Europa League qualifying, a competition they earned entry into via their fair play last season, has been matched in intensity only by the wary feeling surrounding the performances accompanying the Hammers’ red-tinged transgressions. The delicious sardonicism isn’t lost on us, and neither is the unconvincing manner with which West Ham have slithered through their qualifying rounds. Taking on the might of Andorra and Malta should hardly pose any semblance of a threat to a team of West Ham’s stature and ambition, and yet, barring the convincing 3-0 first leg victory over FC Lusitans in the opening round, the performances, while ultimately ensuring passage, have been stumbling.
— Evan Morgan Grahame (@WWofSport) July 25, 2015
Perhaps this is simply affirmation of that old adage in football, that “anyone can beat anyone, on their day” (or in this case, almost beat them). Or it might also be evidence of the undesirable effect that a very premature end to a pre-season can have. Perhaps the stuttering two-legged second round victory over Birkirkara FC, one clinched via a penalty shoot-out, represents the team still finding their way in a fixture that, according to the calender, ought still to be of the friendly variety. This bauble that West Ham’s good behaviour garnered – one that some considered a dubious honour – of entry into the Europa League is a double edged sword indeed. New boss Slaven Bilic has had to conduct his pre-season business amid a run of fixtures that West Ham gain no praise for winning – they are expected to beat the likes of Lusitans and Birkirkara with ease – and only stand to attract ridicule, if only temporarily, if they are to lose them. Mark Noble spoke after the shoot-out triumph in Malta:
“It’s obviously not [how we planned it], but we’re still in pre-season. I know it’s the Europa League and we are taking it seriously, but it’s only some of the boys’ second game.
“Obviously it didn’t help with James getting sent off and playing the rest of the game with ten men, in a country this hot. But overall we won the game, we’re in the hat, we’re only getting fitter. We’re learning how the manager wants us to play and as long as we’re in the next round, we’ve got a game next Thursday, we’re buzzing.
The point about the heat no doubt contributed to the incident that eventually led to Tomkins’s early bath. A rigorous wrestle with his marker at a corner led the centre back to fling him to the ground and, though specific contact to the face of his opponent was not obvious, the Birkirkara player ended up clutching his face. As is customary when faces are clutched, the red card arrived swiftly thereafter. Bilic also spoke about his teams’ disciplinary issues:
“That’s two rounds, two stupid red cards, first in Andorra and now here,” the boss lamented.
“We didn’t get used to playing in Europe in this kind of atmosphere. We have to adjust, because we cannot react like that to provocation.
“It [obdurate opposition] will happen again, 100 per cent. Both of them were a little bit hard for me but we gave them a chance to give us to give red card. After that, it was much harder for us. We were the better team at end of the game, but we didn’t create a lot and we didn’t penetrate enough.”
They will remain heavy favourites against their next opponents, Romania’s FC Astra Giurgiu. Diafra Sakho will not be available for the opening leg of that tie; he will serve his final match ban after his red card against Lusitans. Tomkins will miss the tie completely.
The offensive impotence of the last two matches will worry Bilic more than the hot-headedness. Without Sakho, West Ham struggle to create and finish chances. That will improve when the Senegalese returns, along with Dimitri Payet (who himself is serving a European ban he collected while at Marseilles). But in Sakho’s absence there is simply no one to replace him. A lion’s share of the possession, and in promising, advanced areas, has not led to anything gilt-edged, and the futility of Matt Jarvis’s sweaty industry shines as a symbol of the toils of this team. The recent signing of Manuel Lanzini, nicknamed “The Jewel”, while tantalising, isn’t enough. Bilic himself described the 20 year old Argentine as a “between the lines” playmaker. No, a finisher of chances is needed and, taking these last few Europa League qualifiers as evidence, needed sooner rather than later. The red cards, and the subsequent bans, will pass with time, as they must. The issue of goals and goalscorers will not ebb away quite so easily.