The problems of West Ham United both on and off the pitch never seem far from the headlines. Indeed, many would argue that the two areas tend to mirror each other.
Off the pitch there are problems with fans fighting, security in and around the ground, getting to the ground and the orbiting cost of the stadium. On the pitch, results have been dire, with the club hovering just above the relegation zone and knocked out of the Europa League at the qualifying stages.
Taking the playing side first, West Ham recruited badly in the summer. They brought in 11 new players, of which only a couple can at this stage be said to add anything to the pool of players they had before. Amazingly, the two areas where the team needed strengthing, at right back and up front were not really addressed.
The best right back (make shift though he was in that position) James Tomkins was sold to Crystal Palace. The club seemed happy to rely on Michail Antonio, another makeshift right back - only one who really does not like playing that position - and Sam Byram. The latter got injured but was not a favourite of the manager, even before he was forcibly taken out of contention.
In a rush move, the club brought in veteran former Real Madrid right back Alvaro Arbeloa but he is another who has seen better days.
At the front, the club brought in Andre Ayew, Simeone Zaza, Jonathan Calleri and Ashley Fletcher. None has thus far impressed, though record £20 million signing Ayew has been out injured for most of the season.
Zaza just does not work, while Calleri and Fletcher both lack confidence. The club’s two best strikers remain Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll, both of whom have been injured for most of the season. Sakho wanted to leave in the summer, only remaining at West Ham because he failed a fitness test, thereby collapsing a proposed move to West Bromwich Albion.
But despite the bad recruitment, it has been the failure of those players who performed so well last season to really fire that has caused many of the problems. Talisman Dimitri Payet has been nothing like the player he was last season. There have been flashes of brilliance, like the solo goal against Middlesbrough, but in the main the Frenchman has increasingly looked uninterested - with press reports that he may be looking to a move away from West Ham in January. Manuel Lanzini is another who has not performed to the standards he achieved last season.
The thrilling football produced last season tended to flow through Payet, Lanzini and Antonio. All three could run with the ball, backed up by the full backs and pressing midfield - putting West Ham immediately on the offensive. Too often this season, the players have not been ready to get on the front foot and make those runs, resulting in the ball being player across the midfield, allowing the opposition to regroup.
Finally, at the back there have been some horrendous displays. Things improved with the return of Aaron Creswell at left back and the deployment of Cheikhou Kouyate as a third central defender in a sweeping role. The centre backs also settled down. However, things have not been helped at times by the erratic form of the usually dependable goalkeeper Adrian. Brilliant at one moment, Adrian can then pull off a howler the next. The last home game against Stoke City was a classic example, the keeper inexplicably coming out thereby gifting the opposition a goal and a point. All season Adrian has been weak on collecting crosses, often flapping at them, rather than collecting.
The erraticism of Adrian began at the end of last season but his position always seems assured. His more than able deputy Irish international Darren Randolph should be given a chance, at least to remind Adrian that he is not an automatic pick.
So there is much for manager Slaven Bilic to sort out, though he can undoubtedly resolve the issues. A couple of good signings in the January window and resolution of the Payet situation should see the form improve. It certainly has to be resolved because the one thing that would turn the first season at the London Stadium into a total nightmare would be relegation.
Off the pitch, many of the problems are logistical. There are so many security staff around, doing who knows what? A typical visit to the London Stadium goes like this. Once off the train at Stratford station, one climbs the steps onto the bridge that takes people across to Westfield and the Olympic Park.
The first encounter with stewarding is a guy standing with a loudhailer shouting at fans and public alike who are stepping onto the bridge area. There are individuals walking around with notices, saying no way to the stadium or this way to the stadium. The aim appears to be to make the fans walk as far as possible before they get anywhere near the stadium. Some walk on down past Westfield, cutting through John Lewis to come out on the road opposite the Olympic Park.
Enroute there are more security people, whose main function seems to be to get in the way or put barriers in the way of avenues where people might seek to walk. There are for instance numerous barriers put in front of the Aquatics centre (former Olympic Swimming pool), narrowing the walkway – why? The effect is to corall the spectators into narrow spaces.
One of the problems with the whole experience outside the stadium for the West Ham fan (which probably spills over into frustration, once inside the ground) is one of not feeling welcome. The fans are a problem to be managed, not welcome visitors.
Westfield for instance is willing to take fans money in its overpriced bars but really does not want too many of them around.
Inside the ground, there are again lots of security staff around. There are a whole number of different security companies operating in the ground. One question must be what happened to the very professional security operation that used to operate at the Boleyn ground. Are those people involved at all?
There are other problems in the ground, such as the standing up by many fans. The view of the game, although distant for some is generally pretty good. Much of the trouble in the ground is no doubt due partly to bad stewarding and management of fans but also the growing frustration of being corralled on the way to the stadium.
One question that remains is why there was not a direct route established between the rail station and the ground, a tunnel or covered corridor with travellator. True, this would have required some foresight on the part of those planning the Olympic Stadium at the outset, regarding what the stadium would ultimately be used for as part of the legacy.
So there do seem to be a number of problems both on and off the pitch for West Ham United at the moment, however all are resolvable. On the pitch, no doubt the excellent Slaven Bilic will sort out the problems. Off the field, stewarding needs resolving, with the treatment of fans being made a priority.
In terms of the cost of the stadium and other such issues, it does need to be remembered that West Ham are only one body among a number using the stadium, it is not their ground as such. They have given up the ground they owned (the Boleyn) to rent the London Stadium on a long lease. Not every problem on the Olympic Park and surrounding interests can be laid at the door of the football club. West Ham want to play football in what is a magnificent stadium – no doubt the problems can be resolved, though some synchronisation both on and off the pitch is needed.
*published Morning Star - 12/11/2016
*published Morning Star - 12/11/2016