The Olympic, or London stadium is a magnificent sports arena. Filled with people cheering on athletes running, jumping and throwing in 2012, and since, the hairs at the back of the neck quotient is off the scale.
Set in a magnificent East London space – the walk up is genuinely impressive – the possibilities of it as a Premier League stage must have been enticing to the owners of West Ham United, irrespective of the controversy surrounding the public’s benevolence, but it simply doesn’t work.
Other than some PA inspired chanting, the home supporters – probably sensing the discordance of their new amphitheatre – were largely subdued despite a rugged and committed display by their under pressure heroes.
What makes it easy to tie the venue to the lack of atmosphere is the well earned reputation of the Hammers’ fans who are undoubtedly passionate, rowdy and proud; who can forget their performance when 5-0 down to Forest in a FA Cup semi final all those years ago?
The visiting support did its very best to create noise, relentlessly cheering on their misfiring team despite the shortcomings and defeat. It should be said that these are extraordinary times for Huddersfield Town – if we can’t be excited in current circumstances, it’s hard to know when we would be. Nevertheless, under Wagner, the connection between club, players and supporters is exceptional, even when things don’t go our way.
Despite West Ham’s problems, and this game may, and only may, be the beginning of resolving them, they retain significant talent in their squad and some pre match musings by pundits and fans alike seemed way over the top and ignorant of the fact that Town’s unexpected early success included more than a few slices of good fortune.
One of these was playing opponents in varying states of distress. While this also applied to Monday night’s opposition, the context of the Hammers having to play their first 3 matches away from home – that damned stadium being the cause of the problem – was too often lost in the anticipation. The result in the North East was, admittedly, a little alarming for East Enders, but many teams will suffer as badly at the hands of Manchester United and the Southampton reverse was more than a little unlucky.
A disappointing first half saw Town fortunate to still be level. With the aerial threat of Carroll – often performed with unpunished over physicality – the pace and power of Antonio and the poaching threat of Hernandez, the hosts tested the Terriers defence to near destruction but failed to capitalise on their overwhelming control.
Löwe, so impressive in Town’s early season success, was tormented by Antonio who stripped the German with alarming ease at times and posed a recurrent and potent threat which kept the visitors under huge pressure for much of the first 45 minutes.
Zanka and Schindler, at least as dependable as Löwe in the opening three games, strained to control Carroll’s menace. Unimpeded by a hugely tolerant and laughably one sided referee, the Geordie front man provided a massive focus point for the Londoners, while his counterpart Mounié was starved of service and isolated to the point of anonymity.
In rare periods when the hosts’ pressure eased, Town’s possession was laboured and often inaccurate. Mooy provided some moments of customary elegance but was largely subdued and Billing, while providing decent defensive support never found his passing range and was hounded far too often – while the Dane has shown he can add a touch of quality when Town control a game, the visitors needed more steel in the face of West Ham’s energy.
With the home side failing to convert superiority in to a deserved lead – an early Carroll cross, all be it possible after a clear push on Schindler, narrowly evaded both defenders and attackers when just a touch was needed, Hernandez crashed a shot against the bar after being found by Antonio who had cruised past Löwe and a miscue by Kouyaté – Town extended their perfect defensive record beyond 300 minutes.
While the block outs have been occasionally charmed, it is, nevertheless, a huge achievement and towards the end of a torrid first half, Town began to twitch in to life with Ince being freed to shoot only for an additional, unnecessary, touch allowing a defender to block his effort.
The visitors improved in the second half, spending a little more time on the front foot, but were unable to sustain any sort of intensity. West Ham looked less dangerous and hope flickered that under increasing psychological pressure they may buckle enough for the Terriers to take advantage.
It wasn’t to be as fluency largely deserted the Yorkshiremen, and the previously redundant home defence barely looked troubled.
Löwe’s night of torment was cut short when he was replaced by the more progressive Malone, but not before he made a hugely important tackle on the halfway line to halt a dangerous counter attack. It should also be noted that the left back departed the field when the game was goalless.
Malone did, however, add impetus to attack and by the time the home side took the lead with a huge slice of fortune, he had helped Town look slightly more threatening. As we have seen in the past, if a Wagner team stay in the game they can be very dangerous as time goes on and there was a perceptible shift in the balance of power after the hour mark.
The admittedly mild resurgence came to a halt on 72 minutes. Obiang found himself in a little more space than the visitors had generally allowed in the second half and swung a boot for a shot that was either going wide or relatively routine for Lössl only for it hit Zanka’s back, take a huge and wrong footing deflection and turn in to a perfectly placed strike beyond Lössl’s fingertips.
After over five and a half hours of Premier League football, the Dane was finally beaten and by a huge slice of misfortune. 5 minutes later, substitute Ayew (who had replaced Hernandez to the loud disapproval of the home support) doubled the lead when Town failed to clear yet another corner.
Town’s largely unconvincing second half revival was halted before it could, perhaps, have gained momentum though a snapshot from Ince following good work by Mooy rattled the bar late on.
With the game in the bag, the home support, bizarrely, started to disappear. Swathes of empty seats perhaps pointed to the problems of getting home from the stadium, but those who had much longer journeys in front of them stayed to applaud the efforts of a team suffering its first top flight setback.
In contrast to previous regimes, Wagner refused to hide behind excuses for his team’s display. He could have followed the anodyne reactions of his predecessors with talk of a brave battle or point to a very home friendly referee who indulged Carroll while punishing every minor Town transgression to aid the home team’s momentum, but concentrated on his own team’s evident shortcomings. Even had Town’s insipid resurgence in a better second half resulted in a point or, less realistically, a narrow win, his message would have been similar. The man doesn’t suffer fools or allow his charges off the hook when the occasion merits.
Vulnerable down the flanks, particularly against the stand out home performer Antonio, Town were indebted to their central defenders – Schindler in particular who compensated for Carroll’s aerial superiority after the first quarter of an hour – for a fortune laden clean sheet in the first half.
Up front, Mounié was isolated and entirely ineffective, though he had precious little service. It is becoming worrying that since his opening day brace, the record signing has barely had a chance to add to his tally.
In midfield, Town needed a more physical presence than Billing. It was a little surprising that Williams stayed on the bench, and the return of Hogg can’t come soon enough to revive his partnership with Mooy.
West Ham thoroughly deserved their win, as Wagner acknowledged, and while drastic surgery isn’t necessary just yet, changes to the team at the weekend seem likely as Town face recent fairy tale champions Leicester in another tough assignment.
With Palmer injured, it wouldn’t be surprising if Sabiri gets a run out, while Tommy Smith hasn’t recaptured last year’s form and may be vulnerable to a debut from Hadergjonaj.
Whatever the line up, Wagner will demand a significant improvement and a return to the level which made his team competitive – if this is achieved, a scrappy midweek defeat will soon be forgotten.