Few fans will have left the London Stadium feeling especially happy with Friday night’s result, a 1-1 draw against Claude Puel’s Leicester City. Getting results in home games versus fellow bottom-half opponents is usually a telltale separator between sides likely to survive a relegation battle and those not.
Yet there was something in the air throughout the second half and upon leaving the ground, after David Moyes earned his first point as West Ham boss. You wouldn’t call it optimism. But the team offered enough resilience and purpose to get the fans behind them. There looked to be enough of a game plan (however rudimentary or crookedly-executed) to offer encouragement to followers of a side which has for months looked directionless, indecisive and weak.
This was not a good performance by most usual standards. Cross after cross was scuffed or poorly aimed, and we were sloppy in possession. But there were so many more plusses than we have seen recently, more so than even in the two matches West Ham have won this season. Let’s not forget that we relied on a moment of extreme fortune to provide the spark against Huddersfield and we scarcely deserved to beat Swansea, narrowly failing to be the least able to create something in both games.
It had looked like being the same story again on Friday, Marc Albrighton’s opener typifying West Ham’s inability to show application of defensive fundamentals. Yet again more than one player switched off. Yet again the back four didn’t sense danger early enough. Yet again we were beaten by a fairly simple ball through the middle. Pablo Zabaleta and Angelo Ogbonna were culpable, especially Ogbonna for his failed clearance, while Aaron Cresswell should have adjusted his feet more quickly and was well beaten to the ball by Albrighton. Sky’s Gary Neville called the goal ‘a complete joke’ and it’s difficult to argue with him. The only thing to add is that West Ham have conceded so many like it of late.
The consensus was that Moyes can’t be blamed for such a breakdown. How can the manager legislate for such basic individual errors? I’d argue that the Scot has had three weeks with the players and the shape was still all over the place.
Yet to their, and the manager’s credit, the defensive unit actually looked fairly solid for the rest of the game. Jamie Vardy sent a curling shot wide having beaten Winston Reid again in Leicester’s only other opportunity that wasn’t nearly gifted to them by Arthur Masuaku, who was lucky not to give away a penalty in the first half and lost the ball in a dangerous area in the second. Keep that man as far away from Joe Hart’s goal as possible.
It was this noticeable improvement in shape that both kept Leicester far away from goal for the rest of the match, despite us never really dominating, and gave fans reason for some (very, very) cautious optimism. This was the most positive takeaway from the match. For 80 minutes, the players defended successfully as a team.
What impressed me most was the speed at which the players got back into a shape. Running back on defense may sound like a basic necessity from a Premier League footballer. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t a universally practised philosophy, and is one coveted by the elite managers, even those who aren’t usually famed for their skills as defensive coaches. Guardiola, Ferguson etc. all know and drill into their players how important it is to work off the ball, and we should be pleased that Moyes is trying to do the same. Under Bilic, we would probably have lost this one after that early goal.
There were countless times where Leicester retrieved the ball in midfield and the team restored its shape quickly. Masuaku and Marko Arnautovic deserve praise for tracking back into position well and Andre Ayew followed suit when he replaced the Austrian in the second half.
On Arnautovic, a second positive from the game is that he put in his best performance for the club. There was a great moment where Vardy had beaten a challenge and looked to be through on goal, before ‘Arnie’ muscled him off the ball in his own box, an example of excellent tracking back.
Arnautovic’s crossing gave West Ham their only moments of true quality in the match. One in particular in the first half came swinging in at pace from deep, a truly superb delivery. Andy Carroll’s face had lit up and he would have surely buried the chance but for Danny Simpson’s excellent intervention. I was impressed with Arnautovic and Moyes deserves a bit of credit for sparking a noticeable improvement in his attitude.
There was also a hint of a game plan. Leicester have been vulnerable on crosses and set pieces for ages and it was great to see for once that we actually had a sense of an opponent’s weakness, when we are usually so bad at preparing for the opposition (let’s leave nobody back and invite counter attacks against Liverpool, probably the best counter-attacking team in the league).
It may have just been a coincidence for Moyes, whose style is as synonymous with crosses as Arsène Wenger’s with having his season end in March: a case of a stopped clock being right on this occasion. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Also when it works it can be both effective and good to watch. It may not have been the most sophisticated path to goal on Friday, and Moyes will need to do much more and be much better than tonight. But it was just good to see West Ham being purposeful for a change.
Despite the positives, the truth is that this was another perfectly winnable game from which we have emerged without all three points. This leaves West Ham with just ten points from 13. It’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s just one point more than we had at the same stage in 2010/11, the horrible Avram Grant season. With such a tough run of games around the corner, the improvement has to come more rapidly.
It’s difficult to comprehend why it’s all gone so badly wrong. Last season was a poor one in most people’s opinion, and this time round we have already got 11 points fewer in the corresponding 13 fixtures. We are haemorrhaging points from a season which only yielded 45 by its conclusion. Worrying times.
It leaves Moyes with plenty to figure out. While we played more through the midfield on Friday, this remains a big weak area for the team, both in its lack of defensive reliability and its attacking creativity. It could be the case that Lanzini plays a bit deeper to help us control the centre, but there would need to be much better link-up play if this is to succeed. We now need some consistency from Arnautovic and Ayew, as well as either a big improvement from Carroll or a change of plan if we are ever going to look capable of scoring from open play.
The need for some help at the back, as well as a true holding midfield player, remains drastic. But surely by now we know West Ham and David Sullivan well enough not to expect the January transfer window to bring us the reinforcements we are after. Is Antonio Nocerino still available?
All this means that Wednesday’s trip to Everton is a huge fixture, a must win, especially with Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal to follow. The typical West Ham thing to do would be to make a hopelessly-out-of-form opponent look like Barcelona for 90 minutes. We are the perfect opposition if a team is in need of a win.
A victory at Goodison Park would be massive for us, whereas defeat could halt the progress made by Moyes’ side on a strange Friday night in which West Ham fans were able to see a flower emerge from the pot of dirt. It’s not enough yet, but it’s a start.