Unpopular Opinion: The West Ham United midfield is not competitive enough entering the 2017 season.
Let me preface this piece by saying I’m a huge fan of all the improvements David Sullivan and the rest of the West Ham board have been implementing. That being said, let’s explore what else needs to be done.
I’m sure many of you have heard of the Leicester City Effect. If not, it’s the idea that Leicester City winning the whole enchilada back in 2016 created a power shift in the Premier League. Teams like Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United found themselves out of the top four for the first time in many years, and the Cinderella story prompted the busiest and most expensive transfer window in history. With prices such as £50 million for Kyle Walker, £75m for Romelu Lukaku, and £30 million for Jordan Pickford, this summer’s window is looking to surpass all its predecessors.
Unfortunately, that is the modern game and we must all either adjust, or be content with our lot. West Ham United are certainly playing their part as they are close to announcing a £24 million transfer for Stoke forward, Marko Arnautović, and £13 million for Javier Hernandez. However, the gap in the Premier League between the top six clubs and everyone else, is only widening.
With that in mind, let’s not forget one very simple and sobering fact from last season:
Only six points separated the 8th position from the 17th.
The Hammers finished 9th in chances created, with the least amount of assists in the top 15 of those ranked. Meaning, our build up play was just okay, and our conversion was abysmal. Which makes sense when you consider for much of the second half, Slaven Bilic was attempting to link play between Nordtveit to Calleri. We know, everyone knows, my mum even knows... West Ham needs a big time forward. Between the imminent signings of both Arnie and Chicharito, David Sullivan is addressing those needs, clearly.
However, perhaps there is another area that is a cause for concern.
Much of the disparity in West Ham’s midfield can be attributed to injury and lack of depth. A team that saw Edimilson Fernandes, Mark Noble, Pedro Obiang, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Havard Nordtveit rotate to due to fluctuating form and injury.
Now, each one of those players are solid and reliable performers. However, if the goal is to finish in the top eight, and it’s been said that it is, we’re going to need to add some additional firepower. You know who has a solid midfield? Stoke City. Southampton. West Bromwich Albion. If you want to stay mid table - solid is perfect for you! For the rest of us, we’ll hold onto our higher aspirations.
So what’s our current situation look like?
I love Pedro. The big Spaniard has all the quality and makings of a top tier midfielders. If his health can keep him on the field, he’s in my starting XI every single week. Pedro broke up more opposition play (57 tackles and an 88% retention rate when being taken on) while maintaining one of best forward pass rates (average per game) on the team. These are top class numbers that should not be ignored. There’s a reason some of the best clubs in Europe have been tracking him. We just need to find Pedro a suitable partner.
Ugh, this is tough. I think if we’re all being honest with ourselves, Mark Noble isn’t a starting player in today’s Premier League landscape. Sure he had the highest pass completion at 86%, but half of those passes were either backwards or lateral, and his form certainly dipped overall in almost every statistical category from 2015. He’s the heart and soul of of this lineup and provides unmatched leadership, but if West Ham is looking to stay competitive with Everton, David Sullivan might want to look elsewhere.
I love this kid. Edi (his close friends call him that, we’re pretty tight) is young, has a competitive edge, and has shown glimmers of the quality that will come with time. I’m just not entirely convinced he’s there yet. He’s a substitute right now, and will remain so moving into this season. Make no mistake, he’s a blue chipper, just not right now.
Kouyate would be a fantastic midfielder if he could just do that one pesky little thing that comes with the role; complete a pass. Cheikhou has gotten better in that department last season and he’s certainly showed off his versatility playing five different positions, but he’s not a top flight midfielder. He’s an excellent ‘jack of all trades’ and plenty of teams would love to employ his talents.
Another wonderful talent who’s not quite there yet. Of course, fans always love to see the home kid get a shot every now and then but he’s not a viable option right now.
Alright, so what’s the answer?
I would love to see David Sullivan bring in another midfielder to pair with Pedro Obiang. I know what you’re thinking - Jack Wilshere. I’d be intrigued depending on the terms, but I’d also want something long term and realistic. Give me someone relatively young, experience with a top flight squad, with grand aspirations and I’ll be sold on the board’s promised goods. Here are some unlikely and fantastical examples I’d be a fan of. I say unlikely because there are currently no plans to bring in anyone of this caliber - I’m just taking a trip to fantasy land.
Cyprien fell off the map a bit in Ligue 1 after he ruptured his anterior ligament. However, coming into a full recovery, he held one of the best tackle rates at 88% and pass rates at 89%. As a possession midfielder, Wylan still managed to put together 8 goals and 3 assists. He’s a younger mirror image to Moussa Dembele. Prior to his injury in March, second place Nice attributed much of their success to the 22 year old Frenchman.
I know, I know, why not just say Marco Verratti? Manu has been tracked by major clubs across Europe for the past few transfer windows but Villareal has held strong because of the European aspirations. He has all the makings of top class midfielder. He tackles better than most, tracks the ball, and has an incredible range of passing. At 25, he’s hitting his peak, and could be looking to take on tougher competition as Villareal failed to qualify for the Champions League this year.
Saving the best for last here. If you haven’t been terrified watching James take a free kick, you haven’t been paying much attention. At 22, the kid is developing very quickly and was a favorite of Mauricio Pochettino along with current Spur, Victor Wanyama. It is said Poch is still actively pursuing Ward-Prowse, but is content letting him develop at Southampton for the time being. James captained the English U21s in the Euros and is set to breakthrough the senior squad. It’s only a matter of time before the top six clubs come calling, and West Ham should get in on the ground floor. The Saints have been known to offload their talent for the right price and David Sullivan has worked with Ralph Kreuger last season securing Jose Fonte.
Who do you think could be an excellent pairing with Pedro Obiang?