Firstly, a Happy New Year to all West Ham fans. I’m looking ahead to 2018 with a feeling somewhere in the grey area between optimism and trepidation. As we brace ourselves for a relegation battle, the month of January looks like it could define our season.
Four of our five league games this month come against our bottom-half rivals. With a win in the bag against West Brom, however suspect the performance, if we emerge from Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace with upwards of six points, we could start to pull away from the struggling pack. If not, it looks like we will have to fight right up until the end of the season.
West Ham ended 2017 in a disappointingly familiar position – the relegation zone. Although we have struggled recently against teams around us, looking short of ideas in possession and familiarly shaky at the back, there seems to have been some real progress under David Moyes.
The most glaring positive under Moyes is that, perhaps until most recently, we have looked like an actual football team again. The defensive unit improved immediately after the international break and, even in the games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, most of which were spend defending, we were able to create chances. That said, it does leave you wondering how much of this is down to Moyes’ good management, and how much exposes the degree to which the team had regressed by the time Bilic was shown the door.
The new era started with little optimism. I missed the games against Watford and Everton, and only caught Leicester on TV, but there didn’t seem to be much sign of change. Needless to say, there was not much early hope in Moyes and fans seemed ready to give up on him. Given that the Hammers faithful were largely less than impressed with his appointment in the first place, it looked like it could get ugly very quickly. Where there is a will to condemn, there is evidence, with Moyes doing himself no favours by giving fans enough early evidence to judge him by.
This culminated in our trip to Man City. Like most others, I was expecting the worst. Even the most rationally-minded West Ham fans were convinced City would run riot, and most game-goers seemed to be predicting, without irony, scores of 7, 8 and 9-0.
It led to a strange atmosphere. The crowd seemed to have gone beyond the point of getting upset, and began to embrace the humour of the occasion. It’s an experience I can only liken to being in the crowd during a game when you’ve already been relegated. The game was insignificant, with Hammers ignoring any prospect of a result and basking in their own ineptitude – cheering every successful pass, ribbing City for not being in the lead after about 10 minutes. It had the feel of that final game of the season when there’s nothing you can do to avoid the inevitable, so you may as well enjoy it for what it is.
Then it started to happen. Our defence was standing firm; City weren’t getting through. Players communicated, helped each other out and covered for each other. Our midfielders worked hard off the ball and screened the defence well. We were defending as a team. Declan Rice and Pablo Zabaleta were shutting down Leroy Sane, Angelo Ogbonna was cutting everything out that came into the box and Mark Noble (and even Chekhou Kouyate) were making interceptions and blocking passing lanes.
We had noticed a formation change before kick-off, with Stuart Pearce drilling a line of five in the warm-up. Aaron Cresswell was going to play centre-back. We may have lost the game, but give credit where credit is due. Moyes and Pearce reacted in a short space to time to the midweek humiliation at Goodison Park, changing formation and personnel, including Cresswell in an unfamiliar position. And it actually worked. The defence looked organised, knew their roles and communicated and played well together as a unit.
I left the game feeling encouraged. We looked good. Although Bilic had originally cultivated a reputation for big results against big teams, West Ham grew quickly accustomed to getting smashed on the road. It was good to see us compete in the game, as well as create. It could have been even better for us with some more clinical finishing.
A week later, and it was getting even better. Against Chelsea, we were again resolute in defence, conceding very few clear chances from open play, with the Champions restricted for the whole game to only long-range efforts and a single late chance for Alvaro Morata. A moment of true quality from Marko Arnautovic decided the game, but what was most impressive about this performance was again the way the players worked as a team. This came both defensively, in which we held Chelsea at bay by defending as a unit, and going forward, where a slick passing sequence led to the goal, with Lanzini and Arnautovic putting together a move that showed they had clearly worked on attacking teamwork in training.
This is where I have been impressed with the new regime. Pundits and fans are always too keen to look at the individual to give credit to for a win or apportion blame to for a defeat. It gives a simple answer. But, just like with other sports, teams defend effectively when they defend as a unit – this is not just a question of the defenders and goalkeeper, it encompasses the whole team. Sometimes you can’t even put a statistic to it; running and distance covered stats themselves don’t necessary tell how effectively ground is being covered – surely the best players are efficient with way you cover the pitch. The more often you’re in the right position, the less you need to run. Noble for instance always tops our ‘distance covered’ metrics, but often lets games pass him by and tracks back into position rather than pressing the ball. But in recent fixtures he has looked incredibly alert, and seems to be in the space ahead of his opponent’s pass or movement rather than following it after it’s too late.
The same can be said of the rest of the team, and I thought we were excellent in the games against City, Chelsea and Arsenal as a defensive unit. The effort and fitness of the players had clearly improved. Noble and Obiang together have done a great job of closing the player, and then recovering into the space. It’s the sort of skill that takes true discipline and teamwork. It’s great to watch when it works. It was not surprising to see our defensive quality dip when Noble came out of the team. Those were four points we would not have got under Bilic.
Just like with defending, great teams attack as a unit, a whole team, as well. The positioning and movement of each player can help determine and influence a successful attack, and by forcing defenders into difficult decisions teams can create many chances. Our team attack was good in these games too, despite mostly being on the back foot. Against City and Chelsea, when one player took possession other players seemed willing to make runs. It’s been interesting watching us warm up recently, and the coaches clearly have them work on making quick, zippy passes between each other in pre-game warm-ups much more than previously. We’ve even been able to score one or two goals through clever link-up play.
I must admit, however, that I was a little disappointed with our mindset in the 0-0 draw against Arsenal. Their defence is so shaky when pressurised in possession that they will always give you something. I wish we’d taken the game to Arsenal and attempted to expose their feeble back-line, as it was there for the taking. A point is a fair result, but I was left wondering what might have been in the final minute when Koscielny sent a suicidal pass across the box, Monreal twice failed to clear and Javier Hernandez crashed a shot against the underside of the bar. If we had pressed them a bit sooner we could have won the game. Moyes was understandably conservative, but it does worry me a bit that this was our default mindset rather than attempt to expose Arsenal’s obvious weakness.
The main takeaway from the Stoke win is the rejuvenation of Marko Arnautovic. He looks fresh, fit and up for it. As I mentioned above, we must be careful to give the individual too much credit (and I think recently the team has gone back to deferring to a talismanic figure like Arnie to make something happen – this needs to stop), but he has been in excellent form in December. Equally, we must remember that work rate is about much more than chasing defenders and the goalkeeper, but he has clearly proven people wrong regarding his effort.
Then came Arsenal in the cup. Personally I don’t have a massive problem with the changes that were made, especially with so many big league games surrounding the event. Even if fans are upset about sacrificing progress in a cup competition, rather than blaming Moyes, we need to look at the club ownership and ask why our squad is so threadbare that injury to any position leaves us completely short of options. It must be repeatedly put to David Sullivan why, when allowed to name 25 players in the Premier League squad at the end of August, we were only able to name 22, the lowest in the league (and even that included Doneil Henry and Moses Makasi). If you want a reason why we couldn’t name a stronger team to give Arsenal a better game and extend our cup run, there’s your answer – although it must also be said we’d probably need to turn over Manchester City to win the trophy anyway, so there’s that.
While we’re on Sullivan, the fact that our form has taken a slight tumble again with a defeat to Newcastle and draw against Bournemouth – with poor performances in both games – must again ask major questions about recruitment. We should not be in a position where we miss Noble’s influence in games so much in midfield. There is absolutely no quality in depth to that position and unfortunately Kouyate seems to have regressed beyond the point of salvation. Then there’s Obiang, who looks excellent with Noble, but lost without him. There’s no pace on the wings, and our squad is stacked with old and slow centre backs who can’t distribute the ball. We cannot persist with playing Pablo Zabaleta and James Collins alongside each other. It is too easy for opponents to expose. At least there was the encouraging performance of Domingos Quina against Arsenal, the player I have most enjoyed watching in the U21s. I was pleased that he both wanted the ball and was trusted with it, responding well and keeping trying to be involved even when he lost the ball.
So to Newcastle and Bournemouth, where West Ham did the West Ham thing of taking fewer points from this pair of games than Chelsea and Arsenal earlier in the month. It’s all well and good digging in against City and Chelsea and those scrappy 1-0s can be the best feeling in the world. But against your relegation rivals you have to do something different – yet Moyes went in with the same formation, the same tactics.
While having two holding midfield whose primary job is to screen the defence and move the ball quickly in possession works against City and Chelsea, something different is needed in games like Newcastle, Bournemouth and West Brom when you should be expected to take the game to the opponent. In recruitment terms, we need midfielders who can pass the ball better. For now, Moyes needs to balance the team better and build a team that can play the possession game effectively and create chances from open play. We do have the players to do it.
I must admit, I was not a fan of starting Carroll against West Brom. I was even sceptical it would be an improvement on our previous games, where there was no striker at all. Again, this is fine when you’re happy digging in for a point. But Moyes seemed inflexible and unwilling to change until late even though this wasn’t working against Newcastle and Bournemouth.
His ‘Plan B’ has seemed to be to have Carroll as the late sub, abandoning any notion of actually playing football for the final 15 minutes and lumping diagonals up to him again and again. Newcastle and Bournemouth were well-prepared, cramming bodies on him to prevent him making his trademark runs from deep onto the ball. Long ball after long ball was dealt with and we seemed to be expecting something different each time.
It just so happened that it did work against West Brom, and there’s nothing like a late winner. But here’s my issue. We can’t be the team that expects to score by pumping ball after ball into the box and expecting one to stick – or by giving the ball to Arnautovic and expecting him to do something. There’s a randomness to it which feels very Bilic – great when it works but cannot be relied upon as a sustainable means of winning games.
The best attacking teams in the league don’t simply rely on the front players to score. Everyone on the pitch should be involved in the way the team goes forward. The goalkeeper should be positive and look for an early pass (Adrian fits the bill, here), our defenders should be confident in coming up the pitch with the ball and picking a pass. Unfortunately distribution is not one of our centre-backs’ great strengths (and when is it OK to start talking about Winston Reid’s massive regression?). When there’s three of them in the game and all they seem to do is pass it to each other in a line, it’s clear to see why the team lacks cutting edge. I would like to see Rice play that right centre-back role for a few games.
I’d just been ready to praise Moyes for getting us playing as a team. There’s no doubt about this defensively, but as an attacking unit I can’t help but feel that over the last three games we are regressing into the defining Bilic-era trait of relying on an individual to make something happen in order to get us a goal. When on the ball, our players can’t defer to someone else. We must find a way of using possession to create chances as a team.
Overall, it’s clear that there has been progress under David Moyes. With just one defeat in six in the league, the Scot has succeeded in improving our defensive stability and creating a team ethic of players working hard off the ball and working for each other, even if we have not played well in every game and even if not everyone has bought into it yet. However, with a huge month ahead in which we face three bottom-half teams in succession, we need to see more from the manager. Specifically, we can’t be leaving scoring goals to chance. Yes, football can have an inherently random nature, but we need to create the best possible conditions for success. We need to build an attack which involves everyone, from the distributing power of the centre-back, to the width, the midfield creativity right up to the striker. Major surgery is needed in the squad, of that there is no doubt. And with Sullivan behind the wheel we can’t be too confident that will happen. Yet here’s hoping Moyes will find a way of dominating the bottom half teams and have us pull away from danger in what is going to be a crucial month for us.