Like many leaving the ground after a surprisingly straight-forward 2-0 victory over Watford on Saturday afternoon, I was happy in the knowledge that we’d just witnessed one of our best performances of the season, but, perhaps more pertinently, probably our most complete.
It wasn’t just that the defence looked solid, rarely troubled by Watford’s attacking threat. The nuisance that is Troy Deeney has a good recent scoring record against us, while Richarlison and Gerard Deulofeu, although neither is anywhere close to the complete package, each offer a combination of skill and pace, to which we have been desperately vulnerable over the last 18 months. The back five looked good individually and as a unit, never letting them in behind and reducing them to some speculative efforts and desperate dives. The way we defended Deulofeu was clearly pre-planned, as the defenders deliberately and expertly kept him in front of us – a tactic they’ve clearly worked on with skillfull quick dribblers because they did the same thing so well against Hazard and Sanchez. The planning and execution at the back was impressive.
It wasn’t just that we had a strong presence in the middle of the park. Gratefully, and hopefully for good, our midfield seems to have ditched its miraculous disappearing act which was a regular feature of life under Slaven Bilic. It doesn’t need to keep being said but Mark Noble has been a revelation in recent months. He looks to have recaptured his motivation to drive the team and to improve himself, and again on Saturday he anticipated well, covered passing lanes and got into position ahead of the ball, rather than chasing the opposition around the park, two steps behind, which we have seen him do too often until recently.
It wasn’t just that we have, in Marko Arnautovic, a threat to defenders every time he touches the ball. He is displaying a combination of attributes we very rarely see in a West Ham striker. In each performance he seems able to combine skill, close control, pace, movement, link-up play, intelligence and strength. He can beat defenders one-on-one. He can take on multiple defenders at a time. He can carry the team forward on the break and hold up the ball. Watching him is genuinely exciting.
It was that, in an unlikely West Ham trait, the team looked good all over the pitch in the same game. We were able to put in a performance where, unusually, we looked both solid at the back and dangerous going forward. It was that we actually had an idea of how to defend the opposition’s best players. It was that everyone pulled their weight. It may have taken a while, but it seems that Moyes has unwavering expectations of effort and application and it seems now, after some were shown the door in January, that he has got the rest of the squad, those he couldn’t reach at first, to buy in.
Specifically, the fairly sudden upturn in form of Cheikhou Kouyaté and Javier Hernandez has been typified by their increased effort. I don’t care as much as some other fans about chasing a goalkeeper on a pass-back, rather the way Chicharito kept his head up the whole game, and committed his energy to being in the right positions when in and out of possession so that he could contribute. Kouyaté again refused to let himself be a passenger, getting in front of the ball when defending, pressing midfielders and even putting in a couple of quick outlet passes.
It’s only one game against a side which, last Monday night against Chelsea notwithstanding, has been on a terrible run recently. But there was a lot about this performance of ours that suggests we may finally have the blueprint for a good team.
It’s no secret that for a long time now we’ve been more a team of individuals rather than a strong unit. Even our best performances (let’s not forget it was only two years ago that we amassed 62 points in the league) were often characterised by a moment (or moments) of individual brilliance, whether an outstanding goal or assist from Payet, a long run from Antonio, or a brilliant solo goal from elsewhere in the team. There had been so many and ultimately they served to mask what were not always great collective performances, even when winning.
But the team we saw against Watford has the makings of something different. It was a model of good team defending, with the back five working well in tandem, the midfielders staying in front of the play and the team tracking and running back to defend when needed. James Collins again made countless clearances, and when you factor in the great role he plays off the field – again going over to the crowd at the end of the game and giving his shirt to a young fan – it’s easy to see why he’s so well respected at the club.
Aaron Cresswell gets a lot of criticism for his wayward crossing ability and admittedly big drop-off in form as an attacking threat. But in this back three he is perhaps under-rated, and has been a good ‘glue guy’ for us recently, doing the quiet, un-noticed things well. A few of our attacking moves began from un-ambitious but quick, clever passes from Cresswell. When you have three centre-backs rather than two, it’s even more important for good ball-distribution from those areas. Our defence (with the likes of Reid, Ogbonna, Collins) hardly screams ‘passing ability’, so Cresswell fits in well here. He also had a nice clearance in the six-yard box in the second half where he was very well-positioned. Ogbonna has been putting in Hammer-of-the-Year-level performances practically since the change in manager.
There’s even a nascent cohesiveness about this side when on the ball, which for West Ham recently is such a novelty, like Bambi finally getting to grips with the art of walking on ice. It’s something like how I would imagine an Arsenal fan reacting if Wenger ever signs a world-class centre-back and holding midfielder again. Joao Mario may be a cheap Sullivan loan job (on over £100k a week) but he looks very tidy and has settled straight in. I’ve been saying for ages how much we need another creative player to play deeper like other teams do, so the attackers don’t have such a heavy workload and do all the creating and scoring for themselves, and Mario seems to be that player. Hernandez, for one, looks very grateful.
Then you have Antonio, who, while not a left wing-back, has always looked his most threatening in wide areas. He’s not been at his best this year, but his move to dummy the defender, then fake going inside before taking it out and planting a perfect cross onto Chicharito’s head was surely one of our best assists this season.
It’s also exciting to think how this team could slowly be improved. Collins certainly deserves his chance, but perhaps soon Jose Fonte will come back into the team in to that right-centre-back role, where he was putting in his best performances and where his distribution was important to us. Long-term, I see that role belonging to Declan Rice, and it may even be his soon if he keeps playing like he has done when called upon.
Then you have Manuel Lanzini, by far our best playmaker, to come back into the team. If we can find a way within this system to link him up with Mário, Hernandez and Arnautovic we could be a big attacking threat. Perhaps it means they don’t all start against some of the bigger teams. Perhaps it means that, at home against a non-big-six, Mário moves deeper and is asked to work more off the ball and distribute from deep. But the prospect of the four of them linking up is a very exciting one. And with his assist, Antonio proved he can still offer a lot to the team even when out of position and half fit.
But the point is not that we have capable individuals, rather that we are finally starting to have an idea of how they might fit together into an organised, balanced team.
If, as is being reported, our friend Mr. Sullivan finally takes his hands off the steering wheel and lets someone far more qualified take over transfer policy this summer, do West Ham actually have a medium-term future which is not so predictably embarrassing? Or is it a desperate press headline to try to save his own skin amid a fierce backlash from fans and increased scrutiny over the owners’ record at the club? Whatever is going on behind the scenes, we have to give a lot of credit to the manager for the improvement of this team.
Keeping an eye on the present for now, despite the win and our decent run of league form, we remain a mere four points above the drop zone. Anything could still happen and it would not be at all unlike West Ham to ruin it from here. But we should be confident that Moyes is currently averaging 1.3 points per game as manager – a 50-point season pace. On this evidence, we should be OK. Most encouragingly, this weekend he may just have found the blueprint for a well-balanced team.