Where Does It Go From Here?

The devil sent his advocate to keep me awake last night and this is what he told me.

Deep down the football supporter is generally an optimistic creature even if this is concealed under a self preservation fear the worst, hope for the best cloak. Most West Ham fans with any mileage on the clock will have experienced disappointment, false dawns and exasperation on numerous occasions but even allowing for this only the most pessimistic would have predicted such a woeful start to the current season.

Notwithstanding the emotional and operational issues with the move from Upton Park to the new stadium; forgetting that, for the second season running, we were eliminated in Europa League qualification by an obscure Romanian side now anchored to the bottom of Group E; it is the fact that we sit third from bottom of the Premier League that is the primary concern.  All else will soon enough be a part of history whereas (dare we say it) relegation would be a disaster; and the signs are not good so far.  A benign set of opening fixtures having seen us concede more goals than any other team (only Stoke having a worse goal difference) and with no striker yet having found the net.

Men in sharp suits often remind us that “Past Performance is Not Necessarily Indicative of Future Results” and maybe we can take some comfort from that, but it will take some significant changes on the pitch to drag us out of the current rut. You cannot say, with any honesty, that we are playing well but not getting the results. In general we have got what we deserved; possibly even more when you consider the slightly fortunate Bournemouth victory. Leaking goals at one end and no strikers at the other can only end one way with the only crumb that there might be three teams worse than us.

On paper our squad looks reasonably strong. On the pitch it lacks balance and hasn’t been improved by the summer signings. There have been comments made before and after the last game that overseas players may need time to adjust to the Premier League. There may be some truth in this from the point of view of a player delivering maximum performance but it is a forlorn hope to expect a Morris Marina (or a Vauxhall Zaza) to suddenly turn into a Rolls Royce. It may have taken Bergkamp a while to start scoring regularly but he wasn’t playing like a donkey (that was Tony Adams) before it happened.

For some reason fans are often able to make better and quicker judgements about players than coaches. From the assorted duds that have shown up at West Ham each transfer window I don’t recall ever being surprised by an ugly duckling turning into a swan. On that basis I am happy to predict that none of Zaza, Tore and Calleri are potential Premier League players and accordingly see no benefit in playing them in preference to an untried youngster. My assertion is that they could be no worse.

So far in this season’s League games we have used 23 players in total with 20 different players in the starting line-up. Only Sunderland have used more players (25 and 22). Of the 77 starting berths 18 have been filled by new arrivals comprising Masuaku (5), Nordtveit (4), Zaza and Tore (3 each), Fletcher, Arbeloa and Ayew (1 each). With a fully available squad you would imagine only Ayew to be a probable starting candidate; in retrospect the outcome of the summer transfer business was very poor although maybe there was some good potential that was recruited at the same time.

Without new creativity or goal threat and other sides getting wise to how we play (i.e. the reliance on Payet and crosses) we have to find a way to adapt if performances are to be improved. There is some hope from returning players. We have missed Cresswell as an attacking option, Carroll is an upgrade to Zaza even though he is not the complete answer, Sakho is a better all-round option as a lone striker due to mobility and workrate (but has other issues), and Ayew looked good at Swansea. It is rumoured that Cresswell, Carroll and Sakho are all possibles for the next game at Crystal Palace.

Oddly I do not see the defence as a massive problem despite some stupid individual mistakes that we have witnessed this season. Don’t play players out of position all the time and provide better midfield cover, especially if the full-backs are expected to push forward, and it should be competent enough.

The centre of midfield is the bigger conundrum for me at present. On paper there are plenty of options competing for 3 places (assuming Payet and Antonio are the preferred wide players). Hopefully Obiang will now get a chance as the much needed defensive midfielder but after that it becomes difficult. The Noble – Kouyate partnership seems to be a large part of the problem and on current form neither deserves a place. For all his commitment Noble is too slow both in movement and thought and with a tendency to go sideways and backwards rather than forwards.  Kouyate can be great for the occasional surging burst forward but it is not enough and his passing skills are very limited. It is the deficiencies in central midfield that dictate our low tempo, low penetration style and its resultant predictability; Dimitri Payet apart. To mix things up I would like to see Lanzini and Fernandes given the opportunity to show what they can do.

It is only 7 games in and not yet a crisis but swift and decisive action is required to stop the rot. Carrying on regardless with more of the same and hoping it will be better is a foolish and short-sighted strategy.