With just 40 days and 40 nights until the start of the new Premier League season it is time to dust off the Under The Hammers almanac and begin to contemplate what the coming months might have in store for us.
The known knowns are that West Ham have a new manager, director of football, a state of the art backroom team and, at time of writing, three new players. The known unknowns are which of the hundreds of players that have so far been linked with a move to the club are more than just a media or agent’s fantasy; while the unknown unknowns are just how deep will the Board really dig into their pockets in order to freshen up and maintain the quality of the squad. The reality being that squad investment and renewal is a never-ending journey not merely a once in a lifetime spree.
Now that Manuel Pellegrini has named his backroom team there is a very Hispanic feel around El estadio de Londres that promises a new brand of tippy-tapas football for us to feast on and the prospect of David Sullivan swapping his Soviet hat for a sombrero. As the players prepare to embark on the start of pre-season training it will be an education to see how they adapt to the new regime. No doubt there will be a few bumps ahead in the road if transitioning our current crop to a more possession based style of football is to be expected.
The role of Mario Husillos as Director of Football is an intriguing one and it will be enlightening to see how it evolves. Is he just in charge of recruitment or does he have a wider remit to introduce a more consistent footballing culture at all levels of the club and to instil a degree of planning into previously chaotic and haphazard recruitment practices? Revitalising the academy and making it productive once again would be a major breakthrough and essential for future development.
On the playing front there will be at least three new faces at the club when the season gets underway in the form of Ryan Fredericks, Issa Diop and Lucasz Fabianski. All three appear to be decent signings even if, individually, they are unlikely to be game changers. Fredericks will provide useful competition for Pablo Zabaleta’s ageing legs and offer a greater threat going forward; Diop comes highly rated and could either be so good that he will be off to greener pastures within two years or he will be unable to adapt to the English game and return to somewhere warmer; Fabianski may or may not be an upgrade on Adrain.
General consensus is that Pellegrini is looking to sign another four of five players before the transfer window closes. Whether these include any of the many players that have been the subject of consistent speculation in the media remains to be seen. If those involved really are keen to keep their cards close to their chests for a change it would be unlikely that so much information would find its way into the hands of reliable journalists and insiders.
This absence of real news, however, will never dampen the appetite of the online transfer speculation industry. This remains in overdrive during this most productive time of year when punters, desperate for information, will happily click away all day long to drive website traffic and advertising revenue for even the most fanciful stories. Each spurious rumour is able to generate an initial story which can then be followed up by others that summarise the polar extremes of fan twitter reaction, explain how the team might line-up next season with said player in the side, provide in-the-know insights into the ongoing haggling over price and finally the epilogue revealing that the player has now signed for someone else.
When posting a transfer rumour writers will use smoke and mirrors to craft an enticing headline that remains as obscure as possible as to who the target really is while, at the same time, creating the illusion that this is not the same story you have read a dozen times over already. The trick is to never use a name but feature the player’s age, height, expected transfer value, other physical attribute or an reference to a playing style – the most popular this window being: colossus, enforcer and powerhouse. Thus ‘Hammers Linked To 34 Inch Inside Leg World Cup Enforcer – Pellegrini Must Move Quickly With £25m Bid’ would produce a typically seductive link.
Accepting that 90% of what we read is probably nonsense I do have an outstanding concern that little of what is written seeks to address the obvious weakness in the centre of midfield. No amount of colossi (or is it colossuses) at the back will be much use if defensively the midfield offers little resistance to opposition attacks. Introduce as many attack minded flair players as you like but if we continue to rely on Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate as the springboard for rapidly transitioning defence into attack then we are doomed to more disappointment. Perhaps Declan Rice might be considered as a defensive midfield alternative but, great prospect that he is, I’m not convinced he has all the attributes needed for that role – it would be an Eric Dier-ish alternative, competent in dropping back to help the defence but not offering enough offensively. The modern game at its most effective has moved beyond the water-carrier role.
As well as new arrivals there are sure to be further departures. I would be very unhappy at losing Marko Arnautovic (and Rice as an outstanding prospect) but other that I wouldn’t be too disappointed whoever else left if better options were available. The big money modern game leaves no room for sentimentality. According to reports those possibly heading for the departure lounge include Michail Antonio and Angelo Ogbonna. Both have their plus points but both are also not without flaws. With Manuel Lanzini due to miss most or all of the season it leaves an big gap in attacking midfield and I can’t see that Joao Mario is the person to fill it – he only really shone in those few games where West Ham were dominant and I would see little value in making the move permanent.
It would be a surprise to me if Winston Reid and Noble saw much game time in the coming season. Both have been fine servants to the club but their future role is now as squad players as they see out the remainder of their lucrative contracts.
Of course, all this recreational speculation takes place in the shadow of a World Cup that still has some way to run in Russia. With Spain now joining Germany and Argentina back in their respective homes, the list of potential winners is now shortening to one where you might be tempted to include England. While that might still be a stretch it is not entirely impossible – as long as Harry Kane doesn’t score a hat-trick in the final.