Saturday’s game confirmed the things we already knew rather than teaching us anything new. That even if, by some miracle, West Ham were able to step up to the next level then it would still leave them a long way below the space occupied by Manchester City (and several of the other big six clubs, most probably). Bridging that gap and becoming a club realistically chasing Champion’s League football on a regular basis is a nice fantasy; but an impossible dream (no matter what the stadium capacity) without the assistance of deep pocketed benefactors.
Once again, Manuel Pellegrini raised eyebrows with his team selection. The expectation was for repeat of the backs-to-the-wall tactics used to earn a draw against Chelsea back in September. Digging in deep with massed defence and hoping to nick a goal from an occasional counter attack – something which could have become reality but for that misdirected Yarmolenko header. What we got, however, was a lineup that promised a far more adventurous approach. The major surprises were no automatic return for Mark Noble following suspension and the preference for Arthur Masuaku over Aaron Cresswell at left back. As a defender Masuaku leaves a lot to be desired and even though he has plenty to offer offensively his forays forward have become quite rare in Pellegrini’s system. Although Cresswell can also be inconsistent, Pellegrini’s preference for Masuaku is puzzling.
Going For It
There was a general consensus that West Ham ‘went for it’ on Saturday. Whether this was a brave or naive tactic is a matter of opinion. It reminded me of the way Fulham were playing under Jokanovic before his dismissal. On the other hand the result was inevitable anyway so why not go out all guns blazing. Several decent goal-scoring opportunities were created and on another day the score could have been more respectable. Yet City were always in charge; well in control. They breezed into a three goal half-time lead and were able to ease up during the second period. There were several more gears in reserve should they have been needed. For all West Ham’s adventure there was never any doubt about the outcome and I sensed that everyone involved knew this.
Part of the West Ham plan was to employ the much discussed Press – not something generally seen in the Hammer’s play. Given that it is a tactic requiring all players to play their part at all times it has to be well drilled and second nature. Picking and choosing when to deploy it is problematical. Manchester City found it far too easy to bypass and the first goal was a great example of that. The ball was given away cheaply, City were quick to transition; switching play to exploit the acres of space on the opposite flank. The damage was pretty much done once that first goal went in and as usual the Hammers were vulnerable down the wings all afternoon. Masuaku was implicated in goals two and three but even Zabaleta (who admittedly shows tremendous commitment) was regularly embarrassed defensively.
Although West Ham are only four points off the bottom and averaging less than a point a game I do not believe it will turn into a relegation threatened season. There remains plenty of room for improvement, however. Upgrades to both full-backs and better options to support the impressive Declan Rice in the centre of midfield would be high on my shopping list. Up front, much will depend on the future of Marko Arnautovic but, even if he stays, goals are also needed from elsewhere. Javier Hernandez looked a little livelier this weekend but still has the look of an individual contributor rather than an integral part of a well-oiled machine. I really don’t get Lucas Perez – this wasn’t a player looking to make an impression when given his chance as substitute. Grady Diangana’s emergence has been a bonus but his development needs to be carefully managed but the player I would like to see given a first-team opportunity sooner rather than later is Nathan Holland. He could prove a useful understudy for Felipe Anderson. To paraphrase the Prime Minister “I believe that West Ham’s best days lie ahead of us” – maybe!