How High Can They Fly: What Would Represent A Season Of Success For Gung-Ho Hammers?

As the new Premier League season approaches can Manuel Pellegrini get the best from his array of talented attacking players, or will defensive lapses continue to plague the Hammers?

All of a sudden a new Premier League season is almost upon us.  Just one more week to reach peak optimism before the reality of an opening weekend clash with Champions Manchester City kicks in.

Although you can never be certain how well new players will adapt to the English league, the signings of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals look to be exciting acquisitions; and with the return from injury of Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmalenko there are many good reasons to expect an above average season for the Hammers.  Not that ‘average’ sets a particularly high bar at West Ham where, in 21 years of competing in a 20 team Premier League, the average finishing position lies between 11th and 12th.

Only the most pessimistic supporter will be contemplating involvement in a relegation battle, but just how much higher can those bubbles fly?  In those same 21 seasons, a top ten finish has only been achieved on 7 occasions, with a high-water mark of 5th in 1998/99.

It is difficult to see beyond a third consecutive Manchester City title with Liverpool and Tottenham in their wake.  Perhaps a high-spending Arsenal will be reinvigorated, if they can sort out their defence, but Manchester United and Chelsea are likely to be well off the pace under their rookie, panic measure, ex-player managers.  There is certainly an opportunity for other clubs to take advantage and having a tilt at the lower reaches of the top six – and a gaggle of clubs including Everton, Wolves, Leicester and West Ham might all think that they are in with a shout of a break-out season.

It goes without saying that to win football games you need to outscore the opposition.  Yet there are different approaches in trying to achieve this.  There are too many recent bad memories of bus parking managers preferring to strangle the life out of the game in the hope of snatching a goal in a breakaway or from a set piece.  Manuel Pellegrini’s approach, on the other hand, is looking more and more to be the polar opposite – all out cavalier attacking and fingers crossed that it works out at the back.  It promises to be exciting, but can it be successful given that free-flowing football is the more difficult style to sustain over a long season?

In the past few years, West Ham have saved their best performances for matches against the better sides, while struggling against those set on attrition, spoiling and denying space.  A perfect example was the recent Asia Trophy game in Shanghai where Newcastle put an extra man in midfield and the Hammers created few meaningful chances as a result.  Admittedly, it was only a friendly and there were several key players missing from the Hammer’s lineup, but it is a lingering concern – as is the amount of space that is left vacant in front of the defence.   While it is great to see West Ham give the top teams a run for their money, the season will ultimately be defined by how well they perform against the remainder – that is where the majority of points lie.

Although there is still a week of the transfer week to go, the noises coming out of the club is that there is little cash left to splash.  Maybe there will be last minute surprises if the owners can be persuaded that they have yet to do enough to push beyond their survival comfort zone.  If there is any true ambition, or dreams of nights of European football, then spending just enough to stand still is a misplaced strategy.  Apart from attacking midfielders, the squad remains very vulnerable to injuries in several key areas – notably the fitness of Lukas Fabianski, Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop, Declan Rice and Haller.  It is not as if West Ham are strangers to long term injuries.

I prefer to think that West Ham are suspect at defending rather than in defence.  The weaknesses are as much about team shape and cohesion as it is about individual players.  When possession is lost we are slow to reform into a compact shape and thus allow opponents far too much time and space to mount counter-attacks both in central areas and on the flanks – a feature of all three goals conceded to Hertha Berlin during the week .  The defence plays very narrow, relies on a tricky offside trap and with only one defensive midfielder it is no surprise that Fabianski is the busiest keeper in the league.  I wonder if his agent has considered negotiating a productivity bonus – as he won’t be picking up many clean sheet payments?

On paper, the attacking midfield resources available to Pellegrini are awesome.  Individually, it is packed with talent and we can only hope that he has the instruction sheet on how to assemble them together into an effective unit.  I would like to see a lot more width from the midfield and a greater willingness to get behind defences than we have seen in recent years.  Apart from Robert Snodgrass (who is unlikely to be first choice) decent delivery into the box has been in short supply. Relying mainly on the full-backs for width, as a number of other sides do, would only make us more susceptible to the counter attack.

I am expecting great things from Haller leading the line.  He looks to have all of the attributes to do so effectively.  Can he be the player to finally beat Paolo Di Canio’s record of 16 West Ham goals in a Premier League season – or even become the first to reach 20?  I would like to think so, but then again I tipped Arnautovic to do the same last season!  Backup striker remains a big problem and with Javier Hernandez looking to be even more of a spent force (a Mexican has-bean) it may well fall to a rejuvenated Michail Antonio to provide support.

If striker and defensive midfield reinforcements arrive during the next week then I would be delighted.  Although the squad lacks depth it does now include a number of very talented players.  Sadly, the better ones will not stick around for very long if the team doesn’t progress beyond its average mid-table position.  It might be all well and good to pocket £200m in player sales next summer but not if their replacements are the modern day equivalents of Rigobert Song and Titi Camara.

I can see it being a very interesting season.  Lots of entertainment but with the usual frustrations where we fail to compete against the more resolute and uncompromising (physical) opponents.  Somewhere between 5th and 7th would exceed expectations; whereas below 9th would constitute a failure to progress.  Or perhaps this will be the season to put an end to 40 years of hurt; to finally lift another piece of cup silverware.

I am probably, once again, expecting too much!