Comparisons, they say, are odious, but a fixture between West Ham and Leicester is an ideal opportunity to consider a pertinent footballing one. Two clubs who, in terms of revenues, sit behind the Premier League’s traditional big six – and who should be well positioned to take advantage of any slip ups above them for an occasional top four finish, something that could well happen this season on the evidence of early results.
Ten years ago, both were under recent new ownership. West Ham were a Premier League side, were quickly relegated but then immediately regained top-flight status and are now in their 9th consecutive EPL season. Leicester, on the other hand, had just been promoted from the third tier of English football and it would take them until the 2013/14 season to win promotion from the Championship. This is their 7th season back in the Premier League.
Apart from the notable 2015/16 season in which Leicester were surprise Premier League Champions, while the Hammers started with promise but faded badly, it has been difficult to separate the clubs in terms of league finishes, until last term. Digging a little deeper exposes why the two clubs are on very different trajectories.
While Leicester have invested heavily in infrastructure for a sustainable future, West Ham have never progressed beyond perennial fire fighting – applying patched up solutions to problems with urgency always overruling importance. Loose change spent on ‘upgrading’ the Rush Green training complex compared to Leicester’s £100m new state-of-the-art facility is a perfect example.
While Leicester’s owners have provided stewardship, they leave the running of the club to professionals – a full-time CEO, Director of Football and Head of Recruitment provide a sound foundation on which the football side of the club can flourish. Success is not just about transfer spend – remember Leicester have sold Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater, Maguire and Chilwell in recent seasons and may well be running a transfer surplus – but how wisely money is invested on and off the pitch. There have been poor managerial appointments in the past but these were quickly rectified and Leicester will be seen as an attractive destination – for both managers and players.
Conversely, while West Ham’s owners have spent money on transfers, it has rarely been well spent – short term expediency and vanity signings in the absence of underlying strategy or direction. A club overseen by Joint Chairman and a part-time Vice Chairman who mistakenly believe they have everything it takes to do it their way. A foolish, overconfident belief that they possess all the expertise required to run a football club, even though their record at Birmingham and West Ham suggests otherwise. Their only demonstrable competence appears to be hubris – a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own expertise, accomplishments, or capabilities.
No doubt, as fans we are going to have a different set of perspectives on the club that we support unconditionally than the owners do. The same would be true at any club, but those expectations should never be so far apart as they are at West Ham. I have no issues if owners make piles of money from their investment but isn’t the route to greater value and increased revenues (prize money and TV exposure) through success and progress on the pitch – not by selling more popcorn or replica shirts on matchdays? After ten years the West Ham footballing strategy is still all words and precious little action – what happened to that ten point pledge?. Even worse the owner’s financial aptitude is akin to the penniless guy who steals all the rent money to pay off the bookie. Theirs is a dereliction of duty, no matter if it is deliberate or accidental.
With such a backdrop it is no surprise that West Ham is a club in turmoil and have found it difficult to recruit during the transfer window. Would many players with options choose to opt for the London Stadium, other than for financial reasons? Reliance on preferred agents, the absence of a scouting infrastructure and with the potential for David Sullivan’s legendary market trader negotiating skills to scupper most , it has to be a very frustrating time for David Moyes. I have mentioned before that Moyes would not have been my first pick as manager, but I do believe he is a decent guy who deserves better support. That we have reached the tail end of the window with little to show for it is scandalous. The last two days of the window are the worrying territory of desperation, misfits, and drifters.
At least/ at last we are able to welcome one new member to the squad, in the shape of Vladimir Coufal, and hope that he can have a similar positive impact to fellow countryman, Tomas Soucek. Coufal brings a good deal of experience with him that should help shore up a creaking defence, even though left back and centre back might have been (and remain) the areas of greater need.
West Ham put in an excellent performance last weekend against Wolves and we will probably see a very similar starting eleven and formation for today’s encounter. With Ryan Fredericks unavailable competition for the right back berth will be between Ben Johnson and Coufal (if considered ready). In central defence, Issa Diop is available for selection and it is a toss up between him and Fabian Balbuena as to who is best equipped to handle the threat of Jamie Vardy. It is remarkable that despite everyone knowing the danger of the through ball (or over the top) to Vardy, managers have found it impossible to counter.
An additional hazard to look out for will be the slippery penalty areas at the King Power Stadium – judging by how easily the Leicester players appear to go over. West Ham defenders must remember to tread that fine line between ‘not enough contact’ and ‘he was entitled to go down’ which is apparently how contact in the area is now judged by pundits and VAR.
I read various comments online in the week suggesting that by fielding a reserve side for the League Cup defeat at Everton (effectively throwing the game) it will have damaged the Hammer’s morale. I can’t see how that makes any sense and can be disregarded. What the midweek game did show, however, was just how poor our big name backup players actually are. What chance of getting anything more than the deposit returned on the likes of Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini and co? Others such as Robert Snodgrass and Mark Noble may show willing, but they are too far off the pace to be seriously considered as Premier League starters.
Leicester are without Pereira and Ndidi but have plenty of strength in depth with plenty of pace and guile in attack. Maddison is back from injury, Barnes is developing into a fine player and Castagne looks to be an excellent signing. If West Ham are to prevent a Leicester return to the top of the table it will require a superhuman effort of determination and concentration to achieve it. That might be too much to ask but what we are entitled to is the same level of commitment and organisation that was on show last weekend. If that is enough to frustrate Leicester than it will be an added bonus.