By most measures, last season was West Ham’s best-ever in the Premier League. Sure there was a 5th place finish in 1998/99 but in terms of games won, points earned and goal difference, the 2020/21 campaign was way ahead and the closest the club have ever been to Champion’s League qualification, missing out by just one more win.
But the dawn of a new season consigns the heroics of the last one to history. The manager starts with credit in the bank but it can be so easily lost in football – as witnessed when Claudio Ranieri was sacked less than a year after winning the title at Leicester. It has to be a huge worry for David Moyes, despite his apparent outward public composure, that he starts the season with an even thinner squad of players available than he had in May – and with both domestic and midweek European competition to deal with.
I have tried to be patient but the apparent disarray with player recruitment has been a major test. Surely the signing of at least a couple of new players is a basic human right for modern day football supporters!
While the transfer window remains open for a further two weeks, the potential for panic buying increases the nearer the deadline gets. Last minute shopping is one thing but doing all your Christmas shopping at the motorway service station on Christmas Eve is sure to end in disappointment. As is buying a striker who has fallen off the back of a lorry from a bloke down the pub – probably closer to David Sullivan’s modus operandi with his favourite agents.
Still, we must put that to one side and prepare to get behind the team for their trip to Newcastle on Sunday. With no new faces (apart from Alphonse Areola) the team selection should be relatively straightforward, subject to injury absences. The same eleven that started against Southampton in May but with Said Benrahma replacing the now departed Jesse Lingard.
Once again, the partnership of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be crucial for a successful Hammer’s season. I can’t help feeling this will Rice’s farewell season in claret and blue. The period he missed towards the tail end of last season – including the defeat away at Newcastle – was instrumental in the Champion’s League charge eventually hitting the buffers. Hopefully, he suffers no hangover from the Euros or distractions from incessant transfer talk.
Soucek was the deserved 2020/21 Hammer of The Year. Joint top scorer and on the pitch for every minute of league action apart for the one missed following the ludicrous sending-off at Craven Cottage. Soucek was also top of the Premier League standings for number of Aerial Duel’s Won and, surprisingly, second in the rankings for Fouls Committed. Meanwhile, Rice was first in the PL standings for Percentage of Successful Dribbles and was second placed for number of Interceptions. An indication of their joint importance to the cause.
In defensive areas, the squad continues to look light in cover for the Centre and Left Back positions. Aaron Cresswell’s experienced something of a renaissance last season and is a deserved starter on the left, but backup is required. A new first choice centre back should be a priority though. Craig Dawson exceeded all expectations when he came into the side last year but, despite his obvious courage and spirit, he is exposed by pacey forwards running at him – as demonstrated by the defeat and red card at St James’ Park in April. Perhaps the Nikola Milenkovic saga will eventually come to a positive series finale.
Numbers are also look short in attacking midfield areas. Benrahma has looked lively in pre-season and should begin the season as a more regular starter along with Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. I’m not convinced though that collectively they offer enough to compensate for the loss of Lingard, who added pace and directness to the Hammer’s counter-attacking options. I don’t see either Manuel Lanzini or Andriy Yarmolenko in anything other than cameo roles, should they remain at the club.
The ludicrous striker situation is long running and well documented. It would be extreme negligence to enter a busy campaign with complete reliance on Michail Antonio. I am a big fan of Antonio and am look forward to him becoming the Hammer’s All-time Premier League top scorer in the coming weeks. However, everyone knows he is unlikely to go through a whole season injury free. The make-do-and-mend alternative of playing Bowen up top is even less appealing the absence of Lingard.
Newcastle have also failed to register any transfer activity, at time of writing, although there is a chance they will seal a deal for Joe Willock in time for Sunday’s fixture. The threat of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin are well known to West Ham fans and Steve Bruce has yet to drop a point against the Hammers as Newcastle manager – having won all four league fixtures as well as a victory in the EPL Asia Tournament. With a stadium full of passionate home supporter this will be a big game to win. I might even settle for a predicted 2-2 scoring draw!
A repeat of last season’s top six finish will be a huge challenge for a squad that has limited options and a style that will now be more familiar to opponents. Anywhere in the top ten would represent a good result – and, of course, winning the Europa League as a way into the Champion’s League. In the PL it is difficult to see past Manchester City and Chelsea and my final table standings are as follows:
Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Leeds, West Ham, Everton, Newcastle, Wolves, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Brentford, Burnley, Watford.
It was interesting to see the statistics on goal-scoring times in our league games last season. West Ham goals scored were fairly equally spread in the first four 15 minute segments of games (between 9 and 11 goals in each) but with a sudden drop to just 4 out of 62 goals netted between the 61st and 75th minutes. This was followed by a spree of 17 goals scored in the final 15 minutes (plus added time). The moral is, if you need to pop out to get a beer or use the toilet, do so just after the hour mark. But be aware, this was the second highest segment of the match for goals conceded.
I’m looking forward to the season and hoping that it’s an entertaining and rewarding one for West Ham fans everywhere. Getting off to a good start with a a top performance at Newcastle would be a welcome change. All we’ll need then is a flood of canny deals before the distinctive slamming shut of the transfer window . COYI!