The life of a football supporter is not always a happy one. No sooner had we hung up our bobble hat and rattle in May than we are bombarded with a daily onslaught of speculative transfer stories. From the sublime to the ridiculous, exciting to depressing. Where is the time to unwind on the beach with a pina colada and a Harold Robins paperback? Then suddenly the new season is on us, as premature and uninvited as the strains of Noddy Holder in a shopping mall in early November. The start of interrupted campaign, severed in two by the misguided award of the World Cup to Qatar.
By any measure, the Hammers give the impression of being ill-prepared for their new task. Lack lustre friendly performances can rationally be overlooked, but the struggle to reinforce an already threadbare squad before of the opening round of matches brings consternation to all but the most delirious of optimists.
I did write in a previous blog that I wouldn’t be shocked if no more than two new signings featured at the London Stadium pitch on the opening day of the season. With the window not closing until the end of August, it is no surprise that clubs with a fetish like ours for haggling would continue to-ing and fro-ing until the final knockings. On the one hand it is reasonable to want value for money but it is also a risky strategy as the clock ticks down and desperation sets in.
As it is, with unfortuante injuries and fitness concerns, the starting eleven on Sunday now looks limited to those who palyed out the end of last season. Or, for that matter, those we ended the 2020/21 season with plus Kurt Zouma. And all without the option to call on Noble, Yarmolenko, Fredericks and Masuaku from the bench.
As there is so much nonsense written about transfers in the media it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy. Does David Moyes keep changing his mind about his targets? Is David Sullivan continually throwing curve balls into negotiations at the last minute, demanding easy payment terms and quadruple green shield stamps? Who knows? I don’t believe we have been pursuing unattainable targets but there is a sense of spending too much time and effort pursuing some deals when it would have been more sensible to insist on a time limit and move on.
On paper, the deals that have been completed look encouraging. Both Gianluca Scamacca and Nayef Aguerd should strengthen the first team and provide Moyes with more options to vary fornations. Flynn Downes may well turn out to be an astute purchase but will likely be limited to cup competitions, for the time being at least. And, of course, Alphonse Areola has finally become permanent heir apparent to Lukasz Fabianski – it’s only a matter of time! At time of writing it is also widely being reported that Maxwell Cornet will also be signing.
We are told that further signings will definitely happen before the end of August. Ideally that would be a minimum of four or five additions although past performance with progressing deals in parallel does not inspire confidence. The outstanding priorities in my opinion would be a left back (crucial), a touch of finesse in central attacking midfield, pace wide on the left of midfield (may be Cornet), an additional backup striker option and further cover either in defensive midfield or at centre back.
How well we recruit will determine what is achievable during 2022/23. We have enjoyed two exceptional seasons, by West Ham standards, but there can be no room for complacency. The manager and team have overachieved through effort, team spirit and a canny organisation of limited resources, but the style of play and its weaknesses are now known quantities to even the dimmest of opposition managers. Failure to adapt and pose different problems for opponents will lead to gradual decline, following Leicester down the Premier League table. Improvement requires more creativity in the final third and greater athleticism at the back, where Aaron Cresswell, despite an admirable Hammers career, is an obvious weak link. Although it’s great to see West Ham compete against the big boys it is needlessly dropped points to teams in the lower half that must be eliminated if the run of top half finishes is to be continued.
In what could well turn out to be a sticky run of opening games, the Hammers curtain raiser couldn’t be much tougher than entertaining serial Champions, Manchester City. The Citizens are sporting something of a new look up front with Haaland and Alvarez replacing the departed Sterling and Jesus. Also newly recruited is Kalvin Phillips who presumably takes over the tactical fouling role vacated by Fernandinho – the Brazilian joining a large exodus from the Etihad along with Zinchenko and a dozen others I’d never really heard of.
It is difficult to see past City or Liverpool for the title, or past the usual big spending suspects for the remaining top six placings. Outside the big six, Newcastle will surely be the most talked about and over-hyped club of the season – with flabby bare-chested Geordies rarely away from our TV screens and internet streams. Clearly, they are now best placed in terms of financial clout to mount a challenge to the ‘natural’ order things, but that may take a few seasons to emerge. I have an unaccountable feeling in my water that Aston Villa will be the surprise package of 2022/23. My other tip is for Ralph Hasenhuttl as the first managerial casualty of the season. My full predicted final league placings are as follows:
1 Liverpool, 2 Manchester City, 3 Arsenal, 4 Chelsea, 5 Manchester United, 6 Tottenham, 7 Aston Villa, 8 West Ham, 9 Newcastle, 10 Brighton, 11 Leicester, 12 Crystal Palace, 13 Nottingham Forest, 14 Everton, 15 Wolverhampton Wanderers, 16 Brentford, 17 Leeds, 18 Southampton, 19 Fulham, 20 Bournemouth
The best hope for Sunday’s game is that City’s new boys are still finding their feet and are not yet ready to click. Football folklore is littered with marquee signings running riot on their debuts against West Ham. The story of a Haaland debut hattrick is one that every headline writer and pundit will be looking out for. Can we keep him quiet? It is a classic case of hope versus expectation. My fingers and hammers are crossed!