The West Ham ship of fools resumes its European adventure at the London Stadium tonight in what should be a second leg formality against AEK Larnaca of Cyprus. The surge of Euro optimism is now alone in keeping West Ham’s season (and David Moyes career) afloat as it sails perilously close to the catastrophic rocks of relegation.
The European Conference is a strange concept. Designed to prevent teams from the lesser associations cluttering up the more prestigious competitions, it will inevitably and ultimately be dominated by the handful of clubs allowed to enter from the elite leagues or those dropping down from the Europa League. The equivalent of allowing parents to take part in the Under 9’s 60 yards dash on schools sport’s day. West Ham’s nine game winning sequence in a season of otherwise desperate struggle captures the situation perfectly.
From now on in, it will be down to the luck of the draw how far West Ham can go. But eventually, the Hammers will come up against opposition from Italy or Spain, and it is difficult to see that ending well if this season’s domestic form is to be our guide. It would be rare for a cup competition to be won by a team that primarily sets out not to lose in any game, and with a manager incapable of making in-game tactical changes to win matches should they fall behind.
Winning the Europa Conference would be a decent achievement. A trophy is a trophy after all, and opportunities don’t come along very frequently in east London. But the bigger prize from winning the Conference would be another season of European football. Although fitting Europa League games in the schedule alongside a 46 match Championship season might throw up some challenges.
It was another two points dropped last weekend in what should have been one of West Ham’s more winnable games on the remaining fixtures list. Aston Villa were strangely passive for a side sitting comfortably in mid-table and seemed content to waste as much time as possible. It was an opportunity spurned for the Hammers who were once again constrained by the caution of David Moyes. Time and again, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma were able to get behind the visitor’s defence but not enough players were committed forward to take advantage.
The role of Tomas Soucek was particularly baffling. There are two things that Soucek can potentially offer. Protecting the backline with clearances and interceptions or providing the type of goal threat that was apparent during his first full season. Neither of those were going to happen from a withdrawn position on the right-hand side of midfield. It can only be stubbornness that blinds Moyes to the fact that the energy and passing of Flynn Downes would have been immeasurably better in that role. Or playing the holding role and allowing greater freedom for Declan Rice to get forward.
The debate as to how much individual player performances are contributing to the Hammer’s demise has raised its head again this week. Should Danny Ings have pressed the Villa keeper’s time wasting, or was he under instruction not to do so. Should our full-backs do more to prevent crosses coming in, or are they told to remain narrow across the width of the penalty area? It is difficult to imagine players willingly wanting to play so negatively. Whatever the case, there looks an obvious disconnect between the manager’s tactics and the squad’s desires. It is leaving them unhappy, confused and lacking belief.
It has also become increasingly obvious that the summer signings were brought in without any underlying plan as to how they would be used. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to managers and coaches – and taken six months to discover – that Lucas Paqueta is more effective when played in a deeper role. Or that Gianluca Scamacca is never going to cut it as a lone striker. What happened to the manager’s canny due diligence? At least most are now finally back fit and available. Touch wood!
After today’s game, West Ham have a break until 2 April before they entertain fellow strugglers Southampton at home. Last night’s results brought some cheer in that defeats for Crystal Palace and the Saints did nothing to ease the congestion at the bottom. There are still nine teams averaging a point a game or less.
Each of the relegation rivals will play again at the weekend making it highly likely that West Ham will be occupying the relegation places – possibly rock bottom – when they resume their Premier League campaign. If the reports coming out of the club are true, the Board have no problem with this state of affairs, and continue to enjoy an excellent working relationship with the manager. Moyes must be far more skilled at managing upwards than he is at managing those under his control.
It would be interesting to know how the owners define success and failure. Given the club’s resources, finishing anywhere outside the top ten of the Premier League would represent abject failure to me. As a supporter, allowing the side to become embroiled in a relegation scrap at this late stage of the season looks like rank incompetence. It is staggering that those with a financial stake in the club don’t see it the same way.