If you were in an elevator and someone asked: “what sort of season did West Ham have?” you might reply that while it was well above average, it maybe wasn’t as good as it might have been. A reflection of how our expectations had shifted over the course of the season.
When the season started and with a first ever European league-based campaign to contend with, any top half finish may have been considered a reasonable outcome. Indeed, my own prediction was that West Ham would finish tenth – expecting the routine of Thursday – Sunday football to take its toll on league form.
But by the year end, having breezed through the Europa League group stages, and sitting fifth in the Premier League, the dreams were flying much higher. A shrewd investment here and there at that time and anything might have been possible. That we were left scratching our heads at no January activity is now consigned to Hammer’s folklore.
In hindsight, the club hadn’t recruited well in the summer either. Kurt Zouma was an excellent addition but he turned out to be the only practical upgrade to David Moyes preferred starting eleven. Nikola Vlasic and Alex Kral failed to come anywhere close to the required standard and while Alphonse Areola looked a decent enough deputy, he remained behind Lukasz Fabianski in the pecking order.
From a historic perspective, the season has been well above average, regardless of what happens today. Since the Premier League was reduced to 38 matches, West Ham have only exceeded 56 points (the current total) on three occasions (2020/21, 2015/16 and 1998/99. They have finished with a positive goal difference just twice (2020/21 and 2015/16) and for a side with so few striking options, scoring 59 goals (the current total) has only been bettered in those same two seasons. A win today would bring up a tally of seventeen victories, the highest apart from last season’s nineteen.
Despite that decent win percentage, it is the points dropped against the likes of Leeds, Burnley, Southampton and Brentford and the two avoidable defeats to Manchester United that might ultimately take the wind from the sails. That, plus the self-inflicted failure to get past Frankfurt in the Europa League semi-finals. After a promising first half of the season it is a disappointment not to make it to 60 points. In truth there have been few sparkling performances and too many victories when we ‘weren’t at our best’.
The final day of this year’s Premier League season must be a broadcaster’s dream. It is rare for the title, plus Champions League and relegation places to remain up for grabs on the day the curtain comes down. By comparison, our own battle for 6th or 7th place is consigned to an outlying stage, well away from the main arena. No helicopter hovering over the South Downs ready to deliver the final Europa League qualifying certificate at the final whistle.
Qualifying for the Europa League again would be a massive bonus in that it comes with another route to Champions League qualification. But the Europa Conference should not be sniffed at and may represent the best opportunity the club has next season to end its long overdue silverware drought.
The history of today’s fixture might suggest one of those mysterious gypsy curses that inhabits football. Since Brighton were promoted back to the top-flight in 2017/18, West Ham have failed to beat them in nine attempts – with the last six all ending in scoring draws. It is really no more than coincidence that can easily end today.
The Seagulls are a hardworking and well organised side with several very good players (Trossard, Cucurella, Bissouma, Sanchez) but this season’s home record is less than impressive, with only four wins on the board. Apart from the top three, they have had more possession than any other team but it rarely goes anywhere with only an average of one goal per game to show for it. In theory, such an opponent should be ideal for a West Ham side who thrive on the quick breakaway and have been scoring relatively freely.
As well as our own efforts at the Amex Stadium, though, the Hammer’s fate will also be determined by the the result of Manchester United’s visit to Crystal Palace. Top six hopes may well end up to be pie in the sky – even if the Hammers beat the Seagulls, they need the Eagles to do them a good Tern!
Once the season is over there will be little time for reflection. Transfer speculation is already gathering pace and the frenzy will ramp up even further as the window opening ceremony approaches. I have already counted over thirty players linked with a move to the London Stadium. It will be a telling time for the club owners to demonstrate their ambitions. A time when the squad needs both a refresh and a net increase in quality and numbers.
Until the dust has settled we won’t know if we have witnessed a brief run of overachieving seasons (on the back of several exceptional players and a great team spirit) or whether there is true progress taking place. Is the club moving in the right direction? Without wise investment it will be just another false dawn.
A very big well done to the players, manager, and coaches for a highly satisfactory season and making West Ham massive. Their effort, determination, and commitment cannot be faulted. As for today’s game, West Ham can finally put the Brighton hoodoo to rest with a 2-0 awayday bonanza. COYI!