It’s become a little like Groundhog Day at the London Stadium in recent weeks. The club are teetering on the brink of a disastrous relegation with the manager’s job at risk. An adequate home performance releases the immediate pressure on David Moyes. But then, another in the long line of pathetic away displays puts us right back where we started. And so, the cycle starts again. Rinse and repeat!
The away games at Tottenham and Brighton were the first times that West Ham have looked like a team resigned to their fate. The hope that defeat at Tottenham would mean the more enterprising tactics seen against Nottingham Forest were here to stay was washed away like footprints on a Brighton beach. It may have been largely the same team that had thumped Forest, but the attitude was back to the worst of Moyes hyper caution – with the wingers were back to auxiliary defenders. If you don’t give opponents something to worry about then you give them the freedom of the park – and Brighton were adept at using it. How can a manager with a thousand or so matches under his belt not understand that? He even managed to make matters worse at half-time (when the match was still theoretically alive) by replacing the attack minded Said Benrahma with worker-bee, Pablo Fornals.
Those last two games with no goals and just three shots on target between them added to the season’s shocking away form. Just six points and seven goals from thirteen games. Not a single away win in the league since 28 August and victory over this weekend’s opponents, Aston Villa.
There was a pivotal moment at the Brighton match where Moyes scowled with incredulity at the away support who sang “You don’t know what you’re doing!” The fans have had enough and Moyes is demonstrating the notorious thin skin that was a feature of his time at Sunderland. All he has to offer are weasel words about the relative success enjoyed in the previous two years. We thank you for that, Dave. But that was then, and this is now.
The only shock bigger than Moyes believing he is doing a good job is that the Board also seem to think the same. Or, in reality, are hoping to muddle through until the summer in the hope that West Ham can stay up on goal difference. The logic is difficult to fathom. Performances have been on a downward spiral for ages, there are clear tensions between manager and players, a ruinous relegation is just around the corner. How can further inaction make sense? I really don’t believe the ‘there’s no-one better available’ argument. The atmosphere is getting toxic, and change is the best way of clearing the air. Surely, it must be worth stumping up the compensation to avoid wiping untold millions off the club’s value. Whatever their other faults, the owners have invested large sums of money in the club – it’s just that they haven’t spent it particularly wisely. Just look at Brighton and compare the value for money that a proper scouting setup can deliver.
The debate as to how much the players should take responsibility for the current position is an interesting one. At the end of the day that is what we see on the pitch. Michail Antonio fluffing a goalscoring opportunity, Tomas Soucek misplacing a pass, Ben Johnson caught out of position. Are these symptoms or causes of our decline? I’ve not had the impression until recently that the players were anything less than committed. That they might not be as good as the players we would like to have, or are too old and too slow is not their fault.
Football is all about systems now – being well-drilled and attacking and defending as a unit. The best systems allow free expression to be exhibited within an overall structure. Except this revolution has passed some managers by. At the top level there are fine margins and the players must understand and buy-in to what is expected, or they will be caught out. It’s only my personal speculation but I sense that player power was behind the changes and euphoria of the Forest victory, but they were brought down to earth with a bump when the manager wanted to play more cautiously again at Brighton.
The bottom line is that it is impossible to change a whole squad. Changing a manager is far easier. Something is broken and it needs to be fixed. David Sullivan must understand what is going on at the club and the serious risks of doing nothing. It’s not as if he doesn’t have previous experience of not acting quickly enough.
Tonight, sees a return to the European Conference League with West Ham visiting AEK Larnaka for the first leg, round of 16 tie. The competition is the one remaining chance of glory this season. Larnaka are currently second in the Cypriot First Division and have the distinction of having competed in all three UEFA competitions this season. They finished third in their Europa League group which included Fenerbahce, Rennes, and Dynamo Kiev. They reached the Round of 16 by beating Dnipro-1 from Ukraine. Although based in Cyprus, their team is largely made up of players from Spain, Portugal, and the Balkan states.
This will be no pushover against a team of part-time plumbers and postmen, but I’m fancying that we should have enough to come out on top. Whatever the outcome, I don’t see the result having any impact on Moyes position.
On Sunday, the crunch will come when West Ham host Aston Villa. The visitors have moved into a comfortable mid-table position since the arrival of Unai Emery. His side are prone to flakiness at the back, but have plenty of pace going forward to rattle the Hammers defence. What will be very interesting is how the crowd react if it’s another slow start from West Ham. It could turn out to be a very difficult watch. COYI!