Cast your mind back to the middle of January last year. West Ham were fourth in the league, had just breezed past Leeds in the FA Cup and were now hosting the Yorkshire side again in a Premier League fixture at the London Stadium. The injury ravaged visitors outran, outfought and outthought a complacent Hammers side to record a famous victory. It was a win which turned out to be the last for Bielsa as manager of Leeds. He was sacked the following month at the end of a run that earned just one point from the next six games.
But the rot had also set in for West Ham. Their style had become predictable and one-dimensional. Everyone knew how they would play and took steps to counter it. The opportunity to freshen up and strengthen key positions in the transfer window was overlooked. David Moyes only had eyes for the lovesick pursuit of Jesse Lingard – yearning to recreate the magic of twelve months earlier.
The season ended with a whimper. The desperately small squad of players was run into the ground. A meagre haul of five wins and nineteen points from the remaining sixteen games plus a disappointing semi-final exit in the Europa League was deflating. By the end, topped of with a lame surrender in Brighton, the spirit that had been built over the previous two seasons lay in tatters.
While we cannot complain about the size of the transfer spend in the summer it was completed so late in the day and without any apparent plan or pattern to the recruitment. The promised new philosophy of pursuing an RB Leipzig style model of signing emerging unknown talent did not materialise. Instead, we got a mixed bag of big-money exotic names, not on the radar of the ‘bigger’ clubs, plus a handful of squad fillers. It hadn’t worked for Pellegrini, so let’s try it again!
Since the season started we’ve seen no attempt by Moyes to change his approach or try anything new. Talk of a more possession based style of play has never been followed up on the pitch in any meaningful way. Passing is wayward, movement is lacking, and options are few. Quick, flowing passing moves are a thing of the past.
Caution remains the Moyes’ watchword and as the goals have dried up the team have retreated further into their shell. Some say that it is down to fitness, but I am not convinced by that argument – Declan Rice commented in the summer as to how brutal training is under Moyes. To me, the decline in running stats is the result of abandoning any pretence at pressing in favour of the lowest of low blocks. It is the new normal to have all but one or two players regularly operating behind the ball. Opportunities for transition are lost and possession is invariably given away.
Throw in the critical lack of pace and creativity and the Hammers have become a blunt force in attack. Possibly the slowest team in the Premier League, the ability to effectively counter-attack is no longer a threat. Without any truly creative players, attacks default to ludicrously slow build-ups that end up with hopeful crosses floated into the keeper’s arms. When your greatest goal threat is Craig Dawson from a corner, you know you are in trouble.
Expecting Moyes to repair the current slide by doing more of the same is delusional. It is staggering that the owners didn’t see that. Using the World Cup to make a clean break would have been perfect. Loyalty can be admirable, but it only makes sense if there were clear and obvious signs of improvement. In the real world, performances have been getting progressively worse for almost a year now. The squad needs surgery in the transfer window – how much longer can we play without a competent left-back – and Moyes cannot be trusted with supervising that. The answer to our problems really isn’t to sign Michal Keane.
It can only be a matter of time before Moyes gets his marching orders. The longer it’s left and the more desperate the situation becomes, the more chance that the owners will be forced into a short-term fix. Another firefighter parachuted in to preserve Premier League status rather than a new broom who can move the club forward. So far the names banded about range from those likely to be wanting bigger gigs – Tuchel, Pochettino, Enrique – to the ever-presents on the familiar managerial merry-go-round – Benitez, Dyche, Hassenhurtl, Bielsa. Surely there must also be other younger, more progressive coaches out there waiting to be discovered.
To complicate matters further West Ham will now almost certainly be competing with other clubs in the search for a new manager. By the time you read this Lampard at Everton and Rodgers at Leicester may already be queuing to pick up their P45s. Dithering in the boardroom could prove to be very costly.
I have already unconsciously written off today’s visit to Leeds as a lost cause. Making it a sixth league defeat in a row with West Ham firmly entrenched in the bottom three by the end of the day. While the hosts may still display the same laissez faire approach to defending as they did under Bielsa, it is doubtful whether the Hammers have the firepower or sense of adventure to expose and exploit it. In attack, Leeds have explosive pace which will thoroughly test the ancient limbs and leaden feet of the West Ham defence. The one positive note is that Nayef Aguerd may finally make his first Premier League start in tonight’s game.
My guess is that Moyes will revert to a back four tonight with Dawson partnering Aguerd in the continued absence of Kurt Zouma. Moyes will have seen his change of shape against Brentford as a failed audacious experiment and revert to his familiar Moyes 4-2-3-1. No-one is going will be shocked by a Tomas Soucek recall and to see one of Gianluca Scamacca or Michail Antonio isolated up front. This may all sound disillusioned, but that’s where we are.
I’m not going to predict an outcome for the game. Sadly, it is probably in the best interests of the club if we actually lose this game to trigger the inevitable. No-one can survive six defeats in a row. Or can they? COYI!