When asked what he thought about football, a wise man once said: “It’s a funny old game.” It’s a fascinating insight and one that is particularly pertinent when it comes to football management. How else can you explain why anyone would want to give Steve Bruce a job?
Very few managers these days ever get to win a trophy – such is the financial dominance of a small group of powerful clubs. In the past ten seasons, the three major English honours have been shared by just five clubs (sorry, Tottenham) on all but four occasions – Leicester’s league title in 2016 and FA Cup win in 2020, Wigan’s FA Cup in 2013, and Swansea’s League Cup, also in the same year. In the last five seasons, Manchester City have won nine of the fifteen prizes on offer.
For anyone managing outside the richest clubs, success is purely relative. Trying to keep the owners and supporters happy (in that order) by maximising prize money and steering clear of relegation. Buried somewhere in their priority list is a precarious balance between expectations, results and entertainment.
Just a few weeks ago, the ominous rasp of knives being sharpened might well have haunted David Moyes dreams. But a run of six wins from seven games (in all competitions) has been enough to silence his band of critics for now. A strong enough position to see off at least another two or three Prime Ministers.
Although the Hammer’s league position still leaves much to be desired, securing another feast of post-Christmas European football adds further credit to the manager’s account. In truth, a Premier League side not being able to qualify from a Europa Conference group must be regarded as a monumental failure (sorry, again Tottenham). Still, doing so with two games to spare, and using a largely second-string set of players, could not have gone any better.
This week, by complete coincidence, I came across a critique of Jose Mourinho’s management style by Spanish journalist, Diego Torres. Not a huge fan of the Special One, Torres distilled Mourinho’s footballing philosophy into the following principles:
- The game is won by the team who commit fewer errors.
- Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
- Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
- Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake
- Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
- Whoever has the ball has fear.
- Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
While it would be harsh to tar Moyes with precisley the same brush, there are certainly familiar themes – which become more visible as better players are brought into the club. When Moyes first arrived he did an amazing job of getting the best from the limited resources he had available. But as the value of his squad increases, he needs to demonstrate more variety in his game plan. The cycle of defend deep, break quickly, and score from set pieces cannot repeat indefinitely. The squad now has players that can add creativity to the energy and organisation, but there needs to be more freedom, less inhibition, greater adventure, improved fluidity and movement; and less respect for opponent’s reputations.
The transition is not an easy one, but there can be no linear path in football for clubs like ours. Without a preception of success, improvement, and momentum, the better players will move on, and it will be back to square one. See Leicester City for details.
Today, West Ham travel to the south coast to meet floundering Southampton. A string of four consecutive defeats, including reverses against Wolves, Villa, and Everton has seen the Saints slip alarmingly down the table and propelled Ralph Hasenhuttl to frontrunner in the managerial sack race, currently neck and neck with Steven Gerrard at Villa. A good time for West Ham to play them or will we see a survival mode response from the home side?
If there were to be an armchair poll of supporter’s preferred West Ham line-ups, my instinct is that it would show a strong desire for Alphonse Areola to replace Lucasz Fabianski, Flynn Downes to replace Tomas Soucek, and anyone (Michail Antonio, Said Benrahma or Maxwell Cornet) to replace Pablo Fornals. It is certainly what I have been longing to see, although none of that is likely to happen today.
Moyes has spoken highly of Downes in recent weeks but appears set on bringing him on minute by minute in the league. Last weekend Downes doubled his Premier League minutes from one to two; a rate that doesn’t suggest a stunningly rapid development plan. Surely, he must be given a twenty to thirty minute shift before too long.
The persistence with Fornals is the perfect example of Moyes’ aversion to risk. Preferring to employ him as an auxiliary defender rather than fielding a more attack minded player. I doubt any other side in the league plays with fewer players who are primarilyy focus on offense. The lack of options and movement that this creates contributes significantly to the below average level of ball retention.
Fans will remember that West Ham and Southampton were promoted from the Championship together in 2011/12. In the twenty league matches played since, West Ham have won ten, Southampton five, and there have been five draws – four of them goalless affairs at St Marys. The Saints did, however, run out comfortable winners when the teams last met in the fifth round of the 2021/22 FA Cup.
The current Southampton side is full of busy players but they are short of true quality, aside from the dead ball expertise of Ward-Prowse. That said, I am not as confident as others that the game presents something of a ‘gimme’ for the Hammers. Much will depend on two factors: one, whether the Hammers can find enough fit central defenders to start the game following injuries sustained in midweek; and two, whether they can shake off the characteristic slow start that has tended to follow previous midweek European outings.
I would love to predict a third league win on the bounce. One day we may get to see a West Ham romp inspired by the burgeoning skills of Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta. It could be today but equally I can easily see the spoils being shared. COYI!