It’s been a bad week, so far, at the London Stadium. Quite possibly the limpest performance of the season against Crystal Palace was followed by an ignominious exit from the Carabao Cup at the hands of Blackburn Rovers reserves.
The once muted murmurings surrounding the future of David Moyes in the West Ham hot seat has incrementally risen towards a disturbing crescendo. What was once a small hardcore of supporters ideologically opposed to his appointment in the first place, has grown to an increasing number of Remainers progressively move across into the Leave camp. Is the Grim Reaper of football gaffers heading in his directio?
I’ve never considered Moyes credit with the club was about saving us from relegation. In many ways he is an odd choice to pick as a firefighter in that his brand is more about building effort, stability, and organisation than the spirit and passion demanded of relegation battles. Instead, it is the consecutive top seven Premier League finishes and the ensuing European campaigns that have caused his spell as manager to stand out.
By almost all measures, the 2020/21 season was West Ham’s most spectacular Premier League effort ever. For the period coinciding with Jesse Lingard’s loan spell there was a swagger and fluidity on display that was as thrilling to watch as it was effective in winning matches. But for the injury to Declan Rice on England duty there would surely have been an excellent chance of Champions League qualification.
Sadly, those heights have not been repeated and today look as far away as ever. Moyes was bewitched by what Lingard added to the team and his transfer strategy became obsessed with a permanent deal. By the time it was obvious that Lingard would stay at Old Trafford no alternatives had been lined up with similar strengths. Aside from Kurt Zouma, the summer 2021 transfer window was a disaster. I don’t go along with the view that Nikola Vlasic was not given a chance by Moyes or was played out of position. He simply didn’t have the attributes for the intensity and physical nature of English league football. He failed at West Ham, just as he had failed at Everton. He is much better suited to the Italian game.
Despite everything, the following season still showed a creditable outcome. Seventh place in the Premier League and a Europa Cup semi-final was certainly an above average West Ham season. Cracks were starting to show in the league though, as form flatlined dramatically after Christmas. In mitigation the demands of Thursday – Sunday football should not be underestimated. Not just from the perspective of player fatigue in a small squad, but also due to the limited time that is left available for match preparation.
The huge mistake of the 2021/22 season was not strengthening in the winter transfer window. The Lingard fixation continued to dominate thinking and the opportunity to boost the squad by bringing in new blood was lost. By the second half of the season, there was a sense that West Ham were no longer a surprise package, the tactics were one dimensional and opposition coaches found them easy to counter. The team were becoming stale and despite raising their game for impressive European performances against Sevilla and Lyon, a rot had set in.
That brings us finally to this season, which has been a shocker by any definition. Significant amounts of money were spent on transfers, even if most of the business was completed too late in the day to start the season well prepared. Overall, the summer signings looked decent enough on paper and the squad had a far stronger look to it. But that added strength has failed to materialise on the pitch – and will continue to do so while the manager insists on stubbornly sticking to the same tactics, just with different names on the shirts. Where Moyes initial success was understandably pragmatic – getting the best from limited resources – he has lately been attempting to shoehorn more talented players into the same style, even though it clearly doesn’t suit them.
No matter how encouraging the summer purchases appear to be, the types of players that weren’t signed are equally pertinent. Despite the drawn out and ultimately fruitless pursuit of Lingard, no-one with similar attributes (which clearly were a Moyes priority) was eventually brought into the squad. Further, no left back was signed even though a long-term replacement for Aaron Cresswell had been apparent for many, many months. The last-minute signing of Emerson as the left sided defensive backup has every hallmark of a panic buy.
Received wisdom is that integrating a host of new players into a team will always a challenge. I cannot argue with that. It is the reason why bringing in a few in January or doing the summer business early would have made clear sense. Indeed, I think many would cut the manager some slack if it looked like a more progressive, less passive style was evolving. But it hasn’t, it is more of the same. The style has remained the same, and perversely the execution has become worse. It is an unfortunate fact of modern footballing life that standing still means going backwards
The negative approach of defending deep and in numbers, the poor passing and ball retention, and the dearth of movement and fluidity through the middle, all continue to be alarmingly apparent. With everyone behind the ball, who is there left to pass to? The imbalance between hard work and flair has created a side that is pedestrian, and which expects its attacking players to spend more time focused on defence, than threatening the opponent’s goal.
The only player in the squad capable of running with the ball (and having it under control) is Declan Rice. None of the other attack minded players have either the ability or the pace to do so reliably – only Moyes believes Manuel Lanzini can still offer this. The upshot is there is no obvious out-ball to relieve pressure or to build attacks when possession is won, a further contributing factor to poor ball retention. There just seem to be so many structural faults in the side right now, and no plan to address them.
To make matters even worse, notoriously slow starts have been added to the matchday playbook. Are the first half of games written off – hoping, perhaps, to snatch something late on with the energy conserved in the first forty-five minutes? This has happened far too frequently, in too many games, for it not to be an intentional tactic.
Clearly, it is not my decision whether the manager stays or goes. That is down to the board. Previously, they have waited and waited before pulling the trigger, but there are now obvious parallels to the last days of Bilic and Pellegrini. Although loyalty is an admirable quality, the question the board members must ask themselves is: “does Moyes have what it takes to turn things around?” It’s not a simple question of fighting for survival – surely finishing anywhere in the bottom half would be regarded as serious failure after the investment that has been made. It is about having the right man in place for the longer-term development of the club. A man with progressive ideas who is not stuck with outdated ways. I would be quite happy for Moyes to prove he can do it, but to my mind, it would require a scale of conversion rarely seen outside of road trips to Damascus.
I have read elsewhere that those inside the game believe it would be madness for West Ham to sack Moyes. It’s a valid point of view to take if you are looking from a distance only at past performance. The pundit community mostly operates as a mutual back-slapping fraternity insulated from supporters who might consider entertainment just as important as results. The common pundit line is one of players letting down the manager – which does raise the question as to whether the level of solidarity in the dressing room has decayed since the departure of Mark Noble?
Timing is the other issue that the Board must consider. The imminent break for the World Cup feels like the perfect opportunity for a club thinking of a managerial change to make a move. It allows the new man time to settle in, work on new ideas and prepare for any adjustments required in the transfer window. Is it an opportunity too good to be missed?
Whatever the Board’s current inclination – and noises to date are that they are in support of Moyes – today’s game against Leicester will be an nervous affair. It will not be lost on the opposition that another frustrating start by the home side is likely to produce a toxic atmosphere inside the stadium. It will be in their interests to play on that.
Brendan Rodgers is another manager who has struggled of late in his attempts to evolve to a more possession based style of play. For a few seasons the Foxes were the team most likely to disrupt the ‘big six’ but have lost their recently way due to financial difficulties and player departures. Signs of recovery have started to show after a dreadful start to the season, and they have conceded just one goal in the last five league outings. They certainly carry enough of a threat – in the form of James Madison, Youri Tielemans and Harvey Barnes – to worry a hesitant and accident prone Hammers.
Despite everything, I cannot join those hoping that a West Ham defeat will lead to a change of manager. I will always want them to win every game they play and will not cross that line today. But I’m not sure what to expect. A new mindset from Moyes? A more front-foot approach from the team? Or another slow start and an uprising in the stands? The finger nails will be taking a battering. COYI?