It’s been another long break hasn’t it. To fill in time during West Ham’s enforced 21-day hiatus from league action I found myself watching a cable channel that broadcast output from Premier League Productions. Two programmes grabbed my attention.
The first was a discussion with Brentford’s in-house Sports Psychologist that came with with glowing references from Thomas Frank and key members of the Bees squad. It illustrated just how important belief and state of mind were to the fine margins that exist in modern football, providing further refreshing insight into the workings of a progressive, well-run club. It is pure speculation on my part, but I imagine the powers that be would have no truck with this type of new-fangled, namby-pamby nonsense at the London Stadium. Nothing in the fossil records suggests dinosaurs paid any attention to Wellness and mental preparation!
The second show was a profile of Nayef Aguerd and his journey since signing for the Hammers last summer. It focused on his unfortunate pre-season injury and subsequent rehabilitation up until the World Cup. The surprise here was that despite the outside appearance of a converted shipping container, Rush Green does actually house a well-equipped medical and fitness centre. It’s not just a St John’s Ambulance intern with a first aid box and a bottle of military grade White Horse oil. Even more surprising is the current low occupancy in this famously long-stay establishment. It leaves David Moyes with a fully fit squad as the Hammers embark on an eight-week date with destiny.
My takeaways from Moyes pre-match comments were that, in his view, none of the current woes at the club are down to him. The tactics are just fine. All the problems are a consequence of a drop in form by the players. If only they would ‘turn up’ and eat an extra Shredded Wheat for breakfast, then everything would be hunky dory. He had tried manfully to assimilate a host of experienced international players into the squad but they simply couldn’t understand the beautiful simplicity of Moyes ball. What’s so difficult to comprehend about getting behind the ball most of the time and then charging forward in pursuit of a long ball? How was he supposed to know how and where to play Lucas Paqueta, or that Gianluca Scamacca needs the ball played to feet? It should be no surprise to anyone that it’s taken nine months to work this out – that’s just how things are in the Premier League. Look how well I have managed the squad in the Euro Conference League.
There was a lot of talk in the week about a Toxic atmosphere permeating the club. The provenance of the supposed leak did sound a bit flaky – a mate of a friend’s brother’s uncle – and may have been exaggerated for effect after a bevy of post-match Britneys. But it is safe to assume that all is not well and to conclude that the players have lost belief in what the manager is attempting to do. After all, it hasn’t worked for the best part of 18 months now. As results have fallen away, a form of institutional incompetence and paralysis has taken over both Board and management. An expectation that if they wish hard enough, the good times will return.
Moyes meanwhile displays all the man-management skills of a First World War general – digging out individual players in media interviews rather than taking personal responsibility. Doggedly refusing to recognise how his approach, stubbornness and failure to adapt is at the root of inadequate performances and results.
For some reason, pundits and bookmakers consider West Ham to be an outside bet from the group of clubs fighting the drop. On the plus side, there are games in hand and a better a goal difference than most. But the team have been in a slow and steady decline for many, many months. The last 38 games have yielded only 35 points. The last 21 aways games just two wins and ten points – averaging below half a point a game. Is that going to change? Manchester City will be damage limitation and a win at Brentford is unlikely. In theory, trips to Fulham, Palace, Bournemouth and Leicester offer hope but will Moyes suddenly throw off the awayday caution that has stymied his side on their travels since January 2022? Who wants to go to Leicester on the final day needing a win?
Home form is thankfully slightly better but three of the remaining games are against top five sides (Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle) who boast three of the four best away records in the league. Does past performance against top sides suggest a good points haul from these types of game? Add in Liverpool who will also be looking at European qualification and the challenge looks particularly daunting. It makes the matches against fellow strugglers Southampton and Leeds all the more critical.
Following Saturday’s results, today’s game is the quintessential rock-bottom, basement dwelling, six-pointer. A win would take either side out of the relegation zone. A defeat for either, while not terminal, would be a severe blow for survival hopes. Neither will want to lose as two of the teams who were promoted together in 2012 attempt to preserve their Premier League status. It’s hard to imagine both surviving.
Southampton will provide a muscular challenge despite a raft of injury woes. West Ham cannot afford another typically slow start. Rustiness after a three week lay-off is a distinct possibility given the experience of previous breaks. In theory, the Hammers have the superior quality but it has rarely been given an outing this season. It’s going to be a nail biting, cliff hanging, suspenseful, afternoon. COYI!