West Ham are in serious trouble and could be teetering on the brink of relegation if fortunes aren’t reversed in the coming weeks.
The season started on a high for West Ham fans but, in almost typical fashion, has descended into calamity with David Moyes reinstating his position as the club’s go-to escapologist, looking to steer the Hammers away from danger for the second time in only three years.
And herein lies the root of frustration on the terraces, with fans disgruntled that four years after leaving Upton Park, the club have not pushed on and unsettled the top six hegemony. Instead, they have regressed and now find themselves in almost the exact same quandary as the one presented two years ago – only this time things are worse.
At this stage during Moyes’ first rescue mission, West Ham were 12th in the Premier League table and four points clear of the drop zone; now they are 18th, deep in the relegation mire, and face Manchester City and Liverpool in their next two matches. Add to the fact that West Ham let slip a two-goal advantage in their proverbial six-pointer against relegation rivals Brighton over the weekend and the immediate forecast looks rather bleak to say the least.
However, despite that epic capitulation on Saturday, Moyes made some very interesting tactical tweaks; and one in particular that caught the eye was a throwback to his Everton days. So could this new rejig perhaps work wonders to reinvigorate a beleaguered squad and help keep West Ham afloat?
An Everton blueprint
The name Moyes became almost synonymous with Everton as the two joined forces for over a decade, before the Glaswegian ended his Goodison Park marriage to embark on a new adventure as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United.
As we now know, Moyes’ hopes were not exactly met at the Theatre of Dreams and, since his acrimonious departure from Old Trafford, his career has nose-dived, culminating in Sunderland’s relegation from the Premier League in 2017.
However, football as we know, is a fickle sport. So, for all the black marks to have appeared on his CV in recent times, we must remember that Moyes forged an impeccable reputation during his stint as Everton manager, making a name for himself as a meticulous and reactive tactician.
One of the main facets of his blueprint at Everton was rather unorthodox, but certainly effective. He preferred an aerially-dominant, or imposing No. 10 rather than the elegant playmakers we have come to idolise. At Everton he had Tim Cahill, and later Marouane Fellaini, with the latter following him to Old Trafford.
His setup at Everton was often hinged on deploying a more nimble and athletic striker through the middle, dragging defenders across the turf and out of position, so that his No. 10 could dart into the box with more freedom, create havoc and provide a goalscoring threat.
For West Ham, the match on Saturday illustrated Moyes’ Everton approach in microcosm: attacking full-backs in Ryan Fredericks and Aaron Cresswell, looking to recreate the sort of overloads best exemplified by Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines; inverted wingers in Robert Snodgrass and Michail Antonio (akin to Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas); no-nonsense central midfielders screening the backline in Mark Noble and Declan Rice (a la Leon Osman and Phil Neville); but most fundamentally, 6 ft 4 in Tomas Soucek in the No. 10 role – no prizes for guessing who he was aiming to replicate.
Nominally a defensive midfielder, Soucek – signed from Slavia Prague last month – made his debut for West Ham in an unconventional attacking role. The initial decision from Moyes looked an odd one on paper, but then again, Soucek has drawn similarities with Fellaini, and once that connection was made, everyone at the London Stadium realised what was happening against Brighton.
West Ham fans thought they were signing a player capable of revitalising their cumbersome midfield; instead it looks as though they have just acquired their very own version of Fellaini – and against the Seagulls his inclusion nearly paid dividends.
How Soucek performed
It was a bold decision for Moyes to start Soucek from the off over the weekend. The 24-year-old hasn’t featured since December and has had little time to acclimatise to the demands of English football. Yet, he looked threatening in the first 45 minutes, and seemed to cause a myriad of problems when the ball was launched forward in almost rudimentary fashion, with Sebastien Haller handed some much-needed support in the final third.
Granted, Soucek drifted off in the second half – which is understandable given his lack of minutes in recent weeks – and he eventually came off as Brighton mounted a superb comeback, but the early signs are promising for those of a West Ham persuasion.
There will naturally be some deep-rooted doubts from a section of fans who may believe this is the first step towards a return to the ‘dark days’ before Manuel Pellegrini’s progressive and expansive football. In that sense it should be noted here that during Moyes’ time in charge of Everton between 2002 and 2013, no Premier League side managed more headed shots than the Toffees (998).
However, West Ham have only scored one headed goal this season – the joint-least of any club – while Liverpool (13) have scored the most, and Jurgen Klopp’s brand of football can hardly be considered antiquated. So, this should not be considered a stepping stone to a ‘route one’ style of play, but rather, somewhere in-between his Everton philosophy and the “exciting” football he promised upon rejoining the club in December.
“I think we want to see more attacking football, action and excitement,” Moyes said during his unveiling. “The biggest thing I want to see is supporters being excited by the team and how we play.”
With creative outlets like Pablo Fornals, Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko, Moyes would be unwise to conform to stereotype. Instead he should look to combine his past ideas with new ones, utilising the innate talent at his disposal, while also trying to deliver an “exciting” brand, but with freckles of pragmatism.
Whether Moyes can live up to his own billing in this sense remains to be seen, but given the precarious situation West Ham currently find themselves in, the Scot can perhaps be forgiven if pragmatism favours aesthetics during these next few months – providing, of course, the club avoids the dreaded drop.
Certainly West Ham’s 35% possession against Brighton doesn’t look the stuff of “exciting” football, but then again, the game is played on grass and not spreadsheets; and West Ham, for all intents and purposes, should have come away from the London Stadium with three points were it not for two calamitous pieces of slapstick defending.
Soucek brought a different dimension to West Ham’s play. He is the type of midfielder who simply causes chaos even when he hasn’t got the ball at his feet. His mere presence will scare defenders, and that will be key in upping the Hammers’ woeful scoring record by aerial means, as well as helping Haller to find more room in opposition territory.
If he can have a similar impact to that of Fellaini at Everton, then Soucek could prove a revelation in east London.