West Ham United sealed their progress into the fourth round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 win over Gillingham on Sunday evening.
The Hammers were made to work hard by their League One opponents and had to wait until the 74th minute for Pablo Zabaleta to make the breakthrough — Pablo Fornals finished the job in added time. But that makes it two wins from two for David Moyes, who has injected genuine life and desire into West Ham.
So, who were the big winners and losers at Priestfield Stadium?
Winner: Pablo Zabaleta
This was Zabaleta’s 589th game in a club career which has yielded two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups, yet, somehow, this was his first-ever goal in this competition.
Zaba ❤️ pic.twitter.com/vYSwFhdOUG
— West Ham United (@WestHam) January 5, 2020
Sure, he’s a full-back, and they’re normally the men tasked with providing for others or keeping the opposition out at the other end. Still, for a player of his immense pedigree, that really should come as quite a surprise.
In fairness to the Argentine veteran, you wouldn’t think this was his first goal in the competition — the way he took down Pablo Fornals’ delivery into the box and decisively fired home gave him the air of a lethal striker, rather than a full-back.
Loser: Sebastien Haller
Signed to much fanfare in the summer, things just won’t get started at West Ham for Sebastien Haller.
The French striker tried everything to get on the scoresheet against Gillingham but whether it was an unconfident swipe when one-on-one with Jack Bonham or unluckily hitting the post from a tight angle, it just would not go in.
Haller didn’t particularly play poorly and actually offered a real focal point for Moyes, winning a match-high 11 aerial duels as West Ham looked to go route one against their lower league opposition.
However, it’s goals which Haller was signed for. Sunday gave him the chance to net in back-to-back games for the first time since August, so this really was a missed opportunity.
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Winner: David Moyes
Two wins from two and the David Moyes feelgood factor continues at West Ham.
OK, so this wasn’t the 4-0 thumping of Premier League Bournemouth that Hammers’ fans enjoyed at the weekend, but were Gillingham ever going to make this easy?
The League One side fought tooth and nail to make things difficult for their top-flight opponents and so many times in the past, we’ve seen West Ham crumble in this sort of melting pot.
2 – In each of the last two seasons, the side eliminating West Ham from the FA Cup has been from League One – Wigan in 2017-18 and AFC Wimbledon in 2018-19. Submissive.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 5, 2020
Not today, though. This time, their centre-backs stood tall, their midfielders maintained composure and their playmakers asked questions.
This is the first time West Ham have won back-to-back games since August and the confidence that should breathe into their game will be vital as the Hammers seek to turn their season around.
Loser: Jack Bonham
For so long here, it looked like Gillingham would earn a glamorous replay at the London Stadium, or maybe even snatch a winner to book their place in the fourth round.
However, after beating back West Ham time and again, the Gills finally crumbled in the final quarter and in all honesty, the goal which killed them could have been avoided.
Sure, Zabaleta was calm and collected and yes, his shot had venom behind it. But it was straight at Gillingham ‘keeper Jack Bonham, who had rushed out well to narrow the angle. The 26-year-old made an absolute hash of his save and allowed the ball to squirm beyond him — a nightmare moment under the spotlight.
Winner: Gills defence
Coming up against Premier League opposition was always going to be a tall task for a League One side but for three-quarters of the match at least, Gillingham made light work of the task in front of them.
Credit for that cannot go to one man alone, however, with the Gillingham defence putting in a wonderful, cohesive performance to limit the Hammers to sporadic chances and counter-attacks.
— Gillingham FC (@TheGillsFC) January 5, 2020
Between Barry Fuller, Max Ehmer, Jack Tucker and Connor Ogilvie, the Gills’ back four won 14 aerial duels, made 3 tackles and kept things safe and simple with 21 clearances.
When the centre-backs were caught out, the full-backs tucked in to cover and when the ball was played behind the wide men into the channels, one of Ehmer or Tucker was on hand to mop up.
When Zabaleta’s goal finally came in the 74th minute, it felt a little cruel, given just how much Gillingham had put into this.
Loser: Ryan Fredericks
Playing a full-strength side in the FA Cup third round, just as you are leaving the busy festive period behind, was always going to be fraught with risks — not least leaving players susceptible to injuries.
Full-back Ryan Fredericks was the unfortunate victim of the stretcher this time around, hobbling off in the 40th minute after going down holding his hamstring under no contact — veteran Pablo Zabaleta was his replacement.
The 27-year-old missed 15 games last season due to ankle and muscular problems but has impressed since recovering, fully establishing himself in the West Ham starting XI. He’ll hope this issue doesn’t set him back once again.
Winner: Pablo Fornals
Just like Haller, Pablo Fornals is another player who arrived at West Ham to much excitement but has struggled to get going.
However, since the end of November, the Spaniard has been directly involved in four goals (scored one, assisted three) in seven games and has started showing glimpses of his true power.
— The Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) January 5, 2020
Fornals had to settle for a place on the bench on Sunday but set up Zabaleta’s opener within four minutes of entering the pitch, while he settled the tie with a goal of his own in added time, taking that record to six direct involvements in eight games.
This is the sort of form which attracted West Ham to buy him in the first place, as well as earning him a place in the Spanish national team. Long may it continue.