Manuel Pellegrini is a man teetering on the brink of dismissal and could find himself out of work if West Ham United fail to win at Southampton this weekend.
The Hammers started the season like a house on fire and many were tipping them to rival Leicester City for the “best of the rest” title, with both clubs seemingly on track – at the time – to potentially shatter the top six hegemony.
As it turns out, both clubs have gone on completely different trajectories; the Foxes find themselves leading the race for second place, while the Hammers have plummeted down the Premier League table and now find themselves anxiously peering over their shoulders.
West Ham have been battered, bruised and bloodied these past few weeks, winning just once in 11 matches, and now find themselves in a basement battle with strugglers Southampton at St Mary’s on Saturday evening.
The Chelsea result a few weeks ago brought a foretaste of hope and it appeared as though the Hammers had turned a corner, but just days later they reverted to type against Wolves in a performance almost indicative of the club’s woeful autumnal form.
Indeed, Pellegrini now looks like a manager living on borrowed time, but football can be a fickle sport; let’s not forget West Ham still have an experienced, ex-Real Madrid, Premier League-winning manager on their hands.
So, it is now time for Pellegrini to stand up to be counted, or face the seemingly inevitable sack. But, can the Chilean still turn it around? If he makes these changes against Southampton, he may yet stand a chance.
1. Tinker, tinker, tinker!
Part of Pellegrini’s demise this season has been his inability to switch things up when performances aren’t going his way. We all know that old adage about insanity and doing the same things over, well, that saying certainly rings true here.
The Chilean has been intent on seeing his beloved 4-2-3-1 formation work, which it certainly has done at times. This was the same formation and system that took the scalp of Manchester United at the start of the campaign, but when you start to lose three or four, or even five games on the trot, it may be time to embrace change.
Unfortunately for West Ham fans that has not been forthcoming. No, Pellegrini has persisted with the same system, and apart from the Chelsea win, he’s seen the exact same results: a lack of fluidity, cohesion and penetration up-top.
But, should Pellegrini switch things up just for the sake of switching it up? Absolutely not, but a bit of pragmatism never hurt in football. What Pellegrini should have identified early on is that West Ham concede chances – and a lot of them.
Those shortcomings though were ultimately alleviated by the sheer brilliance of Lukasz Fabianski in goal. The Poland international made more saves than any other ‘keeper in the Premier League last season (149), highlighting just how vulnerable West Ham are at the back.
So, when he injured himself and was ruled out until the New Year, Pellegrini should have tried to at least experiment with a three-at-the-back system, deploying Fabian Balbuena, Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna in defence, with Aaron Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks operating as wing-backs.
He could even have brought Declan Rice back into defence here. It may have backfired certainly, but when West Ham conceded 14 goals in just six games with Roberto in goal, maybe it was time to tighten things up and provide the wavering Spaniard greater protection.
So, surely after letting in three goals to a completely out-of-sorts Arsenal, Pellegrini must now try something different – maybe not a back-three, but at least something.
2. Find a way to play Haller and Antonio
From Benni McCarthy to Jordan Hugill, there is that incredible statistic about how David Gold and David Sullivan have signed nigh on 50 strikers since they took over the club in 2010, and only a handful of those have been good.
Well, West Ham thought their prayers were finally answered and the striker quandary in east London was solved with the acquisition of £45m striker Sebastien Haller. However, despite a positive showing in the opening sequence of this season, the Frenchman’s form has waned and crumbled, and he now looks like a man regretting his move from Eintracht Frankfurt over the summer.
The 25-year-old was supposed to bring a new dimension to Pellegrini’s frontline, but he has looked isolated up-top and without the requisite service to really thrive at the London Stadium; that is, until Michail Antonio returned from injury.
Antonio picked up a hamstring injury back in August but returned for the match against Chelsea, starting in the No. 9 role instead of Haller. What unfolded at Stamford Bridge, in fact, showed that Haller has been part of the wider problem, as Antonio seemed to reinvigorate the side, bringing bundles of energy, tenacity and directness.
Antonio’s aggression and precision simply revitalised Pellegrini’s team, suggesting that Haller has perhaps been holding West Ham back, rather than West Ham holding him back.
Antonio’s importance, and Haller’s shortcomings, were highlighted further as the former sat out of the Wolves defeat just days later, while the latter started up-top in his habitual position, but it was the West Ham of old who showed up at the Molineux, and not this new, exciting brand that coincided with Antonio’s return.
Haller has certainly shown glimmers of his brilliance, but part of his charm and devastation at the Commerzbank-Arena last season was because of his partnership with Luka Jovic. And so, this is the blueprint that Pellegrini should now look to if he wants to get the best out of Haller.
By bringing Antonio into the equation up-top, alongside Haller, the Frenchman would have a formidable force right by his side. He wouldn’t be running around like a headless chicken trying to needlessly close down the opposition, but rather working in tandem with Antonio to unsettle and stifle defences.
The prospect of the aforementioned three-man-defence, say a 3-5-2 a la Wolves, with a Haller-Antonio strikeforce, could work wonders to bring the best out of this West Ham side, but don’t hold your breath Hammers, we all know it’ll be a 4-2-3-1 come Saturday.
3. Be bold, drop big players
There are two points to establish here: first Felipe Anderson needs a break. The Brazilian doesn’t appear to be the type ready for a relegation dogfight – perhaps Pellegrini isn’t either – and looks uninterested at the minute, so best to bench him until he shows the willingness of say, a Robert Snodgrass.
Secondly, the midfield double-pivot of Rice and Mark Noble is costing West Ham dearly. It is certainly a fairytale story that two academy players, both either side of their respective careers, are holding the fort and flying the flag for West Ham, but as a central midfield axis in the Premier League, they are too slow and cumbersome to really dominate the middle of the park.
Both pack technical quality in abundance, while Rice is an excellent reader of the game and a formidable tackler, but at this time West Ham need someone who can bring a turbo-engine to the midfield. Just look at how influential tenacious, non-stop running central midfielders are to Jurgen Klopp’s counterpressing system.
The Hammers need urgency and intensity, which neither Rice nor Noble possess. So if, they’re sticking with the aforementioned 3-5-2, perhaps a Rice-Pablo Fornals partnership could work? Look, West Ham are short of options in this department with Jack Wilshere injured and, well that’s it. It’s crazy to think Pellegrini didn’t sign another midfielder.
Many will suggest Fornals is too lightweight and this is perhaps slightly contradictory to the earlier point about being more defensively resolute, but maybe the energy and creativity of the Spaniard could help West Ham retain possession more aggressively, and hence, not come under siege so often.
With Rice alongside him, he will have a composed head and a little bit of protection to push further up the field, dictate the game, unlock doors and feed the forwards. He is wasted on the wing against the more physically-aggressive Premier League full-backs, so Pellegrini needs to find his best position, which for all we know could lie centrally.