Football Features

New-look West Ham’s potential is epic, but were they naive in the summer transfer market?

By Ben Green

Published: 16:54, 22 August 2019

After another summer of heavy spending West Ham appear to be assembling a squad capable of causing significant noise under Manuel Pellegrini.

The Chilean broke the club’s transfer record twice last year and once again smashed that spending statistic this time around with the £45m acquisition of Sebastien Haller.

Along with Pablo Fornals, Albian Ajeti and the return to full fitness of a number of key players, including Manuel Lanzini, Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmolenko, aspirations of a positive season were high ahead of 2019/20.

However, a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of reigning Premier League champions Man City on matchweek one and an uninspiring 1-1 draw with Brighton at the weekend – with both Haller and Felipe Anderson injured for that contest – have somewhat dampened the initial optimism in east London.

That said, there have been a number of notable changes to Pellegrini’s West Ham team this term – some good, some bad – and we’ve had a look at them.

1. Reluctance to sign a central midfielder was naive

For years the chat on the London Stadium terraces has been about West Ham finally bringing in a central midfielder capable of running the show and dictating play; Mark Noble, Declan Rice and Jack Wilshere all have their individual qualities but none possess that all-round ability to dominate the middle of the park.

Of course, Wilshere has the capacity to be that player, but injuries have plagued his career and he doesn’t quite look like the tenacious teenager who once bossed the Arsenal midfield against Barcelona in 2011.

Add in the fact that the Hammers sold Edmilson Fernandes and Pedro Obiang this summer, while Noble is currently out injured, and West Ham once again look exceptionally lightweight in arguably the most important position on the pitch.

Against City, Pellegrini’s preferred central midfield partnership – Wilshere and Rice – was run ragged while against Brighton it was a similar story, with Graham Potter’s side dominating the ball and Wilshere ultimately coming off at half-time after struggling to keep pace – registering just 15 touches.

2. Fornals, Lanzini & Anderson may prove too lightweight together

It could be argued that West Ham’s only positive half of football so far this season was the opening 45 minutes against City, despite entering the interval a goal down.

The attacking trident of Anderson, Lanzini and Michail Antonio against City looked worthy of matching the league champions toe-for-toe, with the composition offering a versatile blend of creativity, muscle and flair.

However, Pellegrini opted to tinker at the break, taking Antonio off for Fornals and it was curtains from there; in trying to match Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut for creativity, he took away the one element that was working in West Ham’s favour: aggression.

And it was a similar story against Brighton, with the trio this time consisting of Lanzini, Fornals and Robert Snodgrass; three creative players who struggled to form any sort of attacking cohesion. The game was ultimately turned on its head when Antonio was introduced at half time and West Ham subsequently went on to take the lead.

A more pragmatic approach may be required by Pellegrini, with Antonio looking like the key player capable of complementing the more creative duo of Lanzini and Fornals.

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3. West Ham striker conundrum finally solved

For years the Hammers have been bereft of a potent goalscorer both capable of finding the back of the net and linking up play, but Pellegrini may finally have solved that particular quandary, one which has hindered the progress of so many of his predecessors.

There is that incredible statistic about the club signing 40 strikers since David Gold and David Sullivan took over in January 2010, but based on Haller’s early performances in pre-season and against City, he looks capable of outscoring and outperforming all 40 combined.

Failing that, Javier Hernandez could rediscover his shooting boots with the likes of Fornals and Lanzini behind him, while he would also offer a fantastic strike partner to Haller should Pellegrini go old school in a big man-little man throwback.

He also has newcomer Ajeti to throw into the mix while Antonio has proven his worth when handed the No 9 role – Pellegrini is well-stocked in this department.

4. Unstable backline a cause for concern

Many would argue the key to a successful side is in a consistent backline, deploying four – or five – players who instinctively know each other’s game and can rely on one another.

However, at West Ham Pellegrini often shuffles the pack when things don’t work out, but the result is nearly always the same.

Against City he opted for Aaron Cresswell at left-back with Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop holding the fort; but having conceded five, Cresswell was out of the squad for Brighton, Arthur Masuaku was in and Balbuena had to settle for a place on the bench as Angelo Ogbonna was handed a starting berth.

This inconsistency can cause confusion further up the field, with the wingers changing flank partners on an almost weekly basis; and having conceded against the Seagulls don’t be surprised to see Ryan Fredericks dropped for Pablo Zabaleta, Balbuena back in and youngster Ben Johnson on the bench – who knows?

5. The potential is epic

Despite some initial teething problems this season already, it is hard to argue against this being one of the most well-crafted squads West Ham have ever put together, with Pellegrini blessed with an embarrassment of attacking riches. It will just be up to him to work out his best XI and have them firing on all cylinders.

West Ham fans certainly saw plenty of panache in pre-season, with some of the performances leaving supporters purring at the possibilities, and while it hasn’t quite worked out just yet, Pellegrini certainly possesses the tactical acumen and experience to get it right.

It’s clear that Pellegrini is trying to reinvent West Ham as a club who priorities aesthetics over pragmatism, and while that is always a difficult thing to achieve in the hustle and bustle of English football, he now has the requisite tools to make that pipedream a reality.