If ever you needed a reason to know just how important the goalkeeper is to any functioning side, then look no further to Alisson’s impact at Liverpool – or, perhaps, a look at West Ham’s current plight would be the more fitting example.
As Manuel Pellegrini’s men were cheered off the field after a defiant 2-0 victory against Manchester United towards the end of September, aspirations of a positive season were rife at the London Stadium – even the most pessimistic of Hammers expressed a modicum of hope.
West Ham found themselves fifth in the Premier League table, unbeaten in five matches and boasting three consecutive clean sheets – not quite uncharted territory for the east London club, but certainly a situation not too familiar for those of a claret and blue persuasion.
However, fast forward seven games and West Ham now find themselves on the brink of collapse, just two places above the relegation zone and in desperate need of a win, while Pellegrini’s tenure is on tenterhooks.
In almost typical style, West Ham have lived up to their reputation as the top-flight’s Jekyll and Hyde club, going from “best of the rest” aspirants to relegation battlers in just two months. But where exactly has it gone wrong for Pellegrini?
Fabianski: A hip injury crippling West Ham’s season
It should come as no surprise to see West Ham’s crumbling form coincide with Lukasz Fabianski’s hip injury, which he sustained during the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth just a week after picking up three points against Man Utd.
Prior to the match at Dean Court, West Ham had conceded just two goals in five games, but in the following six matches, Pellegrini’s side have shipped an alarming 14 goals, with points falling by the wayside and a sense of disillusionment now pervading the stands – a concerning sight for a club whose goal scarcely lives a charmed life.
Having a competent ‘keeper between the sticks is imperative for any risk-taking Pellegrini side, but that has so far eluded the Chilean in Fabianski’s absence. A quick look at the Pole’s metrics will, in fact, paint a broader picture of just how much his absence has been felt these past few weeks.
Last season, Fabianski made more saves than any other Premier League goalkeeper (149), which is certainly no mean feat, but when you consider he boasted the fifth-highest save-percentage among all ‘keepers with over five appearances (72.5%), that initial stat looks all the more impressive.
His dextrous exploits rightly earned him three club accolades last term: ‘Hammer of the Year’, ‘West Ham Signing of the Season’ and perhaps unsurprisingly ‘West Ham Save of the Season’.
And that form has spilt over to this season. Fabianski was level with Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson for most clean sheets kept (three) prior to his injury. It’s safe to say then that Fabianski’s absence has dealt a serious blow to West Ham’s season, but what of his stand-in?
Roberto: A successor struggling to adapt
Losing a key player in any position can hit a side hard, but those aspiring to challenge at the top order of football should always have a contingency plan.
However, for the top brass at West Ham, the idea of Plan B seemed almost nonsensical. Why splash significant money – or any for that matter – on a position that may or may not be required in the forthcoming campaign?
They baulked at the thought of Fabianski – a man who went unblemished last campaign – getting injured and, so, failed to prepare for the worst-case scenario. As it turns out, that worst-case scenario has transpired and West Ham are paying the price.
The Hammers could have been smart and spent just £3m on Bailey Peacock-Farrell from Leeds, taken Jonas Lossl (a Premier League experienced ‘keeper) from Huddersfield Town, or perhaps Ralf Fahrmann on loan. Even Everton could have been tempted with a low offer for Maarten Stekelenburg – a goalkeeper with World Cup final and Champions League experience. But instead, they flipped the coin on relative unknowns Roberto and David Martin.
On paper, the former didn’t look quite so bad, an ex-Atletico Madrid and Benfica ‘keeper, but a quick look at his metrics from his last full season – Malaga 2017/18 – doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence.
The Spaniard conceded the third-most goals that term (51) and had a save percentage of just 66%. It’s worth noting here that Malaga finished rock-bottom in La Liga that campaign so any goalkeeper would likely have struggled.
That said, the impact of Fabianski has shown the importance of possessing a proficient shot-stopper, so to gamble on his understudy was always going to prove a slippery slope.
As it turns out, that slope may as well be fashioned of ice as Roberto has done very little to stoke fear in the opposition and give confidence to his defensive teammates. In fact, he has been guilty of multiple blunders, making two errors leading to goals in just seven games – no ‘keeper in the division has more this season.
Spurs attempted 12 shots in the first half against West Ham, the most they have produced in a first half of a Premier League game this season.
The Mourinho effect. pic.twitter.com/YMrJwSHUF7
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 23, 2019
In fact, since 2016/17, of players with 250+ minutes in the Premier League, only two have made 0.25+ errors leading to goals per 90 minutes: Roberto (0.3 – 596 minutes) and Carlos Sanchez (0.32 – 280 minutes) – both West Ham players.
The defensive maladies of West Ham had been remedied by the addition of Fabianski, but now those same deficiencies have resurfaced, with Roberto at the heart of numerous goalmouth gaffes, notably during the games against Newcastle and Burnley.
He did not cover himself in glory against Spurs either as his lack of authority and nervousness continues to spread throughout the entire side. But, curiously, Pellegrini has refused to discuss the Spaniard’s individual performances despite the fact he is clearly struggling and being openly mocked by fans.
If Roberto played all season then West Ham would be relegated. He's that bad.
— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) November 23, 2019
Roberto is a social experiment to see how long West Ham are willing to go before we play a guy we signed from Millwall
— Fake Carlton (@_CarltonCole9) November 23, 2019
There is nothing left to say about Roberto and how bad he is. He's a total and utter embarrassment and has the face of a man who knows it.
The blame isn't on him though, it's Pellegrini – he bought him, he defends him, he picks him every week.
— Wᴇsᴛ Hᴀᴍ Sᴏᴄɪᴀʟ (@WestHamSocial) November 23, 2019
Can’t see us winning a game until Fabianski is fit again. Roberto… 🤬🤬 #WestHam
— Sammy McNess ⚒ (@Sammcness) November 23, 2019
Did Roberto win a competition to play in goal for West Ham today ?
— Graham Kingsbury (@grayjam68) November 23, 2019
Adrian: Liverpool’s ‘ironic’ cult hero
And so, we get to the crux of the matter. Adrian, for all his hotheadedness and rash decision-making, is actually a very competent Premier League goalkeeper, one who not only endeared himself to the West Ham faithful, but also proved his worth.
He may have been a purveyor of panic at times with his adrenaline-fuelled runs off the line, but he was no proverbial bull in a china shop. He was, for all intents and purposes, a safe pair of hands – as a No. 2, he was perfect for West Ham.
But, for one reason or another, the Spaniard departed the club in the summer, against the wishes of Pellegrini it should be noted, and now the club have seemingly regressed.
When West Ham needed Adrian most, he was performing his duties as a deputy for another club: Liverpool. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to see the Reds atop the league table. They prepared for Plan B, the worst-case scenario, and that is the mentality of a ‘big club’.
When injury struck Alisson at the start of the campaign, there was a sense of panic on Merseyside, but that fear soon subsided as Adrian stepped into the equation seamlessly and starred in the Super Cup as Liverpool beat Chelsea in a penalty shoot-out.
A new Liverpool hero. pic.twitter.com/DSZsTPTQqM
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) August 14, 2019
He became something of a minor cult hero among Koppites for his heroics in Istanbul, while he also managed to deputise brilliantly for the injured Alisson domestically, too.
The irony has certainly not been lost in east London. When they needed their beloved back-up ‘keeper to step up, he was doing so for another club. Meanwhile, his replacement has left a lot to be desired, and for West Ham, well, the immediate forecast looks rather bleak.