After a settling in season at West Ham, Manuel Pellegrini will look to build on the club’s mid-table Premier League finish with what appears to be another busy summer at the London Stadium.
The Chilean experienced some teething problems during his maiden campaign in the east London dugout but as is the case with most revolutionary managers (Guardiola, Klopp, Sarri), a philosophy will often take more than a single campaign to fully inculcate.
In Pellegrini’s case, the veteran tactician has attempted to wean his players away from the more defensive approach employed by his predecessors and embed a new attack-minded style of play.
The Hammers recruited precipitously – by their standards – last summer, spending circa £100m on the acquisitions of more creative outlets, still looking to remedy the seemingly perennial void left by Dimitri Payet over two years ago now.
Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko were the pick of the bunch but this time around, Pellegrini looks like he means business once again as he aims to build a team fragrant with attacking flair.
With that considered, how could West Ham’s attacking line-up look come their daunting first match of the 2019/20 season against Manchester City?
The Hammers are consistently linked with big names every window (Carlos Bacca and Alexandre Lacazette in 2016, Joao Felix last summer. Heck, you could even go back to 2010 when they tried to lure Brazilian wunderkind Neymar to Upton Park) but they nearly always fall short, that is, until Pellegrini bucked the trend with Anderson last year.
The South American looked to be another ‘all talk, no substance’ transfer rumour, but miraculously, his immaculate Santa Maria afro actually pitched up in London, as the Brazilian swapped the Italian capital for the gentrified Stratford district.
And so, it seems West Ham, under the esteemed tutelage of Pellegrini – and shrewd director of football, Mario Husillos – have made the club a more attractive proposition for ‘big-name’ players.
It no longer seems outlandish that Pablo Fornals – who many hope will be the new Payet – could pitch up in east London, or Celta Vigo striker Maxi Gomez – considered by some as the heir to Luis Suarez for Uruguay – could do the same, or even Juventus’ Colombian wing-wizard Juan Cuadrado, though the latter is unlikely.
But, should the Hammers pull of the spectacular and this best-case scenario come to fruition, how could Pellegrini adapt the players he already has at his disposal to create one of the league’s most devastating attacking line-ups?
Gomez would be the archetypal No. 9, spearheading the frontline while looking to hold play up and bring others into the game; with his ‘Toro’ aggression, he will be able to retain the ball exceptionally well and, given his build, he should have no problems acclimatising to the hustle-and-bustle of Premier League defenders.
Marko Arnautovic would have to revert to what was once his natural role on the wing, not ideal given his excellence since converting to a centre-forward, but the Hammers have spent years looking for a 20-goal a season striker and the Austrian is not that.
Indeed, his contributions up top far outweigh his ability to find the onion bag but those attributes could still flourish if stationed on the left; he would operate as an inside forward, cutting in on his right and wreaking havoc – he would therefore still have a lethal effect in the final third.
Fornals would be the conduit between midfield and attack, picking the ball up from deep and driving at the defence, while looking to link up with Felipe Anderson on the right, who has been a deadly outlet on the wing for West Ham so far.
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The above certainly looks a tantalising possibility for the West Ham faithful, though, unfortunately, even the least pessimistic fan among their die-hard contingent will tell you that very rarely do pipedreams become a reality in east London.
As such, the West Ham owners will almost definitely look to secure more moderate signatures and that means a move for either Salomon Rondon or Aleksandar Mitrovic, assuming Fornals also signs the dotted lines.
The former has previously worked under Pellegrini and, well, given how he flourished in Andalusia with Malaga – double digits in both his La Liga seasons – the duo appear compatible bedfellows in a footballing sense.
And so, the Venezuelan may be tempted to reignite this former flame and work under the fluid tactical blueprint of his South American counterpart, rather than a more pragmatic style under Rafa Benitez.
Both Rondon and Mitrovic currently ply their trades with Championship clubs (West Brom and Fulham, respectively), so their price tags will certainly be more modest propositions compared to West Ham’s overseas targets – a signature here for either player would, therefore, not necessarily compromise the balance sheets.
That said, links to Rondon have cooled in recent weeks, while the rumour mill is still associating Mitrovic’s name with the capital club, so should Pellegrini fail to tempt Gomez from Balaidos, it may be the Serbia international who makes the short journey across the M25.
With the 24-year-old leading the line, he will bring a Diego Costa-esque bullishness to West Ham’s attack, keeping opposition defenders busy, which will give Pellegrini’s wingers (Arnautovic and Anderson) greater licence to flourish while cutting in.
Again, Fornals will be the release valve through the middle, operating as the enganche looking to link West Ham’s midfield to attack, picking the ball up at the tip of midfield in Pellegrini’s 4-2-3-1, and creating openings for the wide men or Mitrovic.
Typically, Pellegrini has utilised a 4-2-3-1 and every indication suggests he will not stray from this, and so, neither will we.
The first major proponent of this wildcard line-up is that Fornals is in the starting XI, though stationed in a double-pivot alongside Declan Rice in midfield – a position he played last season with Villarreal – looking to form a creator-destroyer partnership with the elegant enforcer.
The attack will, therefore, see Alexis Claude-Maurice, who West Ham have already lodged a bid for, on the left, Manuel Lanzini through the middle looking to rediscover the Latin spark that shone so brightly in east London prior to his ruptured anterior knee ligament this time last year, and Andriy Yarmolenko on the right.
Michail Antonio will take the striker’s role, bringing immense athleticism and power to a very technically proficient frontline. Arnautovic has all the traits of a No. 9, but Antonio will bring a more dynamic approach, offering an insatiable engine that will ideally complement West Ham’s creativity in the final third.
With Fornals pulling the creative strings further back, the burden will be lifted from Lanzini, who has so often been the player relied upon to dictate West Ham’s tempo when he plays – with this often overwhelming creative responsibility lifted, he will be able to operate more rhythmically and fluidly further up the pitch.
Claude-Maurice will energise the left flank with precision and a brilliant ability to shimmy inside on to his preferred right boot, while Yarmolenko will look to play in a similar fashion on the right byline, cutting in and onto his favoured left foot, attempting to replicate those sensational exploits that had West Ham fans purring against Everton last September.