Football News

Can West Ham qualify for the Champions League?

By Ben Green

Published: 17:14, 17 November 2021 | Updated: 14:19, 21 September 2022

The David Moyes-inspired fever dream that was West Ham finishing sixth in the Premier League last season has proven anything but a flash in the pan.

The Hammers are currently third and daring to dream of more than Thursday nights.

When a “David Moyes is a football genius” banner was unfurled at Old Trafford during his ill-fated Manchester United stint, there was more than a sense of irony in the message. But if that same tifo were to embellish the London Stadium terraces now, it would be a fitting description of his current reputation in E20.

West Ham, against all expectations, are currently mixing it with England’s ‘Super League’ sextet, third in the Premier League after 11 matches, with the scalps of Liverpool, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton already claimed and a togetherness at the club that has eluded the fanbase since Upton Park.

They are the Premier League’s in-form club with four wins on the bounce, have outscored reigning champions Manchester City, and have also been given a financial adrenaline shot after Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky bought a 27% stake in the club last week.

Newcastle have naturally been tipped to break the glass ceiling in the seasons to come, but for now, West Ham are looking the most likely to gatecrash the Champions League party. So, after 11 games, are they simply riding the crest of an autumnal purple patch? Or could they genuinely make the top four come May?

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A sustainable start?

After 11 matches in the 2015/16 season, eventual champions Leicester City were third in the Premier League table with 23 goals scored. After 11 matches in the 2021/22 season, West Ham are third in the Premier League table with 23 goals scored. The difference? Leicester had 22 points, West Ham have 23.

Of course, we all know how that tale played out. Leicester’s 5000/1 triumph owed as much to the unity cultivated by Claudio Ranieri, N’Golo Kante’e silent workhorse exploits, Jamie Vardy, etc. as it did to the inconsistencies of the ‘Big Six’ that term. Leicester’s 81-point finish has been the third-lowest this century.

No one is contemplating West Ham challenging for the Premier League, with Man City and Liverpool recently setting a high-90 benchmark for title-winning points. But, their Leicester-esque trajectory could see them sneak a top-four standing. An 81-point finish (Leicester’s total) gets them in the top four in every season since the Premier League’s inception in 1992.

But, of course, from matchweek 11 onwards Leicester lost just two games. Not even the most optimistic of West Ham fans could envisage that scenario transpiring. Averaging 2.09 points per match, West Ham’s current form would see them finish on 79 points, which should be enough. But, football, as we know, is played on grass and not spreadsheets. Coping with unsuspected injuries, the festive calendar and knockout European football will all conspire against them.

It’s also interesting to note that Leicester were fourth at this stage last season (21 points) and finished fifth (61 points), third in 2019/20 (23 points) and finished fifth (62 points), while Southampton had a whopping 25 points and were second in 2014/15, only to finish seventh on 60 points.

Other recent examples of non-Big Six in the top four after 11 games include Southampton again in 2013/14 (23 points), finishing eighth (56 points); Moyes’ Everton in 2012/13 (20 points), finishing sixth (63 points); Newcastle in 2011/12 (25 points), finishing in fifth (65 points). You would then have to go back to 2006/07 for the time before that (Bolton and Portsmouth on 20 and 19 points respectively, both finishing outside the top six).

West Ham relevant odds (via Sky Bet)

  • West Ham to win the Premier League – 50/1
  • West Ham to finish in the top four – 10/3
  • West Ham to finish outside the top four – 1/5
  • West Ham to finish in the top half – 1/20
  • West Ham to finish in the bottom half – 8/1
  • West Ham to finish in the top six – 8/13
  • West Ham to be relegated – 750/1

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The System

Once a menagerie of has-beens and hopefuls, West Ham are now a side built on sustainability, consistency and organisation. Every Moyes signing has been meticulously hand-picked; the days of gone-to-seed freebies rocking up mid-season now seem like a thing of the past.

With that, West Ham now seem to be heading in the right direction, and the football on the pitch reflects this. Moyes has assembled a balanced squad but, fundamentally, he has got the basics right, something predecessor Manuel Pellegrini could never seem to grasp. Defensively they are more sound, which gives them a platform to build going forward.

The double midfield pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek offers a marriage of dynamism and tenacity. They are the heartbeat of this side. That Rice is one of only two players in the Premier League (alongside Joao Cancelo) with 10 or more in the following metrics pays testament to his all-round ability: clearances (11), tackles made (30), interceptions (21), aerials won (15), chances created (12), take-ons completed (16) and touches in the opposition box (13).

The Hammers also play to their strengths. Everyone is now well aware of their threats from deadball scenarios, having scored more set-piece goals than any other Premier League side since Moyes returned in December 2019. Liverpool can also attest to their threats following their most recent 3-2 reversal in the capital.

Then of course, it’s how well the attack operates. Michail Antonio is a battering ram masquerading as a very good footballer, Pablo Fornals is an industrious raumdeuter (excellent at exploiting space), Said Benrahma a creative wizard, and Jarrod Bowen a prolific winger. Individually, they are all technically superb in their own right, but as a collective, they are effective and functional.

It may not always be 1970s Brazil, though they have the capacity to channel their inner Selecao, but Moyes’ system is largely tailored towards adaptability, a more flexible, pragmatic approach depending on the opposition. A key example would be the club’s consecutive 1-0 wins over Tottenham and Everton last month.

Two identical results, but two vastly contrasting performances. Away at Goodison, West Ham averaged a 61.02% possession as they dominated the ball and toyed  with Everton; at home to Spurs the following week they averaged just 37.7%, restricting Nuno Espirito Santo’s men to zero shots on target in the second half.

With no defined tactical philosophy, it is difficult for opposition managers to suss Moyes out. His XI has been the same for the last four games, but the style of play varied. Moyes simply works with the tools at his disposal, but has a Bielsa-esque obsession when it comes to pre-match tactical preparations.

“I’d like to say that I’m going to challenge the top four,” Moyes recently said. “I don’t want to sit back and think that they believe that we are not going to come at them.

“It makes me think: ‘Well, you’re challenging me a little bit here, you know?’

“So I’m now thinking, I’ve always been thinking: I have to challenge them to try and be there.”

And challenge them he is. West Ham’s season may yet fizzle out, Angelo Ogbonna’s recent ACL tear already serves as a cautionary tale that injury can strike at any moment. But, for now there is no stopping this current West Ham side, who look more than good value for their current top-four standing.

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