Football Features

The less obvious weapons that could fire West Ham into the top-four race this season

By Ben Green

Published: 16:35, 31 August 2021

West Ham enter the international break unbeaten and second in the Premier League table.

After three games, the Hammers have struck 10 goals, thrashed the FA Cup holders, celebrated a new Premier League record goalscorer and welcomed a capacity crowd back to the London Stadium, and all without having signed a new outfield player until three days before deadline day.

This has not been the work of some divine force, although David Moyes is certainly cultivating a demigod status in E20, but rather, the hard work and tactical endeavour of one sagacious Scot and his band of brothers in the dugout (Billy McKinlay, Kevin Nolan, Stuart Pearce and Paul Nevin).

Michail Antonio has been the attacking fulcrum, Declan Rice the leader and Tomas Soucek the midfield engine. But, there is so much more to this current side than the headline-grabbers alone, from the Tomas Repka-esque tenacity of Vladimir Coufal, to the uncompromising, hard-nosed defending of Angelo Ogbonna.

With West Ham continuing their Europa League-achieving form from last season and looking a more refined, polished outfit under Moyes, there is no reason they can’t target a top-four finish. And here are four of the less-obvious stars that could go on to define another stellar season.

William Hill odds for West Ham’s next game away to Southampton:

  • Southampton to win: 11/5
  • Draw: 12/5
  • West Ham to win: 5/4

18+ only. BeGambleAware. Odds in this article correct at the time of writing.

Angelo Ogbonna: An intelligent defender

“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,” legendary Italian defender Paolo Maldini once observed.

One of the Premier League’s most consistent and reliable centre-backs, Angelo Ogbonna is a classic Italian defender in every respect, a regal No.3 who reads the game better than most and can snuff out danger before having to lunge in and make a last-ditch challenge. Having hailed from Turin (first Torino and then Juventus), Ogbonna is part of the city’s rich lineage of intelligent defenders.

He was part of Antonio Conte’s and then Max Allegri’s Old Lady, where he played alongside the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, three of Italy’s best ever centre-backs, and three players renowned for their world-class reading of the game. It will have been an education in the art of defending.

Those qualities are certainly evident at the back for the Hammers. The 33-year-old is a leader and stalwart, a more sophisticated defender to his no-nonsense partner Craig Dawson. Any success this season will hinge on Ogbonna staying fit.

Said Benrahma: The new Payet?

West Ham fans love a crowd-pleaser, a talismanic force capable of rousing the stadium and making the admission fee worth it. The sort of player you want to arrive at the game early for, so you can watch them warm-up and dazzle, any excuse to see them in motion. Said Benrahma is that player.

A little bit like Gareth Southgate in the summer with his handling of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, Benrahma was largely kept on ice last season as Moyes preferred more ‘safety-first’ players, those who wouldn’t try something out of the ordinary and risk losing possession, stalwarts over soloists.

There was a clamour for Benrahma to get game time, but 15-minute cameos dotted here and there were simply not enough for him to shine and often led to him trying too hard, looking to impress during those fleeting moments. That ultimately led to poor decision-making, unnecessary showboating and fan frustration.

There was undoubtedly a player in there waiting to explode to life. The catalyst this season has been the absence of Jesse Lingard. With Benrahma given carte blanche to run riot in the final third, and with a well-drilled, well-choreographed system behind him, he is flourishing as the centrepiece.

There is a Dimitri Payet-esque quality to Benrahma’s game. A creative virtuosity that has already endeared itself to a fanbase who relish the ridiculous; whether it’s wacky celebrations from Antonio, twinkle-toed turns from Benrahma, or the possibility of Dawson marshalling the backline at the Stadio Olimpico, West Ham has always been a magnet for the illogical.

Kurt Zouma, and why corners will be like penalties

West Ham are about as good at winning penalties as they are at scoring them, which is not very good. It took a Manchester United loanee Lingard to come in before the Hammers won their first last season (in mid-February for crying out loud!). They then went on to win three more, the second-worst return in the division.

Moyes’ men ended up missing two of those four and have already missed one this season. So yeah, West Ham are not very good from the spot (Mark Noble aside). But it is another form of set-piece, the corner, that may actually turn out to be gold dust for Moyes, a dead-ball scenario just as threatening as the inferno pressure of 12 yards.

West Ham are by no means a route one side, but they have some absolute units in their XI, including Soucek, Ogbonna, Dawson and even Antonio. Throw Kurt Zouma into the mix, who has switched west London for the East End, and Moyes has a side so aerially dominant it’s actually quite scary.

West Ham scored the most set-piece goals last season in the Premier League (16), while Zouma scored the most headed goals of any defender (four). And all while only featuring in 24 matches. If ever there was a match made in heaven, Zouma diverting deliveries from set-piece master Aaron Cresswell is it.

The versatile left-back not only registered the most assists of any defender last season (eight), but he also managed the second-most set-piece assists (six), behind only James Ward-Prowse (seven). The Hammers have also already taken the third-most corners this term (21), with only Liverpool and Man City racking up more.

With Zouma now through the door, the corner could be set to become a (not so) secret weapon for Moyes. There is a flair, fluidity and rhythm about West Ham’s attack under the Scot, but their set-piece taking is about to get a massive adrenaline shot (not that it needed one).

The 12th man!

“I managed at Upton Park against West Ham, and I thought tonight was like Upton Park,” Moyes reflected after West Ham’s 4-1 win over Leicester.

“The people who have been at the game at Upton over the years, the noise and atmosphere there, this reminded me of Upton Park.

“It really did. The support was terrific, and the players really gave them something to cheer about.”

There was an argument last season that West Ham hugely benefited from no fans being in the ground. Echoes of Mark Noble grappling a pitch-invader to the turf in the club’s now-infamous 3-0 reversal to Burnley in March 2018 remains a snapshot of the discontent that has permeated the London Stadium.

But make no mistake, Moyes has shifted the narrative (football-wise, at least), with fans now able to take pride in a hard-working, industrious, heart-on-sleeve squad. A tight-knit bunch that chime with the (forgive the cliché) ‘club ethos’. Players who look like they ‘get it’, understand what it means to represent West Ham.

And the West Ham fans, when on your side, will reciprocate that effort. They are an impassioned, decibel-raising audience who will encourage you for 90 minutes and then some. They care little for title challenges and silverware (to a certain degree), but just want players to put in a genuine effort and run their socks off.

That sentiment was encapsulated by Pablo Fornals against Leicester, who covered more distance than any other Premier League player from matchday two. It was a raucous audience, reminiscent of Upton Park according to Moyes, and that should galvanise the team when fatigue inevitably creeps in.