In 2015–16 season West Ham finished in 7th place in their final season at Upton Park. That year was supposed to be the launching pad for the team to bridge the gap between themselves and England’s top six clubs. The reality is that Dimitri Payet’s brilliance and that seasons’ general above average finishing were exceptions to the norm and West Ham quickly returned to the below average Premier League side they’d been over the last few seasons. Last season, troubles meant that everyone’s favorite guitar playing uncle Slaven Bilic was sacked, and the hiring of David Moyes was met by large swaths of skepticism. West Ham salvaged their season and stayed up, but things never really turned around under Moyes. Performances didn’t really improve and fan unrest stayed high.
The good news is that there’s excitement concerning West Ham’s 2018–19 season, and the hope for something better. In Manuel Pellegrini, West Ham have hired their most acclaimed manager in roughly forever and a substantial upgrade over what Moyes brought to the squad. Compared to the 2017 transfer window, 2018 has been more sensible in terms of identifying talents and how they could fit under Pellegrini. There’s still some issues with how the talent fits together, but the optimism is definitely back within West Ham supporters.
For all the talk during the season about the sky falling, it might come as a surprise that West Ham actually finished in 13th place and a full nine points clear of relegation and 18th place Swansea. Of course, that sugarcoats just what happened with West Ham when it came to their underlying performance. Simply put, West Ham were terrible last season from a statistical standpoint. Only Swansea had a worse shot ratio than West Ham’s 39.1%, and West Ham’s expected goal difference was only better than Swansea, Huddersfield and Stoke. It was the perfect storm of not being able to generate shots and conceding them at will.
In theory, David Moyes should have improved West Ham on the defensive side of the ball, but that never actually happened. In the 11 games under Bilic to start the season, West Ham gave up around 14.5 shots per game on an average shot quality of near 12%. That’s a recipe for disaster, but those numbers didn’t move enough in the positive direction under Moyes with West Ham giving up nearly 16 shots per game on an average shot quality of around 10%. If you’re going to concede a lot of shots, you better be damn near the top in being able to suppress the shot quality on average so that it’s not a complete horror show, but West Ham didn’t quite do that and it’s why they continued to let in a boatload of goals.
Under Moyes, West Ham played a back three/five in part to try and compensate for some of the deficiencies they had in midfield. West Ham had problems with being able to have vertical passing to bypass the opposition, so they had to use the wide areas and potential combination play to progress up the field. There would also be a number of occasions where the spacing between the players would look quite off and it made it even harder than it perhaps should have been for West Ham to create anything during possession. For the entirety of the season, West Ham were another one of these PL teams that crossed the ball a lot (6th highest percentage of penalty box entries coming via crosses) that couldn’t actually connect on them (last in cross completion percentage).
Another problem for West was that they tried playing a wingback system with Pablo Zabaleta at age 33. At one point in his career Zabaleta had the athletic capabilities to perform the duties of a modern day wingback, but at his advanced age, it just meant that he couldn’t create separation from his marker and far too many potential attacks died as a result. This created an imbalance where West Ham were considerably more potent from the left side than the right with the combination of Manuel Lanzini and Arthur Masuaku.
The saving grace with West Ham going forward was that shifting Mark Arnautovic to a more central role coincided with some of the best football we’ve seen from him. It was a smart idea because Arnautovic can perform the duties of a striker in 2018. When West Ham were able to get the ball up field, he’s strong enough to be an outlet for long passes into the final third and shield the ball to setup the next move. The move to striker also made better use of his speed because he can attack space in behind the opposition to get into dangerous shooting opportunities instead of trying to create as an inverted winger off the dribble.
Defensively, West Ham defended in a manner that you would’ve expected from them, a low block with very little sustained pressure on the ball higher up the pitch. Only Brighton and Crystal Palace had their average location of defensive events closer to goal than West Ham. Defending in a low block isn’t a bad thing if done properly, because it negates pass opportunities into the middle and forces the opposition to stay out in the wide areas which are more inefficient in terms of creating opportunities. As a low block defense, the goal is either forcing the opposition to cross from deep or forcing the opposition to settle for low quality shots. But as the shot suppression and quality numbers references early show, that wasn’t the case with West Ham. The low block simply didn’t accomplish it’s goals. Additionally, they were 13th in allowing passes completed within 20 meters of goal. West Ham gave up prime real estate to opponents without much of a fight.
A major problem for West Ham since coming back to the Premier League in 2012 is that their halfhearted approach to squad building led to almost never selling high on players. Since Carlos Tevez left for Manchester City in July 2009, they’ve only been able to sell two players for £20 million or more: Dimitri Payet to Marseille and Andre Ayew to Swansea in the 2017 and 2018 January windows respectively. If you’re a properly run club that’s not part of the elite, you’re hopefully hitting on a few young players, turning that into profits in player sales and continuing that cycle in the near future as part of a certain niche in the football chain.
Despite that, West Ham haven’t been afraid to throw money around to solve problems (even if those problems are of their own making). Compared to last season, this season’s business seems more thought out. Issa Diop at his price is a good bet at the center back position and while his age makes him risky, and there are questions about his ability on the ball, finding a good and potentially great defender at a young age is hard to do. Spending lots of money on Felipe Anderson is a high risk move, but the reward is grand if it turns out that what we saw from Anderson in 14-15 and 17-18 is more representative of his true talent level. At 25, he’s young enough that if he hits and performs like one of the better attacking players in the league, there’ll still be re-sale value in a couple of years. Lukasz Fabianski, Ryan Federicks and Jack Wilshere were all sensible moves given their respective price tags, though the idea of heavily relying on Jack Wilshere with his injury past is…unsettling.
The only really questionable move is getting Andriy Yarmolenko. He’s turning 29 in October and unless he is close to awesome immediately, it could be the case that West Ham end up having overpaid for a player at the wrong end of the aging curve and won’t be able to move him on unless they’re willing to take a substantial loss. Yarlmolenko is a talented player, but he’s not quite good enough to feel comfortable spending an ample amount of money at his age. Cheikhou Kouyaté is the only major player departing from West Ham, and while he had his uses, his departure shouldn’t have much of a noticeable impact on the squad.
From a sheer talent perspective, West Ham might be the most talented team not in the top 6, which is progress considering that there was no way one could make this argument 12 months ago. They might’ve found their next star in Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop might turn out to be a hit right away and if healthy (which is a big if), Jack Wilshere should be a fine enough midfielder and an upgrade over who they’ve had at that position over the years. All of this is good, and it’s hard to remember the last time in which West Ham had a number of moves that at least made some modicum of sense.
And yet, the squad still has obvious major holes. It’s hard to see how they’ll be able to cobble up a midfield good enough to amplify their attacking talent, which is a pity in some ways. If they had not done the Yarmolenko deal and had instead used that money to shore up the midfield areas, especially with Manuel Lanzini being out until some time in 2019, the pieces would fit in a cleaner way and West Ham might have seemed like a fun side with serious potential. As it stands, it looks more like a fun team to play on FIFA than one that might seriously contend to finish seventh this season.
The best thing that can be said about West Ham in 2018–19 is that the amount of talent collected this summer and the addition of Manuel Pellegrini gives them a good chance to avoid the pain visited upon them last season, though just how much better they’ll be compared to that low bar is anyone’s guess.
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