So, we end 2018 with defeat to Burnley and a feeling that we have become all too familiar with. A sense that we should have and could have done better against a team that, on paper, we are better than. The fact that we couldn’t overcome a Burnley side bereft of any real form or confidence seems to exacerbate our frustrations that we aren’t ‘moving to the next level’ like we were promised we would reach by relocating to Stratford.
Moments like Sundays abject 2-0 defeat and the subsequent (and inevitable) fallout on social media embolden all those who wish to engage in that most British of pastimes – complaining.
That nothing has changed. We’re still too soft. We don’t have enough depth or quality in the squad. That Noble/Cresswell/Masuaku/Antonio/Lucas (delete as appropriate) is a liability and shouldn’t get anywhere near the first team. Etc.
It feels somewhat like groundhog day.
And yet, the reality might be more different than we recognise or even dare to admit.
For a start, over the calendar year of 2018, we sit 7th in points won with 51, below the typical top 6 and just above the media darlings of Bournemouth, Leicester City and Everton. It means that despite some shocking displays, pitch invasions, fan protests and the employment of David Moyes we are/have been the best of the also-rans over the last 12 months.
The marginal majority of those points have been won this season under Pellegrini (27/24 in the Argentines favour). In fact when you look at our point tally after those first 4 disastrous displays we would be sat 7th. Our form for December saw us pick up 15 out of 21 points. That see’s us 3rd over the congested Christmas period, which is remarkable really given our injury list. The game against Burnley was visibly a game too far for those involved. We were just too easily outrun and outmuscled by a home side who made 5 changes.
The credit for this must go, in the main, to Manuel Pellegrini. The manner in which in carries himself tells us and the players not to panic. He exudes a quiet confidence. Before City dubbed him ‘This Charming Man’ he was known as The Engineer. There is never any doubt that he has a plan, a vision in mind of what success for his side looks like. I’m not saying for one minute that he has or will get it right everytime. But when he gets it right – such as the 3 goal wins versus Newcastle, Cardiff and Palace – it gives you faith that it will be worth the odd miscalculation.
As such, we are now seeing a West Ham side that has a pattern of play and a style to it. And one that the players seem to believe in. The centre backs split, a central midfielder drops in to become a deeper passing option, whilst the fullbacks push on. We look to play wide, finally looking to use the great expanses of space at the London Stadium to our advantage. The fullbacks overlap, the wide men can cut inside, work the channel or play to one of the central midfielders.
He isn’t afraid to make changes to go in search of points, both on a game by game basis and during matches. He has used both 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) over the season – both much more attacking than the 3-5-2 we adopted under Moyes – and often makes substitutions early to bring another attacker on.
He sticks square pegs in their appropriately matched holes and if that means turning to youth he will do so. Dianganna and most recently Xandre Silva (as well as the use of Connor Coventry and Joe Powell in the Carabo Cup) show he is willing to give the Academy boys a chance rather than play senior pro’s out of position. And whilst some may shout ‘Antonio at right back’, it is a position in Pellegrini’s system, that requires an attacking threat which we saw utilised well against Southampton – but I’ll get to our fullbacks in a bit.
The point is that Pellegrini is managing us. He has a tactical plan and is clearly coaching the players in the best way to implement that. Slaven Bilic was great and the 2015/16 season he and the boys were wonderful. But I do wonder how much they rode the wave of our emotions and the genius of Dimitri Payet that season. Once Payet downed tools and our voices were too concerned with bemoaning the stadium to carry the players anywhere, Bilic seemed devoid of a plan of any sorts. Pellegrini has a footballing philosophy that he has adhered to over his long, successful career – you have a sense that he will always have a way of trying to make that work.
Of course I’m not saying things are perfect by any means.
Our transfer policy of buying ageing and injury prone players has left us with a talented treatment table, but our playing squad somewhat thread thin. Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere would be very welcome players to have available in the system that Pellegrini likes to play as would Manuel Lanzini. However it’s possible we won’t see any of those 3 this season. Hernandez was finally starting to find form in the 4-4-2 before his injury and rumours persist about how settled he really is at the club with him linked to Valencia recently. Either way, we could do with an extra striking option as Lucas Perez hasn’t fully convinced and you never know when Andy Carroll will break again.
Central midfield is also an area of concern. Declan Rice has been indescribably good but needs support (and probably a rest now and then, he is still only 19). As part of the 4-3-3, Snodgrass and Noble provide good balance with both prepared to doggy for the team. Rice and Noble provide the base and Snodgrass is the point of the triangle looking to get in on the half turn and drive us forward. However, beyond them we only have Pedro Obiang and that isn’t enough depth or competition for places. When we play 4-4-2, we haven’t quite found the right pairing for Rice. I love Mark Noble, I think he is a West Ham legend, stuck with us through ups and downs, has lead us admirably as captain and has provided us with some exceptional moments. I do not buy into the criticism of his passing always being backwards or sideways. Even if they where (which there not) a backwards pass is not always a bad pass – it gives the ball to someone with a different view of the pitch, enables the passer to move and provide a different angle and moves the opposition around as they chase the ball. The ‘great’ Pep Barca Tika Taka team passed the ball backwards and sideways all the time to recycle possession! However, I don’t think he is the right partner for Rice in a 4-4-2. Noble likes to sit deeper, behind the attacking play, to act as an outlet and potential switch of play, where as we need someone who is more of a box to box type, willing to run at and in behind the opposition defence. We don’t really have that type of player at the club.
Sami Nasri’s seemingly inevitable signing will provide us at least with another option for the tip of the triangle when we play 4-3-3, but does little to solve the 4-4-2 problem. However, if Nasri is able to get up to speed in terms of fitness and sharpness, he could be a quality addition.
And then there’s the fullbacks. Pablo Zabaleta has been brilliant again this season but Fredericks injury means the veteran argentine has had little rest in what is a demanding role. Michail Antonio offers the a real threat in an attacking guise from right back, and has made a good go of the defensive duties, but there is always the risk of a lapse costing us. Many think the same can be said of Arthur Masuaku at left back, however he doesn’t seem as willing to attack this season and whilst there has been improvement in his defending he still switches off at key moments. Aaron Cresswell has done well when called upon, is the better defender and actually offers a more consistent attacking outlet than people seem to recognise. However Pellegrini doesn’t appear to have settled on either left back which means neither really fit his plan fully.
All this means that despite an unbalanced and injury lavished squad, the starting hand of our manager has meant we reach the halfway point of the season in a strong position to really push for 7th.
As we enter January, we must strengthen the squad. I think Pellegrini needs both a right and left back, a central midfielder and another striker to ensure we aren’t at risk of losing momentum. Another injury or 2 and we will be struggling. Naming only 6 subs for our last two games in December is a clear signal to the board. How we are backed remains to be seen. If the board are serious about backing this manager and really pushing for top 7, then we need to spend some more money and go after players who are of the calibre of some of our summer acquisitions. The alternative will be to sign older players on their way down or loan signings, designed to be a stop gap until the summer window. I’d favour the former, do it now if they can. Everyone strengthens in the summer, so it all balances out to some extent. If we play our hand early, we might gain a march.
So whilst the defeat to Burnley felt very familiar, very West Ham, it shouldn’t distract from the progress we are making. And with the right backing and a few players back from injury it’s possible we could see further developments towards the fabled “next level”. New year, new West Ham?
Written By Greg | @rakis14