It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong at West Ham. But it is obvious, to everyone except the manager it seems, that something has.
After finishing 6th then 7th in the previous two seasons and reaching the Europa League semi-final with incisive, counter attacking football, David Moyes banished the demons of his Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Sunderland disasters, and reinvigorated his career.
As a result, pre-season talk was of the Hammers making good on chairman, David Gold’s five-year-old promise of the Champions League. To reinforce this, and buoyed by the wealth of new co-owner Daniel Kretinsky, West Ham were the third biggest spenders in Europe in the summer. Brazilian maestro Lucas Paqueta, Italian goal machine Gianluca Scamacca, silky Moroccan stopper Nayef Aguerd and mercurial Ivorian winger Maxwel Cornet all arrived to improve the first team. Others, like Flynn Downes, Emerson Palmieri and Thilo Kehrer to boost the squad.Embed from Getty Images
Yet this investment has not reaped rewards. Quite the opposite.
After 16 matches of the 21-22 campaign, nearly all of them drab, plodding performances, the Hammers sit 16th, just one point above the relegation zone. Tomorrow, they face a buoyant Brentford side, in an attempt to avoid slumping to five straight defeats. If they are unable to do that, Moyes’ will surely be facing uncomfortable conversations with those who pay his wages.
There have been no public statements from the board so far, but Kretinsky is no soft touch. Nobody spends £170m hoping for a relegation battle.
Moyes must rapidly turn the team’s fortunes around. But how?
Beyond all the tactical analysis, much of which is valid – too defensive, too passive, too slow into the press, beyond the nosediving form of key players – such as Czech international Tomas Soucek, once a midfield titan, now a knock-kneed trundler unable to find a teammate with a ten-yard pass, one fact stands clear. The Hammers have lost their spirit.Embed from Getty Images
West Ham’s positive form in the last two campaigns was built on togetherness. A do or die attitude, which Moyes brought with him. He inherited a group of under-achievers, organised and squeezed the best out of them. The squad may have been thin, but the sum was greater than its parts.
You could see it in the body language and the post-match interviews. It shone out of the players’ off-the-ball energy and collaborative reaction to setbacks. More than anything, they seemed to really enjoy playing for their manager. Moyes went as far as to describe them as a ‘band of brothers’ in one piece to camera. All of that is now just a memory.
The West Ham of 2022-23 have been sloppy and surly. Even captain Declan Rice has lost the chin-up, chest-out, non-stop effort of previous seasons. He remains the Hammers’ best and most consistent player but has made uncharacteristic mistakes. When those around him do the same, he berates them, or reacts with passive aggression, shaking his head, waving dismissively, putting hands on hips. At times he has a faraway look in his eye, as if gazing toward Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford. Even he, it seems, has stopped believing.Embed from Getty Images
Theories abound as to what has caused all this. The retirement of former club captain, Mark Noble is sometimes suggested, or the departure of Alan Irvine and Stuart Pearce from the backroom staff. Without these key figures, it is proposed, team spirit has evaporated. If true, it would suggest Moyes’ impact on the club’s morale, for which he took so much prior credit, was not actually his own work.
Others believe the players are no longer happy with Moyesball – surrendering possession and waiting for counters – and have become frustrated. That even Moyes himself knew the style had to evolve, hence the signing of skillful, possession players like Paqueta, but that he cannot force himself to change his system.
Whatever the problem, a change in approach is required. Refusing to accept the current situation and hard-headedly doing the same thing over and over, will not reap different results. But for West Ham United and David Moyes, the warning signs are clear.
Despite having a six week break during the world cup to devise a plan, Moyes did nothing new for Monday’s game against Arsenal. He did not drop Soucek for Downes, or change system to accommodate Paqueta alongside Rice. He did not switch tactics to get on the front foot or do more to pressurise the Gunners’ defence.
But Arsenal are Arsenal and an away defeat to the league leaders can be excused. Brentford at home is a different matter. Yet Moyes’ words in the pre-match press conference will send a shudder down the spines of the wavering West Ham support.
“How we’ll go about the game is the same way we’ve done for a long period. We will try and do all of the things we normally do, to try to win.”
These are not the humble thoughts of a man who knows his approach is no longer working, who accepts he must enact change to solve the problem. They are the stubborn ones of a man who refuses to.
Moyes has to hope his beleaguered, melancholy players somehow pull a result out of the bag on Friday. Otherwise, he will give the directors no choice. They will know that one way or another, change must come.
And if David Moyes cannot make it, it must be made at his expense.