The Season So Far
West Ham’s 2018-19 has been exactly as West Ham as one would expect. Their disastrous move to the London Stadium has only reinforced their national laughing stock status and, despite appointing a Premier League-winning manager and stocking their squad with eye-catching attacking midfielders, they remain a maddeningly inconsistent and fundamentally broken team, overseen by boneheaded, egotistical owners.
While they’ve always had enough points on the board to avoid being dragged into the relegation fight, they’ve never appeared more than the sum of their parts. Individuals have shone in spells but none has put together a season-long run of performances or demonstrated that they belong at a higher level. Young Busquets-lite Declan Rice and egocentric mercenary Marko Arnautovic will likely leave at the end of the season, but Rice’s upward move will be based as much on his Englishness as anything else, and Arnautovic is chasing an enormous Chinese payday more than a move to a European giant.
Convincing home wins over Manchester United and Arsenal showed the potential ceiling of this group of players, but miserable defeats to the likes of Cardiff, Burnley and Brighton, as well as being beaten twice by Bournemouth and somehow contriving to go 3-1 down at home to Huddersfield, demonstrated the depths that they’re capable of reaching. The best performance of the season likely came in a commanding 3-0 win away to Newcastle, but West Ham remain, for the most part, the same self-imploding, badly run rabble that they’ve always been.
The Season Ahead
With six games left, the Hammers have nothing left to play for bar pride and their individual futures. Truth be told, many West Ham fans will be glad simply to have avoided the relegation dogfight this time around – the stresses of the fight to stay up have routinely exposed divisions within the fanbase over the years and it was this time last year that open rebellion almost consumed West Ham entirely. If they remain 11th in the table and play entertaining football and win their home games, most fans will go into the summer relatively pleased.
Going into next season, West Ham have to add real defensive quality, get rid of the sicknotes and sort out the mess that is their attack. With Arnautovic heading to China and Andy Carroll being taken out back to be shot, it would seem the logical choice to build the attack around Javier Hernández, as sure a goalscorer as West Ham will ever get. Doubts remain over Chicharito’s ability to do anything other than score goals, however, and it could be that he too is jettisoned.
Manuel Pellegrini has always preached positive, associative football, based around short passing and flair and the connections between as many number tens as humanly possible. This falls broadly in line with ‘The West Ham Way’ and so his appointment made sense – much more sense than hiring the likes of Sam Allardyce and David Moyes ever did.
The Hammers have set up in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape for most of the season, with Declan Rice anchoring the midfield and allowing the army of creators ahead of him to go wherever they please. The wingers start wide but drift inside and the full-backs push high, allowing West Ham to build coherent incremental attacks and commit men forward. Marko Arnautovic is a good all-round forward, capable of participating in one-touch interplay or of acting as an old-fashioned battering ram, which means West Ham can always sling it in the mixer if nothing else works.
Such adventurous tactics can make the Hammers easy on the eye, but Pellegrini’s weakness has always been organising his teams’ attack-to-defence transitions, and this side is no different. When the ball turns over they’re often left wide open, and they don’t have the same individual quality in defence as they do in attack. For a club so embodied by pratfalls, it’s oddly hubristic to prioritise a style of play which increases the likelihood of such pratfalls.
They’ve got Felipe Anderson, Samir Nasri, Manuel Lanzini and Robert Snodgrass and one of these days Manuel Pellegrini is going to try and fit all of them into a starting eleven - that’s a lot of rabbits being pulled out of hats. While it’s true that they’re all primarily assisters rather than goalscorers, they’ve got the attacking instincts of Javier Hernández and Michail Antonio to work with, so it’ll never be hard for West Ham to score a goal out of nothing. If all else fails, Marko Arnautovic can produce a goal out of nothing by himself.
They’re also very handy from set pieces and wide positions, with the deliveries of Snodgrass and Aaron Cresswell especially dangerous. While not exactly prolific or consistent, this remains an artful team which can do damage to a stronger opponent if it’s allowed to, as Manchester United and Arsenal found earlier this season.
A word of praise too for Lukasz Fabianski, who has turned his career around in spells at West Ham and Swansea and emerged as one of the division’s finest shot-stoppers. While to many casuals he will always be FlappyHandski, he’s far from being a figure of fun now. He leads the Premier League for saves made and, in truth, he’s almost the sole reason that West Ham are where they are in the table: in terms of Expected Goals Against, only relegated Fulham have been worse this season, and yet six teams have conceded more actual goals.
As previously stated, their glaring weaknesses are their lack of organisation in the attack-to-defence transition and their lack of balance. This is a team built to attack and to enjoy attacking, but that’s it. Defending is almost an afterthought for a large proportion of their side and their back four is as sturdy as a Kit Kat that’s been left out in the sun for six hours. Everything depends on the positioning and decision-making of Declan Rice in midfield and the shot-stopping ability of Fabianski between the sticks.
Also, for such an attacking side on paper, they’re not actually that productive: they’ve scored 41 goals from an Expected Goals figure of 38.5, while shooting 11.1 times per game on average. In terms of production, they’re only marginally better than goal-shy Burnley and Southampton.
Shockingly, West Ham are suffering something of an injury crisis. The permanently crocked Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll are both ruled out along with the Hammers’ best defender, Winston Reid, and their defensive midfielder with the most pedigree, Carlos Sánchez. Ryan Fredericks, Samir Nasri, Felipe Anderson and Marko Arnautovic are available for selection, but all are carrying minor injuries of some description and none will be at their most effective.
Gonzalo Higuaín should come back in for the unfortunate Olivier Giroud, while Marcos Alonso (if fit) and Mateo Kovacic will push Ross Barkley and Emerson hard for their starting berths.
Chelsea badly need another comfortable home win. West Ham should prove obliging guests. Eden Hazard 2-0 West Ham.