It would be fair to say that West Ham United had a disappointing season in the 2019/20 edition of the Premier League.
The Hammers, having finished 10th in 2018/19, went into their second season under Manuel Pellegrini expecting big things. They had shown huge ambition in the transfer market and secured the signings of Sebastien Haller from Eintracht Frankfurt and Pablo Fornals from Villareal for a combined £69million.
Add to that Issa Diop and Felipe Anderson, the previous summer’s big money buys, having had very impressive first seasons, as well as the expected returns of Andriy Yarmolenko and Manuel Lanzini from long term injuries, and the West Ham fans could have been forgiven for thinking that they had an outside shot at a Europa League place.
The season starting promisingly, West Ham sat 5th after seven games and had claimed the scalp of Manchester United. Then the wheels fell off and after three wins in those seven games, Pellegrini’s men would win just two of their next twelve games and slip from 5th to 17th. This horrific run culminated in Pellegrini’s dismissal after a 2-1 home defeat to Leicester.
West Ham’s owners didn’t wait long to appoint a successor, with David Moyes taking the reigns for the second time in just over two years. Moyes had previous taken over the Hammers in November 2017 when Slavan Bilic was fired after a bad start to the season. Moyes had done a good job in guiding West Ham to 13th but it should be noted that under Bilic they had finished 7th and 11th and their bad start wasn’t reflective of the quality of the team.
Nonetheless, Moyes had righted the ship and steered them to the comfort of midtable after their flirtation with a relegation battle in November and December. Many people assumed Moyes would get the gig permanently, but West Ham’s owners decided to go for the shinier toy. Pellegrini had won the title with City, so they discarded Moyes in favour of him.
Moyes must have felt somewhat smug when he met with those same owners just 18 months later about taking the job a second time. They’d once decided he wasn’t the man for the job, and yet here they were asking him to take it again.
Moyes inherited a talented but flawed squad. It contained no goalkeepers under the age of 33, it contained nobody resembling a starting Premier League calibre fullback and while there were a lot of talented attacking players there wasn’t anyone with a proven ability to put the ball in the net other than Haller who hadn’t started the season in great form and has always been better as part of a two, than as a lone striker.
Moyes won his first game in charge, a 4-0 spanking of Bournemouth, but things didn’t improve much for the East London side who would win only one more league fixture before the lockdown called a halt to the season. Luckily for Moyes that 1-0 win over Southampton lifted West Ham out of the relegation zone. Had West Ham spent lockdown sitting in the relegation places, can we be sure that Gold and Sullivan wouldn’t have gotten twitchy and decided to replace him?
Moyes did make some additions to the squad in the January window though, snagging Tomas Soucek on loan from Slavia Prague and beating Crystal Palace to the signing of the coveted Jarrod Bowen who was having a sensational season in the Championship for Hull City but on the pitch he had been unable to turn things around.
When games returned, it was back to back defeats and West Ham looked like they were going to be in big trouble. Out of form, out of ideas, with a run of seven games looming that contained two against teams challenging for top four spots, and three against fellow relegation battlers. Even the most optimistic Hammer had to be concerned.
But then something clicked. West Ham turned things around. Moyes turned things around. Three wins, three draws and just the one defeat. The same set of results as in their first 7 games. West Ham were safe, another Premier League seasons secured and surely a bit of job safety for Moyes.
He hadn’t done much better than Pellegrini, five wins, five draws and nine defeats in his 19 league games. One point more than Pellegrini. He’d also overseen a very disappointing cup run. But football is a “what have you done for me lately” type of business. Especially when you have owners like Gold and Sullivan. And Moyes kept West Ham up. He’d won against Chelsea. He’d won against Norwich and Watford to condemn them both to relegation. He’d gotten a draw against Manchester United. These were all positives.
And so we enter the summer, brief as the break between games will be. West Ham have some work to do in the transfer market, but maybe not as much as people are making out.
They have decisions to make over players like Felipe Anderson, Lanzini and Yarmolenko. All suffered very disappointing seasons. None were first choice under Moyes for the run in. All are among the highest earners at the club, and it appears there are For Sale signs pinned to each.
But is that the right decision? Are they going to get good offers for these players, at this point? Coming off disappointing seasons, in the Covid-19 transfer market? It’s hard to see West Ham doing anything other than taking a big loss on each of them.
So maybe the wise decision is to keep them. Maybe it makes more sense for West Ham to try and make the most of the talented players they have, and address the areas of glaring need.
Let’s start with the goalkeeping situation. Fabianski is 35, Martin and Roberto are 34, and Darren Randolph is the baby of the group at 33. West Ham need to start planning for the future, and while the current cast are a respectable group who will be fine for next season they could definitely do with looking for a long term fixture in this position. Maybe Nathan Trott is the answer, but if not might Newcastle be tempted to do business for Freddie Woodman?
Ryan Fredericks is the only right back left at the club following the release of Pablo Zabaleta and the expiration of Jeremy Ngakia’s contract. Fredericks is game and gives his all, but he’s clearly not the answer as a starting right back. West Ham have been linked with Matty Cash of Nottingham Forest and he would be a very good signing. An attacking outlet, he’d link well with Bowen down the right, assuming Moyes sticks with the 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 he used in the majority of his games in charge. Bowen likes to cut infield which would leave the flank open for Cash to bomb forward. Cash won’t come cheap, but it’s worth paying for quality. If they can’t secure him, perhaps financially troubled Derby County would do business on Jayden Bogle.
The left back situation is not much better. Aaron Cresswell has seen better days and while he’s still capable of turning in decent performances, he’s not moving the needle for the Hammers. Arthur Masuaka is an entertaining player to watch going forward, but he’s a calamity defensively and someone West Ham might do well to consider moving on this summer. If Moyes feels like Cresswell can give him another year, and that he might prefer to buy a cheap young option who can develop behind him, then Harry Pickering of Crewe is a no brainer here. Pickering is a left side Cash, and those two could help transform West Ham.
The best spell of David Moyes’ managerial career was obviously his time at Everton, and his system there was built on attacking fullbacks. That’s what he will likely try to replicate at West Ham. Matty Cash and Harry Pickering would represent quality additions, and both suited what Moyes wants from his fullbacks. They are both big physical athletes capable of playing at a high tempo as well, and both should get fans up and cheering.
The next area of concern is who plays between the central defenders. Issa Diop is the most talented of the current crop but he failed to build on his impressive first season and looked increasingly error prone as the 19/20 season developed. Diop’s problem is that he needs a leader next to him. An organiser who can talk him through games and keep him focused. One solution could be to move Declan Rice back into the defence.
Many people feel that Rice’s long term role will be at centre-back and by all accounts that’s where Chelsea intend to play him if they are successful in their pursuit of the English international.
A Cash-Diop-Rice-Pickering defense would need time and patience to develop together but could potentially give West Ham a real building block for the long term. Rice seems to be in no hurry to leave and will likely wear the armband more and more next season with Mark Noble likely to have a reduced role. Rice has all the attributes to become a very good centre-back and it might benefit West Ham to make that transition.
Goncalo Cardoso is a highly rated young defender, and Angelo Ogbonna is an experienced veteran. Between the two of them they could provide good cover at the heart of the defence and also give Moyes opportunities to play a back 3 or move Rice back into midfield when necessary. The less that is seen of Fabian Balbuena the better. He should join Masuaka on the list of players to sell.
While moving Rice to the heart of defence solves one problem, it could potentially create another in midfield. Tomas Soucek made his move to the London club permanent and could be used in the holding midfield role but that may not get the best of him. He seems more suited as a box to box option. A lot will depend on who partners him. When it’s Noble or perhaps Fornals, he will be required to do more of the defensive holding work, but West Ham may could look to bring in another partner for him.
Could Marc Roca of Espanyol become a target for Moyes? He’d fit the bill of a Moyes midfielder, a smart player with great positional and spatial awareness who uses the ball well. Roca is available this summer, and could likely be had at a bargain price after Espanyol’s relegation. A player like him would enable Soucek to remain in his preferred box to box role, and can also be used in a variety of different midfield shapes. He was part of the same Spanish under 21 team that claimed the 2019 European Championship as Pablo Fornals, so there would be a familiar face to help him settle into life in East London.
A Roca-Soucek pairing would give West Ham a really strong midfield, capable of shielding the defense while also enabling the fullbacks to join the attack. Mark Noble will still feature regularly of course, but you’d have to imagine that at 33 he’ll begin a different phase within the squad, making more of his appearances off the bench.
It’s probably time to bring an end to the Jack Wilshere experiment. He hasn’t been able to stay fit, and when he has played he hasn’t been able to show any more than very brief flashes of the ability that made him such an exciting player in his youth. Can youngsters like Conor Coventry, Dan Kemp and Nathan Holland step up and add to the midfield rotation? It would save West Ham from dipping back into the market for another midfielder if any of them could.
It starts to get more interesting, and maybe more controversial, when we move into the attack.
Sticking with the 4-2-3-1 shape, West Ham have three options for the right wing position. Bowen, Yarmolenko and Robert Snodgrass. You would have to imagine that it’s Bowen who’ll get the nod here. He’s Moyes’ man, and the biggest goal threat of the three. West Ham should be looking to sell one of the other two. Yarmolenko could potentially fetch the bigger fee, given he’s younger and has more of a profile around Europe. But less than a year recovered from a torn achilles tendon, it’s hard to know if there will be much interest. Maybe the Hammers could offer him on loan with an obligation to buy, or perhaps it’s Snodgrass, at 32, that they’d prefer to move on. Either one, one of them should be saying their goodbyes this summer as it makes no sense for West Ham to carry three players earning sizeable wages in one position.
In the number 10 position, Fornals seems the most likely starter. Noble will see games in this role and it’s probably the most suited position for Lanzini as well should he stay. As mentioned above, West Ham do have a decision to make on Lanzini but if they don’t get an offer that represents good value then they are better served keeping him. Lanzini is on a long term contract and West Ham can look to rebuild his value and sell him for a better price when the market inflates again.
On the left there are the two biggest question marks within the attacking group. Felipe Anderson is undoubtedly the most talented player at the club, and Grady Diangana, who does returns after a very successful loan at West Brom. There have been rumours around the futures of both players, amid links to the likes of Said Benrahma and Eberechi Eze.
It’s clear that Felipe doesn’t fit brilliantly under Moyes, and that West Ham would probably prefer to move him on and replace him with one of Benrahma and Eze. That’s understandable and it’s what West Ham should probably do if they can get good value for him. And assuming Benrahma and Eze haven’t already been snapped up by London rivals Fulham and Crystal Palace.
West Ham paid £36million for Felipe. They won’t get close to that this summer, so where is the pressure point for them? What can they accept as “value” for their asset? £25million? £20million? Half what they paid? Less? That’s a decision the owners will have to make. If their price is above what’s going to come their way this summer then maybe Felipe stays and it’s a straight battle between he and Diangana for the starting role.
Diangana is the inferior player at this point, but he’s younger and very talented. He’s more of a “Moyes-type” player as well and as a product of West Ham’s academy, he’s one the fans will likely get behind straight away.
No matter what way you look at it, Diangana and Felipe, or Felipe and Diangana, gives West Ham strong options in the left wing role.
There really isn’t much needed in the attacking midfield positions, other than for their existing players to find form. If they can find value for the players they’d rather sell, that’s great. But if not, it’s still an area they should have confidence in. There’s a lot of quality at the club in those roles.
Upfront, there are good options in Haller and Michail Antonio available to Moyes. They can both operate as a lone striker, though both might be better suited to playing in a front two. Moyes has the option of playing them together, or he can rotate them. Antonio can obviously play pretty much anywhere and if he can stay fit he could be the ideal utility weapon for Moyes. Yarmolenko and Bowen could both operate upfront if required and West Ham do have Xande Silva and Mesaque Dju at their disposal, though it remains to be seen if either are good enough. If they aren’t they could well follow Albian Ajeti through the departure gate.
West Ham, as things stand, have a top half midfield and attack. There is quality everywhere and depth in most positions. There issues are at the back. They had the 5th worst defensive record in the Premier League last season. That held back a team that scored the 10th most goals in the league. They scored the 10th most goals without a single player scoring more than 10. There’s a lot more goals in this squad, the issue is finding a way to stop conceding so many.
West Ham don’t need to blow it up and start again, they need to build on what they have. A summer of two lower league fullbacks, a recently relegated holding midfielder, and a goalkeeper who’s never played in the top flight might not excite fans, but it would strengthen the team more than replacing Anderson with Eze and ignoring the defense.
The team laid out above, Fabianski in goal, Cash-Diop-Rice-Pickering in defence, Roca and Soucek as a double pivot and Bowen-Fornals-Anderson behind Haller, won’t crack the top 6. Probably not even the top 8 unless everything went perfectly, but top 10? There’s no reason why not.
West Ham need to avoid the trap that many teams in their world fall into. Of tearing it up and starting over with a new manager. Especially when the ownership have never shown a willingness to stick with a manager long term. Gold and Sullivan bought into West Ham a decade ago. They’re on their seventh manager. That’s a ridiculous turnover and never leads to good things unless you have Roman Abramovich’s billions. There’s no point in West Ham getting rid of their most talented players to go all in for a manager who may not see out next season.
Players like Cash, Pickering, and Roca can fit in any style, and any modern system. They can be of use to any manager. If Felipe Anderson, Lanzini et al have decent seasons, they will hold more value in next summer’s market and West Ham can then sell them from a position of strength.
Stay there course, build on what you have. Don’t tear it up and rebuild again, those rebuilds never lead to good places.