Walking on a management tightrope. An analogy that one of the many Premier League bosses could imply for what could prove to be a final round of play for some this weekend.
There is despair in the air, no more than in East London. West Ham luck is down as they prepare to go under the microscope against Wolves on Saturday, live on air sports.
Hampered by a plethora of setbacks, David Moyes’ side can barely take a break. Controversial refereeing decisions, “outrageous” VAR ratings and over-familiarity with the goal frame in recent matches have resulted in four points from seven matches.
Such a return, representative of relegation fodder, has threatened to dethrone the first manager in four years to restore European football at the London Stadium. Moyes’s once-respected character carved an unusually lost figure on the sidelines in Goodison Park two weeks ago. His expressionless look is a clear acknowledgment of yet another unwanted complication.
Everton, winless all season, were delighted to add fuel to the fires when Neal Maupay’s 53-minute strike led West Ham to a fifth league defeat – their worst start to a Premier League campaign since 2016/17. Even more pressure on an already volatile situation.
And while all is not lost, the Hammers will need a remarkable recovery between now and the winter break to give themselves a chance to save their decline of the season.
“He surprised many of those supporters behind the goal, as well as everyone else in this stadium. Me too.” – air sports expert Jamie Carragher noted when reviewing the Everton goal that plunged West Ham into the relegation zone.
The disbelief, evident in Carragher’s voice, stemmed from the fact that neither side had threatened to break the deadlock, so they persisted in avoiding another agonizing defeat. The tension in both dugouts was obvious. “My players have let me down,” Moyes reflected, not for the first time this season.
Contrasts are great. Twelve months ago, West Ham raced to the top four instead of flirting with the bottom three. An upward trajectory had been synonymous with Moyes’ second stint in the West Ham hot seat. The appointment, which raised eyebrows at the end of 2019, turned out to be a bull’s eye.
After leading West Ham to sixth in his first season at the helm, the following campaign was bolstered by a respectable seventh. The season was slowing down, but strong performances in both the domestic cups and a semi-final appearance in the Europa League were evidence of tangible growth.
Positivity was palpable. “West Ham Are Massive” – the song sung somewhat ironically by Hammers fans – finally had some reasonable meaning.
So, what has gone wrong for the London side this term and is Moyes now on the back foot?
West Ham have lost eight of their last 10 Premier League games on the road – no top side have lost more away games in 2022. It’s a disturbing statistic. The calendar year has not been favorable. Performances were characterized by a cautious approach, devoid of creativity and ultimately goals.
Worryingly, West Ham have broken the backlines just three times in total this season, the joint fewest of all teams. For context: Nottingham Forest and Leicester City, who make up the rest of the current drop zone, have scored six and ten respectively. West Ham’s goals-to-games ratio is fraught with peril.
This weekend they face the only other side in the Premier League competition to have scored as few goals as them: Wolves. Their blunt attack is stifling, especially when you consider that their goals against column are healthier than Fulham’s, who are 12 places better off in sixth place.
Perhaps the game plan that once provided an abundance of riches to Mikhail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen has been revealed. It is true that Moyes’ teams usually find it difficult to recover after going after Moyes.
Plan A – heavily reliant on quick turnovers and quick counter-attacks – will be thwarted if, or more likely if, the Hammers give in first. Opposition teams lean back, use a low compact block and become difficult to break down. Essentially immune to a quick break. It’s a trend that air sportsPaul Merson has identified as key to West Ham’s downfall this season.
“They didn’t score the first goal,” he said. “People underestimate how big the first goal is in games. If you look at David Moyes’ teams, even when he had huge success at Everton, they are very good at counterattack. They pick teams.”
West Ham led a total of 28 minutes in games this season – as a direct result, both Antonio and Bowen’s effectiveness have been reduced. “When they score the first goal, they’re a completely different animal,” Merson added. Going behind just doesn’t suit their counter-offensive style, nor does it support the fluidity of their once-fearless forward line.
No side in the Premier League has so far underperformed the expected number of goals compared to West Ham this season (-4.6 – 3 goals and 7.6xG).
Still, in need of a new boost, Moyes seems reluctant to integrate Gianluca Scamacca or Lucas Paqueta from the start of the games, choosing to stick with his under-performing core. £86.6 million in talent waits patiently in the wings. Perhaps after a two-week period of reflection, exchanging the old for the new will emerge as the pragmatic move to avoid antiquity. After all, they were the third highest spend of the summer.
Then there’s the futile frequency with which West Ham have completed rare attacks with an attempt hitting the frame of the goal mouth. Against Everton, they showed a little more urgency after falling behind as fears of giving in became secondary, only for substitute Said Benrahma to crush one of their best chances off the post.
They have brushed the woodwork a total of five times this season – only Liverpool have achieved that more times (six).
While motion sickness and aimless attackers aren’t necessarily enough to condemn a side, certainly not seven games in a season, West Ham’s decline across the board will nonetheless upset the club’s hierarchy. The list of established underachievers also includes players like Tomas Soucek, Pablo Fornals and even Rice, while the entertainment value has all but left their kind of football.
Nearly every stat that judges a side’s attack efficiency is gone. The success rate for strokes is significantly lower, while shots on target, big chance total and overall possession stats have all taken a hit. The last-thirds passes completed have dropped from 88 to 69. Less action in the opponent’s area means fewer goals – just three, to be exact.
“I haven’t seen enough to worry about them and neither am I,” Merson continued, despite the significant drop.
“They’ll be fine. If you go for the top four and you’re an Arsenal or a Chelsea or Liverpool or Man United, if you beat West Ham that’s a good three points. Against Chelsea, the VAR was atrocious .” They shouldn’t have lost.
“To me, I think Moyes is a top manager – start questioning him at your peril! He’s one of the top managers out there. If he lost his job now, clubs would be lining up to take him over .”
It remains to be seen whether Moyes, partly a victim of his own success, can revive West Ham’s destitute fortunes or whether he will even be given the time to do so. There’s little reason to panic, Merson says, but if the Hammers’ expensively constructed team doesn’t spring into action soon, someone will have to pay the price.
Many will be waiting with bated breath for Saturday’s team overview. Can a daring selection put an end to a tricky run, or will West Ham’s woes continue for longer?