One year after narrowly surviving relegation, West Ham sit fifth in the league table after 28 matchdays, whilst having one game in hand on several of their top four rivals — Chelsea, Leicester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. It has been a turbulent period for West Ham since moving out of the historic Boleyn Ground in 2016, but under the management of David Moyes, the Hammers are dreaming of European football.
Born in Glasgow, Moyes played for various Scottish and English clubs before hanging up his boots at Preston North End and taking over as manager in January 1998. Whilst the club were facing the threat of relegation to Division Three, Moyes took them to the brink of promotion to the Premier League, but they would narrowly lose to Bolton Wanderers in the play-offs.
His impressive spell at Preston saw him replace fellow Scotsman Walter Smith as Everton manager in March 2002, with the Toffees clinging to their top-flight status by the skin of their teeth. Thanks to an impressive run of form that saw them defeat Fulham, Derby County, Southampton and Bolton Wanderers, Everton staved off the threat of relegation and finished 15th. They would do one better the following year, finishing 7th and becoming the first club to play 100 seasons in England’s top division.
After narrowly surviving the drop in 2003/04, Everton achieved their best season to date in 2004/05, sealing Champions League football and finishing in fourth place on the back of stellar goalscoring form from Tim Cahill, who scored 11 Premier League goals after arriving from Millwall. Bit by bit, Everton established themselves as a perennial top-half side and European challenger under Moyes, qualifying for the UEFA Cup/Europa League on three separate occasions.
Following a legendary 11-year spell at Goodison Park, Moyes took over at Manchester United following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Despite being Ferguson’s hand-picked replacement, Moyes struggled to impress at Old Trafford as United suffered their worst-ever start to a season. After losing 0-2 to Everton on April 20, 2014, Moyes was sacked, making his term the third-shortest managerial stint in United history.
His subsequent spells at Real Sociedad and Sunderland did little to rebuild his reputation, as the Black Cats were relegated to the Championship for the first time in 10 years. However, three months after being sacked by Sunderland, Moyes returned to the Premier League, taking charge of West Ham following the dismissal of Slaven Bilić.
After taking over with the club in the relegation zone, Moyes led the Hammers to a 13th-placed finish, but it was not enough to convince the board that he was the right man to take the club forward in the long term. He was not offered a new contract, as Manuel Pellegrini took charge of the club on a three-year deal.
The summer of 2018 saw a wide range of big-name signings arrive at the London Stadium, with Jack Wilshere, Ryan Fredericks and Samir Nasri joining on free transfers, Andriy Yarmolenko, Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop, and Łukasz Fabiański reinforcing the squad for hefty fees. West Ham finished 10th in the league, and more signings followed under Director of Football Mario Husillos; Pablo Fornals, Albian Ajeti and Gonçalo Cardoso joined, whilst Sébastien Haller arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt for a club-record fee of £45 million.
After a promising start to the season, West Ham’s form fell off a cliff at the start of October, taking seven points from 12 matches and culminating in Pellegrini’s dismissal on December 28. 19 months after departing the club, Moyes returned with West Ham hovering above the relegation zone. He had taken charge of an aging squad that had been beset by a poor recruitment strategy and dithering owners.
His first order of business? Reinforce an ailing squad. West Ham brought in Darren Randolph, who had previously spent two years at the club, to provide a stable backup option between the sticks behind the injured Łukasz Fabiański, whilst shipping out the hapless Roberto Jiménez on loan to Deportivo Alavés. West Ham continued to dip into the Championship to bolster their team, purchasing Jarrod Bowen from Hull City for £18 million with up to £7 million in potential add-ons.
Without a doubt, though, their shrewdest piece of business was the signing of Tomáš Souček from Slavia Prague, who joined on loan with an option to make the move permanent at the end of the season for a fee of £19 million. The Czech international has seamlessly slotted into midfield alongside Declan Rice, providing a combative force in physical duels and also chipping in for set-pieces, having registered 11 goals in the Premier League thus far.
Whilst they began 2020 off on the right foot with a 4-0 victory against Bournemouth, the following weeks proved dire as the Hammers dropped into the relegation zone after taking two points from seven matches, before bouncing back with a 3-1 victory over Southampton. They showed signs of life in their following match at the Emirates Stadium, only to be downed by a late goal from Alexandre Lacazette.
West Ham returned from the pandemic-enforced break in the same spell of form, losing back-to-back matches against Wolves and Tottenham, but they turned the tide with a statement win against Chelsea on July 1. After Willian’s penalty, Souček equalized before halftime, rising above César Azpilicueta and heading in Bowen’s corner kick. Michail Antonio finished off a cross from Bowen after the break before Willian equalized with a free kick, but Andriy Yarmolenko gave West Ham the win in the dying minutes.
From that point on, Moyes’ side hit an impressive vein of form to close out the season. After drawing at St. James’ Park and losing at home to Burnley, West Ham bounced back with a 4-0 victory over Norwich City. Michail Antonio scored each of the goals at Carrow Road, and he’d continue to play a talismanic role as West Ham defeated Watford and drew to Manchester United and Aston Villa in order to finish five points above relegated Bournemouth.
After staving off relegation by the scruff of their neck, West Ham brought in Vladimír Coufal from Slavia Prague for a fee of €5 million. The 28-year-old Czech international has proved crucial with his crosses from wide areas and 1v1 defending and has proved an upgrade over the likes of Jeremy Ngakia, who joined Watford on a free transfer last summer, Pablo Zabaleta, who retired last summer, and Ryan Fredericks, who has struggled for minutes behind Coufal.
Saïd Benrahma arrived on loan with an obligation to buy for £25 million and £5 million in bonuses, and whilst he has failed to find the back of the net in the Premier League thus far, he has shown flashes of the talent that saw him become nearly unstoppable in the Championship and proven to be an upgrade over Felipe Anderson and Grady Diangana on the left flank. Of the 12 matches that the Algerian winger has started, West Ham have won nine, drawn two, and lost once.
One of the biggest surprises of West Ham’s fantastic campaign has been Craig Dawson, who joined on a season-long loan following an ineffective campaign at Watford that saw the Hornets relegated. Despite scoring an own goal in last weekend’s defeat to Manchester United, the Englishman has impressed both in a back three and a back four, and it is a mere formality that the Hammers make his loan permanent for a fee of £2 million.
Moyes has adopted both a 5-4-1 and a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, with the likes of Dawson, Angelo Ogbonna, Issa Diop and Fabián Balbuena impressing in the center of defense alongside Coufal and Aaron Cresswell, who has slotted in at left back following Arthur Masuaku’s knee injury. Apart from the aforementioned players, 21-year-old homegrown defender Ben Johnson has impressed on both flanks and has proven to be a valuable squad player over the past few months.
West Ham have certainly lucked out with the injury-free season of Fabiański, who has been rewarded with a contract extension until June 2022. Even as he approaches his 36th birthday, the Pole is still one of the strongest goalkeepers in England with 10 clean sheets. The Hammers have conceded just 32 goals this season, a figure only bettered by Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Arsenal.
Rice and Souček have been a dominant double-pivot since the latter’s arrival, protecting the defense, winning aerial duels, breaking up opposition attacks and releasing balls to the likes of Bowen and Pablo Fornals. Rice has provided adequate cover and allowed his teammate the license to roam; the Czech has not only been vital in the center of the pitch, but his height advantage has also proven useful in dead-ball situations.
Similar to Marouane Fellaini under Moyes, his aerial prowess has made him a threat on both ends of the pitch. Souček has won the most aerial duels in the Premier League with 146, and leads West Ham players with 8 goals in 28 league appearances. He also has the most shots in the team (45) and has proven to be a reliable passer in the center of the pitch.
A key aspect of West Ham’s game is using the wing-backs and wide men to cross balls into the 18-yard box for Antonio to head in or give a knockdown for one of his teammates. Coufal and Cresswell have been key in this aspect as they have a combined total of 10 assists. With 7 assists to his name, Cresswell has registered his finest form since his days under Slaven Bilić, playing both as a left back, a left wingback, and a left-sided center back.
Although Cresswell originally began in the left side of a back three this season, pushing into midfield and distributing the ball in central areas, he has been pushed out wide following Masuaku’s injury, yet has still managed to complete the second-most passes for the club. Coufal is certainly the more balanced of the two, having registered 60 tackles, the most at the club, and 31 interceptions, the third-highest total in the squad.
Fornals, Bowen, and Jesse Lingard have all contributed immensely from wide areas this season, with the latter providing a constant threat in attack since joining on loan from Manchester United. Bowen has been lethal with his pace and power, having provided five goals and three assists, whilst Fornals has also shown signs of improvement following a sluggish start to life in London. Lingard has chipped in 4 goals and 2 assists in 6 league appearances, earning himself a recall to the England national team after nearly two years.
After playing a heroic role in West Ham’s escape from the relegation zone, Antonio is proving vital in the Hammers’ push for European football. His aerial presence, versatility, hold-up play, speed, combative nature in the box, and ability to knock down balls for teammates have been a godsend for Moyes. While he isn’t the most technically gifted or prolific player, he has registered 7 goals and 3 assists this season, and his underlying numbers rival Europe’s finest.
Perhaps no match better encapsulates West Ham’s tactics under Moyes than their recent match against Crystal Palace. Five weeks after drawing 1-1 with the Eagles, they faced off against Roy Hodgson’s side on Selhurst Park on January 26. West Ham lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with Dawson partnering Ogbonna in defense and Fornals, Benrahma and Bowen playing alongside Antonio in the attack.
After Wilfried Zaha broke the deadlock early on, West Ham leveled the scoring shortly after; Fornals sauntered towards the byline before playing a delectable lofted pass to Antonio, who flicked it to Souček to head home. 16 minutes later, Cresswell whipped in a free kick to Souček, who trapped it on his thigh before beating Vicente Guaita from close range. They came close to adding a third before the break, only for both of Antonio’s efforts to rattle off the post and Souček’s shot to be stopped by Guaita.
Whilst the Spanish goalkeeper did well to keep Palace alive in the game, West Ham finally found their third goal in the 65th minute as Dawson rose above Gary Cahill and headed Bowen’s free kick into the back of the net. Zaha managed to grab a late consolation goal, but the Hammers took a deserved away victory over Palace thanks to their collective aerial prowess and direct style of play. The likes of Dawson, Rice, Ogbonna, and Diop have all provided a constant threat in set-pieces, but no player epitomizes West Ham’s attacking threat quite like Antonio.
If there is one criticism of West Ham, it’s that they have been overly reliant on Antonio for goals, and with the 30-year-old forward constantly struggling with groin and hamstring injuries, he cannot be relied upon to stay fit for the entirety of the season. They have scored a total of 42 goals in 28 matches, and despite the fact that his last match for West Ham came on New Year’s deal, Haller is still tied with Antonio as the club’s second-leading scorer in all competitions with seven goals.
The departures of Javier Hernández and Albian Ajeti have left them depleted in the central forward position, whilst the sale of Sébastien Haller to Ajax has left them deprived of a backup for Antonio. A central forward is certainly one of the biggest priorities for West Ham this summer, with the likes of Aaron Boupendza, Adam Armstrong and Saša Kalajdžić being linked.
One player who could be an option for the Hammers is Abdallah Sima. The 19-year-old Senegalese forward has been a breakthrough sensation both in Czech Republic and Europe with 19 goals and 6 assists. Given West Ham’s previous success with ex-Slavia Prague players Souček and Coufal, Sima could be the next Slavia player to make a lasting impact and provide a crucial reinforcement in East London.
As West Ham prepare to face Arsenal at the London Stadium, the club are chasing the final Champions League spot in a jam-packed race for top four, alongside the likes of Liverpool, Everton, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Aston Villa. It is a far cry from the relegation fight they found themselves in just a year ago, and a testament to the work that Moyes has achieved over the past 15 months.
Despite catastrophic ownership from ‘GSB’ (David Gold, David Sullivan, and Karen Brady), David Moyes has taken on an ailing team with a shoestring budget and taken them to the cusp of their first-ever qualification to Europe’s foremost club competition. He may not have been the Chosen One at Old Trafford, but at West Ham, he’s proving to be the club’s savior.
By: Oscar Ihua
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Glyn Kirk / AFP