The allure of carnage

After the Manchester United match last week, social media was once again awash with calls for David Moyes' position to be considered amidst claims he can take this group of players no further. Many have pointed to Moyes' long term away record against the big six and his supposed reluctance to open up and attack in these games – as if doing so would lead to a more reliably positive result.

Since growing a personal account on Twitter, following West Ham and producing analytical work focusing on the club I support has become a far more exhausting process. It is continually suggested that I have allegiances to certain individuals and personal battles against others. I am often at pains to explain that I view each match through a 90 minute lens to begin with, then I factor in everything I know about the players before coming to a conclusion as to how to assess their individual performances.

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Recently, there were a couple of requests that I start giving the manager a rating as well. This would be infinitely more challenging because the manager controls so little of the random, and otherwise, events that happen on a football pitch – most of that is down to individual quality, execution and luck. But assessing the manager has become a vital part of the discussion around West Ham at the moment with a vocal minority gunning for David Moyes for various reasons that seem to completely discount the fact that the club is currently sitting comfortably in mid-table and has already qualified for the later stages of a European tournament – can you see why some of us think this is utter madness?

The debate around Moyes is so unsubstantiated that I have begun to take a view that it actually has very little to do with Moyes himself or what is happening on the football pitch on a week-to-week basis. While sitting in a broch in northern Scotland after a long walk along a lochside earlier last week, I tweeted that I was beginning to drift toward the idea that some may have simply gotten bored with the stability, reliability (both positive and negative) and monotony of the current West Ham team.

Despite the success that has come within that – many of us would have seen a Europa League semi-final as a distant pipe-dream just two seasons ago, never mind back-to-back qualification for knockout European football – there is an argument to suggest that this successful stint of sub-glorious mediocrity just isn't as exciting as the perils of a relegation battle where West Ham might stumble from a 1-0 victory over Chelsea to a 0-4 defeat to Everton. And I'm not entirely sure that I would disagree with that notion.

For starters, football has become far less individually expressive at Premier League level and Moyes' team is one of the most distilled examples; roles are so clearly defined that the room for individual expression is minimised. Why? Because with free individual expression comes risk and with such risk comes abandon.

As discussed, the manager can control very little of what happens on the football pitch once the referee's whistle has been blown but he can control the valve by which players are allowed to operate freely within the structure that is laid out for them. Moyes' mode of management is one of repeatability. Why do we often see the same players carrying out the same functions, regardless of system? Because therein lies the repeatability.

If Tomáš Souček's role is to head the ball out of the box, screen the defence and pass the ball to someone better (and try and get on the end of things in the final third) then Tomáš Souček can do that every single week. If his role was to try to open up and be more expansive in his play, to be free to charge forwards and press things when he sees fit, and to drift across the midfield to isolate opportunities to make late runs into the box then we might see a special Souček one week and a disaster for the next two.

There is nothing repeatable about this, it would be all about Souček's rhythm and performance on a week to week basis because there would be far less controllables controlled and far more individuality involved. Think Cheikhou Kouyaté's keepie-uppies and goal on the spin against Manchester United versus his myriad ball losses and general haplessness weeks later. Classic Slaven Bilić.

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One of the best footballers I have ever seen play in claret and blue was Dimitri Payet. The Frenchman dazzled with his ability to beat a man and pick out a forward pass but he was the antithesis of control.

Payet was a realm of the unknown, a complete maverick as a player and a person. One week you'd get the glorious check and rabona cross for Michail Antonio to nod in at the back stick and the next you'd get a largely disinterested performance where he played the game at walking pace. He was our hero and our villain – the man that made the final season at The Boleyn so special and the man that toxified things after the move to the London Stadium. Perhaps the most illuminating thing here is that we lost the match with the incredible rabona 4-2 at home to Watford anyway…

This is not a deconstruction of the viability of expressive football in the modern era, Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid would have something to say about that, moreso that you need an exceptional level of quality to make it work, as Ancelotti's Everton eventually proved.

David Moyes' team has been built atop foundations of sand. The squad that our current manager inherited had an engine room of Mark Noble, Carlos Sánchez, Jack Wilshere and a 20 year-old Declan Rice – engines yes, speed would be an altogether different question however. The central defensive options consisted of the mostly unreliable Issa Diop and Fabián Balbuena alongside a crocked Winston Reid and an exhausted Angelo Ogbonna.

The full-back areas were staffed by an out-of-form Aaron Cresswell, disaster central Arthur Masuaku, a few youngsters (Ben Johnson and Jeremy Ngakia), a pension-ready Pablo Zabaleta and permanently injured Ryan Fredericks. Yes, there was a developed cast of attacking talent – Pablo Fornals, Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio – but there were dressing room issues surrounding Sebastien Haller and Felipe Anderson, while Andriy Yarmolenko barely sniffed the pitch and thusly Robert Snodgrass had emerged as one of the better players in this area.

The point is that the squad was terribly constructed at the time, a mishmash of outdated talent, injury-prone failures and a young group that mostly weren't quite ready to live with the pressure of playing for West Ham's first team at the time. Moyes recruited to stay up because that was a realistic reflection of where the group was. Souček arrived as a limited but talented midfield enforcer and a huge threat from set-plays and crosses, Jarrod Bowen made the step up from the Championship with his directness and finishing ability, and those acquisitions were followed up by the arrivals of Vladimír Coufal, Craig Dawson and Saïd Benrahma in the summer.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the group being built was first relying on rugged pros who could see out a long season of battling for points with a couple of educated punts on talent from the division below. Given that, it was a complete surprise when lockdown arrived and that team went on to achieve incredible things in the league and secure European football.

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This has left the club playing catch-up since – the summer just gone a perfect example of the desperate need to reinforce and upgrade in so many departments, because what are the chances that Craig Dawson keeps up his Virgil Van Dijk-esque long passes and defensive perfection? What's the real likelihood of Vladimir Coufal continuing to produce some of the best offensive numbers in the division? How probable is it really that Souček will continue to smash home ridiculous goal totals every year?

We know the answers to those questions.

What David Moyes has done at West Ham is actually pretty simple. He overhauled a dressing room that believed it was something it wasn't, got a group of players doing the basics right and hit upon a perfect blend of ambitious individuals with something to prove at the right time with the right foundations behind that. Jesse Lingard's burst of magisterial form is just another example of the serendipity of that time in Moyes' tenure – look at what the attacking midfielder has done since his time in E20…

Does this mean that Moyes doesn't deserve credit for the achievements of the group? No. Does that mean it will take some time to build a team that actually has the individual quality to support the kind of league position that group has been managing in the long term? Yes.

So back to the original point and the debate over stability versus fun. I think there's something in that desire for abandon but football, as is, is much a reflection of the lives we lead outside of our weekend playground now. There is a limit to what West Ham can realistically achieve should the club not have exorbitant wealth – there is such stratification in place that Manchester United at their very worst will still finish above West Ham United at their very best 95 times out of 100.

We go to football matches to revel and forget but I don't think there's much of that on offer right now, we're sitting at the centre of the superleague by stealth and wondering if we're really just here to make up the numbers… As I said a couple of weeks ago, joy should be a primary focus of any footballing operation with factors including but not limited to results, style, culture and perceived ambition. The balance of those factors can be adjusted but can't have it all without endless cash to burn. And with endless cash to burn you lose something far greater.

And with that, West Ham's repeatability, mundanity and sub-glorious glow is something that I am personally able to thoroughly enjoy for the moment.

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