Transition troubles

Sunday's last-minute, self-harming and maddening loss to Crystal Palace sparked boos around the London Stadium, and a feeling that impending mutiny is stirring.

'Not shy of a spark,
The knife twists at the thought that I should fall short of the mark'
Arctic Monkeys – 505


Players once adored now being heckled off the pitch, a manager lauded from Zagreb to Lyon last season suddenly in the firing line, and a litany of summer signings are struggling to gel. Are West Ham United in danger of falling back to the dark days of 2019? Or is it simply a sign of a team in transition under a manager who has earned the right to our patience?




It's deep in time added on, Michail Antonio has burst away from his marker and is heading down towards the edge of the penalty area. He has a host of options. Hold the ball up and wait for teammates, kill time, or even kick the ball so far into the stands that by time it is collected the referee is ready to blow for time. He does none of these.

He crosses aimlessly into the area and the ball ends up in the hands of the Crystal Palace goalkeeper. Within 10 seconds, the ball ends up in the back of our net. The date is the 28th October 2017 and Roy Hodgson is dancing on the touchline. Mark Noble goes absolutely berserk as a team containing Joe Hart, Edimilson Fernandes, Jose Fonte and Andre Ayew fall to their haunches at having thrown away a vital three points.

We are in the final days of Slaven Bilic, where only a hilarious midweek comeback at Wembley against our friends from N17 three days earlier had stopped him from getting the sack. West Ham twitter has the knives out again for a manager who had given us so much just months earlier. I would say it is funny how things repeat themselves, but nobody appears to be laughing at the moment.

Sunday's dreadful performance against Crystal Palace was, hands down, the worst West Ham have played this season. And we all remember Brighton and Everton. It wasn't just the performance that worried me on Sunday, it was the real lack of attacking rhythm and joined up thinking that has now become a headline of what we currently are.

For the last two-and-a-bit seasons, David Moyes' team has been built on defending stoutly and with organisation, while also scoring when we get into promising attacking positions, mixed in with set piece acumen. This appears to have ground to a halt.

Crystal Palace appeared to be everything we currently are not which didn't help. Eze, Olise and Zaha were buzzing with intent and creativity and interchanging positions to throw us out of shape repeatedly. A vocal section of the support booed the team off. It was little short of a disaster from start to finish.

The knives were out for Moyes on twitter after the game. The general theme seemed to centre around us being too negative, the manager taking the team as far as he can, while picking his favourites in the side in spite of their performance levels. Clamour had begun for Champions League winning manager Thomas Tuchel, or the only man in living memory who made Tottenham look like genuine title challengers, Mauricio Pochettino, to take over immediately. It was fair to say it made bleak reading on the train home from the Misery Bowl.

But is this not all a bit mad? When Moyes returned, the club was about to combust. The anger at the owners, all of which was completely justified, was boiling over to the point where if Covid hadn't happened, there is every chance another 'Burnley' may have occurred.

I personally was not impressed at Moyes being re-appointed. This was largely down to my anger at the board at the time, a cheap and easy option, that lacked the excitement of others available at the time, including Eddie Howe. This meant that I largely ignored the unfussy way he ended up keeping us in the division the first time around with a real dreadful team.

However, after a slow start, Moyes got a mish mash of a side playing again. They comfortably avoided a relegation that looked pretty likely just a couple of months previously. The next two seasons have completely justified his return. Back-to-back European qualification through the league for the first time in the club's history, a European run that took in memorable wins in Zagreb, Vienna and Lyon, not to mention the pulsating, dramatic win over serial European specialists Sevilla.

Memorable results along the way in the league at home and some great performances on the road have provided us with a team and an off-the-field structure that is the complete antithesis of what the club has stood for under the reign of David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady up to that point.




This season was always going to be a bit different. We had an ageing team, with little or no resell value for those departing. It meant investing in a host of new players. No fewer than nine first teamers walked through the door during the summer transfer window. Our captain, who has sat in the changing room for nearly two decades had departed. Our first team coach had also gone for personal reasons. The club suddenly felt a little different.

As a result, our football looks disjointed and especially in the first half of games, almost without direction. The clinical nature of the past two years has completely gone, the bedrock of the Moyes' plan. Take the Liverpool and Manchester United games, West Ham rightfully decided to play on the counter but when presented with the ball in great areas, our final ball was a nightmare. As a result, we ended up falling behind in both games and then left it too late to chase.

Defeats against fellow strugglers has been also bought on by poor passing from both the midfield and attacking players when in promising situations. Excellent decision making has been a key success of the Moyes era. Choosing the right pass or clever movement has been a regular contributor to some fantastic results. The decision making has been a massive factor in our fall this season.

Another issue is the lack of goals. Gianluca Scamacca is a fine player, but looks ill-suited to the sole striker role, similarly to how another fine footballer, Sebastien Haller looked when he wasn't partnered with Michail Antonio. As teams figured out how we played with Antonio's dangerous running in behind, Moyes has tried to change things up with limited success. His refusal to play two strikers together has long been a bugbear of the support, but results had often swayed us away from being too bogged down by it.

Another thing West Ham have always done is give away ridiculous goals. This is now more of a problem in tight games when we aren't taking chances. The first goal on Sunday summed our season up. Little threat from the opposition, despite them being in control, and we somehow contrive to give them a goal out of nothing. Craig Dawson's pass was a disaster, and Thilo Kehrer's poor attempt to control an admittedly difficult pass left us exposed. Seconds later Zaha was wheeling away celebrating.

Bad mistakes for goals have been forgiven in the past when results have been going well due to our proficiency up the other end. But when both ends of the pitch are failing, then you have a big problem.

However, none of this means David Moyes should be sacked. He has earnt the right to time to get it right in a transitional, batshit mental season that is about to be interrupted by an aberration of a winter World Cup. We are playing the same number of games as the big six, but with half the depth of squad and without all the refereeing advantages that come with being one of them.

This is on the back of a late starting season last time out that extended to the latter end of a major European competition. Game after game crammed in, largely the same set of players used week in week out. The form in the league was always going to suffer at some point, and it admittedly began around February and has continued over into this season.

If we had missed the Europa Conference League, taking away an extra eight games and we were still playing like this, still struggling alongside awful sides like Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth, then of course the scenario is different. But having lead us to a seventh place finish and another year of European adventures, surely he deserves time to see how it plays out?

The league remains quite tight and a win on Saturday against Leicester moves us away from the drop zone ahead of the enforced mid-season break. A couple of good results after Christmas and into the New Year and we will be back where we most likely belong this year, between 8th and 13th. Obviously if we are bottom in February then things change, but for now, he thoroughly deserves the chance to put things right, starting with a huge game on Saturday against Leicester. I also think he may have to go against his natural caution and throw the returning Nayef Aguerd in for that fixture. Needs must.

Another thing that interested me greatly is the reaction of the fanbase to different players. The reaction of the crowd to the double substitution made during the second half was bonkers. Firstly, the boos to the decision to hook Said Benrahma were understandable in some way. Benrahma had produced our only bit of quality in the whole match. He took a clever pass from Lucas Paqueta and wriggled into a pocket of space, unleashing an excellent shot into the top corner.

As a result, it is only natural to assume that if Moyes had subbed the worryingly ineffective Jarrod Bowen instead, then Benrahma may have been on the field to put away a chance or produce a moment of quality leading to another goal. I personally may have kept him on the pitch on this occasion, but I don't think Moyes was completely wrong to withdraw him. Benrahma spent the rest of the game doing very little, producing no key passes or chances created for teammates, and nearly cost the team at the other end when he decided to pass the ball to an unmarked Palace player in our box.




The fans' relationship with Benrahma is one I have always been a little baffled by. His ability to do something like the goal yesterday means he often gets talked about like some kind of difference maker, when in reality he often blows much more cold than hot. He is a vivid example of where we are currently going wrong, often choosing the wrong choice in the vital moments that often decide Premier League games. His crossing is poor, and his shooting is often worse, despite the moment of magic yesterday.

I can completely see why Moyes backed the Bowen horse, when he has a proven knack of doing the complete opposite to Benrahma in key moments, despite his poor form at times this season. Benrahma can be fun, but he is no Di Canio, no Payet and even no Arnautovic. I said I would have sold him in the summer if the opportunity arose, and I stick by that if somebody comes calling next summer, he really isn't as good as some people think he is.

The second of the two was far more disturbing. Tomas Soucek has been a brilliant servant to West Ham United. His potato salad eating, vital goal scoring, sticking his head where people wouldn't put their feet ways had endeared him to the club, so much that he was voted Player of the Year in his first full season. He had a quieter year last season, his defensive qualities allowed Moyes to move Declan Rice further forward, with his better passing range seen as a key move starter as opposed to Soucek's reliance on his late runs into the penalty area. He still scored key goals, like the first against Sevilla and five more in the league. Yet this year, he appears to have become public enemy number one.

The excellent shielding work he does in front of the defence and the vital headers he wins from set pieces in our box are not sexy, and therefore focus shifts to his often wayward passing. It has long been my belief that Soucek wouldn't have ended up at West Ham at all if he could pass, with a big German club more likely suited to his talents if he did possess the level of passing say a Pablo Fornals or Manuel Lanzini can produce. However, we are where we are and everyone wants Flynn Downes in now.

Downes has done well against some meagre opponents in the Europa Conference League, and clearly has a bright future. It is fine that people want him in, but the reaction that Soucek got to loud sarcastic cheers when substituted yesterday was horrible. It was that of an Arsenal fan, a Tottenham fan, a Chelsea fan.

Why have we morphed into this? Especially towards a bloke who literally bares the scars of what he has given to West Ham United. It was embarrassing, dismal behaviour and frankly I was ashamed of it. We should be better than that, and although I didn't have a problem in replacing Soucek in isolation, I would prefer our focus to be getting behind those coming on, rather than haranguing a lovely man who has done nothing but try his best for us.

So we roll on towards the World Cup with a must-win game v Leicester to come, we should really take stock of where we are. The Europa Conference League is winnable, with the biggest threats likely to come from a Villareal side now shorn of their top class manager, an inconsistent pair of Italian sides, Portugal's fourth biggest club and a set of tricky eastern European adventures. As long as the league form doesn't completely tail off, this should absolutely be the focus.

We have 11, or maybe even 12 if the Newcastle game is rearranged for January as expected, league matches between now and then to push our focus on to in the meantime. We also have the Carabao Cup and FA Cup to get excited about in that time too, starting on Wednesday versus an improving Blackburn side. If Moyes has us comfortably away from the relegation zone, somewhere between eighth and 14th by the resuming of the Conference League, I think he deserves nothing less to try and give us a third memorable season on the bounce.

There is another train of thought to keeping Moyes. A certain David Sullivan has been inauspiciously quiet for the past two years, allowing our manager to make key decisions in many areas of this once comically-run club. If Moyes goes, the castle built in the sand may collapse, returning us to the bonkers days of three years ago. It also means Sullivan is in charge of finding his replacement.

For those thinking Moyes leaving means Tuchel or Poch ride in to save the day, then you haven't been paying much attention to how Sullivan works. Nobody of that repute will ever work for Sullivan. Moyes has successfully negated Sullivan's influence on some key areas of the club. A good twitter account I follow made a good point that Sullivan would more likely lean towards someone like Rafa Benitez, being just about high profile enough to make it not look a complete disaster, but also would be cheap, available and with a point to prove after the Everton shambles.

I made a point in a blog a couple of years ago that despite not wanting Moyes back personally, it was undeniable that we couldn't do better than him in terms of who would work well under this ownership. That point still stands for me until the glorious day that we no longer have GSB in charge, and I stick by that while things are still going alright.

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