West Ham caught the eye this summer. Hiring Manuel Pellegrini was a bold move after David Moyes guided the club to safety last season. The change in the dugout was met by another busy summer, bringing in big names from big clubs.
Felipe Anderson was the headline acquisition, arriving for over £30 million from Lazio. Andriy Yarmolenko and Lucas Perez also reinforced Pellegrini’s attacking options. Issa Diop and Fabian Valbuena were brought in at centre-back, Lukasz Fabianski arrived from Swansea to become first choice in goal and Ryan Fredericks signed as a free transfer from Fulham.
The midfield saw two additions, Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez. Joao Mario, who returned to Inter at the end of his loan and Cheikhou Kouyate, who moved across London to Crystal Palace, are no longer at the club.
West Ham started their season away at Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. Pellegrini’s side were underdogs, and might not face a tougher test all season, but it was a reminder of their glaring weakness in the middle third.
Wilshere, Declan Rice and Mark Noble started the game with Marko Arnautovic leading the line. Unsurprisingly, the trio were outplayed for 90 minutes. Liverpool’s press proved too much for the Hammers and the hosts found space all too easily in the midfield.
Liverpool will do what they did to West Ham to many teams this season. Losing at Anfield was no surprise, nor was it a disaster. The failure of their midfield to have any impact on the game was the main takeaway from the defeat, and it was frustratingly predictable.
Noble struggled for much of last season and had a torrid time dealing with Liverpool. The club captain is increasingly limited. Other teams, particularly those mobile in the middle third, will expose Noble this season. Paired with the inexperienced Rice, he is far too vulnerable. He needs energy and awareness alongside him, something that the 19-year-old is yet to provide in his 33 senior appearances.
Wilshere creates a problem himself. Pellegrini started the former Arsenal man as the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 but was forced to drop him deeper. Part of Wilshere’s issue has been that he lacks a defined role. As the furthest player forward, Wilshere will leave Arnautovic too isolated. Playing in a deeper position, a lot is asked of him off the ball.
Sanchez did not make the matchday squad for the trip to Merseyside, but it’s hard to see how he fits either. The Colombian is a destroyer, best suited to a role in front of the defence. Sanchez and Noble together would be a very limited midfield and require the third man in there – probably Wilshere – to play closer to Arnautovic and provide goals.
Pellegrini is in a tricky situation. Indifferent midfield recruitment has left an unenviable balancing act. A 4-3-3 might just be the way to go, but even then, Pellegrini has an issue with personnel. Pedro Obiang is still at the club and could operate as the third man alongside Wilshere and Sanchez. It’s hard to see a starting spot for Noble but leaving out a player who has been at the club since the start of the millennium is a bold move.
A lot depends on Wilshere’s final third production, both as a creator and scorer, for the Hammers this term. This move is his chance to play in a regular role. He has played everywhere from the wing to a number six in recent years. West Ham and Pellegrini are giving him the opportunity to prove himself in a free role in midfield, but that comes with responsibility and pressure.
There’s plenty to be excited about at the London Stadium this season. The midfield risks undermining that. Arnautovic, Anderson and Yarmolenko could be a fearsome front three, but it’s little use if Pellegrini cannot find a way to at least make the midfield functional, if unspectacular.
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