West Ham United are never far from crisis, or at least that’s been the case ever since their ill-fated move to the London Stadium. Dispossessed and disillusioned, Hammers fans have been dragged from their historic home in the heart of Upton Park to a soulless concrete bowl in Stratford, a venue better designed to synchronise with Westfield Shopping Centre – the retail monolith that runs parallel to the stadium – than host football matches.
The move itself has become the symbol of West Ham’s clumsy attempts to rebrand as a modern global powerhouse, to change the focus from its working class past to one focused on profit margins and a plastic version of #Hammers charm. Just as the running track severs the fans from the players, the board’s obsession with glamour over substance has created an ever-widening gap between the wants of the supporters and the image the board is attempting to cultivate.
It was no surprise, then, to see West Ham fall to a 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth in their first home match of the new season. Just as last summer’s recruits prioritised creating an illusion of progression – Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, and Javier Hernandez all glizy big-names clearly past their best – so too have this summer’s, albeit at a higher market value. Felipe Anderson has started brightly, but his unwillingness to track back aligns neatly with the club’s insistence on signing flair players no matter the cost. Andriy Yarmolenko, Jack Wilshere, and Lucas Perez were once exciting prospects but it’s been several years since any of these players have deserved their reputations.
West Ham’s knack for seeking out names over quality is reflected in the manager, too, with Manuel Pellegrini – a former Premier League winner, no less – coming out of semi-retirement in China to take the reins in Stratford. The early signs suggest that, as should have been expected, Pellegrini no longer has the fire in his belly to obsess over the details and drag West Ham to the next level.
Playing a 4-4-2 against Bournemouth was utterly bizarre, primarily because the Hammers’ central midfield is clearly their weakest area. Jack Wilshere and Mark Noble are both too slow and indecisive to function at the base of midfield, let alone isolated as a two against a team whose wingers love to cut inside and whose strikers frequently drop deep. West Ham were predictably overwhelmed, their top-heavy performance reflecting Pellegrini’s final few months as Manchester City manager, when Fernando and Yaya Toure were pitifully left to patrol midfield.
Pellegrini didn’t seem to learn his lesson in the spring of 2016 as opponents repeatedly targeted City’s soft centre. Failure to quickly adapt this time around will bring similar results, even if new signing Carlos Sanchez comes into the fray; the former Aston Villa man is nowhere near good enough to be playing for a mid-table Premier League club.
Things could be about to get a whole lot worse. West Ham travel to Arsenal this weekend, whose manager Unai Emery’s narrow attacking lines will surely pierce the visitors’ weak midfield, before games against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, Chelsea, and Manchester United. It is genuinely possible that Pellegrini’s team will have zero points, or at least zero wins, seven matches into the new season.
All of which points to Pellegrini leaving East London sooner rather than later, perhaps before Christmas. West Ham’s team is packed with lazy attackers and short on quality in central midfield or central defence. They still rely on Zabaleta at right-back. The manager hasn’t proved himself a particularly inspiring tactician at any point in English football, while mutiny in the stands is never far away.
Hammers fans feel homeless, understandably so. They deserve better than a corporate rebrand, than a half-hearted and unintelligent attempt to add glamour to the club at a time when the gap between top ten and relegation is so small. Increasingly, the difference between relegation candidates and those pushing for Europe isn’t money, but having a tactical identity that was cultivated organically by a young manager given time to implement his methods. The path West Ham are on will not lead them back into the top half. In fact, whether Pellegrini lasts the season or not, it could see them relegated to the Championship.
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