West Ham United are separated from the Premier League relegation places on goal difference after a frantic and scattergun summer in the transfer market.
Less than a week in, it’s already been a difficult 2023 for West Ham United. They’ve lost the most public face of the senior management of the club while an undercurrent of discontent at a season that isn’t going according to plan continues to bubble away in the background, resulting in growing discontent with manager David Moyes.
West Ham’s season has been somewhat understated. They’ve only scored more than two goals once in the Premier League so far this season, but they’ve only conceded more than two on one occasion as well. It’s been a season of ebb and flow, and their big problem has been that there’s been more ebb than flow. Bottom of the table after three defeats in their first three games, they recovered in October with three wins in five games to lift themselves briefly back towards mid-table.
But since then, the slide has started again. Their point at Leeds United ended a run of five successive defeats, and three of those came at home against relatively moderate opposition. Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Brentford all went to The London Stadium, scored two goals each, and left with all three points. Leeds was an improvement upon this – two goals scored just either side of half-time gave them the lead at Elland Road but they were unable to hang onto it – but that points leaves them in an extremely precarious position.
Going into another brief Premier League break for the FA Cup Third Round, West Ham are separated from the relegation places by one goal from Everton. Small wonder, then, that David Moyes confirmed that he had “loathed every minute” of the last few weeks at the club. A growing number of supporters may well be wondering why he’s choosing to stay if he loathes it so much, but would yet another Premier League managerial replacement really improve their fortunes that much?
It’s a question worth asking, because there is no other available manager who has the same level of Premier League experience as Moyes. It’s almost 21 years since he took his first top-flight job at Everton and he’s now more than three years into his second spell with West Ham. That career has been checked at points – he was clearly the wrong person to be replacing Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2013 – but if you were looking for someone to set a malfunctioning team straight, he’d probably be fairly close to the top of the list.
Although the pressure has been building at West Ham for a few weeks, it has been defensive lapses that have cost them dearly of late. Poor defending cost them two goals against Brentford and one against Leeds, whose first goal in their 2-2 draw came from a flick and one-two which resulted in the ball squeezing between five West Ham defenders who were all converging upon it at the same time.
This sort of fragility can be coached out of players but there are few quick fixes in this respect, and it’s starting to feel as though West Ham may well need a quick fix or two.
The darkest cloud hanging over Moyes this season has come as a result of the club’s summer spending. West Ham spent a little over £180m during the summer transfer window and the results have been underwhelming. Lucas Paqueta arrived from Lyon for a shade over £50m; he scored at Elland Road, but it was his first goal for the club. Gianluca Scamacca cost more than £30m from Sassuolo; he scored West Ham’s other goal at Leeds. It was his first in 11 games and his third of the season.
It’s not entirely about bad signings, per se. Bad luck has also played a role. Maxwel Cornet cost £17.5m from Burnley, but he has only made five appearances from the substitutes bench for the club. He was injured on his full debut against Wolves and is now sidelined with a foot injury that doesn’t seem to have an expiry date.
Nayef Aguerd cost £30m from Rennes and was lauded during the World Cup over his performances for Morocco, but he’d previously been injured during West Ham’s second pre-season friendly at Rangers in July and hadn’t made his competitive debut for them until the end of October. His appearance at Elland Road was his first Premier League start of the season.
The contradictions seem obvious. At the start of January, an obvious quick fix would be to splurge in the transfer window, but West Ham’s previous experience demonstrates that this carries an obvious risk. The other obvious quick fix is to replace the manager, but while West Ham supporters may daydream about the possibility of, say, Thomas Tuchel or Mauricio Pochettino turning up at The London Stadium to knock their first-team squad into order, persuading anyone of the caliber that supporters might hope for to join a congested relegation scrap that may yet take in the entire bottom half of the Premier League may prove difficult.
And there’s the risk. Over the previous two seasons, David Moyes took West Ham to sixth and seventh place in the Premier League and to the semi-finals of the Europa League in a run that seems to have – somewhat too briefly, as things turned out – galvanized the entire club. And he has form in a relegation fight, too. When previously appointed by West Ham in November 2017, they were third bottom in the table with nine points from 11 games. This was a short-term contract which was not renewed as the end of the season, but he did take them to a final finish of 13th place, nine points clear of the drop.
There are also other causes for optimism. Aguerd’s Premier League debut was accomplished, while Paqueta and Scamacca both scored at Leeds and can surely only improve on a dismal first half to the season. West Ham may have only won four league games this season, but they won six out of six in the Europa Conference League and are in the last 16 of that competition, and while their current Premier League position is obviously perilous, they are – just the same as everybody else in roughly the same boat as them – only two or three wins from mid-table security and wondering what all the earlier fuss was about.
If this season ended with a run to the latter stages of a European competition and a mid-table position, it’s doubtful that many West Ham supporters would be complaining too much.
Quite what effect the death of David Gold might have on West Ham United is difficult to say. There has already been conjecture that his passing by him may be an ideal opportunity for Daniel Kretinsky, who bought a 27% shareholding in West Ham in November 2021, to increase his influence by him over the club. But even though diluting the influence of GSB would likely be met extremely positively by supporters, these institutional matters are likely to take months to resolve rather than days.
The question that West Ham faces is whether to attempt a quick fix, or trust that things will right themselves before it’s too late to change course. At Leeds, there were subtle signs that they can improve, but these were mixed with reminders of several of the ways in which the first half of their season has gone wrong.
It’s a gamble no matter which they choose, and coming on top of spending £180m in the summer transfer market it doesn’t feel like a gamble they can afford to lose.