It’s no secret that West Ham United’s start to the Premier League season has been catastrophic.
Opinion was divided over whether the signings of new quartet Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez were prudent or not. Zabaleta is advancing in years and past his best, Hart has had a difficult year away from the Premier League, Arnautovic was always a gable as his temperament doesn’t match his talent, and there were always going to be question marks over Hernandez’s ability to impact games when he’s starting and not coming off the bench.
Personally, I liked the look of the team. Others didn’t. But overall, the names of the signings, their experience, and their roles in the team meant that there was optimism around the London Stadium for arguably the very first time in the ground’s short Premier League lifetime.
That quickly turned to dust with the first three games.
One loss was bad enough, but three in a row is galling. And the ten goals shipped in three games doesn’t even bear talking about if you’re a Hammers fan – leaking, on average, more than three goals a game is a disaster, though pointing out why certainly isn’t necessary. But what’s even more disheartening is that this was supposed to be the season where the wrongs of last year were righted.
This time last season, West Ham were already out of Europe, but they were settling into a new season hopeful that the lack of continental distractions might actually be a good thing, like the year before when an early exit preceded a top four tilt that ultimately led to another disappointing Europa League campaign. But what’s interesting about the difference in dynamic this year is that, unlike last time, the Hammers board didn’t binge on adding reams of mediocre players to the squad.
In fairness, a bigger squad was necessary at the time. It’s true that you need to win the qualifiers in order to get a place in the Europa League, but you can hardly bank on losing. And a season in Europe can have a detrimental effect on a team’s ability in the league, especially when the side isn’t used to it.
Leicester City last season are a good example, even if they are a special case, but they are countless other examples of teams suffering poor seasons thanks to having a small squad and European ambitions.
But there’s a way to add players, of course, and this year, they seemed to have got it right, adding quality over quantity and strengthening seemingly in the right areas. On paper, the squad looks like the best the Hammers have had in the Premier League years, and with the arrival of William Carvalho – though that’s supposed to have been on the cards for a long time and you wonder if the deal will get across the line – the team looks fairly balanced.
But despite having changed their entire approach from this time last year, West Ham are still suffering the same problems. It’s one thing repeating the same mistakes and expecting things to turn out differently, but in fairness to the board, they’ve changed tack and made everything different. Well, almost everything.
And that’s why it’s natural that it’s Slaven Bilic who’s getting the blame.
It looks like, after three games, all of them away from home, that Bilic could well be on his way out of the club after just a few games of the season if results don’t pick up soon. Indeed, the pressure seems so intense that even giving him the international break and a few games after that to sort things out seems generous. Huddersfield, West Brom and Bolton are the next three fixtures, but assuming not all end in defeat it could be the home game against Tottenham Hotspur that sees the axe fall.
That would be poetic in some ways. The best game of last season was the victory over Spurs at home which finally saw Mauricio Pochettino’s side’s title challenge ended. But it would also be poetic if that’s where the form really turned around.
That game also seemed to herald a new dawn for West Ham, though. It was a home game at the London Stadium where the side played with passion and pride, where the fans fed off that and the atmosphere reached fever pitch, and it all started to feel like home. And although that seemed to sound the very end of West Ham’s season – they appeared to give up after that, safe in the knowledge that they were safe from the drop – it should inspire optimism that the home form can be better than it was last year.
And perhaps that’s why keeping the manager for a little while longer is the right course of action. No matter that his tactical knowledge is under question, that his transfers (if he is indeed the one with the final say) underwhelm in some quarters or that results have been unfathomably bad in the opening weeks. Because they’ve all been away games.
It seems strange to cling to the optimism of late last season and the summer when all around the club looks gloomy after such a dismal start, but maybe it’s worth keeping the faith for a few more weeks. The Hammers may be bottom of the league, but they weren’t aiming to win the league anyway. At only nine points off top spot, there’s still hope for a good season despite three defeats on the spin.
If talk of optimism was greatly exaggerated at the start of the season, then talk of crisis now – whilst certainly warranted – might well be overblown just now. Let’s at least wait for a home game to find out.