A 4-0 defeat was not the optimal start on the opening day of the season for a new-look West Ham United side for whom optimism has been growing over the last few weeks.
The signings of attacking talent like Javier Hernandez and Marko Arnautovic to go along with players like Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini stood out the most, but after a heavy defeat on the first game of the season, it looks like the defence is the problem.
The arrival of Joe Hart and Pablo Zabaleta bolstered a central defensive partnership of Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna, who themselves are backed up by Jose Fonte. Add Aaron Cresswell back into the mix after he recovers from injury, and that doesn’t look like such a bad starting back four and goalkeeper, despite the heavy defeat at the weekend.
So maybe the problem isn’t so much the defence as the balancing act in the middle. Despite playing against a Manchester United side who were always going to be devastating on the counter attack, Slaven Bilic opted to play a front three of attack-minded players, putting pressure on the men he started with in the midfield to protect their defence.
At the same time, though, you’d expect that the Hammers will line up for most of the rest of the season: two holding midfielders in behind Lanzini, Ayew and Arnautovic with Hernandez up front. That would represent an even more attacking XI, with a two-man midfield instead of three central players, freeing Lanzini to provide the link to the attackers.
But the question isn’t so much the system but the players who are in it. That’s going to be the main problem for the rest of the transfer window. Despite the sturdy-looking defence and exciting attack, the Hammers conceded four goals and failed to score. That might be because the quality of the midfield three pales in comparison to the rest of the side – and Manchester United’s midfield, though Bilic won’t face them every week. West Ham’s midfield simply not up to the same level as the rest of their own team, and even though Cheikhou Kouyate is still to come back, you get the feeling that the reported deal for William Carvalho really needs to happen for the Hammers to make their other good signings into a successful team.
At the moment, the middle is the part letting the side down. And the rest of the side, on paper, is a competitive one.
For Romelu Lukaku’s first goal, Pedro Obiang was robbed while trying to play a pass after taking far too long on the ball in the centre of midfield. And Nemanja Matic’s ability to win the ball off West Ham’s midfielders was a constant thorn in the east Londoners’ side. But a more composed player in the midfield, and one who is more comfortable on the ball – like Carvalho – would have have at least made the Hammers more competitive in the middle of the pitch.
Instead, West Ham had to make do and mend. And whilst it is only the first game of the season, it’s a wake up call for Slaven Bilic. There are still a few weeks left in the window, however, and the signing of Carvalho would change the feel of the side completely, turning the midfield from the weakness of the team into one that could unite the power of Kouyate with the composure and passing range of the Portuguese Euro 2016 winner and build a platform to start attacks for the dynamic players ahead of them.
That all sounds good, but two new problems then arise. One is giving time for new players to gel into the team, having bought five new players for the starting XI (an expected problem, and one that would be overcome with good management and team spirit). And the second problem is whether or not Carvalho can play in a disciplined defensive midfield role as well as being the link to bring the ball from defence into attack. That might be solved by playing a midfield three with Lanzini given a deeper role with extra defensive tasks, but that could end up dampening his creative qualities. If they do sign Carvalho, much will depend on his ability to run the midfield.
Things may not have looked great at Old Trafford for West Ham, but if they can sort out their midfield issues, the rest of their side doesn’t look as bad as the scoreline makes them out to be. They have a squad which should be able to compete, but it’s clear that it will take some clever management to get it right.