West Ham can finally begin to look upwards after ending a run of five games without a win came to an end last weekend.
The performance had a number of things Slaven Bilic’s side had previously lacked – namely a midfield shielding the backline effectively, a defence that wasn’t prone to a series of calamitous mistakes and a little bit of luck.
Yes, West Ham can count themselves more than a little lucky that Christian Benteke wasn’t on form and ballooned his penalty into the Selhurst Park stands. If the Hammers get the first two parts of that list sorted – a balanced midfield and defence that doesn’t resemble an under-12’s side – then the luck should come and we might see some more positive results.
Slaven Bilic had managed to keep his squad together – with James Tomkins the only departure – and seemingly added quality and depth in Andre Ayew, Sofaine Feghouli and Havard Nordtveit. It’s no wonder there was optimism after last season’s good showing.
This season, however, did not start well, with a late loss to Chelsea and uninspired win at ten-man Bournemouth sandwiching a disappointing Europa League exit to Romanian side Astra Giurgiu.
Added to that, they had lost key players Andy Carroll and Aaron Cresswell – as well as record signing Ayew – to long-term injuries.
While exiting Europe arguably should have aided the Hammers domestically, it served to only add to the negativity surrounding the club as they struggled to adapt to the new London Stadium and failed to win in any of their next five.
The game against Middlesbrough provided a turning point in the sense that Bilic’s side were now looking solid and formidable once more while peppering the Middlesbrough goal with 19 attempts.
That performance – coupled with the Palace win – has given the fans hope their season has finally been kickstarted. So how far can they truly go?
At the start of the year the aim was to improve on last season and break into the top-six. With the new players added, including their record signing, it seemed only fair that the Hammers should be aiming higher.
Unfortunately, their nightmare start and the improvement of teams around them last year such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton has made a top-six finish seem a tall ask indeed.
It’s fair to say that the Hammers may struggle to compete with the aforementioned three while City, United, Arsenal and Spurs still seem beyond them as well.
With that in mind, West Ham should perhaps be looking at an eighth-placed finish – not an improvement on last year’s position, but a sign that they can hold a solid mid-table finish even when clubs with greater resources improve around them.
Looking at the clubs around them, that might not be too much of a big ask. Directly above the Hammers are Burnley who – despite being resolute at home – will inevitably get dragged into a relegation battle due to their woeful form of the road.
Bournemouth have improved in recent weeks but don’t seem to be able to grind out results against tougher opposition, while Tony Pulis’ West Brom are the opposite – able to grind out the results but rarely blowing teams away (we’ll forget about West Ham’s collapse at the Hawthorns for now).
Watford and Crystal Palace seem too inconsistent to break free from mid-table obscurity, meaning there are only really two other sides who should challenge the Hammers to an eight-placed finish.
Southampton currently hold the position having improved defensively under Claude Puel and begun to find goalscoring form with Charlie Austin profiting. They are arguably the favourites to finish higher up but have a tough set of fixtures to navigate.
The other side is Leicester City. Like West Ham, the Foxes haven’t lived up to their exploits last season in the league and have looked woeful at times outside of the Champions League. They appear to fare much better when they don’t have a midweek European game and are still resilient at home, conceding only one goal at the King Power.
The Hammers have been the opposite at their new stadium, having won only the Bournemouth game there and conceding eight goals in four games. If they are to have any hope of climbing, they need to make the old Olympic Stadium a fortress and start racking up the points.
If you look at the squads when fully-fit Hammers arguably have more quality than the Saints and more depth than the Foxes. With Cresswell recovered – though suspended – and others getting back to fitness they will boast one of the better starting elevens in the league and will hopeclimbing the table.
Eighth-placed seems a sensible – if adjusted – target for this season. However if the Hammers can put together a run like they did at times last season, perhaps they can continue looking upwards even of that.