There are countless images since the start of last season of Slaven Bilic pulling expressions ranging between distraught and despairing on the London Stadium touchline.
The Croatian has never been blessed with a sunshine smile but even so, the ratio of Bilic pics in which he appears to be battling deep emotional torment compared to those in which he appears to be enjoying some aspect of the events unfolding in front of him is staggeringly biased towards the former.
His successor David Moyes took just ninety minutes to add to the Hammers gaffer grimace album. Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Watford inspired the same gritty, concerned stares we saw from Bilic during his final one-and-a-half seasons at West Ham, and the same pessimistic looks Moyes himself produced during torrid tenures with Manchester United and Sunderland.
Moyes’ post-match debrief wasn’t hugely encouraging either, criticising players with ‘big reputations’ who let him down and admitting he ‘didn’t enjoy’ the performance. The general mood being broadcast was one of firstly, inevitability over the result and secondly, that West Ham have their work cut out to escape the relegation scrap at the foot of the Premier League any time soon. Some Irons fans will find eerie, worrying similarities with much of Moyes’ media talk as he oversaw the Black Cats’ relegation last season – a failed experiment in managing expectations.
“I said to the players at the end that it’s tough to play when the crowd is like that. There were some players with big reputations who disappointed me a little bit. I didn’t enjoy the performance and I expected us to do better. We tried to stay in the game and give ourselves a chance – and we probably did – but overall it was not good enough.”
But to label Moyes’ first match in charge of the Irons a complete catastrophe would be untrue. For starters, West Ham at least resembled something like an organised and cohesive unit with an obvious game-plan of trying to frustrate the home side for the majority of the match. It was only towards the end when the difference between the two sides, despite Watford entering the game on the back of a run of three defeats, became painfully evident.
Likewise, the statistics suggest there were some obvious improvements. West Ham covered 10km more ground than their average this season under Bilic and 5km more than they managed in a single game before the Croatian’s departure. They also produced three clear chances to score by Opta’s definition, a total they trumped just once in the eleven games previous. In fact, it was only for some wayward finishing from Cheikhou Kouyate and a stunning triple-save from Heurelho Gomes that they didn’t find the net at Vicarage Road.
We all know goals change games and Sunday’s contest could have panned out incredibly differently had West Ham notched their first of the post-Bilic era. That’s an easy declaration to make hypothetically, but it does feel as if this Irons side – which clearly has the personnel to be much higher up the table – needs only one slice of good fortune or one moment of brilliance to rediscover its confidence and swagger. The players entered Sunday’s game lacking belief and it showed in their performance.
That will give Moyes hope a turnaround isn’t far away, but the problem the Scot faces is the limited window for such a transforming moment to happen. On the horizon is a trip to the Etihad Stadium, where Manchester City have averaged more than three goals per game this season, followed by visits from Arsenal and Chelsea. Moyes has beaten the latter two clubs just eight times throughout his career from 62 attempts, and averaged just 0.68 points per game against them.
Accordingly, the clash with Leicester City on Friday night is of vital importance. A change in management has moved the Foxes up the league to 12th place, but they’re still just four points away from the Hammers and can easily be dragged back into relegation territory. Having another club in the mix will inevitably help West Ham but more pertinent is the fact Leicester are quite simply beatable opponents for the Hammers, especially with home advantage.
Should West Ham take nothing from that game, then a trip to Everton where the east Londoners have won just seven times throughout the 25 years of the Premier League becomes Moyes’ last chance of picking up points before that three-game run against members of the big six – something as important to the Scot as the Hammers. After all, we always say survival is the first objective for any Premier League manager undertaking a new job and if Moyes goes five games without a win, regardless of the opposition, he’ll struggle to justify the board’s faith in him after the initial wave of despairing negativity his appointment received.
That all points to Friday night’s clash at the London Stadium being very much a must-win game, one that improves the confidence of his players, West Ham’s points tally and gives them a few inches of breathing space ahead of what is easily their toughest three-game run of the season. After coming away from Sunday with a 2-0 defeat, however, there is much, much work to be done in east London.