On Friday night those five dreaded words raised their heads in east London again. Too good to go down: it is the knell of doom around West Ham, a cruel reminder of the brutal season 20 years ago when Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick, Paolo Di Canio and 42 points were not enough to keep the club from the Premier League trap door.
That side is widely acknowledged to be among the most purely talented teams to ever find themselves in the bottom three come the end of the season, a side that sleepwalked into a crisis that they only came to fully understand when it was too late. And so it is doubtless a little concerning for West Ham fans to hear their manager accentuate the positives after a fifth straight defeat in the Premier League, a 2-0 loss against Brentford that had the Irons just a point above the relegation zone having played a game more than those around them on Friday night.
“We played well tonight, we played really well in the first half and played well in the second half as well,” said David Moyes. “Got sucker punched with a couple of throw-ins in the first half, so we’re disappointed with that.”
Yet these are not the wilfully blind comments of a manager determined to hide the truth. Moyes was right. In spells, particularly in the game’s early skirmishes, West Ham played excellent football. They controlled territory, swiftly advancing the ball into the final third and committing numbers in pursuit of victory. Thomas Frank echoed his counterpart’s assessment of the game.
“West Ham were better than us in the first half,” he said.
It is becoming a familiar story. They may not have been remotely as dominant against Arsenal on Boxing Day but for 45 minutes they executed their gameplan rather effectively: punching through the Gunners’ weak point down the left flank to win a penalty and then protecting their penalty box with numbers and discipline. Then, just like the two throw-ins that undid them on Friday night, they were undone by atypical errors from a Moyes team, so often defined by their ability to nail down the basics in defense.
That is rather the challenge for the Scot, that supporters have come to expect far more from him over the last few years, where West Ham have been competing with the Premier League’s most established powers in the European places. In the early months of the year his side had turned the anodyne enormodome that is the London Stadium into the capital’s most thrilling and energetic venue; as the ground bid farewell to 2022 most had long since made for the exits. Those that stayed around did so to boo.
“Moyes and the boys did such a tremendous job last season, being so competitive in the Premier League and going on a European run,” said Nigel Reo Coker, CBS soccer analyst and former West Ham captain. “He really has taken the club forward in leaps and bounds but the high performance levels that were set in last season’s campaign are not being reached right now.
“The standard that West Ham set last year is what they will be judged on by the fans. That is why it is so difficult right now, they are not reaching that same level and that’s why it seems negative, why fans are feeling a step backwards has been taken. West Ham is a fantastic football club with a great fanbase but when things aren’t going right and you aren’t getting the results, it can be a very difficult club to be at if you’re not mentally strong.”
For now, Moyes, reappointed in 2019 to bring stability to a club who too often lurked above the relegation zone, appears to be safely ensconced in the hot seat. Those who employ him will not have forgotten the situation the 59-year-old inherited and how similar it is to where the Hammers are now. One might argue he has taken them back to where he found them but a fairer assessment would also consider finishes of sixth and seventh that came along with a run to the Europa League semifinals. However, with the fans at his back, the upswing will need to be swift and profound.
What the data says
The curious facet to West Ham’s current season is that their underlying data would suggest this is not a team that has dropped off the levels it set last year. Certainly, it has not taken the leap that might have been expected after a summer when more than £165 million was spent on the likes of Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta.
According to Twenty3’s expected goal (xG) data, they have averaged almost exactly the same tally per game (1.44 this season to 1.43 last) in attack whilst conceding significantly lower quality chances at the other end (1.19 to 1.62). Rank the Premier League by non-penalty xG and they sit eighth, a better side than Manchester United and Chelsea, let alone their conquerors on Friday night.
West Ham have not lost what made them so formidable in the Premier League and Europe over recent years. They continue to pose a real threat from set pieces, where they average 0.3 xG per game whilst conceding 0.17. They are averaging about as many fast breaks too, the razor sharp counters that Jarrod Bowen used to lead after his defenders had held firm under pressure.
Equally against Brentford you could see signs of a midfield looking to expand its repertoire. Paqueta would glide around midfield, drifting beyond one man and looking to slide in a forward. Declan Rice spread the play with accuracy and fizz. You really got a sense it was going somewhere. It was. The bin.
Time and time again West Ham would show elegance in the build-up only to devolve into low-value opportunities that involved hitting the big men in the mixer. Below, Vladimir Coufal and Scamacca, the latter with a nifty backheel, combine expertly to give space for Rice to drive into in midfield.
For a moment it seems like West Ham have the opportunity to rip through the Brentford defense. What they got was Emerson Palmieri punting a cross into the first defender. Soon after the Hammers ticked a lot of the boxes for what might be considered good build-up play. They drew the opposition press but quickly moved through it, a layoff by Said Benrahma giving Rice more space to run into.
He and Paqueta are perhaps guilty of dawdling a little too long but ultimately Coufal could do more than simply heave a cross in the general direction of Scamacca. On a night where he was determined to see the positives, Moyes pronounced himself far from impressed with his side’s chance creation in the final third.
“It has been a running theme,” he acknowledged. “We have been pretty good defensively before tonight but tonight we got done with a long throw, [for which you] have to credit Brentford.
“We have been talking about final third quality for a long time now and not scoring enough goals. Tonight was a night where we played really well with the ball, dominated most of it. But we couldn’t make a good enough cross or finish.”
That Moyes’ first concern was the quality of crossing was indicative. Too often it is their default route to goal and whilst Scamacca, Michail Antonio and (if he ever recovers his form) Tomas Soucek are effective aerial operators, headers and shots off crosses are generally still low-value opportunities.
It is no coincidence that West Ham have one of the league’s lowest non-penalty xG per shot and that the two players who get the ball into the opposition penalty area the most frequently are Coufal and Aaron Cresswell. So many of the shooting opportunities they are creating for teammates are coming from crosses off dead balls and alive, but they seem to lack guile in the center of the pitch.
New signings struggle to make an impact
One might have thought in the summer that Paqueta would be the man to solve that, the statement signing from Lyon who had already established himself as a key cog in the Brazil midfield. The last time one of his compatriots went from OL to the PL he proved to be rather effective. But where Bruno Guimaraes has established himself as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, Paqueta still looks like a man searching for a role.
“He still hasn’t really found his feet at West Ham,” says Reo-Coker. “He’s a really talented player but the reality of it is the expectations have gone up at West Ham and with the recruitments that they’ve made there has to be an understanding that an immediate impact is expected. He has not really done that at a good enough level.
“You have to look at the influence that Guimaraes is having at Newcastle. There’s going to be an expectation that he does the same, that’s the difficulty he’ll face.”
It doubtless helps Guimaraes, who did need time to work his way up to Premier League standards, that Eddie Howe has designed a midfield specifically to exploit his Brazilian. Moyes cannot and should not do the same. He has Rice’s qualities to factor in as well, a welcome problem for almost any manager but still one that needs considering. At club level, the England international has so much talent on the ball that having him sit in front of the defense seems a waste of his talent.
It is not a job that suits Paqueta either whilst Soucek’s greatest qualities are displayed in a box-to-box role. Moving to a back three seemed to make an early impact on both midfielders, who had rather less worrying to do about what was behind them, but for all the quality they have in the engine room, the Hammers seem a little samey. Particularly in last season’s Europa League, West Ham’s missing pieces seemed to be a midfield destroyer and a striker to rival Michail Antonio.
They were supposed to have solved the latter issue with Scamacca but the Italian has been feeding off scraps in the Premier League. Per 90 minutes he is averaging 0.24 non-penalty xG; he is getting shots but they are such low value before and after they are taken that it is hard to chastise him for just two goals.
Certainly, Moyes was reluctant to lay too much blame on new arrivals. Asked if he needed more from Paqueta and Scamacca, the West Ham boss said: “It’s easy picking on the new ones. You’ve got to look at the ones who’ve been here and do usually score. You’ve got to say: ‘Come on, you boys are part of it as well’. Really, if we’re looking, all the people who we’d expect to be scoring goals are down on it so we have to try and find a way to get them back on it if we can.”
Too good to go down?
Moyes continues to beat the drum for relative optimism and understandably so. He will be aware of how he seemed to talk Sunderland into a relegation crisis from early in his tenure in 2016-17, a sense of fatalism gripping the club as early as August. Still, there is a fine line between keeping heads looking up towards midtable and beyond and failing to grasp the situation they find themselves in.
For Reo-Coker, who captained a newly promoted side to a surprisingly high ninth-placed finish and FA Cup final in 2005-06, it is time for Moyes to go back to basics.
“When you look at right now, the run of games and performances, it’s not going to be so much about style of play and how pretty it looks,” he said. It’s about getting results. This is when you have to try to get the players to become dogs of war, to do whatever it takes to get the results.
“Performances are something that has to take a back burner, at least in terms of style of play. It’s nitty gritty, getting players to do whatever it takes to get that result for the club. I think there is an opportunity for them to turn it around and get the fans back on side, if results come instantly.”
In reality, a stylistic change may not even be as valuable as any form of regression to the mean. Last season’s opponents underperformed their xG by 0.33 per game against West Ham, now Moyes’ side are twice as wasteful in front of goal. This is less the footballing universe rebalancing themselves than a team who seem a little down on their fortune now, one who can play very well for 18 minutes before a lucky break hands Ivan Toney a goal from nowhere. To borrow a metaphor from Arsene Wenger, over three years Moyes took West Ham’s confidence in themselves up by the stairs. Now it is crashing down in the lift.
If they start getting the results of a team with their data profile this team should be comfortably ok. But this is West Ham, where memories of 20 years ago linger on.
“You’re never too good to go down,” says Reo-Coker. “To this day people still question how that star-studded team filled with the legends of Premier League football went down. Just look at the competitive nature of the teams in and around that region.
“It starts to feel like panic stations.”