It’s been three months since we’ve been able to feast our eyes on Premier League action, but that wait will come to an end when things get back underway on 17 June.
During that time, we’ve all become rather detached from the 2019/20 season – as the subplots of football became largely irrelevant while we came to terms with the devastating impact of coronavirus.
There is, however, a return to normality on the cards. And for us West Ham fans, it’s time for that sinking feeling to return in your stomach, after a three month hiatus of, well, relief. Maybe less a feast for the eyes, and more…bread and water.
To remind you – for those that have chosen to forget – West Ham lie 16th in the Premier League table, hovering above the relegation zone only on goal difference. Bournemouth, Watford, Aston Villa and Norwich are the four teams currently below the Hammers, while Brighton are also perilously close to danger after an alarming run of results in 2020.
Now, we’re essentially faced with a nine game shootout to decide who retains their Premier League status for another season. Nine games to get up to speed as quickly as possible, grinding out results in front of a backdrop of absolute nothingness, and nine games to ensure that the club doesn’t face financial ruin after dropping into the Championship.
Sadly, the stark reality for West Ham, and supporters like me, is that relegation is literally unthinkable. Not only would players want to leave, the Hammers would be crippled financially; plunging the existence – and that’s no exaggeration – of the club as we know it into serious doubt.
But I’m not writing this piece to be a doom merchant and eternal pessimist. Not this time anyway.
Instead, I’ve been thinking about how West Ham can possibly get out of this jam and who we need to step up to the plate and deliver when that first ball is kicked.
First and foremost, there needs to be an end product from the manager.
For all the mocking and criticism of David Moyes since his ill-fated spell as Manchester United boss, the Scot is actually a very good manager – evidenced by his hugely successful decade-long spell at Everton.
Tactically astute, he has a good understanding of what it takes to win and has shown in press conferences – particularly when I’ve spoken to him [editor’s note: name-dropper] – that he’s aware of where the players need to improve in order to progress.
Results haven’t gone Moyes’ way since he succeeded Manuel Pellegrini in late December – just three wins in 12 Premier League games, with seven defeats – but the spirited, impressive displays against Southampton and Arsenal just before the interruption in play offered up plenty of promise.
Against Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Saints, West Ham were brilliant. Quick in transition, they took advantage of a woefully inept display from the visitors, punishing the visitors inability to deal with the pace and physicality of Sebastien Haller and Michail Antonio. The introduction of a compact 4-4-2 helped with the balance of the side, pushing the Saints into retreat despite surrendering a high proportion of possession.
The Hammers should really have earned at least a point against Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal but, as so often happens with West Ham, Haller and Antonio’s profligacy in front of goal meant Alexandre Lacazette’s VAR-endorsed strike was enough to send West Ham home empty handed.
Nevertheless, Moyes’ influence on the players mindsets will be key – drawing on the positives from those games while impressing that more is needed – with clashes against Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea among the games coming up.
Secondly, in terms of personnel, everybody has a part to play. But there’s two figures – who cost the club a combined £80m – who have a real point to prove. That’s Haller, in his first season with the club, and Felipe Anderson, who has been surprisingly ineffective in his second campaign.
Haller, signed for a club-record £45m last summer, hasn’t been bad this season (let’s clear that up straight away). The Frenchman has needed to acclimatise to a new league, played in a completely alien system and had his confidence shot to bits by playing at least 15 yards away from any of his teammates towards the end of Pellegrini’s reign.
Under Moyes, things have now changed. No, Haller’s not firing them in left, right and centre – how I wish he had done at the Emirates – but he’s gelling nicely with Antonio in a central role. Physically imposing and a real menace to deal with in the air, he’s started showing why he was so highly thought of at Eintracht Frankfurt last summer and clearly thrives on having a partner alongside him.
What he must do now is hit the back of the net more often. Seven goals in 26 appearances isn’t great – nor is it good or absolutely awful – but it’s certainly not enough. That number must hit double digits by the end of the campaign if West Ham want to survive.
Anderson, meanwhile, has been lacklustre and, at times, has looked off the pace. The Brazilian told 90min in a recent interview that he struggled to adapt to the speed of play in England, and those struggles look to have surprisingly continued.
He’s another player who has seen his confidence plummet – he’s scored just once all season – and his cause won’t have been helped by the impressive displays of Pablo Fornals on the left hand side before play was paused. But despite all that, Anderson is a wonderfully talented player when he’s on song, and showed glimpses of real brilliance in his first season at the London Stadium.
If he’s fit, firing and willing to take people on, Anderson is one hell of a threat going forward. A desire to be direct and positive must be shown between now and the end of the season, as West Ham need that bit of extra impetus, particularly in winnable games against Burnley, Watford, Norwich and Aston Villa.
Anderson’s a top talent and it’s about time he showed it.