A year ago, West Ham United would have been the best story had Leicester City not done the impossible. The east London club had been within shouting distance of a top four finish for most of the season. New manager Slaven Bilic was the toast of the town after bringing back an attractive style following the Big Sam Allardyce years.
To this point in the young 2016/17 season, West Ham has been a disaster not just in Premier League action but also the Europa League. They, of course, qualified for Europa League on the back of last season’s strong finish.
In the Europa League, West Ham failed to make it to the group stage after losses to minnows NK Domžale of Slovenia and Astra Giurgiu of Romania. That poor form carried over to the Premier League for West Ham as after today’s draw to Middlesbrough they have collected just four points from the first seven games.
Why has this sudden fall of form happened to West Ham?
What is going wrong:
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1.) Far too reliant on Dimitri Payet and Michail Antonio
West Ham has scored around the league average, eight goals through the first seven matches and Swiss Army knife Michail Antonio has led that charge with five. With that said Antonio can’t create through the middle. At his best Antonio should be leading a counter, or cutting in from the wing to power shots on goal. With the injury woes, that West Ham has been experiencing to this point, Antonio has had to be leaned on for more than he should be.
Today Antonio started as a lead striker and was largely invisible. He could be seen drifting back to the wings (his natural position), meaning West Ham had no target to bail out the midfield and link up play. When playing on the wing Antonio is a very dangerous player, but can be contained when the other options for West Ham aren’t producing and additional attention can be paid by either a holding midfielder helping over or the wing dropping in.
Payet, on the other hand, has missed three of the seven matches and came in as a substitute in another. His absence has certainly been felt as he his West Ham’s primary playmaker and creative outlet.
Today against Middlesbrough it was as if West Ham was waiting the entire match for Payet to create. Outside of Ogbonna with two, no other player had more than one key pass today other than Payet. To make matters worse, of West Ham’s dribbles (beating an opponent off the dribble) Payet and Antonio combined to have 80% of the club’s total.
There was just no creative spark outside of these two players.
2.) Injuries to key players
Injuries are a tough excuse to use for a lack of success. To some extent every Premier League team has to wage a battle against injuries the entire year. West Ham, however, has been hit hard with injury to some very specific key players. These injuries include Andy Carroll (yes I know he is always injured), Andre Ayew, Aaron Cresswell, and Diafra Sakho.
Carroll for all his faults was tied for the West Ham goals lead a year ago and more importantly gives an enormous target for the midfield and defensive players to look for. Cresswell was a key man from his left back position a year ago, both defensively and getting forward to play in quality crosses (led West Ham in minutes played a year ago). Sakho is another attacking player who brings a wide range of talents.
He can play as a second striker or in a pinch as the lone striker. Finally the big West Ham signing of the summer, Ayew has played all of 35 minutes this season. Ayew was in a large part expected to take some of the burden from Payet as he can create from any of the three attacking positions.
3.) Finally, the defense has been horrible
West Ham has yet to post a Premier League clean sheet and against both Watford and West Bromwich they have conceded four goals. Through seven games, West Ham has conceded 17 goals, good for last place. It can be difficult to pinpoint the primary cause of this sudden defensive frailty, but if I was to point fingers I’d say the defensive midfield pairing of Mark Noble and Cheikho Kouyate are at fault.
These two players were rocks in the West Ham midfield a year ago, starting a combined 71 matches. They were a solid shield in front of the back four and helped to do the boring work of retaining and cycling possession. This year, Noble, in particular, has been poor. The communication between Noble and Kouyate has been horrible leaving them both moving forward, meaning the defense is exposed.
Noble needs to sit in more and the dramatic drop in defensive stats display this point better than anything. A year ago, Noble averaged 2.8 tackles and 2.2 interceptions opposed to this season 1.4 and1.3 respectively this season. That difference is further brought into contrast when you consider West Ham had 1% more possession a year ago, meaning Noble has more opportunity to register defensive stats this year.
The defending by the entire team has been a problem this season as well. Conceding seventeen goals is never just two players fault and the team needs to improve across the board defensively.
It remains to be seen if West Ham can recover. The club is certainly too talented for a true relegation scare, but has this slow start ended all hopes at a shot at Europe?