By guest journo James Meagher.
Many a West Ham fan must be puzzled by our failure to win in the last 6 games, especially after a bright start to the season ( ignoring a drubbing by the defending champions). Now all hope seems lost after a horrendous result against Burnley where we were barely in the game and created little of note. Many are screaming and shouting about tactics and the personnel on the pitch (yes, you - Roberto). While these are valid complaints there is a much longer standing issue that the club has had that we have been concealing for some time before it reared it’s filthy head.
West Ham have had defensive frailties for a while now with very brief periods of competency, all while having decent if not down right sensational personnel at time. As an individual, Issa Diop is an man mountain of a defender while Fabian Balbuena has had a difficult season - he was sensational last year as the 'Generalx of our defence. In the past we’ve been blessed with Winston Reid and Ginger Pele (James Collins). While they haven’t been world beaters, they have certainly been above average centre backs. Cresswell’s form may have been up and down but there is no doubting the defensive quality the man has demonstrated over his tenure at the club. The right back position is a hot debate in my household so we shall not go there other then to say that we are fans of Ryan Fredericks and believe that the Michail Antonio experiment there should have ended before it started.
So why have we conceded so many goals?? Last season we conceded 55 goals, the season before 68, and in the 16/17 season 64. In all bar last season we conceded more than teams that were relegated. So why?
We’ve all seen the ads on TV that tell you driving too fast will cause accidents and deaths on the road. What is left out is that driving too slow is even more dangerous as it infuriates drivers around you and causes rash decision making. Here lies our problem. West ham have a slow team. To start with the less-problematic positions - Haller and Yarmolenko are not the quickest duo, especially for a front man and winger. Many people here will point to Zabaleta starting against Newcastle and the horror that ensued but, this is only the most recent case. Where out beloved hammers have really lacked pace is in the defensive midfielder role. Long has Noble patrolled this region for the Irons with Declan Rice more recently taking the role, neither of which have pace to burn. The last time we had any pace in the middle of the park was Cheikhou Kouyate who was ousted from the club due to long periods of poor form.
If we look at this position popularised by Makelele it requires a tactical awareness second to none on the pitch. While certainly Noble has this is spades and Rice is developing, there is a pace required to mitigate any mistake made. Think N’golo Kante. He’s like a rash. He’s everywhere and reads the game like most read a children’s book however, he also is quick across the pitch to cover any mistakes that may have occurred. This ability is a large part of the reason he won the premier league with Leicester City and then Chelsea in back to back years. This combination is rare but it can be found. Liverpool have players like Fabinho and Wijnaldum who may not be sprinters but are no slouches either. Man City have Fernandinho and now Rodri. Ndidi at Leicester. Man united have sought a player for this position for years, hence signing Nemanja Matic in the hopes he could replicate his previous form. There are few players who can play this role without pace. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso to name a few but they are both players far beyond what West Ham currently have in our midfield. This lack of pace and ability to cover ground means our defence is left exposed and the goals fly in. Then as all teams do chasing a game, we push up to try and create pressure and chances but this further exposes our defence, especially to counter attack. This cycle continues and is evident in so many game we lose. The games we win we usually score first and dominate the ball because we don’t have to pile men forward seeking an equaliser.
I fear that until we solve this pace issue in the middle of the park we are destined to forever be on a rollercoaster with our beloved club. We can sit and debate the tactics and why is no one close to Haller (does he smell funny) but until we solve the fact we regularly get overrun in midfield not due to a lack of commitment or passion from the men who fill this roles but due to a lack of pace and quickness.
The January transfer window requires us to acquire something better than Carlos Sanchez!