While Manchester United have done their best to make sure the Premier League doesn’t become completely stratified into just a “top four and everyone else,” and Arsenal and Tottenham have made the idea of a “Big Six” laughable, that only works if there are other teams willing to crash through the door left so irresponsibly open. Leicester did their best the past couple seasons, and at least broke up the sextet aristocracy. Still, no club has burst into the top echelon, the Champions League spots, in some time. Yet another team making Champions League money would certainly boost the competitiveness of the league.
West Ham seriously look like they could be the one this season.
They leapt over Liverpool yesterday by beating them 3-2 in a game that probably wasn’t that close, depending on your point of view. Yes, Liverpool dominated the ball, and the Hammers were only too happy to let them. But Liverpool only managed five shots on target, while West Ham managed three, two of which went in (own goals don’t count as shots on target, somehow). And it was a perfect display of what West Ham have become under manager David Moyes. They are casino security tight in defense, and teenager-ruthless when on the counter. And when the latter doesn’t work, there is no more dangerous team on set pieces, given the delivery Pablo Fornals provides and the fact that the rest of the lineup is basically a basketball frontcourt. They’ve scored 23 times on set pieces over the past season and a third.
Liverpool certainly weren’t at their best yesterday, and desperately missed Roberto Firmino. Firmino drops off from the forwards into the hole between midfield and defense, and links everything. Without him, Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček — the defensive “2” in West Ham’s 4-2-3-1 formation — were able to turn that portion of the field into salted Earth for Liverpool. They cut off every passing lane to the front three with no one getting in between them, and then on the rare occasions the ball did get to the Liverpool forwards, they were there to tackle it away.
West Ham’s defense is their strength, and is so miserly as to be cruel. While they’re just 8th in the league in goals against, they’re 4th in expected goals against, just a tenth of a goal behind Chelsea. When you’re on the same block as Chelsea defensively, you’re a chastity belt. Kurt Zouma and Angelo Ogbonna have been stalwarts, and with Rice and Souček in front of them they’re well-protected.
But it’s not enough to just not concede. There has to be a sharp end of the stick. Fornals was at the hub of everything yesterday, as he’s pretty much been all season. When West Ham clear the ball from the defense, it always seems to find the feet of either Fornals or Rice, and both can launch rapier counterattacks at a moment’s notice. Liverpool had no answers yesterday for Fornals, who spent most of the afternoon dancing around Fabinho, one of the best defensive midfielders around. When he gets Jarrod Bowen and Saïd Benrahma involved out wide, they are lethal (and little secret that Liverpool themselves are quite keen on taking Bowen to Anfield one day soon). And we’ve been over Michail Antonio’s incredible transformation into one of the league’s best strikers.
It’s hard to remember that manager David Moyes has done this before. But his propulsion of Everton to the Champions League in 2005 gets buried by the fact that they spit it in the qualifying round before the group stages, and then his comical failures at Manchester United, Real Sociedad, and Sunderland. Also lying on top of that was that West Ham supporters very much did not want him reappointed two years ago, fearing the kind of drab, just-avoid-relegation style that Moyes had become synonymous with and that they displayed when he saved them from the drop in his first go-around. But Everton, other than Leicester’s miracle title run of 2016, are the last team to get into the Champions League spots from outside the Big Six, so Moyes has been here before.
If there’s a warning light on the dashboard, it’s Moyes’ preference to use as few players as possible. With their involvement in the Europa League, and their progression in the League Cup where they’ve kneecapped both Manchester clubs so far, they’ve played 17 games. Eight players have already started 10 games or more, and only a further three have started even half of them. Ogbonna left yesterday’s game early, though that was with a cut to his head and shouldn’t lead to a long-term absence. But an injury to Fornals or Antonio or Rice that does see them miss weeks instead of days, and they’ll be up against it. There’s also the issue of fatigue come the spring, as they’re almost certain to get to the knockout stages of the Europa League. Moyes will have to get more players involved to manage it all.
We’ll find out more about West Ham in the coming month, as they will see both Manchester City and Chelsea. They don’t have to win those if they can continue to clobber the clubs below them as they have Their only blemishes this season are a last-minute winner to Brentford and a loss to United, where Moyes strangely brought on club captain but basically mascot Mark Noble off the bench to take an injury-time penalty with his first touch.
If they can stay fit, and energetic, they are far more organized and positive right now than United, who seem intent on finding every excuse to keep their manager around. Spurs are going to take some time to work out the kinks with a new manager, and Arsenal could still be anything. At this point, it might be better to ask why not West Ham?