How do you solve a problem like West Ham’s defence? It seems no one really has the answer. For years now we’ve had a habit of leaking lots and lots of goals, and as things currently stand it’s the only thing really holding us back from potentially realising our ambition.
That ambition was clearly shown this summer. Appointing an experienced, world class manager in the shape of Manuel Pellegrini proves David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady do want to take this club places, contrary to what fans and neutrals will believe following the several events over the last few seasons that may suggest otherwise.
It was a statement, as was the decision to fork out nearly £100million on new players this summer. Almost £30m of that was spent on defenders – Issa Diop, Ryan Fredericks and Fabian Balbuena all arrived, and all in relatively low key circumstances compared to their fellow new arrivals but it was obvious Pellegrini knew he needed to tighten up our defence.
That’s because we haven’t been very good at defending for some time now.
Even in that Farewell Boleyn season – when we finished just four points off the top four and would’ve secured Champions League football had it not been for shock defeats to Swansea and Stoke in two of our final three games – we conceded 51 goals, 10 more than fourth placed Manchester City and the same amount as 15th placed Crystal Palace. Since then, we’ve conceded 141 league goals, which includes the nine we’ve already conceded this season after our game against Arsenal.
For a Premier League club with ambitions of breaking in to the top six, potentially even the top four eventually, that simply isn’t good enough.
So how does Manuel Pellegrini fix it? At the moment, it’s quite clear he isn’t absolutely sure himself. In the opening three defeats of this season, Pellegrini has played three different back fours. The only two mainstays have been Arthur Masuaku and Balbuena. Angelo Ogbonna, Pablo Zabaleta and Diop have all been given opportunities to impress at the back, too, yet we’re still shipping goals for fun.
So it’s obvious Pellegrini still hasn’t made his mind up on what his strongest defence is, let alone how he manages to tighten it up when he does. However, that is not Pellegrini’s priority. It never has been. The Chilean is notorious at ignoring the attacking threat the opposition poses and almost always focuses on how his team can score more than the other.
During his three years at Manchester City, his side conceded over 100 Premier League goals – that might not sound a lot, but it was never the best defensive record in the division in any given season.
Even when he won the Premier League in 13/14, City conceded 10 more goals than third placed Chelsea and and just two less than fifth placed Everton. On the flip side, City were the league’s highest scorers in two of his three seasons up in Manchester. That says a lot about where Pellegrini’s priorities lie as a manager.
But West Ham is not Manchester City and we saw how dangerous it can be to adopt such a philosophy at a so-called lesser club when we rocked up at Anfield on the opening day of the season and got thrashed 4-0.
Bournemouth wasn’t much better, with awful defending contributing to their first goal and their second coming from a set-piece.
Three more were shipped at Arsenal and the trend continues, but at least then we could start seeing a side that can be very effective going forward. Once again we shipped three goals and looked suspect when being attacked, but going forward we looked dangerous and intent on outscoring the Gunners. We didn’t, but it was perhaps the first real sign of just what we can expect life to be like under our new man.
I’m convinced Pellegrini will get it right. It’s easy to forget that the fixture list hasn’t necessarily been kind to us to start with, and it could be argued that we’re only three points down on where we expected to be after three games. The Liverpool and Arsenal fixtures were written off by anyone and everyone, so it’s only the Bournemouth game we should really be disappointed with right now.
With all that said, Pellegrini really must stop tinkering and just decide on his strongest back four. Some consistency will help our cause here, and once that’s done then we should start to see things take shape. I have no doubt we’ll score loads this season, it’s just how many we concede that remains the big question.