As I write this before Christmas, I’ve found myself in the odd position of thinking about West Ham and believing that no matter what the match, we are likely to score. In each of the matches against Newcastle, Cardiff and Crystal Palace at the start of December, we won and scored three goals.
And if you consider our woeful start and take the first four matches out of the equation, in 12 matches we’ve achieved 21 points. That’s top six form, easily, and the rumbles of discontent around the owners and the stadium seem to have taken a back seat, at least for now.
Ah, yes, the owners. Remember the promise of being taken to ‘the next level’ (whatever that is)? Lately, the idea that we might at least become a solid top-half side has gained some traction, but for long periods over recent seasons we have struggled to even maintain our level, let alone move to the next one. As we well know, last season was spent mainly flirting with relegation, before eventually finishing in (a somewhat flattering) 12th place with 42 points.
Dive into the stats a little deeper, and another somewhat startling statistic appears: in 24 of the 38 matches played last season, we scored either no goals or one goal. That kind of form doesn’t really win you many football matches, especially with a leaky defence like ours. A handful of games where we scored two or three goals obscures the reality that we struggled in front of goal – in particular for the first part of the season, before Arnautovic found his scoring boots.
The stats for 2016/7 are remarkably similar (25 of 38 games spent scoring one goal or less). Would life have been any different if we had taken the opportunity to sign Alexandre Lacazette who we face this month?
We attempted to sign him from Lyon in 2016, but failed: he was eventually snapped up by Arsenal before the start of last season for a cool £46m. In his first season with the Gunners, Lacazette scored 17 goals in 39 appearances, close to a goal every two games. In that same season, West Ham’s top goalscorer was Michail Antonio with nine, with strikers Andy Carroll and Andre Ayew only being able to pitch in with seven each. That tells a story.
In fact, the last time that we had a goalscorer who managed 17 goals in a season was in 1999/2000, when Paolo Di Canio (remember him?) was the top scorer. That feels like an awfully long time ago, in a season where we finished a very solid 9th. Lacazette has been compared very favourably to Ian Wright by Gerard Houllier and how we would have wished for such a striker in that mainly dreadful 2016 season.
We won one of our opening seven games, and three out of the first 15. Imagine if we had a striker who could have turned a couple of defeats to draws, and a couple of draws to victories. The table would have looked a lot different. Confidence would have been higher. Lacazette paired with Arnautovic sounds tasty. If we’re defining “the next level”, maybe results would have been such that the chairmen wouldn’t have been in hot water.
Perhaps, with a successful team, irritations about the stadium might have been more readily forgiven. Burnley last season might not have happened, and the rebuilding job currently under way with Pellegrini might have been advanced by a year or two. We might have been thinking about European football under the lights (more than just losing to Astra Giurgiu, by the way), not the possibility of Championship football in the London Stadium.
That’s the point though. It’s all maybes. Every season has its ups and downs. David Moyes finding Arnautovic’s best position was a masterstroke – would that have happened with Lacazette in the side? Would we now have Pellegrini? Would Bilic still be in charge? Or Moyes? Or someone else? There’s no doubt that more goals in that 2016 season would have meant less fingernails being bitten by us supporters, and (most likely) a little less vitriol in the stands, as results would have been better.
However, nothing tastes as sweet as when your club has been in a (mostly) dire run of form for some time, and suddenly the pieces start to fall into place. We’re not perfect – far from it in certain quarters – but to be honest, whilst the signing of someone like Lacazette might have taken us to the ‘next level’, would I swap it for the performances and results over recent weeks?
No, because even without him, I think we have a bright future ahead.