Back in the dark days of February 2018 I wrote a piece outlining a plan for West Ham to become a top six club. At the time it was a welcome respite from our struggles both on and off the field, but thankfully since then we have (mostly) addressed the concerns of fans about the commitment of the board and maintained our Premier League status. But the question still remains as to how well we are progressing towards being a top six club?
Stadium and fan base
Undoubtedly the current board have mobilised the Hammers fan base and after a pretty fraught season last year have eased tensions with an impressive summer squad investment and the fourth highest net spend (£82M) in the Premier League. For now, the tensions between the board and fans have eased. With one of the biggest stadiums in the league we definitely have the capacity of a top club. However, we need a stadium atmosphere that energises the home side whilst intimidating visitors. It has always been my belief that West Ham will ultimately fully take over the stadium and could then address the issue of proximity of seating around the pitch which is the key obstacle to creating a more football-friendly atmosphere. With the financial difficulties at the LLDC one senses that a full acquisition is increasingly possible.
Perhaps the biggest step forward was allowing a new manager to choose the Director of Football and have control over running the football end of things. Although the temptation to dabble in squad affairs must be hard to resist for any fan, the Davids have allowed Manuel Pellegrini and Mario Husillos to do their thing. Pellegrini may be on a big salary (estimated at £10M/year) but this is less than the estimated £12M he was receiving in China, emphasising that his motivations are primarily football-driven. He calmly rode the storm of an opening four game losing streak and then we’ve witnessed the coming together of a side who are starting to embrace the open style that Pellegrini favours and that is pretty close to the much fabled ‘West Ham Way’ that traditionalists crave. That aside, Pellegrini’s transformation of Malaga and Villareal, along with his proven Premier League credentials with Man City make a compelling case that we have found the right manager.
The Hammers last major trophy was in 1981 and in 25 years of the Premier League we have finished in the top six only once (5th in 1998/99). In reality, despite our relative financial wealth, we are a long way from being viewed as one of the really big clubs. The big challenge is to break the Catch-22 of being unable to attract Champions League quality players without a promise of Champions League action. This requires big signals of intent – Pellegrini’s arrival is certainly one and the signings of Anderson and Yarmolenko emphasise that we mean business. Looking ahead, hopefully Manuel Lanzini’s recovery will continue and we might soon be watching a front five of Lanzini, Arnautovic, Chicharito, Yarmolenko and Anderson terrorising opposition defences. Things are not quite so well sorted at the back, but Diop and Balbena have impressed. Similarly, we lack a midfield player with that extra physical presence needed to dominate games. Another indicator of where we are at in terms of squad strength can be seen by looking at the bench – with Reid and Lanzini still to return, we have a bench that at times has included the likes of Antonio, Chicharito, Ogbonna, Cresswell and Noble, all players that most Premier League sides would gladly have in their first team squads.
Style of play
Perhaps the biggest change in becoming a top six side is changing the style of play. Leicester City’s Premier League triumph of 2016 was the exception that proves a rule first advanced by the great Johan Cruyff and practised to best effect by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – the team that has more of the ball inevitably creates more shooting chances and wins more. Although there are certainly examples of sides enjoying considerable success playing a counter-attacking game, across Europe’s biggest leagues possession correlates with success. The trick of converting possession into goals is to move the ball quickly and accurately to create openings. It’s worth noting that even though Pellegrini’s side came out second best in our opening four games of the season, our percentage possession and passing accuracy has already increased beyond our records under any of Moyes, Bilic or Allardyce. From time to time we will get nobbled by visitors who park the bus and catch us on the break, but if we stick to our guns we should eventually be able to go toe-to-toe with the best sides.
So, the key indicators suggest that we are on course to transition into one of the top clubs in the Premier League. We have the structures and the manager, the squad is getting stronger and we are developing a new more mobile and attractive style of play. Making the transition to being one of the big clubs is going to require patience and determination.