Back in September, Manuel Pellegrini was speaking about West Ham having a ‘big team mentality’. It was following our victory against Manchester United that he claimed it was something the squad possessed.
He has managed the likes of Manchester City and Real Madrid, winning titles and he’s reached the Champions League numerous times. The Chilean is more than qualified to determine what makes up a big team mentality. But while he has openly said how important he feels it is and his claims that the team have it, whether they actually have the mentality he craves is questionable.
The one side of this they certainly possess is that this group of players don’t fear anybody. The best teams must have the confidence to assert their game on the opponent. They of course won’t always win, but they aren’t afraid to attack against teams who have the means to make them pay for mistakes.
Most believe that big teams shouldn’t be seen to drop back in an attempt to simply nullify their opponent; as the response to Jose Morunho’s ‘park the bus’ tactics highlights. West Ham consistently look to attack teams of the biggest stature, the recent game at Old Trafford is the perfect example of this.
The team were eventually beaten by their legitimate goal being disallowed, a questionable penalty and another strike from the penalty spot. Michail Antonio, who was denied by the crossbar and then a David De Gea wonder save after coming off the bench, summarised things perfectly in his post match interview with BT Sport: ‘I don’t know what to say. It was an unbelievable team performance. The boys that started the game in the first half, the possession they kept, the football they were playing, the shots they had on target, they just couldn’t get a goal.
‘But they [Man United] managed to get a penalty in the first half, managed to get a penalty in the second half and that’s how we lost the game, but we can’t take nothing away from our group performance today. We had the fight, the grit, just didn’t get the points.’
This approach may not have paid off in terms of points on the day, but it has done at times this season. The Hammers have drawn against Liverpool, beaten Arsenal, drawn against Chelsea and beaten Manchester United this campaign.
To approach matches with the biggest teams with an attacking mindset, especially after results such as the opening day 4-0 thrashing against Liverpool, shows mental toughness and an inherent confidence. It is clear that this approach has come with a degree of success. Even in the games where a result doesn’t follow the performance, the fans always show their appreciation.
The players were given plenty of applause from the supporters as they left the Old Trafford pitch. The 1-0 loss at Manchester City is another example of this happening. Seeing the men in claret and blue go toe-to-toe with the league’s top teams is enough and has become something which has happened consistently as the season has gone on.
It’s the opposite side of the spectrum where the cracks in West Ham’s mentality are revealed. The biggest teams approach each and every game as if it is a must win, keeping their focus throughout the entire season. There can, of course, be blips or freak losses, but these are a rarity which happen once or twice at most in a whole season.
Their mentality can be just as important as their supreme skill in ensuring they beat smaller teams in the league. It is easy to get hyped up for a big game, it takes a true winner to step up every time they cross the white line, regardless of who their opposition is.
West Ham certainly haven’t done that this season. We’ve lost against Cardiff City and AFC Bournemouth in 2019 and let a lead slip to draw against Crystal Palace. Our win against Huddersfield also led to questions being asked. Having gone 1-0 up in the 15th minute the team fell asleep for an hour, conceding three goals in what was a woeful performance.
We were able to avoid embarrassment and grabbed a win with three goals in the last quarter of an hour, which does show resilience. Though the fact they allowed Huddersfield to score three times in one game for the first time this season, in such a calamitous fashion, doesn’t bode well for those big team mentality claims.
Then there is the AFC Wimbledon loss in the FA Cup. People can say what they want about the change in formation and the rotation of players, the team that West Ham put out should have been more than capable of beating a side who were sat rock bottom in League One and remain in the relegation zone. The Hammers had easily dispatched them in the Carabao Cup, watching the FA Cup game it seemed as if they expected the home side to roll over. Of course we now know they didn’t.
The rest of the FA Cup has made for frustrating viewing ever since, as it is impossible to stop the thoughts saying we could have made it deep into the competition. This isn’t meant to turn into a rant, but there is one more example which must be given to highlight the frailties of the team’s mentality. We’re now pretty much out of the race for seventh place and a potential spot in the Europa League.
However, when the Hammers hosted Everton a win would have been enough to take them seventh in the table, at least temporarily. What ensued was one of the worst performances of the season, a display which practically gifted Everton their 2-0 victory.
We simply didn’t turn up for a match with a direct competitor. A club with a big team mentality would have made sure they at least gave a stellar performance, even if they weren’t able to get the result. The late equaliser conceded against Leicester, having had a legitimate goal disallowed, also highlights the fragility of the squad’s mentality to a certain degree.
That there are so many instances where the team have failed to turn up, being punished most of those times, shows that there is some kind of flaw in the team’s attitude regarding these games. There has been plenty of talk about the club’s ambitions since leaving Upton Park, with ‘the next level’ being thrown around regularly.
If there is any hope of these ambitions coming to fruition, the mentality when facing sides outside the top six will need to be addressed. To get a result against a big side and then lose against someone in or around the relegation has always been seen as ‘very West Ham’, what has happened this season is nothing new.
It doesn’t show a big team mentality though and with all the changes it’s questionable whether that should be settled for anymore. Manuel Pellegrini is an intelligent man and manager, who has already done some good things with West Ham.
However, he still has a way to go until his side are truly in his image and playing the way he wants to. Who he recruits in the summer will be important in building a side full of quality as he wishes for. Perhaps just as vital though is that they can contribute to creating the big team mentality Pellegrini obviously craves.