I feel I need to start with a disclaimer. This has been an exceptional season. Up there with The Farewell Boleyn season, and the fifth place finish in 1999 as our best since ‘86.
Off the back of another relegation battle last season, we’d have probably taken being 15th at this stage of the season, let alone fifth. In fact, if you use the last nine games of last season – those played in lockdown – to make up to our season total, we’d have a grand total of 60 points – a sum that would gain European Football in five out of the last six seasons.
So you cannot help but heap praise on David Moyes, the team he has put together, and the spirit around the camp. But does that exclude him from any form of criticism? Or indeed, should it? If you take to social media, you’ll soon be told that there is no right to complain.
Look at the changes from last year you’re told. We’re fifth with 10 games to go! But is that OK?
Is being satisfied with our improvement enough, or are we allowed to yearn for even more – especially in light of some recent missed opportunities.
Part of those missed opportunities – and indeed split views – seem to be against the so-called Top Six.
Sure, on one hand, we’re little old West Ham. We’ve never expected to beat these teams before, so narrow victories are moral victories, right?
Certainly, under the likes of Sam Allardyce, when we were languishing near the bottom, this was the case. Damage limitation. Protecting the goal difference. But why are we still engrained in that thought process?
The only teams we have really ‘had a go at’ were Spurs, Arsenal and ironically, Man City.
This yield bought us only six points – failing to lose to Spurs, and there are arguments that we deserved more in all four games against the other two.
Yet against Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool, we have picked up 0 points, and in each game gone defensively.
What makes it all the more frustrating, is that in half of the games against those three, they have been there for the taking, yet we have failed to sniff blood.
Our 3-1 defeat to Liverpool came in the midst of a poor run for the champions, which had seen them lose to Southampton and Burnley in the weeks running up to our game.
They would go on to lose at home to Brighton and get thumped by Man City and Leicester in the intervening games. In fact, we were only one of two victories they had in an 11 game period.
Similarly our 3-0 loss to Chelsea. At the time, the pressure was beginning to build on Frank Lampard, as they faced us on the back of two defeats, and would go on to not win any of their following three either.
Even Manchester United away recently, we played them in the midst of numerous injuries to their squad, and between two crucial European ties against AC Milan.
The commonality? Playing three defensive midfielders in front of a back four (or five at Old Trafford) with very limited attacking outlet.
Paying too much respect? Our best performances have been when we have three interchangeable attackers behind the striker. The interplay between them has driven us forward time and time again.
With such a defensive outset, the striker and supporting attacking midfielder are often isolated so we continue to invite pressure on ourselves and struggle to maintain a foothold in the game.
Some will argue that this makes sense against the top teams. Why though, did we line up with five in defence and three holding midfielders at home in the draw to Brighton?
Others will argue that it’s wise to keep games tight initially, before making changes to try and win the game – which indeed is another area of concern.
Of the 75 substitutes David Moyes has made this season, a whopping 32% of them have come after the 85th minute – far too late to influence a game.
In games against the Top Six, where you would think the oppor- tunity to make the changes earlier in the game would be part of the game plan, 45% of the subs have been made after the 85th minute.
And as we saw against Arsenal, are the subs made always the correct ones? Noble coming on for Bowen left us lopsided. With all of the meaningful attacks coming down our left flank, the obvious sub was to bring on Johnson or Fredericks for Benrahma to provide Cresswell assistance against the increasing influence of Pepe and Chambers.
When the change was made, Fredericks played down the right flank – continuing to expose Cresswell. Sure enough, three minutes later, the equaliser came via a cross from our left.
To put the fault for all of these onto David Moyes is harsh. But ultimately the buck has to stop somewhere. And yes, we have been superb overall this season, but does that mean we should settle for mediocrity in other areas?
It’s hard not to think of draws against Brighton and Arsenal as two points dropped, and defeats against Liverpool and United as opportunities for a point missed. We currently sit 5th, but with those six points, we would be clear of Chelsea, and only a point from second place.
And in a season of tight margins, surely it is important that we strive for every possible point if we are to achieve what we are all starting to dream about – European football.
So David Moyes – there is no doubting that he is a contender for Manager of the Year as things stand.
But at the same time, it’s clear that there is still room for improvement.
And if anything, rather than causing online arguments, that in itself should instead generate excitement for our future.