A salute to The General but did he retreat too soon?

With European football this season, many feel Balbuena could have been a key squad member

When Fabian Balbuena arrived in the summer of 2018 for under £5 million, very few West Ham fans could have attested to have known much about the then 26 year old Paraguayan international. 

Upon his departure, he will be remembered well by the hammers faithful with many questioning whether his services should have been retained for the coming season.

During his first season, it looked as though Sullivan’s desire to unearth a South American gem – aided by Manuel Pelegrini’s insider knowledge of the continent – had finally paid off and we had bagged ourselves a bargain. 

He made 23 appearances overall and seemed to have made himself an indispensable member of the Chilean’s defensive unit. 

Composed on the ball, willing to play out from the back with searching balls into the channels, whilst also reading the game well to make a number of clearances, interceptions and blocks.

The player nicknamed The General seemed well placed to command the defence over what should have been the peak years of his career.

However he, like his manager, enjoyed a tougher second season. Despite a relatively strong start, a disastrous run of games between October and January saw the side lose nine of its 12 matches, and saw Pelegrini lose his job and Balbuena lose his form and confidence. 

The centre back’s plight was undoubtedly hindered somewhat by the calamitous Roberto deputising in goal for the injured Fabianski, however it is fair to say that following that period Balbuena never really rediscovered his first season form. 

He played just 17 times that 2019/20 campaign and only 14 in our most recent season.

The season started well for Balbuena, featuring 12 times before Christmas as David Moyes’ men made the club’s best ever Premier League start to a campaign. 

However after the congested festive period, Balbuena found himself out of the side and unable to dislodge Craig Dawson from the defence. 

He made just two more appearances for the club, against Leicester and Chelsea, the latter of which saw him controversially sent off for simply clearing the ball and catching Ben Chilwell with his follow through. 

Despite the red card being overturned, the Paraguayan didn’t return to the team, which no doubt hastened his personal decision to seek pastures new once his contract ran out.

However the question remains whether this was the correct call by the club. 

As we enter what will be a trying and tiring season thanks to our Europa League commitments, we need to be adding depth to the squad. 

With Balbuena being allowed to leave, our only senior centre back options are the ageing Dawson and Ogbonna and the inconsistent Issa Diop. 

Whilst it is perhaps easy to see why Moyes favours Dawson’s body-on-the-line, warrior-like defending over the more subtle style of the Paraguayan, it is not as easy to see why he wasn’t offered a deal to keep him at the club to be utilised in cup competitions and provide cover for injuries or suspensions. The General would have been an able deputy.

We certainly need a new recruit to fill the void. Joe Worral of Nottingham Forest has been linked and fits the Moyes profile, but as with any transfer – especially one from the Championship – it is a gamble as to whether he will be able to step up to the required level. 

It is, of course, possible that Moyes believes that he has an able replacement (or two) within the ranks already. 

Frederick Alves was signed in January from Danish side Silkeborg and has spent that time getting accustomed to the country and the club. 

He is said to be highly regarded by both staff and players and is one that we could see given an opportunity this season. 

Likewise, Jamal Baptiste, who has represented England at under 16 and under 17 level and made his debut for the West Ham under 23 squad when he was just 15. 

He has made a few appearances for the first team in pre-season fixtures both this season and last, and made his competitive debut for the club in the 4-0 win over Doncaster in January.

There is also Aji Alese who has come up through the academy ranks and played for England at youth levels from under 16 to the under 20s. 

It may be that Moyes believes any combination of these youngsters are capable of covering for Balbuena. 

And if it is a case that this is Moyes ‘giving youth a chance’ then in the long run it may prove to be a good decision. 

As always, only time will tell. However, Balbuena will be remembered fondly and wished well by supporters. 

His goal against Spurs in October which sparked our spectacular 3-3 comeback alone will always be deserving of a salute to The General.

*I do a podcast called The People’s Pundits (@peoples_pundits) with a Chelsea fan, talking all things Premier League football

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