A manager’s quality might be measured by his signings and their impact on the team, and David Moyes has a pretty good record on that score. Some might counter this suggestion with the words Jordan Hugill, but everyone has to be allowed one mental aberration.
With magic wand in hand, he has signed Jarrod Bowen, Craig Dawson, Vladimir Coufal and Said Benrahma. Before the transfer window closed, he also obtained the services of internationals Kurt Zouma, Niko Vlasic and Alex Kral. All fine acquisitions but none have so far made the impact of Tomas Soucek.
It seems like a lifetime ago now since the 26-year-old midfielder was signed on loan from Slavia Prague in January 2020. But it was immediately obvious that Moyes had uncovered a gem. Soucek possessed a great engine and was the definition of box-to-box play. And with height and positional awareness, he was also a threat at set pieces.
The loan was quickly made permanent when he was signed for £19 million on a four-year deal. Soucek’s first full season was one to cherish as we finished sixth and qualified for the Europa League. His ability to make runs and find space was the stuff of legend. He was ever present and joint top goalscorer with 10 goals.
Soucek’s cult status was assured when he sustained a gruesome head injury against Spurs in February. There was a clash of heads with Davinson Sanchez while defending a corner, but he continued to defend with blood pouring from a wound over his left eye. He left the pitch to get the wound stitched but later returned to finish the match. Many hailed such bravery, others thought his actions foolhardy.
But it revived memories of Terry Butcher’s heroics for England and showed the game is sometimes played by grown-ups. It was bloody marvellous and only endeared him more to the fans. There would only be one winner in the Hammer of the Year contest. He enjoyed an eventful European Championships with the Czech Republic progressing to the quarter finals and was narrowly defeated by Denmark.
Soucek took over as skipper for the knock-out stages to cap a memorable summer. But did it leave a narrow window for recovery before the new season started?
The front cover of the programme for the Leicester game featured a smiling Soucek proudly holding his Hammer of the Year award. But was he firing on all cylinders after a gruelling campaign for both club and country? Hindsight looms large as we made a dream start to the season. But whilst the team is performing to a high standard who will notice if a player is under par?
It was only when the unbeaten record went against Manchester United that fingers started to point. This is a trait that all fans possess; because we must find a reason when the team suffers defeat.
This time it landed on Tomas Soucek. ‘He’s tired, looks leggy and needs a rest’. Admittedly, he’s been quiet since the goal against Newcastle but nothing that would cause concern.
Tiredness surely isn’t the answer; Declan Rice and Vladimir Coufal played in the Euros after a long domestic season and don’t seem unduly affected. If anything, Rice is playing better than ever and scored a corker against Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League.
Coufal is a different player and not as good a comparison; but seems to be his usual efficient self. The most impressive aspect of Soucek’s game is his tireless running.
Reliable stats on the distance covered by players aren’t easy to find. But there’s evidence to suggest he is one of the top runners in the Premier League. Last year Sky revealed running stats and Soucek was one of only five players to have run 13km or more during a game (the others being Leander Dendoncker, Dele Alli, James Millner and Bernardo Silva).
At a touch over eight miles that’s an impressive amount of ground to cover in a 90 minute game. Without current stats it’s impossible to tell whether he’s anywhere near that work rate this season. He is probably falling short and the cause may be the result of stone cold pragmatism.
What struck me when I first saw him play was his approach work and desire to attack space. Soucek would make runs in channels usually occupied by the centre forward. With Michail Antonio now converted to the centre forward role is he no longer required to occupy that space?
Armchair tactics aside Soucek is not a metronome and must be allowed to fail occasionally. A player of his type is naturally expected to be a consistent and reliable performer. An aggressive box-to-box midfielder does not have the luxury of flamboyance; but must quietly deliver the goods.
Like a band bursting onto the scene with a hit album, that follow up is always going to be a tricky proposition. Ditto Soucek’s second full season with the Hammers. As the maxim goes ‘form is temporary class is permanent’. and Tomas Soucek is a class act, but at the end of the day is human and fallible.