When the summer transfer window closed, it was painstakingly obvious that at some stage during the season we would suffer a bit of an injury crisis.
That’s not to say the business David Moyes completed wasn’t good, it was. But we needed more bodies, especially when preparing to compete across four different competitions.
Our squad was thin then, and it still is now. The biggest worry was up front, with Michail Antonio remaining as the club’s only first-team striker.
The least of our concerns was at centre-back, especially after the arrival of Kurt Zouma. But that’s where it all went wrong.
When Angelo Ogbonna limped off in the 3-2 win against Liverpool at the beginning of November and then Zouma was forced off a month later in the win over Chelsea, Moyes was left with just Craig Dawson and Issa Diop as his only centre-backs.
Dawson was superb last season and is trusted by both Moyes and the fans, but question marks have followed Diop’s name for the last two years.
After Zouma’s hamstring injury at the beginning of December, we went on a run of six games without a win in all competitions, conceding eight goals in the process.
Our only clean sheet came in the goalless draw at Burnley. We did follow that up with four straight victories and two clean sheets, but you could see the cracks appearing and they have threatened to disrupt our hopes of another top six finish.
We went from having a 63% win percentage with Ogbonna and Zouma at the back to just a 36% win percentage after Zouma’s injury.
So you don’t need to be a footballing expert to know that the Ogbonna/Zouma partnership is levels above the Diop/Dawson one.
Dawson being paired with Ogbonna or Zouma is also a relatively strong and reliable partnership. But Diop’s presence over the last couple of seasons has been a regular worry.
Ever since his first season at West Ham, when Jose Mourinho congratulated the West Ham scout who found the 21-year-old and described him as ‘a monster’ in defence, the Frenchman has continuously regressed.
He hasn’t lived up to his promise or his potential. We thought we had a future world class defender in our ranks but now, at the time of writing, the club seems to be considering selling him to Newcastle for half of what we paid for him.
It’s difficult to put a finger on why Diop hasn’t improved. He got Covid at the beginning of last season and he’s had one or two little injuries, losing his place in the team to the likes of Fabian Balbuena and Craig Dawson in the process.
Perhaps that’s restricted his development somewhat, but there are mistakes in him that professional central defenders playing in the Premier League just shouldn’t be making.
Put simply, he’s erratic. His positioning is often questionable and he has a tendency to ball watch, and he is regularly sucked into a challenge that isn’t on, which inevitably leads to him being beaten and the rest of the defence being exposed.
His partnership with Dawson isn’t the worst, but it has already shown that it cannot guide us through a successful bid for another top six finish in the Premier League.
Dawson has been superb and will always put a brilliant shift in, but he’s 31 years old and his reactions are getting slower.
He’s never been known for his pace and agility, to be fair, but when you combine that with an erratic and often unreliable Diop, you get a recipe for mistakes, goals conceded and the added difficulty of winning football matches.
For a club like us which is trying to establish itself in the top six of the Premier League, Zouma’s return to the side in the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford was a welcome one, even if he did look understandably rusty and short of match fitness.
His presence in the team instantly gives the team a higher level of ability. It was also no surprise that Diop was the one to drop out, with Dawson keeping his place while Ogbonna remains sidelined for the rest of the season.
It shouldn’t be a shock that a defensive duo that includes a ex-Juventus player and a winner of last season’s Champions League is a much stronger partnership than one that includes a former West Brom and Watford centre-half and an inexperienced 25-year-old who is short of confidence. But we should never have been in this position.
Of course, you can’t account for your two best defenders getting injured in the space of a month, but your back ups need to be of a certain level and they need to be trustworthy.
David Moyes clearly doesn’t have that, which is probably why he’s so desperate to bring in defensive reinforcements.
If he doesn’t, the second half of the 2021/2022 season might not be as successful as we’d all hoped.