Form is temporary, class is permanent or so the saying goes. But the form of some of West Ham’s key players has left many fans questioning whether they have the class to operate at the level needed to turn the club’s results around.
Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal, Pablo Fornals, Jarred Bowen, Michail Antonio and even Declan Rice seem somewhat short of the standards they have set over the previous seasons. Having helped turn us from relegation fodder to back-to-back European football and top seven finishes, the drop off in their consistency has seen us slide back down the pecking order and has us looking over our shoulders at the danger zone.
Antonio isn’t scoring, Bowen seems to be unable to effect games and run at the opposition as incisively as he has done, Fornals seems to be giving the ball away more. Soucek is no longer posing the threat he once did in the opposition’s area and Coufal seems unable to deliver a cross or win many tackles.
And whilst Declan Rice appears to have turned a corner and is once again back to being consistently one of our best performers in games, he isn’t quite hitting the heights we have become accustomed to. David Moyes could probably have coped with one or two of his core side stuttering at the start of the season, but having the majority of the side stalling and failing to find top gear has really hindered any hopes of another drive towards Europe so far.
It has raised questions of what is going wrong at the club, what is effecting their form and left many a fan favourite in the firing line for disgruntled supporters who have had expectations raised by our recent relative success. One explanation could be that these key figures are simply burnt out. Michail Antonio featured 47 times last season, and 74 since 20/21 whilst also beginning his transatlantic international career, playing a further seven times for Jamaica.
Pablo Fornals played 54 games last season (90 since the 20/21 campaign). Coufal only played 34 last year, partly due to an injury which seems to have left him missing a step, but has featured on 70 occasions since 20/21 whilst also playing 20 times for his country. Bowen featured in 51 games last season, 91 games since 20/21 and was also involved four times for England this summer.
Soucek played 51 games last year, 92 times since 20/21 as well as 24 games for Czech Republic. And his midfield partner Declan Rice played 50 games last season, 85 since 20/21 and a further 21 times for England. One of the cornerstones of our upturn in fortunes since football returned post lockdown was the energy and workrate Moyes had instilled.
It should therefore be unsurprising then, that after the thread bare squad had every ounce of fuel used up over the last two years, not to mention the lack of a summer break for Soucek, Coufal, Rice and Bowen, that there is little left in the tank to go-again with the same intensity and sharpness. Our change in status and an attempt to change our style may also be an issue. Despite what some may say, there are signs that Moyes is trying to transition us to become a side more comfortable in possession and less reliant on counter attacking.
The signings of Aguerd and Kehrer show we want to play out from the back more. Paqueta and Scamacca are also indicators that he recognises the need for a different approach. However, it seems that some are struggling to fit and function as effectively as they once had with this new direction.
Tomas Soucek has been the one most impacted, his key qualities being defending our box and attacking theirs with late runs into the area. Being asked to play more progressing and penetrative passes is not in his wheelhouse. Bowen and Antonio also seem to be hindered – the slower the build up means there is less space in behind to attack in, a greater need for subtlety and guile, which aren’t the skill sets that have helped them shine.
There is also greater competition for places than there has been for the last few years. Coufal now has not just Ben Johnson but Kehrer to contend with, Fornals is not only battling Said Benrahma but our marquee man Lucas Paqueta. Soucek has Downes waiting in the wings and Antonio, despite wanting a striker at the club to compete with, isn’t exactly stepping up to the challenge.
And whilst in theory this is a good thing, the reality is it has meant that no one is finding much rhythm or gelling as Moyes tinkers to find the best combination of old and new parts to get the whole machine firing at full throttle. Whatever the issues, West Ham fans will be hoping that the old adage is true and that the class of 21/22 can rediscover their form and show that they are able to keep the club at the level we have come to expect.