In many ways, the World Cup for us came at the right time. Four consecutive defeats in the lead-up to the break, rumours of unrest in the camp, and pressure on the manager meant that, hopefully, the team could regroup, assess the situation, and use a series of mid-season friendlies to build confidence and come out stronger for the second part of the season.
At least, that’s what I was hoping for — let’s be honest, it was a pretty dire run in the lead-up to the competition and frankly, with a number of senior players at West Ham not making the trip to Qatar, it was a really good opportunity to get the players’ heads together, with a view to much-improved performances heading into 2023. Our mini-friendly schedule started with a 4-2 victory at Cambridge United. However, this sounds like a better result than it actually was, with us struggling to carve out chances in the first quarter, and Cambridge having the better opportunities, and indeed, opening the scoring.
However, from there, we turned on the afterburners a bit, scoring four unanswered goals, before they pulled one back from the penalty spot. It was good to see Bowen back on the scoresheet for this one, as well as Conor Coventry and Flynn Downes getting a runout.
In the second half, as the team switched to a 4-4-2 formation, other Academy players were introduced: Freddie Potts and Pierre Akwah combined for the fourth, after Benrahma’s strike a few minutes before and a Cambridge own-goal in the first half. A trip to Udinese followed, and an attacking line-up selected, with a Moyes favourite 4-2-3-1 formation.
Again, the opposition took the lead — a worrying trait for West Ham currently — and it was another slow start, but eventually we ran out 3-1 winners, including a wondergoal from Manuel Lanzini. Our final match was away at Fulham, going well in the Premier League. It was back to the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 again, and despite a fairly even first half, we found ourselves a goal down at the break.
Bowen equalised mid-way through the second half, and in truth, his performances were a bright spot to come out of this sequence of games, with some confidence returning. He’s been out of form, but there is a quality player there, and hopefully we will see this over the coming weeks.
Overall, however, the same problems that have plagued us during the season reared their ugly heads: a slow start from the team and our propensity to concede the first goal being regular features. It was heartening, at least, to see the team come back in each of the three games, which shows the spirit and fight in the side.
Aside from the friendlies, there was notable other decisions made during the ‘time off’ — non-internationals didn’t have to return to training until December 1; David Moyes chose to stay at Rush Green, rather than head abroad for warm-weather training; and interestingly, fitness coach Josh Ewens gave players double sessions, to ensure the players were in shape for the rigours of the rest of the season. Of course, the two defeats following the resumption of the season were disheartening — the capitulation against Arsenal wasn’t great, the home defeat against Brentford a real sickener — but there were signs of this spirit in evidence in the match against Leeds after again conceding the first goal.
Whilst results have obviously been very disappointing, the bottom of the table is very tight. Interestingly, the last time the season was interrupted — due to our good old friend, COVID — we’d gone into the unplanned break with a sequence of one win in 10 matches.
After the resumption in June 2020, we promptly lost the next two games, to Wolves and Tottenham. However, a home win against Chelsea (3-2, with a memorable last-minute goal from Yarmolenko) seemed to galvanise the team somewhat — with the team only suffering one more defeat in the remaining seven matches.
Let’s hope that history repeats itself: it would be nice to head through the second part of the season without the need to study the results of other teams in and around the relegation zone.