The 2015/16 Premier League season was full of surprises. While it may be remembered as the season where Leicester City won the league and Chelsea were almost sucked into a relegation battle, it was also a season with fond memories for West Ham fans. The Hammers finished 7th, securing Europa League football whilst bidding a fitting farewell to their then home ground, the Boleyn Ground. Their last home match at the Boleyn Ground saw them defeat Manchester United with a scoreline of 3-2 which secured them their best-placed finish since getting promoted back in 2012.
Things were looking up for West Ham after the 2015/16 season. They moved to their current home, the London Stadium after that season. The 2016 summer window was an eventful one for the irons as they signed a staggering total of 11 players. The Hammers also kept hold of their talisman in Dimitri Payet and sold a lot of deadwood clearly indicating at a huge squad overhaul. The 2016/17 season, however, didn’t quite go according to plan. West Ham were knocked out of Europa League at the qualifying stage by Romanian Side Astra Giurgiu and they managed to get only 45 points, 17 off from the previous season’s total of 62, finishing 11th.
The subsequent season wasn’t an improvement either. Having sacked Slaven Bilic, the manager responsible for a minor glimpse of an improvement from mid-table obscurity, the owners turned to a rather short term fix in former Everton manager, David Moyes. The Scotsman was hired at a point where West Ham were in a relegation battle and the only task he was given was to keep them afloat in England’s top division. Moyes managed a 13th placed finish for the Londoners and was let go by the club at the end of the season. The decision hinted at the start of a new era at the London stadium.
The Manuel Pellegrini era
The 3-0 home defeat against Burnley on 31st March 2018 was a new low for the irons. The fans were protesting against co-owners – David Sullivan and David Gold, by throwing coins at the director’s box where they were seated. It was followed by a pitch invasion which saw a fan take a corner flag and run to the centre of the pitch, most likely inspired by a similar style of protest by the West Ham fans in 1992. The pressure was mounting on the owners to make the right call in terms of the manager to lead the club forward in its relatively new phase. They responded by agreeing to terms with a Premier League-winning manager, Manuel Pellegrini.
The Chilean was and is still a manager with a real pedigree having won trophies in multiple countries. For a team like West Ham United who had finished in the top half of the Premier League only once in the last 9 years, Manuel Pellegrini was a massive coup. The Chilean’s past record and calibre gave the Hammers fans plenty of reason to be optimistic and there was a belief that the owners had finally struck gold.
Diego Forlan once said that Pellegrini was “an intelligent man who works hard”. “It’s not easy to be a good manager,” Forlan added, “but he makes it look easy. He’s calm and measured. He doesn’t criticise referees or opponents. He is consistent with the media.”
Pellegrini managed a total of 7 clubs before joining River Plate in 2002. His exploits at River Plate earned him a move to Spanish club Villarreal CF, with whom he won the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 2004. The Chilean then went on to coach Real Madrid where he amassed a then club-record 96 points in a season only to lose the league to Guardiola’s Barcelona, who managed to get a total of 99 points. Pellegrini also led Malaga, backed by Qatari owners, to a Champions League quarter-final. That was followed by a stint with Manchester City, which saw him lift the Premier League trophy at the end of 2013/14 season. After 2 years in China from 2016 to 2018, the Londoners came calling and Pellegrini was happy to oblige.
Pellegrini is ideal for West Ham at this stage. The 64-year-old has a ton of experience, a tactical preference to a system which could reap rewards in the long term plus real know-how on how to get the best out of his players. This could be the start of a wonderful era at West Ham.
The 2018/19 Season
The main problem that West Ham have had over the years, has been recruiting players. They have spent large sums of money on players who just haven’t performed at the level expected of them. Right from the hugely controversial signatures of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano to signing 32 strikers in 7 years who managed to score a mere 128 goals in 643 games combined, the recruitment at West Ham has been uninspiring, to say the least.
The Chilean manager was quick to address this issue and he quickly hired Mario Husillos as the new Director of Football at the London Stadium. Husillos has worked with Pellegrini at Malaga previously and they have a good working relationship. Husillos was credited with signing a number of talented players at Malaga. His signings were also one of the reasons Pellegrini managed to take Malaga to the second knockout stage of the Champions League in 2013. He could be credited with signing and developing players such as Isco, Nacho Monreal, Juanmi, Jesus Gamez, Joaquin and Jeremy Toulalan, all of whom were sold for large profits later.
Husillos was quick to show his ability at the London stadium as he signed a total of 9 players. They improved a defence which leaked 68 goals in the 17/18 season, the joint-worst record in the league. They signed two young centre-backs in Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena who formed a very good pairing at the back. The Irons also improved on the wings with the signatures of Andriy Yarmolenko from Borussia Dortmund and Felipe Anderson who came in from Lazio. The winger pairing showed glimpses of what they can do but was hit by an injury-ridden season. However, the £8m signing of Lukasz Fabianski from relegated Swansea City proved to be the best deal they made. The Polish goalkeeper was also voted as the Hammer of the season.
Manuel Pellegrini’s start as the manager of West Ham couldn’t have gone any worse. They failed to win any of their first 4 Premier League games and were rock bottom by the time the first international break arrived. Pellegrini’s side won against Everton in the first game back after the break and went from strength to strength since then barring a few hiccups. The Hammers managed to finish 10th in the Premier League after 3 consecutive wins in the last 3 games and managed to secure their first top-half finish since the last season at Upton Park. Pellegrini’s side finished the season on 52 points, 10 points better than what his predecessor, David Moyes managed. This could be judged as a decent enough first campaign for a new incoming manager.
Tactically speaking, Manuel Pellegrini prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation. At West Ham, he tried and experimented a few different formations such as 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 but history suggests that he prefers to go with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The 64-year-old has a reputation of playing an attractive attacking brand of football with a clear intention of scoring goals. He likes to build from the back. Pellegrini focuses a lot on midfield transition with the midfielders looking to set the wingers or strikers through on goal. He likes to play centrally but also encourages full-backs to push higher up to give additional width. The striker plays on the shoulder of the defenders looking to unleash on a pass from midfield or from the wide areas and tries to go into more attacking areas but also, drops deep to connect attacks and helps in building them. The wingers act more like inverted wingers and cut inside allowing full-backs to push higher up and overlap.
Read More | Declan Rice – The Fulcrum Of West Ham’s Revival |
The signings made by Pellegrini clearly indicated the style of play he wanted to implement. Composed, mobile, ball-playing centre backs in Diop and Balbuena, good dribblers in Anderson and Yarmolenko and also midfield pass stringers in Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez suggested that the system the Chilean was trying to implement is close to the aforementioned one.
West Ham United got the most success when they played in a 4-3-3 last season. Defensively, they lined up in a 4-1-4-1 block with Declan Rice just ahead of the backline and the wingers dropping deep to form a midfield four. The team kept it compact through the middle allowing very less space for the opposition team to make transitions from the midfield. They weren’t too keen on pressing, winning the ball back and hitting the team on the counter. The Hammers, instead, would keep it compact, structured and waited for the opposition to make mistakes rather than forcing them. They conceded 12 goals less than what they did in the previous season indicating a massive improvement defensively.
On the attacking front, West Ham liked to move the ball through the midfield. Declan Rice and Mark Noble used to drop deep to receive passes from the centre backs and looked to move the ball sideways to the wide areas. The third midfielder, usually Pedro Obiang, used to move a bit wider resulting in a wide triangle between the winger, full-back and the central midfielder roaming wider. The Hammers weren’t really a possession hungry team but they did like to move the ball patiently. They primarily tried to build from midfield transitioning it to the wider areas and then looked to release the striker or the wingers that cut inside into goal scoring positions.
Areas to improve
The main problem with West Ham tactically last season was that they lacked a real identity in their style of play. They weren’t looking to keep possession or press hard or hit the opposition on the counter. While they improved on the defensive side of things, some aspects of their offensive play could have been much better. They scored a mere 52 goals in the league last season, only 4 more than what they managed under David Moyes. The Irons failed to score in 14 out of the 38 games last season.
This could be down to the fact that Marko Arnautovic just wasn’t the same after the January transfer window. The Austrian missed a chance to play in China and reports suggested that his head wasn’t in the right place ever since. The injuries to the wingers and midfielders didn’t help either. West ham also lacked a bit of dynamism from the midfield last season. Manuel Pellegrini deployed Robert Snodgrass, who is primarily a winger, in the midfield 3 to add a bit more creativity. Declan Rice and Mark Noble, while being good, aren’t the most creative midfielders when it comes to setting up and scoring goals. Pellegrini’s side conceded a total of 16 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches last season. Whether it was down to concentration or lack of fitness is anyone’s guess, but that’s something the Chilean will look to improve upon.
Some of the signings made by the club last season raised some eyebrows as well. Lucas Perez and Samir Nasri flopped massively and both have been shipped. Jack Wilshere on a free transfer looked like a decent enough signing but he is reportedly on a very high wage and looking at his injury record, it could backfire in the future for the club.
The change in transfer policy is there to be seen, but West Ham have to be more consistent in the players they sign in order to bring European nights back at the London Stadium as soon as they can.
2019/20: What to expect?
West Ham United recently added two more players to their squad. Spanish midfielder Pablo Fornals moved to London from Pellegrini’s former club, Villarreal and Sebastian Haller joined from Eintracht Frankfurt for a club-record signing. Both look like excellent deals which definitely address the issues West Ham had last season in attack. Pablo Fornals adds the much-required creativity and dynamism in the midfield. He is primarily a player who likes to play deeper in the midfield but can also slot in at no.10 if and when required. Haller is brought in to replace the outgoing Marko Arnautovic. The French striker is a strong but agile striker who likes to drop deep and connect with the midfield. Haller scored 15 goals and contributed with 8 assists for Eintracht last season and if Pellegrini is planning to play a similar system next season, he seems like a player who will thrive in his role. Manuel Lanzini will practically be a new signing this season after returning from a long term injury.
Manuel Pellegrini is looking to add at least 2 more players to the squad. The Hammers are linked with French right-back Djibril Sidibe who will add more real quality on the right flank. They are also looking at a centre-back and a defensive midfielder and are heavily linked with Aaron Long of New York Red Bulls and Erik Pulgar of Fiorentina to improve those areas respectively.
Here is how The Hammers could line up for the 2019/20 season.
If pre-season is anything to go by, Haller and Fornals have already shown their qualities while Manuel Lanzini has been their standout performer so far. Jack Wilshere has also performed well and the Hammers fans are hoping that he can turn the clock back a few years.
West Ham United finished 10th last season, 5 points behind Wolves who finished 7th. The Irons would like to improve upon this in the upcoming season but with the teams around them also drastically improving, it won’t be an easy task. They are still good enough to achieve a top-half finish at the very least.
West Ham United have been searching for an identity in the past and more often than not, have found themselves lost. There have been highs and there have been lows but with a manager like Manuel Pellegrini at the helm and a rejuvenated transfer policy, the Hammers can hope to turn the European dream into a reality. The fans are ambitious, the players are ambitious, the manager is ambitious but whether their on-pitch results match their ambition, remains to be seen.
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