Efficiency is not a trait that West Ham supporters have often seen over the last three years. This is a club that seems forever destined to achieve in spite of, and stumble because of, itself. They make transfer targets public knowledge before deals are done and make PR gaffes aplenty. One of the co-owners announced that the club’s academy graduates should not expect to get regular league minutes, and then wondered why Reece Oxford might want to engineer a move away from the club.
On the pitch, things have hardly been much smoother. Slaven Bilic proved himself incapable of organising a defence despite being a former international centre-back. David Moyes’ arrival has brought improvement, but West Ham still managed to take five points from Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham but then muster two draws and a defeat from Newcastle, Bournemouth and Shrewsbury. That is the golden rule at West Ham: one step forward, at least one more back.
Yet slowly, things are changing. West Ham’s attacking display against Huddersfield Town on Saturday was sensational, but the beauty lay in its efficiency. They had 35% possession, completed 244 fewer passes than the home team and had the same number of shots as Huddersfield. Yet almost every time West Ham surged forward, they scored. It was akin to an away performance from Leicester City in their title-winning season, picking off opponents who couldn’t quite work out what had happened.
Huddersfield were highly complicit in their own misfortune. They have defended excellently as a rule at home this season, conceding 12 goals in 11 games before Saturday. Seven of those were against Tottenham and Chelsea. Yet David Wagner’s side were catastrophic against West Ham. Joe Lolley and Jonas Lossl combined to gift Mark Noble the game’s first goal, and Huddersfield then paid the price for throwing players forward immediately after conceding the second. A team that has held its own in the Premier League suddenly had a distinct air of the Championship about it.
Moyes chose to only name six substitutes for the game, a clear message to West Ham’s owners that he wants a number of January recruits. Here was proof that their attack already contains plenty enough quality to survive relegation without further investment. Their two star turns in West Yorkshire, Marko Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini, might be joined by Wilfried Zaha in the top three attacking players in the Premier League’s bottom half.
The performance from Lanzini may have caused a few knowing glances between friends in the away end, given that we are in the middle of a transfer window and Liverpool might want another creative central midfielder. I’m not saying Lanzini is the type of player to perform at his best when he hears of high-profile suitors, but…well that’s exactly what I’m saying. Sorry.
Still, if Lanzini takes the headlines for his two goals, Arnautovic is the new leader of this buoyant West Ham attack. Having been roundly criticised by supporters and Bilic for his lack of work ethic following a £20m move from Stoke, the Austrian seemed to have used up his goodwill in weeks. Moyes then called out Arnautovic in a press conference and said he wouldn’t play if he didn’t run more.
As it happened, Moyes had another plan, dropping Javier Hernandez and Andy Carroll in favour of playing with Arnautovic as a central striker. Less tracking back, more time on the ball and a greater responsibility for creating and scoring goals. Arnautovic has scored or assisted nine goals in his last seven league games, and created both of Lanzini’s goals with the type of direct dribbling that central defenders hate. The tactical switch was a masterstroke from a manager under pressure.
For all Moyes’ demands for more players, West Ham are not going down and January is an inopportune time for shopping. Now 11th in the Premier League and having taken eight points from their last four games, Moyes might be better sticking with what he has, continuing to prove that he can make something palatable from what he found in the cupboards and making a list for the summer.