If the key to comedy truly is timing, Mark Noble had mastered the art of the gradual build-up leading into the killer punchline by Saturday evening. “I don’t think it can get any worse,” the Hammers captain had said after a 3-0 defeat to Southampton in September. How wrong he was.
In West Ham’s most recent embarrassment – at the hands of an Arsenal side whose profligacy alone prevented a harsher scoreline than 5-1 – Noble was as culpable as anyone. The 29-year-old failed to make a single tackle, interception or clearance, while he did not register a single shot, key pass or dribble. His 72nd-minute removal was one of mercy.
Yet if neither the captain nor any of his teammates have proven capable of providing an ounce of leadership during this miserable season, manager Slaven Bilic could hardly complain. He himself resembled a broken man in his post-match interview, admitting his “humiliation”, and questioning the “dedication” of his squad. “The majority of the team have lost that intensity,” he said, before concluding his damning assessment with a touch of hyperbole: “It is a fact, 100 per cent, 500 per cent.”
The Croatian was guilty of excess, but it is no exaggeration to note just how terrible West Ham were on Saturday. It was a disjointed, dispirited performance from a group of players looking increasingly like strangers. There would be no demand for an encore; they were booed off by what remained of the home crowd at the London Stadium at the final whistle.
Bilic’s withering comments were perhaps better served in the privacy of the dressing room, but they are merely indicative of a club with more fractures than an A&E waiting room on a Saturday night. This was the manager’s last stand, his final attempt at coaxing a semblance of effort out of a group of players who look disinterested.
The inquests into a run of form which has left the club one point above the relegation zone at the start of December have already begun, and the fingers of blame will be pointed in a number of different directions: The difficulties in adapting to a new stadium; an expansive list of injuries; a coach failing to inspire his players; a squad showing no intent to rise to the challenge; Simone Zaza. All the ingredients have been prepared, and if any club knows all too well the recipe for disaster, it is West Ham.
The owners must not escape censure. After a seventh-placed finish, they promised the signing of a world-class striker, as well as a push for Champions League qualification. What followed was a summer blighted by lacklustre investment, with what looks increasingly like a battle against relegation the consequence. Again, don’t try to run before you can walk.
West Ham are in trouble, yet they only have themselves to blame. From the owners to the manager, the manager to the players, the players to the fans and the fans to the stadium and the club as a whole, there is a disconnect. The charm and magic of last season is a distant memory, replaced by a campaign of infighting, disorganisation and detachment.
But the worst thing is that the Hammers know better than anyone the perils of believing that anyone is too good to suffer relegation. Just as their captain did a couple of months ago, don’t make the mistake of thinking it cannot get any worse.