With a nickname like ‘The Engineer’, Manuel Pellegrini was hardly living up to the billing at West Ham. After four games, this expensively assembled side looked far weaker than the sum of its parts. Gears were crunching, rust was accumulating and the entire machine was creaking under the weight of added expectation. That is, after all, the real West Ham Way.
“We have got a lot of new players and we need to gel,” was Jack Wilshere’s explanation after defeat to Bournemouth last month, and an international break felt like a perfect time to regroup, re-energise and rethink. For Wilshere, it was the ideal moment to relapse; an ankle injury suffered in training ruled him out of Sunday’s visit to Goodison Park.
A similar sense of déjà vu swept through the visiting support in first-half stoppage-time against Everton. No team has dropped more points from winning positions than West Ham this season, and while the hosts had been sloppy and complacent for 45 minutes, they ensured momentum was in their favour before half-time with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s powerful header. West Ham were about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory once more.
That they not only held on but restored their two-goal advantage in the second half is testament to their character, and lifts the gloom that was threatening to engulf their season. This was a season-defining performance with a season-defining result.
Pellegrini deserves great credit. He made six changes to his starting line-up – the most West Ham have seen for a single Premier League game since making seven against Cardiff in January 2014. The Hammers stopped a seven-game winless run with a 2-0 away victory on that occasion, and the result was much the same here.
Everton were toothless, but West Ham had all the wisdom a team requires when visiting Goodison Park. Andriy Yarmolenko was excellent on his first start, combining wonderfully with Marko Arnautovic, while full-backs Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku played well on their returns.
But Pellegrini’s three biggest changes all came in one area of the pitch. A slight formation tweak allowed Pedro Obiang, Mark Noble and Declan Rice to form an entirely new midfield. It might be lacking in star power, or even new signings, but it provided the platform for success, and perhaps even the blueprint going forward.
Rice was an excellent defensive shield. He made five tackles, one interception, three clearances and blocked two shots. Obiang was the offensive catalyst, playing a key role in both the first and last goals with some fine interplay with Arnautovic.
The exciting front three was finally receiving the appropriate service, while Rice ensured the defence was being serviced too. There are finally links forming in this West Ham team, and the benefits are clear to see.
Noble was less effective, his most notable contribution being to intercept Jordan Pickford’s poor pass for Yarmolenko to eventually score. But his distribution was otherwise wayward, his decision-making poor.
It is the West Ham captain’s place that Wilshere will see as most vulnerable. He was one of precious few weak points in what otherwise looked to be Pellegrini’s most balanced machine.
Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena are a promising central defensive partnership; Rice and Obiang are two-thirds of an effective midfield three, and Arnautovic, Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson is a forward line most teams would envy. If Wilshere can overcome his own frailties, there is a space for him in this strong spine.