West Ham need to go full steam ahead for Europa League

John Nicholson
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice

West Ham are currently fifth in the Premier League and in the last 16 of the Europa League. A good position for the Hammers, their best since the late 90s, but manager David Moyes needs to add numbers to his squad pretty much all over the pitch, and especially in central defence and up front. He’s struggling to do so.

This had apparently led him to try and rob Leeds of two of their best players in Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, willing to spend the thick end of £100million on the two. Leeds in turn know that selling your best players mid-season, in the last days of the transfer window, is madness. So Moyes will have to wave his wad at some other club for some other players and do it in the coming hours. That we have arrived at the last day of the transfer window with this being the case is a symptom of a problem that happens at clubs who are outperforming expectations. West Ham stand on the verge of a transformative season, but does the club really appreciate that or even care?

Put bluntly, West Ham are not a top five team, or rather they are not seen as one. Nor are they seen as European football regulars. The fact they currently are in Europe feels like a temporary aberration and not a long-term bet. Moyes might like to point to being on the verge of the Champions League as an attraction for players but the fact is, many don’t believe this form will continue in the second half of the season, or next season, or the next. That’s probably why they’ve struggled to recruit at this level. While fifth right now, having played one, two and three games more than teams around them, it seems most likely that once all of those games are played, the Hammers will be in eighth, which is just about where most would have thought they might end up at the start of the season.

While they obviously want to hold onto Declan Rice, it seems unlikely they will, with the very big moneybags clubs all sniffing around. Rice is such a brilliant player and so much of the club’s success has been rooted in his rise to the top of the tree that he seems irreplaceable. His potential sale is another reason to think twice about going to West Ham if you’re a decent prospect. It would surprise no-one if next season a Rice-less West Ham were mid-table, so again, if you want to go to a biggish club, why would you go to the London Stadium?

On top of that, while Moyes is having a good 12 months, this is somewhat against his long-term trend. While you don’t become a bad manager overnight, nor do you become a great manager overnight. Many players might want to see if this is more than a short purple patch for the Scot.

West Ham manager David Moyes

West Ham are clearly quite a hard sell for very good players. They were knocked back by Bayer Leverkusen for the wonderful Patrik Schick. Their attempt to acquire Marseille defender Duje Caleta-Car on loan hasn’t been successful. They haven’t yet offered enough for Reims’ teenage striker Hugo Ekitike – £25 million plus £8 million in bonuses – but would be crazy not to, and a loan move for Marseille’s Senegal international striker Bamba Dieng is running out of road with the player being at AFCON.

They have reportedly looked at Blackburn’s Chilean star Ben Brereton Díaz but one good Championship season doesn’t automatically mean he can replicate that form in the top flight. You certainly know things are a bit desperate when signing Christian Benteke on loan from Crystal Palace is rumoured to be an option.

West Ham are stretched by being in the Europa League last 16 and can’t push for fourth and European success at the same time. They are a classic example of how some success over-stretches playing resources and makes further success very difficult. You can’t assemble a big enough squad with the requisite strength in depth because no-one who is any good wants to sit on the bench for long for a club that doesn’t have a history of going deep into competitions or finishing in the top four. So you end up with a squad thin on numbers and quality, vulnerable to injuries, or a deeper one which isn’t good enough to advance the relative success you’ve already had.

There is only one good route to take through this scenario and that is to forget about making the top four, forget about the Premier League and throw everything you have at winning the Europa League. It is their golden road to a brighter, more successful future. It would mean entering the Champions League next season at the group stage and being able to offer Champions League football is the only way they’ll radically improve the depth and quality of the squad, in the short and medium term. Their only chance to break the cycle they’re currently trapped in.

Driven on by a once-in-a-generation player like Declan Rice, they may never get a better, or even another chance. Progress in the Champions League puts you on a different level financially and in football’s perception and you can sign players not available to you otherwise, players that will help you have a good chance at making the top four more regularly.

Concentrating on the league will almost certainly just mean finishing in Europa League places once more, at best, and thus doing the whole thing all over again, constrained by the exact same problems. And what would be the point in that?

Hopefully Moyes and the club understands this because I’m sure the fans would trade a couple of positions in the league for the Europa League trophy. Unless you count 1999’s Intertoto Cup, it is 42 years since they last won anything. Any trophy would be good, but one that holds the potential to totally transform the club must surely be the focus of the whole of the club and to that end, that they haven’t yet managed to strengthen at all, when they badly need to, is concerning.

Indeed, it makes you wonder if they entirely fully appreciate the situation, or are just blinded by the light that shines out of the Premier League’s backside. Too many are. West Ham owe their fans more than that after all these years. Is the club really ambitious, or just content to exist in the void of survival mode, happy to be picking up the Premier League money every season? The next few months will show us the truth.