Wolves 3 West Ham 0, Molineux.
It had rained in Wolverhampton all day. By kick-off it was colder and darker, with flutters of snow dancing in the floodlights. It wasn’t quite a wet night in Stoke, but for West Ham the challenge was just as steep. Three days on from that humiliating defeat to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup, during which they found themselves three goals down to a team at the foot of League One, Manuel Pellegrini’s players arrived here on the rebound, stepping into the frozen Black Country in pursuit of some pride.
They didn’t find it. At times, it seemed they weren’t even looking particularly hard. It was too cold for them. Too wet, too difficult.
Football teams are at their most fascinating in the gloom of poor form. You learn more about them and come to better understand their texture. How do they respond, how good are they at solving their own problems; on this evidence, West Ham are due few compliments.
The issue at hand – at its most malignant – is embodied by the swift descent from the levels achieved against Arsenal. West Ham were magnificent that day, but they were also live on television and pitted against a local rival. Seven days on, they lost to a Bournemouth side who hadn’t won in almost a month. A natural comedown perhaps, but events of the past week have shown that in spite of the new stadium, the expensive players, and the celebrated manager, they retain all of their corrupted DNA. They pick and choose their moments, their players saving their best for the most flattering context which brings the greatest personal reward.
So the more things change, the more they actually stay the same. Until Marko Arnautovic had been calmed by his new contract, his actions over the past month hinted at the same attitude. West Ham have spent a fortune assembling a squad capable of challenging for Europe and yet, in their haste, might have actually waved in another cluster of names for whom the East End is just a resting port within football’s most decadent quarter. How many more Arnautovic types are there in that squad, how many players who are secretly willing to hold a gun to their employer’s head in the middle of the season?
Supporters are often accused of being simplistic in this kind of situation. While the proper antidote to poor performance is winning, the bare requirement is for encouraging aesthetics. They want to see a manifestation of their players’ wounded pride and to seek reassurance from a tangible response. But this was no sort of retaliation. Wolves are no soft touch on their own ground, but this was one of those nights when they stuttered into life, gradually finding their balance during the first half and eventually taking control of the game.
The curiosity of West Ham, though, was in how they allowed that to happen. In how accommodating they were and, tellingly, how muted their fans remained and how understandable their silence was. While a degree of tentativeness was to be expected and collective confidence will have been eroded by those successive losses, this was a performance of extraordinary passivity. That caution could be explained by the circumstances – a draw here would have been a good result – but there was never any sense that West Ham were willing to rage against the adversity they encountered.
And they encountered plenty. By the time Romain Saiss gave the hosts the lead, heading home unchallenged at a corner, warning shots had been fired across the visiting bow. To that point, Lukasz Fabianski had been the game’s best player, making a string of reaction saves to keep the score level. He was let down, though – first by his static defence and then, again, in remarkably similar fashion, from another set-piece. It was West Ham at their absolute worst: Joao Moutinho carved a flat free-kick into the box and Raul Jimenez, who had been allowed to drift freely across his markers, jabbed a shot past Fabianski.
If anything, this was actually worse than the Wimbledon game. At least the minnows had played above themselves and had been infused with the kind of chaotic, cup final effort that can sometimes disturb the bigger sides. But here, West Ham were just swatted aside, treated with dismissive contempt by a Wolves team who, while highly capable, never needed to be anything approaching their best. With time ticking away and Pellegrini’s players caught over-committing, Diogo Jota raced away, squared for Jimenez, and the Mexican clipped a deserved third over Fabianski.
3-0 was a scoreline that Wolves deserved. But, perhaps more importantly, it was also one which West Ham were much too eager to accept. And because that was the case, because Pellegrini’s players couldn’t even muster a shot in response or even a flicker of petulance, the only conclusion can be that his side is sliding further into the mid-season mire. The Chilean was no more expressive himself. Talking to the media after the game, he never deviated from his familiar monotone, offering only platitudes to explain this third successive failure and mumbling through the club’s list of absentees.
Of course, head-coaches have to be wise in front of the media and rants are rarely productive. Players, too, must operate within the laws of the game and take defeat gracefully or suffer the consequences. But if such a point exists, then this was a situation which demanded something more visceral. More anger, more disappointment, more determination to right wrongs. West Ham have spent the last three days as a national punchline; they should have been simmering in response, desperate even for petty vengeance. Make a tackle, pursue the ball, leave an elbow on someone; make mistakes, but just show that it hurts.
On Tuesday evening they should have committed to winning either the game or the fight. They won neither, surrendering hopelessly before shuffling off and shivering in the cold night. Losing is forgivable, but self-pity and apathy – together – can never be tolerated and so this, despite the memory of August and September, was really a new low.