There is a certain omerta in football. The sense is that it can be dictated at a formative age. Blame referees, blame injuries, blame ill-fortune but do not, whatever you do, blame your team-mates. So when it is breached, it is interesting. When it is breached twice in as many weeks and when the men doing the criticising are two of the senior figures, it can be particularly revealing.
Welcome to West Ham. Joe Hart responded to much his best display for his new club on Saturday by branding his colleagues “unprofessional” for failing to hold on to a 2-1 lead against Crystal Palace, despite his heroics. Michail Antonio seemed to draw his ire for taking the ball to the corner, crossing it and losing it. Andre Ayew, Manuel Lanzini and Javier Hernandez went forward, got ahead of the ball and never got behind it again. Palace levelled in the 97th minute.
Rewind a fortnight and the frank talking came courtesy of Pablo Zabaleta, a willing interviewee who has spoken so many times he is very capable of avoiding controversy if he chooses. Andy Carroll had been red-carded in the 27th minute at Burnley. West Ham were winning 1-0. Down to 10 men, they conceded another late equaliser.
“Andy’s challenges were a bit nasty,” said Zabaleta, showing the sent-off striker no sympathy. Unprompted, Zabaleta brought up the subject of another dismissal, Marko Arnautovic’s for violent conduct at Southampton.
Perhaps it illustrated the age-old divide between the cavaliers in attack and the roundheads in defence. Perhaps it is coincidence that twin damning appraisals came from men who were team-mates at Manchester City for seven seasons. It feels unlikely, though. Summer signings may have been speaking in the midst of disappointment, but a brief introduction to life at the London Stadium appears to have irritated men accustomed to higher standards.
“Andy’s challenges were a bit nasty,” Pablo Zabaleta
They are well acquainted with the pressures of the game. Zabaleta’s old colleagues Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho spent the first half of last season incurring suspensions. He was never as vocal in criticising them. But then, perhaps, City did not seem as self-destructive as West Ham. Cityitis, to borrow Joe Royle’s phrase for a club with a tragicomic capacity to turn triumph into disaster, no longer feels a thing. West Hamness is.
It is an explanation of how a club that invariably spends heavily contrives to underachieve. There are seasons that seem exceptions to the rule; Slaven Bilic’s debut campaign, when they came seventh, is a case in point, but it is also the only year in the last 15 when West Ham have finished in the top eight of the top flight.
And, for the their transfer outlay, their wage bill and the talent in their ranks in at least some of those seasons, that is an inadequate return. Zabaleta and Hart are the sort of players that, either because of their salaries or West Ham’s supposed ambition, some mid-table teams could not acquire.
They may have wondered from a distance why West Ham did not do better. They may have their answers now.
Perhaps only the top six have a more gifted group of attackers than Carroll, Hernandez, Ayew, Antonio, Arnautovic and Lanzini. West Ham sit 16th. Had they won at Palace and Burnley, the games that prompted Hart and Zabaleta to speak out, they would be a more respectable 11th. Had Arnautovic stayed on the field at St Mary’s, where they conceded an injury-time winner, they may be in the top 10.
It is worth inserting the caveat that everyone loses some points at some stage, often because of late goals, but not everyone loses quite as many or in quite such avoidable fashion. West Ham’s indiscipline, both actual and positional, and their individualism at moments where teamwork is required have been their undoing. It has obviously riled footballers who have played with outstanding individuals, but ones with a greater understanding of the side’s demands.
A group with talent but not cohesion – not least because they change system and starting 11 at great regularity – may strike them as alien. Maybe Bilic imported players from more winning cultures in attempts to change the mentality. So far, Hart and Zabaleta have merely highlighted it. Perhaps recognising a problem is the first way of solving it. Perhaps going public, however, is merely a sign of their frustration that the West Hamness of it all seems unchanging.