Another transfer-window, another succession of bold, unsuccessful lunges? It certainly appears as if West Ham have set their course for January, with news leaking on Wednesday about their intention to pursue Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford on loan.
With the greatest respect to Davids Gold and Sullivan, that doesn’t sound like a terribly worthwhile phone call.
West Ham might well have been misrepresented in the press and they could, in fact, harbour no ambitions of the sort. But that it sounds like something they might do is good enough – after all, this is a club who have spent the last six months, like an infatuated teenage boy, lusting after players they have little hope of attracting. The £31m cheque was written, but neither Lyon (Lacazette) nor Marseille (Batshuayi) were ever given the chance to cash it.
On the field, the side have been in peculiar form. All their air has come out of their 2015/16 balloon and, a slight recent upturn aside, they have been largely dreadful. Injuries have hampered Slaven Bilic, certainly, but five months into the season he’s still searching for answers: what has happened to these players? In fact, he recently grew frustrated enough to air West Ham’s dirty laundry in public and questioned the squad’s collective attitude towards training and preparation. That’s a bold step to take. That’s typically a media criticism rather than a head coach’s appraisal.
Bilic remains a sympathetic figure. He has his imperfections as a manager and his first season in England probably relied as much on individual performances as it did tactical acumen. Nevertheless, whatever attributes he does have are being neutered by something – or, perhaps, someone.
West Ham’s transfer strategy has always been opaque and, to this day, it’s uncertain whether the club’s summer spending patterns were influenced by Bilic or by those who employ him. It’s a reasonable suspicion, too, because much of the recent activity seemed animated by a desire for quick improvement rather than the structured progression managers tend to prefer. Weaknesses in the first-eleven were largely ignored and the bulk of funds available were channelled towards new attacking players. Simone Zaza, Jonathan Calleri and Gokhan Tore all arrived on expensive loans and have all been similarly ineffective. Andre Ayew was recruited for an exorbitant fee and, good player though he remains, has suffered horribly with injuries. Edimilson Fernandes looks like he might one day become a good player and Havard Nordtveit was a relatively smart squad addition.
New players for the sake of new players. Hindsight is convenient and retro-appraisal is easy, but nobody on that list was ever likely to generate a long-term improvement. West Ham may be operating under special conditions at the moment and their owners presumably allowed the London Stadium tenancy to influence their decisions – reasonably – but there is no evidence of method. Bilic hasn’t been in management long enough for his style to be rigidly defined, but few of the incoming players obviously complemented his approach. Even Sofiane Feghouli, a talented player with known red flags against his personality, appeared little more than a flip-of-the-coin signing.
This is what has to change. The myriad stadium issues are an ongoing problem and a lukewarm atmosphere is never ideal, but these issues merely distract from how West Ham are functioning in a sporting sense. It’s alarming for instance that, in spite of a few key differences, their 2016/17 has been very similar to Mark Hughes’ second season at neighbouring QPR. First-year Premier League survival at Loftus Road was destroyed by ludicrous over-ambition and a reckless dilution of team spirit. Instead of analysing their side’s true weaknesses at the end of 2011/12 and adding players who fit positions properly – and whose personalities were suited to the club’s circumstances – they issued a flurry of cheques in the hope of shortcutting their way into the Premier League’s midtable bracket.
West Ham are a bigger club and, unquestionably, they have a far more talented team. Nevertheless, there remain troubling parallels between those two examples – not least, that familiar lack of football sense. Logical team-building principles have been disregarded in favour of a clumsy attempt to buy league table-progress. Sometimes that can work – and occasionally all the transfer targets are achieved, the squad remains harmonious, and the club in question floats serenely up the table. More commonly, though, that scattergun approach muddies the waters and creates organisation-wide confusion. Are, for instance, Winston Reid and Simone Zaza striving towards the same aims? Did Sofiane Feghouli really believe in the West Ham project, or had his situation at Valencia grown so toxic that he was just happy to leave it behind? Maybe that’s wrong and maybe all of those players are rowing in the same direction, but it seems a mighty coincidence that, barely months after such a haphazard summer, even the manager is voicing his concerns about the group’s commitment.
The answer, most likely, involves devolution: there must be someone between Bilic and the club’s owners. Directors of Football are valuable for their expertise and vision, but they also provide continuity and generally aren’t driven by ego. They may still be distrusted in certain parts of the British game, but they’re popular everywhere else because they represent coherent strategy.
And a “coherent strategy” isn’t something which is obviously in place at West Ham. From the outside, they’re still a whim-and-instinct football club who seem content to think of the future in terms of weeks and months rather than years and decades. It’s an easy point to make, but isn’t that also evidenced by the flawed planning which has been exposed in the new ground.
“Do this, try that, don’t worry – we’ll sort it out later.”
That doesn’t do it anymore and the time is very much now for some institutional maturity.