Irrespective of what happened against Tottenham nine days before, West Ham’s 0-4 loss to Liverpool was a stain on their season. There are asterisks, of course, and excusing platitudes which say that, with relegation no longer a possibility, that was just the performance of a group of players without any motivation.
Maybe. But then, it was also a performance which the world saw coming a mile away. West Ham were superb against Spurs and their energetic resistance that night was easily worth all three points. And rivalries are more important than the league table, so the club’s supporters shouldn’t been taunted over their cup final-esque celebrations; that’s what beating a local enemy should look like.
However, it’s entirely different when the players carry that mindset – when they believe that beating a single team is a result capable of eclipsing whatever follows. That’s what Sunday looked like: a group of players who, even against a bigger side and during their last home game, believed that their year’s objectives has been met. A kind description would described that performance as indifferent, a more honest assessment would brand it unprofessional. Conveniently, it was also a loss which seemed to confirm various suspicions about how West Ham have been constructed. Handy, because it should also be used to inform whatever rebuilding work is scheduled for the summer.
The move from Upton Park, sad as it was, created all sorts of opportunities. Financially, the club had more spending power than it seemed to know what to do with and its decision-makers, pursuing a quick improvement, spent most of that first London Stadium summer trying to sign a forward. Worryingly, the drive was characterised by an “anyone will do” mentality and, worse, that approach appeared to leak into the other areas of their business. Making Manuel Lanzini’s loan from Al Jazira was admittedly a shrewd move but, elsewhere, money was spent in a way which didn’t seem to conform to any single objective.
If there’s a single description which seems to fit West Ham’s behaviour in the transfer market, it’s “superficial”. They’re a club who like to do business and who are certainly endowed with plenty of ambition, but who appear drawn to the light of a player’s literal ability. Rather than considering, for instance, whether the talent in question fits into the side, or whether the personality involved is really desirable, the right player for West Ham is nearly always the best available to them.
That’s not really how progress works. There’s certainly a time for signing that kind of footballer, but successful teams aren’t generally constructed from such formulaic, off-the-peg pieces. Sides are shaped and moulded, rarely just bought and dropped onto the pitch. Talent is obviously a necessity, but there are other, myriad details which West Ham regularly seem to neglect. That, probably more than any other one factor, would help to explain what they are: long on theoretical ability but highly underwhelming in practice.
It’s hindsight, of course, but maybe if there were more deference paid to substance over style, the stadium move wouldn’t have been quite so difficult? The fans would have still squabbled and the logistical problems would have remained, but the team on the field would have been better equipped to cope with the adversity. Maybe, more pertinently, the variance between the Tottenham performance and nearly every other home effort wouldn’t have been so wild if this team had been constructed in a more rounded way.
Mark Noble is a very honest player who bears accountability and so too are Winston Reid, Andy Carroll and Michail Antonio but, beyond that little core, there aren’t many players who seem inarguably to have been bought with the long-term in mind. Lanzini perhaps, and Aaron Cresswell and Cheik Kouyate on their better days, but it’s not a long list. There are good players, some of whom are very good, but they exude a transience which isn’t typically found in teams moving on an upward trajectory.
This is really what needs addressing. The hope, although not expectation, is that this summer will be shaped by the mistakes made a year ago. The Premier League broadcasting contract is very large and creates certain temptations, but to move forward in a sustainable way, West Ham need to distinguish between actually making progress and just appearing to. Marching a line of “name” players into the dressing-room is not necessarily as productive, for instance, as identifying someone who, although perhaps less celebrated, is more capable of remedying a tactical or positional problem. That’s a formula validated all over the division, by all kinds of different clubs: Chelsea and Spurs at the top end, who have found excellent solutions on an admittedly larger budget, but also Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion lower down who, despite their fiscal limitations, have successfully trodden the piece-by-piece path.
Do West Ham operate on those terms? Do their owners think in terms of eras or just single seasons? When, for instance, was the last time a player from the academy successfully graduated? Those are only loosely connected questions, but they’re focussed on the same shortcoming – this has become a very “here and now” organisation, one stuck in year-to-year cycles.
That’s a shame, too, because West Ham have a fantastic chance to grow: to become a better team, to fill their new stadium, and to climb to a different level of the hierarchy. The trouble is, that there’s no real sense of non-material growth anywhere – no feeling that, given time, Slaven Bilic and his players could really become something or amount to more than they are already. No hint of a collective evolution, no sense that “if they could just keep this group together” they might do something. They’re still in thrall to the almighty power of the transfer-market and the instant gratification which it can deliver.
Bilic’s limitations may be complicit in creating that perception, but that doesn’t mean that this problem isn’t rooted in recruitment inefficiency and sustained by the prevailing fallacy that shiny new players will cure all problems.