West Ham might have finally got this right. July is obviously no time to draw conclusions about what lies ahead, but their summer transfer policy has been encouragingly aggressive. For the first summer in a while, there appears a clear logic to the way they’ve moved through the market and, without question, Manuel Pellegrini will be managing the strongest squad in the club’s recent history.
The headline acts are Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko. There is a caveat there in that they both operate best from the right side of midfield, but that can be filed – for the moment – under “a good problem to have”.
Elsewhere Issa Diop has built a fine reputation in France and should immediately improve the centre of defence, while Ryan Fredericks was a key component in Fulham’s promotion last season. A quick, ambitious full-back – also capable of operating slightly further forward – he, along with new goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski (arguably Swansea’s player of the season in 2018-19), should complete a satisfying upgrade to a back-line which had been allowed to deteriorate for some time.
Of the major deals, Jack Wilshere’s signing is the only questionable move. Wilshere has always been spritely with the ball at his feet and his creative attributes aren’t in question. However, whether his inability to be effective without the ball can really be accommodated remains to be seen, particularly within a side which will carry a lot of forward-looking players ahead of him.
There are also concerns about his fitness, naturally, but on a free-transfer and with wages adjusted to his new, lesser status in the game, he’s probably a risk worth taking.
So far, so positive. Even for the neutrals it’s an exciting prospect. Yarmolenko is probably a year or two beyond his very best, he was disappointing in the Bundesliga, but Anderson is an extremely capable player and any unit involving him and Marko Arnautovic should be great fun to watch.
Where there is West Ham, though, there are concerns. The first and most obvious relates to who concluded these deals and how much say Pellegrini really had in them. That might prove to be unfair, but history has shown that the club is owned by people who, traditionally, have been far too involved in its transfer mechanics. At times, David Gold and David Sullivan have operated as de facto sporting directors when, really, they would have been better advised to hand those responsibilities off to someone more qualified.
On current evidence, that lesson does seem to have been learnt. West Ham’s sporting infrastructure has been rebuilt and their scouting procedures have been brought up to modern standards. Nevertheless, that many of these deals were announced on personal twitter accounts does suggest that some of the old habits remain. It’s not a coincidence that all the most successful owners and executives around the league have virtually no public presence and that’s something which Sullivan and Gold are yet to come to terms with. Both they and Karren Brady are still too visible and, really, it’s time for the club’s performance to start speaking on their behalf.
Chemistry will always determine the success of recruitment. How do these players fit in with Pellegrini’s vision for his West Ham are going to be? If these new arrivals have been hand-picked to solve issues he has identified in the side, then all should be well, but if this is just another round of vanity purchasing then their effect might not be so positive. Michail Antonio is now without a natural place in the side, Manuel Lanzini will have to be accommodated once he returns from injury, and Mark Noble’s place is no longer guaranteed. Those are the kind of challenges which any manager with a well-stocked squad must face, but it’s also the kind of competition – involving strong characters – which can cause ructions if not entirely by design.
That’s the second layer of intrigue. First and foremost, this team could be capable of producing some incendiary football – who doesn’t want to see that? – but to do that they must first exist in harmony. In essence, 2018-19 will be a good measure of West Ham’s institutional maturity and whether, after those initials misfires, the advantages of London Stadium are finally being properly expoited.