Written by Rhys Paul
The 2016/17 Premier League season is underway. Typically, all hope and optimism West Ham fans had coming into the new campaign has quickly evaporated following what can only be described as a disappointing start to the season. The European adventure (the one so thoroughly deserved after last season’s exploits) is over, record signing Andre Ayew was crocked minutes into his debut and a growing list of big players have since joined him on the treatment table. Things haven’t been great on the pitch either. A 2-1 away defeat to Chelsea on the opening (long) weekend was deserved but the controversy surrounding Costa’s winning goal made it a bitter pill to swallow. The first Premier League game at the new stadium was marked with a dull 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, but the joy of those three points was quickly destroyed with the embarrassing 1-0 home defeat to Astra (again). The most recent 3-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad saw the team arguably put in their worst performance in the first 45 minutes, but it was salvaged to an extent with a better showing in the second-half. Essentially, West Ham find themselves in the exact same position as last year, but with higher expectations – If August 2016 has taught us anything, it is that even with the new stadium and all the expensive transfer deals, West Ham will always be infuriating. Nevertheless, it has been a busy, if unfamiliar month for supporters and the talking points of August extend beyond the pitch.
1) Teething Problems at the London Stadium
Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the season has been dominated by the new stadium. Four games in and opinion remains divided. Some fans have taken remarkably quickly to their new surroundings and it is fair to say the match-day experience has improved significantly since the first game against NK Domzale. Things have improved with each game (e.g. more programme sellers to reduce the queues, claret & blue covering over the seats not in use), but some are understandably struggling to adapt from pie & mash to waffles & popcorn. Concerns over the atmosphere have been exaggerated, because when it is loud, it is very loud. Invariably there will be quiet periods, but that is the case for every home crowd in the league.
The biggest issue is with the club’s management of supporters. The sitting/standing debate has antagonised all involved with the club’s actions simply hardening the resolve to stand. If anything, the debate only serves to highlight the need for safe-standing to be introduced in English football. The segregation of home and away supporters is worrying with people (they’re not fans) wearing rival shirts, away fans in the home section and no real barrier separating home and away supporters. Naturally, this has resulted in violence, but the club have to take full responsibility. Nobody should be permitted into the home end if they are wearing another team’s colours and, inside the stadium, the stewards are clearly inexperienced and out of their depth in dealing with a hostile situation. It was never going to be a smooth transition and, if anything can be said about the London Stadium, it is that it will take some time before it feels like ‘home’.
2) Over Before It Even Began – The Early Exit from the Europa League
Last season was the best the club has enjoyed for some time. European qualification was a testament to that. Two consecutive seasons with European football were a sign that West Ham were moving in the right direction, but for the second year in a row, they failed to even make it into the group stage. Little known FC Astra Girurgiu of Romania’s Liga 1 were again responsible for denying the Hammers in the same stage of the competition as last year. In both matches (or four including last season) the team were lacklustre and were too one dimensional despite having more than enough talent to dispose of the Romanians. There is a tendency for teams to struggle to deal with the demands of European football and their league performance suffers as a result. You only have to look at the current injury record of West Ham to see that the squad would struggle to juggle European and domestic football for the entirety of the season. Obviously that does not excuse the embarrassing manner in which the club were knocked out, but it does provide the club with another season in which to improve the existing squad and this will be important if they do become regulars in the competition (maybe even beyond play-off stage at some point). The response to the disappointment of last season was exceptional, so fans can at least take some consolation in that. For now, however, the European tour remains on hold for yet another year.
3) How much do West Ham rely on Dimitri Payet?
As mentioned earlier, the seven competitive performances so far have been below par. Only two victories have been registered in that space of time and neither set the world alight. It is easy to point to injuries as the reason for a series of poor displays, but is the absence of one Frenchman in particular to blame? A knock reportedly sustained against Chelsea on the opening day of the season has limited Payet’s playing time to just 20 minutes. Bilic has been unwilling to aggravate the injury in spite of the team being in desperate need of some creativity and quality. Nobody else in the squad has Payet’s ability to change the outcome of a game in a moment and this means his absence will always be felt (as it was at the back end of 2015). However, it is difficult to judge just how much the team rely on the current Hammer of the Year, especially when he has been joined by the likes of Manuel Lanzini and new signings Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli on the treatment table. The majority of injuries have been to key attacking players and the impact this has had on the number of chances created speaks for itself. There is no denying that Payet has been missed, it is just short-sighted to label West Ham as a ‘one-man’ team.
4) New signings flatter to deceive
Excluding Lanzini, the club have made eleven signings this Summer. £20 million signing Andre Ayew’s debut ended as soon as it began, but he has at least made a Premier League appearance since his transfer. The same cannot be said for Sofiane Feghouli who, after impressing in pre-season and Europa League qualifying, suffered a hamstring injury which has kept him out of action. There was much hype over Gokhan Tore’s move, but anger over the fact he’s only on loan quickly dissolved as his performances have left much to be desired. Havard Nordtveit looks a good – if unspectacular – player, but the club’s mediocre displays have reflected badly on him and a foot injury has since sidelined him. The jury is still out on Jonathan Calleri, but he did little in the second-leg against Astra. Domingos Quina and Toni Martinez are part of the development squad and whilst the latter has hit the ground running (5 goals in 4 apps), the former still looks very raw. Nobody would have expected 20 year old Ashley Fletcher and left-back cover, Arthur Masuaku to have impressed the most, but they have shown that there are still some bargains to be found in the increasingly overpriced market. Hopefully Edimilson Fernandes and Simone Zaza have an instant impact and lift some of the gloom caused by their fellow new arrivals. The best is still surely to come from many.
Injuries have always been far too regular when it comes to West Ham. This year has been no exception with the first team taking a considerable with injuries to Cresswell, Lanzini, Payet, Carroll and now Reid. With a past injury record dominated by the likes of Kieron Dyer, any injury will understandably see fans hold their breath. Training methods and the training ground itself have been blamed for contributing to injuries, but many of the current injuries have been sustained during an actual match. New signings picking up injuries is also all too familiar and there must be something more to the trend than just ‘bad luck’. Lanzini is fresh off making his return against Man City and Payet, Nordtveit, Feghouli and Reid all expected to return in time for the Watford game. The less said about Carroll the better. The injuries should not excuse the dire level of performances the club has produced as the squad is still capable of much better, but the injection of players fresh from injury is much needed.
West Ham fans, what have you made of your August? Let us know in the comments below!