On the surface, the 2018/19 Premier League season was a typical one for West Ham United. Inconsistent form, long-term injuries to key players and distracting drama off-the-pitch have almost become woven into the fabric of the club’s seasonal performances. The 2018/19 was no different in this respect, yet it was beset by a glimmer of optimism that has rarely been seen since the move from Upton Park. This was in spite of the club losing their first four games of the campaign. So, whilst there were admittedly more than a few ‘downs’, there were certainly enough ‘ups’ to suggest the future is bright under Manuel Pellegrini. Let’s begin with the positives:
- Home Form
The move to the London Stadium continues to be scrutinised and rightly so. 31 points from 19 home games marks the club’s best return since the move, but the most encouraging aspect of this has undoubtedly been in the performances. This has been reflected in goals scored (32 – the highest outside the top six) and a general improvement in atmosphere. In terms of individual games, it seems a long time since the team were scraping the barrel for points with dull and dismal 1-0 wins against Hull and Burnley. Along with good displays of football against Manchester United and Arsenal, there were free-scoring, albeit dogged, wins against Burnley and Huddersfield that were equally as memorable. More seasons like this are needed to make the place feel like home.
From a transfer standpoint, this has been the club’s most successful campaign since 2015/16. Big money signing, Felipe Anderson’s contribution of 10 goals and 5 assists marks a successful debut campaign for the Brazilian. As to be expected of any luxury player, he can occasionally be frustrating, but his improvements defensively over the course of the season suggest he is quickly adapting to the physicality of the Premier League. Two of the bargains of the season, £4m Fabian Balbuena and £7m Lukas Fabianski have consistently been two of the team’s best players. The latter was voted Hammer of the Year by the fans and is arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Similarly given his age and in a continuously over-inflated market, the £22.5m spent on Issa Diop looks to have been a fantastic deal for the club. The talents of Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere have never been in doubt and, despite the former’s instrumental role in the first win of the season against Everton, long-term injuries mean the jury is still out. Likewise, Ryan Fredericks has been restricted to starts by injury and Pablo Zabaleta, but a strong end to the campaign suggests he will go into the new season as the first choice right-back.
3. Manuel Pellegrini
After suffering years of Avram Grant, Sam Allardyce and David Moyes, the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini brought with it the hope of a return to the ‘West Ham way’. Yet without the wealth of resources at Manchester City and on the back of an uninspired spell in China, fans were rightly sceptical. Whilst it was not without its fair share of disappointing and no-show performances, Pellegrini successfully delivered a brand of attacking football that was built on playing out from the back, clever link-up play and effective counter-attacks. Put simply, he got the team passing the ball forward. This translated into some memorable performances, notably against the top six. It was not perfect, but it was enough to buy into the Pellegrini project.
4. Past and Future
The unveiling of the Billy Bonds Stand before the Newcastle game in March was long overdue. Along with Bobby Moore and Sir Trevor Brooking, no individual associated with the club is more deserving of such an honour. It was a powerful moment and one that made the London Stadium feel more like home than it ever has done before. More instances of the club recognising and celebrating their past will be instrumental in recovering the identity some believe to have been lost since the move. Similarly, this season was a landmark one for Declan Rice. Unlike many false dawns, Rice has consolidated himself as the both club’s next breakthrough star and the nation’s. His performance at home against Arsenal will be remembered for years to come with his first goal alone producing one of those moments that you have to experience to truly appreciate the brilliance of football. Between celebrating the career of Billy Bonds and the performances of Declan Rice, it almost seemed like a gap was bridged between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ West Ham in 2018/19.
- Season over in January
The immediate consensus in the wake of the 4-2 loss to AFC Wimbledon in the fourth round of the FA Cup was that the season was over. Not only was the performance the most diabolical of the season, it confirmed that many of those on the pitch had no future at the club. The timing itself could not have been worse with the ill-feeling from the Arnautovic saga still lingering in the stands. To make matters worse, defeat signalled the end of the club’s most favourable cup run in years (even if the annual cup draw against Manchester City remained unavoidable) that – just to compound the discontent – included a fifth round clash with Millwall.
2. No European ambition
Over the course of the season, several opportunities to move up to 7th were missed. It was almost parodical by the end. Maybe it was a case of this season coming too soon for Pellegrini, but even with the usual aforementioned issues, the inability to mount a serious challenge for a Europa League place pointed to a worrying lack of ambition and character in the squad. Moreover, with Watford and Wolves enjoying good cup runs and the inconsistent form of Everton and Leicester, it seems like an opportunity was missed. As it was, 7th would have been a mere consolation for a poor cup run. It was bewildering, therefore, to see the club seemingly sacrifice both over the course of a single season.
3. Marko Arnautovic
Player-Agent power is (frustratingly) nothing new to West Ham United. Once more, the actions (or rather lack of) of a single player overshadowed the club’s season. After rumours of an unnamed Chinese club’s interest in him, Marko Arnautovic did little to dispel fears installed in fans by his own brother. Actions speak louder than words, however, and his performances on the pitch were lethargic, uninspired and half-baked. This was even after the club ‘rewarded’ him with a new contract. The saga nearly concluded shortly (and typically) afterwards when the player suffered a suspected broken foot against Wolves. Still, 11 games and four months without a goal spoke volumes and it was not until the last three games of the season where he finally returned to a level reminiscent of the player he was before January. This seems to have won some fans around and it now looks like the player is staying put – but for how long?
Has it been a good season for West Ham? Let us know in the comments below!
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