Written by Rhys Paul
West Ham head into the 2016/17 Premier League season with a sense of excitement and trepidation. There is a genuine feeling that the club have turned a corner and their performances last year certainly suggest that this is the case. Just as last season was about saying farewell to the Boleyn, this year will all be about breaking in the former Olympic Stadium. The majority of concerns about the move have already been reassured with the games against SK Domzale and Juventus doing their part in easing the supporters into their new surroundings. It is hard to deny the ‘wow’ factor of seeing the claret and blue sea of 54,000 West Ham supporters and I cannot see any other club matching the noise created by the first rendition of ‘bubbles’. There are still some who are yet to be won over, but start to life in Stratford really could not have got off to a much better start. On the pitch, the team will be looking to continue their good work from last season. Despite enjoying a record points overhaul of 62 and the joint-fourth highest goalscorers in the league, there were moments of disappointment. An early exit in the Europa League could be forgiven given the circumstances, but the defeat to Manchester United in a FA Cup quarter-final replay ended the club’s best hopes of winning the competition for the first time since 1980. Final day defeat to Stoke was unfair on the side – not just because they were the better team on the day, but also as it saw the club sink to 7th and rely on United’s FA Cup victory to secure European football. This came even though the club had threatened to join Leicester in gatecrashing the top four. It speaks volumes that these were the ‘lows’ of a season-long ‘high’. The club were punching so high that FA Cup glory and Champions League football became more of a reality as the season progressed and eventual failure to secure either somewhat marred what was the best season the club has enjoyed for quite some time.
The ‘Ins’ and ‘Outs’
The club’s recruitment over the last few years has been nothing short of outstanding. Sofiane Feghouli and Havard Nordtveit already look to be bargains. The former has been the MVP of pre-season and the latter’s style of play could be important in balancing out the attack-heavy midfield. Domingos Quina and Toni Martinez have been bought in with the future in mind. So has Ashley Fletcher, and of the three, the former Manchester United striker has so far impressed the most and hopefully he will be given a chance to break into the first team when the time is right. Gokhan Tore’s injury has put a dampener on his loan move from Besiktas, but as long as it doesn’t prove to be a regular occurence, he has the potential to be a big player under Slaven Bilic. Arthur Masuaku’s signing from Olympiakos was a necessity following the injury to Aaron Cresswell and he looks to be a capable replacement. Andre Ayew is the most recent acquisition – signing for £20 million from Swansea – and represents the most high-profile transfer for West Ham to date (even if it has been two years in the making). He was a star player in a disappointing Swansea team last season and his versatility across the frontline will be a useful asset should injuries occur. The promised £30 million, prolific striker never came to fruition – much to some fans frustrations – and this places greater expectations on Ayew, despite not being an out-and-out striker.
James Tomkins’ transfer to Crystal Palace remains the most notable departure. It’s always sad to see a homegrown player go, but £10 million for a defender not guaranteed first team football made sense from both a business and football point of view. Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia are widely expected to follow Tomkins out the door and the recent arrival of Ayew will probably speed up this process. Several youngsters have gone out on loan, but these hardly disrupt the senior squad for the time being.
What can be achieved?
With Bilic at the helm, anything is possible. His passion and understanding of the game means he is perfectly suited to the club. 7th was undeserving of the team’s performance last year, but can the club top what they achieved last year? It wouldn’t be surprising to see West Ham once again challenging high up the table, but there is the nagging suspicion the club haven’t done enough to address their weaknesses. A fully fit Andy Carroll is just as good as a new signing, but a proven goalscorer is still needed because the club simply can’t gamble that the Geordie striker will stay fit for the whole campaign. The defence was atrocious at times. The four-month injury lay-off to Cresswell deprives the club of its best and most consistent defender, and one of the few things Bilic can be criticised for is his insistence on deploying Michail Antonio as a right-back despite having Sam Byram in the ranks. The sale of Tomkins does at least mean the promising young duo of Reece Burke and Reece Oxford are pushed up the pecking order and they will hopefully feature more with one eye kept on the future. Perhaps most importantly, the ingredient to greater success will be the club’s ability to actually beat the teams below them. It’s all well and good boasting of victories over the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, United and Liverpool, but four of the eight defeats suffered last season came to teams who finished in the bottom-half of the table. Supporters will always claim refereeing decisions go against their side, but the extent of the decisions that went against West Ham bordered on calamitous and denied the club an even higher finish – something which makes last season even more remarkable. Unless there is an agenda against West Ham, you would like to think that such poor officiating will not be allowed to happen again or even be allowed to hamstring any other team for that matter. Consolidation as a top eight team should not be the aim and the only way for the club to continue their good work is if they continue to aim higher.
This is a big season for West Ham, but it’s not exactly make-or-break. This is a season of transition, not just on the pitch but for the club as a whole. It will take time to adjust to life in a new stadium and it will take time for fans to turn it into a fortress worthy of being the successor to Upton Park. A 60,000 capacity will also bring with it greater expectations and this is going to be even more the case following the success of last season. I personally feel that the teams competing on the peripheral of the top four will be the most closely contested part of the league. Tottenham and Leicester might struggle to reach the heights of 2015/16, Liverpool will continue to improve under Jurgen Klopp and the likes of Stoke, Everton and Southampton have been around the same level as West Ham for the last couple of seasons, so it is definitely going to be close. Failure to sign a prolific striker is not as damaging as some believe – this is a squad who scored 65 goals between them – yet it is the areas of the existing problems from last season that are yet to be rectified, notably the defence who shipped 51 goals last season. The size of the squad is also a concern – more so because of the club’s history with injuries – and if the European adventure continues and another decent cup run is enjoyed, Bilic’s concern that performances in the league might suffer could become a reality.
Here’s hoping it is another enjoyable campaign for the club and a domestic trophy would not go amiss if it means finishing slightly lower than last season.
West Ham fans, what are your predictions for this season? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by joshjdss