Manuel Pellegrini has problems at West Ham but does he have the personnel to change things? Adam Bate assesses their poor start and the challenge that the Chilean boss faces in turning it around…
For the West Ham supporters at London Stadium, the stoppage-time goal that made it four defeats from four Premier League games this season highlighted the problem. It was not just that Carlos Sanchez dawdled on the ball and was dispossessed by Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves. It was that this sort of intensity had been missing from their own play.
Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment in the summer came with the promise of playing more attractive football after a functional campaign under David Moyes. The £100m outlay on new players appeared to give him the tools to implement much-needed change. But despite Pellegrini’s reputation there has been little sign of his philosophy taking root thus far
2:56 West Ham suffered a fourth defeat in a row when losing at home to Wolves
Upon his arrival, the Chilean declared that his football has “always delighted the fans” and pressing has been an important part of that idea. “What I want is to recover the ball as near to the other box as we can,” he once said. “And when we have the ball, play.” But the statistics so far only support the view that this has been not been happening.
Just four games into the Premier League season, West Ham’s opponents have outrun them by a combined total of more than 20 kilometres. In the 2-1 home defeat to Bournemouth alone, they gave up eight kilometres to the visitors. There is much more to football than running, of course, but at this juncture it is tempting to think that it would be a start.
The lack of intensity has been alarming. Contrary to Pellegrini’s stated ethos, West Ham have been happy to let their opponents have the ball. Understandable against Liverpool and Arsenal, but even at home to newly-promoted Wolves, in a game that surely represented a wonderful opportunity to pick up their first points, there was no attempt to press.
Again, it was reflected in the numbers. Wolves had completed only 69.8 per cent of passes made in their own half in the previous game against Manchester City. Against West Ham, they completed 92.9 per cent of them, their highest tally of the season. Liverpool and Arsenal also recorded their best pass-completion numbers against Pellegrini’s team.
The Gunners were actually troubled by West Ham, particularly on the counter-attack. It was from one such move that Marko Arnautovic opened the scoring at the Emirates Stadium and he might well have done the same late on against Wolves following another breakaway. But the theme to every performance has been that they are just too easy to play against.
Given that his previous Premier League assignment was at Manchester City, there is a suggestion that Pellegrini is ill-suited to coaching a more modest team. But his record in Spain with both Villarreal and Malaga indicates that he can make it work. It is fair to assume that Pellegrini does want to construct an aggressive, attacking team at West Ham.
2:14 Pellegrini's honest reaction to West Ham's predicament after four defeats
Whether he has the personnel to achieve that is less clear. It may be too much to expect club captain Mark Noble to adapt, while Pellegrini finds himself reunited with a 33-year-old Pablo Zabaleta too. As with Javier Hernandez, now 30, their best days may be behind them. Even among the talented new acquisitions, there are caveats and concerns.
Jack Wilshere is a tidy footballer with an assured touch. But like Noble, mobility is an issue and in a team that sees less of the ball, his weaknesses are magnified. Pellegrini opted to pair them in a two-man midfield against Bournemouth but it did not work and with Sanchez having similar flaws, perhaps Cheikhou Kouyate will be missed more than was anticipated.
Elsewhere, there are more encouraging signs. Lukasz Fabianski has been an upgrade in goal, while Issa Diop’s own goal against Arsenal should not overshadow the fact that the 21-year-old centre-back has huge potential. With greater protection in front of them, his fledgling partnership with fellow newcomer Fabian Balbuena could yet be a successful one in time.
Everton vs West Ham
September 16, 2018, 3:30pm
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Unfortunately, time is a luxury now. West Ham’s trip to face unbeaten Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday has already taken on huge significance. Not just because of the four games that have preceded it but because of the two games that follow it, with both Chelsea and Manchester United making the trip to London Stadium. Pellegrini is concerned.
“We knew before we started that we had a tough start, seven difficult games,” he told Sky Sports after the Wolves defeat. “I don’t think it is a bad start, it is a very bad start. We didn’t think we would lose six points here at home. Here at home to lose we must be very worried. But I think everyone inside the club is calm. We need to be calm.”
There is rarely much of that at West Ham. And while Pellegrini’s record suggests that he will turn it around, the more pessimistic supporters will feel they have seen all this before. The players are different but the culture is the same. Pellegrini must change that if he is to make an impact. And Everton will surely need to be the start of the change.
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