West Ham’s dream season continued early on Monday evening as Sheffield United were brushed aside 3-0 at the London Stadium.
A penalty from Declan Rice, West Ham’s first spot kick of the season, and second-half goals from Issa Diop and Ryan Fredericks were more than enough to cruise past Chris Wilder’s struggling side, further fanning the relegation flames that are engulfing the seemingly doomed Blades.
It was a result that briefly lifted West Ham back into the top four and into a Champions League qualification spot, although they were soon knocked off that lofty perch by Tommy Tuchel’s Chelsea as they comfortably beat a Newcastle side desperate to join in the fight for relegation later on the night.
Still, fifth isn’t too bad, eh?
From a Hammers perspective, this was a performance of controlled quality and one that offered further evidence of the astonishing progress that has been made under David Moyes.
To substantiate just how remarkable that progression has been, we need to take a trip back to the opening day of the season. Coming up against, oh, Newcastle, West Ham were meek, pedestrian, disoriented, and, well, awful, slipping to a pretty dismal 2-0 defeat.
I hold my hands up and admit that there were many things about that performance that I didn’t like. West Ham were too easy to play against and open up, and it was a display that reminded me of all the bad things about the club in yesteryear; one that suggested that not one single lesson had been learned.
Stylistically, there didn’t really seem to be any cohesion and understanding of what the players were meant to be doing, and I didn’t think Michail Antonio was up to playing the lone striker role each and every week, even though he’d scored a good few goals at the back end of last season.
But the beauty of hindsight is that you get to admit you were wrong at times, and you also get to look back and see how things have changed and evolved.
In the case of Antonio, I was very wrong – he is now an out-and-out striker, and proof that Marko Arnautovic’s successful positional transition during Moyes’ first spell in charge was not a one-off.
One of the best features of his game, and this is something that is Moyes and coaching staff taught, is his understanding of the lone striker role and his newfound knowledge of when to mix things up in his approach play. Coming short to drop the ball into space, flicking the ball on aerially and running in behind are all things that he now does without thinking, creating space for his teammates to play and run into when able.
Antonio didn’t play against Sheffield United, but these traits are what we saw from deputies Bowen and Jesse Lingard, who shared the responsibility of playing in a deep-lying false nine role.
Granted, Sheffield United aren’t setting the world on fire and are one of the easier Premier League teams to break down, but there was a real fluidity in how West Ham played and evidence of the obvious good work continuing to be put in on the training ground. One can only imagine what the outcome may have been had Antonio passed his fitness test…
The other elephant in the room is that I was critical of West Ham’s setup, and the fact that there didn’t seem to be much of a plan. But what we’ve seen after that opening day shambles is 23 Premier League games played, all of which have contained a coherent and logical – despite what Twitter may say – plan aimed at getting a positive result.
Be it playing with three central defenders in a flexible 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 system, or switching back to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 depending on the strength of opposition, there’s always been a plan A and a plan B.
For the most part, delightfully, it’s worked. 12 wins, six draws, five defeats and 42 points have been chalked up and, better than that, those five defeats have come against Liverpool (twice), Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, while points have been taken off Manchester City and Tottenham.
Those keeping up with the maths will quickly work out that West Ham’s record against teams outside of the traditional ‘big six’ (and since that opening day disaster) now reads: played 16, won 12, drawn four, lost zero.
I repeat, played 16, won 12, drawn four, lost zero.
That is truly an incredible statistic and one that above all else shows how Moyes has outthought and outwitted the teams he knows West Ham are capable of beating. There’s no great secret to the success, either, just working hard for each other and every player knowing their role and responsibility – with any mistake no longer just absorbed individually, rather one that affects the collective group.
In time, West Ham will grow into games against the bigger clubs, and the platform is being built away from those games to drum up confidence and improve the players’ mindsets.
Getting into the Champions League is likely a step too far, but West Ham now have a very realistic chance of securing a Europa League spot. A tough run of run fixtures awaits on paper, but equally a kind run arrives towards the end of the season; for that reason, nothing should be discounted, particularly as the form book paints a very clear picture: this is no fluke, West Ham are genuine European contenders.