I was honestly never that optimistic that I’d be sat here writing a first post season kick off article laden with superlatives about our performance at Old Trafford. Even with the undisputable strengthening of the squad that has taken place in recent weeks, it was always going to be an uphill battle from minute one, and so it proved. One thing I was hopeful of, which proved to be in vain, was that the clubs support would acknowledge the good investments and intentions of our board and allow them the time to implement all the changes into the team over the opening weeks of the season. Perhaps it’s just a very vocal minority that immediately took to Twitter to castigate Hart for mistakes, Zabaleta for a lack of pace and even the performances of Arnautovic and Hernandez in a game in which they were isolated in thankless, restricted roles. Mark Noble though seemed to bear the brunt of the greatest criticism. A captain and club man who has long since been making up for his lack of pace and true natural ability with dogged, lay-it-all-on-the-line determination every single time he pulled on the shirt. A set of qualities that have made many individuals in the past cult hero figures of our club, and often blameless for their shortcomings provided they were giving all they had, even if we all knew it simply wasn’t enough. Like Carlton before him, Noble would be the first to hold his hand up and say he wasn’t the most gifted player on the field, he’s well aware he’s there to win the ball and “give it to the good players”, I’ve heard him say so myself. Add all this to the re-emergence of calls for Slavens head to roll if there’s no quick fix and we have a potential recipe for the negativity to consume this new team before it has even had a chance to blossom.
It’s difficult to gauge the mood amongst fans accurately at this stage. With no home game until bank holiday weekend and social media historically providing only the extreme points of view in response to Sunday’s performance, it’s entirely possible that the faith among the many remains strong and resolute for the forthcoming season. I sincerely hope so. It seems there will always be naysayers who will jump on the first opportunity they get to dismiss the efforts of every professional person connected with West Ham United. I’m not saying we didn’t make mistakes, I’m not saying that some of our players didn’t get found out on Sunday. I’d merely like to point a few things out and deliver a little perspective to anyone who’s already calling for a changing of the guard after just one game, a game that realistically could be among the toughest 90 minutes we face over the entire season.
We’ve invested at a level beyond anything that’s gone before. If Carvalho completes in the next week as predicted we stretch even further beyond the budgets of the past that we have already smashed. But at the same time, we are seeing the likes of Watford, Leicester, Southampton, and Bournemouth all complete the signings of players around or above the £20million mark. Teams that have in recent years been battling us for league position on a regular basis. That amount of money used to get you established, proven quality of the highest order….not anymore. You need to look no further than West London to see how huge sums spent on transfer fees came with no guarantee whatsoever. Torres, an undoubted talent of the highest order cursed with what was at the time an astronomical figure hanging over his head simply failed to find his feet at Chelsea, but the club, thanks to near limitless financial backing was able to write off the loss as a failed venture and try again the following year. This is a luxury currently only afforded to a select few teams and certainly not a position we will find ourselves in anytime soon. While our capacity, identity, and spending power have increased so have many others around us and those who already sat well out in front have continued to pull away, effectively in a different league with window net spending comfortably extending into the hundreds of millions. For me right now, Manchester United sit at the very forefront of this capability. They have not only bought big but they have bought well. Matic played like the final piece of a jigsaw at the weekend and suddenly all those players who had not yet proven their worth were able to do their job unhindered by a lack of a midfield general to cover every move they made. Pogba was a driving creative force, Lukaku was free to run into space unshackled from duties of holding a ball up or pressing a defence in possession. Every player in the United team that day was able to focus on their specific role in attack and that’s exactly what they did. We have to hold our hands up and say that formidable line up was just a cut above us, even at full strength we’d have struggled to keep them at bay for a full ninety minutes. Antonio and Lanzini may have given them a lot more to think about at the other end, Kouyate may have won more ball in the middle but Mourinho’s United would’ve have found another gear or two had it been necessary. Time will tell if they remain as potent on a regular basis but they were my tip for the title weeks before we faced them and their performance has only reaffirmed that belief.
I’m not asking you all to settle for mediocrity once again, it has after all been the pinnacle of what we’ve achieved in many fans living memory. We should be able to hope for more but in this league and in this market we can play at our very best level and still face the possibility that eight place is the very best we can attain. For this squad to go beyond that will undoubtedly require a failure on another team’s part. That said we’ve all seen big teams fail and there are many question marks hanging over a fair number of the top 6 at this point. We’re all clutching at those early season straws and the transfer window activities of Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool are under a great deal of media scrutiny. Whether that proves to be justified or not remains to be seen. Everton seem to firmly occupy the no-mans-land that sits between the ‘big 6’ and the also-rans. If you believe the pundits they could offer a challenge to the top four and with Koeman, at the helm, I can certainly see them doing absolutely no worse than a very comfortable 7th within touching distance of some very prestigious names. If I was pressed I would put them a place or two higher. Ultimately our own season will live or die by solid results against those outside of that group both home and away. I fancy us to do just that. As well as taking a few loftier scalps along the way giving us a few magical afternoons and evenings that further our efforts to turn the London Stadium into a difficult venue that opposing team aren’t looking forward to playing in. As long as we remain without a sugar-daddy of a chairman we have to build steadily. We’ve come a long way in a short time and the reality is that at best we will continue gradually to do so. It took Spurs a decade of building and investment to move out of the shadows of bigger, better London teams and become contenders in their own right, a position that is still by no means assured today and we face exactly the same challenge. Even if we under achieve this season and the next there is no doubt that we have become a team that’s looking up rather than down, a team that in a few years may finally be free of being many punters outside tip for relegation and putting all that aside, we are a team that is already an attractive investment for the wave of foreign billionaires that are looking for a share of this cash cow. Be very careful what you wish for though and remember that someday soon every premier league team will have a more-money-than-sense investor or chairman from overseas which will only serve to maintain the status-quo. In ten years or so there will be a new Neymar on the block and I assure you if he completes a move for £200million it’ll be considered an absolute snip. In the mean time contemplate this; not long ago we were putting all our faith in the likes of Mido and Maiga. Now we’re beating others to the signature of proven, sought after internationals like Chicharito and all being well Carvalho. The whole messy business however, remains a lottery. You could be sat there right now bemoaning how we pumped all our money into a Remy or a Batshuayi that never paid off. I suggest you keep your fingers crossed. COYI.