It is no longer possible to take Manuel Pellegrini seriously when he insists West Ham think and play like a big team. His fantasy has collided with reality. The next level? It remains as distant as ever for a club who left their spiritual home for a soulless bowl and the unfortunate truth is that Pellegrini’s West Ham are soft, easy to beat and in grave danger of sliding into the Championship.
The clock is ticking and Pellegrini, hired at great expense in the summer of 2018, is likely to be sacked if he loses at Southampton on Saturday evening. The 66-year-old’s tenure has never truly taken off and he cannot complain if the axe falls. West Ham, a point above the bottom three after seven defeats in their past nine games, are a tired side and their performance during their defeat against Arsenal on Monday showed them at their worst under Pellegrini.
It was a game that obliterated the argument that West Ham’s problems began when Lukasz Fabianski suffered a bad hip injury against Bournemouth on 28 September. Fabianski was replaced by Roberto, whose erratic displays in goal destroyed the back four’s confidence, but it is simplistic to pin everything on the 33-year-old Spaniard, even if Pellegrini’s persistence with him was ridiculous.
Frailties had lingered for a while. Fabianski, who made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League last season, was simply papering over the cracks. His absence has highlighted tactical failings – West Ham conceded 55 goals despite finishing 10th last season – and it is worth pointing out that Roberto has not started the last three games. David Martin came in for the 1-0 win at Chelsea at the end of November but the former Millwall goalkeeper was still in the team for the subsequent defeats against Arsenal and Wolves.
The concerns were present even when West Ham won three of their first six league games this season. Performances were not as impressive as results and the regression is not a surprise. Next month it will be 10 years since David Sullivan and David Gold bought the club. The pair have overseen five relegation battles in that time, losing one in the 2010-11 season. West Ham’s highest finish under Sullivan and Gold is seventh in 2015-16, their final year at Upton Park, and this is their third dogfight since the move to the London Stadium.
Pellegrini, who has 18 months left on a deal worth £7m a year, was meant to be a gamechanger after being lured from Hebei China Fortune. Here was a show of ambition from West Ham, whose board had faced furious protests from supporters during a defeat against Burnley at the London Stadium in March 2018. Pellegrini, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2014, spent around £100m in his first transfer window. Optimism grew.
Yet the glamour has worn off and West Ham have been considering other candidates for at least a month. Chris Hughton is available, there are whispers that Eddie Howe could be tempted from Bournemouth and some senior figures at West Ham think it was a mistake to lose David Moyes after he saved them from relegation in 2018. One sticking point, however, is that potential candidates are looking at a lifeless squad and wondering what to do with it.
There were mistakes from the start, with the warning lights flashing when the board allowed Pellegrini to recruit Mario Husillos as director of football. Husillos was associated with Málaga’s relegation from La Liga in 2018 and the Argentinian has overseen a series of mistakes since joining West Ham. He identified Roberto, who was earmarked to become West Ham’s No 1 before Fabianski was signed from Swansea, and the overall recruitment strategy has lacked discipline.
It was Pellegrini who last year pushed for Jack Wilshere to be given a three-year deal worth close to £100,000 a week. The former Arsenal midfielder has managed six forgettable league starts in a season and a half and signing him on a free is another example of West Ham, a team crying out for more energy in midfield, causing their own problems. Carlos Sánchez was another pointless buy at £4m.
This is a trend, though. Full-back and central midfield are positions in which West Ham have never properly invested under Sullivan and Gold. The most spent on a central midfielder is £7m on Cheikhou Kouyaté in 2014. Arthur Masuaku, signed for £6m from Olympiakos in 2016, is their most expensive full-back. West Ham have tried to cut corners in those positions, getting players for free or on the cheap, and suffer from a prediliction for unreliable attacking players.
The logic is hard to understand. Last summer West Ham saw André Gomes as the player to give them greater presence in midfield, only for the Portuguese to join Everton. Inexplicably the next move from Pellegrini and Husillos was to spend £24m on Pablo Fornals, a dainty creator. “They are trying to bake a cake without buying any eggs first,” one source says, bemoaning Pellegrini’s indulgence of flair players.
Fornals has struggled with the pace of the Premier League. The Spaniard is not alone. Sébastien Haller, signed for a record £45m after Marko Arnautovic left for China, has scored once since August and Pellegrini has not worked out how to use the French forward, who has lost his place to the more dynamic Michail Antonio.
Haller needs runners off him but West Ham’s approach play is insipid and predictable. Felipe Anderson has one league goal in 2019 and the £37m Brazilian winger jogs through games, creating little and shirking his defensive responsibilities. Anderson made no effort to protect Masuaku when Nicolas Pépé cut in from the right to score Arsenal’s second goal and the £17m Andriy Yarmolenko, whose best days are behind him, has been just as bad on the opposite flank. The team is too open and Issa Diop, a highly rated centre-back coveted by Manchester United, has lost form.
West Ham are an old, slow team and rarely press as a collective unit. Opponents run through them, exposing Mark Noble’s lack of pace alongside the overworked Declan Rice in midfield, and it is intriguing that Enzo Maresca, the second assistant coach, came up with the plan for the Chelsea win. The 39-year-old could yet be installed as manager on a temporary basis.
Yet Pellegrini, who is not seen as a motivator by his players, refuses to adapt. It smacks of arrogance and the players are frustrated at the lack of analysis provided on the opposition. Pellegrini just wants to play his way in every game. Like a big team.