Premier League

Midfield targets can regenerate the Hammers

 • by James Nalton
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West Ham United’s performance in their previous game against Manchester City has been widely criticised, and it was a game which brought to a wider audience a number of issues the club’s fans have had been unhappy with with for some time.

Alan Shearer, perhaps, gave the best of these damning assessments of the side, when he highlighted a few issues on the BBC highlights show, Match of the Day 2.

“They’re all over the place, they gave Manchester City too much time on the ball,” said Shearer.

“Kouyate jogging around in a circle, I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. If you’re saying to me that’s the hardest they can work to close the ball down, then there is a huge problem.

“They don’t close down whatsoever, and there are spaces all over the park. They have to close down, they are in a relegation battle. That is not good enough for a team who are meant to be showing their fans they’re up for a fight.”

The former striker turned pundit pulled no punches but rather than annoy West Ham fans it will have been music to their ears as someone outside of the London Stadium noticed what they’ve been going through.

Watching the game it looked like West Ham were the side with nothing to play for, not Manchester City.

The Hammers have the worst defensive record in the league, having conceded 67 goals, and at the time of writing had won just one of their last eight games. This sluggishness is primarily down to a badly organised and passive midfield.

Mark Noble looks like he wants to put the shift in, but doesn’t have the platform or the physicality to do so by himself, while other players appear to be lacking desire.

A summer overhaul has been mooted, with the club looking at the possibility of bringing in a director of football to help their transfer strategy and improve recruitment in all areas of the club.

It makes sense that one area of the pitch where the club are heavily linked with new players is midfield. Defending may need to start from the front, but it’s in midfield where it really begins to make a difference for a club like West Ham.

The aimless dawdling in the centre of the park pointed out by Shearer needs to be a thing of the past, and new players need to be brought in to add energy, work rate, technical ability, and tactical nous.

To this end the club appear to be targeting players who are both functional and technical, and though the names of the targets could change if a sporting director is brought in, two players who have been linked so far make sense.

Perhaps the strongest link has been to Belgian midfielder Leander Dendoncker. The 23-year-old is a hard working central player who has played in defensive midfield positions, or as a right-sided centre back in a back three.

Football Whispers’ Ryan Baldi wrote of Dendoncker:

“His supreme fitness and engine – which often sees him cover more than 13 kilometres in any one game – coupled with his technical skills, could see him thrive in a box-to-box role.

“Or, with his intelligence, metronomic passing and astute vision, he could develop into one of Europe’s foremost deep-lying playmakers in a mould similar to Sergio Busquets.”

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At worst he would be a utility man who could cover in defence as well as midfield, but at best he could be a player who goes on to become one of the best midfielders in Europe.

Another player who has been linked with a move to East London may fall at the other end of the scale in terms of potential, having already reached his peak, but it’s a possible transfer which may be just as savvy in its own way — and that is  Chelsea midfielder Danny Drinkwater.

Part of the Leicester City team which won the title in 2016, Drinkwater is underrated in terms of his passing and midfield nous, and he would provide a solid option in the centre of the park regardless of the system he is asked to play in.

Since moving to Chelsea for £35million, the 28-year-old has struggled to become part of the first team plans ahead of former team-mate N’Golo Kanté, Cesc Fabregas, and Tiémoué Bakayoko.

A move away might be attractive for the Englishman if his current club are willing to an accept an offer having only recently bought him.

Dendoncker and Drinkwater could operate effectively in midfield together, as well as teaming up with any of the current midfielders who are deemed worth enough to remain, including Noble.

But the main thing these players would bring is a spark which would spread throughout the team, also aided by a new signing needed up front and one or two in other areas of the pitch.

The immediate aim is to avoid relegation, and although they didn’t look motivated against Man City, the threat of the drop is now very real as they lie just three points above the drop zone with three games to go.

But in the future their motivation needs to be provided by something other than fear of relegation, and for that to happen new arrivals will be needed to help form a new mentality.

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