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Irons’ defensive issues run deeper than Moyes management

 • by Matt Gault
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For West Ham United, it was far from an alien feeling. Not just beaten again, but thumped again. Carved open again. Crumbling in front of Manchester City again.

Pep Guardiola probably wishes City could play all their away games at the London Stadium. In three visits there, City have won 5-0, 4-0 and 4-1.

And on Sunday, just when David Moyes needed his players to step up, West Ham succumbed to City’s superiority in farcically one-sided circumstances.

Bar the final few minutes of the first half, this was as close to a training exercise as it gets for the newly crowned champions.

It’s true that City have reduced better teams than West Ham to alarming levels of incompetency this season, but the Hammers cannot hide behind that. These error-strewn and deeply disorganised performances have become a far too prominent feature throughout this season.

The club sit just three points above the relegation zone yet against City the urgency and stout-heartedness you’d expect from a team fighting for their lives was strangely absent.

Abject defending

Their defeat to City was ignominious, for sure, but it wasn’t shocking. Anyone who has watched West Ham regularly this season will know how prone they are to amateurish defending.

West Ham cannot offer City’s consistent brilliance this season as an excuse, but Guardiola’s men did as good a job as anyone at laying bare the Hammers’ aching need for a major squad overhaul come the summer.

The inclusion of Patrice Evra, a player who has seemed to age a year with every passing week since signing in January, particularly highlighted how threadbare Moyes’ options are.

Evra will be 37 in two weeks and it’s a damning indictment of the lack of depth in the West Ham squad that, despite shaky performances in the two games he started prior to Sunday, he was still preferred to Arthur Masuaku.

Admittedly, Masuaku is not the most defensively diligent player but, given that he has contributed three assists this season, you can excuse him for feeling aggrieved at losing his place to his elder compatriot, especially when he offers as much pace as anyone in the West Ham team, an attribute that may have come in handy if the Hammers looked to spring counter-attacks.

Of course, West Ham’s woes run much deeper than just Evra’s hapless return to England.

The Hammers have the worst defensive record in all four divisions, with 1.9 goals conceded per game – and their shoddy defending pre-dates the Moyes reign.

Under Slaven Bilić, Moyes’ popular but increasingly beleaguered predecessor, West Ham were often shambolic at the back.

Under the Croatian, their campaign began ominously, conceding ten league goals in the first three games. The defence was also guilty of several schoolboy errors, like conceding a last-gasp equaliser to Crystal Palace after Michail Antonio inexplicably chose to cross instead of running down the clock, or being routinely outplayed at home by Brighton & Hove Albion, a match in which West Ham exhibited all the tactical nous of a Sunday league team.

From shipping four at home to Liverpool or the same amount away to Manchester United and Everton, the sight of West Ham getting sliced apart became a common one before Moyes was appointed in November.

Although not the most exciting choice to succeed Bilić, it was hoped that Moyes could act as the club’s firefighter for this season. Handed a six-month contract, the Scot – six months removed from resigning as Sunderland boss after failing to avoid relegation – inherited a team languishing in the relegation zone with just two wins from 11 games and a league-high 23 goals conceded.

Still, co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold placed their faith in Moyes’ experience, hoping more than believing that he would bring the best out of a group of players who looked utterly rudderless in the final days of Bilić’s tenure.

Paying the price for lack of reinforcements

Transforming the fortunes of a squad tragically short of confidence and direction, however, was always going to be a daunting challenge and, with three games remaining, it’s one Moyes has not passed yet.

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The 55-year-old has had mixed results and, ultimately, as the manager, he’s going to shoulder much of the blame, but the failure to bring in new players can’t be solely attributed to him.

The January transfer window was always going to be critical. However, despite the first half of the campaign having exposed severe frailties at the back, Evra was the only defender signed and striker Jordan Hugill was the only permanent capture.

Then, after José Fonte moved to China in February, the issues at the back were exacerbated when Winston Reid picked up a knee injury against Swansea City, ruling him out for the rest of the season. Two weeks later, James Collins injured his hamstring in a friendly win over Dagenham & Redbridge.

At the end of January, Moyes had all three of those players, but considering that Collins, Fonte and Reid are 34, 34 and 29 respectively and have all had their fair share of injuries, it would have been prudent to prioritise the signing of a centre-back. Failure to do so has contributed to the team’s continuing woes.

Coming out the other end of the window without having strengthened with defenders or defensively minded midfielders helped shape a bleak prognosis for the rest of the season, worsened by losing four of their next five games after the deadline.

Yet, for all the doom and gloom that has engulfed the club both on and off the field this season, resentment towards the board as intense as ever, they’re still just about hanging in there.

The common theme throughout the Bilić and Moyes eras is the board. Sullivan, Gold and Karren Brady, who have been lambasted for everything from transfer window ineptitude to meeting with the notorious Inter City Firm hooligan firm, have driven the club to the cliff’s edge, with relegation to the second tier a distinct possibility less than two years after moving into the London Stadium.

The new stadium was supposed to mark a new chapter in the club’s era. It was supposed to be the cradle of exciting football as the club pushed to break into the top six. Instead, it has often seemed like a concrete wasteland, with empty seats and broken fans and even nightmarish scenes of pitch invasions as unrest spilled over onto the pitch against Burnley in March.

West Ham may well survive. Their remaining three games consist of a visit to Leicester City before hosting Manchester United and Everton. Those games, particularly Leicester and Everton, represent opportunities to put points on the board and steer clear of relegation.

But the fans will be under no illusions. They will know better than to celebrate narrowly avoiding the drop. Even if they stay up, the squad, and indeed the club, require major surgery in the summer if they are to come anywhere near European football again.

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