Premier League 2018‑19 preview No 19: West Ham United | Jacob Steinberg

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 8th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips) Last season’s position: 13th Odds to win the league...


Guardian writers’ predicted position: 8th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 13th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 300-1

On 10 March 2018, the London Stadium was the setting for one of the most depressing episodes in West Ham United’s history. That was the day when supporters mounted furious protests against the board, David Moyes’s side fell deeper into relegation trouble after losing 3-0 against Burnley and an afternoon that was supposed to mark the 25th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death ended with Sir Trevor Brooking sitting alone in the directors’ box, wearing the smile of a man who was trying to blink back the tears.

In the aftermath it was difficult to see how David Sullivan and David Gold, West Ham’s co-owners, could win back trust. The relationship with supporters was at breaking point and although the behaviour from some protestors was impossible to defend, it was telling that the media’s response was not to describe the scenes as a return to football’s dark ages. Instead there was an attempt to understand the anger; the focus homed in on a perceived lack of investment since leaving Upton Park in 2016.

Five months later, however, the mood has grown positive enough for it to feel possible that the mutiny will be framed one day as a turning point in West Ham’s history, even if reminders of their complicated existence in their new home linger. West Ham have been charged by the Football Association because of the pitch invasions during the Burnley game and have defended themselves by pointing the finger at LS185, the stadium operators. Yet while they are also due to go to the high court in November to resolve a legal battle with their landlords, the London Legacy Development Corporation, over increasing capacity for football from 57,000 to 66,000, they also know that a winning team matters more to the atmosphere than filling the London Stadium’s unused seats.

As the powerful figure at the club, the pressure was on Sullivan when Moyes decided he no longer wanted to extend his six-month contract after saving West Ham from relegation. Yet Sullivan promised supporters a “high-profile” appointment and after missing out on Shakhtar Donetsk’s Paulo Fonseca and Newcastle’s Rafael Benítez, he delivered by hiring Manuel Pellegrini.

West Ham

There had been interest in Pellegrini for a while, though West Ham had to wait for the former Manchester City manager to leave Hebei China Fortune. Moyes arrived on a short-term deal when Slaven Bilic reached the point of no return last November and the Scot pulled a poor team to safety after switching to a 3-4-3 system.

Pellegrini, meanwhile, spent a lot of his time in China analysing West Ham’s matches and he was not impressed with what he saw. The Chilean inherited a squad with a multitude of holes and the Premier League’s decision to shut the transfer window early meant time was of the essence, especially when Manuel Lanzini sustained a knee injury that ended the influential Argentina midfielder’s World Cup dream and will keep him out for at least eight months.

It was hard to know which positions Pellegrini needed to prioritise. Yet it made sense to start at the back given that West Ham had the joint-worst defence in the Premier League, conceding 68 goals, and signing Ryan Fredericks on a free from Fulham was an encouraging first step. The 25-year-old right-back excelled as Fulham won promotion and will offer more dynamism than Pablo Zabaleta, who is dependable but past his best at the age of 33. On the opposite flank Pellegrini can choose between the surging Arthur Masuaku or the more understated Aaron Cresswell.

Marko Arnautovic was a prolific scorer after David Moyes moved him up front last season



Marko Arnautovic was a prolific scorer after David Moyes moved him up front last season. Photograph: Joe Toth/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

West Ham also needed a goalkeeper after Joe Hart’s disastrous loan. They paid Swansea City £7m for Lukasz Fabianski, who is likely to start instead of Adrián, and then they looked at central defence after releasing the ageing James Collins and losing Winston Reid to a long-term knee injury. After deciding that Barcelona’s Marlon Santos was too small for English football and giving Fulham a free run at Swansea’s Alfie Mawson, they settled on the imposing Issa Diop for £22m from Toulouse and Paraguay’s Fabian Balbuena for £3.5m from Corinthians.

At the age of 21, Diop still has a lot to learn. The France Under-21 international is raw, so Pellegrini could start the 26-year-old Balbuena alongside Angelo Ogbonna at first. Yet Diop’s arrival is a sign that West Ham’s transfer policy is becoming more nuanced.

Pellegrini has demanded control of recruitment and after bringing in Málaga’s Mario Husillos as director of football, West Ham demonstrated their ambition by signing Andriy Yarmolenko for £17.5m from Borussia Dortmund and breaking their transfer record to sign Felipe Anderson from Lazio in a deal worth up to £42.5m. Anderson, a 25-year-old Brazilian winger, can play off either flank. He could form a thrilling partnership with Marko Arnautovic, who scored 11 goals after being moved up front by Moyes last season.

West Ham

Despite his revival of Arnautovic, there was a feeling within the squad that Moyes was too old-fashioned. West Ham have hired a manager who wants to attack and Pellegrini, who will veer between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, could create an exciting side. The left-footed Yarmolenko will be first choice on the right after failing to settle at Dortmund, Michail Antonio and Robert Snodgrass have been given fresh starts, Javier Hernández is expected to have a bigger role and after Andy Carroll’s latest injury setback West Ham signed Lucas Pérez for £4m from Arsenal on deadline day.

Yet there is something of a maverick vibe to West Ham. The main concern is that they will still be vulnerable to power in the central midfield, especially after selling Cheikhou Kouyaté to Crystal Palace.

Mark Noble divides opinion despite holding the captaincy, Jack Wilshere’s undoubted class comes with the caveat that the former Arsenal midfielder has a poor fitness record, Josh Cullen is untried at this level and while Declan Rice has impressed Pellegrini in pre-season, the Republic of Ireland international is only 19 and spent last season in defence. In the end West Ham could not allow Pedro Obiang to return to Sampdoria. Despite Pellegrini’s efforts to bring in an elite defensive midfielder, he ended up compromising with a deal for Fiorentina’s Carlos Sanchez. The 32-year-old Colombian is seen as cover for Rice.

If this was a reminder of historic failings, it was because West Ham could not generate extra funds through sales. Sam Byram, Edimilson Fernandes and Reece Oxford could yet leave on loan, while Domingos Quina has joined Watford for £1m, but only so much could be done this summer. For now they remain a work in progress, a team that will need time to gel. Yet for a club that seemed to be on the brink of civil war not so long ago, it makes a refreshing change to have witnessed a summer so full of optimism.

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