Schadenfreude. Seeking pleasure through other people’s pain. Or, in its current state: West Ham’s first season in the Olympic Stadium. (I refuse to call it the London Stadium). It’s been well documented. People have written with smug smiles on their faces about the poor start West Ham have had in their first season in a stadium. A stadium which some argue should not be occupied by them in the first place. The story provides easy column inches.
There’s no denying that, this season, West Ham have not been at their best, especially when you consider the level of performance we came to expect last year. Football fans try to pin the blame to someone or something; in most cases the stadium, but I feel that there are a number of forces at work here which are contributing to an indifferent season.
There’s no doubt about it, last year was a bonkers season. Leicester City won the thing for crying out loud. Chelsea only decided to start playing half way through. Liverpool were indifferent and both Manchester United and Manchester City struggled for form. Beating Liverpool twice as well as taking four points against Man United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea was always going to be a tall order this season and with the improved performances from Stoke, West Brom, Burnley and Watford so far this season it’s meant the difficulty of the league has increased further.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The big, 60,000 seater elephant with the largest digital screen in Europe. There’s no surprise that a new stadium comes with new difficulties; the pitch is different, it’s bigger than Upton Park so that takes some getting used to.
The crowd are further away, yes, but the it’s also a different type of crowd. Because of its Olympic history and its location, the stadium is attracting more and more tourists who are keen to watch a Premier League game in a famous stadium. Tickets are more readily available than other London stadiums and so it is understandable that the atmosphere will suffer slightly.
If you add into this the shambolic way in which the stadium stewards behaved at the beginning of the season and it’s no wonder that some West Ham fans are having a grumble at the new pad. I was there, however, when Payet’s rabona cross found Antonio to put us two up against Watford and, for those glorious eight minutes, there was no issue with the atmosphere whatsoever. In fact, a man who I’ve never met before videoed himself kissing me on the head while singing about the Irons.
This, I think, is where the crux of the problem has been this season. Recruitment has been poor. Incredibly poor. Out of the ten summer transfers The Hammers made, only one has looked like a player to make any difference: Feghouli. The others have looked out of place and at times, dreadful.
The problem is that the summer signing policy was awful. With only two recognised full backs in the club, why there wasn’t a bigger emphasis on signing a right and left back, I don’t know. The blame for this has to rest squarely on the shoulders of the manager Bilic. Trying to force Antonio into a right back and having no intention of providing back up to Cresswell until it was too late was a cock up of monumental proportions.
Cresswell’s replacement, Masuaku, was such a desperate last minute decision it felt like when, on Football Manager, you have an hour left of the transfer window and still £6million to spend. Christ, let’s just buy somebody.
The other problem that West Ham have to deal with is the loud-mouthed owners spouting off at any given opportunity to anyone who will listen about the ins and outs of every decision made at the club.
Were people surprised that, after announcing to the world that they wanted to sign a world class striker, that every club, player and agent suddenly tripled their asking price? Were they surprised when, after their extensive search, they were left with funny walk enthusiast Simone Zaza and Jonathan Calleri, a player who would need at least one year in England to adapt to the pace of the game? Were they surprised that after getting back to full fitness, Andy Carroll would last approximately 7 seconds before injuring himself again? I mean, come on, who let him do an overhead kick – that was asking for trouble.
There are few clubs I can think of that let the owner’s 15-year-old son leak transfer information on Twitter and fewer clubs that have their own club ‘insider’ column. Honestly, it’s all so embarrassing.
Things are looking up though, the signings in January were everything that the summer signings were not. Two players with Premier League experience, in positions that were needed. Yes, they need a right back and a reliable striker, yes they need owners who can keep something under their hat for more than 11 seconds but, at the time of writing, West Ham sit in 9th place, which is only two places below where they finished last season so things are not that dire. I remember dire. I remember Conor Salmon sending West Ham to the Championship. That was dire.