West Ham’s 2020/21 campaign has been pretty solid to date.
The Hammers have established an identity under David Moyes, appear to have a little bit more about them in most aspects of their play, and have shown a gritty resolve to grind out results against teams who were expected to come away with three points against them.
But there is still work to be done in east London, and for all of the good work Moyes has done so far this season, more must come from the Scot when he faces his side up against teams who West Ham really should be looking to beat.
That was particularly evident against Brighton at the London Stadium, who West Ham have inexplicably failed to beat since they became a Premier League side, as Moyes got his team selection all wrong.
This should have been a game where West Ham set out on the front foot, looking to take the game to an Albion side who had won just two Premier League games prior to kick-off. It should have been a game that Said Benrahma, who lit up the Championship last season for Brentford with his attacking flair and eye for goal, was let loose from the start and tasked with getting on the ball to make things happen.
At the very least, it should have been a game where West Ham showed a bit of creative intent and desire to be the team to score first.
Instead, Moyes opted to revert back to the wing-back system – fair enough, that’s worked to date this season – that has served West Ham so well, but with one caveat.
Instead of deploying Benrahma – or Manuel Lanzini or Pablo Fornals – on the left side of an attacking front three, Mark Noble was inexplicably handed a start in central midfield. The only explanation that springs to mind from the outset can be concerns over fitness, but with no mention of Benrahma or anybody else struggling with a niggle, it’s hard to fathom the thinking behind Noble’s inclusion in a central three alongside Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek.
“I have to say, I watched the game on Monday Night Football and I thought his inclusion was a little bit unnecessary. Even today looking at it, nothing against Mark Noble, he’s been a fantastic player but it just looks like there could have been another attacking player.”
– Gary Neville, speaking on Sky Sports
The skipper is a legendary figure at West Ham, of that there is no doubt. But it’s been painfully obvious for at least 12 months that Noble’s abilities aren’t what they once were. He’s not mobile enough, he’s not agile enough, he’s not creative enough and he’s certainly not quick enough to trouble a side who are known, despite their struggles, for stroking the ball around and being comfortable in possession.
Neat touches and tight turns on the ball in confined spaces are one thing, but with Noble tasked with spearheading the three in midfield to push up and maximise West Ham’s press, it was inevitable that Brighton were going to dominate possession and get far too much time on the ball.
That’s exactly what they did in the opening 45 minutes as West Ham toiled and chased shadows, were thoroughly outclassed and deservedly fell a goal behind just before the break thanks to Neal Maupay’s tidy turn and finish. It was one of those halves where you just sat back and thought where on earth is a goal going to come from for the hosts, and who on earth is going to be capable of making it happen.
Even Jarrod Bowen, who has been excellent this season, was off colour and barely saw any of the ball as he aimlessly looked to get involved – a direct cause of the system he was asked to play in.
At half-time, Noble was hooked. On came Lanzini, as well as Andriy Yarmolenko, and the Hammers were immediately a different proposition after the break. They were still far from their best, but at least showed more of an intent to get forward and make things uncomfortable for Brighton.
Tomas Soucek’s fortuitous late header earned West Ham a point, but this was a performance and result that should give Moyes no joy. Against Brighton, a team who will be involved in this season’s relegation battle, there was absolutely no reason for the Hammers’ creative influences – particularly Benrahma, who didn’t even come on – to be benched.
That’s a mindset that has got to change if the good work that West Ham and Moyes have achieved this season is to be maintained and built on.