Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
In an era of dwindling managerial autonomy, Manuel Pellegrini stands almost alone. Prior to assuming David Moyes’s mantle, the Chilean demanded sole responsibility to remake troubled West Ham United in his own image. Owners David Gold and David Sullivan, still smarting from last season’s unrest, were only too happy to oblige.
Pellegrini was empowered to handpick a director of football, in former Malaga co-conspirator Mario Husillos, who set about dispensing a near-£100-million transfer kitty in the manner of his master’s choosing. Husillos acquired 10 players, of which nine are first-team ready. For Pellegrini, therefore, the heat is on: instant success, of the kind secured at Villareal and Malaga, is a must.
Success for a club like West Ham, of course, is difficult to define. Given an eye-watering net spend of £82.3 million, fourth only to Liverpool, Chelsea, and Fulham, one might be tempted to expect immediate Champions League qualification. Pellegrini performed that party trick at both Villareal and Malaga, after all.
Obvious points of weakness still persist throughout the Hammers first eleven, however. So much so that matching Slaven Bilic’s seventh place finish of two years ago seems more realistic. West Ham were fortunate to finish last season in 13th, nine points off the relegation zone, as the underlying statistics pointed to a far closer shave. Pellegrini, however, will not accept incremental improvement; for him only a “big-team mentality” and the results that go along with it will do.
No surprise then that Pellegrini’s footballing philosophy does not tally with that of his predecessor. For weary Hammers fans, who longed for the mythical “West Ham Way” through the tedious tenures of Moyes and Sam Allardyce, the Chilean’s style-of-play will feel like a breath of fresh air. The violent gloom that pervaded the London Stadium during the 3-0 March defeat to Burnley is unlikely to repeat.
The former Manchester City manager is not shy about espousing his values either. Speaking to The Coaches’ Voice during his stint with Hebei China Fortune, Pellegrini admitted that he “does not compromise [his idea about football] just because of high-quality opposition.” Anyone who watched his City side from 2013 to 2016 will know what that idea is: attacking football with inverted wingers, overlapping full-backs, and scant regard for guarding against opposition counterattacks. Such all-out-attack tactics worked a charm in 2013/14, when a triumphant City blitzed all-comers with 151 goals in all competitions.
But Pellegrini’s final season in Manchester, when fast-breaking Leicester clinched the title and City finished 4th, suggested it had seen its day. Subsequent seasons have only increased that sense: the last two champions, Chelsea and Manchester City, have both attacked with five and defended with five. Guarding against the counterattack is de rigeur now. Pellegrini’s penchant for attacking with seven, that so proved his undoing in Europe at the Etihad, simply will not do anymore.
Reasons for West Ham fans not to be cheerful, then. The Hammers conceded a league-high five goals from fast-breaks last year, along the way to sharing the division’s worst defensive record with Stoke City. And Pellegrini’s rather threadbare central midfield mix is not likely to make those defensive transitions any snappier.
Manuel Lanzini’s ACL injury is particularly harmful in that regard, meaning that West Ham will be heavily reliant on the dodgy durability of one Jack Wilshere. The ex-Arsenal midfielder is likely to assume the most attacking role in Pellegrini’s 4-3-3. But if he breaks down again — and that’s not a particularly big if — only the untested Irishman Josh Cullen stands ready to deputise.
Even when fit Wilshere is not exactly a paragon of defensive responsibility. The midfielder’s most recent stint in Arsene Wenger’s 4-3-3 was marked by languid tracking back, in an already unstructured Arsenal engine room. And to Wilshere’s right, deep-lying playmaker Mark Noble is hardly the most mobile midfielder in the Premier League. Only four players were dribbled more frequently than the committed Hammers captain last season.
Happily, Husillos has performed a much needed facelift in the defensive midfield department, where the trio of Pedro Obiang, Declan Rice, and Carlos Sanchez will compete for the anchorman berth. Both Rice and Obiang reportedly acquitted themselves well in pre-season, while Sanchez’s international pedigree with Colombia is well-known.
Whomever of the three gets the nod will have a lot of fires to fight, however, in a side that Pellegrini will undoubtedly construct to attack first and ask questions later. Both Pablo Zabaleta and Marko Arnautovic have enthused about this sea-change in approach in recent weeks, with the latter spelling out Pellegrini’s doctrine in the simplest of terms. “The gaffer has changed a lot here already,” said Arnautovic, speaking on the Sky Sports Premier League launch show. “He wants us to play from the back, with no long balls and no chasing balls.”
Music to the ears of the striker, who flourished in the number nine role Moyes carved out for him, but can now do so without having to chase quite so many lost causes. A flop out wide prior to Bilic’s November sacking, Arnautovic fired West Ham to victory over Chelsea on his first start up top and never looked back. The Austrian bagged 11 goals in 23 games at the spearhead of Moyes’s 3-4-2-1, with two number-10s providing the through-ball service he requires.
Few strikers run in behind as often as Arnautovic, after all. The Hammers talisman was caught offside more often than any other Premier League player last season. And with the likes of Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko cutting into the half-spaces behind him, that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Anderson, at £33.5 million, represents something of a gamble. In five seasons at Lazio, the Brazilian only really impressed consistently for two. And the 25-year-old was limited to only nine Serie A starts last year. But that statistic comes with two big caveats attached: the Biancocelesti rarely used wingers, and Anderson still managed four goals and seven assists. His technical brilliance is without question, and a burgeoning relationship with the overlapping dribbling machine Arthur Masuaku could prove fatal for West Ham’s opponents.
If anything the more proven Yarmolenko is likelier to flop at the London Stadium. The Ukranian has just endured a desperate season at Dortmund and, at 29 in October, doesn’t appear to justify a £17.5 million outlay. Much like last season, West Ham could be heavily reliant on their left-flank for creativity then, especially if Pellegrini persists with his former City charge Pablo Zabaleta.
No-one played more minutes for the Hammers than Zabaleta last season. But, at 33, the Argentinian’s powers of overlap have waned; as have his powers of recovery. Fielded at right-wing-back in Moyes’s system, Zabaleta’s lack of pace was regularly exposed, adding up to a club-high nine bookings. Ryan Fredericks, eight years younger and fresh off a free transfer from promoted Fulham, may dislodge him sooner rather than later. The demands of Pellegrini’s system render that eventuality almost inevitable. Both James Collins and Patrice Evra have already, quite rightly, been handed their gold watches.
Like Zabaleta, Aaron Cresswell may also find the jump from a back-five to a back-four difficult to make. Currently recovering from injury, the left-back is unlikely to dislodge Masuaku in the short-term, and his old left-sided centre-back berth no longer exists. Angelo Ogbonna, the linchpin of Moyes’s back-three has no such problems, however: the ex-Juventus defender is the only certain defensive starter for Sunday’s opener at Liverpool. An extremely reliable covering defender, the 30-year-old’s starting slot is safe. But, with Winston Reid still laid up, the identity of his partner is up for debate.
Both new arrivals, Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena, appear to complement the Italian well. Both are reputed to be excellent in the air, but Balbuena’s greater composure on the ball may well give him the edge in the short-term. The Paraguayan won the league in Brazil with Corinthians, and his experience in a possession-oriented side should knit nicely with Ogbonna’s more agricultural talents. Diop, however, cost West Ham more than six times Balbuena’s fee; the club obviously thinks very highly of the callow Toulouse capture.
If Diop does start alongside Ogbonna at Anfield, and Pellegrini stays true to his attacking values, the 21-year-old could suffer a baptism of fire for the ages. The French centre-back reportedly looked nervy throughout a mostly positive pre-season for the Hammers. But fortunately for him, and his soon-to-be swamped defensive teammates, Pellegrini and Husillos also ushered in a top-class goalkeeper this summer. Lukasz Fabianski worked wonders for relegated Swansea last season, and the Pole has consistently outperformed his statistically-calculated shotstopping expectations.
West Ham will need some, nay a lot, of that mojo this season. Because, in Pellegrini, they have an attack-obsessed coach who’s not for turning. Shaped by his harsh dismissal from Real Madrid a decade ago, the Chilean spoke about how he had “no voice or vote” at the Bernabeu. “[Florentino Perez] sold players that I considered important,” Pellegrini said. “We didn’t win the Champions League because we didn’t have a squad properly structured to win it.” Now, eight years on at mid-table West Ham, the expectations are far smaller, but no such excuses exist. This is Pellegrini’s team, expensively assembled and exactly to his specifications. There is nowhere to hide. A demanding Hammers faithful expects.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112