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GIBSON: West Ham’s upswing will hopefully keep up

Opinions Column: What's On My Mind

West Ham United is not the most popular club in the top-flight of English football and seldom garners attention from the small number of international soccer fans in the States. But if you are from Essex or the East End, like I am, then you likely support the Hammers and have been following this season’s triumphs and laments weekly. 

West Ham sits at 11th this season with the possible momentum to finish in the top half of the table. Of its last eight matches, it has won four and only lost one. But most of the season’s post-match conversations revolved around relegation predictions. Fans taunted during matches that we would be playing Millwall, our rivals in the Championship, next season. And there were incessant online debates on Twitter challenging former manager (and West Ham United player) Slaven Bilic with the hashtags "#BilicIn" or "#BilicOut."

I wanted Bilic to stay at this point in the season. His dedication to the club was unwavering, his knowledge of football unquestionable and, honestly, I could not see who would want to be his replacement. But after a string of bad results, the last being a 4-1 loss at home to Liverpool, and performances from players who looked disinterested, unmotivated and at times unfit, the club had had enough. Bilic was sacked during an international break by Chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan. Then, much to my disappointment, David Moyes was announced as a replacement. 

The decision seemed thoughtless and desperate — we reeked of desperation at the time from our pitiful position in the relegation zone. Moyes failed at the previous three clubs he managed, lasting only a year at each one, and West Ham looked queued up to be the fourth.

But, this is when the tenor of the season began to change from the ring of underperforming disappointment to the chimes of mild British optimism. West Ham does not spend the most money in signings nor does it have an immense amount of international team players, but there is definitely talent in the starting XI. In two short months in charge, Moyes learnt to capitalize on the squad’s strengths and gave us some solid results. Sometimes this meant not playing the nicest looking football and it, of course, included an adjustment period that involved a tough loss to Brighton and a display of utter embarrassment in a 4-0 demolition at the hands of Everton. But more recently, I have been proven wrong in my initial judgements. 

In true, unpredictable West Ham fashion, the squad went on in the consequent game to challenge the kings of English football, Man City. We took the lead at half-time, and although we lost the match, the performance was full of energy that had long been missing. The following week, West Ham beat Chelsea with an early goal from rising star Marko Arnautovic. And the good fortune continued. 

The biggest improvements in the squad overall have been related to fitness. According to post-match stats and analysis, the Hammers are running more per average per game, defending more effectively and often out-hustling their opponents. According to Moyes's early press conferences, reorganizing the formerly leaky defense was a priority. The more fluid "3" to a sometimes "5"5 at the back has made for a stronger back end with standout performances from Pablo Zabaleta, who I thought we could do without before the transition, and Declan Rice, who is only 18. 

On the other end of the pitch, a new chemistry between Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini has created immense trouble for other teams’ defenses with their dynamic movement and effectiveness in the final third. During the first half of the season, it often felt like we were playing without a striker — and our lack of “goals for” would suggest we actually were. Since Moyes, Arnautovic has more than filled that gap, finishing six goals and three assists in 18 appearances. But this has edged out Chicharito (Javier Hernandez), who was signed this summer by Bilic, Diafra Sakho, who has wanted to leave the club for two seasons already, and fan favorite Andy Caroll, whose biggest flaw is being prone to injury and who is currently courting offers from Chelsea.

A release of any of these players would likely bring in a fair amount of money for West Ham to deepen its own bench of players, but we only have until the 31st to decide. Regardless, maintaining the new energy on the pitch and reorganization of the starting XI should continue to be the primary concern for the Hammers, who I hope can accomplish more this season than simply staying up in the Premier League. 

Brittany Gibson is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in art history and journalism and media studies and minoring in French. Her column "What's On My Mind" runs every alternate Wednesday. 


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