Promises to build a wall. Descript ...
It was with a strong sense of conviction — some would say misplaced arrogance, given the way his managerial career had stagnated — that David Moyes breezed back into English soccer in late 2019 with a message to West Ham’s oft-maligned owners.
“There’s a clause in my contract to extend the deal,” the Scot said bullishly at the start of his second spell at the London club. “I’m going to make it impossible that that clause can’t be activated.”
Moyes has backed up those words.
In a year that has gone a long way to rebuilding his reputation in the Premier League, Moyes has transformed West Ham from a relegation candidate to a contender for Champions League qualification.
After nearly two-thirds of the season, West Ham is in fifth place — level on points with Chelsea in fourth and above the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.
The success of his tenure runs deeper than on-field results and the club’s lofty position in the standings, however. Just as importantly, Moyes — ever the realist — is helping to change the culture of a club that has long been associated with chaos and overindulgence.
Gone, it seems, are the days when West Ham would throw money at a big-name player past his best or ill-suited to the dynamic of the team. In 2018, the club broke its transfer record in successive months in a $100 million spending spree.
Gone, too, are the days of West Ham regularly folding during matches, showing no appetite for the battle.
Moyes’ West Ham is a well-organized team built on an obdurate defense, set-piece strength and hard-working players in defined roles.
Not dissimilar, then, to the Everton side Moyes steered to five top-six finishes from 2002-13, establishing him as one of Britain's most respected coaches. It earned him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take over at Manchester United, as the hand-picked replacement for Alex Ferguson.
He lasted 10 months in a job that always felt too big for Moyes, who naturally felt he deserved longer to effect a post-Ferguson rebuild. Underwhelming spells with Real Sociedad (2014-15) in Spain and with Sunderland (2016-17) back in England strengthened a belief that his failure to succeed at United had hit his confidence hard.
Even his next job — a firefighting mission that rescued West Ham from relegation in the second half of the 2017-18 season — didn’t change the widely held view that Moyes had been overtaken by a new generation of managers. As it turned out, he was simply warming the seat for a more high-profile alternative: Manuel Pellegrini.
Moyes, now aged 57, is proving he can still cut it after putting his own stamp on West Ham in his second spell in charge, showing his methods still work.
Nine clean sheets is a testament to the tight defensive unit he has constructed — whether it's a flat back four, or a back three as it was before a long-term injury to wing back Arthur Masuaku in December. Key to the strength of the defense is the protection given by the industrious Tomas Soucek-Declan Rice axis in central midfield.
While Rice now appears a lock in England’s midfield going into the European Championship, Soucek has been a revelation since joining from Slavia Prague in January last year, initially on loan. The lanky Czech Republic international scored three times in a five-game stretch post-lockdown last season and has added nine goals this season, underlining his aerial strength and an uncanny ability to arrive late in the box.
Left back Aaron Cresswell has turned into an assist machine, setting up six goals with his delivery at set pieces and open play, while Moyes has transitioned Michail Antonio from a winger to a mobile striker — like with Marko Arnautovic in his first spell.
Sprinkled in are astute signings like defender Vladimir Coufal — Soucek’s Czech teammate — also from Slavia, forward Jarrod Bowen and defender Craig Dawson from second-tier clubs and most recently Jesse Lingard, who was unwanted at United.
A good example highlighting Moyes' impact at West Ham came late in the January transfer window when he wanted to buy a striker, given Antonio’s history of injuries and the sale of Sebastien Haller.
Diego Costa, 32, a player with plenty of baggage, was reportedly offered to the club after falling out of favor at Atletico Madrid. In another regime, West Ham would likely have jumped at the chance but Moyes said no.
“We had money to spend,” he said, “but we’re trying to do things different at West Ham. We’re not going to follow the same path we've been following before.”
That path could yet lead to the Champions League.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80