Hiring a Premier League-winning manager and spending more than US$100-million on mostly exciting signings generated some much-needed positivity at West Ham heading into the new English season.
Were the tenants of the Olympic Stadium finally about to strike gold in their attempt to challenge the Premier League’s established elite?
Three games in and much of the optimism has already been punctured.
Three straight losses, a league-leading nine goals conceded and last in the early standings. It’s hardly the start West Ham’s hierarchy envisioned after showing the kind of ambition in the off-season it was criticized for lacking in recent years.
And it could get much worse.
Saturday’s home game against newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers is already taking on added significance given that West Ham faces Everton next, before matches against Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham in the following four matches.
Manuel Pellegrini is facing a very different challenge to when he was last in the Premier League, and indeed when he was at Real Madrid in 2009-10.
The Chilean coach left England in 2016 after three years in charge of Manchester City, where he won the league title, the English League Cup twice and guided the club into the Champions League semi-final for the first time. His preference for an open, attractive style of play reaped its rewards at a club housing some of the world’s best players.
He is adopting the same approach at West Ham – it was, after all, the reason why he was hired in a reported US$13-million-a-year deal after spending the past two seasons working in the Chinese league – but is encountering some teething problems pushing through his methods.
Overwhelmed in a 4-0 loss at Liverpool on the opening weekend, West Ham has since lost 2-1 at home against Bournemouth and 3-1 at Arsenal. The most porous defence of last season – it let in 68 goals in 38 games – looks as vulnerable as ever and it will understandably take time for so many new faces to gel. Against Arsenal, seven off-season signings were in the starting lineup and two more came off the bench.
Still, Pellegrini’s philosophy won’t be changing.
“This is the style we will continue with in the future,” he said, “and I’m absolutely sure that, if the team continues in the current way – and I hope that the fans also will continue supporting – we will win more games than we lose.”
There have been positives. Attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson, signed for a club-record fee of US$42-million, has already shown glimpses of creativity and attacking right back Ryan Fredericks looks to be an upgrade on the 33-year-old Pablo Zabaleta. West Ham did create plenty of chances against Arsenal, as Pellegrini was eager to point out.
But the central midfield looks too lightweight – new signing Jack Wilshere has been partnered by another newcomer in Carlos Sanchez or club captain Mark Noble so far – and isn’t offering good enough protection to a defence containing two centrebacks new to English soccer, Paraguay international Fabian Balbuena and French youngster Issa Diop.
The Olympic Stadium has seen some mutinous atmospheres since West Ham moved in at the start of the 2016-17 season after leaving its long-time home of Upton Park, notably during the 3-1 loss to Burnley in March when some fans invaded the field and others gathered underneath the directors’ box to vent their anger.
A loss to Wolves shouldn’t elicit too angry a response just yet, with West Ham supporters knowing Pellegrini and his new players need time to adjust. But it won’t be until November that the tough early-season schedule finally eases.
There could be more pain ahead for a club seemingly never far from a crisis.