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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

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West Ham have wonderful chance for first trophy in a generation – but is it all or nothing this year?

One fixture to play before the November international break, and West Ham United sit in the top four of the Premier League – this, just 15 months on from ensuring they survived relegation in the final couple of gameweeks of 2019/20. If that alone doesn’t underline the scope, and rapidity, of the Hammers’ improvement under David Moyes, fresh from his 1000th game as a manager, then nothing can.

They have gone from a tactically inconsistent and disorganised rabble to a team with one of the most cohesive approaches in the league, a set-up understood by all players on and off the ball, a familiar-looking line-up on a weekly basis and an approach which works in both halves of the pitch. Moyes has taken the side from top-flight makeweights battling to survive, and turned them into an outfit with genuine hopes of not just earning European football for a second consecutive season, but of perhaps winning a first trophy in more than a generation.

And yet, it’s difficult to shake off the notion that if it’s going to happen for West Ham, it needs to happen this season. That they have to make the most of the opportunities they’ve built for themselves in 21/22, as external events are perhaps conspiring against them.

There are two avenues for potential silverware this term. The first, domestic, will very much be earned if they get to Wembley: they beat Manchester United in the League Cup third round, then knocked out the four-time-back-to-back winners Manchester City in the fourth. Next, they face Tottenham in the quarters, with new boss Antonio Conte doubtless also considering this route a quick potential shortcut to success himself.

The second is in Europe; a less-likely competition, but so far West Ham have been near-flawless, winning three from four in the group stage and all-but through to the knockouts. Champions League sides will soon become the enemy there, but given the Hammers are hardly falling apart at the seams when they play England’s finest, why should they have any particular fears about facing those from Belgium, Russia or Portugal? They are all in third place in their respective groups right now, after all.

So far Moyes has juggled the demands of midweek action well, the squad is coping, the results are still coming. Into the new year it gets harder, but there’s no immediate reason to suspect a huge drop-off is incoming – yet beyond this season, it’s West Ham who could be most harshly punished for being, well…West Ham.

They are not one of London’s biggest. They are not one of the Premier League’s richest. A takeover may or may not happen in time, but even if it does, it isn’t going to catapult them anywhere near the financial might of the newest stronghold in the northeast.

Even without considering the fact that the ‘big four’ became a ‘big six’, West Ham have had other hurdles to surpass to reach fourth place in the table: namely the consistent and incremental improvement at Leicester and the ambitions at Parks Goodison and Villa. An entire top half was almost – in theory at least – better-positioned than West Ham to mount a push for European spots and major honours, yet here they are doing both for a second consecutive campaign.

It’s near-impossible to ignore the fact that sooner or later – and certainly across another full campaign – one of Man United’s attacking talent or Spurs’ managerial nous will surpass the efforts from the London Stadium. Newcastle, assuming survival this season, will launch a new-look assault of their own on the top half. It might not happen as fast as the early fantasies suggested, but eventually, it has to. And even below those tiers, one of Leicester or Arsenal have the potential to be good enough, consistently enough, to overhaul a team which still feels vulnerable to losing a star name or two along the way. Money, ultimately, counts for much – and so does greater depth.

Not all of those clubs will get it right in the same season, of course, but it only realistically takes a couple of them to hit ‘normal’ levels rather than overachieve, and they will already be beyond West Ham’s reach.

They are clearly – by any reasonable statistical or eye-test analysis – extremely well-coached, organised and decisive, consistent and adventurous.

It is perhaps a damning indictment of the structure of European football that such top work on the training field alone is nowhere near enough to propel a team among the front-runners in a division, never mind being capable of winning honours – or perhaps that is more the point of the reward system on offer: play well, coach well, get a move to bigger clubs rather than making the current club bigger and better over a longer time.

Those are problems for tomorrow, and none will matter to Hammers fans if they pick up a first trophy since 1981 at some point after the new year.

If they don’t, though, they may find themselves further away from sustained success than beforehand, without taking any backward steps of their own. The football arms race is ever-evolving, and 2022 already looks like it will ramp up stakes considerably.

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