West Ham will be hoping for someone to steady the ship after a rocky campaign in 2009-2010.
Manager: Avram Grant
Last season: 17th
In: Pablo Barrera (UNAM Pumas, £4m), Tal Ben Haim (Portsmouth, loan), Thomas Hitzlsperger (Lazio, free), Frederic Piquionne (Lyon, £1m), Winston Reid (Midtjylland, £3m).
Out: Guillermo Franco (released), Matt Fry (Charlton, loan), Trent McClenahan (Scunthorpe, loan), Bondz N’Gala (Plymouth, free), Josh Payne (Doncaster, free).
West Ham’s rocky campaign last season under Gianfranco Zola saw them limp to seventeenth place in the Barclays Premier League. Their finishing total of 35 points was actually less than the 42 achieved when they were last relegated in 2003, and it was unsurprising that new owners David Sullivan and Gold elected for a managerial change.
Zola’s tactical naivety was sometimes exposed. Against Arsenal at the Emirates, Thomas Vermaelen was sent off for a challenge on Guillermo Franco in the area at 0-0. With a numerical advantage and with a penalty West Ham would be expected to win that match, but the spot kick was missed. Arsene Wenger then shuffled his side, while Zola maintained his for the duration of the game – and was shown up accordingly.
Still, Zola could be considered unfortunate to have lost his job. Aside from both games against Manchester United, and one match each against Chelsea and Liverpool, West Ham never lost a match by more than two goals. Indeed, most of their losses in the Premier League were by a single goal, and if Zola’s replacement Avram Grant can shore up the defence enough to turn those losses into draws and the odd victory, West Ham fans could start looking up the table instead of downwards.
Zola was also undermined repeatedly by the club’s new owners, and their propensity to talk to the media with bold and plain criticism of their own players and manager was surely of little aid to West Ham on the pitch. The team and its staff know when they are not performing – and their fans are certainly aware of it too without Messrs Sullivan and Gold meddling in affairs.
While the chairmen are most certainly correct that West Ham underachieved last season, publicly stating that everyone except Scott Parker is up for sale was a preposterous statement with more value in sensationalism than sense. Carlton Cole scored a respectable 10 Premier League goals in 2009-2010, and has recently been linked with Liverpool to name but one example, so quite what he, Mark Noble or many of the rest of the West Ham squad made of these comments remains to be seen.
With Sullivan and Gold’s influence on team affairs growing at a seemingly exponential rate, Avram Grant has a task on his hands to maintain control.
Still, he has made some clever signings. Thomas “Der Hammer” Hitzlsperger can offer a welcome goal threat from midfield, as Aston Villa fans are well aware, while diminutive Mexican winger Pablo Berrera offers pace, trickery and quality crossing ability. Tal Ben Haim once looked far from uncomfortable in the Chelsea defence, and if Grant can get his fellow Israeli to recover that form he add real competition to central defence.
West Ham’s problem last season was not in attack. Their total of 47 goals scored was more than every team bar the top eight and Sunderland. 66 goals conceded is the same managed by 20th place Portsmouth, but Burnley, Wigan, Hull and Bolton all let in more.
If Grant can show a bit more tactical acumen than Zola did, midtable safety is not out of the question. He just needs to make sure that the owners stay out of first team affairs so that he can do his job properly.