Bubbling To The Surface: Can West Ham Push For A Top Four EPL Spot?

It’s fair to say West Ham fans are believing again.

Optimism is rife in East London which is understandable when you escape mid-table purgatory in the Premier League.

A sixth placed finish has been followed up by an impressive start to the new season with a transfer window to match – bringing in a raft of talented individuals to compliment an already solid squad.

With the gap between them and the EPL’s best closing - can they dare to dream?

Is a maiden appearance in the Champions League beyond them or is this just a false dawn? 

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French duo to the defensive rescue

There is only so much papering over cracks you can do before issues come to the surface.

Having been glossed over by their scintillating attack in their opening two wins, West Ham’s issues at the back rose to the surface in their 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace.

Suspect defending had not only cost them against their London rivals but has throughout all of their opening three games – shipping two against struggling Newcastle and one to Leicester City after they fell to ten men.

In fact, the Hammers rank first in the league for post-shot expected goals per shot on target with 0.52 – indicating the shots they are conceding are difficult ones to save – an issue stemming from haphazard defending.

This is where the signing of Kurt Zouma comes in, spending big to help sort out their leaky back-four.

Zouma’s strengths are in his aerial work where he averaged 4.21 aerials won a game in the past year placing him in the top echelon (96th percentile) of all centre-backs in the world while also ranking high in pass completion (91.4%) and clearances (5.74).

Considering the Hammers have conceded all their goals from crosses with two of them being direct headers and another being set-up from a knock-down in the box – there is a clear problem in the air.

Current centre-back duo Angelo Ogbonna (2.77 aerials won) and Craig Dawson (3.24) have struggled in the air over the past year with the signing of Zouma a clear remedy to this glaring problem.

However, between the sticks Lukasz Fabianski’s recent struggles may have opened the door for further change in the defensive half.

Since signing for the club, Alphonse Areola is yet to feature for the club since making move to East London. 

Despite their relegation, Areola was sensational on-loan at Fulham last season and ranked first among goalkeepers for post-shot expected goals (minus goals allowed) with +7.6 – suggesting an above average ability to stop shots.

It may not be long before David Moyes turns to Areola hinting that he may be in line for an opportunity sooner rather than later due to their hectic schedule.

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The Nikola Vlasic Effect

The hype is real, Nikola Vlasic may be the most underrated signing of the transfer window.

After missing out on Jesse Lingard, the Hammers turned their attention to the 23-year-old Croatian attacking-midfielder who signed on the dotted line on deadline day.

Vlasic has all the physical and skilful attributes to take West Ham to new heights and for a side which relies on goals from midfield to relieve pressure on their striker stocks - he may be the perfect tonic.

But just how good is he? Well, the numbers don’t lie.

Throughout his 86 Russian Premier League games, Vlasic tallied a whopping 51 goal contributions (32 goals and 19 assists) averaging either an assist or a goal every 1.6 games.

It’s no surprise that Croatia’s results and performances at Euro 2020 had a significant uptick when Vlasic was in the side as well. 

After being benched for their opening two group games, Vlasic’s first start was nothing short of sensational – scoring the opener and winning Player of the Match in their sole win of the tournament – a 3-1 victory over Scotland to secure their passage into the Round of 16.

Just like his Croatian counterpart Luka Modric did during his time in London, there is every reason why Vlasic may make the Premier League his playground.

Not only may this move jettison his career to new heights but also help his new employers smash the glass ceiling and push for a top four finish.

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Michail Antonio/midfield scoring reliance

Okay, so, here is the ‘but’.

As mentioned, West Ham’s striker depth is extremely thin with much of their goal-scoring burden falling onto the shoulders of Michail Antonio.

Antonio, has excelled in East London and has carried his form into the new season scoring four goals from the opening three games - becoming the side’s all-time Premier League top scorer.

Beyond the injury-prone 31-year-old, the options are scarce having failed to replace Sebastien Haller who left last January thus leaving Andriy Yarmolenko as the only other forward in their squad who is linked with a move away.

Last season, the Hammers were blessed by having a high-scoring midfield who helped carry the burden alongside Antonio with the likes of Tomas Soucek (10 goals), Jarrod Bowen (eight goals) and the recently departed Jesse Lingard (nine goals) all chipping in.

However, can this carry into the new season? Well, it already has, so far (key words being ‘so far’).

Antonio’s efforts have thus far been complimented by Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma who have chimed in with two goals each while Soucek and full-back Aaron Cresswell have also found the net.

Although it may be working now, this has only been in three competitive games and their fixture will soon be littered by Europa League and League Cup fixtures.

Is this a sustainable model? Probably not, with a lot relying again on Antonio staying fit until at least January (when they can bring in a back-up) and the midfield hitting the scoreboard regularly.

But what is Moyes’ contingency plan in the event Antonio goes down?

Can he trust Yarmolenko to still do a job despite him not being in his long-term plans? Could Bowen shift centrally or does Vlasic move further forward and play as a ‘false-nine’? Does Soucek take up a ‘Marouane Fellaini role’ and turn into a battering ram up top?

All questions the boss needs to answer in the interim.

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So, can the Hammers do it?

West Ham are well placed and are perhaps the most well-placed along with Leicester as the most likely side to breach the big five (sorry, Arsenal). 

Currently, the Stats Insider EPL futures model is pegging them as a 13.5% chance of making the top-4 with only six teams currently assessed as being more likely. 

The Hammers have quality in all areas of the park and their business in the summer window reeks of ambition.

The gap is closing between the ‘big clubs’ and the rest of the league and West Ham have seemingly sensed the opportunity to make the jump.

It’s easy to remember this team were only two points off fourth place last-season, and on paper their squad is certainly good enough to make a sustained push.

But as their anthem suggests will they fly so high, nearly reach the sky and just like their dreams (of Champions League football) – fade and die?

They’ll be a fun watch, that’s for sure.

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Nick D'Urbano

Nick D'Urbano is a freelance sports writer. Throughout Nick's career, he's worked for numerous multimedia companies in print, radio and TV. Currently, Nick covers the A-League, W-League, AFL and AFLW for News Corp Australia's Newswire along with co-hosting Twilight Football on FNR Football Nation Radio. Nick won the Antenna Award for the 2019 Youth Personality of the Year for his work on Channel 31's AFL talk show 'The Rushed Behind.

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