It was hard not to feel just a little bit sorry for David Moyes when his West Ham team briefly led at Liverpool on Monday. There was a certain inevitability about the home side recovering and securing all three points, but at least West Ham had put themselves in a position to win, less than a week after their impersonation of a doormat against Manchester City at the Etihad.
Moyes has famously never won at Anfield; in fact his lamentable record against what might loosely be described as top-six sides in England is one of the biggest flaws in his managerial CV. Even at Everton, where he was unquestionably a success on balance over 11 years, his innate caution was getting on supporters’ nerves by the end. West Ham did not exactly throw caution to the wind at Anfield – that would have been very anti-Moyes and far too risky a strategy against a team drilled to capitalise on every turnover of possession – but at least they put out a side that seemed to believe it could achieve a result. That approach made far more sense than going to Manchester City and hoping Kevin De Bruyne and Co would not manage to score, and if they are going to climb away from the bottom three West Ham are going to need much more of it.
The only teams below West Ham are Watford and Norwich. The latter are nailed to the bottom and generally viewed as relegation certainties in their first season back in the top flight, while the former are given a fighting chance of escape because of the effective recalibration since Nigel Pearson took over as manager. The funny thing is that Daniel Farke and Norwich have managed to beat Manchester City, and one of Pearson’s early successes was a victory over Manchester United.
It just goes to show that one result , however unexpected, does not a season make, and though the West Ham fans unhappy with Moyes’s style would dearly love to claim such a glamorous scalp soon, their manager is probably right in playing the percentages and hoping to take points from teams in the lower half of the table. Few managers play the percentages quite as throughly as Moyes. After the 2-0 defeat at City last week, a match that saw not a single shot on target from the visitors, Moyes talked about his defensive plan and mentioned that goal difference might be important.
This was not the sort of approach likely to endear him to Irons fans unhappy about just about everything to do with the running of their club, but Moyes stopped caring about being popular some time ago. If his brief is to keep the club in the Premier League he will attempt to do just that without worrying about picking up style points along the way. Norwich pick up style points every week – everyone seems to admire the way they play and the threat they pose – though the league table suggests their points return is not going to be enough to prevent a return to the Championship.
Aston Villa are in a somewhat similar position. Precariously placed a point above the bottom three, Dean Smith’s side will return from the Carabao Cup final in the relegation zone should West Ham avoid defeat at home to Southampton or Watford beat Liverpool. Watford will not be expected to improve their situation – though such preconceptions could work in their favour – and though the form book suggests Bournemouth may struggle to beat Chelsea at home, Eddie Howe and his players were so incensed by the manner of their defeat at Burnley last week they are promising a siege mentality will kick in now that relegation is a possibility that can no longer be ignored.
It is debatable whether a siege mentality is what does the trick, still more whether Howe is the sort of manager who can oversee an uncompromising scrap to stay alive. What everyone in the bottom six or seven wants to do is emulate Southampton, who after looking in desperate trouble a few months ago have climbed to within a result of Everton and Arsenal in mid-table. All without a managerial change or any panic-buying in the transfer window. Since that 9-0 humbling by Leicester in October, the Saints have managed to beat Chelsea, Spurs, and, yes, Leicester, which just goes to show what sort of a recovery can be made without wholesale changes taking place.
But West Ham were able to win at St Mary’s in December, even if Manuel Pellegrini was still in charge. It was the former Manchester City manager’s last victory as West Ham manager, in fact. Now the former Manchester United manager in charge of West Ham has a chance to do the same thing. One can only hope for Moyes’s sake that his players put on the same sort of positive show they managed at Anfield.
West Ham need points badly, and a manager not famous for taking points from teams at the elite end of the table will not like the look of the four opponents to come after Southampton: Arsenal, Wolves, Spurs and Chelsea. That is the sort of daunting run of games Burnley faced earlier in the year, when everyone said they were bound for the bottom three. Instead they took 10 points from four games against Leicester, Manchester United, Arsenal and Southampton, and now sit above Everton in the top half. Burnley and Southampton have shown the way. If West Ham are going to follow, this weekend would be a good time to make a start.