As West Ham face their latest brush with fate, it looks like Moyes has finally addressed what needed fixing.
“I think he gives us a lot of different aspects,” David Moyes said at the end of January as West Ham closed in on a loan deal for Tomáš Souček. “More importantly, he fits the profile of the player I want to bring to West Ham”.
When the former Slavia Prague captain strode out onto the London Stadium pitch against Brighton four days later, it was immediately clear what Moyes had meant by aspects and profile. Tall, powerful and industrious, Souček was just a bouncy afro and an elbow in the face short of Marouane Fellaini. Moyes had reportedly tried to sign the Belgian in January and Souček, it appeared, was the next best fit.
Everything Moyes does now seems to have a melancholy reek of déjà vu: his nostalgia signings (West Ham are also reportedly in for Manchester United outcasts Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard); his sheepish formations in the new age of high-pressing; his watery-eyed, beaten-down look over the microphone as he responds to the latest setback.
Of course, the club has been here before, hiring Moyes in 2017 to steer them clear of relegation – which he did with two games to spare – before replacing him with Manuel Pellegrini the following May. In came a raft of flair players – Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Lucas Pérez – “aspirational” signings that set out West Ham’s new ambition, long talked up by the board since the controversial move to the Olympic Stadium. Or more accurately, these players were going to bring back the club’s old glory days and the Edenic West Ham way.
In the cut-throat market of the Premier League, however, the cycle of boom to bust is familiar. Mid-table clubs reach for the forbidden fruit, only to find that there are huge, unaddressed holes in the team, the manager cannot motivate his players, and that the star winger has done his cruciate after a particularly intense blizzard from the bubble machine. Still, Pellegrini continued to insist West Ham play like a big team and refused to change his 4-2-3-1 system, even though it was clear that a two-man midfield that included Mark Noble could never be defensively sound.
For the board and manager, fantasy had overtaken reality. Which is to say that David Moyes was exactly the shot in the arm – or punch in the gut? – West Ham needed. Apart from the occasional astonishing reinterpretation of history (see “we would have been close to winning the Premier League” with a centre-forward at Everton), if there is one thing David Moyes brings it is a complete lack of delusion. This is the man, remember, who declared Sunderland were in a relegation scrap on the second weekend of the season in 2016 (“people are hoping for it to dramatically change, but it can’t”). When it has been all change at West Ham, a fresh dose of Moyes defeatism might not have been the worst thing.
In any case, something has changed on the pitch. West Ham have only picked up seven points from eighteen since the restart but Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen – another January signing – have formed a promising partnership up front. Both bring plenty of flair, but also a fierce, bullish directness to their play. In stark contrast to Norwich’s mazy build-ups last weekend, Antonio and Bowen were always willing to receive the ball from long or take on the full backs in a foot race, never far away from their partner.
And then there is Souček. After a chronic lack of investment in central midfield – the most spent on a central midfielder under Sullivan and Gold is still £7m for Cheikhou Kouyaté in 2014 – he might be some kind of solution, the missing third man in the centre of the park, and a mildly interesting one at that. Though a defensive midfielder who can ease the burden on Declan Rice, he often bombs into the box and his smart volley against Newcastle showed the goal scoring ability that returned 40 goals in 158 games for Slavia Prague.
In his second appearance for the club against City in February, Souček covered more distance than any other West Ham player had for six years and his stamina has continued to impress. Work rate is not everything, but at least it is reassuringly Moyesian.
At the end of the Norwich game, Jack Wilshire replaced Mark Noble. He was another player signed in Pellegrini’s first halcyon summer in 2018 but has barely been available since. When he has, he has looked slow and ponderous, a luxury item in a team that has so long failed to do the basics. The contrast was obvious on Saturday alongside Souček, who embodies something that Moyes still has: a nostalgia for Maroune Fellaini, but also the cynicism to see what the Hammers needed. If West Ham are to survive their latest brush with fate, the future must lie with Moyes. Well, for three games at least.
Follow Finn on Twitter at @finnbrranson