“I couldn’t tell you about my relationship with the fans as I’ve not been there,” David Moyes tells Sky Sports with a smile as he reclines in his chair, arms folded from within the sanctuary of West Ham’s Rush Green training base.
It is a rational claim, having not been the unanimous choice among supporters when he was reappointed back in December 2019 as Manuel Pellegrini’s successor.
Three days into the job, there was an emphatic 4-0 home win over Bournemouth for which the former Everton and Manchester United boss modestly apportioned all credit to his players.
He then oversaw just one other victory at the London Stadium in front of spectators before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Away from the spotlight, something special has been brewing in east London, and Moyes has shown himself to be the perfect fit.
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The 58-year-old has worked wonders in front of empty stands, taking a thin squad into the upper reaches of the Premier League. Confirmation of his contract extension earlier this summer reflects a fanbase that is now fully aligned with their manager.
“The fans at West Ham have been craving something to cheer about and I feel the London Stadium will be a different place because of the positivity the players have brought to the team,” he said.
“It’s a new, young, fast and exciting team that’s really committed in all the games and for these reasons alone if I was a West Ham supporter, I’d be really excited about coming to watch the team.”
How Moyes found an extra dimension
The numbers certainly reflect the growing belief that this is a new West Ham.
During the course of 2020-21, only Chelsea (21) and Southampton (20) scored more set-piece goals than the Hammers’ 19, but it was from open play during the second half of last season that they really excelled.
The loan signing of Jesse Lingard significantly contributed to the team’s potency as a counter-attacking unit. Based on ‘Direct Speed’ while in possession, Opta’s advanced metric which denotes metres per second progressed upfield in open play sequences, no side recorded a better figure (1.68m).
Moyes shaped his side accordingly, allowing the opposition more passes per defensive action (PPDA) – West Ham ranked 19th with 17.0 on average per game – while allowing the starting distance of open play sequences to be deeper than most of their Premier League counterparts (only West Brom, Wolves and Newcastle on average began moves from a deeper starting point).
Premier League home record, 2020-21
The average age of the Hammers’ starting line-up was 28 years and 92 days – the third oldest – but Moyes fashioned a way of getting the maximum out of his players. With the added benefit of a gruelling pre-season, only Leeds, Sheffield United and Brighton covered more ground, contributing to 16 points gained from losing positions.
“We had a really good season last year and that was down to the players,” Moyes says. “We started a bit slow but once we got up and running, for the most part we were very consistent. It’s not something that over the years we’ve been but the players really performed.
“There was a mentality shift as the season went on and we started to think differently about where we could finish as we gained in confidence from the results we got.
“We beat Wolves at home 4-0 and then Leicester away 3-0 and those games gave us a massive lift in the first month of the season and we didn’t really look back.”
Can West Ham improve on sixth?
That came just before the dramatic 3-3 draw at Tottenham, when West Ham became the first team in Premier League history to avoid defeat having trailed by three or more goals as late as the 81st minute.
Moyes guided the club to a top-six finish for just the second time in the Premier League, after finishing fifth under Harry Redknapp in 1998-99, but the Scot sees no reason why the club shouldn’t aim to compete for the European places on a regular basis.
West Ham meet Leicester in their first home league game on August 23, live on Monday Night Football, and with home supporters returning with a spring in their step, the hope will be that last season’s momentum can be harnessed.
“I feel we can improve,” Moyes adds. “We’ve got a young team that’s building. We’ve got some really talented footballers so there’s nothing that suggests to me this year will be anything less than what we showed last season.
“It’s up to me and the players to build on what we achieved. We missed out on the Champions League by two or three points so we have to try to get a little bit closer if we can this time and push on again. I don’t see why we should be setting our ambitions any lower.
“It won’t be easy and there’ll be blips, as with any side, but I feel we can go and do it again.”
A European tour and avoiding a league slump
This term will bring with it the added challenge of competing in the Europa League, with the club entering the group stages next month. The natural fear among seasoned followers of the Premier League is the associated dip in form that comes with playing in the Thursday night competition.
Moyes used just 24 players last season – only Leeds (23) used fewer – and so it is understandable that he wants to add depth to his squad in the coming weeks before the window closes.
The Hammers boss admitted he had to rip up his pre-season targets by February this year having surpassed them, so is the challenge this time around to manage heightened expectations?
“We have to manage them but that doesn’t mean we have to drop our thoughts on where we want to be. We’ve got a really exciting season ahead of us with European football and we’re going to try to push on again in the Premier League.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t as we’ve got the same group of players so we’ve got every opportunity to do it again. We’ve got a goalkeeper in so far but there’s a long way to go in the window.
“We’re happy to have brought in [Alphonse] Areola as we felt improving on the competition in the goalkeepers was something we wanted to do. Everyone saw how well he performed last season for Fulham.
“I want to make sure we do have competition and I’m hopeful that we will by the end of the transfer window. We’re always looking to see what options there are, but I hope by the end of the window we’ll have more additions. I can’t guarantee anything.”
Can Benrahma replace Lingard?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has reiterated that Lingard remains part of Manchester United’s plans following his successful loan, meaning Moyes may have to look within his squad to replace that attacking impetus.
Said Benrahma has experienced a slow start to his time at the club following his arrival last October but the Algerian has been in eye-catching pre-season form, providing both assists in the 2-0 win over Atalanta last Saturday to go with goals against Celtic and former club Brentford.
“My message for Said has been to improve,” says Moyes. “Not all players come to the Premier League and are an instant hit. I had a strange feeling that there would be a big expectation on Said which maybe he wasn’t ready for. I feel he had to take his time, sit back and observe a bit.
“But he’s started very well, and I hope he continues in this form as he’s starting to give us something a little bit different. It’s good as he’s now stepping up and I hope he can show it in the games to come.”
‘Antonio asked for the No 9 shirt’
West Ham enjoyed an unbeaten pre-season with Michail Antonio on the scoresheet in the win over Atalanta. The 31-year-old has been the club’s top scorer in each of the last two seasons and asked his manager to be handed the No 9 shirt for the coming campaign.
“He asked me for the shirt,” Moyes admits. “He’s not set a goal target, but I see no problem in making him our new No 9. It’s not easy to get the shirt and there aren’t many good No 9s around. I didn’t see anyone better than Micky to wear the jersey, so I hope that he keeps up his form and his fitness.
“He’s really important for us with his goals. When he’s in good shape, Micky can be a real handful for anybody.
“For us, it’s about having him fit and strong, and we’ll try to use him as best we can. Obviously, we’ll have to be careful with when we do and when we don’t. Overall, I’m really pleased with his condition and how he’s come back.”
‘Rice can step up again’
West Ham fans who may once have reflected unfairly on their club as a perennial basket-case no longer have to look far for reasons to be cheerful.
Assorted problems have been replaced by an assortment of international stars, many of whom will need coaxing back into the throes of top-flight football having featured at Euro 2020.
Moyes was a watchful observer of that tournament. Lukasz Fabianski was unused by Poland, Andriy Yarmolenko impressed for Ukraine while Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal played in every game for the Czech Republic. But none of his players had as big an impact as Declan Rice, the heartbeat of England’s midfield.
His displays under Gareth Southgate did little to keep him under the radar, but Moyes was delighted to see the player’s growing maturity and hopes he can reproduce his best form in claret and blue.
“I thought Declan played a huge part in helping England get to the final. I thought he was integral to the team, and he was arguably one of England’s best players.
“What I’m hoping is that Declan comes back with experience. He’s still young but he brings great experience back to the team, and hopefully he can take his form from those games into the season with us.
“I think Declan can step up again, I feel he’s got a lot more to show so I’ll be pushing him on and driving him this season to do so.”
West Ham’s ascent owed itself largely to Moyes’ ability to assemble a pool of players aware of each other’s strengths; a collective that was a match for teams perhaps boasting superior individual talent, thinking across town to the travails at Tottenham and Arsenal.
Having narrowly missed out on a Champions League berth, taking the small extra steps is a complicated task for a squad operating at the very limits of its potential, but Moyes believes he can continue to find creative ways of squeezing more out of his group.
“Looking back at the games we won and the goals we scored, we were exciting to watch so I hope the supporters enjoy their time back in the stadium. We need them and we’re looking forward to getting them back.
“We want a vocal support and we’re looking forward to them being back in the London Stadium.”
A sense of direction has brought optimism back among fans. Soon enough, Moyes will be aware of just how much he is now appreciated.