It's not been the smoothest of starts to the season for West Ham. Coming off a strong league showing last season and having taken possession of a shiny new stadium, they currently sit 18th in the league having lost five of their opening six, and their European campaign ended before it began.
What's happened? We've had some guesses ...
West Ham's move from their old stadium to their new was a messy, rancorous affair, encompassing private detection scandals, peppercorn rents, questions in Parliament and the sudden, peculiar decision that, as the moving vans gathered, The Boleyn Ground was the better and more appropriate name. Maybe "Upton Park, In Memoriam" just doesn't sound as good.
It would be fair to say that even now, once the scandals have been smoothed over and the innuendos hushed, that the move hasn't quite gone to plan. Off the field, fans and stewards are arguing over standing, fans are clashing over the appropriateness of popcorn as a game-time snack, and a few journalists, ever keyed into the true concerns of the people, are carping about their distance from the pitch. And on it, West Ham have picked up just one "home" win, 1-0 over Bournemouth; they lost 1-0 to Astra Giurgiu, blew a 2-0 lead against Watford, losing 2-4, and on Sunday they were shredded by Southampton. After that game, captain Mark Noble reflected:
To be honest the move has been harder than what we thought it was going to be … You sort of craved the games [at Upton Park] because you knew it would sort of guarantee you 20 points a season.
Early days, of course. But there have been many factors identified as playing a part in home advantage and plenty of those hinge around the fact that a sporting arena is established, in the minds of the players and the fans and everybody else, as home. From the influence of the crowd on players and officials, to familiarity with a given ground's idiosyncrasies, and on to the evolutionary psychology theory that suggests defending one's home can boost testosterone and aggression, there is the necessity of familiarity, of being in one's own place. And until that familiarity is established, then West Ham are essentially one of two away teams, just with a really big allocation.
We know that teams can take time to adjust to a new stadium. Arsene Wenger suggested at the end of Arsenal's first season at the Emirates that Arsenal's new home felt, at times, like a neutral ground, and even wondered about a curse. A study of US sports teams has suggested that a stadium move can reduce home advantage by around 24 percent. And while the obvious solution to all of this is the boring one — time, and the inevitable passage thereof — such indulgences are not permitted Premier League teams, much less Premier League managers. It probably doesn't help that "The London Stadium" is perhaps the least homely collection of words available.
A problem of branding
Alternatively, it might be another change that's doing terrible things to West Ham's motivation. Because they changed the badge, too and, well, look at it:
West Ham's new badge looks like the winning entry in a kids drawing competition pic.twitter.com/GUGa3utkQ3— ㅤㅤ (@_SamAlex) August 15, 2016
Pure Pro Evolution Soccer, without the gameplay to compensate. Imagine putting yourself in a position where, in a moment of high excitement, you might end up kissing that thing. Best avoided.
A weird squad
Stoke should be wary of having too weird of a squad - it caused Fulham and Hull to go down in the last two seasons— Ryan Keaney (@RyanKeaney) July 9, 2015
The Weird Squad Theory of Premier League underachievement isn't quite as widely accepted as the Bad Manager one, or the Rubbish Players one, but it bears some consideration in this context. Because West Ham's squad is properly weird.
A weird squad isn't a bad squad, of course. It's just an unsettling one. It refuses to cohere into anything. Take a couple of over (or at least approaching) the hill internationals who have very little reason to have ended up where they are, mix with two or three former prospects from bigger clubs who were the next moderately-sized thing, once, fold in a handful of professionals picked up from around the middle leagues of Europe on an apparently random basis, then chuck in a couple of one-to-10-cap England internationals, just for seasoning. All the ingredients are fine, on their own. Together, they taste weird.
Consider Slaven Bilic's midfield options. He has, available to him, everything a manager could want, footballing qualities both abstract and concrete. Experience, pace, invention, commitment, intelligence, goals … all the good stuff. And yet, while there are thousands of possible ways to pick and arrange three, four or five from Håvard Nordtveit, Sofiane Feghouli, Cheikhou Kouyaté, Manuel Lanzini, Pedro Obiang, Mark Noble, Gökhan Töre, Dimitri Payet, Michael Antonio, Edimilson Fernandes and Reece Oxford, every single one looks a bit … well, weird.
The Premier League is an inconsistent beast but it has, in the past, punished squads for being too strange. Fulham went down in 2013-14 after spending a fortune on Konstantinos Mitroglou yet ending the season with Steve Sidwell as top scorer. Hull and QPR both took deeply odd collections of footballers down the following season. It's not a good pattern for West Ham.
Of course, weird squads don't assemble themselves, and we wouldn't hesitate to describe West Ham's summer of shopping as "also weird" if we didn't think that typing the word "weird" too many times might make it start to look, well, weird, and bring the whole process of reading and writing tumbling down around our ears. Let's go, instead, for curious.
Including loans, West Ham brought in twelve new players over the summer. Yet they missed out on the forwards they wanted, as Michy Batshuayi went to Chelsea and Alexandre Lacazette stayed in France, they didn't replace the outgoing James Tomkins, and while they can't be blamed for record signing Andre Ayew knackering his quadriceps half an hour into his debut, they lack obvious cover out on the left. Perhaps the squad was inflated with one eye on a Europa League campaign; the defeat to Astra put paid to that idea. And of those that have arrived, nobody's really taken the London Stadium by storm just yet. Or even by mild drizzle.
An inability to defend
Last season, although they were great fun in lots of ways and finished in a highly respectable seventh position, West Ham were some distance from secure or predictable. This was a team that beat Liverpool convincingly, home and away, yet shipped four at home to Bournemouth and Swansea City. So while this season's collapse into defensive incoherence has been quite startling, it's not entirely come from nothing.
Whether this is a question of personnel, organization or commitment isn't clear, and it could well be all three. Communication between Adrian and his defenders appears to have completely broken down, and it was noticeable on Saturday just how easy Southampton's attackers found it to move between and beyond West Ham's defenders. To be outplayed is one thing, and often avoidable. To be outworked is moderately embarrassing.
The real concern is that this early run of games hasn't been particularly monstrous. Two losses have come at the feet of Chelsea and Manchester City, but they've also shipped four to Watford and to West Bromwich Albion. At the end of November, West Ham go away to Tottenham, away to Manchester United, come home -- "home" -- to play Arsenal and then go away to Liverpool. If Bilic hasn't figured out a defensive solution by then, and persuaded his players to work towards it, then things could get brutal. Assuming he's even got a job by then.