An unkind reading would be that the fact West Ham United can take such heart from what was eventually an Alamo‑esque occasion speaks volumes for the position the club find themselves in. That would not be unfair, even if caveats do exist. If David Moyes could not conjure a result up here then the semblance of a platform, a hint of the resilience that has deserted his new charges for so long, would reflect well on everyone involved: he got that at the Etihad and, with a little more quality at either end, might even have left with rather more.
“We’re going to have to try and find a way to see if we can stop them and make it hard for them,” a characteristically phlegmatic Moyes had asserted before the teams emerged. At that point City’s Tunnel Club concept appeared particularly ghoulish: a safari package for those with deep pockets prepared to watch doe-eyed prey lining up before the grisliest of slaughters. Moyes knew what the rest of us did: he had probably not read the apocalyptic projections that City might trouble the Premier League’s record winning margin, and was presumably ignorant of odds favouring an 8-0 home win above a single-goal win for his side but he was certainly aware of West Ham’s absentee list and had, more to the point, seen both sides play this season.
What followed, then, must have seemed a trick of the light. Moyes dropped Marko Arnautovic – who had seemed a viable candidate for a post‑match Pep Guardiola rollocking – from the starting XI, preferring a team chiefly composed of yeomen and make‑dos. They included the 18-year‑old centre-back Declan Rice, who stood in for the stricken Winston Reid and was described by his manager as “a really enthusiastic, good type”. The surprise was that everyone in a West Ham side whose application has routinely fallen well short this season could, on this evidence alone, fit that definition. Rice’s zeal brought an early booking but it was an isolated piece of panic in a composed opening period that, aside from the obvious inconvenience of seeing far less of the ball against opponents who can work miracles with it, saw them pose more difficulties than they faced.
The lone front man, Michail Antonio, could have exposed City’s set-piece weakness at the far post and then was not a million miles from converting a cross by Arthur Masuaku, whose willingness to plough the tramlines has made him an early Moyes favourite. As half-time approached a 20-yard drive from David Silva had been the only real cause of alarm; the minutes were drifting by and any onlookers watching play bereft of context could have been forgiven for finding it all a touch stodgy.
In fact the lack of activity, of lightning-quick interchanges from City or gross pieces of defensive neglect from West Ham, made things all the more fascinating. A 90-minute slog of nothing could, for Moyes, end up meaning absolutely everything. Angelo Ogbonna’s opener, when it came, did not actually seem a huge surprise. It played to the adage that a team operating at less than full pelt is liable to the sucker punch against anyone; Aaron Cresswell’s cross was pinpoint and the thumping header that met it ensured that those leering through the glass bore witness to an entirely different colour of wounded beast on the walk back in.
West Ham’s performance was, at this point, straight out of the textbook. The danger was that City, ears warmed by a manager who had flung a water bottle away in disgust when the goal went in, would almost certainly not be this casual again. Another risk, equally telling, had suggested itself shortly before Ogbonna scored: it was a blow to see Cheikhou Kouyaté, who appeared to tweak his hamstring, depart with the latest in a seemingly endless line of muscle injuries to affect West Ham players and the obvious question was whether their fitness, shown to be inadequate during the latter days of Slaven Bilic, could really face an examination turned up a few notches.
In the end it could not and a visibly tiring West Ham, forced deeper and deeper as the second half progressed and unable to make use of the tiring Antonio’s bustle, brought on to themselves a degree of pressure that never looked likely to end well. Moyes felt Rice should have dealt with the ball from Kevin De Bruyne, beautifully weighted though it was, that created the winning goal just as it appeared Nicolás Otamendi’s equaliser might be the only damage. It seemed particularly harsh that David Silva should score so soon after West Ham, on a rare sortie, had almost forced a second goal of their own through an angled Antonio shot that Ederson repelled sharply. Eventually, though, minds and bodies were not quite fresh enough to hold out.
“When you play the top teams you’re going to have to do it for 90 minutes – not 60, not 70, but 90,” Moyes pointed out afterwards. Diafra Sakho would have altered that sentiment had he not blazed wide at the end when teed up by Arnautovic. The manager had set his team up pragmatically, not negatively, and West Ham had shown an appetite to attack when they could.
The nagging concern is that, on a one-off occasion with scant expectation, credit is easier to come by than it might seem: the real test is how West Ham now perform on an everyday basis – whether the steel that they showed here can be matched by the style that wins points rather than compliments for pluck. Then the positives would look far more substantial.
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