Sam Allardyce enjoyed moderate success as West Ham United manager, but the means by which he achieved it were widely criticised. He returned the club to the Premier League at the first attempt, albeit via the play-offs, and led them to three consecutive mid-table finishes. Unfortunately, many felt that the club’s identity was compromised in the process.
It was a period of rare stability, but also demonstrated a perceived lack of ambition. Never in danger of going down, the Hammers didn’t threaten to achieve a great deal more except for in Allardyce’s final season, where they were as high as third in December before a collapse in form saw them finish in the bottom half.
Throughout his reign, the biggest and most persistent complaints surrounded Allardyce’s style of play and the sense that it didn’t align with how supporters saw their club. It was direct, physical and lacking in finesse. This led to much discussion of the merits and practicalities of returning to the supposed ‘West Ham way’.
The club’s traditions were regularly invoked in an appeal for more attacking football. The owners eventually bowed to public pressure, allowing Allardyce’s contract to expire as they sought a new and different approach. A Dimitri Payet-inspired side briefly promised to be the answer.
More than four years further down the line, and the same arguments rumble on about what West Ham represent, and can realistically hope to achieve, in the modern era. Following another defeat, the fifth in their last six league games, the future of Manuel Pellegrini is coming under increased scrutiny.
West Ham's current struggles are indicative of a club that still doesn't seem to know what it stands for. At a time when so many teams have a clear and well-established way of playing, they have an uncertain identity and purpose. It’s difficult to define what the Hammers are and how they hope to turn things around.
They have their sights set on more than just surviving in the Premier League but are run in a haphazard fashion that continues to hold them back. A lack of unity between players, supporters, owners and manager is all too apparent. On the pitch, their flashes of good football are far too rare and there's a worrying lack of resilience within the team.
The appointment of a title-winning manager like Pellegrini was meant to elevate the club to the next level but that hasn't looked like happening. A lot of money has been spent to little discernible effect as West Ham languish in 17th place, just outside the relegation zone.
There have been 21 new signings since Pellegrini took over in May last year and the club’s transfer record has been broken three times in that period, as part of a concerted effort to challenge for Europe. Issa Diop was followed by Felipe Anderson and then Sebastian Haller. Each have their merits but the right formula for success still hasn’t been found.
West Ham’s net spend under Pellegrini is a hefty £94million yet a flawed recruitment strategy has left them with several unresolved problems. Their unbalanced squad has a surfeit of attacking midfielders, an error-prone defence and no reliable cover for the injured Lukasz Fabianski. Roberto’s performances so far have bordered on the embarrassing.
Offering a fragile Jack Wilshere a highly-paid three-year contract has unsurprisingly proven to be a costly mistake, while Anderson has been maddeningly inconsistent for a marquee £36million signing. The Brazilian was intended to be a decisive match-winner always at the centre of the action but, aside from an impressive run of form midway through last season, he has often been ineffective and peripheral.
There are deeper, underlying issues too. Moving to a new ground was meant to be the springboard that would launch West Ham into a bright new future, but instead the soulless London Stadium has come to symbolise a club adrift. Frustrations about leaving Upton Park, and the broken promises that accompanied the decision, remain raw for many supporters.
Playing at a much bigger ground with some high-profile signings on show was supposed to transform West Ham into contenders. They were going to play on the front foot and compete for European qualification, not be outmanoeuvred by Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, Burnley and Tottenham on the way to taking a single point from their last four home games.
West Ham are still a club that wants to be seen as ambitious and progressive but without a true understanding of what that entails. An expensively assembled squad is labouring under a lack of the most basic and essential qualities. They don't look or play like a team and are in danger of being dragged into a relegation battle, if they haven’t already.
Clubs operating on limited budgets, like Sheffield United and Burnley, continue to outperform them, demonstrating that a clear philosophy, committed players and a unifying sense of purpose can carry a functional squad a long way. If nothing else, West Ham’s current malaise should prompt a major rethink of the club's structures and priorities.