If you’re going to reach the upper echelons of any league, chances are you’re going to have to pick up a number of wins against the teams vying for a spot towards the top of the table alongside you.
West Ham have kinda messed up that theory.
Prior to their clash with Newcastle in Saturday’s early kick-off, David Moyes’ side hadn’t beaten any of the other five sides in the Premier League’s top six apart from Leicester, with their brilliant campaign built on wins against sides in the bottom half of the table.
Since their opening day defeat to Saturday’s opponents Newcastle, the Hammers hadn’t suffered defeat against any side lower than ninth in the table – yet their trip to St. James’ Park proved to be something of a rude awakening.
Moyes’ men never really looked at it from the first whistle and their tepid display would likely have been punished early on if they weren’t playing against a side that seem determined to keep eight players in their own half at all times.
Eventually the Magpies made the breakthrough just ten minutes before half-time, yet the amount of defensive errors made by West Ham in the build-up to the game’s opening goal would have needed an abacus to total up.
Having looked so steady for much of the season it really didn’t make a lot of sense, with the whole backline caught recklessly out of position, Craig Dawson thundering into – and missing – a challenge with Joelinton, Mark Noble looking like he’d stumbled out of the pub at 11pm trying to stop Allan Saint-Maximin and Issa Diop colliding with Lukasz Fabianski before inadvertently bundling the ball into his own net.
Did you manage to keep count?
Dawson was subsequently shown his second yellow card for his challenge in the build-up, having picked up a very similar booking earlier in the game, and five minutes later they were at it again as Fabianski dropped a seemingly comfortable catch to allow Joelinton to tap home.
Again, it just didn’t make any sense.
We’re not going to overlook the fact that the Hammers were missing a number of key personnel for the trip to the north east, with Michail Antonio, Declan Rice and Aaron Cresswell all out injured, yet two of the aforementioned trio were also sidelined when they beat Champions League chasing Leicester last time out.
Given the pure calamitous nature of West Ham’s errors on the day, it’s difficult not to conclude that an element of complacency had set in against Steve Bruce’s men. These weren’t just minor errors or cases of being beaten by the better team, they were mixtures of appalling decision making and completely taking their eye off the ball.
Dawson knows not to steam into challenges in the opposition’s half when on a yellow card and Fabianski can catch crosses like he dropped on Saturday in his sleep. Yet in a weird sort of way the mistakes and subsequent defeat could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Much has been made of the Hammers’ favourable run-in with clashes against four of the league’s bottom seven teams to come before the end of the season.
On paper you would genuinely fancy Moyes to lead his side to a place in the Champions League given their remaining games – though we all know football isn’t played on paper. Saturday’s defeat at Newcastle smacked of a side that had forgotten their tag of ‘plucky underdogs mixing it with the best in the league’ and had instead started to believe their own hype.
Complacency cost West Ham the game at St. James’ Park as Bruce’s men ran out 3-2 winners, and it may well turn out to be the shot in the arm needed to remind the Hammers they’re still the plucky underdogs.
Facing teams struggling for form is all well and good, but if you approach the game with the attitude of ‘it’s already in the bag’ – especially with the majority of side teams fighting for their Premier League lives – it’s only going to end in heartbreak, and Saturday was a reminder of that.
As Noble leads his side out at the London Stadium next season to face Barcelona in the Champions League, weirdly we might just look back on this game as a huge factor in their top four finish.
After all, better to happen now than three weeks down the line when there’s no time left to put things right.