Somehow, the Premier League’s perennial basket-case club has become its model student. The responsibility for this lies less with its fatally incompetent ownership than with its impressively-drilled players, and a manager in David Moyes who has taken a thin, uneven squad into the upper reaches of the Premier League. Whisper it, but believe it all the same: West Ham are very good.
Just how good, of course, remains a matter of some conjecture. Contrary to popular belief, the league table lies freely and often, and West Ham’s ascent into the top four owes itself largely to having played more fixtures than the teams around it. Still, the way they came from behind to dismantle Crystal Palace here offered all the evidence you need. This is a club operating at the very limits of its potential, and with a judicious signing or two in the remaining days of the transfer window, might just be able to challenge for European football next season.
Again West Ham were indebted to their midfielder Tomas Soucek, whose two goals in the first half took his tally for the season to an improbable seven. Soucek is no physical freak or technical genius. What he does as well as anyone is anticipate, pre-empt, interpret flight and human movement in a way that allows him to reach the ball at the optimum moment, often ghosting in late and unmarked. Since his arrival in the Premier League last summer, only Bruno Fernandes has more goals from midfield.
In truth, West Ham could have scored plenty more. The eternally thwarted Michail Antonio probably should have had four on his own. Aaron Cresswell had another sparkling game at left-back, Declan Rice was again quietly excellent in midfield, Saïd Benrahma was a constant threat in possession and quietly tenacious out of it. But essentially West Ham’s strength is as a collective, unfussy group of players who help each other, push each other, know each other’s jobs as well as their own.
This is how they managed to turn a game they had barely been able to start. Palace were ahead within three minutes through Wilfried Zaha, whose neat shimmy and low shot was probably their best move of the game. Again the home side’s recurring weakness to set pieces and transitions would come back to haunt them. On nine minutes Soucek headed in Antonio’s cross after a neat chip from Pablo Fornals on the left wing. On 25 minutes the Palace defence, preoccupied by the threat of Antonio, allowed Soucek to drift towards the back post and slam Cresswell’s free-kick in from close range.
Palace never really recovered their composure after that. Their build-up through midfield was too slow, and their unwillingness to push up their full-backs meant that most of their attacks tapered off harmlessly about 40 yards from goal. Meanwhile, West Ham continued to charge forward on the break: Antonio had a chance to add a quick third straight from kick-off, as well as another chance from close range shortly before half-time, but hit the post each time.
A glaring miss by Zaha at the start of the second half, putting a one-on-one chance straight at the goalkeeper, seemed to set the tone for the second half. A painful clash of heads between Cheikhou Kouyaté and Gary Cahill summed up their evening. Craig Dawson made the game safe from a Jarrod Bowen corner, and though Palace dominated possession in the final stages at no point did they look like claiming anything from the game. Indeed, the only real point of interest was Antonio finding more and more creative ways to miss from close range, getting angrier and angrier each time.
Michy Batshuayi bundled in a late consolation with virtually the last kick of the game, but by then the points had already gone. And again, a failure to convert a promising start into a decent performance will reflect badly on Roy Hodgson. The need to switch things around, to try something new, was obvious after about 25 minutes. Instead the same predictable substitutions arrived at the same predictable times, with the same predictable results. Palace are not safe, and on this evidence nor is Hodgson.