For West Ham supporters it must feel like Groundhog Day. But the news David Moyes has returned to the club where he was so unceremoniously dumped in 2018 after, in 2017, being parachuted in to help stave off relegation is a scenario few could have predicted after the 2-0 victory over Manchester United on 22 September.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side ended the day in fifth spot, with some pundits predicting they could be capable of challenging for European qualification after spending more than £80m on players in the summer. Even by West Ham’s standards the speed with which their season has unravelled has been spectacular. Starting with the 4-0 defeat by Oxford in the Carabao Cup, a run of 10 defeats in their past 14 matches, culminating in the embarrassing defeat by Leicester’s second string on Saturday, left David Sullivan and David Gold – the club’s co-owners – with no option but to act.
Just as when Slaven Bilic was shown the door in November 2017, their statement explaining the decision to sack Pellegrini referred to the need to “move forward positively and in line with their ambition”, but the approach for Moyes is clear recognition they are in a relegation battle.
West Ham have acted quickly to ensure the former Everton and Manchester United manager was appointed in time for the showdown with Bournemouth at the London Stadium on New Year’s Day, although Sullivan and Gold will be aware the 56-year-old, out of work since being replaced by Pellegrini in May 2018, is not an appointment likely to inspire disillusioned fans.
The growing sense of apathy among them was illustrated perfectly during the second half against Leicester. Having equalised through Pablo Fornals’ first Premier League goal since his £24m move from Villarreal just before the break, West Ham might have been expected to take control against a visiting team featuring several players who were so short of match practice that Brendan Rodgers had arranged behind-closed-doors games to prepare them.
But a series of mistakes that culminated in Issa Diop’s attempted rugby tackle on Ayoze Pérez as he broke through to set up Demarai Gray’s winner meant it was only the small pocket of Leicester fans who were audible until the chorus of boos directed towards Pellegrini at the final whistle.
That made it four successive defeats at the London Stadium, where many supporters still understandably pine for the Upton Park atmosphere that will never be recreated in a stadium purpose-built for athletics. Since picking up 34 points in the final season at their former home in 2016 West Ham have mustered 25, 27 and 31 from their three campaigns in Stratford and have managed only seven this season.
It is a statistic that must improve drastically under Moyes if they are to avoid being dragged further into trouble. The 1-0 victory over a disjointed Chelsea in one of his early home matches in December 2017, courtesy of Marko Arnautovic’s early goal, was the spark that helped him lead West Ham to safety last time. Arnautovic is long gone, so finding a way to get the best out of the £45m striker Sébastien Haller and his compatriot Diop, whose form has nosedived after he was linked with a big-money transfer in the summer, will be among his priorities, as will the performances of Declan Rice.
The England midfielder has struggled in recent months as results have turned against West Ham but Moyes will know his presence as a homegrown player is a vital link to the fans. Mark Noble also fulfils that role although, at 32, his best days may be behind him.
As for the owners, Gold’s and Sullivan’s decision to part company with the director of football, Mario Husillos – an ally of Pellegrini – as well means it is back to square one in terms of recruitment.
Moyes is likely to ask for significant input into any new arrivals next month. But having signed the Preston striker Jordan Hugill in a deal reportedly worth about £10m on transfer deadline day in January 2018, West Ham fans can be forgiven for fearing this could all end in tears.