In the end, Manuel Pellegrini must have known what was coming. After an embarrassing defeat to a below-strength Leicester side – West Ham’s fourth loss in a row at home – thanks to a brilliant winning goal from Demarai Gray, there was an air of inevitability that the veteran manager would be shown the door a little more than 18 months after taking over from David Moyes.
Not since Blackpool’s Ian Holloway in November 2010 had a Premier League manager made as many changes to his starting lineup this early in the season as Brendan Rodgers opted for here but even his second-string proved far too strong for a dispirited home team.
Despite seeing the returning Lukasz Fabianski save a penalty from Gray in the first half and Pablo Fornals cancel out Kelechi Iheanacho’s opener, Pellegrini’s lacklustre side never looked capable of claiming victory and left the pitch to a chorus of boos from the few supporters who stayed until the bitter end. Perhaps the only surprise is that the 66-year-old was not given the opportunity to stay on for Bournemouth’s visit to the London Stadium on New Year’s Day, although the co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold surely felt there was no alternative after such an insipid display.
It is now likely to fall on Moyes to try and perform a second rescue act within three seasons, with the former Everton manager having been lined up for several weeks. On this evidence, he faces a sizeable task given that Rodgers had made nine changes to the side hammered 4-0 by Liverpool on Boxing Day.
The absence of their talisman, Jamie Vardy, was explained by the news that his wife had given birth to a daughter in the hours before kick-off as Leicester became only the sixth team in Premier League history to make nine or more alterations to their starting lineup in match before the turn of the year.
Aside from the reception for Sir Geoff Hurst as he led the minute’s applause to his 1966 World Cup-winning teammate Martin Peters, the news that Fabianski had returned from the hip injury that has kept him sidelined for the last 11 Premier League matches received the biggest cheers from the home supporters before kick-off. Pellegrini’s side were fifth in the table when the Poland international played his last match against Bournemouth at the end of September and have seen their season collapse without him, losing nine out of 11 and conceding 21 goals in the process as they have been dragged into trouble.
Yet Fabianski’s return looked like it had turned into a nightmare in the ninth minute when he came racing out of his goal and took out Iheanacho. The referee, David Coote, immediately pointed to the penalty spot but Gray’s effort lacked power and was easily pushed away to safety by the goalkeeper, even if replays seemed to show he may have been slightly off his line.
The home supporters roared their approval and urged their side forward but the best West Ham could muster in response was Arthur Masuaku’s powerful strike from distance that required a full-length dive from Kasper Schmeichel to stop it. They were made to pay for their inaction just before half-time when a poor clearing header from Masuaku looped up and Ayoze Pérez just managed to keep the ball in play to allow Iheanacho to nod it into the empty net. But, to their credit, the hosts were level within the space of five minutes after a slicing move instigated by Felipe Anderson ended up with Fornals sweeping the ball home.
Despite West Ham’s strong response to falling behind, it was telling that Pellegrini’s side showed a distinct lack of urgency after emerging for the second half. The introduction of Michail Antonio for the lacklustre Sébastien Haller at least provided more of a willing runner than the £45m striker but before his replacement had even touched the ball, Leicester went ahead again.
Gray made no mistake this time following a superb run by Pérez that saw the Spaniard evade Issa Diop’s attempts to drag him down before slipping in his teammate with an immaculate pass. “You’re going down with the Villa,” taunted the visiting supporters. Announcing Pellegrini’s departure 90 minutes after the final whistle, Gold and Sullivan had clearly concurred.