The gag doing the rounds is that an early title decider takes place at the London Stadium on Saturday afternoon. All eyes are on the clash of the heavyweights: West Ham v Manchester City, David Moyes and Pep Guardiola going head to head, the Europa Conference League winners taking on the European champions, who head to east London missing a few key individuals and no doubt wary of being undone by opponents who have not allowed the sale of their best player to disrupt their momentum.
Admittedly, for all the talk of City being weaker without the injured Kevin De Bruyne, there is every chance of reality setting in once the game begins. While West Ham have impressed during their unbeaten start to the season, particularly during victories over Brighton and Chelsea, the smart money should probably still be on the side with Erling Haaland up front.
Even so defeat would hardly dent West Ham’s feelgood factor. This is a rare purple patch for Moyes, a manager still finding ways to confound those who insist his methods have had their day. The Scot does not have to worry about questions over his style of play after winning the first trophy of his managerial career. Lifting silverware has strengthened Moyes, who was one game from being sacked on several occasions last season, and given him the authority to focus on the qualities that characterise his side at their best: physicality in defence, speed on the counterattack, power at set pieces, and a dash of creativity at select moments.
The trick, as Moyes said before facing City, is knowing when to be expansive and when to be resilient. He insisted that the plan against Brighton and Chelsea was not to see so little of the ball. “While the quality of the opposition is so good you have to find a way to stop them,” Moyes said. “It would be great if people think I want my teams to be very open and expansive and lose 5-0. I’ve not done it throughout my career. You shouldn’t expect it from me now.
“The trophy has given us a feeling of thinking how we can challenge. We want to be a bit more on the front foot. But the teams we’ve played have made us play on the back foot. We’ve not gone out all week and practised how we’re going to stay behind the ball. It’s been the quality of the other teams. We need to regain more possession.”
While West Ham know how to survive without the ball, the aim is still to become less reliant on James Ward-Prowse’s set piece deliveries and incisive counterattacks from Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen. Moyes has tried to refine the style. Last summer he signed Nayef Aguerd, a ball-playing centre-back, and added Brazilian flourish farther forward with the addition of Lucas Paquetá. This time, with the budget swelled by Declan Rice’s £105m move to Arsenal, there has been a focus on technical players. Ward-Prowse and Edson Álvarez offer elegance and steel in midfield; Mohammed Kudus should bring ingenuity in attack once he adjusts to the Premier League.
However Moyes, who has also signed the Greece defender Konstantinos Mavropanos, is experienced enough not to get carried away. It was not a straightforward summer. West Ham were slow to act after selling Rice, their captain and midfield lynchpin, and there was plenty of talk about tension between Moyes and Tim Steidten, the club’s new technical director, over recruitment.
A bad start could have cost Moyes his job. Yet the 60-year-old and Steidten have settled into a better rhythm. Insiders have been impressed with Steidten, noting the German’s diligence and praising him for his work on convincing Ajax to sell Kudus.
Sharper recruitment has allowed West Ham to turn losing Rice into a positive. Moyes experienced similar when Everton sold Wayne Rooney in 2004. Using the Rice money well has improved West Ham’s balance, while they have benefited from a Football Association investigation into potential breaches of betting regulations by Paqueta derailing the midfielder’s move to City. Paquetá has been outstanding this season and will surely want to put on a show against the champions. West Ham are ready to dig deep again.