David Moyes has praised the team spirit being fostered among his ‘band of brothers’ as West Ham look to take another giant step towards securing Champions League football at the London Stadium next season.
The Hammers host third-placed Leicester City on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, knowing victory would move them to within a point of the Foxes. But Moyes’ side sit just three points above seventh-place Liverpool, underlying the congested race to finish inside the top four.
The sense of togetherness at the club was again demonstrated this week on social media with Pablo Fornals seen handing out T-shirts sporting what Michail Antonio dubbed the ‘Backstreet Moyes’, a reference to the choreographed team celebration during the win over Tottenham last month. In every sense, a band of brothers has emerged.
Despite rising into the coveted positions for the first time in five weeks following the tense 3-2 win at Wolves last Monday, Moyes says his players are not feeling the pressure of the chasing pack.
“There’s a real team spirit and it’s good for a manager as it helps you in difficult times,” the West Ham boss tells Sky Sports.
“Being around the dressing room at the moment is a good place to be and training has to be light-hearted due to the period that we’re in. There’s a bit of fun at times and thankfully the players are getting on well but that also comes from winning and feeling good about your results.
“This time last year, we had to win games in order to stay in the Premier League so we’re actually all feeling very light and not heavy. We’re going to try to play the games in that fashion and try to enjoy them. We’ll try to take a few risks, try to go for it and see if we can win them. The aim is to try to finish around the top end.”
The London Stadium has been a tale of redemption this season. The Hammers were beaten nine times at home last year – only Southampton and relegated Norwich suffered more defeats – while a run of 12 points from the final seven matches secured West Ham’s top-flight status.
With only Crystal Palace and Burnley boasting an older average starting line-up, Moyes has identified a way of playing where his side have on average sat deeper than any other Premier League team this term.
The West Ham boss has carried the improvements following the first COVID-19 lockdown into this term and kept adding to his squad, believing consistency in performance has been the major driving force behind the dramatic turnaround in results.
He continues: “We have built on where we finished last season and managed to buy one or two players that have helped us along, but more importantly the mentality both on and off the field has changed. We are demanding more from them and consistency is the biggest thing that we have been looking for.
“Consistency is the key reason we are where we are. We have picked up some really good results this year. We have had some games where perhaps we have been a bit fortunate, but you have got to carry a bit of luck when you are fighting near the top. The determination of the players has been at the highest level and the recruitment of players has really worked.
“We keep trying to add young players to turn us into a young, hungry team. They have shown their determination to try and stay up there for most of the season and I hope we can do that in the remaining games as well.”
The January arrival of Jesse Lingard has almost single-handedly provided the team with a new dimension, with four of West Ham’s five goals from counter-attacks coming after the on-loan Manchester United forward joined, a number that is only bettered by Leeds across the entire campaign.
West Ham’s success on the pitch has been reflected in record numbers on the first day of season ticket sales this week, nearly four times as much interest as during the same timeframe ahead of last season.
There is a real buzz around this part of London with the Hammers having collected 28 points from their home games so far, behind only Manchester City. Moyes is excited to be part of future growth, acknowledging the importance of maintaining strong home form when fans return next season.
“We are very proud of our home record,” he says. “It’s something that I think nobody would have expected so I am really looking forward it becoming even tougher to win here when the supporters come back in. It’s a great start for the players as we have got to make the best of it. We have got a really good stadium, and we have to try to pick up as many points at home as we can.
“I’m smiling because I think this is the sort of club where we do not have turnstiles nowadays but I can imagine if fans were coming back to watch the team, they would be queuing up and they would need to come early to get in because there would be no tickets left.
“Nowadays, it’s season tickets but I think the East End of London and the West Ham supporters will be desperate to get back because the team’s doing so well. Hopefully, they will come back and see an ever-improving team and we will hope to continue improving it if we can.
“It’s great news because we want the supporters back and if we keep going the way we are, I am sure the London Stadium will be full every week.”
The visit of Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester side will provide an examination of West Ham’s ability to absorb injuries to key personnel, with Antonio set for a period out of the side with a hamstring injury.
West Ham’s ability to cover ground has been in stark contrast to previous seasons, with Tomas Soucek and Declan Rice ranking first and seventh respectively in the Premier League’s top distance-runners. But with Rice out with a knee injury, the midfield responsibilities are likely to fall on the experienced Mark Noble, who is in line to make his 400th Premier League appearance for the Hammers against Leicester.
With Antonio joining Rice in the stands this weekend, Moyes is relishing the challenge and insisted on Friday he has no regrets over the decision not to bring in a striker in January, pointing to the success of Lingard since his arrival on loan from Manchester United.
Sebastien Haller departed for Ajax in January for £20m – less than half the fee paid for the 26-year-old – but the club opted against signing another back-up striker, a decision that was questioned at the time.
Jarrod Bowen could be in line to feature as part of a fluid front line this weekend, and Moyes confessed he may have to think outside the box in order for the Hammers to sustain their top-four charge.
“It’s all part of a manager’s job,” the Scot says. “When you arrive at a club, you get given a hand and a squad of players. When I arrived, we had a group that was faced with the danger of relegation so I had to find a way of winning to get out of trouble.
PL teams in top 4 contention
“We moved towards putting Micky [Antonio] up as a centre forward and it worked well, so while it’s not the same scenario now it’s a similar situation where we’re looking within the squad to find new ways of winning.
“It’s my job as the manager and every team in the league has got injuries. We have to try to find a way of overcoming the loss of players who are clearly important to us.”
It is the first time West Ham have been in the top four in April since 1986 while this weekend’s opponents Leicester were the last non-big six team to finish in the top four back in 2016 during their miraculous title-winning season.
Prior to Claudio Ranieri’s unforgettable year, it was Moyes’ Everton side of 2005 that last finished in the top four from outside the so-called elite, and the Hammers boss believes repeating that feat this time around would be an even greater achievement.
“I think it would be,” he admits. “I’d been at Everton for three years by then so that would mean it would be a bigger achievement given we’re already competing. But the main issue is you want to be a club that is in contention for European football regularly.
“It’s the sign of a big club if you have got European football but we’re still a long way away from that. If we can scrape into one of the competitions this year, it would be a start and another building position. The goal would then be to try to make it more regular in order to return the club to the level it’s been at many years ago.
“It would not be something new for the club, but it would be new in the modern era of West Ham. I still feel the Premier League has an established order.
“There’s a lot of teams knocking at the door to see if they can get in, and I think there’s a few of the big teams worried about it because we see that in other situations and other developments with talk of a new [breakaway] league, but here at West Ham we are just starting the process to try and challenge.
“We are having a really good season at the moment, we are trying to stick with it and we are not hiding from the fact we believe we are outsiders. But we also believe we have got a great opportunity so why do not we try to attack it full on?
“I feel the big teams will remain the big teams because their finances will always help them. The other teams will try and challenge but Leicester were a great example as nobody thought they could win the Premier League.
“I think most people will not expect us to make Champions League, so I hope we can try to do something very similar to what Leicester did when they went on to win the league.”
Moyes praised the role his coaching staff have played in maintaining the side’s push to finish in the European places, especially during the period in which he was forced to watch on from afar as a result of contracting coronavirus.
The manager has the option of triggering a contract extension at the end of the season, and open dialogue with the owners is progressing towards what should be a formality.
Moyes ends: “I’m happy and as I’ve said many times, I do not want anything to get in the way of where we are going at the moment so I just want us to keep focusing.
“Things are nudging along in the background and hopefully we will get something done in time, but I am more interested in getting a win against Leicester and trying to hang in there to see how many games we can win between now and the end of the season.”
‘Moyes should be on long-term contract’
Former West Ham striker Tony Cottee:
“After last season where they just about avoided relegated, I don’t think even the most optimistic of West Ham fan would have even dreamt about Champions League. It’s not something that normally happens in the club’s history and it’s been many years since they have been near the top five or six.
“So it just shows you what a brilliant job David Moyes has done. He’s been excellent with his man management, he’s made some really good signings and they have got a great team spirit. Everything’s really positive at the club and it’s a massive turnaround from what was going on this time last year.”
How important will it be to sort out Moyes’ future, with his current contract running out in the summer?
“It’s absolutely vital. When he arrived back at the club, most supporters were not questioning David Moyes but the wisdom of getting rid of him in the first place, putting Manuel Pellegrini in charge and then bringing him back. I do not think there’s ever been a question on his ability to man manage having seen what he did at Everton.
“What he did at Everton is what he needs to do at West Ham and what he has been doing. I have been saying for months they need to tie him down. How on earth can you expect a player, for example Lingard, to sign on a three or four-year contract if the manager isn’t? It does not make sense to me.
“Moyes should be on a long-term contract, and at that point he can go to a player and tell them to come along with him on the journey. I just hope the fans can return soon so they can given the manager the adulation he deserves. He’s done a fantastic job so far.”
Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol:
“One of the first things he did last summer was he got all the players together and he showed them all the stats from last season. He basically said, ‘look at these numbers. You are not running enough, you are not tackling enough, you are not working hard enough’. A lot of the players have said that it was a real wake-up call for them.
“He’s like an old school manager. He really runs the club now, especially with anything to do with football. He has taken charge of the recruitment. In the past, we have seen West Ham be really hit and miss in the transfer market, taking risks on players and the moves have often just not worked out.
“They have spent big money on players under Manuel Pellegrini and the moves just did not work out. Moyes has the final say when it comes to transfers. Jarrod Bowen, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal, Craig Dawson, Jesse Lingard are all players that Moyes identified and brought to the club.”
Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson:
“What a huge win for them at Wolves! I like West Ham. I like their fixtures for the run-in. They are a really kind set of games. If they were Liverpool, Chelsea or Spurs’ fixtures, you would say they were a shoo-in for the top four, but it’s West Ham and there is this nagging doubt. You just do not know how they will stand up to the pressure of the run-in.
“An injury here and an injury there and all of a sudden, they could be in trouble. They already have Declan Rice out and Michail Antonio picked up an injury on Monday, so they will not want to lose too many more players.
“However, I cannot get away from their fixtures. They have got the best fixtures out of everybody in my opinion.
“It’s a massive game for them against Leicester this weekend. If West Ham can win that then you look at Leicester and start to worry. They could then be in a bit of trouble. But if Leicester win you worry for West Ham’s chances. That’s how quickly things can change.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Hammers and I really do think they have got every chance.”
West Ham will do whatever it takes to sign Lingard
Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol:
“The situation is he’s on loan until the end of the season and West Ham do not have the option to buy. After this summer, he only has 12 months left on his Manchester United contract. He is just focusing on playing for West Ham and trying to get in the England squad for the Euros this summer. There have been no talks between United, West Ham or any other club about him moving permanently.
“Everyone has seen how well he has been playing and I am sure other clubs will be interested in signing him if United want to let him go. He could even be offered a contract extension, but as far as West Ham are concerned, they want to sign him this summer and will make a big move to try and sign him permanently from United.
“The only problem at the moment is the better he plays for West Ham, the more his price goes up. It’s a loan deal that has suited all parties, but the desire is there from West Ham.”
Former West Ham striker Tony Cottee:
“There was always a fantastic player there. When the club signed him on loan, we all hoped they were signing the Manchester United player of three or four years ago. It was just a case of whether West Ham could get the best out of him. He’s been absolutely fantastic and has been given licence from the manager to go out and show his talents.
“A few years ago he was playing in a World Cup semi-final so that’s how good a player he’s been. The other players look up him as he’s gone into that dressing room and I feel the others have seen how good a player they have got on their hands. He’s gone and proved that to the players. He’s gone back into the England squad and he’s going to be vital if West Ham have any chance of getting into the Champions League.”
Follow West Ham vs Leicester on Sky Sports
West Ham vs Leicester will be shown live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 2pm; kick-off 2.05pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.