Early winner: David Moyes, victorious once more at Everton
Never go back, so they say. That, apparently, doesn’t apply to David Moyes.
On the first day of 2021, a year into his second spell in charge of West Ham, he returned to Everton and earned his first victory against his former side since leaving Goodison Park in 2013. After four previous defeats on his old stomping ground, the Hammers gave their manager a belated Christmas present, and plenty of reasons to be optimistic going into the new year.
There was certainly a more positive feeling around the London Stadium in the early weeks of the season, with the Hammers flirting with the Champions League places prior to a December downturn which saw Moyes’ men win only one game in six. Moyes’ mood prior to the trip to Goodison Park reflected his team’s recent form, with the manager well aware that his team was up against it on Merseyside.
West Ham were engaging in their third game in six days while Everton were coming off the back of a seven-day break as a consequence of the postponement of the clash with Manchester City. Moyes insisted he wasn’t going to use it as an excuse, but he was only too happy for anyone listening to his spiky pre-match interview to be in possession of the facts.
As it was, he need not have worried. If anything, West Ham looked the spritelier side at Goodison Park, while Everton appeared as sluggish as the rest of us on any given New Year’s Day.
It certainly would not be fair to describe this victory as a smash and grab. Goalscoring opportunities were at a premium throughout a difficult game to enjoy but West Ham managed more shots and more shots on target than their hosts.
Everton were restricted to just two efforts on Darren Randolph’s goal, with the late replacement in the Hammers net made to dirty his gloves on occasions either side of the break. Both were routine saves, with Randolph’s biggest inconveniences being his own goal-kicks.
Randolph, called into action when Lukasz Fabianski was hurt in the warm-up, was incredibly well protected by the Hammers’ defence, which in turn enjoyed the benefits of one of the Premier League’s most effective screening duos.
Everton simply could not find a path forward to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whether they took the aerial route or looked for a penetrative pass. Angelo Ogbonna was as rock-solid as he has been for much of the season, while Craig Dawson, on his second start, gathered his second clean sheet. Either side of that pair only formed this week, Aaron Cresswell continued his stellar season by attempting more shots than anyone else on the pitch, while Vladimir Coufal pocketed Richarlison, who cost 10 times what the Hammers paid for the Czech right-back.
As accomplished as Coufal was, he wasn’t the best Czech player in the West Ham side. Soucek netted the winner with four minutes of normal time remaining but his overall performance reinforced his claim to be one of the signings of 2020. While Rice has anchored Moyes’ midfield exceptionally well this season, Soucek has been a throw-back to the box-to-box players of old. Moyes’ only concern must be the profit that Davids Gold and Sullivan are sniffing on the £19million investment they made in July.
West Ham’s recruitment this year, normally so misguided, is another feather in Moyes’ cap. The manager’s arrival coincided with Mario Husillos’s departure and since then, the Hammers have barely put a foot wrong in the transfer market. Much as Gold and Sullivan would take credit, we have to assume that Moyes is driving their business.
This resolute, clinical display also emphasises the manager’s claim over a change of mentality since he returned to the London Stadium. No longer are the Irons a soft touch. Having made this side difficult to beat, mentally and physically, Moyes’ next job is to find a better balance in attack.
Michail Antonio’s return will doubtless help that. Sebastien Haller is a poor imitation of the 30-year-old – the Ivory Coast star seems to lack the basic instincts required of a Premier League centre-forward – but Antonio’s injury problems remain a worry.
A break in the schedule will help to remedy his latest hamstring problem. After three Premier League games in six days, it is now 15 days until their next, by which time the Hammers may have found attacking reinforcements in the same dark corners of the transfer market they found the likes of Soucek and Coufal.
When they return to action, the Hammers face a pivotal period. Five of their next seven opponents are bottom-six dwellers. West Ham may be tenth but they sit on the same number of points as the five teams above them, up to Chelsea in fifth.
Moyes has spoken of building in layers – he is either seeking to play down expectations or he feels they are currently overachieving. But in a year, the manager has West Ham playing in his image and there are few reasons why the Hammers cannot maintain their premature push for a European spot.