Obviously many EPL twists and turns remain, as the season’s still only six games old, but West Ham is now in third place, tied with Leicester City, behind Man City and Manchester United. However, while Leicester should be falling back to earth sometime soon, it would not come as a surprise to see these Hammers competing for a top six spot in the Premier League this season -- which would represent rarefied air that this East London club hasn’t breathed since 1998-99, when West Ham United finished fifth.
In truth, West Ham should probably be on top of the standings, as its only losses came while finishing with 10 men against Bournemouth and Leicester.
There’s a nice mix of talent on this squad, and its hot start came without former Barcelona stalwart Alex Song, who turned down bigger clubs to return to West Ham, as well as Ecuadorian attacker Enner Valencia. Both will be out through October due to injury. The Hammers brought in Victor Moses, the winger on loan from Chelsea, and Croatian striker Nikica Jelavic from Hull. Added to a roster including the outstanding Senagelese midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate, countryman Diafra Sakho at striker, Spanish goalkeeper Adrian, Winston Reid in central defense, English youngster Carl Jenkinson at right back, as well as captain Mark Noble, who’s been at the club since 2004, among others.
CLANGING FROM DAY ONE. Trying to follow every little thing that happens in Europe during the summer offseason simply isn’t possible. Sometimes it just makes more sense to wait until the transfer window closes, ask for a scorecard, and then see who ended up where in the world’s most expensive game of musical chairs.
Given this fact, it’s not unusual to hear a familiar name popping up in August on a team, or in a league, that sounds wrong to your ears, though I have to say my ears were nearly dumbfounded while half-watching what I expected to be an easy win for Arsenal on the EPL’s opening weekend. As I heard three names from outside the Premier League that I had always personally rated quite highly, and none of these names were being employed by Arsenal, as all three are now cashing checks from a club that finished 12th in the EPL last season, West Ham United. A fact that saw the club immediately gain my undivided attention, for its good taste, if nothing else.
1. The Magic Man. On opening day, Arsenal seemed almost completely unaware they were facing one of the best table setters in the entire world, and it was nearly comical to see the confused expression on Dimitri Payet’s face in his EPL debut. Payet clearly hadn’t seen a defense (naïve enough to) offer him that much space in years. The Frenchman gleefully toyed with Arsenal time and again during West Ham’s deserved 2-0 win at the Emirates, as the Gunners' pregame scouting must’ve skipped the fact Payet led all of France in assists during two of the last three seasons (including 17 helpers a season ago). Payet, who has three goals and two assists in the EPL thus far, also scored a dozen or more Ligue 1 goals twice in the last five seasons. While it’s West Ham’s gain for now, why Payet wasn't being pursued by the biggest clubs in the Premier League was an utter mystery.
He soon will be.
2. The Invisible Man. Payet may become a star in the EPL; though it’s unlikely Angelo Ogbonna’s name will ever rise to such heights. As the adjectives associated with the 27-year-old Italian central defender don’t sell papers, but they are dear to the ears of teammates and coaches: reliable, strong, steady, accountable and composed.
Perhaps the highest compliment one might pay Ogbonna, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury, is that during his 41 Serie A appearances while winning titles with Juventus, you could hardly ever tell when he was on the field. An estimable anonymity when one considers he achieved it while replacing the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
3. Right Coach, Right Time. Now 47 years old, Slaven Bilic made 48 appearances for West Ham in the late 1990s and he was the youngest coach at Euro 2008, while in charge of his native Croatia. Anyone who’d recently watched him willing his Besiktas teams to perform in Turkey, or in UEFA tournaments, with an intensity that seemed to carry his players to heights they couldn’t reach on their own, may be surprised to learn the now beardless Bilic wasn’t the first choice to get this job. West Ham will be grateful it failed while angling for bigger names, ones who won’t offer this club with modest dreams what Bilic will, and that’s his heart and soul. Funny, strange and often more honest than his peers during interviews, Bilic is eminently likable, communicates well with his players, and he’s certainly a big reason there’s an odd harmony afoot at West Ham.
You won’t see chips on the shoulders of these Hammers, they’re well aware they aren’t the EPL’s best team, but they also know they’re good enough to beat any team in England on their best day. For bigger clubs, that’s not enough, and that in itself may be West Ham’s biggest advantage, as their fans, players and coaches have all seemed to have forgotten this is a business -- they still seem to think they’re playing a game.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” Bilic said after the win over Manchester City. “The one advantage we have is that we have flair players who fight for the team. Players like Payet and [Manuel] Lanzini are running for the team right at the end and it’s not common for these types of players to do that. They tend to be more flashy.
“That’s why we are winning games and it’s a good feeling,” Bilic said. “It’s like walking into a pub full of girls.”