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​West Ham preview: Pellegrini's style and substance could crash

The first two years of life at the London Stadium have given West Ham United fans very little to cheer about.

The ground's hollow atmosphere reflects an existential crisis that has, twice in as many seasons, threatened the east London club with relegation. Disheartened by poor signings and disenfranchised by the botched move from the Boleyn Ground, the mass protests during a 3-0 defeat to Burnley in March was a new nadir for owners David Sullivan and David Gold.

That infamous running track separating supporters from the players is a decent metaphor for the widening chasm between what Hammers fans were promised and what they were given: a vacuous corporate rebrand that talks of glamour but offers none of the substance.

But this season is different, or at least that's the optimistic angle most fans and pundits have chosen ahead of West Ham's opener against Liverpool this Sunday. A flurry of transfer activity, not to mention the appointment of a Premier League-winning coach with a commitment to attractive attacking football, has soothed concerns for the club's long-term future in England's top flight.

In Manuel Pellegrini the West Ham board have finally found a manager to fit their new swanky image, the Chilean's commitment to bold and expansive football set to brush aside the conservatism of Slaven Bilic and David Moyes.

Their dramatic change of direction has been confirmed by the capture of several high-profile flair players this summer, including Andriy Yarmalenko from Borussia Dortmund for £17.5 million, Felipe Anderson for £36 million from Lazio, and Jack Wilshere on a free transfer from Arsenal. All three are expected to walk straight into the first 11.

And yet there is something unnerving about the club's business; the spectre of past failures looming over Stratford. Alongside Pellegrini's appointment, the argument could be made that West Ham are repeating the mistakes of the summer of 2017, albeit with a higher level of spending.

Twelve months ago Sullivan, Gold, and Karren Brady went for star-power at the expense of level-headed focus on the squad's weaknesses, signing big names such as Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, and Javier Hernandez despite all three being clearly past their peaked. At the time many pundits praised West Ham's summer business only to hastily rewrite their predictions once another ultimately disappointing campaign got off to a tepid start. History could repeat itself over the coming weeks.

Yarmolenko was a rising star several years ago but has faded, the 28-year-old amassing just three goals and two assists in 18 Bundesliga appearances in 2017/18, his only season played outside of Ukraine. Anderson is another player of unfulfilled promise who at £36 million is dining out on reputation more than talent. A mixture of injuries and arguments dogged his time at Lazio, a story that pretty closely mimics that of Wilshere in north London.

And this focus on acquiring charismatic attacking players means, once again, ignoring obvious deficiencies elsewhere. Central midfield remains a serious concern with Mark Noble past his best and Cheikhou Kouyate off to Crystal Palace, while the full-backs remain a problem area.

Then again West Ham are still better placed for a successful campaign than this time last year, and indeed Pellegrini may be just the man to unlock the potential of all three of his marquee signings. What's more Issa Diop looks like a shrewd signing while Xande Silva and Fabian Balbueda both come highly rated, although all three will require time to adjust to English football. Certainly relegation seems far off for a club that can spend in excess of £70 million to add to a roster that already boasts talented attackers such as Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic.

Pellegrini's 4-2-3-1 formation, with high-pressing and quick counter-counters, should suit these two, as well as Hernandez – providing the Mexican striker carries his World Cup form into the new campaign. And yet after two years of instability at the London Stadium chaos and disruption always feels close.

Perhaps West Ham really can target Everton's seventh-place this season, or perhaps Pellegrini – coming into the role after two unsuccessful years in the Chinese Super League – is the figurehead for all that's wrong with the West Ham project: an ageing star whose best years are behind him, offering merely the illusion of prestige. Perhaps their summer signings are genuine coups for a mid-table club on the up, or perhaps the availability of Yarmolenko, Anderson, and Wilshere betrays their fading value.

There really is no way of knowing which way this campaign will swing for Pellegrini and West Ham, although facing Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, and Chelsea in their first six matches, it won't take long for lasting opinions to form.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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