Town’s first home game of 2018 always felt like something of a barometer. Before his demise, Mark Hughes proffered the view that Town would find the second half of the season much tougher than the first and while it was easy to dismiss the thoughts of a drowning, rather charmless man (in public, anyway), there was an uncomfortable truth in his words.
A worrying home defeat against an admittedly rapidly improving opponent featured naïveté, below par performances from key players and a rare tactical failure from the manager.
In a devastating second half, a confident and assured West Ham put Town to the sword and inflicted a potentially damaging defeat in front of a home crowd who were, for the first time this season, driven to passive support.
The game had started reasonably well with Town on the front foot without creating much threat but the Hammers slowly took control of affairs and while their passing failed on several occasions in attack, their power in the middle of the park was ascending and the quality of Arnautovic and Lanzini began to blossom.
Nevertheless, there hadn’t been a great deal between the sides before Lössl and Lolley handed the visitors the lead. The Belgian’s decidedly risky pass out to the ex-Kidderminster man was ill advised and not particularly well executed. While Lolley is culpable for a poor piece of control, his keeper had put him in an invidious and unnecessary position – the excellent Noble robbed him with ease and then finished in style past the guilty custodian.
To their credit, Town didn’t crumble but things rarely turn out well when they go behind and the visitors looked more than capable of hurting them between the lines as their formidable front two, assisted by a physically imposing midfield, grew in confidence.
Intermittently, the home side sparked in to life and on 40 minutes, Joe Lolley atoned for his earlier error with a wonderful goal, receiving the ball from the alarmingly under par Mooy before cutting in and curling a great effort past Adrián.
Finishing the half strongly, the hope was that the equaliser would simultaneously deflate the Hammers and provide a solid foundation for the second half. Sadly, nothing could have been further from the reality.
Within 15 seconds, West Ham exploited a sleepy home defence with a simple long ball. First, Zanka reacted too slowly to the threat and was beaten in the air by Kouyaté who flicked on to Arnautovic. The Austrian bamboozled Smith and hit a perfect finish past the exposed Lössl.
15 minutes of disarray ensued, in which West Ham scored twice more and could easily have doubled that tally.
The lively Lanzini and Arnautovic threatened constantly, Town’s tormented defenders looked ever more fragile and a shambles ensued.
Smith inadvertently played Lanzini onside from an Arnautovic through ball and the Argentine’s powerful finish left Lössl with no chance and Town bereft. The fourth, another fast break finished again by Lanzini finally extinguished the already less than faint hopes of recovery.
It was a comprehensive demolition with the visitors exploiting the Terriers’ weaknesses with cruel efficiency.
Not unnaturally, the Londoners appeared reasonably content with the scale of the defeat they were inflicting on their traumatised hosts and, coupled with a long overdue tactical change by Wagner which saw Kongolo replace an out of his depth Smith and the adoption of a back 3, the game meandered to its inevitable conclusion.
It is hardly surprising that Town would suffer reversals such as this in an exceptionally challenging first top flight season, but this one felt a little different and the drying up of the normally raucous support (even in comprehensive defeat) was telling. As it proved, expecting to beat a resurgent West Ham as something of a formality was foolish – the visitors were very, very good for significant chunks of the game and recalibration of expectations may be helpful for the future.
Neither is it surprising that some of the current squad are being found out. It is no disgrace for example that Tommy Smith is struggling, or that Joe Lolley doesn’t have the touch, strength and awareness of Arnautovic. Building a truly competitive squad will take time and the addition of Kongolo and Pritchard – who looked lively, inventive and, crucially, very positive, is a good start.
With class being permanent and form temporary, Town will be hoping that Mooy recaptures the quality which has orchestrated their rise and promising first half of the season – the addition of Pritchard may well instigate that revival.
The defeat, and the nature of it, was ominous but the impact of Kongolo and Pritchard offers some hope. The defender adds much needed power either at left back or the left side of a back 3 while the ex-Canary should provide greater creativity, shots and effective dead ball delivery.
While it was not much of a surprise that Pritchard’s single day of preparation consigned him to the bench, Kongolo’s omission looked, in hindsight (the amateur scribbler’s friend) a significant error on Wagner’s part.
Up next, Stoke away presents an opportunity. Unlike yesterday’s impressive opponents, the Potters are not in a good place and with reports that their target for manager has developed cold feet, Town would do well to emulate West Ham’s ruthlessness and recover the ground lost.