The strange thing was that none of Sheffield United’s players even tried to rattle West Ham. Paul Heckingbottom’s side were insipid beyond belief on an afternoon devoid of drama and intensity, their defensive foundations crumbling under the slightest pressure, and it said little for their hopes of staying up that they were so easily swatted aside by opponents who spent the second half protecting their legs before visiting Freiburg in the Europa League on Thursday.
West Ham were playing the game on their terms by that stage, goals from Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek inside the opening 37 minutes allowing them to save their energy for tougher assignments. If there were positives for Sheffield United, who remain bottom after earning one point from their opening seven games, it was only that they did not lose by more.
Do not be fooled by hints of defiance once it was 2-0: West Ham finished the job during the first half, exposing naive defending with incisive attacking, and the absence of any competitiveness when it was goalless will surely raise further doubts over Paul Heckingbottom’s future.
“I look at the first half and probably think we passed the ball OK but we were too loose in possession,” Sheffield United’s manager said. “The distances between us as a team were far too big.
“When we lost possession we didn’t have enough to win it back. It’s clear why we lost.”
It was easy to imagine him focusing on making his side hard to beat after their 8-0 defeat to Newcastle last weekend. For that to work, though, Sheffield United would need to stay switched on throughout. They would have to snap into every challenge and make life horrible for West Ham.
As it was they were incapable of mustering any spirit or organisation. The writing was on the wall when meek defending from James McAtee let Bowen through on the right after five minutes. All that spared McAtee was a poor finish from Soucek, who fired over from close range, but there was no sign of Sheffield United heeding the warning.
They were lucky not to concede when an unchallenged Bowen headed a corner from James Ward-Prowse straight at Wes Foderingham and while the visitors offered a brief threat when Cameron Archer forced Nayef Aguerd to block a goalbound shot early on their resistance soon faded.
West Ham always had an extra gear, particularly when Lucas Paquetá drifted in from the left to create. When the opener arrived, though, there was no role for Paquetá. A patient move developed on the right and involved Edson Álvarez and Bowen combining before Soucek released Vladimir Coufal with a beautiful pass.
The crispness of football worthy of West Ham’s attacking traditions left Sheffield United chasing shadows. Coufal’s forays from right-back overwhelmed Luke Thomas and nobody stayed with Bowen’s run. Given time, there was no chance of the West Ham forward missing as he met Coufal’s cutback with the inside of his left foot and increased his chances of being named in the England squad next week by producing a measured finish for his fifth goal of the season.
“Jarrod’s as close now as he’s ever been,” David Moyes said. “He looks quick, sharp, really slick. To play for England you have to be good at scoring in big games. Jarrod’s doing great for us. He was a wee bit unlucky not to have more goals today.”
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West Ham were soon chasing further goals, Michail Antonio twice going close. Sheffield United were hanging on and the pressure told when a tentative attempt to play out from the back culminated in Gustavo Hamer conceding possession after dropping back from midfield. Emerson Palmieri intercepted his pass, Antonio found Soucek and the midfielder sorted out his feet before beating Foderingham.
Sheffield United, who lost their captain, John Egan to injury, had to fight. Oli McBurnie wasted a golden opportunity just before half-time and the second half began with Coufal thwarting Archer. Alphonse Areola saved a header from Anel Ahmedhodzic.
Yet with West Ham defending well and maintaining a threat on the break, there was no way back for Sheffield United. Winless, devoid of belief and low on quality, they already look destined to return to the Championship.