David Moyes finds winning formula after solving West Ham midfield conundrum
An Englishman, a Brazilian and a Czech stroll into the West Ham midfield. If that sounds like the start of an unlikely joke, then David Moyes has spent much of the season searching for the punchline, without a great deal of success.
When Moyes made Lucas Paqueta the club's record signing in a £50million deal, it was with a view to the playmaker operating as a No10 ahead of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek.
Having struggled to get the best out of Paqueta, however, and then after seeing him excel in a deeper role for Brazil at the World Cup, the Scot was inclined to tinker when the Premier League season resumed.
Numerous systems have been trialled, including with Soucek as the most advanced of the three and a midfield pair, with the 28-year-old left on the bench, justifiably so on his poor first half of the campaign.
But with Soucek's recent return to form and Paqueta fit again after a shoulder injury, Moyes deployed the trio in a genuine midfield three in Saturday's 4-0 win over Nottingham Forest and was rewarded with, collectively, their most effective display.
"That's one of the better days we've had," Moyes agreed, and though Danny Ings's quick-fire double rightly made headlines, this was no late smash-and-grab, the Irons' late breaching of the barricades their reward for 70 minutes of near dominance.
The record shows that Rice scored the third of those goals, and the pick of them, too, with a wonderful curler, but for all the talk of his evolution into a more adventurous, driving midfield player, this was the Englishman's most disciplined display for some time.
Sat deep to allow Soucek and Paqueta to push higher either side, Rice was foot-perfect in possession and made a crucial covering intervention when an error from half-time substitute Aaron Cresswell threatened to open the door for a Forest side who showed little ambition.
With Kurt Zouma closing on a return, Moyes ought to have confidence enough in his defence to stick with the 4-3-3 system heading into more daunting challenges, including Wednesday's FA Cup tie at Manchester United.
"I still want the three of them to try and find goals," Moyes added. "We're trying to get Tomas more goals and trying to get Lucas in positions where he will hurt the opposition more."
The key on both fronts looks likely to be the deployment of Rice across the final few months of his West Ham career.