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When West Ham first began their assault on the upper reaches of the Premier League last season, there was always a slightly disbelieving giddiness to their success. After all, to go from a state of indefinite frustration, protests and possible relegation to serene and swashbuckling top-four contenders felt like a rather sudden lurch. Sooner or later, the balloon had to burst. Or so it seemed.
Almost 18 months later, with West Ham already guaranteed top spot in their Europa League group, and the improbable arc of Arthur Masuaku’s freakish winner against Chelsea still causing Edouard Mendy baffled nightmares, it’s safe to assume that anything fragile has long been replaced by grid-iron.
Much of the build-up – and later the post-mortems – to West Ham’s battling 3-2 victory over Chelsea on Saturday focused on the scrupulous calibration of Thomas Tuchel’s machine. And it remains the case that, for all Chelsea’s systematic command of the ball, something is not quite clicking at the moment. No team can be at their best week in, week out, let alone live up to Tuchel’s scrupulous ideals of perfections, but a theme has emerged against Brentford, Burnley, Watford; and now West Ham, where Chelsea seem to become stranded in the same patterns, passing and probing at one dominant pace. There have been mitigating injuries, both in midfield and attack, but that 41 per cent of Chelsea’s Premier League goals have come from defence this season remains something of an oddity.
Of course, it is no catastrophe either. Chelsea are only two points adrift in the title race. Romelu Lukaku may finally be ready to start in midweek, Mason Mount proved he’s returning to somewhere nearer his best with a wondrous volley, and rare, eradicable individual errors have played as much a role in their recent loss of form. This is only a slight and inevitable bump in the road, rather than a hairpin bend over a sea of upturned nails.
But while Tuchel takes to his squad with an axle and wrench, West Ham continue to purr along in almost perfect harmony. It is hardly a sense of quiet, cautious confidence any longer. This season, they have already beaten Liverpool and Chelsea and pushed Manchester City all the way a few weeks ago. There had been a faintly jarring halt to their momentum since the international break, taking just one point from a possible nine, and in days of old the doubt might have crept in, but this is no longer a purple patch people are expecting to flicker and grey. West Ham can endure setbacks without the threat of unravelling and that resilience has underlined all their success, just as it proved when they twice fought back from behind on Saturday.
They might not move with quite the same glamour or intensity as Tuchel’s side, but that is one of the main strengths of what Moyes has built. He came into his second spell with a vision few others could see, let alone ardently believe in. It’s not to say West Ham are the finished article by any stretch, but there are no glaring weaknesses in their reinvention either. A second striker is still needed, but the form of Michail Antonio epitomises how Moyes has sharpened every tool at his disposal. The 31-year-old ran a Chelsea defence that had conceded just six goals in 14 games prior to the weekend ragged in the second half on Saturday, switching angles, speed and pace with an intelligence that caused even the all-knowing Thiago Silva difficulty.
That is just one example. The wider fact is that Moyes has elevated the level of every single player in West Ham’s squad, whether it be Declan Rice’s total control of midfield, Tomas Soucek’s liberated stampedes from box-to-box, or Aaron Cresswell’s sheer consistency. It has been a steady feat of engineering and a ceaseless process of fine-tuning. It may, at times, seem a little old fashioned compared to the clubs that sandwich them in the table, but that only makes it more impressive. It might not have a metallic coat of paint or rev loudly with self-satisfaction, but you get the sense that is just how Moyes prefers it. Make no mistake, he has built a machine fit for all terrain, and there are few signs of it slowing down yet.