West Ham: Lucas Paqueta battle will take centre stage in new era

West Ham: Lucas Paqueta battle will take centre stage in new era

If David Moyes had had his way, West Ham’s final home game of the season tomorrow, against Luton, might be only a suspected farewell, rather than the real thing.

All season, and even as in recent weeks spiralling results have seen the tide flowing only one way, the manager had insisted that no decision over his future would come until the campaign’s final ball had been kicked.

That all changed on Monday, when against the backdrop of a bank holiday deluge, the current became too strong: a 5-0 thrashing at Chelsea 24 hours earlier, coupled with reports that ex-Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui’s appointment was close to a done thing, saw West Ham accelerate plans.

Moyes, it was announced, would be leaving the club at the end of his contract this summer — by “mutual consent”, as is the language of these things — and at last the uncertainty that must surely have contributed to the Hammers’ late-season downturn had been put to rest. And so attention will shift to the second unknown set to define the West Ham summer, one that, unlike a managerial situation in need of urgent resolution, has potential to rumble on.

Lucas Paqueta was on the brink of leaving the club 12 months ago, when after an increasingly impressive first season in English football, Manchester City’s ominous, admiring gaze turned the Brazilian’s way. At the 11th-hour, though, the transfer collapsed, City pulling out as news emerged that the FA was looking into a series of alleged gambling breaches, relating to betting patterns around the midfielder’s yellow cards.

Paqueta, West Ham’s record signing when joining from Lyon in 2022, has always denied any wrongdoing and is co-operating with the investigation, but it has not gone away.

Lucas Paqueta’s future will be a key facet of the Hammers’ summer (AFP via Getty Images)
Lucas Paqueta’s future will be a key facet of the Hammers’ summer (AFP via Getty Images)

Nor has Pep Guardiola’s interest and the transaction ought to be simpler, with an £85million release clause in Paqueta’s contract about to come into effect, raising the stark possibility that — in an alignment of the stars — next weekend’s trip to the Etihad might be his final game in claret and blue.

City, though, are cautious, having seen the hefty bans dished out to Brentford’s Ivan Toney (eight months) and Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali (10) for gambling offences. In a revolutionary approach, the champions — sticklers that they are — are quite keen to know Paqueta will actually be available to play for them before they cough up any dough.

Radio silence from the FA persists, with all parties in the dark over when the investigation will be wrapped up. Rumours of an imminent deadline are understood to be wide of the mark: a similar probe into then-Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka lasted 17 months before being closed without charge in May last year.

All of which makes West Ham’s summer planning complex. On the one hand, an £85m windfall would be of help to Lopetegui as he plots a significant overhaul of an ageing squad.

On the other, there is enough work to be done without needing to replace the most gifted footballer on the books, whose versatility has been key to balancing a lopsided attack all year, for all his form has dipped in the last month.

The struggle to fill Declan Rice’s boots offers a cautionary tale. For much of the first half of the season, the Hammers looked to have spent well on the likes of Edson Alvarez and James Ward-Prowse, but after the mauling at Chelsea, Moyes was left blaming his side’s fragility on the loss of “the best midfield player in the country”.

Though Moyes has spoken of his admiration for Paqueta’s genius, and of offering the maverick more rope than he would lesser players, the campaign against him has often concluded that a more progressive manager would have extracted more than four league goals and six assists from the same talent.

Whether that is true — and whether it is Lopetegui or Guardiola faced with the task next season — will be intriguing to find out.