Despite win over Swansea, West Ham are still very much a work in progress
At the final whistle against Swansea City on Saturday, some West Ham players dropped to their knees and raised their arms in celebration, as if they had won a major trophy. Meanwhile, in the technical area, manager Slaven Bilic, bent double in supplication and clenched his fists; his job saved for at least this season.
It may only have been a nervy 1-0 home win over a relegation-threatened side, who did not look like a team fighting for their own Premier League survival, but in any context, it was enough. Beset by injuries -- and when is that never an issue at West Ham? -- and lacking confidence after six straight defeats, the team may have come unstuck against hardier opposition. Swansea provided little, however, and had Jonathan Calleri, Manuel Lanzini and even Sam Byram been more clinical in front of the goal, the Welsh side might have suffered an even bigger dent to their fragile confidence.
In fact, the performance of right-back Byram and Arthur Masuaku on the left, showed just how quixotic the Premier League can be. Torn apart by a supposedly struggling Arsenal outfit just days before, the two defenders looked unsure and out of their depth at the Emirates. On Saturday, against a lacklustre Swansea side though, the pair performed impressively. A late block by Byram brought a welter of congratulations from teammates and, although a good indicator of the spirit in the side, the demonstration did seem to indicate the need to boost the confidence of the 23-year-old. The enthusiastic reaction by Mark Noble in particular was well-received by the crowd, but it did seem an odd response by the captain to a player really just doing what he should be doing anyway.
Perhaps that incident showed in one small detail, the issue that Bilic has this summer.
With weaknesses throughout the team and on the bench, a decision needs to be made at board level on how to improve. Players like Byram and Masuaka aren't seen as the type who can cope with the opposition they are likely to come up against when facing a team in the top six. Against a team in the bottom half however, the pair looked confident enough to deal with most things they'd be expected to face. Much will be down to confidence and regular game time. Byram, in particular, has suffered greatly from this. But if the manager doesn't show confidence in a player, then what is the point of them being on the squad?
The fact is that West Ham are a mid-table side with too many mid-table players. The difficulty is how the club go about changing that?
News that David Gold and David Sullivan were looking to sell shares in the club were first rumoured and then denied this week. The initial speculation that the pair were looking to sell to wealthy investors was met with enthusiasm on some fan sites. In the eyes of many, last summer's less than stellar transfer dealings was seen as being the owners' fault. The supposed lack of investment is cited by some as the reason that West Ham failed to complement their seventh-place finish last season. Neither was the situation eased in January when Jose Font and Robert Snodgrass were signed, neither of whom have looked particularly comfortable in their first months with the club.
The problem is, it's very difficult to know from the outside who is making the decisions over transfer targets. A reasonable rebuttal suggests that if it was Bilic that sanctioned, for example, the £20 million signing of Andre Ayew or the loan deal for Simone Zaza, then the owners may be wary of trusting the manager with an even bigger transfer budget this summer. It seems likely that Bilic was instrumental in bringing in Gokhan Tore and Sofiane Feghouli to Stratford. Neither has made a significant impact -- Tore's signing in particular has been an embarrassment -- but it's dealings like this that have left the squad shorn of back-up and first-team players with virtually assured places.
On Saturday, the Hammers travel to the Stadium of Light for might well be Sunderland's last throw of the dice in their battle to stay in the top flight. Desperately needing a win, the home side will welcome a West Ham side with key first-team players out. The Hammers will have gained some confidence from the victory over Swansea but, on occasion this season, the team have lacked application and belief. No one can say for certain which Hammers team will turn up. So, once again, as it's seemed all season, the opposition will target Bilic's men as a brittle team that can be beaten.
It's a cycle that needs to be broken and the manager and board need to work together to decide how to move forward.
The first season in Stratford was always going to be difficult but, after surviving it, even bigger decisions need to be made in the summer.
Peter Thorne, aka Billy Blagg (@BillyBlaggEsq), is ESPN FC's West Ham blogger.