Last season, Premier League fans got to watch a couple of Cinderella stories play out in the table. Of course, we had the biggest upset story in the history of the game with Leicester City claiming their first ever league title. A lesser known team surpassing expectations, in my opinion, was West Ham United. The Hammers finished all the way up at seventh in the table and even qualified for the Europa League for the second straight season.
This year, things haven’t exactly gone to plan for either side. Granted, no one really expected Leicester to match their performance from last season, but the Foxes may be falling short of even these limited expectations. Through their first six league matches, Claudio Ranieri’s side have taken home just two wins and seven points out of a possible 18. Compare this record to this time last year, the Foxes were undefeated and had already won three times.
For me, there are a couple of factors that I think are contributing to this slight downturn at the King Power Stadium. First has to be the departure of N’Golo Kante. The French midfielder provided the Foxes with a relentless box-to-box presence that could stifle opposition attacks before they even started. He gave the backline a much needed security blanket, and his absence has become glaringly obvious as of late. 4-1 losses to Manchester United and Liverpool exposed weaknesses of Leicester’s aging backline, and it’s only a matter of time before other teams take advantage of that too.
While their defense has been less than stellar, their attack hasn’t really given them much support in terms of goals. Jamie Vardy has scored just twice, and he hasn’t even had a shot in his last three matches. Their other maestro Riyad Mahrez has struggled to recreate his creativity. Excluding the Champions League, where he’s scored twice, Mahrez hasn’t found the back of the net since the opening day against Hull City and he hasn’t registered a single league assist all season. While the Foxes did bring in Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani, the chemistry just doesn’t seem to be there quite yet.
I think that the attacking problems will sort themselves out with time, but the defensive issues are a real cause for concern. Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs played out of their minds last season, and I think that was more of an exception than a rule. Will the attack find enough momentum to compensate for the defensive lapses?
Switching over to the Hammers, Slaven Bilic’s men have been absolutely abysmal this season. The magic of the final season at Upton Park has dissipated, and the harsh reality of the Olympic Stadium has begun to set in. Other than a narrow 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, West Ham have lost every other match of the season. On top of the league embarrassment, the Hammers were knocked out of the Europa League for a second straight year by Romanian “powerhouse” FC Astra Giurgiu.
The lone bright spot for West Ham has been Michail Antonio. The right back/midfielder currently shares the league lead with five goals, but other than the 26-year-old it’s pretty much been all downhill for the Hammers. They’ve let in the most goals in the entire league with 16 through six matches, including back-to-back 4-2 losses against the likes of Watford and West Brom. Not exactly the brightest of résumés. On the other end of the pitch, outside of Antonio, only two players have found the back of the net, and neither of those two have scored more than once. Essentially, if a team can shut down Antonio, they’ve shut down West Ham.
Even with the defensive mishaps and attacking ineffectiveness, the biggest concern for West Ham has to be the form of Dimitri Payet. Last season, Payet took the league by storm. He was third in the league with 12 assists, and on top of that he put away nine goals himself. After missing the first three games of the season through injuries, the Frenchman has been a shadow of himself. He started off well enough with three assists, including a lovely rabona cross, against West Brom and Watford, but since then he has struggled to live up to the lofty expectations that West Ham fans put on him for his sophomore season.
The 29-year-old had a busy summer with France in the Euros, but even with that added schedule he’s struggled to live up to even a fraction of what he was last season. I have a feeling that if he starts clicking again in the middle of the pitch, West Ham will start climbing the table. I doubt that they’ll be relegation candidates for much longer, but I don’t think that they’ll reach the heights that they attained last season.
With all of the superstar managers and talent that the “top” clubs brought into the league this summer, it was always going to be hard for clubs like West Ham and Leicester to compete on a weekly basis. They have the talent to put a very competitive starting lineup on the pitch, but the overall squads just aren’t there yet.