The deadline was approaching but West Ham were not in a rush. Although there was a clamour for them to sign a new striker after Sébastien Haller joined Ajax for £20m at the start of January, the right option never appeared. Bids for Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri and Montpellier’s Gaetan Laborde were rejected, interest in Reims’ Boulaye Dia fizzled out and although David Moyes targeted Joshua King last summer, West Ham were content to stand aside when Everton hijacked Fulham’s move for the Norway forward.
It seemed that West Ham were suffering from a familiar flaw: failing to build from a position of strength. Allowing Haller to leave was undeniably a risk given that Michail Antonio, the squad’s only striker, is susceptible to hamstring injuries. It left Moyes without depth up front, threatening to derail West Ham’s unlikely push for Champions League qualification.
Resentment towards the club’s board resurfaced. There were grumbles when Antonio toiled in the recent draw with Fulham, his weariness betraying him when he pulled up during the second half. It was a predictable turn of events. Three days later West Ham lost 1-0 after lining up without a striker against Manchester United in the fifth round of the FA Cup, with Andriy Yarmolenko struggling as a false nine before going off injured.
It exposed the reliance on Antonio. Mipo Odubeko, an 18-year-old striker, is raw. As January wore on, though, it became clear that West Ham were prepared to hold back. Finding value in a depressed market was not easy. With Moyes in charge, their recruitment is less scattergun. Their attempts to cover holes in attack during previous winter windows make for grim reading, while even Haller was essentially a panic buy at £45m, swept in at short notice after Marko Armautovic left in July 2019.
In that context it was worth pausing for a moment. Was it wise to spend for the sake of PR? Did giving the 29-year-old King a big contract represent good business when West Ham have so often caused long-term problems with short-term fixes?
Time will tell if West Ham, who are also without Angelo Ogbonna in defence, made the right call. Although there is no alternative to Antonio, who is a doubt to face Tottenham on Sunday, there is still cause for optimism. Moyes has been defying the odds all season and he did attend to other parts of his attack last month, signing Jesse Lingard on loan from Manchester United.
The challenge is finding ways to adjust and although Lingard is not a striker, his nimble movement in an advanced role helped West Ham overcome Antonio’s absence during their 3-0 win over Sheffield United last Monday.
This is where Moyes often shines, hunting for bargains who can lift his team’s level. Lingard arrived hungry after a tough period, which saw him miss a significant chunk of the season due to having to self-isolate “a few times” after coming into contact with a number of people who had Covid-19. The 28-year-old has shown no signs of rust. He marked his debut with two clinical goals in the 3-1 win over Aston Villa and his dynamism troubled Sheffield United, who could not handle Lingard’s interplay with Jarrod Bowen.
West Ham are benefiting from a player with a point to prove. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes pushed him down the pecking order last season, when he finished a disappointing campaign with one league goal, and he was often singled out for criticism when Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side struggled.
It is partly down to image. Lingard’s occasional exuberance on social media has led to criticism, even blurring his contribution on the pitch. But this is a player who has scored in two cup finals and who has helped England reach a World Cup semi-final. Moyes would not have signed a troublemaker and Lingard has quickly made a positive impression, hitting it off with his new teammates.
There has only been one slip-up so far: trying to take the ball off Declan Rice after winning West Ham’s first penalty of the season. But it was soon forgotten. It was better to focus on how Lingard earned the penalty, fastening on to a stray ball near halfway and exchanging passes with Bowen before being chopped down when through on goal.
Lingard oozed class, playing with speed, skill and energy. The numbers backed it up, showing he got four of his five shots on target, had 61 touches and made 36 passes. West Ham had another way of playing. Tomas Soucek offers goals from midfield, while Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Manuel Lanzini bring creativity. But it was Lingard who made the striker-less system work, giving West Ham flexibility without Antonio as a focal point.
It is obvious why Manchester United did not agree to an option to buy in the £1.5m loan deal. Yet the short-term arrangement is working for West Ham. If anyone can make their gamble pay off, it is Lingard.