TThe clock was ticking. Eintracht Frankfurt, with a two-goal lead on aggregate, was comfortable but not impregnable. And even with 10 men, West Ham enjoyed plenty of possession and had four substitutes left to field. And so, with a European final on the line and the climax drawing near, the world eagerly awaited David Moyes’ next move.
As it turned out, Moyes’ next move was to attack a ball boy and get ejected. So close. The margins in this game, and all that. And while this tie was probably already gone by the time he slid down the tunnel, the angry veins in his temples finally receding, the West Ham manager’s departure felt like an oddly fitting epilogue to this semi-final, which began in East London in a bouquet. of bubbles and euphoria, and ended on the banks of the river Main in ignominy and anticlimax.
It was appropriate because it encapsulated how comprehensively the underdogs of the Bundesliga had managed to mess with West Ham’s heads, force them out of their comfort zone, take them to new and terrifying places. Amid a torrent of noise, a threatening undercurrent of fan violence and one of the biggest occasions in club history, West Ham froze, faltered and finally capsized. Forced to live by their wits, to find new solutions as they go, there would be no Plan B: just an exhausted and slightly tired Plan A.
This was as true in the first leg as it was here. On paper, West Ham had the players and the pedigree to prevail. But as the pressure grew, they shrank. The reasons for this are felt to be part physical, part mental and part tactical. A team that operated with simple, well-trained patterns (the switch to wingers, the quick pass to Michail Antonio, the set piece) couldn’t adapt when those patterns didn’t create chances. The courage required to play the ball through the Eintracht press (a fierce and organized press, it must be admitted) was conspicuously absent.
How much of this can be attributed to Moyes remains a point of debate. Certainly he feels it hard to be too critical of a style and system that has brought about perhaps the most sustained period of success West Ham have enjoyed this century. Moyes-ball failed here. But also, Moyes-ball brought them here in the first place. The prevailing impression, instead, was of a team and coach currently operating at the limit of their potential and, frankly, could use a little help.
It could be argued that Saïd Benrahma and Andriy Yarmolenko could have been introduced from the bench a little earlier. But really the broader problem here is one that has been apparent to most West Ham fans for months: the lack of a reliable goalscorer, different angles, different options. Antonio has been a brilliant ballistic force up front for the past few seasons. Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen have bravely stepped forward at times. But Antonio really needs full-time help: someone to challenge him, make room for him, give him a break.
He could also point the finger at Aaron Cresswell for his early red card, perhaps the defining moment in the entire tie. But really it was an error in judgment that stemmed from a basic lack of confidence, fighting Jens Petter Hauge because he couldn’t be sure he would win the duel by legitimate means. (And why is a 5-foot-7 left back left to defend an aerial one-on-one in the first place?) That lack of confidence infected West Ham throughout this tie, and is also indicative of a broader problem.
The financial situation is stable. The template is solid and good. There’s a big-money acquisition in the offing, a massive stadium that after six years is finally beginning to feel like home. And really the problem here is one of nerves. With a more courageous investment in the last two windows, West Ham could have been a challenge for the top four and in a European final. Are club owners and decision-makers serious about the next step? Or will they remain obsessed with value, rationalization, beating their weight? What’s the matter adding some weight?
The progress under Moyes has been palpable. This European campaign has provided West Ham fans with some compelling memories and their players with valuable experience. Similarly, they are already starting to slide back down the Premier League table and risk missing out on Europe altogether next season. Declan Rice could be free in the summer. So what’s the plan? What’s the big idea? What’s the next move?
For Eintracht, this was an unforgettable night: a party of black-and-white tickers, flags and flares, noise that never abated and a wave of emotion culminating in a savage invasion in regulation time. A first European final since 1980 awaits them. They seized their moment. Whether West Ham will ever have the audacity to seize their own remains to be seen.