Before kick-off, anyone in the Olympic Park could smell the foreboding and the dread emanating from the London Stadium. Three weeks on from the Burnley disaster, the five pitch invasions, the coins pelting David Sullivan, everyone trudged up here ready for another nightmare, another slip down the ladder towards the drop. Stewards wore football boots so they could keep up with pitch invaders. The directors’ box was effectively walled off from coin throwers. Marlon Harewood was on the pitch beforehand, imploring fans to stay with the team even if they went 1-0 down.
But all of these precautions felt ludicrously pessimistic once the football got underway.
West Ham – two league wins in their last nine - were 2-0 up after 17 minutes and 3-0 up by the break. The whole afternoon felt like the negative version of the Burnley game: the fans were raucous in their support all afternoon, ole-ing passes at the end of the first half and relaxed, almost at peace, as West Ham played out time in the second half. If Burnley was this club’s nadir then this was almost its opposite. Maybe not their best win of the season, but their most convincing and maybe their most important, pushing them back towards Premier League safety.
How did David Moyes effect this transformation? Well, it certainly helped that they faced a listless, shapeless, spineless Southampton side, one that looked determined to prove that a ‘new manager bounce’ was not inevitable if the players don’t want to play ball. This was Mark Hughes’ first Premier League match in charge and yet after two and a half weeks on the training ground this team looks worse than ever, more deserving and more resigned to spending next season in the Championship.
Every fault of the Mauricio Pellegrino era was amplified here in the vast space of the Olympic ground. Southampton had no obvious plan when they had the ball. None of their players – and they had far more experience and quality in their 18 than West Ham did – took any responsibility at any point. And the simple defensive mistakes they made, conceding three preventable West Ham goals, were damning given the stakes of this match.
Southampton wanted a strong start to turn the home crowd sour, but West Ham started with far more energy and belief. And a clear conviction, on the pitch, on the bench, in the directors' box and in the stands that there could be no repeat of last time. The fans roared off a tearful Michail Antonio as he limped off after eight minutes. And when West Ham started to build their own simple attacks, doubling up down the wings, crosses into the box, Southampton did nothing to stop them.
The first goal came when Mark Noble won the ball in midfield and released Cheikhou Kouyate, storming forward with the ball down the right. Facing no challenge, he squared to Joao Mario on the edge of the box. Mario took two touches to set himself – again, no challenge – and then put the ball through Alex McCarthy’s hands into the top corner of the net, for his first goal in English football.
That was the moment this crowd needed and as soon as that goal went in there was no doubt whatsoever that West Ham would win. It was only ever a question of how many. Arnautovic should have scored when he raced onto Noble’s pass but slid an easy finish wide, but it did not matter. Two minutes later they had their second.
Kouyate found Mario, who had freedom to roam and had drifted out to the right. He swung in a cross, and Arnautovic leaped up in between Cedric Soares and Jack Stephens. McCarthy saved the header but the rebound fell straight to Arnautovic who stuck the ball in the net before any player in red and white even tried to stop him.
The static, passive, shrug of the shoulders defending was exposed a third and final time at the end of the first half. Arthur Masuaku had the ball on the left and swung over a hopeful cross, curling round the defence towards the far post. Arnautovic ran onto it unchallenged and volleyed the ball into the net.
That was that. There was nothing in the second half to get excited about. Southampton did not get any worse – that would have been almost impossible – and Charlie Austin had two half-chances from the edge of the box. But at no point did they look like they were fighting to get back into the game, or even to stay in the Premier League.
Which, with seven games left and the team stuck in 18th, is a problem that Mark Hughes needs to solve.
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