West Ham's Race for 11th Place
“I’m looking forward to the definition of relegation.”
It is as if Ted Lasso speaks for all American sports fans when it comes to the practice of demoting last-place-finishing teams in order to incentivize clubs, managers, and players to... well... try. It basically means that losing doesn’t just get your coach fired and recycled to another team. No, instead, your entire team gets demoted. It can make an otherwise drab season thrilling. And over in England this year, the relegation race in the FAWSL is actually even more interesting than the race at the top of the table.
It seems, barring any major upsets (or if Arsenal can figure it out), the big three of Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City will find their way into the Champions League at season's end. As it currently stands, 29 points separate number one Chelsea (35) and number twelve Bristol City (6). Bristol narrowly escaped relegation last year, helped along by a very generous bit of futility from Liverpool. Once again, they're the *near indisputable* worst team. You'd expect that means they'll finally get demoted, but don’t speak too soon. Only TWO points separate Bristol City from their closest foes in West Ham United, currently in 11th place with 8 points, only a four point difference from 10th place Aston Villa.
So here’s the question: could Bristol City somehow avoid relegation yet again? Possibly, with a little help from West Ham.
The Hammers have been one of the most puzzling sides in the FAWSL this season. They've lacked consistency in all phases of the game, despite fielding international powerhouses: English standout Rachel Daly, two of the Matilda's finest in keeper Mackenzie Arnold and midfielder Emily Van Egmond, and French international defender Hawa Cissoko, not to mention three-time Czech player of the year Katerina Svitkova. The rest of the roster is no less modest with experience from the NWSL to Division 1 Féminine to the Bundesliga. Yet, they still can’t find success between the bylines.
West Ham have remained near the bottom of the table since opening day, unable to piece together back-to-back strong showings (see: playing Chelsea in a close 3-2 match in December and then getting trampled by the same squad 6-0 four games later). However, their biggest flaw has come in winnable--arguably must-win--games.
Take Wednesday’s match with Brighton and Hove Albion. Hope Powell’s side deserved credit for maintaining gusto off a huge, gutsy win against Chelsea on the weekend. West Ham also entered without Rachel Daly, who was en route back to the United States to join her Houston Dash teammates for preseason (who will likely be welcoming her back with open arms and a leftover Budweiser from the Chaos Cup celebrations).
While shorthanded, West Ham seemed intent on avoiding a loss rather than earning a win, seeking that sweet, sweet safety of 11th place. Throughout the match, they relied on long balls from their backline that more often than not landed either at the feet of Brighton or out of touch. Or, they played the ball back to Arnold and hoped that she would be able to not only stop the Brighton attack, but also command their own offensive. In the first two minutes, the Hammers came out strong in possession, battering Brighton's back line, but strong play from Williams and the rest of the BHA defense gave the Seagulls their footing. West Ham stayed with their high press, but were sloppy through the midfield, leading to unforced turnovers and quick transitions by the host team. Paired with patchy defensive play from the visitors and effective set pieces, Brighton all but dominated a seemingly close match. If it weren’t for Arnold’s tremendous play in net, the scoreline could have easily been 3- or 4-nil in the first 45 alone.
There were moments when it seemed like West Ham might mount a comeback, yet they were just flashes in a cold pan. Laura Vetterlein was robbed of a chance by a miraculous goal-line clearance off the head of Maya Le Tisser, and later struck the crossbar in extra time of the first half. All Brighton had to do was nurse their lead down the stretch. In the words of gaffer Hope Powell (in her best Bill Belichik impression), “They did their jobs,” kept West Ham from scoring, and secured back-to-back FAWSL victories.
Due to the lack of fans, the managers are often heard loud and clear over broadcasts, and Ollie Harder's constant calls of “Get organized!” and “Stay organized!” distinctly rang over the bitterly cold Peoples Pension Stadium. It echoed a theme of the season: lack of on-field organization leading to lack of results. They have it all on paper, but in execution, West Ham falls short of hitting the mark. Case in point: the aforementioned high press causing more problems for West Ham than for their opponents. Connective tissue seems to be the missing ingredient. The bones are solid, the muscles strong, but without those key intangibles--trust, communication, buy-in--West Ham might just be a good team that underperforms.
West Ham does not have an easy schedule looking forward. After the FIFA break, they return to play with 4 of their last 8 matches against one of the top-5 teams. Stealing a win there would all but guarantee West Ham a chance to stay in the top division. However, the real games to watch are the March 17 match up against Birmingham City and the April 19 and May 17 fixtures with Aston Villa. Evidence points to West Ham needing an on-field leader who can right the ship and guide them to safety from relegation. Some good performances will keep them safe. But otherwise, eyes may increasingly turn to the team chasing them. It doesn't seem possible that Bristol City can escape again. But they managed it last year, and maybe they've got a second round of luck in store for 2021.