West Ham United suffered a heavy defeat to Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday afternoon, but with six days to go until the Premier League begins, that felt like the least of their problems.
It was undeniably a poor performance, Leverkusen winning 4-0 and dominating physically and technically, despite not being as far along in their preparation for a Bundesliga season that doesn’t start until August 18.
Yet it is the bigger picture that is more concerning for West Ham who, just two months ago, were celebrating the end of a 43-year trophy drought after winning the Europa Conference League in Prague.
This is a club which apparently lacks a common cause, a point crystallised in the relationship between head coach David Moyes and recently appointed technical director Tim Steidten, who are widely thought to disagree on how the squad should be rebuilt. Moyes favours players with Premier League experience; Steitden has historically favoured a different profile and has little experience of shopping in the English market.
West Ham are the only Premier League club to have not signed a player this summer, despite the obvious need to replace Declan Rice (who has joined Arsenal) and Gianluca Scamacca (who is set to join Atalanta), and recently had to advertise on an online transfer marketplace for new players. Understandably, those dynamics are now under intense scrutiny.
West Ham deny that Moyes and Steidten’s relationship has deteriorated beyond repair. Club insiders, who – like everyone contacted by The Athletic for this piece – spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships with those involved, acknowledge that there are differences of opinion but insist that Moyes is not about to resign before the start of the season, or that his job is under immediate threat.
Yet Moyes and Steidten were always unlikely to click immediately. Saturday was a homecoming of sorts for the German, who was in attendance at the BayArena to watch the Leverkusen side he helped to build. Until March 2023, he worked under Simon Rolfes, the Bundesliga club’s managing director of sport, first as sport co-ordinator, then as the club’s head of scouting. He played a significant role in the signings of, among others, Piero Hincapie, Edmond Tapsoba and Jeremie Frimpong, and is one of the architects of a young squad full of developing players appreciating sharply in value.
Steidten was appointed by Leverkusen in 2019 having previously been Werder Bremen’s director of football and, over the three-and-a-half years that followed, the club’s greatest success came from identifying players from beyond the major European leagues. Hincapie, for example, joined from CA Talleres in 2021 for just €6.3million. Tapsoba cost €20m but was signed from Vitor Guimaraes in Portugal. Both are now among the most valuable defenders in European football.
Premier League-based players were rarely part of that process. While Leverkusen signed Callum Hudson-Odoi on loan for the 2022-23 season, Timothy Fosu-Mensah was the only player from England’s top flight to have been signed permanently during Steidten’s time at the club. For him and Leverkusen, it wasn’t a league where they could find much value and, like every club in Germany apart from Bayern Munich, they are a selling team.
Steidten’s experience has often been reflected in the players linked with West Ham this summer. A deal for midfielder Edson Alvarez is getting closer, but a fee is yet to be agreed with Ajax. Denis Zakaria, the Juventus midfielder who spent last season on loan at Chelsea, is on the club’s shortlist but is not seen as a priority at this stage and reports of an agreed transfer are premature.
Moyes was involved in the process of appointing Steidten and he also met with other prospective technical directors before his appointment. But the Scot has a very different history in the transfer market and in the aftermath of Rice’s sale to Arsenal, his preference was to reinforce the squad with players who are already established in England.
A loan offer for Harry Maguire was rejected by Manchester United, although The Athletic understands the centre-back remains an active target. There has also been interest in Scott McTominay, Conor Gallagher and James Ward-Prowse – all established Premier League talents who would not require any bedding in.
Any issues around these players are less about their quality than their cost and West Ham’s refusal to pay what they consider to be over the odds.
This stance has been complicated by the sale of Rice. According to an agent with knowledge of the situation, failing to sign his replacement before his move to Arsenal has caused significant frustration within the club. Having earned £105million from selling their captain, West Ham have since struggled for leverage in negotiations, with every club now aware of exactly how deep their pockets are.
Reasonable point though it may be, it is hardly an unusual situation. Rice’s departure was also a long time coming, with Arsenal’s pursuit of the player dating back to January. In addition, Premier League clubs as a collective have had long enough to get used to the tax that their wealth attracts and plenty of opportunity to refine their strategies.
The negotiations for Ward-Prowse, which remain at an impasse, sum up their problems. The midfielder’s experience and quality from set pieces are valued by West Ham (both by Moyes and Steidten), but there remains a difference in valuation between the two clubs. West Ham’s most recent offer – believed to be £27m up front and £3m in additional fees – has been rejected by the Championship club. West Ham believe they’ve met the player’s asking price. Southampton disagree.
A thumping in Leverkusen was not what anybody at West Ham needed. There was nothing in the performance at the BayArena to generate any enthusiasm for the season ahead or to cast doubt on supporters’ fear that failing to strengthen this team might have very serious consequences. After all, for all their European success, it was only in early May that all thoughts of relegation were finally banished.
As ever in pre-season, the mood can change quickly. West Ham are confident of completing their first signings of the summer before they travel to Bournemouth in a week’s time and, in so doing, quietening the conjecture around their head coach and their new technical director.
On Saturday’s evidence and with rumours continuing to rumble, that seems like a necessity. West Ham need to get on the same page. And quickly.
(Top photos: Getty Images)