The clock was ticking. Eintracht Frankfurt, two goals up on aggregate, looked comfortable but not impregnable. And even with 10 men, West Ham were enjoying plenty of possession and had four substitutes left to deploy. And so, with a European final at stake and the climax approaching, the world eagerly awaited David Moyes’s next move.
As it turned out, Moyes’s next move was to attack a ball boy and get himself sent off. So close. The margins in this game, and all that. And although this tie was probably already gone by the time he was slinking down the tunnel, the angry veins in his temples finally receding, the departure of the West Ham manager felt like a bizarrely fitting epilogue to this semi-final, one that 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 fitting because it encapsulated just how comprehensively the Bundesliga underdogs had managed to mess with West Ham’s heads, to force them from their comfort zone, to take them to new and frightening places. Amid a torrent of noise, a menacing undercurrent of fan violence and one of the biggest occasions in the club’s history, West Ham froze and faltered and finally flipped. Forced to live on their wits, to find new solutions on the fly, there would be no Plan B: just a depleted and slightly weary 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 shrunk. The reasons for this feel partly physical, partly mental and partly tactical. A team operating on simple, well-drilled patterns – the switch to the wingers, the quick ball into Michail Antonio, the set piece – was unable to adapt when those patterns failed to yield chances. The courage required to play the ball through the Eintracht press – a fierce and organized press, admittedly – was conspicuously absent.
How much of this can be laid at the feet of Moyes remains a point of debate. Certainly it feels harsh to be too critical of a style and a system that has brought perhaps the most sustained period of success West Ham have enjoyed this century. Moyes-ball failed here. But also, Moyes-ball got them here in the first place. The overriding impression, conversely, was of a squad and a coach currently operating at the very limits of their potential, who – frankly – could use a little help.
You could argue 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 last few seasons. Thomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen have gamely stepped up at times. But really Antonio needs some full-time help: someone to challenge him, make space for him, give him a rest.
You could also point the finger at Aaron Cresswell for his early red card, perhaps the defining moment in the whole tie. But really it was an error of judgment that stemmed from a basic lack of confidence, grappling Jens Petter Hauge because he could not be sure of winning the duel by legitimate means. (And why is a 5ft 7in left-back being 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 wider issue.
The financial situation is stable. The squad is solid and good. There is a big-money takeover in the offing, a huge stadium that after six years is finally beginning to feel like a home. And so really the issue here is one of nerve. With some brave investment over the last two windows West Ham might have been challenging for the top four and in a European final. Are the club’s owners and decision-makers serious about taking the next step? Or will they continue to obsess over value, streamlining, punching above their weight? What about adding some weight?
The progress under Moyes has been palpable. This European campaign has provided West Ham supporters with some irresistible memories and their players with some valuable experience. Equally, they are already beginning to slip back into the Premier League table and are in danger of missing out on Europe altogether next season. Declan Rice could be off 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 fiesta of black and white ticker tape, flags and flares, a noise that never subsided and a wave of emotion that culminated in a wild pitch invasion at full time. A first European final since 1980 awaits. They seized their moment. It remains to be seen whether West Ham will ever have the audacity to seize theirs.