On initial inspection, West Ham’s summer transfer business looked impressive indeed. Joint chairman David Gold promised players with Premier League experience and he delivered, Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez arriving at the London Stadium.
Football isn’t played on paper, however, and West Ham’s performances on grass have left a lot to be desired – particularly their new signings.
Hart continues to look a shadow of the keeper who once went toe-to-toe with Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer for the title of the world’s best, Hernandez has been largely anonymous barring a two-goal display at Southampton while Arnautovic was sent off for a stupid elbow on Saints defender Jack Stephens and copped a deserved ban.
Zabaleta, however, a pillar of consistency during a decade at Manchester City, had not started much better. The affable Argentine looked every one of his 32 years as The Hammers lost their first three Premier League games, conceding 10 goals in the process. He also gave away the last minute penalty that gifted Southampton the winner on matchday two.
Therefore, his impressive performance in Monday night’s relief-inducing 2-0 win at home to Huddersfield Town could hardly have come at a better time – and the supposed ‘tactical dunce’ Slaven Bilic deserves some credit for coaxing an improved performance out of a player who looked finished at the top level just a few weeks earlier.
Under-fire coach Bilic set up West Ham with a three-man defence against Huddersfield, unbeaten in their first three league games, and Zabaleta lined up in a right-wing back role.
And the two-time Premier League champion impressed at both ends of the pitch, producing two key passes, supplying two crosses and ensuring West Ham kept their first clean sheet of the season.
The wing-back role appears to suit Zabaleta far better than playing in a flat back four, ensuring his lack of pace is not exposed on the flanks due to the cover provided by an extra centre-half.
It also gave him the licence to get forward and, at the risk of speaking to soon, has breathed life into a West Ham career that had looked lifeless from day one.