When Manuel Pellegrini lost his first four games as West Ham manager last season, there were early whispers that the Chilean’s tenure at the London Stadium could be over before it had really begun.
Bottom of the table and with the club beset by off-field problems following their move to the London Stadium in August 2016, a manager known for his calming presence appeared to be struggling to make an early impact.
Twelve months on and the picture at West Ham is very different. A 0-0 draw at Aston Villa on Monday took them to eight points from five games, level with third-placed Tottenham, as well as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Leicester.
Their failure to win at Villa Park prevented them from moving into the Premier League’s top three for the first time since 2015 but, as England international Declan Rice observed, it was a game they would have lost 12 months ago, having been reduced to 10 men with a third of the match remaining.
Pellegrini did not disagree.
That in itself underlines the progress the club have made under the 66-year-old, who is the second-oldest manager in the English top flight and, along with Pep Guardiola, one of only two current Premier League bosses to have actually won it.
West Ham finished 10th in Pellegrini’s first season, an achievement bettered only once since 2009. This season, they are tipped to go higher still.
So, after a decade of upheaval that has included six different managers – this at a club which has had only 17 in its entire history – how has he stabilised West Ham?
Backing the manager
Having used a bit of subterfuge to land Pellegrini – West Ham opted not to deny widespread stories they were trying to get Rafael Benitez out of Newcastle when all the time they were negotiating the former Manchester City boss’s exit from China Hebei Fortune in May 2018 – it made sense that they should back him.
On the pitch and off it, that is exactly what they have done.
Owner David Sullivan has broken the club’s transfer record three times under Pellegrini’s watch, paying £22m for defender Issa Diop, a potential fee of £41.5m for Brazilian midfielder Felipe Anderson and, this summer, £45m for striker Sebastien Haller.
In total, Pellegrini has brought in 11 senior players at a cost in excess of £180m but it is not only on the playing front that Pellegrini has got what he wants.
He also brought in five trusted members of his backroom team. Club sources are adamant there is a strong English presence on the training ground but in assistant Ruben Cousillas, director of football Mario Husillos and fitness coach Jose Cabello, Pellegrini has three men who have worked with him throughout his managerial career.
Another coach, Enzo Maresca, played for Pellegrini at Malaga, while Felix Cao followed him to England, the pair having worked together in China.
Pellegrini has also changed West Ham’s Rush Green training ground, installing more pitches, plus additional gym and medical facilities, which will be expanded still further if planning permission is granted.
A sense of calm
As befitting a man whose two most common nicknames are “This Charming Man” and “The Quiet Engineer”, Pellegrini is not the most demonstrative presence whether in public or behind the scenes.
At Villa Park, he largely stood on the touchline with his hands in his pockets. His post-game assessment of Arthur Masuaku’s dismissal – ‘soft’ – came with the understated pay-off: “It’s the referee’s decision, we cannot complain”.
As his former club Manchester City found, outward displays of emotion are just not Pellegrini’s thing.
This does not mean he shirks big decisions. For a start, look at the names of some of the senior players released this summer; Andy Carroll, Samir Nasri – admittedly signed on Pellegrini’s recommendation – Lucas Perez, Javier Hernandez and Marko Arnautovic.
Either because of injury or poor attitude, the quintet were viewed as a negative presence. The squad that’s left is, according to long-time West Ham watchers, the most united the club has had for many years.
Pellegrini also takes steps to develop that unity. The door to his office is left open and staff are encouraged to speak to him directly if they have a problem.
If Pellegrini has a problem with one of them, the issue will be dealt with in private, an approach that generates a feeling of mutual respect.
A sense of order exists. West Ham went to the same secluded training camp in Switzerland as last year in pre season, their training schedules are set and do not change at short notice.
Because of the fixture schedule, the squad are on a run of 18 consecutive days at the training ground. The main training sessions are hard and tiring.
In pre-season, triple sessions were not unusual but, mindful of the international nature of his squad, days off are grouped together to provide that little bit more freedom.
“The manager’s personality is so calm.” Hammers skipper Mark Noble told BBC Radio Five Live on Friday.
“There are no antics with him. You don’t hear anything. He doesn’t want the limelight and he doesn’t do many interviews but he works with us every day on how to improve. The fans have taken to him and the mentality of the club is changing slowly.
“I really do thing he will be here for years.”
It’s not all about Manuel
Despite his clear impact, Pellegrini cannot be given all the credit for West Ham’s new-found stability.
After years of conflict with their landlords, the club’s controversial tenancy at the London Stadium is now much smoother.
It may seem insignificant but the execution of a long-standing club demand to have the carpet around the stadium changed from green to claret has also had an impact.
It was felt the previous green made the gap between the pitch and the stands feel even bigger. The claret colour has changed that, while also giving the stadium a more distinctive ‘West Ham” feel. Naming a stand in honour of club legend Billy Bonds last season was also seen as an important step.
The innovative “Players Project” has been well received as it keeps the club connected to its east London roots through various community projects assigned to every member of the first-team squad.
While it would clearly be wrong to say all long-standing fans are now embracing West Ham’s new home, the fury that erupted around the home game against Burnley in March 2018 has eased, due, in part, to improved performance on the pitch.
In 2016, after leaving Upton Park, former manager Harry Redknapp said West Ham were capable of becoming the biggest club in England.
The statement was excessive but, with a capacity of 60,000 and the potential to go even higher, West Ham evidently have their sights set on a major improvement on the seven top-eight finishes they have managed in the past 50 years.
Pellegrini will have spoken with Sullivan about the club’s potential when the pair met in Marbella this summer. That face-to-face chat was viewed by club insiders as a sign of mutual trust and faith in the manager.
On Sunday, they host Manchester United and if they avoid defeat will record their longest unbeaten run under Pellegrini. That will represent a pleasing response to the opening-day 5-0 hammering by Manchester City.
“Without any doubts, we are progressing,” he said.
“Apart from our first game, we are not conceding easy goals. After one year, we must keep doing that if we want to be a good team and fight for important targets.”