Tomas Soucek embodies fighting spirit West Ham need to stay afloat

Perhaps, it was inevitable that David Moyes’ unlikely hero would be a 6’4” battering ram disguised as a defensive midfielder. There are few airs and graces to Tomas Soucek – more flailing elbows and lanky strides, towering headers and bloodthirsty tackles – but for what he lacks in finesse, he makes up for in fight. And while Jarred Bowen stole the headlines at the London Stadium, as West Ham finally pierced through the gloom smothering the club, it was their marauding lamppost in midfield who embodied all the gnashing glare Moyes is attempting to instil in his imbalanced squad.

Sunday’s reprieve, an emphatic 4-0 win against Wolves, may only be a short-term antidote for a club seemingly forever on the verge of cannibalising itself limb-from-limb. A grizzled ownership, deficient transfer market, and riled fan base had already morphed into a recipe for “civil war” – as described by David Sullivan last week – just two games into the new season. This was, after all, the poisoned chalice Moyes knowingly returned to in December last year, one that had spat him out fairly gracelessly in the past.

And yet, albeit amid enduring grumblings over Moyes’ rigid tactics, West Ham are still an improving side since Manuel Pellegrini’s departure – even if that is by no means a great compliment. That is as much a progression off the pitch, where after years spent bounding after the nearest dangling bauble, Moyes has wrestled a final say in the transfer market, and largely severed connections with agents regularly accused of having far too great an influence over the club’s outlays.

Soucek, signed from Slavia Prague last January, epitomises Moyes’s attempt to reshape the club’s recent identity. A player who was not quite unearthed by a threadbare scouting department – having attracted interest from Brighton, too – but still arrived to little fanfare at the height of turmoil. The Czech’s impact, steamrolling through the centre of the pitch like a drunk night bus, flattening everything its path, has been anything but understated.

Against Wolves, Soucek won more aerial duels (7) and took more shots (5) than any other player on the pitch, and was desperately unlucky not to score after his deflected header was deemed a Raul Jimenez own goal. He is an enforcer and playmaker wrapped into one oversized wrecking ball. There may at times be a lack of refinement, playing with an almost possessed hunger, but that is also exactly what makes him the perfect accompaniment. Declan Rice has the freedom to set the tempo, recycle possession and probe for openings. And when those gaps do appear, Soucek duly steamrolls into them.

His maverick role bears obvious comparisons to a former Moyes favourite, Maroune Fellaini. A midfielder who was deployed further forwards as time wore on, a soaring presence in each box, whose qualities were always underlined by a blood and guts approach. This West Ham team may bear little resemblance to that sturdier outfit at Goodison Park, from which Moyes routinely squeezed every last drop, but the start of a spine, a defined structure at least, is starting to emerge.

Bowen, after a series of standout performances at Hull, has quickly settled into the team, as perseverant tracking back as dangerous cutting inside, like he did for West Ham’s opener. Michail Antonio’s Indian summer continues to gleam, slightly crude but ever-threatening as a lone forward, while Pablo Fornals, who regularly underwhelmed last season, has begun to show glimmers of his quality on the ball.

Beneath all the animosity, there are the foundations of a strong team there – and, perhaps, that is why there is always cause for such frustration. After avoiding relegation, and financial catastrophe, by the skin of their teeth last season, The Independent was told that, Rice aside, “no player was off limits” when it came to departures. Unfortunately, the majority of those most peripheral are still permanent fixtures on West Ham’s bench, unable to be moved on and replaced, reducing the club’s evolution to a stuttering pace.

That is the price of past mistakes Moyes is having to navigate, steering the club to safety through a sea of largely self-inflicted obstacles. He may not provide a long-term blueprint but, right now, stability is what’s most valuable. Whether victory over Wolves is a first step or a false dawn, sometimes change is born out of dogged determination rather than flair. In Soucek, Moyes has found a midfield obelisk who perfectly epitomises that.

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