West Ham didn’t strengthen back in January. Now their lack of depth is costing them

Both of Bayer Leverkusen’s goals were scored by substitutes: Jonas Hofmann and Victor Boniface. When Xabi Alonso looked to his bench for much-needed inspiration, the talent was there. When David Moyes did the same, he was not as trusting of the attacking options available.

Alonso made four changes between the 67th and 77th minute. Within six minutes of entering the field, Hofmann established a breakthrough before Boniface scored in added time to seal Leverkusen’s 2-0 win.

West Ham United had defended well until that point but momentum grew stronger with the Bundesliga leaders, who have yet to lose a game in any competition this season. Moyes’ game plan worked but was ultimately undone when he opted not to make substitutions during a crucial period of Thursday’s quarter-final first leg.

Danny Ings, Divin Mubama and Maxwel Cornet were his offensive options in reserve. Ings struggles to impact games as a starter but scored from the bench in March’s 2-2 draw against his old club Burnley. As a sub, Cornet provided the assist for Tomas Soucek’s late winner in the 1-0 victory over TSC Backa Topola in November. But once again, the duo were unused substitutes. Nayef Aguerd and Ben Johnson replacing Konstantinos Mavropanos and Mohammed Kudus were the only changes Moyes made.

Failure to augment their attacking options in January has come back to haunt West Ham. Kalvin Phillips was the club’s sole signing, despite attempts to secure Al-Ittihad’s Jota and Nordsjaelland forward Ibrahim Osman, who has since joined Brighton & Hove Albion. A loan move for Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal was rejected. Interest in Ajax’s ex-Tottenham Hotspur forward Steven Bergwijn was never formalised with a bid. Aston Villa rejected an offer to sign striker Jhon Duran on loan and Sunderland’s £20million valuation of Jack Clarke proved prohibitive.

West Ham’s Tomas Soucek and Kurt Zouma look crestfallen after Jonas Hofmann’s opening goal (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Said Benrahma left to join Lyon on loan while fellow attacking player Pablo Fornals joined Real Betis in an €8million (£6.8m; $8.7m) deal. West Ham failed to replace the duo and their lack of squad depth has been noticeable this season.

It is not the first January transfer window in which the club have failed to strengthen. West Ham did not sign a player in January 2022 despite being in contention for a top-four finish and in the latter stages of the Europa League. With 11 league games remaining, they were two points behind Manchester United but a lack of depth cost Moyes’ side, who only sealed three league wins during the rest of the season.

There are parallels between this season and that 2021-22 campaign. West Ham are feeling the consequences of failing to strengthen in January, which, come the end of this season, could be viewed as a missed opportunity.

Although they remain in the hunt for a top-six finish, reaching the semi-final of a European competition for a third season looks arduous, with Emerson Palmieri and Lucas Paqueta suspended for the second leg at the London Stadium on April 18.

But there were some positives from their loss against Leverkusen: Michail Antonio made defender Jonathan Tah endure a tough evening, Lukasz Fabianski produced a number of important saves to keep his side in the game and Tomas Soucek, on his 200th appearance, made two goalline clearances to deny Tah in added time.

With Jarrod Bowen injured and Edson Alvarez missing through suspension, Moyes missed that pair’s offensive and defensive attributes respectively. The manager reverted to a wing-back system and the game plan was working before Alonso’s substitutes changed the game. The Bundesliga champions in waiting had 18 shots in the first half but did not register their 19th until the 65th minute.

“I thought the boys did a really good job,” said Moyes. “If you look through their recent history, Leverkusen score late in games. We were aware of that and we looked to try and change things defensively to make it tougher. Dinos (Mavropanos) came off with an injury and it affected us a little bit. We played against a team that’s a Champions League side and we’re probably not quite at that level.

West Ham United, Lucas Paqueta

Lucas Paqueta remonstrates with referee Artur Dias as he is booked against Leverkusen (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

“But we’re still in the tie and it gives us half a chance in the second leg. It was a blow tonight not having Jarrod and Edson. It’s football and there’s a chance you’re not going due to suspensions and injuries this time of the year. We’ll kick up ourself for next week and hopefully have the crowd behind us.”

West Ham have overturned first-leg losses in the Europa League in their recent history, doing so against following wins against Sevilla in 2021-22 and Freiburg in this year’s last-16 round. Leverkusen could be Bundesliga champions this weekend and Moyes will hope his side can capitalise on any complacency.

“We feel very disappointed because we worked hard for 80 or so minutes,” said Fabianski. “You have to give credit to the opposition because they created lots of chances and kept pushing for a goal. But we’re not going to give up, we have to believe and respond in the second leg. We have a great record playing at home.”

In their 2-0 last-16 second-leg victory against Sevilla in March 2022, it was Andriy Yarmolenko who endeared himself to supporters with his winning goal from the bench. Someone could have a similar impact if Moyes deserves to be more trusting of his attacking substitutes.

(Top photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

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