Huddersfield handed reality check as Andy Carroll leads West Ham revival
LONDON -- After four rounds of matches, reality is beginning to bite in this Premier League season. For the winless and goalless Crystal Palace, that realisation saw Frank de Boer sacked. Bournemouth, having also suffered four straight defeats, must trust Eddie Howe to turn things around.
It was a measure of just how badly West Ham had begun their season that they had kicked off their Monday night fixture against high-flying Huddersfield below both those teams. If they had lost to David Wagner's team on their long-awaited return to the London Stadium, Slaven Bilic's team would still be below the club that had suffered the worst ever start to a Premier League season, the poorest return at this juncture since 1924.
Instead, West Ham achieved a scratchy 2-0 victory that temporarily eases the pressure on Bilic and Huddersfield were the team handed a reality check. Play like they did on Monday night again and the bright start to the season -- seven points collected with no goals conceded from three matches -- will quickly become a distant memory.
"We were not good enough," admitted Wagner afterwards. "It was a deserved result, we were second best in more or less every area."
The Huddersfield boss spoke fully in the knowledge the honeymoon period was over. His team enjoyed a kind start to the campaign: not every side in the Premier League is as hopeless as De Boer's Palace were in Huddersfield's 3-0 opening day win at Selhurst Park. Newcastle, beaten 1-0 at home, were familiar opposition from last season's Championship while they should have done more in a 0-0 home draw with Southampton, who have scored in just one match this season.
West Ham, for all their troubles, were rather different, and though many teams in the Championship play long-ball football with a target-man centre-forward, there is nobody quite like Andy Carroll in the lower leagues.
Huddersfield's futuristic pressing game could not cope with the old-school bombardment West Ham aimed at Carroll. On his first appearance in 150 days, the Geordie won 13 aerial duels and had six of 12 attempts on goal in a first half in which Huddersfield were pinned back in their own half.
He did not score either of West Ham goals; Pedro Obiang's shot deflected wildly off the back of Mathias "Zanka" Jorgensen and Andre Ayew stabbed home the second amid panicked defending, but Carroll had definitely softened up Huddersfield.
"You know what you're going to get when he's on the pitch," said Bilic of Carroll, but Wagner could not come up with plan to deal with him.
Carroll is the panic button that West Ham can press on the rare occasions he is fit and available, and far better defences than Wagner's have struggled with him, but the contrast with the involvement of Huddersfield's own striker, Steve Mounie, was clear.
Huddersfield were never able to get their record £11.5 million signing into enough dangerous positions, as the hard-working football that won them promotion (and those seven points) slowed to a halt. Aaron Mooy's playmaking in midfield was dulled by a lack of movement from his colleagues.
"We were not brave enough to ask for the ball in tight spaces and this was a big, big problem," said Wagner, who admitted he was at a loss to find any positives from the night.
"We have to be better at this. The occasion should not influence your performance. If we have learned that lesson then I accept this."
That Wagner bowed to the pressure was troubling since his side had been the favourites going into the game. The London Stadium is not an intimidating, bear-pit atmosphere in which home fans roar on their heroes and West Ham, having conceded 10 goals so far, were not a team strutting with self-assurance.
Birthday boy Bilic, 49 on Monday, was booed when he subbed off Javier Hernandez, off-form and uncomfortable with playing to the left of Carroll, for Ayew. But that decision was vindicated, as Huddersfield could not prevent Joe Hart keeping a clean sheet for a first league match in 23.
The hard yards begin now for Wagner. Saturday's home match with Leicester and the following away trip to Burnley are tough fixtures against opposition that know the Premier League ropes. Novelty value is not enough to sustain Huddersfield.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.