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Changes leave Hammers heading south

Football clubs' identities evolve. There was a time when West Ham were the epitome of stability during a 90-year spell when they only had five full-time managers. Like many of their counterparts, they have already had six in the last decade and the co-owner David Sullivan has denied a seventh will soon be engaged to replace Avram Grant.

In other respects, however, the Hammers seem to remain resolutely impervious to change. After a tumultuous few years, the appointment of Grant and change in ownership from impoverished Icelanders and their beleaguered banks seemed to suggest they could cast aside concerns of relegation.

The start to this season indicates otherwise. It is not merely that West Ham prop up the Premier League, having conceded three goals in each of their three defeats, but the manner of the losses, the sense of confusion and the early search for excuses that is worrying.

Sullivan, for instance, has been criticising the club's foreign players who "wanted to leave" and "couldn't be bothered". Yet all eight of West Ham's summer signings are, yes, foreign. Not one of the six who had arrived by then started the defeat to Manchester United, when the presence of Pablo Barrera and Frederic Piquionne on the bench is a rebuttal of claims that injuries accounted for the wholesale absences.

That was a third straight loss. With Grant's reunion with Chelsea on Saturday, followed by a trip to Stoke and the visit of Tottenham, it is far from impossible that West Ham will be pointless after six games. Perhaps it was his inherent defensiveness that prompted Grant to say that his side's start ranked among the hardest in Premier League history - as it included a journey to Aston Villa, who, five days after Martin O'Neill's resignation, could have been in disarray, plus a home match against Bolton, the first two games scarcely seem the toughest imaginable. And while blaming the Premier League created a siege mentality at Portsmouth, it is less plausible now.

The consequence of a slow start is that West Ham find themselves five points adrift of the Wanderers of Bolton and Wolverhampton and four behind other potential rivals in Newcastle, Sunderland and Blackpool. They are scarcely insurmountable deficits, but it is hardly promising either.

But West Ham have become a club of contradictions, lofty rhetoric meeting lowly reality. The close-season quest for newcomers was typically high profile, but ultimately anti-climactic. They talked about Miroslav Klose, Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Loic Remy, Robbie Keane and Joe Cole and ended up with Tal Ben-Haim. The notion of quality appears to have been replaced by a policy of quantity. The contingent of new squad players may block the path for some of the prolific academy's prospects but hardly alleviates the reliance on the spine of Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole.

It may be unfair on Barrera, who has shown some promise, Winston Reid, who had a fine World Cup, or the injured Thomas Hitzlsperger to talk of an injection of mediocrity. But the question of the calibre of the recruits stretches from the pitch to the dugout.

Meeting Chelsea is a reminder of both Grant's achievements - he was one slip away winning the Champions League - and the widespread perception that he inherited a team so supremely organised that it could run on auto-pilot. At Portsmouth, while he walked into a financial and administrative mess, he was nonetheless bequeathed a well-drilled, spirited side by Paul Hart. At Upton Park, however, there is no such legacy. Change, not continuity, is required.

Grant has to fashion his own team, to reverse the decline of last season and to introduce a steeliness that was sadly lacking in Gianfranco Zola's final year in charge. The initial impression, however, is that the Israeli, like an overqualified caretaker-manager, remains more adept at carrying on others' good work than instigating success himself.

Alterations have been inconsistent and incoherent; perhaps that is unsurprising as a manager gets to know his new charges, but it is disquieting nonetheless. Three games have featured as many right-backs, with the perpetually error-prone Jonathan Spector predictably culpable at Old Trafford, before the belated signing of a specialist in the oft-injured Lars Jacobsen.

The formation has changed by the match, which may be a sign that two strikers are wanted at home but only one away but could also be interpreted as proof of disjointed thinking. Players have been used out of position, with the ineffective winger Luis Boa Morte deployed in the centre of midfield against Manchester United, a move that can't be fully explained by Hitzlsperger's thigh problem.

That neither Radoslav Kovac nor Valon Behrami ultimately left extends the options available. It merely increases the importance of Grant making the right selections and supplying the inspiration that has been lacking thus far because, the longer West Ham's quest for a first point continues and the higher the risk of a change of division at the end of the season, the more Grant will be subject to scrutiny. Instability can be chronic.

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