For West Ham United supporters, the notion their club could do worse than take inspiration from Tottenham Hotspur in their drive to evolve may seem like blasphemy. East End passions are rarely more inflamed than when Tottenham visit and even the London Stadium running track may not douse the atmosphere for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off.
Mauricio Pochettino’s players will be braced for a caustic reception. They have not forgotten how West Ham, hopeless against every other big side in their new home, relished their part in ending Tottenham’s title challenge last season.
It was the kind of performance that invites the jibes from Spurs fans about this fixture being West Ham’s cup final. Pochettino’s team struggled to cope in that intense environment, just as when they lost 1-0 at Upton Park a year before. Watching his dream die on that Friday night in May, Pochettino must have understood what Sir Alex Ferguson was getting at when he dismissed relegated West Ham’s effort as “obscene” after they wrecked Manchester United’s title hopes at Upton Park in 1992.
“It was a top atmosphere and top ground,” Slaven Bilic said. “When we were talking before the game last season at the London Stadium we were saying: ‘No way we are going to get that kind of intimidation for them.’ But then it was. Both were night games, now it is a very early kick-off, but I’m sure the atmosphere is going to lift us.”
Yet the question that should nag at the West Ham manager and his employers is where was that ferocity and focus over the course of an otherwise mediocre season? Beating their biggest rivals raised spirits to the extent it helped Bilic hang on to his job. Instant gratification stemmed from the primal hunger Tottenham tend to induce in West Ham but denting egos is not the same as puncturing supremacy.
Even if they leave with a bloody nose, Tottenham will still be the team challenging for the title. They are the ones reaping the benefits of long-term planning, that sense of everyone working harmoniously towards a common goal as they prepare to move into the new White Hart Lane. They are not afraid to be ambitious and their development shows how it is possible to overcome financial restrictions through patient growth.
Not everything has worked under Daniel Levy’s chairmanship. He has faced criticism for his treatment of managers and occasional mistakes in the transfer market, yet it is difficult to argue with his overall body of work. Though Tottenham have truly clicked only since hiring Pochettino in 2014, the process of improvement began when they started investing in youth more than a decade ago.
They made big signings, such as Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modric, but they also looked to the lower leagues for fresh, affordable talent. Some came off, others were less successful. Michael Brown, Andy Reid and Wayne Routledge were at the bottom end of the scale but placing faith in Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon was worth it. Even Gareth Bale came from the Championship. Harry Kane is an academy product.
Bilic admitted Tottenham are an example for the Premier League’s chasing pack. “They have been doing that for years,” he said. “Even before they sold Bale. It was even before with players like Modric, Van der Vaart. They got some English players who were no names at that time but turn out to be great names like Kane and Alli and Dier.
“It’s easy to talk about them now but when they started they were not big names. Since Harry Redknapp’s time they have had good full-backs with Walker and Rose and they already had Eriksen, Dembélé and Vertonghen. Then they build with Alderweireld and Sánchez. Pochettino was very brave to release players he didn’t like for his system.”
West Ham watch enviously, wondering how they can catch them. Their owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, have moved them to the London Stadium with the intention of jumping to the next level but delivering on that vision is easier said than done. Last season was a disappointment, the summer just gone a mess. There is little sense of West Ham doing anything different – unless Sullivan acting as the director of football counts as thinking outside the box. Goal difference keeps them out of the bottom three.
Bilic was under huge pressure after West Ham lost their first three matches. They have rallied this month, beating Huddersfield Town 2-0, drawing 0-0 at West Bromwich Albion and knocking out Bolton Wanderers in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday. They have been more solid using a 3-4-3 system. Although they might play with more fluency if Marko Arnautovic starts instead of Javier Hernández on the left after excelling against Bolton, Bilic insisted his attacking plan will not flounder without the injured Manuel Lanzini. “We can’t order a bottle of whisky and cry,” Bilic said. “We have a good bunch of players.”
There is every chance Tottenham, victorious in their first two away games and triumphant over Borussia Dortmund, could wipe the floor with their hosts. Or West Ham could raise their game and claim the bragging rights, at least until the teams meet in the fourth round of the Carabao Cup next month. It would do wonders for West Ham’s confidence and Bilic’s job security. It would not alter how much they can learn from Tottenham.