This summer, West Ham United managed to do what many thought was the impossible: replace their best and most important player – Declan Rice – after his blockbuster £100 million move to Arsenal.
Rhys leaves the hole in West Ham’s squad beyond his ability to play. He was the club’s captain, the heartbeat of the midfield, the core of passion and the ultimate big-game player. Almost everyone who took the field with him seemed to find a new level in their game.
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Even to spend £100m, how do you replace it all that?
Fortunately for West Ham, there were examples to learn from history. Rice isn’t the first key player to make a transfer and the Hammers aren’t the first club to have to deal with the backlash — indeed, they could only look back at two from the Premier League in the last 10 years to assess. How to strategize to make the most of it. Who did they look up to and what did they learn?
In the summer of 2013, Tottenham let winger Gareth Bale join Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £85m. It took the £80m deal that took Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2009 and combined the two, creating one of the most devastating attacking partnerships the game has ever seen.
While Madrid fans salivated, their Spurs supporters wondered how the club could replace Bale’s production — 21 Premier League goals in 2012-13 — and his decisiveness that would often see him take charge of a game.
Spurs’ approach was to sign seven players in various positions for a total of £109m in an attempt to upgrade almost the entire squad. Striker Roberto Soldado (£26m) was signed to lead a new-look attack; Forwards Erik Lamela (£30m), Christian Eriksen (£11.5m) and Nacer Chadli (£7m) add to the creativity behind him; Paulinho (£17m) and Étienne Capoue (£9m) bolster the midfield; Vlad Chiriches (£8.5m) joins the defence.
With seven players from six different countries, it was a lot to change in a very short time. Not only did manager Andre Villas-Boas have to revamp the squad so he no longer looked at Bale at every opportunity, but he also had to figure out how to get into bed with a new face. Of those seven, Eriksen was a smash hit, Lamela achieved cult-hero status but never really filled the void and Chadli was solid, while Capou emerged as only an exceptional player during his career with Watford and Villarreal. But Soldado, Paulinho and Chiriches soon stepped up.
In principle, using the money from Bale’s transfer to upgrade multiple positions in the team was a sound plan, but it created more uncertainty and unfamiliarity within the ranks. The midfield was slow to recover, creating little going forward for Soldado, whose confidence dipped as Spurs scored just nine goals in their first 10 Premier League matches. The bell-shaped hole in the right wing loomed larger by the week, with Villas-Boas sacked in December.
Ten years on, Tottenham have lost another huge player in striker Harry Kane, who moved to Bayern Munich for £86.4m this summer. And although the club spent £212m on eight players — including creative midfielder James Maddison (£40m) and speedy forward Brennan Johnson (£45m) — and no top-class central strikers as direct replacements, it is fully offset. has been New style thanks to newly appointed manager Ange Postkoglu.
Postcoglu’s arrival has eased Kane’s loss significantly, as the Australian boss’ ideal striker doesn’t drop out and links up games like England’s all-time top scorer. Son Heung-min, Richarlison and Johnson were happy to be at the finish line and provide the final touch, which Postcoglu asked for his number. 9. It has worked so far, with three wins from four games and a marked improvement in the Freedom attack.
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Two years ago, Manchester City activated Jack Grealish’s £100m release clause to sign him from Aston Villa. Grealish is a boyhood Villa fan, joining them as a 6-year-old and becoming the focal point of the club’s attack. Plans A, B and C were to get the ball to him, as his ability to dribble, create and break open play was second to none. His 6 goals and 10 assists from just 24 starts in 2020-21 led to an England call-up for the Covid-19-delayed Euro 2020, where he impressed enough to convince City to become a star of the future.
Villa had enough time to prepare for it and left quickly. Grealish’s move was sealed in August. 5, then-CEO Christian Parslow had already signed three replacement players and prepared a video explaining his thought process. “Our strategy was to analyze and break down Jack’s key attributes; his creativity, his assists, his goals and to find these qualities among the other three forward players,” he said. Signed by Emiliano Buendia [£33m]Leon Bailey [£25m] and Danny Ings [£25m]We believe we have achieved this key objective and in doing so have reduced over-reliance on a brilliant footballer.
Buendia was signed for creativity and support; Bailey for speed; Ings for the goal. On paper it formed a strong front three and striker Ollie Watkins added depth, but manager Dean Smith switched from a 4-2-3-1 shape to a 3-5-2 to bring both strikers together on the pitch. Watkins and Ings didn’t click and it created imbalances elsewhere. That form was not a natural place for Bailey, although injury meant he only made seven Premier League starts that season, which was not even the biggest short-term concern.
When Smith was relieved of his duties in November. 8, Villa were flirting with relegation and looked like an incredibly confused tactical unit. Just over a year later, Ings left to sign for West Ham for £15m as the club’s next two managers – Steven Gerrard and Unai Emery – could not find a way to fit Watkins into the team while ensuring Watkins remained key.
West Ham show how to do it
The business West Ham have done in the wake of Rice’s departure has created a real buzz. They signed two-thirds of Ajax’s impressive midfield, in Edson Alvarez (£35m) and Mohamed Qudus (£38m), while Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse (£30m) brings Premier League experience, set-piece excellence and leadership after the Saints were relegated.
In essence, West Ham follow Villa’s blueprint from Spurs’ example 2, in that they overhaul their main departure position rather than trying to spread money across the squad. They correctly identified that Rice was practically a midfield himself, so they signed a group of players to form a new team. Alvarez, Kudus and Ward-Pross cost a combined £103m, meaning the Hammers essentially turned one star player into three newcomers. The new technical director is Tim Stidten, who has done a great job rebuilding the midfield in two key areas.
The first is quality: To replace an elite player like Rice, you need to sign quality players in response. Alvarez and Kudus have been tested in the Champions League, while Ward-Pross is a hard-hitting performer in the Premier League with a certain knack for set pieces that make almost everyone on the planet better.
In 2013, Spurs probably thought they had nailed the brief, as Soldado, Lamela, Paulinho and the rest were big names, but sheer numbers of recruits made it extremely difficult to adapt quickly. In 2021, Villa backed Buendia with a huge move away from the Championship, with whom he struggled, while Bailly was too injured to show much in the way of quality.
The second aspect is tactical: the players must be good, but they must also fit the manager’s style, so they can sleep more comfortably. This is where Spurs 2023 shine and, similarly, West Ham boss David Moyes is leaning on Alvarez’s physicality, Ward-Prose’s workrate and free-kicks to unlock his side’s height and power, while Kudus is on-the-spot with some specialist ball-winning skills. The ball sparkles.
Moyes didn’t have to adapt his style and shape to integrate whatever Ward-Prose or Alvarez did. West Ham of 2023-24 looks a lot like West Ham of 2022-23, only with an improved set-piece threat. This is where Villa fell down massively, as the signing of Ings changed the shape and changed the role of Watkins, destabilizing the whole team.
The early signs for West Ham are incredibly positive. They temporarily went top of the Premier League on Friday night as victory over Luton Town took them to 10 points from 12 games. Ward-Pross already has two assists and four goals from set pieces, while Alvarez has looked solid in his first two starts. Kudus was later signed but his progress could spell bad news for Tomas Sosek, or even for left-back Said Benrahma, as the Ghanaian international can play any role in midfield.
The Hammers don’t look like a team that cut their midfield core in the summer. Replacing a key player is never going to be an easy task, but it seems Moyes’ men have provided a blueprint for others to follow in the future.