It’s been a difficult period for West Ham of late. Having made some eye-catching moves in the summer transfer window and picked up 11 points in their first six games, they looked well places to challenge for a European place. But four defeats in their last five games have left the club two places above the relegation zone.
It has gone wrong very quickly. At the end of September they were fifth in the table, having kept three straight clean sheets – a record that remains unbeaten 12 games into the season. West Ham were on a roll. Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna were playing admirably at the back and new signings Sébastien Haller and Pablo Fornals had added more talent to an already exciting attack. However, the team’s real position of strength was obvious: their goalkeeper. Lukasz Fabianski was brilliant for West Ham last season and had started this campaign just as strongly.
The Poland international made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the league last season (144). Since his arrival at West Ham in the summer of 2018, he has stopped 72.4% of the shots on target he has faced – only Alisson and Hugo Lloris have better save success rates.
Fabianski started all 38 of West Ham’s league games last season and the fans recognised his contribution to their top-half finish, voting him their player of the season. Fabianski was also voted Swansea’s player of the year the season before. To win two player of the year awards two seasons running – and for two different clubs – is testament to how he flipped his “Flappyhandski” reputation on its head. Having been considered error prone at Arsenal, Fabianski has now established himself as one of the most reliable shot stoppers in the country.
With that in mind, West Ham fans feared the worst when he went down injured in the first half of their trip to Bournemouth in September. Fabianski was later diagnosed with a torn hip muscle, which is likely to keep him out until the new year. West Ham’s results in his absence have shown fans were right to worry. They went five games unbeaten before that trip to Bournemouth and have since gone five games without a victory.
Roberto Jiménez has stepped into the team and made some impressive saves, but he has also made the sort of mistakes that Fabianski has all but eradicated from his game. Roberto has played 506 minutes in the Premier League and has already made two errors that led directly to goals. Fabianksi has only committed one such error in his whole time at the club. In fact, the Poland international has only committed two of these errors in his last 102 Premier League appearances.
That sort of consistency breeds confidence in any defence and right now the West Ham backline looks shot to pieces. Declan Rice – whose own form has dropped off over the last month or so – admitted that West Ham were second best right across the pitch in their 3-0 defeat to Burnley on Saturday. Roberto pulled off some good saves in that game, but he also fumbled the ball into his own net. That howler would have been avoided had Fabianski – a player whose aforementioned nickname stemmed from such misfortune – been between the posts.
West Ham’s nosedive in form over the last six matches has taken them from fifth in the table to 16th. Such a slump cannot be placed at the feet, or gloves, of the stand-in keeper. But it has been a factor. They have conceded 13 goals in those games and it not been a particularly tough run. Five of the clubs they have faced finished below West Ham last season. And the one exception, Everton, were in the bottom three at the time.
West Ham have conceded more shots in their last six matches (44) than any other team in the league. Roberto has produced a commendable 30 saves during his time on the pitch, but the team has clearly been rocked by the injury to their first choice keeper. If Fabianski’s importance to the Hammers’ prospects was evident last season, it is even more obvious now he is on the sidelines.
His injury could conceivably cost Pellegrini his job, with West Ham’s next four fixtures all against teams in the top seven. If the defensive unit doesn’t improve dramatically, West Ham may find themselves fighting a relegation battle come Christmas rather than battling for a place in Europe. It may be a stretch to suggest that one player’s absence could have such a dramatic impact on a team but Fabianski was the stable platform from which this side were expected to build. Without that platform, they are crumbling.