One could forgive a wry smile of incredulity when hearing false prophets proclaiming salvation from a fine Port…our answer to the countdown conundrum in midfield. However, the early indications may have us rethink our scepticism for our new ‘Super Mario’ Joao Mario, is looking very good indeed for his loan fee and potential buy on fee in the summer.
The deal that seemed to lumber on for a week or so prior to the final settlement was inked, made me question if we were grabbing at straws in an attempt to banish the demons from our door and finally have confidence in the middle of the field to control and pass our way through a game.
Even before the cup tie on the Saturday against Wigan Athletic I was convinced that we should have bought Luigi instead of Mario. I was adamant that we would return to a long ball game, devoid of width, crosses and any passing cohesion…but I was gloriously wrong.
Joao Mario made his debut in front of a hopeful and expectant travelling away contingent, and he did not disappoint but he did not enthral either. Overall he demonstrated composure and assured effectiveness in dealing with pressure, passing and linking with other players. Of course there were early mistakes but overall it was a performance that filled us with confidence that there might be better days ahead. In truth, after the overall team performance on that day, grabbing at those confidence straws was all we could hope to achieve.
As we expected Wigan put on a spirited performance and it was a good test for Mario, not only in footballing terms but also in terms of intensity and game speed. I was predicting that he would be off the pace coming from the more purposeful yet pedestrian Italian Serie A, however whilst he did show signs of lethargy and a lack of match fitness…he wasn’t a rabbit caught in the headlights either. He invited himself to the party, poured himself a long shot and took a mighty swig without so much of a grimace or a burp either.
However, I also noted some frustration with what he was witnessing on the field of play too. Was he questioning his move? Was he doubting the ability of his new teammates? Should he do a rapid u-turn and head back to Milan? I fear he might have had those reservations, just as Hernandez did in his early appearances in a dysfunctional team…my only hope is that he can raise and maintain his industry that will deliver the long-awaited conduit from a defence under siege to strikers lacking potency.
Last Tuesday, he made his full first team debut at home at the London Stadium against Crystal Palace. After the weekend cup exit and with all of the negativity that is currently surrounding the club…not to mention the hospital waiting list that is our squad, few fans were expecting any kind of performance, let alone a positive result.
Moyes could only field players that he had at his disposal and set up accordingly with another solid defensive formation. We thought Palace would be the battering ram that would break our defences and hearts, but that did not happen. Indeed, West Ham found the vim and vigour to take the fight to the opponents…even if it was only a gesture of intent.
Mario had some really good moments and displayed effort, whilst his persistence and final quality ball found a desperate Chicharito in the box, only to be brought down by a flailing defender, conceding a penalty.
He still needs a few more games to bring his intensity up to the demands of Premier League levels, however the performance on Saturday against Brighton was steady at best yet early indications are that he has the quality and composure in the middle of the field that will pay dividends down the road. If we can roll with the punches over the next few weeks until our players return from injury and if we can find a way to fit him into the team…in his favoured position, then we may have found the priest that can exorcise the demons from our performances for good.
For West Ham fans have been lost in a time tunnel for some time now and are desperate for any kind of fluidity, any kind of purpose and all manner of quality on the pitch. Whilst Mario may indeed aid in this reincarnation, it will be his ability to link up with other players and also to help raise their game that will be the ultimate test. We know that only when Noble plays, do we show any kind of composure in the middle of the park and any sense of organisation…but we lack committed creativity, we lack width and sustained crossing accuracy that threatens any defence.
Our problems are not with Moyes and his current limited selections, however it is how he can find a way to make his collection of individual players come together and play as a team. He has to be admired so far for stopping the rot, improving the organisational qualities and delivering a string of results that have us precariously sitting in mid-table…at least it was so up until last Saturday’s game when the flood defences finally broke. However, he has not delivered a performance, apart from the second half at Huddersfield, that has given us any confidence that we are indeed an attacking force that others should fear or leave opposing fans weeping in depression.
In Mario we may have fortunately found a quality player for the future, or possibly just until the end of the season, who may have the spirit to unlock that potential within West Ham that we hoped was possible but had lay dormant, hibernating in a long winter but ready to wake up in a rejuvenating spring.
Of course we would be remiss to weigh him down with the burden of our expectations but we are on the front line with mortars waiting to be hurled onto us and a ditch that could suck us under if we cannot find sure footing.
Although Mario is yet to prove how super we hope he can be…there are signs that he is not a wasted signing and will not be superfluous to our needs… in fact he might be the right kind of after dinner drink that cures our rumbling bellies.