“I think over the years you could arguably say that the mentality hasn’t been there as a team,” Aaron Cresswell says as he considers the shift in West Ham’s attitude this season. “But I certainly think that’s not going to happen overnight, you turn into a top eight or six team or whatever. We’re building year on year, that’s what we need to do.”
Cresswell has seen a lot during his seven years in east London. When the former Ipswich left-back made the jump from Championship to Premier League in 2014, West Ham were still at Upton Park. They almost qualified for the Champions League during their final season in their spiritual home and have struggled to live up to expectations since moving to the London Stadium in 2016.
West Ham became a byword for dysfunction and this was supposed to be another deflating campaign. These days, though, the training ground is a happy place. “You wake up and you’re actually excited to go into work,” Cresswell says, crediting David Moyes with changing the team’s mentality since returning to the club in December 2019.
West Ham were in relegation trouble when Manuel Pellegrini left and Moyes’s second spell began. Now, with 11 games remaining, they are contenders to finish in the top four. They visit Manchester United on Sunday evening before hosting Arsenal next Sunday, having put aside their brittle ways and become a reliable, gritty and hard-working team.
“It’s just the gaffer’s ways,” Cresswell says. “When he first came in two or three years ago he set his stall out. He said: ‘If you don’t run you don’t play, it’s as simple as that.’ Look at our stats, they’ve certainly gone up in terms of running over the last year. The lads have all bought into it and we’ve got a great team spirit. You could say we are the underdogs but we have earned the right to be there.”
Cresswell epitomises that outsider status. Although he impressed at the start of his West Ham career, he struggled under Pellegrini. He was on and out of the teamand many supporters thought he was past his best. Moyes, though, has rejuvenated Cresswell, who has thrived both as a left-sided centre-back in a back three and in his more traditional role in a back four.
He thinks back to an ankle injury before the 2016-17 season. “It was arguably one of the best seasons I had after the injury. Then that’s the difference between being a world-class player or a good player or an average player, it’s that consistency. I certainly didn’t find that over the last few years. But I feel like this season I’ve found a bit of consistency.”
There are even calls for Gareth Southgate to recall Cresswell, who won the last of his three England caps against Lithuania in 2017. Yet the defender is realistic about his hopes of going to Euro 2020. “I’ll never give up on it but I’m 31 now and you look at some of the younger boys,” he says. “It is one of the strongest England squads of the last 20 or 30 years. You look at Luke Shaw, who has been absolutely fantastic this season, and Ben Chilwell. I know how hard it is to get in that squad and stay in it. Getting in is almost the easy part.”
Cresswell raves about Shaw before facing the United left-back. Yet the former Tranmere defender will offer threats of his own against Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side. West Ham have scored 14 goals from set pieces this season, the most in the Premier League. Cresswell has seven assists, the most of any defender. He picked up the latest in the win over Leeds on Monday, whipping in a corner for Craig Dawson to head home.
“It always helps when you’ve got Tomas Soucek, Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Angelo Ogbonna, Declan Rice all attacking the ball,” Cresswell says. “When you’ve got those boys coming in you’ve got a great chance of getting an assist.”
He also praises West Ham’s coaches. “We’ve got Kev Nolan and Paul Nevin, who mainly on a Friday will do set pieces. Kev will stay behind and they take a real big effort in analysing the opposition, finding weaknesses.”
Cresswell, who is pleasantly surprised to learn that he has become a hit with Fantasy Football players, will not say where he plans to target United. He is also conscious about the need to stop Bruno Fernandes.
Yet Cresswell is not overawed. “To get into that top four would be an unbelievable achievement, but even to get into Europe would be unbelievable,” he says. “You want to test yourselves against the best in the world. We’ve 11 games to go. We’ll see what happens.”