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At this stage last season, West Ham had lost just three times.

This season they’ve won just three times.

West Ham's decline is mirrored in Mark Noble's strugglesLast season they had won six of their first 11 matches. This season they have lost six of their first 11 matches. The difference in form between the Hammers’ 2015/16 campaign and the current one is stark, that much is clear for all to see via the eye test alone, or a simple comparison of points. But the issue is rammed home with brutal clarity when one looks a little closer, particularly at the individual form of Mark Noble, West Ham’s captain.

A key reason Noble was given so much praise last season – and why his exclusion from the Euro 2016 England squad caused such a vocal outcry – was his industry. Simply put, it was unrivalled by any other player at his position last season, but this term that busyness has fallen away. Comparing his raw statistics from this season to last, the story that emerges is one of a creeping sluggishness; last season, after 11 games, Noble had made 18 tackles. This season he has made 16. Last season, Noble had made 22 interceptions, this season 13. Last season, Noble had made 9 clearances, this season 3. The story is the same for blocked shots, 4 down to 1. All the while, the team’s total defensive actions have actually gone up, very marginally (547 up from 546 after 11 games last season). The implication is clear; Noble is, for some reason, contributing a significantly smaller proportion of the team’s figures when it comes to the essential hustle stats.

But, one might contest, Pedro Obiang has played a more significant role as a defensive midfield shield this season, perhaps this might explain the drop-off in Noble’s input in that same area. Indeed it might, and although West Ham looked immediately more resolute in the deep midfield once Obiang was inserted into the starting XI, it took five awful defeats to force Bilic to make that change, all defeats in which Noble was involved. But yes, Noble might be experiencing a freer role now, able to partake more actively in the attacking side of the game.

But, if we look at Noble’s tangible attacking stats, it appears he’s not converting an increased usage rate – ie: more passes made, with the team holding more possession over the first 11 games this season than last season – into chances or assists. Assists can always be a fairly misleading statistic, but combined with key passes they can help give a vague indication of how central a player is to his team’s offensive play. It wouldn’t surprise many to learn that players like Dimitri Payet, David Silva, Mesut Ozil and Roberto Firmino lead the league in key passes made; these are the league’s most creative talents. Noble – while not expected to rival the players just mentioned in creative contribution – has made more than 100 more passes after 11 games this season than he did last season, and yet has managed just one more key pass than he had last term (10 up from 9), and one less assist (none this season, down from 1 last season). So, having been relieved of a portion of his defensive duties by Obiang’s ascendancy, Noble has not grown in stature at the other end of the pitch, in spite of increased opportunity to do so.

What about goals, that essentially currency upon which all footballing transactions must survive? Well, Noble is yet to score in the league this season, having scored twice after 11 games last season. More than that, this dwindling is cast into a harsher light when you see Noble has taken more shots than he did last season (8 up from 5), with a significantly worse rate of accuracy (13% down from 40%). West Ham’s shooting, especially from long range, has been very poor generally (28% shot accuracy down from 44% at this stage last season), but Noble was one of the team’s most reliable players in this regard.

So, what are we to make of this general slump? Well, it is, to my mind, worth mentioning the issue with the stadium. Having visited the London Stadium in October, the atmosphere for most of the dour 1-0 victory over Sunderland compels this writer to argue that tales of the diminished atmosphere are not completely without merit. Noble, we must remember, is one of the few remaining local products, and has been a senior player at the club for more than a decade. He has seen West Ham through relegation and promotion, and is without doubt the player with whom a lot of the fan-base best connects. It is he then, more than any other West Ham player, that will be most mourning the loss of the Boleyn Ground, and the decades of history that will be demolished with it.

There is nothing to indicate Noble is suffering through a physical decline, a breakdown of his body. No, his woes – and by extension much of the team’s – might better be described as mental, even emotional. This makes the solution all the more difficult to concoct, although the win over Chelsea in the league cup, in front of an electric London Stadium crowd, offers up genuine hope that the club can feel at home in their new digs. Noble, by the way, was superb in that 2-1 defeat of the Blues.

In many ways, Mark Noble can be viewed as a sort of bellwether for West Ham. When he plays well, the team generally plays well. The way his sliding form this season mirrors the woes of the team currently also implies that the reverse is just as true.

Originally published at outside90.com

Post written by Evan Morgan Grahame
Blog: wildwordsofsport.com, Twitter: @WWofSport
for Outside 90, Blog: outside90.com, Twitter: @Outside90

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