Saïd Benrahma did not look like a £30m player last season. There were some promising flashes from the forward during his first year at West Ham, moments that suggested there was a special talent waiting to emerge. Yet there was rarely a sense David Moyes truly believed the skilful Algerian was the right fit for his team.
It is no secret Moyes wants his creative players to roll their sleeves up. The Scot has worked hard on making West Ham tougher to beat, instilling a ferocious work ethic that was just as important as his side’s attacking thrust in their storming 4-1 win over Leicester on Monday. The standards are non-negotiable and West Ham, confident of building on finishing sixth last season, have been so much better since accepting that they were being held back by their addiction to luxury players with a habit of shirking their defensive responsibilities.
It was not a recipe for long-term success. Opponents used to run through West Ham, charging through a soft centre and doubling up on their full-backs. They were easy to bully, quick to crumble when their fitness was put to the test, and too obsessed with trying to find the next Paolo Di Canio or Dimitri Payet.
Yet there has been a shift under Moyes. The team comes first and Benrahma, who took the Championship by storm when he was at Brentford, is beginning to show why West Ham bought him. He has bought into Moyes’s approach, adding more consistency and efficiency to his game, and his end product has been crisp and clinical in this new campaign.
West Ham, top of the Premier League after two games, have seen a different Benrahma in their wins over Newcastle and Leicester. The 26-year-old had an excellent second half against Newcastle, heading in the equaliser before setting up Michail Antonio’s brilliant breakaway goal, and he was superb against Leicester. There was a fine cross for Pablo Fornals to open the scoring and there was also the desire to burst into the box to score a tap-in when Antonio fastened on to Caglar Soyuncu’s errant backpass.
“Saïd needed to take stock and settle in and realise he had to be a team player as much as an individual,” Moyes said. “I think he had not realised that he is part of a team and we have to do all the right things together. Because of that he’s actually getting these goals, he’s making goals, which is what we brought him for.”
Benrahma has already beaten his goal tally from last season. It took him a while to open his account for West Ham – it eventually arrived when he rescued a point against Brighton with a sumptuous shot from 20 yards in May – and there were times when it was hard to work out why he was valued at £30m. Moyes had actually pushed to buy Eberechi Eze, only for Crystal Palace to sign the England Under-21 winger from QPR, and at first the concern was that Benrahma had joined a side whose manager was not sure about him.
Moyes was slow to use Benrahma, restricting him to 14 starts in the league. There were some nice moments – decisive assists against Aston Villa and Fulham caught the eye – but Moyes often resisted the clamour to give the former Brentford winger more chances, arguing that his ball retention needed to improve.
However, Moyes’s ability to improve attacking players is often underestimated. He brought the best out of Marko Arnautovic during his first spell at West Ham and has turned Antonio into one of the best forwards in the Premier League since returning to east London. Antonio, now a proud wearer of West Ham’s No 9 shirt, was far too strong for Leicester and he enjoyed linking with Benrahma, who has had to wait patiently for his chance to shine.
More often than not, Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Fornals were the players who lined up behind Antonio last season. With Lingard back at Manchester United after his successful loan spell at West Ham, though, the stage is set for Benrahma to display the full array of his gifts.
The early signs are promising. Benrahma has played with impressive focus against Newcastle and Leicester. He is starting to justify the price tag and the exciting thing for West Ham is that there is far more to come.