It’s like this: At the dawn of time, when the great powers of the Premier League divided the world among them, they made a pact with their lesser brethren. Each year, the league would be dominated by the same boring handful of predictable superteams—your Manchester clubs, your Liverpools, your Chelseas. But each year, from among the ranks of the smaller clubs, one team would be chosen to wield a primordial chaos magic. This team might not win the league—chaos magic, while potent, does not have its own sovereign wealth fund—but it would be endowed with the power to defy expectations, challenge the dominance of the big clubs, and periodically turn the league upside down. The club of chaos magic would use luck, skill, tenacity, and cunning to lead the small clubs’ fight against the ruling oligarch-titans. It would create a venue where weird things could happen any time it took the pitch—and what does the start of a revolution feel like, if not weird things happening?
In some years, the chaos-magic club is easy to spot from the beginning. In others, it takes a little more time for the chosen one to reveal itself. Last year was one of the easy ones: Leeds United, a club that could essentially be rebranded Chaos Magic FC at this point, a club guided by literal anarchy sprite Marcelo Bielsa, rose from the depths of the Championship, beat Man City at the Etihad, fought to draws against Liverpool, Chelsea, and Man United, and finished ninth in the league despite being led by a striker, Patrick Bamford, whose previous top-flight experience mostly boiled down to being sent out on loan to 530 different clubs while technically under contract to Chelsea.
This year, the chaos-magic club has been a little harder to identify. At first I thought it might be Brentford—nothing screams chaos like Bryan Mbeumo constantly hitting the post—but I have slowly come to realize that Brentford is, how to put this, terrible. I thought it might be Crystal Palace, but while I think Patrick Vieira can become an excellent manager, he is also, being Patrick Vieira, profoundly antithetical to chaos. Who else? Watford? I love a club with a moose on its crest (and yes, I know it’s technically not a moose, but come on … it’s a moose), but Watford’s vibe is frankly less “challenging the gods” and more “hello, 17th place.” Sorry to all moose, and also to all technical non-moose.
No; it took me till December to see it, but I have found the 2021-22 chaos-magic club, and it is West Ham United.
West Ham! I know—not a club you associate with chaos, right? For many years now, West Ham have had the aura of a sort of modest, solid, reasonably well-run industrial enterprise, as if a regional manufacturer of bathroom sinks had somehow found itself taking the pitch against Arsenal. It’s so easy to imagine David Moyes, West Ham’s capable and low-nonsense manager, striding into a conference room and going, “Right, we have three main models of sink, the Kensington, the Exeter, and the Topham. Don’t buy the Topham, it’s shit.” Since returning to the league after a brief stint in the Championship in 2012, West Ham have finished between sixth and 16th every year. If the middle of the road were itself a road, West Ham would be traveling straight down the middle of it, grinding to a courageous 2-1 loss to Liverpool, making the Europa League exactly twice per decade. Even the club emblem (a sturdy hammer) and colors (a muted sky blue and claret) suggest a reliable but unspectacular steadiness.
The fact remains, however, that this season only five clubs in the entire Premier League—five!—have a positive goal differential, and West Ham is one of them. Only two clubs have beaten Chelsea, and West Ham is one of them. Only one has beaten Liverpool, and West Ham is it. After last weekend’s faintly shocking 3-2 win over Chelsea—they also beat Liverpool 3-2, chaos magic’s gateway scoreline—West Ham sits fourth in the table, ahead of Tottenham, Manchester United, and Arsenal. And this is coming after a merciless run of fixtures: West Ham’s last seven games have been against opponents that are currently ranked in the top 10. The Hammers managed to go 4-2-1 during that stretch, despite also playing Europa League matches in midweek (exhausting for their thin squad), and despite their best goal scorer, Michail Antonio, being in the middle of a goal drought so epic you can see the sand dunes from space.
Teams that play above their expected level sometimes look charmed, as if the physical laws of the universe were sitting in their supporter section waving a giant foam finger. The ball bounces where they need it to; the scrum in the area during a corner kick resolves into an easy header. What I love about this year’s West Ham team is that they combine that air of supercharged good fortune with the scrappy determination that David Moyes teams are known for. You could see both qualities in the win over Chelsea, a game in which West Ham fell behind twice, battled back to level the score, and then won the match in the 87th minute when the left back, Arthur Masuaku, tried to cross the ball and accidentally clipped it into the net—his first-ever Premier League goal.
That, friends, is what chaos magic looks like. But then, if you take even a cursory look beneath West Ham’s all-business surface, you realize that the chaos was there all along, hiding in plain sight. Most clubs in contention for a Champions League spot are owned by boring conglomerates and petrochemical funds; West Ham’s co-chairmen are former pornography moguls. The anthems associated with most high-level professional soccer clubs are inspirational and/or triumphant; West Ham’s club song is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and when the team scores a goal, thousands of bubbles drift down from the stands. (This is as beautiful as it sounds.) Most club’s talismanic strikers have not also played at right back; West Ham’s inimitable Antonio lined up all over the pitch, including in defense, before emerging as an elite center forward. Most clubs with “West” in their name could be described, geographically, in more or less westerly terms; West Ham is located in East London. It occurs to me that being a regional manufacturer of bathroom sinks is actually a deeply strange thing to do. Think about it. Sinks!
Maybe my favorite thing about this year’s West Ham team is that you never know which player will step up on a given day. Antonio is the star when he’s healthy and playing well, but he hasn’t scored a goal since the late 17th century and the team keeps chugging on. West Ham isn’t so much a lead actor and a supporting cast as a shifting collection of dudes here to get a job done. Three weeks into the season I thought Said Benrahma was the second coming of Kaká; now he looks like an afterthought, and Jarrod Bowen is suddenly the best midfielder in London. Pablo Fornals? Aaron Cresswell? When the time is right, they will help you move a piano. Tomas Soucek was this team’s joint leading scorer last season, for God’s sake. Like the Scooby Gang or the A-Team, West Ham are at their best making plans on the fly to suit their motley collection of skills. Also like the Scooby Gang or the A-Team, it is very easy to imagine West Ham owning a van.
How far can they take this? Assuming 17 teams are playing for the last Champions League place this year, there’s a lot working in the Hammers’ favor. Their schedule is about to get a lot easier, and of their major rivals—well, Tottenham have looked better under Antonio Conte, but can Tottenham keep winning with Harry Kane’s sad ghost playing in place of Harry Kane? Manchester United was in a full-blown meltdown a few weeks ago. We’re all assuming they’ll thrive under their new interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, but Rangnick’s gegenpressing scheme is going to be very, very exhausting for nine outfield players as long as Cristiano Ronaldo is allowed to sit down on a folding chair and smoke a pipe whenever the other team has the ball. Marcus Rashford might poison Ronaldo’s octopus just to grab a break. Arsenal has some wonderfully exciting young players, but watching them against Everton on Monday, I couldn’t help but think “Ha! No.” That’s not to say one of these sides won’t pip West Ham to the Championship of Normal Clubs—fourth place should come with a trophy and a copy of the collected works of Leon Trotsky—but they have as good a chance as anyone at the moment. They are the flag-bearers of chaos in these dark times, and all the glory that Pep Guardiola didn’t preorder back in July is there for the taking.