Written by Elliot Sheaf @topcornermag
There’s been a lot of debate recently over the future of Slaven Bilic. I can honestly say I currently don’t fall either side off the argument, but recent games have shaken my once blind trust is Super Slav. We can all agree that his passion is indisputable and off the field issues have been less than ideal, but to what extent does his commitment and these problems overshadow any level headed analysis of his performance as a manger this season? I wanted to try and see beyond this and have a look at what I think tactically has gone wrong, and whether the responsibility all lies with Bilic for what is happening on the field.
Our main problem tactically at the moment seems to be that we have no set philosophy or system. Our starting lineup is often at odds with the style of play, with none of our players strengths being utilised in a way that improves team performance. Are we a direct team playing off Carroll? Are we a free flowing passing side? Or do we soak up pressure and hit teams on the break? Trick question. We are none of the above, and I’m not even sure what we’re trying to be.
Defensively we have been awful, not only this year but for large parts of last season as well, leaking goals and making by far the most mistakes that lead to goals in the Premier League. Fullback has become one of the most important positions in the modern game, and we’ve been left woefully behind in our attempts to keep up. It pains me to say, but Spurs and Chelsea have clearly got it spot on in this regard, their wing backs often start attacking moves and are always an outlet for the midfield, but they have the freedom to play this way due to the security of the three centre backs or energetic centre midfield covering in behind them if they’re caught short. This is where we seem to be in two minds.
The general feeling seems to be that its was Slav’s choice not to sign a right back in the summer, stating that Antonio could be converted to that position, clearly a statement of intent for him and Cresswell to be bombing forward whenever possible. However we combine this with only two centre backs and having a ponderously slow centre midfield to try and cover when the full backs get forward, whether this is Antonio, Kouyate or Byram at right back. So when mistakes are made (which they always will be) our lack of cover leads to the countless times where teams cut through us in just a few passes and to us conceding yet again. This, I think, is how we can concede so many but can still come out thinking Reid had a good game!
Problems with personnel along the backline can be overcome with organisation, good positioning and knowing your individual responsibility, so we either bite the bullet and limit the forward intent of the fullbacks, or get back to scoring one more goal than the opposition. Easier said than done…
Our lack of intensity in the middle of the park has been shocking this year. We consistently lose the second and third balls, always looking a yard to short or not sharp enough to anticipate the bounce. I refuse to believe that this is down to lack of effort, but rather I think due to a mix of physical and psychological fatigue.
When fully fit and in form, it all comes naturally and looks easy to the spectators, but when in a torrid run as we have been this season that moments hesitation is the difference which makes you half a yard short. It looks as if constant niggling injuries (that’s an article for someone far smarter than me) and all the off the field problems has seeped in to the players mind set and meant we have never really looked 100% all season.
The most contentious issue with our midfield lies with Mark Noble. Now, full disclosure on this issue, I’m biased when it comes to Nobes. I think I’m right in thinking that there is no other club in the Premier League with a local lad and boyhood fan of the club as captain. This is a truly special thing in todays game, and I wouldn’t be surprised to not see it happen again at West Ham in my lifetime. However his season is a perfect representation of West Ham’s as a whole….No energy, too many mistakes, out of ideas…But never doubt the effort.
However you feel about Nobes holding his starting spot, its Slav that keeps picking him and not acknowledging the likes of Kouyate or Fernandes could give us a boost in the centre of the park. Fernandes, incidentally, is currently second in the entire league for pass completion rate, albeit with limited play time. Think about that next time a wayward pass leads to a goal.
Andy Carroll has arguably been one of our top performers this year, however when he is on the pitch we cannot ignore that fact that we have to play a certain wait to suit his skillset, not only because whipping crosses in when he is on the pitch is our best chance of grabbing a goal but also because his lack of agility slows down build up play through the middle.
However we continuously see Lanzini or Antonio breaking through the middle with nobody to play off, especially since ‘he who shall not be named’ has left. Combine this with the fact that we only ever seem to play one real wide player in the team when Carroll is on the field, it often leaves the fullbacks isolated when trying to overlap in an effort to get the ball in.
We can’t have it both ways, and I would even go as far as saying I’m not sure Lanzini and Carroll can play in the same team at all. Both represent completely different attacking intent, and I think we have looked best when embracing either one of these, but instead we get a confused mess of both.
To be fair to Bilic and to the board, they have always been searching for that centre forward that combines our two systems of play, both direct and with fluid, intricate build up, its just that Zaza wasn’t that player. I might be alone in thinking that even when fit, I prefer Carroll as a Plan B, especially considering how many goals we scored all around the team last year without Carroll in team.
So how much of this lies with Slav? One way in which I have always been impressed with Slav is with his willingness and speed to make a change during the game. He often throws on a sub at half time rather than seeing how it goes in the second half, and obviously can read the flow of the game very well from the touchline. However these changes are often forced due to us not setting out correctly in the first place and when we ae chasing a game in which we have already fallen behind, such as with arguably our best performance this season against Palace.
He all to often sticks with a team that got a result last game, even when the next game requires an altogether different challenge to the last. But the main factor that has me worried for the rest of the season and the future of Slav is the mentality of players and how it effects the intensity on the pitch.
I can only remember a handful of times when we have looked up for it this season, with us regularly falling behind early whilst still looking half asleep, which is a problem that I place right on Slavs doorstep. If he cant get the team fired up and focused for games it hints at a bigger problem within the dressing room and motivation of the players.
For what its worth, I’d like to see Masuaku back in the team, as well as Fernandes, especially considering our recent injury news. I’d want to see a centre midfield of Noble and Kouyate with Fernandes playing in a more attacking role in the middle and Antonio and Lanzini out wide. This might give us more bite to win the midfield battle and give us a bit more energy and cover when defending.
But thankfully its not my responsibility to fix the current situation, its down to Slav. No doubt about it, these last 9 games are crucial for his future at the club, I just hope we show enough to prove that he’s our man…I’m not holding my breath.