Written by Mike Buckler – Block 217
This is my first article for TWHW, and I hope to do many more. I just wish my first one were more positive!
I write this critique with a heavy heart, but a very clear mind. I’ve been a West Ham supporter my whole life, and have been a season ticket holder through good times and bad. The club hasn’t won a single piece of serious silverware (excluding play-off finals) in my lifetime, yet my love for West Ham is unconditional and my loyalty unwavering. That doesn’t mean I’ll tolerate a lack of strategy and ambition, though, so I’m prepared to speak up when I don’t think things are right.
It would be easy to write-off criticism of the manager and team as ‘knee-jerk’ when we are just two away fixtures into the new season, and the first of those against a resurgent Manchester United. However, the core issues at West Ham have existed for many years, and I therefore think it is time that everyone associated with the club considers the root causes of these issues.
I think our shortcomings, when it comes to performances and results, point to critical flaws with the manager, but we – the supporters – are also not entirely blameless. I’ll focus on the manager here, but will write another article soon about the impact on the club of fans being too sentimental and nostalgic.
Slaven Bilic is, on paper, everything West Ham could possibly want from a manager. He proudly wore the claret and blue threads in the prime years of his career, and was part of the Croatian team that finished third in World Cup ‘98. After retiring as a player, Bilic coached Croatia for over 6 years, leading them to the late stages of an international tournament, and he worked with some very talented players in the process. He is intelligent, articulate, and likeable. And his most compelling attribute- he understands the history and culture of the club, and he is clear as day when talking to the media about what the supporters expect from the players and the team on the pitch.
So why do I believe Slaven is largely at fault for all of the on-field issues?
Well, for me it comes down to three areas where we are seriously lacking, and he is ultimately responsible for all of them.
- Quality, depth and balance of the squad
- Physical and mental conditioning of the players
- Formation, team selection, tactics and playing style
Quality, depth and balance of the squad
If Bilic is responsible for assembling the first team squad, then he is responsible for identifying players that add quality, depth and balance. Whilst there is no doubt in my mind that we have added the right calibre of player this summer, for which he and the Chairmen should be commended, the outcomes of the previous two transfer windows were appalling. £40m spent in less than six months for Ayew, Fonte and Snodgrass might honestly be the worst business in football. Ever.
Subsequently, we are still lacking (reliable) depth in certain positions and the squad is getting worryingly older. If I were in charge, I would sign a pair of young forwards with high potential, one that could play on the left and one to play up top. But the depth and balance of our squad would, of course, be less of an issue if Bilic were more willing to give our talented youngsters a chance in their right positions. For example, I would start Declan Rice alongside Reid (if available) in our next match against Newcastle, because I’m sure he would do a much better job than Fonte or Ogbonna.
Finally, a real irritation for all supporters is that throughout Slaven’s tenue as manager he has repeatedly played some of our best players out of position. This is a direct consequence of not adding enough depth to the squad, either through recruitment or giving academy prospects an opportunity. After two games this season it seems that Bilic is less inclined to do this but, as I have already mentioned, I’d like to see Declan Rice given a chance at centre half rather than as a defensive midfielder.
Physical and mental conditioning of the players
One of my biggest concerns right now is that most of the players are lacking match fitness, stamina and discipline. For the last two years, pre-season has been more about travelling around the world playing exhibition-style matches, rather than properly preparing the squad for Premier League football. The pre-season programme and schedule of managers must come under Slaven’s responsibility, so he is accountable. You could also argue that we only got off to a flyer in Bilic’s first season in charge because we were forced to play competitive Europa League football from the beginning of July.
Let’s also consider that if the rumours coming from inside and outside the club are true – that training under Bilic lacks intensity – then there is little wonder why the players are complacent and ill-disciplined on match days. I can’t help but feel that Bilic’s personality and management style are akin to a teacher at school that is every pupil’s mate, but that he isn’t strict enough when it matters and therefore doesn’t necessarily get the best performance and grades out of the students.
I was part of the majority of supporters that were pleased to see the back of Big Sam, but Bilic could learn a great deal from his obsession with optimising performance through sports science.
Formation, team selection, tactics and playing style
Perhaps the most damning criticism of Bilic is that he doesn’t seem to have a preferred system, nor does he appear to know his best eleven when everyone is fit. And when it comes to team selection, he shows loyalty for the wrong reasons- players should be in the team on merit, not because of their CV, or the fact that they were born in Canning Town!
Based on the talent in the squad, I think we should play a system either with four at the back and two up top, or five at the back with one up top. Crucially, without a fit Andy Carroll or Diafra Sakho, which we all know is most of the time, we are not maximising our talent by playing a system with one striker through the middle. Few would argue that Chicharito is our most talented striker, so it is abundantly clear to me that playing him up top on his own will limit his ability to score. I am fully prepared to be proved wrong once we see him joined on the field by Lanzini, but I still feel a system with two strikers would help alleviate the pressure on our defence.
When it comes to tactics and playing style, West Ham has quite a negative identity under Bilic. The formation often invites too much pressure on our defence, and we don’t seem to move the ball quickly enough in transition to pose an effective counter attack. Playing two defensive midfielders in front of two centre halves isn’t a guarantee to conceding fewer goals. On the contrary, the best teams in the Premier League (generally speaking) keep more clean sheets, and I believe that is in part because they spend more time attacking than defending. If the club succeeds in signing William Carvahlo, then perhaps Bilic will have the confidence to play just one defensive midfielder, which would allow him to give Chicharito a strike partner. Time will tell.
I’d like to conclude the article by saying that I am desperate for Slaven to turn things around, because he seems to be a top bloke and like most West Ham fans I suffer from an illogical sense of sentimentality and nostalgia. The problem, though, is that all of the issues I’ve covered in this article have existed throughout Bilic’s tenure, and I’m not convinced he will change any time soon.
What do you think? I’d like to hear from you!
Mike Buckler – Block 217