Of all the Premier League clubs regularly outside the top six, West Ham United probably get the most stick. You all know the stereotypes, and the West Ham Way comes in for regular mockery, from Sir Alex Ferguson down. The club has been an even easier target than usual this season, what with the London Stadium sweetheart deal and the inevitable cock-ups with the move from Upton Park. And of course the current owners, Davids Gold and Sullivan, have never been regarded as the most savoury or even competent of characters.
To a large degree this has detracted from the football itself, at least in the national press. But it shouldn’t, because the Hammers play some of the most entertaining football north of Monaco, or at least Bournemouth. Of 33 Premier League matches this year in which both sides have scored at least two goals, West Ham have played in seven, equal with the Cherries for top of the league. (For comparison, Manchester United are at zero, Manchester City two, Liverpool six.) Right now they’re on a streak of six games in which neither side has registered a clean sheet.
Let’s start with the attack. Andy Carroll missed most of the first half of the season, which is news on a par with the sun rising in the east. So the Hammers embarked on an inevitable and widely publicised Great Striker Search. They settled on Jonathan Calleri, Ashley Fletcher and the immortal Simone Zaza: sixteen shots, two on target, zero goals. (By the way, he’s scored twice at Valencia since.)
But here’s the thing. Even with Carroll missing, West Ham rarely drew a blank, thanks largely to the magnificent Michail Antonio. What a fabulous player to watch: pace, power, heading ability, drive and a bottomless supply of goal celebrations. He seems to have played almost everywhere on the pitch, but most of his goals have been true striker’s goals: far-post headers, set-pieces, a bit of poaching here and there. Against Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago, he found space near the top of the area, turned and finished with his weaker foot. Jermain Defoe would have signed it gladly.
Antonio doesn’t really have the skill set to play as a lone striker, but since Carroll returned he’s been effective paired with the big man in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, or on the wing in a 4-2-3-1. And ‘since Carroll returned’ should preface every sentence about the West Ham attack. Carroll himself has scored a decent six goals in 15 appearances (12 starts), but his very presence puts greater pressure on the opposition. In games without Carroll, the side have scored 1.07 goals per game. When he plays, it’s 1.6. (And if you’re wondering, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named downed tools five games after Carroll’s return, and the average since then is 1.89.)
Size and charisma dictate that Carroll and Antonio will get the big press, but just as vital to the excitement has been Manuel Lanzini, now the key attacking midfielder. He’s a slippery player with excellent technique, and a fantastic pass completion rate of 87.3%. His decision-making still needs work, but you know he’ll get you close to the goal. The big surprise has been his scoring: seven goals (two penalties included), one of which was a direct free-kick worthy of You-Know-Who.
The rest of the attackers are rolling as well. Since Carroll returned, André Ayew has chipped in with four goals, mostly by being in the exact right place for the poach. Sofiane Feghouli, who took ages to get going, has added two goals and three assists from the wing. At the moment the one disappointment is Robert Snodgrass, who has looked rather Norwich/Hull among the high-level performers.
But these days West Ham score against everybody. The problem is the other half of the show, where a remarkable pair of stats tells the story: West Ham are first in interceptions, but last in tackles. Since such stats have been kept, no team has pulled off this particular double, or even come close. It bespeaks a gambling defensive philosophy without a solid spine to make it work, and that’s trouble.
The big hole in the defence, as it has been for some time, is at holding midfielder. (A few years ago Alex Song was playing there – enough said.) As has been chronicled on this site, Mark Noble’s game has contracted significantly, and he was never a true holding midfielder anyway. Pedro Obiang, unfortunately now out for the season, has done his best to fill the spot, but while he covers a lot of ground, his positional instincts need work. Cheikhou Kouyaté is really a box-to-box midfielder. Twenty-year-old Edimilson Fernandes (who somehow is not Brazilian) may have to be dropped into the role for the run-in.
The other hole is at right-back, where Carl Jenkinson flourished on loan from Arsenal a couple of years ago. The Not-So-Flying Finn got injured last year, then balked at an outright transfer, leaving Bilic to try just about everyone in that spot. Young Sam Byram has occasional moments, but doesn’t seem ready yet, particularly when defending. Still, at least that’s his primary position, unlike Kouyaté and Antonio, to name two of the square pegs Bilic has tried to fit in that particular aperture.
Then there’s central defence, and José Fonte, one of the big name buys of the January window. He’s been sort of, well…awful. It may be just teething troubles at a new club, but it’s worth remembering that Fonte is 33, and didn’t emerge as a top-flight defender until Ronald Koeman took over at Southampton. Bilic clearly isn’t as good as Koeman at coaching defence – few are – and at an advanced age, outside the system that brought him to prominence, Fonte may not be good enough.
Injuries, seemingly a chronic problem since Bilic came in, continue to hurt the back line. Winston Reid is now out for a month with a groin tear; Angelo Ogbonna’s knee sidelined him after half the season; Aaron Cresswell hasn’t been the same since coming back from his own knee injury. Former Olympiakos stand-out Arthur Masuaku, whose tackles/90 and interceptions/90 are both more than three times Cresswell’s, has a real chance to take his spot.
But the biggest injury to the defence has been self-inflicted. That’s the sale of James Tomkins, a fan favourite through his days from the youth academy (and by the way, someone who can also play right-back). Now he works for Sam Allardyce, and may have supplanted Scott Dann in the middle at Crystal Palace. His experience and solid all-around play are very much missed.
Last year’s seventh place was always going to be difficult to match, particularly without That F***ing Judas, but in February the side were as high as ninth. Consecutive losses to Chelsea, Bournemouth, and a revitalised Leicester have dropped them to twelfth. The run-in is a classic mixed bag: top-six sides Arsenal (A), Spurs (H), Liverpool (H); from high mid-table to low mid-table Everton (H), Stoke (A), Burnley (A); relegation candidates Hull (A), Swansea (H), Sunderland (H). The season really could go either way.
Unfortunately, with the dip in form, those off-the-field distractions are naturally starting to encroach. At a recent press conference, Bilic was forced to defend Snodgrass’ contributions to the side. Mark Noble, facing fan demand that he be dropped, countered by saying “a lot of people who now go to football don’t really understand the game”. David Gold has been getting into silly Twitter spats. David Sullivan publicly apologised to fans for the performance against Leicester, and called the upcoming games at Hull and Arsenal, then home to Swansea, “vital for our season”.
For a manager, that’s never a good sign. But for Bilic to face the axe at this point makes little sense. Certainly he deserves blame for the side’s poor defence; the tackles/interceptions stat tells you that. Where formations are concerned, at times he seems to be flying SOP. But recruitment in recent years has been scattershot, with lots of loans and free transfers that haven’t made an impact. (The club apparently wants Johan Djourou on a free in the summer – what could go wrong?) In his first season, Bilic took the side to their highest league placing in 20 years, and delivered their highest points total in the same period. West Ham may have European ambitions, but for the moment they’re a mid-table club, and 12th place, although lower than they’d wish, is nowhere near disaster.
And let’s face it: when it comes to giving West Ham stick, Bilic is always exempt. He’s a straight-up guy, a fantastic interview, and a beautiful madman on the touchline. He’s a part, and not the smallest part, of the West Ham entertainment. Even better, he gets it in ways most managers don’t: who can ever forget his tears when the Hammers beat Manchester United in the final game at Upton Park? He’s the best face of a club that rarely seems to get the PR right.
So while watching West Ham is great fun, I’d settle for a little less excitement to keep Bilic in a job. José Fonte and James Collins in the back line? No problem, Slaven: just give Big Sam a call and he’ll tell you how to handle it. And if he pokes you about West Ham – and given his history, you know he will – just tell him everyone needs some boredom in their lives, and he’s the expert.