At this stage of the 2015/16 season, the West Ham-Slaven Bilic love affair was just getting going. The Hammers sat sixth in the Premier League after claiming big away wins at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City. Bilic, meanwhile, excelled in bringing a newfound energy to the club; the kind that had been sorely missed under his predecessor. Capitalising on the passion and emotion surrounding the final season at the Boleyn Ground, it seemed a match made in heaven. Fast-forward two years and the honeymoon is over. Both parties seem to hold each in contempt as Bilic’s support dwindles in both the stands and the boardroom. The Croat looks an isolated and despondent figure in the dugout, almost at a loss as to where it all went wrong. Unfortunately, these aren’t new problems facing Bilic, but rather chronic issues that have been ongoing since last season.
Already we have seen chants of ‘Super Slav’ disappear, but it would still be quite the development if supporters turned completely against (arguably) the once most universally popular West Ham manager of the 21st century.
Criticism against Bilic began to gain momentum last season, but the majority were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt given the upheaval experienced throughout. From the move to Stratford to the departure of Dimitri Payet, Bilic and the fans experienced frustration after frustration. However, over a year into life at the London Stadium and two transfer windows after Payet’s exit, performances and results still haven’t improved. The former has arguably been the most frustrating. Results might be the most important thing, but scraping 1-0 wins against Swansea, Burnley and Hull following a long and dismal 90 minutes have been hard to sit through. The team seems worryingly devoid of the attacking impetus that saw them score 65 goals in 2015/16. Instead, it has been replaced by pedestrian passing and a reluctance to drive with the ball at opponents.
Even then, this isn’t the biggest problem. The defence and midfield rarely inspire confidence. The defence seems unable to maintain focus for 90 minutes and they continue to make avoidable, often fatal, mistakes. It is often said that a game is won in the midfield, but the likes of Mark Noble, Pedro Obiang and Cheikhou Kouyate always seem to be chasing the game as opposed to controlling it. Invariably, this negativity has been traced back to Bilic. Question marks over his tactics and team selection are more prominent than they ever have been. As criticism becomes increasingly more commonplace in the stands, there is a very real possibility that the discontent will manifest into chants directed against Bilic. Already we have seen chants of ‘Super Slav’ disappear, but it would still be quite the development if supporters turned completely against (arguably) once the most universally popular West Ham manager of the 21st century.
Whether Bilic can salvage his West Ham career remains to be seen. With his contract up at the end of the season, it would seem the ball is in Bilic’s court. As it stands, the decision could go either way, but it is clear that – barring a drastic downturn in form – this will not be made until the end of the current campaign. In the more immediate future, the Croat will have no better run of games to gather both points and momentum. Beginning before the international break with a 1-0 win over Swansea and followed up with a hard-earned draw at Turf Moor, next up for the Hammers are Premier League new boys, Brighton and struggling Crystal Palace. Prior to the four points already won, I would have said that anything less than 10 points would be a problem for Bilic. If points are dropped to Brighton or Palace, expect Bilic to come under scrutiny once more.
Even then, scraping wins might not be enough if Bilic is looking to prolong his stay in East London. Astonishingly, a minority of fans lamented the club’s late win against Swansea because, in their eyes, it saved the manager’s job for another week. The game itself was dire, but not enough to warrant ‘fans’ wishing defeat on their own team. The performance against Burnley offered so much more and perhaps held the key to ending the frustrating and tepid performances that have plagued the team for over a year. Undoubtedly helped by the long-awaited returns of a fully-fit Michail Antonio and Manuel Lanzini, the attacking nature of the starting line-up was a welcomed change. Hopefully the days of the isolated striker and five-man defence are over at West Ham. Despite Andy Carroll’s recklessness prematurely ending the two-man strike-force experiment, Bilic needs to stick with the system. Javier Hernandez hasn’t enjoyed the best of starts, but a large part of that is owed to his tactical isolation. He needs to play alongside another striker. If Carroll didn’t always attract the long ball, he would be the perfect partner for the dynamic Mexican to feed off. Diafra Sakho, for all his faults and mistakes, now has the opportunity to leapfrog Carroll in the pecking order – even if he does continue to be worryingly overrated by much of the fanbase.
At the back, Bilic cannot justify starting any game with three central defenders. Aside from Winston Reid, no other centre-back is consistent enough to maintain their place in the side. José Fonte may have improved considerably, but that has come since the switch to a traditional back four. Still, it is evident his best days are behind him. Factor in Angelo Ogbonna and James Collins, and you heighten the risk of mistakes being made. If the club could boast of three centre-backs as good as Reid, then – and only then – could a three-man central defence work. Flanked by Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell, the defence almost names itself. Cresswell has rightfully been picked ahead of the attack-minded Arthur Masuaku despite calls for the Frenchmen to start ahead of the 2015 ‘Hammer of the Year’. Masuaku has proven to be an effective impact sub, but it has also demonstrated that he belongs further up the field and discussed more as competition to Marko Arnautovic than Cresswell.
Similarly, the midfield effectively picks itself. Antonio and Lanzini offer a completely new dimension to the team’s attacking play and have to play when fully-fit. Playing Lanzini just ahead of either Kouyate or Obiang would allow the Argentinian to roam freely in the middle whilst acting as a bridge to the attack. Nobody in the squad protects the defence as well as an in-form Kouyate, but even then he faces competition from arguably the most technically complete footballer the club possesses in Pedro Obiang. Alternating between the two might not be popular, but it could be the most effective way of managing them. Whereas Kouyate acts as the engine who breaks up play and carries the ball out of danger, Obiang enjoys keeping possession and dictating the game from the middle of the park. On the left, Arnautovic’s continued struggles with consistency makes him the most expendable player in the team. There is no doubting his passion, but he needs a good run of games to show the fans his worth.
For Bilic, the most effective solution might just be the simplest. In an age where 4-4-2 is used sporadically, it might be the time for West Ham to adopt the traditional system, not least to bring some stability to a club still wrestling with its identity. There is a reason that it remains the most widely recognised formation in the sport. The flexibility it affords cannot be understated for a manager still unsure of his best eleven. Switching between a diamond, a flat 4-4-2 or deploying two holding midfielders would enable Bilic to manage the midfield on a week-by-week, match-by-match basis without altering the team to a detrimental effect. With a greater emphasis on attack, it might even allow Bilic and the strikers to rediscover the goal-scoring form that made them such a revelation in the Croat’s first season. Maybe after going back to basics Bilic can then look forward to a future at West Ham.
Does Bilic deserve the criticism he is getting? Can you see him in the West Ham dugout next season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!