Written by Rhys Paul
Two consecutive 4-2 defeats to Watford and West Brom is beyond unacceptable for West Ham. For a team expected to be in-and-around the top eight, those two games should have been winnable. In that first half an hour against Watford, they looked more than capable of competing with any team in the division. The next hour and the 90 minutes that followed against West Brom were woeful and the club looked more relegation fodder than European hopefuls. The worst part of both performances was undoubtedly the defence – if it can be called that. Eight goals in two games speaks volumes, especially for any team who concedes four to Tony Pulis’ West Brom. Against Watford, it was worrying just how easily the opposition were able to walk through the defence and fans were holding their breath with each Watford attack.
In both games, sloppy, amateurish defending and individual mistakes put the Hammers needlessly on the back foot and they both unsurprisingly resulted in the team’s downfall on the pitch. It seems ridiculous to even talk about the defence since it’s been so non-existent these last two weeks. Defensive concerns are nothing new, but it is concerning to see that instead of rectifying the issue, it appears to have gone backwards. Something drastic is needed to resolve the issue, yet Slaven Bilic is short on options that restrict his ability to overhaul the defence and the serial under-performers. There was so much emphasis on the club’s attacking reinforcements over the Summer that the defence was completely forgotten. That neglect has already caused some damage and it could cause an even greater amount before the end of the season. In an attempt to analyse why the defence is struggling, I’ve also suggested steps that should/will be taken to actually make the defence capable of defending.
On paper, West Ham have three good senior centre-backs at their disposal – Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna as the first choice pairing with the experienced James Collins in reserve. Unfortunately, all three have huge flaws. Reid is overrated by everyone except a growing section of West Ham supporters. His defending borders on arrogant at times as he tries to smartly protect the ball before ultimately losing it to the more alert attacker. He is often too eager to go to ground – which I must admit is responsible for the majority of his successful tackles – and he is too far static when he stands his ground. When he is good, he is very good. Unfortunately, that only seems to be against the top teams in the league, or when he is wound up to the point where he develops a desire to fight for the ball.
Ogbonna is arguably the club’s best defender. He isn’t exactly conventional, yet he gets the job done and seems the most willing to just boot the ball out of danger. Something that I am beginning to notice in his game is his inability to switch on for the whole 90 minutes. For obvious reasons, that is problematic. He doesn’t command the defence nearly enough either, but that is something that could easily be resolved if he had a leader beside him in the centre of defence – something that might actually help him stay focused.
Collins is a good back-up, however that is all he should be. This season has already made it glaringly obvious that he simply isn’t capable of a sustained run in the first team. Game deciding mistakes have always been far too common, especially after a run of good performances. That once again came to the surface for Watford’s second goal. Sloppy defending for West Brom’s second could have been mistaken for inexperience, the type of mistake a youngster like Reece Oxford might have made by backing off an experienced striker, however it is inexcusable for somebody who has played in the top flight for thirteen consecutive seasons. The decision to sell James Tomkins seems horribly misguided now. He would have provided an alternative option in the heart of defence and it is unlikely that he would have lost form at the same time as the other three. Had the £10 million the club received for him been invested in a replacement, there wouldn’t have been a problem, it just seems the club sold him to fund more attacking options.
The full-back situation isn’t exactly much better. Fans – myself included – were clamouring for Sam Byram to start after some promising glimpses and to allow Michail Antonio to move up into his natural position. Collins’ saved Byram from being the worst player on the pitch against Watford and he is now going to struggle to get back into favour after looking so out of his depth in the opening stages of the season. Bilic’s late realisation that Antonio cannot be converted into a right-back meant the club missed out on signing a decent, long-term solution, despite supporters calling for one. Arthur Masuaku rivalled Collins for the worst individual defensive performance with a self-destructive display against West Brom. Two needless and, quite frankly, idiotic handballs allowed the home side to take an early lead and that was something the Hammer’s fragile confidence could not afford following the collapse a week earlier. He is a typical modern full-back (meaning he is a fraud of a defender). A defender’s priority has to be to defend, but Masuaku is far too pre-occupied with attacking to actually do this effectively. Luckily he is only a temporary replacement for the injured Aaron Cresswell who is much better in all aspects of his game.
In the case of Byram and Masuaku, there are at least direct replacements in the pipeline. Alvaro Arbeloa’s experience could play a big part in helping the defence rediscover form. He still needs to reach match fitness and he will hopefully feature against Accrington Stanley on Wednesday, so he should not be too far off making his league debut. Cresswell is a more long-term absentee, but he has at least begun to rebuild up his fitness levels. The club will just have to put up with Masuaku for the time being as Lewis Page and Stephen Hendrie are both out on loan and do not yet seem ready for the top flight.
On the contrary, I do believe Reece Burke should be recalled from his loan spell at Wigan. A big reason for fans accepting Tomkins’ departure stemmed from the belief Burke would see more game time. He was subsequently loaned out (once again) to suggest Oxford is ahead of him in the pecking order. It is time for Collins’ game time to be reduced significantly and, with Burke seen as his natural replacement, he should gradually be eased into the side. I don’t believe he should be chucked straight into the team as that could have a negative impact on his confidence, but now is the time to start positioning him as a key member of the defence in the years to come. For a similar reason, I am against Oxford coming straight into the side. A knee-jerk reaction isn’t needed, even if it would send a message to the likes of Reid, Ogbonna and Collins. For that reason, I would welcome Oxford starting against Southampton as I do think he would cope well with Austin, he just isn’t yet ready to be starting on a weekly basis. Collins needs to be dropped regardless of what Bilic decides and it might be worth just giving the Reid-Ogbonna partnership time and a chance to gel.
Bilic has so far done all the right things by conducting training sessions focused primarily on defending. The team clearly needs to go back to basics and it might be worth instructing the full-backs to stay back more than they have been doing. The back four are also in desperate need of more protection from the midfield. Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate have failed in this respect and a defensive midfield is needed to just anchor the defence. Havard Nordtveit is the most natural player to fulfil this role, but even assigning Noble to a more focused job on the pitch could improve his own performances as he constantly seems to be trying to do too much to no avail. Both of these tactics would surely shore up the defence and prevent it from becoming as exposed as it did against Watford and West Brom. The likes of Antonio, Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini have enough talent to do a job in the attacking third, so there is no need to keep continuing to place an even greater emphasis on this at the expense of the defence.
West Ham fans, what do you think needs to be done to the defence? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by joshjdss