On Monday, West Ham fell 2-0 against Manchester United, a testy and controversial match that featured the best football the Hammers have played this year, tough defensively and aggressive in attack. It was a game turned by a couple of nightmare officiating mistakes, and world class finishing from United.
West Ham started in a simple 4-2-3-1, and it would have been interesting to see how the game plan developed. The tactics Bilic planned to use seemed both unexpected and exciting, with Antonio playing the role of lone frontman. Instead, the game turned on it’s head, as the Hammers great start was interrupted by a horrific refereeing decision.
A two footed challenge from Sofiane Feghouli took down Phil Jones. It was a strong tackle, but a fairly innocuous one. Both players went for the ball, and Jones narrowly got to it first. A Manchester United fan might have argued for a yellow card, but no one would have claimed it was a red card.
No one, that is, except for Mike Dean.
It was a call so absurd even Manchester United's players looked surprised. It had the added effect of utterly destroying any hope of an even match.
Bilic had a nearly impossible job, trying to somehow negate the attacking power of Manchester’s men with a numerical disadvantage. Instead of making a direct change, or using a single player to cover the space, West Ham reorganized the team, with several players taking the role.
Antonio moved further right, going up as far as striker, and back as far as right back. Kouyate used his mobility to help cover the space, sliding to the right hand side when he could. Up front, Lanzini was the nominal center forward, though he stayed fairly deep, closer to his usual number 10 position, and often shifted out wide.
Dimitri Payet stayed close, to the center as well, trying to get involved in the game. This left Aaron Cresswell alone on the left flank, one on one against Juan Mata, and oftentimes Antonio Valencia. It was a big task for the Englishman and despite his best efforts, one that eventually proved too much.
It would be over 55 minutes before that overload on the right hand side provided a killing blow to the irons, 55 minutes marked by impressive defensive work and fast counter attacking.
Despite playing a man down, West Ham actually looked fairly strong. It took the Red Devils over half an hour to create a real chance, a spectacular double miss, by Valencia, with a stunning Darren Randolph save from Jesse Lingard in between.
The first great chance of the second set of forty five minutes came on a counter attack, but Antonio couldn't convert a good one on one chance. The brilliant through ball to create the opportunity was one of the few moments of ingenuity from the otherwise uninvolved Dimitri Payet.
United struggled through a the rest of the half, launching shot after shot over the bar, and drowning the game with a string of sideways passes, and West Ham even managed to create a good chance for Manuel Lanzini to draw a stunning save from David de Gea, and Mike Dean to turn down a handball appeal after a Payet free kick struck Phil Jones.
Things were looking up for West Ham, but you can't afford a moment of complacency against a team like Manchester United, and this was a lesson the hammers learned the hard way. Half time substitute Marcus Rashford was given too much time and space on the wing, and he found the room to cut back to an unmarked Juan Mata. The Spaniard fired into the roof of the net.
With West Ham forced to press forward, United had growing space to attack into, using their width and numbers to choke the life out of the game. The Irons tried to press ahead and win the ball back, but after an hour of heroic resistance, the team was just exhausted.
The game was finished off by an offside Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another mistake from the beleaguered officials. By this time, West Ham had lost hope, and were content to sit back and ponder a frustrating match.
It was a bizarre game, featuring the best of what the team can do, and yet resulting in a defeat. There can be no arguing that the final scoreline will look painful, but the irons should take hope and pride from an impressive performance, one that the team should be able to build upon