There’s a prevailing cliché in football punditry that says “don’t judge a team before they’ve played ten league games”. Like with most buzzwords around analysis, it can be helpful but also too simplistic. It’s why most experts hesitated to judge Everton’s slow start, given that they had played the league’s best four teams in their first five games. But its blanket use provided a barrier to more forensic examination, an excuse masking true underperformance. Yes, it’s not fair to criticize Everton’s lack of points without recognizing they played their most difficult games all at the start. But it shouldn’t be used to dismiss poor performances without trying to glean something from them. If you spoke to most Everton fans, with a more nuanced and in-depth knowledge of their team, they could tell it wasn’t right and could see the struggles against other opponents coming. Pundits said they’d be fine.
At West Ham, there’s been a hesitation until very recently to judge Bilic, as it’s ‘too early in the season’. I wrote here after the 3-0 defeat at Newcastle, on Matchday 3, saying that I thought it was time for Bilic to leave. Whether three or ten games into the season, it was clear to me that the same issues from last season persisted. West Ham’s defensive organisation, attacking gameplan and style of play were completely lacking. It didn’t matter that we had a couple of injuries either. We’ve been too reliant on individual moments for too long anyway. If we’ve built a team that is completely toothless when one or two players are absent, then we need to look at the way the team is being built, especially if their absence is taken as routine.
Now, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, our tenth game (and sixth in which we’ve got a worse result than in the corresponding fixture last season), the statute of limitations on the old ’10 games cliché’ is up. We can judge. West Ham United: You have been weighed, you have been measured and you have been found wanting.
Yep, that’s from “A Knight’s Tale”, the 2001 film featuring Heath Ledger. I remember this film fondly, with its distinctive late 90s/early 200s feel. I mean it’s not a classic but it’s fun, fresh, entertaining, a bit odd in places, with some characters you don’t particularly warm to (turns out the love interest Jocelyn has practically no personality). Millennials and possibly some of their predecessors will associate this film and others in its are as rooted in nostalgia, taking you back to a simpler, happier time where Blair hasn’t invaded Iraq and Abramovic has never heard of Chelsea.
And yes, there is a deliberate subtext to this digression. Late 90s/early 200s West Ham were by no means perfect, battling relegation more often than I prefer to remember. But there were lots of good times too. In particular, there were lots of endearingly ‘West Ham’ players. By that I suppose I mean either they had their heard in the right place without always having the skill and execution to be consistently good; or conversely the ‘hard’ types in the Julian Dicks / Tomas Repka mould.
I’m fully aware not to look back with rose-tinted spectacles at an era of old. But I also wonder if anyone else looks at 2017 and worries about the lack of identity and fan connection at West Ham. It’s closer to a dangerous tipping point than we may realise, I think.
There’s the stadium, not just that it doesn’t feel much like home, but just as much the feeling every time you arrive that so much of what was sold to get the fans on board has been neglected. Factor in, among many other things, senior management’s transfer policy and relationships with social media and the manager, and the level of disconnect between fans and board is actually greater than any point I can remember. Yet we owe a great debt of thanks to the board for rescuing and stabilising our finances. It’s all so full of contradiction. My view on it has always been that their past shouldn’t grant them immunity from scrutiny. But what power does the individual have in holding them to account?
Worse still, there’s a growing disconnect between stakeholders in the team at all levels, from the board, to the manager and players, right through to the fans. The fans are divided on the manager. And Bilic and the owners clearly don’t get on, with Gold and Sullivan simultaneously neither willing to offer him a new contract nor sack him.
The board’s approach to Bilic’s position is a bigger issue than it’s being given credit for. It renders Slav the lamest duck since Harry S. Truman, when he withdrew from the nomination a full eleven months before leaving office. It completely weakens his legitimacy with the players, and you can see the conditions being ripe for those who don’t rate him to be simply waiting it out. What we’re left with is disconnect all sides, and no person, cause or event to galvanise and unite the club.
This is another peculiar paradox; you’d think Bilic would be the perfect man for this. He is certainly a dignified and diplomatic character in public, as well as a clearly likeable and popular guy; the team does seem to buy into him. For the fans this was always the appointment that everyone wanted desperately to work. Free from the shackles of Allardyce, the former Hammer (and an archetypal ‘West Ham’ player as mentioned above) promised a freer, more exciting brand of football and the early signs were very good.
In fact, a part of the problem now is that Bilic’s early popularity is proving to be counter-productive. The lack of tactical consistency, lack of clear style of play, inability to defend for more than one or two games at a time – these are now long-term issues. Would West Ham fans be less sympathetic towards a manager if he hadn’t played for us? Would that put more pressure on the owners to make a change? Calling him a victim of his own success would be too much of a cliché, but he’s definitely managed to buy himself more time without fully troubleshooting at any point.
To try and see beyond the obvious and look into what are some quite contradictory issues, we really need to spend a lot more time looking at hard evidence. And the long-term evidence is now stacked against Bilic. We’ve managed to concede at least two goals in an eye-watering 16 of 29 league games in 2017. In terms of play, we struggle to create chances and keep relying on fairly random or individual moments to score.
Against Crystal Palace, many of the long-term Bilic hallmarks were clear to see again. Defensive frailty, lack of cutting edge (against a side who had lost 8 out of 9) and a growing concern about closing out games.
Some might say Bilic can’t legislate for the individual errors which perhaps cost us the result this weekend. This is true to a level and players are certainly responsible and accountable for their roles and positions. Yet one can’t help but wonder about the clarity and delivery of the message from the manager. Do the players have clear instructions, able to cope with the situations of the changing game? Another complex paradox where joint accountability looks like being the answer. But that doesn’t give the fans the ready-made answer we all want.
The result also reminds us of the fallacy of attaching too much hope to the comeback win against Tottenham in the week. This contradiction is one that we at West Ham have been all too familiar with since long before Bilic. Of course we lost to Brighton then beat Tottenham...
Bilic seems to come into his own in order to get a single result to scrape a win to save his job. But while this buys him more time, we never actually see tangible improvement. This cycle has been in full motion for a good 16 months now. We desperately need a win, get one, shore up for a couple of weeks before the goals come flooding in again.
Perceived wisdom seems to be telling us that the squad is good enough, but just needs a better way of playing as a team, so a better manager would get more from the squad. But again, there’s something working against this. I worry about the imbalance of the squad too. We have a fairly slow and ageing defence, no pace or creativity in midfield, only one playmaker in Lanzini and I’m not sure how the teams is built to create scoring positions.
With 9 points from 10 games, there’s a growing fear that we could be sleepwalking to something terrible this season. Already this year we’ve taken a pasting against two promoted teams, lost to teams we beat last year and still need to play five of last year’s top seven before Christmas. After the defeat at home to Spurs, and with a tough set of fixtures not far around the corner, we were looking ahead to Burnley (A), Brighton (H) and Crystal Palace (A) as a crucial set of fixtures to pick up points. We ended up with just two.
We fall back onto clichés and accepted ideas when we’re not too sure of the answer. And at this point in time with West Ham there really is no easy solution. So many factors are working paradoxically against each other. Sack the manager? There’s so much disconnect at other levels of the club that it only solves part of the problem. The new manager still has to work for and with the same people. Get someone new in to do better with the squad? The squad itself is quite flawed. Wait for the manager to turn it around? After all, we just won away at Spurs! It’s all so full of contradiction.
That said, I have no doubt either that there will be a coach out there capable of organising the team into something better balanced and capable of getting results. The lack of pace could be masked better by a more organised team defence including better support from midfield. The creativity gap can’t be easily solved but there are managers out there who build better scoring strategies with inferior players to ours. But then there’s the reality that any manager would struggle unless Gold and Sullivan are also willing to change.
Most tellingly and damningly on BIlic is the form of the majority of the squad. Creswell looks a shadow of the player of two years ago. Antonio may be getting a few knocks but is in his worst sustained run of form since joining. Carroll hasn’t contributed anything all season. Noble, Kouyate, Fonte all look miles from their best years. Who has actually improved? I’m not suggesting they’ll miraculously become international class under a new coach, but there obviously is a common denominator here. Plus the lack of intensity of training has been highlighted before.
So the Crystal Palace game reminds us of the deep contradictions running through West Ham. While I think BIlic should probably go, it’s also useful to remind ourselves of the need to fully understand the quite complex set of problems at West Ham right now, in order to try and solve them. We can’t get the easy answer we want when so many are, in varying ways, responsible for our underperformance. Let’s move away from the clichés, quick fixes and taking sides and try to examine all the evidence. I hope those in charge of the club do the same, including a fair amount of looking in the mirror. If they refuse to see the whole picture, they may not see how close to disaster they could be.