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Ashley Fletcher Axed from the First Team

When will Bilic start trusting his younger players?

West Ham United v Manchester City - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Ashley Fletcher is probably regretting that he didn’t go out on loan to Leeds United right about now. Instead of vying for a spot in a Championship side, he’s been demoted to midday or Monday morning kickoffs with a bunch of hopeful teenagers. Fletcher’s demotion to the U23 squad, especially with an injured Andy Carroll, speaks volumes. Slaven Bilic doesn’t trust the 21-year-old to perform, even when the Hammers have virtually no available strikers. Actually, no, the Hammers don’t just have virtually no available strikers, they have literally no available strikers.

Slaven Bilic has been forcing a few athletic squares into circular holes this season (see: Cheikhou Kouyate playing right-back), but what Slav has done with playing Michail Antonio up top instead of a “true striker” has absolutely stymied West Ham’s attack on the right. Sofiane Feghouli is an incredible player and he’s been so important for the Hammers this season, but without Antonio pushing the ball up and down the right flank, West Ham’s attack has been stoppered. For a squad with more than its fair share of pacey wingers, West Ham have been having a lot of trouble getting the ball in the net. When Carroll was fit, all bets were off, as the aforementioned wingers could get out in space and then fling those crosses in toward the Geordie Giant. With the big man’s injury, though, we see that Michail Antonio just can’t quite fill up Carroll’s clown-sized shoes.

Ashley Fletcher, albeit as young and as raw of a player as he is, could do just what Michail Antonio has failed to do while playing up top: score goals. Antonio has been one of West Ham’s most important players throughout this season and last, but that’s not the issue here. Michail Antonio simply isn’t built to be playing up top in this squad. This squad has been designed by Slaven Bilic to fire crosses in toward a target man who can get the ball at his feet (or his head) and then fire home. Andy Carroll is an aerial phenom beyond compare. While that’s not necessarily Fletcher’s strong suit, he is very good when he gets the ball down at his feet in the final third, and this abundance of wingers could really be working with that natural ability from Fletcher. Not to mention that Fletcher has the height to be very good in the air, and he does occasionally go for the header. Unfortunately because Bilic has historically not been good about giving younger players a chance in the first team, it looks as if Ashley Fletcher could be headed toward the door this summer.

We know the potential that Fletcher has, so why would Slaven send him down to the U23s when West Ham is in desperate need of someone to step up in the wake of Andy Carroll’s most recent injury battle? Calleri has been given chance after chance and done nothing with any of them—save for that one goal that was actually just sort of a lucky deflection.

So why send Fletcher down? It’s possible that Bilic sees the potential and wants Fletcher to get some playing time and some confidence in PL2. Fletcher started yesterday in the Cup match against Brighton & Hove Albion, just the day after being axed out of the first team. West Ham lost that match 3-0 so it doesn’t seem that Fletcher made much of an impact.

The thing that’s most maddening about Bilic’s decision to demote Fletcher is that without him the squad will have to continue looking to an out-of-position Antonio—who picked up a red card and a subsequent one-match ban in West Ham’s last outing—to score the goals. With Antonio out for a match, West Ham once again literally has no available true striker for the Starting XI in their next match against Chelsea, barring a miraculous recovery from Andy Carroll or Diafra Sakho anyway.

Bilic has been the best—and most well-liked—manager for West Ham since Harry Redknapp, but he has got to learn how to adapt, and this move with Fletcher is not the right one. Refusing to play a PL2 striker in Toni Martinez who had scored 10 goals in 12 games was another bad move. Slaven Bilic has got to at least give these guys a chance, or they’re going to leave.

We know what Calleri can do by now, and that’s absolutely nothing. What would be so bad about Fletcher starting and seeing some energy instead of the same fatuous, redundant performances from Calleri? Give Ashley Fletcher a chance, Slaven, or risk losing him and seeing him flourish elsewhere. It’s that simple.