It’s another heavy question Slaven Bilic has pondered the moment his side entered the last international break of the season on a five match winless streak: Who will be my central midfield players for the final wave of fixtures?
In the wake of Pedro Obiang’s quality second season with West Ham United coming to an unfortunate conclusion with his season-ending ankle injury in the 3-2 defeat to Leicester almost a fortnight ago, the Hammers manager has been dealt another lineup massive headache. The Spaniard was clearly the team’s best in that area this season, as his value to the side has arguably grown near the level of Andy Carroll, Michail Antonio and the departed Dimitri Payet.
Now with the former Sampdoria product out of service, the question as to who will partner Mark Noble in the middle (whether as the “2” in the 4-2-3-1 formation or the center two in the dreaded 3-4-3 set up) has gone through the thoughts of almost every Irons fan across the globe.
Will it be the reunion of last season’s reliable pairing of Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate? Or will the likes of Havard Nordtveit and Edimilson Fernandes push their way into unlikely starter’s role.
The current slump only magnifies the pressure of this choice for Bilic even higher, as West Ham could possibly be drawn back into some danger for the remainder of the season if results don’t improve.
It is a key topic that will be discussed fully right now.
Noble and Kouyate
The first combination that comes to mind is reuniting the captain with the versatile athletic force that is the Senegal skipper. Noble’s season has been littered with questions as to whether his best days as a Hammer have finally passed him, as the younger Obiang completely out shined his team leader before the Spaniard’s unfortunate injury.
Noble has and won’t ever be a solid midfield destroyer. But his lack of dynamic play in the final third of the field, combined with a few more loose touches in the center of the park, have lead to a debate as to whether he should even be starting any longer.
With Obiang’s injury and Noble back from his own ailment before the international break, the veteran’s spot in the lineup appears safe for the remainder of the season. Obiang himself wasn’t a primary, defensive play breaking type either, and Kouyate’s experience playing as the central midfield partner with Noble successfully last season makes sense for Bilic to chose their combination.
As just the “2” in a 4-2-3-1 early this season, but Noble and Kouyate’s partnership did not prevent West Ham from losing the three games they played in the middle with each other. But that was in the ugly, injury filled start of the season, as the lack of healthy fullbacks was the primary cause in losing 4-2 to both West Brom and Watford, and 3-0 to Southampton, and not Noble and Kouyate’s combination.
The Croatian strategist shouldn’t be tempted by Winston Reid’s injury and move Kouyate to the backline and play the shambolic three centerback formation again. With James Collins capable of holding the fort in Reid’s absence and partnering Jose Fonte, Bilic needs no second thoughts returning Kouyate to midfield alongside Noble.
Nordtveit and Kouyate
It has been a frustrating first season in the Premier League for the Norway international, as he has sacrificed his success as a quality midfielder performer at Borussia Monchenglabach for being just an occasional makeshift right back (or rather MESSshift right back) for Bilic.
In fact, Nordtveit has only started one game as a central midfielder, and that was with...Kouyate. That came in a 1-0 win vs Bournemouth at home in just the second Premier League game of the season. A game in which Manuel Lanzini wasn’t available, as Bilic chose to move Noble up to the Argentine’s playmaking #10 position.
When in form, Nordtveit is every bit as good a distributor as Noble is at his best. And he does have an eye for goal. The 26-year-old at least deserves a chance at his prime position, and at least has experience, albeit fleeting, playing with Kouyate. Both have the potential to compliment each other’s style just as well as Kouyate does with Noble.
Noble and Nordtveit
Although different in age and physique, both Noble and Obiang really share a lot of similarities. Again, both won’t ever be confused as primary destroyers of an opposing team’s attack, preferring to get the ball up the field with Noble much more dedicated to directly attacking the box.
Both Noble and Nordtveit have their congruent traits. However, despite improving his offensive contributions in the Bundesliga over time, the 26-year-old still prefers to stay right in front of his centerbacks first and make sure they are at least protected. It’s another combination that will make Bilic ponder the thought of placing Nordtveit back in his #1 spot.
Noble and Fernandes
An intriguing wild card idea, pairing the Hammers captain with one of the club’s intriguing young talents. With the latest list of injuries, the Swiss will think this is his best chance to become a regular performer for the Hammers. He is more than mobile enough to cover ground and allow the aging Noble not to expend energy of doing constant two-way work in the midfield.
But Fernandes is still primarily an offensive talent and prevents Bilic from having another destroying type in the mode of Kouyate. And with the Hammers needing results in this final stretch of the season, it would be a little more than risky if Bilic went with this pairing.
Fernandes and Kouyate
Again, another central midfield duo that would seem more likely to be used in preseason training, or as a special situational tactic to preserve a draw, than as a starting combination for Bilic.
No question both of these two would be the most athletic, mobile pairing for Bilic. And their skill set actually compliments each other better than any other combination besides Noble and Obiang. But with no starting match experience with each other in the middle of the pitch, it would be more likely that the Hammers pick up no more injuries the remainder of the season than Bilic pairing Fernandes and Kouyate together on the team sheet.
Fernandes and Nordtveit
This duo, despite contrasting abilities on paper showing their could bond well with each other, have no playing experience whatsoever. Coupled Fernandes’ still inexperience at this level and Nordtveit’s lack of play this season (especially in central midfield) and Bilic starting this pairing is more unlikely than James Collins dyeing his beard blonde.
But, what do you think? Vote down below as to what you think would be the best pairing.