(This is the debut post of our new writer Jonathan Lines. Welcome aboard Jonathan, making it a double Jonathan unit we have here).
He may not be world class, but he’s proven himself dependable in Slaven’s shaky back-line.
West Ham have problems defending. This is neither the hot-take of the year, nor is it a new problem. The ten goals shipped in the opening three league games of the 2017/18 season merely reinforce a worryingly familiar trait of Slaven Bilic’s side. Aleksander Mitrovic’s late third goal last weekend was the 95th the Hammers have conceded in their last 51 matches. More worryingly in 2017, West Ham conceded two or more goals 14 times in 22 games, a sure-fire recipe for defeat.
At 34, James Collins may not be a permanent answer to what is clearly a long-term issue. Equally, there are plenty of things the Welsh international is not, and he has often been derided, even dismissed by supporters and opposing fans alike for his shortcomings. His lack of pace and agility has seen him struggle at times (he was given the runaround at Hull City last season) and his Row-Z approach is seen by many as outdated in modern football, where the possession game has grown in importance.
But ‘Ginge’ is perhaps the closest thing West Ham have to a dependable centre-back right now. Indeed, his last recall was instrumental in the club’s return to form. Following a poor run of results in February and March, with the defense leaking goals, Collins returned to the side in April 2017, with Bilic desperately needing a turnaround to save his job. Collins more than played his part in a back-line, which ended the season on a run of four clean sheets in seven, delivering superb individual performances against Swansea and Everton in particular when Bilic used a back three.
He has the ability to restore a great deal of stability to the defensive set-up, regularly leading the team’s blocks and interceptions when involved. At the same time, no centre-back has played well enough to justify not giving him a chance. Angelo Ogbonna struggled last season while playing through injury for large part; the form of Winston Reid, absolutely our best defender, has been up-and-down since an extended injury lay-off of his own last year; and Jose Fonte has looked far from the player fans were expecting after his £8 million transfer in January.
Admittedly, our defensive frailities are not merely rooted in the individual defenders themselves. Rather, the system and the sum of all the components, the way we defend as a team, need addressing. On the other hand, so many of our goals against have come from individual errors, be they from poor positioning, giving the ball away or losing shape. With this in mind, Collins’ experience and style would become an asset to the team at this particular moment. It may have been against a weaker opposition, but his assured display against Cheltenham in the League Cup recently, a performance full of leadership and calm, was further evidence of his value to the side.
Collins may split opinion, but most Irons fans would arguably forgive his shortcomings for his evident passion for the club, as well as his strengths, which just happen to be missing from the team right now. They will remember that for every head-in-hands moment (a poor slip in possession leading to a defeat at Swansea lives in the memory) there is a triumph (we won’t forget keeping Luis Suarez quiet at Anfield in a hurry).
West Ham may go on to improve at the back over the next few weeks, hopefully starting in two weeks against Huddersfield, but our recent history has shown that a run of defensive chaos is never too far round the corner, even in the good periods. Slaven Bilic would do well to think back, both to the end of last season and over much of the Welshman’s career, and remember that he could do a lot worse than James Collins.