It’s a Saturday in mid-January 2017 and West Ham, like on a lot of Saturdays recently, desperately need three points.
Crystal Palace are the visitors. It is a huge game for Bilic. A short-lived improvement around Christmas had been swiftly halted by three straight defeats and the manager is potentially one or two poor results away from the chop. He takes a huge risk two days before the game, electing to publically expose the feud between the club and its star, Dimitri Payet, who was refusing to play. “This team, the staff, we gave him everything, we were always there for him. I feel let down. I feel angry”, he said in an emotional pre-match press conference.
The 48 year-old Croat’s risky revelation paid off. The squad seemed galvanised, almost liberated, and romped to a 3-0 win over Palace, with stellar performances from Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio and a goal for the ages by Andy Carroll sending the fans into raptures. It was the biggest performance and atmosphere to date at the new stadium, and Bilic had succeeded in lifting a weight off the club’s shoulders. The team followed up with a further two wins in the next three, going unbeaten in six in the league. A renewed optimism permeated.
Indeed, Bilic has been able to do just about enough to save his job on a few occasions recently. With further speculation surrounding his future after form took another nose-dive, a run of four-clean sheets in five and a marquee win over Spurs saw us end last season on a positive note, and bought Slav enough time to take us into the following season. (He also deserved to be cut a bit of slack for having to play most of the season without a decent striker.)
Now, here he is again. For the third time in just a few months, West Ham are in such poor form that the position of the man everyone wanted to do well now appears untenable.
Like most West Ham fans, I have desperately wanted this to work for Slav. Coming in and giving the club the burst of positive energy we hadn’t seen for a long time, ‘Super Slav’ became the first manager to have his name chanted from the terraces since Alan Pardew a decade ago. He gave us some of our best memories for ages, my favourite season as a West Ham supporter, and, when he climbed onto the ITV studio table after one of his players gave another star performance at Euro 2016, one of my favourite moments too.
But, unfortunately for Bilic, his team cannot defend and are bereft of ideas and cutting edge in too many big games. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to a poor three games of 2017/18; this is a long-term problem which Slav has failed to get to grips with. West Ham have conceded two or more goals in 13 of their 22 league games in 2017, a recipe for defeat each time. Since the start of last season, a 41 game run, two or more goals have been let in on a remarkable 22 occasions, 32 in 59 if you go back to the start of 2016. The statistics are damning.
The evidence has been collected for a long time now and the results are in: Bilic cannot get the team to defend for any sustained amount of time. Any upturn in form, only really brought about when the manager is already in the firing line, is short-lived, with another defensive capitulation and poor run not far around the corner. It’s a sad truth which, after the Newcastle defeat at the weekend, most fans are now seeing.
Media and fans alike often complain about mangers not being given enough time. Bilic has now had over two years, enough time to make your mark on a team, to build something that’s yours. For too long now, West Ham have had no identity, no distinctive way of playing, no characteristic ‘West Ham’ style. Are we a team that plays on the counter? Are we built on solid foundations and wing play? Do we look to dominate possession? Are we a pressing side? It’s impossible to ascertain a footballing identity.
More worryingly, in the absence of this we don’t even have a particular grit or determination in our performances, the ability to dig in and grind out a result. We used to see it. In the heady days of 2015/16, when we were two wins away from the Champions League, the players would embrace with such passion at the end of clearly hard-fought games. They would leave everything on the pitch and seemed completely together as a unit. Everton away, Arsenal at home, Southampton at home. We weren’t vintage but we gave everything. This grit has now been missing for so long that it seems irretrievable. We are soft, easy to beat, even for teams who seem in disarray themselves.
Our lack of intensity is another of our biggest problems. As a team we don’t put pressure on the ball, don’t seem to be fit enough to chase and get at teams for 90 minutes, are poorly organised and don’t seem to have coherent plans, either defensively or going forward. It’s worrying when both Enner Valencia and Reece Oxford go public in saying they trained more intensively at their loan clubs last season (Oxford was playing in the Championship). This is probably the most worrying trait of all that Bilic has allowed to fester. It shows the club is performing well below its potential. In the Premier League, with other teams around you fighting hard, this is disastrous.
You don’t even need to look hard to find a team with less quality in its squad but still able to achieve results through a greater ethic. For instance, Paul Clement has succeeded in turning a mess of a Swansea side into a gritty, well-organised team capable of getting big results, and in a short space of time too. It’s early in the season, but the lower half of the league certainly appears less inept than it was last year. We cannot afford to be below our best. It doesn’t matter that we have the players – other teams will always be better if they have a stronger ethic.
Rather than develop our grit, or put more attention to detail behind the scenes to develop the winning formula, we have been too reliant from individual moments to drive us – something out of nothing from Antonio, a moment of quality from Lanzini, or Carroll bullying a centre-back. We have deferred to our best players for far too long. Equally, apart from a couple of shifts to a back three, Bilic has been tactically inflexible within games, and appeared too afraid to drop one or two key names from the team.
In fact, this is nothing unique to the past year. Even in his first season, West Ham scored so many amazing goals that it perhaps masked our lack of ability to outplay opponents. We were excellent at capitalising on good spells, and scoring goals out of nothing. Moses at Man City, Lanzini against Everton and at Stamford Bridge, Zarate against West Brom, Payet and Valencia at Bournemouth, Payet again at home to Palace, Antonio against Sunderland, Cresswell against Leicester – all just some examples that year of goals that changed games for us that came almost from nowhere.
Those kinds of goals won’t always go in; it’s a law of averages. At some point those kinds of goals will dry up, and dry up they did. Add in Payet’s departure and what was Bilic left with? What else did he have in his locker that could win us games consistently? Even when we were at our best, it seemed to be in recovery from a poor start (not to decry in any way the 3-2 win at Everton which is perhaps my most memorable away game as a travelling supporter). To boot, Bilic’s team became renowned not just for fighting back into games, but also for getting results against the big teams. Last season, Tottenham aside, we were mostly embarrassed in the games against the very best.
It’s with the great memories in mind that makes it tough to call for Bilic to go. But the long-term evidence in defence of him just isn’t there. The owners should remember the last time West Ham were relegated, when they stuck with the manager Avram Grant in the face of all evidence on the pitch to the contrary. This summer, they have built a squad for now rather than tomorrow, with four new first team players brought in at an average age of 30. For the squad for now, they need a manager for now. The team has great potential, and there are some marvellous talents at the club, who have not been performing to their ability, neither individually nor as a team. Over two years on from his appointment, it’s probably time to admit that Bilic is not the man to turn it around.