Upon leaving the London Stadium yesterday, most fans would not have been too disappointed by a 3-2 scoreline against a Tottenham side clearly capable of challenging at the top of the league, buoyed by a late fightback in which we were an Andy Carroll header away from taking a point.
Manager Slaven Bilic was keen to stress the positives with his players, and there certainly were some to take from Saturday’s defeat. However, the team’s much-improved resilience and competitiveness must not mask the fact that the loss highlights major flaws in the club’s short- and long-term balance.
West Ham have shown greater fight and desire in recent weeks. A derby game against a team you have enjoyed getting the better of recently may be an easy one for players to motivate themselves for, but we also looked much stronger and more durable in recent weeks, after being found desperately wanting for desire in the first three games of the season. The pressure Tottenham were under late-on from crosses and set-pieces also reminded us of the huge threat Carroll has the potential to pose.
But, after a system change brought about a brief consolidation of the defence in recent weeks, old problems were exposed once more. Spurs’ attackers were ruthless in attacking open spaces, running into channels and capitalising on mistakes. So while Bilic’s deliberately defensive 3-4-3 left us looking far from defensively sound, its lack of clear attacking strategy meant that, at least until Serge Aurier gave us a helping hand, there was only ever going to be one outcome in this game.
In terms of its defensive structure, you can clearly see why Slav turned to 3-4-3 after our woeful start. Indeed, 3-4-3 has been the Croat’s go-to formation to solve a defensive crisis. The change helped him secure a professional 1-0 win at Crystal Palace last year, having conceded 12 in the previous four in the league, with the three centre backs nullifying Christian Benteke’s aerial threat. It was very good tactics from Bilic. Then later in the season, we reverted to a back three against Swansea after a run of 13 conceded in five. We won the game 1-0.
Defensive expediency was again the reason for the switch this time, with the team looking open, slow and completely vulnerable during the first three games. You can see why he likes it from a defensive standpoint. Jose Fonte looks much less exposed. He is our best ball player and the system also allows him to play to that strength. Next to him, Pablo Zabaleta has excelled in his new wing-back role. He clearly likes to get forward, and the open space we saw behind him against Manchester United, Southampton and Newcastle has been closed off more. Let’s not forget either that Zabaleta has contributed well defensively too, and looked very solid against Spurs when faced 1v1.
But with all this in mind, it doesn’t seem as though Bilic has ever seen 3-4-3 as anything other than an emergency solution to a defensive crisis. After the Palace game, we had reverted to a back four within a little over a month after the goals came flooding in again. And with the Swansea game in April, it was clear that Bilic wanted to start this season with four at the back. 3-4-3 is not the manger’s permanent answer. It also makes you wonder what the pre-season Plan A was, if Bilic was ready to ditch it just three games into the season.
3-4-3 may bring about some short-term stability at the back, but it leaves us well short of a coherent attacking plan. So far, the main strategy appears to have been to combine a defensive outlook with using Carroll as the target man and focal point for the attack. It hasn’t worked at all. West Brom found it so easy to deal with that you could forget Carroll was on the pitch, he looked well off the pace against Huddersfield, and his early introduction against Spurs interrupted what was actually a positive start going forward.
A Carroll-focused 3-4-3 makes even less sense when you factor in the sacrifices the system necessitates, not least moving a proven penalty-box goalpoacher – a great asset for our team to have – into a wide position to accommodate him. It also leaves you wondering where Manuel Lanzini, our only playmaker, belongs in this formation when all are fit.
Since the switch, we have looked poor going forward, with no cohesion or strategy when in possession, and again relying on individual moments or set pieces (or completely random goals like Obiang’s heavily deflected opener against Huddersfield). Particularly against West Brom, who offered nothing to the contest, we ought to have been clear winners but never looked like scoring, and made an equal contribution to the game’s complete lack of quality. In midfield we look overrun. A pairing of Noble and Kouyate offers no quality in distribution and no quick movement of the ball.
With all that said, for 20 minutes against Spurs we actually looked quite sharp, with Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez linking well and making intelligent runs. Had Michail Antonio been fully fit, he would have posed a big threat too. Add Lanzini to the mix and, individually at least, there’s still a lot of potential going forward for us. But where do they all fit into a system which only allows for three, or possibly only two, of them?
I think one solution would be to have Carroll on the bench. Antonio, Hernandez and Arnautovic together looks to have potential, and Carroll can use his obvious threat late in games like he did on Saturday, where his presence clearly struck fear into Spurs’ defence. Moving the ball wide with urgency and getting crosses in certainly suited us, particularly on the left, and Carroll’s gravity brings in players like Kouyaté for headers too. As plan B’s go, this would be a good one.
But our recent struggles point to something far greater than just the formation. Indeed, the formation change is symptomatic of a larger issue facing the manager. The team’s lack of defensive organisation cost us the second goal, its carelessness in possession the first. The players still don’t look especially well-coached and scoring goals from open play is a problem. The 3-4-3 was a fair response to a clear defensive issue. Now, Bilic needs to bring something bigger.
They also point to something far greater than Bilic. While his short-term plan needs a clearer direction, the long-term plan from above is arguably an even bigger issue. The squad, the assembly of which has David Sullivan at the forefront, is very imbalanced. We have a lot of attacking players who don’t really all fit together, a creativity gap in midfield and a slow defence. The average age of the squad is also a concern.
Ideally, the point of having a Director of Football would be to establish continuity beyond the current manager. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but a team like Watford have shown that success can be had with a cohesive long-term strategy, even with frequent managerial turnover. At the other end of the spectrum there’s Crystal Palace, whose managerial appointments point to a lack of strategy at board level. They’ve lost six out of six.
For West Ham, unfortunately there doesn’t look to be a clear long-term plan. Achieving the elusive ‘next level’ was always going to be difficult for the owners, but Sullivan’s time as de facto Director of Football has always, especially recently, looked chaotic, short-termist and illogical.
Ultimately, the four points this month and the late fight-back against Spurs have failed to change my mind on Bilic. His emergency formational switch just three games into the season is proof of a hopeless lack of clear planning. It leaves his team with no transparent or consistent direction, and no obvious way of fitting his best players into a good role. A better short-term plan is definitely needed – and quick. The problem is that even if this is found, unless David Sullivan can learn to change, the long-term strategy doesn’t look all that promising either.