As we prepare for the start of another Premier League season I find myself in a similar position to the one that heralded the final year of Fat Sam’s reign. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have a manager that can deliver in the long term and yet, regardless of circumstances, I always want the team to win every game, and so could take no pleasure from being proved right about the manager’s limitations. In fact, I would be more than happy for him to prove me wrong by as much as he likes. The trouble is I see little to suggest that anything has changed in the management and coaching mindset to address the many problems that we witnessed in team performance and organisation last year.
I understand it is a reasonable argument to put forward that Bilic has had one good season in charge and one poor one; and so deserves a third as an opportunity to prove himself; but it leaves everyone in a rather precarious and uncertain situation of a manger in the final year of his contract where safety first will be the order of the day.
Two years ago when West Ham faced Arsenal away on the opening weekend of the season and came away with a stunning 2-0 victory it seemed we had struck gold with a tactically astute manager playing attractive football at the helm at last. This was quickly followed up with a run of other unexpected wins against top clubs before performances started to gradually fall away despite the emotion generated from the last season at Upton Park. In a season where the big clubs largely under-performed the Hammers were inspired by the flair and free-kicks of flawed Frenchman Dimitri Payet. Yet a system and passion that worked well against elite clubs often failed to deliver, at least on a consistent basis, against the lesser teams where the team lacked shape, pace and penetration. With poor recruitment the following summer and once Payet had downed tools, the underlying cracks in organisation and tactics were revealed for all to see. It would not be the first time that a manager had done well in his first season built on a predecessor’s foundation but then faded badly.
The general consensus is that West Ham have had a spectacular summer transfer window. In contrast to last summer, and the bizarre January recruitment, that may well be the case but it seems premature to pat ourselves on the back too enthusiastically just yet. Let’s wait and see how the new signings perform before getting too carried away. Does Zabaleta still have the legs and motivation? Can Hernandez deliver as a regular lone striker starter? How consistent will Arnautovic be? Does it make sense for your first choice keeper to be only on loan? Will Bilic, given his uncertain position, take the risk of blooding any young players? We can all speculate but only time will tell for sure. I would like to believe in my heart that we could be competing for a best of the rest seventh but my head says mid-table at best.
As for the squad itself, it looks stronger on paper when compared to how we know the team performed last season. But a performing team needs to be more than the sum of its parts and in modern football attack and defence must be conducted as a unit and requires organisation, pace, mobility and fitness in addition to the underlying technical skills. Too often West Ham teams have a disjointed look with the merest hint of cohesion between the constituent parts of the formation. In a Premier League awash with money every team has good technical players and so how those talents are utilised and integrated becomes even more important and is the true measure of coaching.
In goal, Hart is an upgrade (but not a massive one) on Adrian and if the rumours of Adrian wanting out are true then we could be left with a bit of an embarrassing hole between the sticks.
The defence says old, frail and error prone to me unless it is strengthened before the transfer window closes (and not with Kone!). Reid is a top quality defender but is not without injury concerns. Ogbonna has a tendency to switch off and allow opponents too much room, Collins is decent as emergency cover but Fonte looks something of a dud, at least in a back four. It is a case of wait and see as far as Zabaleta is concerned while Cresswell, Masuaku and Byram are all better when going forward than defending. Will Rice be given a chance? Maybe, but most likely as a defensive midfielder from the bench.
The squad is packed with midfield players of one type or another but the optimum combination is difficult to identify. West Ham rarely dominate a match these days and that is a direct consequence of poor ball retention, options and movement, particularly in the midfield areas.
Any team needs to be solid at the centre of midfield where defensive and pressing responsibilities are key. Obiang is a class act but Noble, bless his claret and blue cotton socks, is too slow in movement and distribution these days while Kouyate, despite his athleticism, lacks the required discipline and is a poor passer of the ball. Fernandes is sometimes mentioned as an option but, for me, needs a more attacking role that suits his physique and range of passing. An additional defensive/ holding midfielder would be another at the top of my priority list.
The realistic attacking midfield options are Lanzini (assuming we keep hold of him), Antonio and Arnautovic backed up by Ayew, Fernandes and possibly new signing Haksabanovic. I suppose there is also Feghouli and Snodgrass until we hear otherwise. Hopefully Arnautovic can assist Lanzini in the creativity department but can he help out his full-back when required? Will Antonio get a long run in his preferred and most effective wide right position or does Bilic have different plans for him? Will Haksabanovic be given a chance and what exactly is Ayew’s position?
The troublesome striker position now has a potential solution with the recruitment of Hernandez. On the assumption that he will be the main striker playing up front on his own it will be interesting to see how he adapts. His goals scored per minutes on the pitch record at Manchester United was impressive and came courtesy of some very clinical finishing off the bench; his role at West Ham will be a whole new challenge for him. At the moment the only back-up is from perennial sick-notes Carroll and Sakho. Could a Hernandez/ Carroll partnership work? Possibly in certain circumstances but taking a player out of a fragile midfield would create its own problems.
I don’t expect a season of struggle but I do foresee an unspectacular one with a disjointed team that relies heavily on set pieces for its goals. I don’t disagree with Bilic that individual errors need to be eliminated but that is by no means the extent, or even the most important, of the shortcomings.
Mentally, I would include West Ham in a group of teams who should be capable of grabbing seventh spot with the help of a good following wind and good fortune with injuries and refereeing decsions; alongside the likes of Everton, Leicester, Southampton, Newcastle and even Palace. Everton have lost Lukaku and have the distraction of European Thursday night football, Leicester have bought and retained well, Southampton and Palace have new managers inexperienced in English football and Newcastle need to adapt to life back at the top. There is a chance but do we have the confidence, desire and discipline to take it? I really hope we give it a go and can show the same commitment as if we were playing Tottenham every week.
In time honoured fashion I will end with my prediction for the final Premier League table season 2017/18:
1 Manchester United
2 Manchester City
10 Crystal Palace
11 West Ham
17 West Bromwich Albion