They are only pre-season games but …..
The primary purpose of pre-season friendlies is as preparation for the main event which is now just two weeks away even though an increasing number of teams have started to be use them as commercial revenue generating exercises in far off lands. Numerous Champions Cup competitions featuring European giants have been spawned to replace what used to be a trip down the road to play against local lower league opposition. Previously any notion of turning out against other top level sides from the same domestic competition before the Charity Shield had been held would have been vigorously shunned but now overseas exhibitions are now becoming the norm. Results should still not matter though and although the Betway Cup might have been our best chance of silverware this season, defeat is of much less importance than building fitness and developing cohesion in the squad. So what has the experience taught us?
Do We Have a Better Balanced Squad?
With the knowledge of hindsight I am confident that we look to be starting the season with a far more balanced squad. Then again had you asked me that question at the same time last year I would no doubt have answered in the same way; basking as I was in the afterglow of a creditable seventh place finish, expecting more of the same from a happy Payet and without the knowledge of how bad our player recruitment would turn out. This year’s transfer business feels a lot smarter with welcome in-comings and sensible out-goings. My assumption is that rumours of Liverpool (and others) sniffing around Manuel Lanzini and the comical £9 million interest by Everton in Winston Reid are no more than wishful thinking on the part of the clubs involved. Losing either would be a major blow to the make up of the squad. The full-back situation appears to be more stable, at least for the time being, and the signings of Javier Hernandez and Marka Arnautovic provide better and more dangerous attacking options. I remain hopeful that our transfer business is not complete and that the lack of pace in central midfield and at the centre of defence can yet be addressed. The ‘One Out One In’ transfer policy, if it exists, should dictate more signings following Fletcher’s move to Middlesbrough and the imminent departure of Feghouli.
Are there any early signs of tactical changes?
The manager’s preferred style of play is still not clear to me. Admittedly we have not been able to feature key individuals such as Lanzini, Hernandez, Reid and Michail Antonio in any of the pre-season games but, nevertheless, I would expect a manager to be clear and consistent as to how he wants to set up his team, with occasional tweaks depending on opposition and available personnel. The key decision for me surrounds the deployment of Hernandez; will he play in an unfamiliar loan striker role (which in West Ham history has involved chasing long hopeful high balls) or as part of a front two. If there is a front two how does Bilic also accommodate Lanzini as well as ensuring that the midfield retains a solid defensive base to protect the back-line? A task that requires two defensively minded midfield players in my opinion. From what I have seen of the pre-season games (only on streams unfortunately) the general level of fitness and stamina looked to be of a higher standard, suggesting that the training camp approach was an excellent decision. The players also appeared to be more willing to press (rather than retreat) when the opposition had the ball and while recovering and keeping possession were notable improvements using that possession wisely was less impressive.
What do we do with the ball now that we have it?
Giving the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was the absence of the key players that contributed largely to the lack of ideas once in possession. Even without the retarding influence of Mark Noble the reluctance to move the ball forward quickly remained with the first instinct still being to pass the ball sideways or backwards. If a team is going to use a slow buildup then it needs players capable of producing unexpected quick bursts to create openings, either individually or through quick inter-passing movements. In the matches against Bremen movement off the ball was still patchy, particularly in central areas, and the primary tactic was to get the ball out wide when in attacking areas, presumably to aim for the head of a ghostly Andy Carroll. The approach reminds me of my Sunday League playing days where most goals are the result of defensive error rather than attacking craft. Pump it forward with the hope that a defender will make a mistake and let the striker in. It is encouraging that we now have a ‘fox in the box’ but even a fox needs something to feed from.
Give Youth A Chance?
An undoubted positive from the pre-season games has been the encouraging performances of academy players such as Nathan Holland, Declan Rice, Reece Burke and Toni Martinez. In the last two seasons youth players were used in Europa League fixtures only to disappear off on loan once the season started. I hope that this doesn’t happen again this time and that the pick of the crop are kept in the squad and introduced gradually and carefully into the first team. I don’t mean to sit on the bench as an unused substitute for thirteen games or to come on as a ninety second minute time wasting replacement but to be given reasonably regular meaningful run-outs. I believe that playing regularly in the Premier League 2 competition with the odd ten or fifteen minutes in the first team is better for a player’s development and integration than turning out for Peterboro against Rochdale in a League 1 relegation scrap. I am not advocating throwing young players in at the deep end but why not use them as backup rather than keep rolling out the same older or under-performing senior squad members?