Friday, 23rd February 2018
West Ham 1-0 Swansea (And Other Ramblings)
Filed: Monday, 2nd October 2017
One of my favourite time waster websites is Awkward Family Photos which pretty much does what it says on the tin. I believe this to be the masterpiece of the oeuvre:
Hernandez, Carroll, Lanzini and Antonioooooooo
I urge you to really focus on this picture because it is absolutely the best thing to emerge from this game. There is quite a lot going on.
It is also a rather magnificently apt pictorial representation of the problem that Slaven Bilic is currently encountering. No matter what he does to try and make this team slot together, any movement in one area seems to cause a disaster somewhere else. His early season ambitions of squeezing all his attackers in and letting the cards fall where they may has backfired spectacularly as our defence proved as porous as a paper umbrella. He then shifted the other way by focusing on that back line, with some success, but this meant that suddenly our attack - a red-headed toddler if ever I saw one - was face down on a beach. I have some sympathy with his predicament, although it is primarily of his own making.
I have been much concerned lately with the concept of listening and what happens when people stop hearing what you have to say. This has been partially triggered by the number of people taking the time to tell me they no longer read The H List, apparently due to the lack of positivity, but also because that very point feels inextricably linked to the fact that Slaven Bilic no longer seems to be getting through to his players.
On the first point - c'est la vie. There are plenty of places you can go for people to tell you how well things are going at West Ham. That's their prerogative of course, because none of us watch games of football for xG or shot locations but because we want to dream, experience joy and lose ourselves, however briefly, in the endless Elysian fields of possibility.
I understand that and it's why I don't look down my nose at the "Three positive things to come of our 4-0 defeat to Manchester United!" articles. But at the same time, that's not me. I reckon I am perfectly capable of getting excited but I'd argue that this last eighteen months has been enough to test the resolve of all but the most optimistic Hammer.
I don't watch games solely for the electric rush of immediate gratification that follows a win. I enjoy that, of course, but I want the feeling of momentum and the all-encompassing notion that we are being swept along as part of a bigger overall strategy. For the first time since the late Nineties, I felt that way in 2015/16. It's been a sobering feeling to have fallen off that wave quite so spectacularly.
None of which, by the way, is to ask for praise or comment or anything else. If I am entitled to write these columns then people are equally entitled to dislike them. That's pretty much how it's supposed to work and if you write things on the internet then you'd better have a thick enough skin to cope with the resulting scrutiny. It's a shame to lose readers, but if that's the price of doing business then that's how it will have to be.
I also know how many people read The H List and it's quite significantly less than a number of other West Ham sites. In the end, people vote with their (cyber) feet.
But as I pondered all of this last week, it did occur to me that, in the same way that I'm running out of synonyms for "inept", and struggling to find new ways to say the same thing, maybe Slaven Bilic is similarly reaching for fresh inspiration to convince his team to rouse themselves from the footballing doldrums.
A kiss before dying?
I never had much doubt that West Ham would win this game, although my confidence began seriously wavering around the hour mark when Andy Carroll seemed to be briefly playing in midfield, Chicharito was on his mobile firing his agent and the crowd had taken on the friendly, jovial tone that one traditionally associates with the Colosseum. In fact I even predicted a shitty 1-0 win on an appearance with the chaps from Hammers Chat, during the week.
This was yet another of those typical Bilic games, so synonymous with his reign that he is almost becoming defined by them. A high pressure match that he apparently has to win, even though it's early in the season, the board pretty clearly don't want to fire him and Crystal Palace exist. So it was on to this familiar terrain that we all clambered and the teams didn't disappoint.
This might be the single worst game of football I've ever seen, although in fairness this will take some beating. My criteria here is that both teams must be fairly - oh fuck it - inept and in that vein I have to rule out all those 7-1 away defeats because you'd have to accept that the opposition in those games were probably pretty decent.
No, for a truly awful game you need both teams to be conjoined in futility and apparently bereft of inspiration. And, well, here you go:
Say what you will about Bilic, but he seems to know how to win these sorts of game. By my record he has faced these win or die games against Palace (a), Hull (h), Burnley (h), Swansea (h - twice) and Huddersfield (h) and won them all without conceding a single goal in the process. I'm not sure what I think about this, but at some point we might have to acknowledge that there is a certain skill to this. Of course, a better skill would be to not need to win them in the first place, but we're a bit past that now.
As per this shot map from Caley Graphics the first thing to acknowledge here is that Swansea were absolutely woeful. Not a single shot from inside the box, and all the attacking threat of the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, who got all the way to Earth and immediately crashed. This, by the way, was considered perfectly acceptable because they were all incompetent and the Golgafrinchans just wanted to get rid of them.
For as disjointed and frustratingly patchwork as our play was, you can't compare it to Swansea. And it should be pointed out they looked a hell of a lot more dangerous playing away at Spurs than they did here. Actually, now really I think about it, they were fucking useless here.
Our back four were impressive and, whilst it's easy to dismiss the weak opposition, both Abraham and Bony are reasonable strikers. However, they were easily contained by Reid and Fonte, whilst Pablo Zabaleta contains to render my pre-season warnings about his fitness as foolish. He was outstanding here, and whilst Aaron Cresswell still came in for plenty of stick it seems pretty likely that he was simply ordered by Bilic to hold his position in order to keep the shape of the flat back four.
The febrile atmosphere in the stadium didn't help. Cresswell and Fonte both fell victim to the boo boys as they were forced back by aggressive Swansea pressing - the only thing the visitors did well all afternoon - and the atmosphere generally teetered on the edge of full rebellion all afternoon. For a team playing with their confidence in their boots, it was a difficult day on which to perform.
So, what was happening further up the field?
Well, Bilic employed the 4-4-2 formation that had briefly served him well in the closing stages of the Spurs match. That was against ten men, and a team already 3-0 up, but he saw enough to convince himself that it could work here.
And then he deployed Michail Antonio and Andre Ayew as the wide players.
It will smack of 20/20 hindsight but I am amazed that Bilic thought this could ever work. Neither Antonio or Ayew do enough defensive work for that position, and neither does Marko Arnautovic for that matter, who was due to play there until eating some Spurs lasagne and coming down with a sickness bug before the game.
Thus it came to pass that Ayew was chucked on with limited preparation time, and played out of position once again. If the definition of a manager is to put his or her employees into the best possible position to perform their job, then Bilic is failing at this.
There is no doubt that this was a formation tried to try and extract the best from Andy Carroll and Chicharito, but given their strengths it was a regression all the way back to the previous century. When English football evolved away from the 4-4-2 obsession it was by virtue of, typically foreign, second strikers who dropped in between the lines of attack and midfield and became link players in a 4-4-1-1 system. Think Bergkamp and Zola.
This wasn't what we were trying to do here.
Instead we were trying to replicate the Kevin Phillips/Niall Quinn partnership that worked so well for Sunderland, and which involved the second, smaller striker running on to flick ons and link play from his bigger partner. And to start with, I thought Carroll did his part fairly well. He put himself about in the fashion of a rhino in a soft play area and generally reminded Swansea why he tends to always score against them.
But we weren't doing the things one would expect to make that system work. No long diagonal balls from full backs for Carroll to flick on or knock down, and no drives to the byeline from which the wide players could deliver crosses into the box.
Instead, I don't really know what was going on. The players are low on confidence and playing their third different starting system, just seven matches into the season. We could argue that teams should be able to flick back and forth, but there seems little doubt that they were uncomfortable in this formation and the output was dire.
Everywhere you looked someone was having a stinker. Cheikhou Kouyate looked like he had been dragged out of the crowd by a hypnotist and told he was a Premier League midfielder, and Mark Noble just continues to fade from view like the vapour trail of a vanishing jet.
Shockingly, a tactical plan stolen from Sunderland wasn't working.
A decent chunk of this can be explained away. To my mind the best wide players in a 4-4-2 would be Byram and Masuaku, who can do enough defensively to justify letting the full backs push up a bit and would lend some nice solidity when the opposition have the ball. The issue is that with Kouyate and Noble inside them, there is a serious lack of creativity there.
As it was, our attacks unfolded like a slow time lapse photograph - you had to keep staring at it to figure out if the bloody thing was moving at all. And then, on came Masuaku, who ran at the Swansea defence and didn't manage much until he did, and one beautiful sweeping cross bypassed everyone and found the lurking Diafra Sakho at the back post. 1-0, 91 minutes, redemption. Just like that, we're off to a better start than last season.
For a manager much maligned for his substitutes, they sure do seem to paying some dividends lately.
That feeling of rebellion in the crowd was there all day, and seemed to have been festering for a week, perhaps as a result of the post Spurs autopsies that split the fanbase. After half an hour of this game, it was evident that the system was not working. I would argue that modern managers are far too slow to make changes in such situations, and that if ever a team should have been changed quickly it was this one. Swansea were matching us in formation and the rows of four were making it impossible for anyone to pass to each other, apparently.
Yet, despite the game crying out for something different, it was allowed to rumble on. Taking players off after half an hour isn't a recipe for a happy squad but this might have been an exceptional case. The problem was compounded by the fact that Antonio looked like he was carrying an injury for most of the day, highlighting once more the folly of asking players to play when half fit.
The problem I see with Bilic is that he gives off the very strong impression of picking his eleven players first and then trying to choose a formation to shoehorn them into. As such, Carroll and Chicharito were going to play no matter what, and thus he stumbled upon 4-4-2 as the least worst option available. One wonders if this might be the decision which finally loses him the crowd.
Read some of the articles about Bilic, and ask around a bit and a familiar theme emerges, however. The players like him and continue to play for him but are baffled by the tactics. They also sympathise with the pressure that comes of working for the Kim Jong Sullivan family, and don't appreciate the continued interventions from Pyongyang-on-Thames.
But be that as it may, the word is that anyone going in search of concrete instructions from the coaching staff is generally met with platitudes or motivational speeches and, well, none of that is hard to believe watching the team play.
But, I suppose we can't ignore the facts. This was a third clean sheet in four games and Bilic's substitutes have contributed two goals and three assists in that span. The crescendo of boos that greeted Chicharito's replacement was remarkable given how little impact the Mexican had in the game. We can argue over whose fault that is, but he wasn't doing anything and I didn't really disagree. I thought it more important to try and get Sakho and Masuaku on than pandering to a crowd who were already in a fickle mood, and felt it should have happened far earlier.
Carroll subsequently showed his worth by hitting the crossbar in the latter stages with a lovely improvised flick, and whilst I wouldn't be starting him so unquestioningly as Bilic seems to, I also wouldn't boo him for being chosen as a sponsors Man of the Match.
That incident capped a remarkable afternoon as some poor bastard in a box somewhere chose to give Carroll a bottle of Moet so he could get a picture with him and a quick chat and somehow managed to generate a tidal wave of boos for one of our own players. I'm all for supporting your team in whatever way you want, but figuring out that Man of the Match awards are meaningless might be a good fucking start.
This is not important
But all of this shouldn't detract from how insipid and soul destroying this afternoon was. I know there were injuries, I know Lanzini and Obiang are coming back, I know the opposition were terrible, I know the confidence was low, I know we're grinding out points and I know that Bilic is a nice guy who carries himself with dignity and class. Those things all matters but I'm not sure they matter as much as the fact that we are going absolutely nowhere.
I don't know how anyone could watch this latest victory plucked from the jaws of mediocrity and see anything resembling a plan. Sure, the substitution of Masuaku has been influential for two games running, but anyone who thinks that he would be putting in those touchline crosses in the ninetieth minute of games while playing at left back hasn't been paying attention. He has been able to do that because the presence of Cresswell behind him, and the situation of the game has allowed him to advance that far upfield.
Hands up anyone fancying another crack at 4-4-2 next week at Burnley? Keep them up if you fancy that Arnautovic is the answer to the disjointedness? And keep 'em there if you can see an easy way to slot Manuel Lanzini into this team? And keep them up still if you believe Bilic has a clear understanding of how he's going to make all of that work tactically?
Now let me see who's still got their hand up. Ah - how nice to see you, Mrs Bilic.
I retain a healthy admiration for Bilic because I think he has to work with intolerable interference from our owners, but at some point we have to ask why we are permanently drifting instead of heading toward some sort of identifiable end point. I think a lot of that comes back to a question I have been asking of him for a while now - what sort of team does Slaven Bilic's West Ham look like?
If we are a fast, counter-attacking team, then Carroll cannot play and arguably Chicharito might also be a bit of a luxury if we can't find a way to get him on the ball in the box. Alternatively, if Bilic wants a physical, direct team that plays off a big striker, then he should just pick one and find a way to make it work.
The problem with the current bastardised hybrid is that it is neither. We can't play quickly because hardly anyone in the team has any pace, and we don't play long ball because it's not really how any of them want to play. So we drift along in the middle, and it's good enough to beat teams like Swansea and Huddersfield and it's not even close to good enough for teams like Manchester United or Spurs.
Perhaps the saving grace here might be Lanzini, who returned on Saturday and did more in his brief cameo than any of the four midfielders who started the game did all day. If our season truly does hinge around the fitness of a solitary player, however, then it might be time to stock up on sleeping bags because it's going to be a long winter.
Have you tried telling them to be more passionate?
One interesting piece of news from last week was that Reece Oxford has come back from his baffling loan to Borussia Mönchengladbach, a team better than the one he was leaving. I remain convinced that the club are approaching loans wrongly, with barely any attention being paid to exactly what benefit the youngsters are going to derive from them.
What is perhaps timely is that West Ham have a gaping hole at the defensive midfield position currently. Noble is out of sorts and Pedro Obiang is currently demonstrating the recovery powers of a leper and William Carvalho is in Portugal and that doesn't leave much else.
Perhaps I'm a fool, but that brief wondrous glimpse of Oxford two years ago continues to eat away at me. It's more than Declan Rice has ever shown, although he now seems to be favoured. Perhaps those rumours that Oxford is too big for his boots are true, but to see that type of talent and then watch it shrivel would be a painful cross to bear.
We had the relatively interesting development late last week when a new owner joined up with the Kim Jongs and the Golds. American asset manager Albert "Tripp" Smith purchased the balancing 10% stake previously held by Straumar dating back to the rip-roaringly successful Icelandic takeover.
Smith is a billionaire, courtesy of selling his company GSO Capital Partners to the Blackstone Company in 2008. This makes sense, because you'd really have to be billionaire to call yourself Tripp and not have everyone laugh at you.
I don't really have much idea of why he's done this beyond the fact that men in his line of work don't typically make investments for sentimental reasons. He must see some value, either in the form of a future sale or an increase in expected revenue streams, which would both be welcome developments.
One additional point to mention is that the club will doubtless be hugely more valuable now than when Gold and Sullivan purchased their shares in 2010. The amount that Tripp has paid for his shares probably won't be a million miles away from the individual investments made by the owners back then. In case you're wondering why anyone would ever invest in Premier League football clubs.
If he brings only one thing to the club, then I would welcome some of the dead-eyed professionalism that characterises people in his industry. It might be a laugh when our owners shoot their mouths off and get called The Dildo Brothers, but it all hurts our wider standing within the game. I wonder if 10 per cent buys him the right to pull the reins on the Sullivan horses at any time?