The Blind Hammer Column
Blind Hammer asks if Bilic really has a flaw in playing Players out of Position?
The encouraging performance against Bolton gives further evidence that our season is recovering after a horrible start. Nevertheless criticisms persist that we are wasting Hernandez’s talents, marooning him out wide on the left. Bilic has been slated for allegedly misusing Hernandez in much the same way as he previously experimented with Antonio at Right Back.
There is little evidence that Chico is enjoying his current role yet playing players out of position is not necessarily a managerial flaw. In some cases it may actually represent managerial genius. Moses at Chelsea and Valencia at Manchester United have both thrived when converted to Wing Backs. We can forgive Bilic for attempting the same with Antonio but perhaps not for how long he continued with the experiment.
We also have an honourable and illustrious tradition, as a club, at effectively switching players from one position to another. Ron greenwood was particularly adept at recognising where players could thrive in alternative roles. Geoff Hurst did not start out as a Centre forward; it took the vision of Greenwood to transform him from what would now be described as a defensive midfield player into a World Cup hat trick hero. Similarly Trevor Brooking started his West Ham career as a striker alongside Geoff Hurst. I remember Shoot Magazine celebrating how brooking had “taken the pressure off” Hurst. It was the astuteness of Greenwood and lyall which transformed an ordinary striker into a world class midfield player. The history of West Ham is sparkled with examples of player’s successfully switching position. Billy Bonds was a legend whether he played at right back, central defence or midfield.
So playing players out of position is not necessarily wrong. Football is not like a game of Tetris where pieces simply have to be in the right places for success. It comes down to judgement. Playing Moses at Right Wing Back was good judgement, playing Antonio there was not.
So the real question is one of assessing Bilic’s judgement. Most importantly this judgement has to extend beyond any particular game to strategic recruitment and squad design. It is here that we can find the reason for Hernandez’s seemingly strange role.
Some transfers have been peculiar. Players have been, on the face of it, recruited to play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Snodgrass was bemused that Bilic did not understand where he preferred playing after signing. His record of success came largely from a role on the right. Yet playing on the right was a berth from which he was unlikely to depose Antonio. The transfer was muddled, Snodgrass should not have been signed as a Payet replacement given he had no record of success in the Payet role.
Similarly Zaza had no successful track record as a solitary striker, preferring the second striker role. Yet it was this lone striker role, to his advisors apparent perplexity, that West Ham expected Zaza to thrive in.Now Hernandez, famed for his operations in the penalty area, is tactically playing wide.
So what should perhaps be criticised is not the playing of people out of position but the apparently confused recruitment policy. Developing talents in your clubs by testing them in different roles is one thing, to significantly invest in players and then play them in roles in which they have no record of success seems strange.
To be fair Bilic has denied deploying Hernandez as a winger and has instead described him as developing a partnership with Carroll. He has also admitted it is not an ideal situation. This is probably true but at the start of the season it was Hernandez who had the central striker berth around which the team was to be built. The horrible start to the season caused a late SOS call to Carroll to instead fulfil this role.
What is really driving the playing of Hernandez wide left is the early crisis in defending which beset our team. Bilic admitted he was thinking about the sack before the Huddersfield game and probably realised that even the West Ham Board would part company with him unless he managed to repair what was then the worst defensive record in the league.
The sticking plaster, given our defensive fragilities, is to play 3 at the back. Whilst this has addressed the crisis in defensive performance, it has left us depleted of creative midfield resources. Bilic has little choice but to adjust for this by relying on the direct approach deploying the skills of both Antonio and Carroll. Hernandez is the sacrificial lamb who has to try and fit into this system. This is probably not what he anticipated. Other teams will be designed around his skills, here he is trying to adapt to the skills of Andy Carroll.
Despite the encouragement of the Bolton game I believe Bilic has little choice but to pursue this course for the time being at least. It would be the height of folly to abandon 3 at the back against Spurs based on the challenge Bolton presented. He is paying the price for not addressing the weakness in central defensive cover over the summer. Collins injury has exposed this particular foolishness even more now.
The real weakness at West Ham is not so much the playing of players out of position but confused transfer recruitment over the last 18 months. We need to more accurately identify the players to play in the system we need. Three at the back as an option was completely disregarded over the summer despite the fact it was a critical element in our eventual survival.
What is clear that the number one priority for the team was to stop the disastrous shipping of goals and build a team strategy that all could draw confidence from. In the short term it is unavoidable that Hernandez has to either fit in with this defensive solidity or feature from the bench. We do not currently have the squad talents to fight fire with fire and play “gung ho” attacking formations. A heavy defeat to Spurs could jeopardise the green shoots of recovery we are now witnessing.