After attending the match at Newcastle on Saturday, I’ve kept in touch with comments on WHTID over the Bank Holiday weekend. I spent the weekend in Northumberland as part of the trip up north for the game and have been surprised and saddened at the strength of the response from the posts and comments since – I do, however, respect each and every one of those views and know they come, in all cases, from a love of West Ham United.
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Regular readers of the comments section will know I’m a huge supporter of Slaven Bilic. I make no apologies for that and I recognise this piece flies in the face of the majority of comments but I felt someone had to stick their head above the parapet.
I wanted Slaven to take charge of West Ham United a year before he did. I was delighted when he did and the wonderful last season at the Boleyn is a testament to Slaven’s transfer priorities (Payet, Lanzini and Ogbonna) and relationship with the fans which made that final Upton Park season such a joyous journey. Last season was a tough campaign and reasons have been discussed at length previously – poor signings, a lack of full support from the board (to be discussed later) and a new stadium which is the polar opposite of Upton Park in terms of atmosphere and opposition intimidation. In this article, I will seek to outline why Slaven deserves (a lot) longer in his post as West Ham manager.
1. The New Signings
I think most would agree we have had a decent transfer window. New players take time to gel though and there would be little point in allowing Slaven to sign his first choices in various positions if he was not given time to get it right with those players. Signing Chicharito means a big shift in our style of play. We are trying to play the ball on the floor at the start of moves but, at present, this is slow and methodical, ends up going backwards to the defence or Joe Hart and then the long ball is played anyway. Our play through midfield needs to be sharper and perhaps that is why Slaven has highlighted William Carvalho as a key component to that play – someone who can get the ball from the defence and play it quickly to Manuel Lanzini and get us looking threatening in advanced positions. At Newcastle, we lacked cohesion in our play moving forward and, consequently, devoid of ideas.
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Slaven also broke the club’s transfer record to sign Marko Arnautovic. The Austrian is clearly a key part of the manager’s thinking this season yet, through the forward’s own idiocy, has only been available for less than a game-and-a-half of the campaign thus far. Ironically, I was not a fan of signing Arnautovic but Slav has placed significant faith in him and deserves the opportunity to try and embed him into the side, alongside a fit Lanzini – he has not had the chance to pair the two together in the same side as yet.
Many supporters were vociferous throughout last season in the need for us to sign a right-back. We have now signed an orthodox right-back and the same supporters now don’t want us to play with a right-back and instead revert to a back three and wing-backs. Pablo Zabaleta is not a right-sided centre-half, nor a right wing-back. He is, however, a right-back which people were screaming blue murder for last season. I am sure there will be occasions when we play three at the back this season, and the formation does suit Sam Byram and Aaron Cresswell, but the board and manager delivered on what many asked for so why ask for a change in formation and push Zabaleta into being a square peg in a round hole?
In essence, Slaven signed these players on what he thought (rightly or wrongly) the club needed after 2016/17. He deserves the opportunity to try to build a team around these new players.
2. Returning Players
If you asked any supporter who are our best centre-half, central midfielder and creative player, I’m sure the vast majority will come back to you and say Winston Reid, Cheikhou Kouyate and Manuel Lanzini. Slaven has been denied the services of Reid for two of our three opening league games, while Kouyate has not completed a half of football in the opening month and Lanzini has only played 45 minutes. Reid, Kouyate and Lanzini are critical figures to the spine of the team and, again, Slaven deserves the opportunity to team them with the new signings over a period of time.
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There is something fundamentally wrong with our board’s approach to contracts. Dimitri Payet was made the club’s highest-paid player at the end of his first season with the club while Michail Antonio has signed three contracts in under two years at the club. Winston Reid, at 29, has just signed a six-year deal while Robert Snodgrass was brought in on what must have been a huge pay rise from his salary at Hull.
While new contracts are thrown around to players like confetti, our joint owner David Sullivan told the press that Slaven must prove he is not a ‘one-season wonder’. Now I appreciate some may say Mr Sullivan may have been proved right and it is certainly true that the club should protect their playing assets as they are the ones who, if signed long-term with the club, will bring in the most money if sold.
But what kind of message do comments like Sullivan’s and the contractual situation send to the players? It smacks of the players being looked after whatever their performance level while the manager is the one shunted forward to the firing line. In order to motivate the players, the manager must be seen to have the support of the board at all times and comments like Sullivan’s and the fact Slaven sweats on a new contract while the players get extensions and pay rises at the drop of a hat does not seem to be an effective way to run a football club.
4. The Board
Following on from their contractual decisions and media comments, the Board must do more to support their manager. I am more than happy to hold my hands up and say they have done a tremendous job in bringing in the players Slaven wanted this summer but they should support their manager rather than undermine him in an underhand fashion through social or fan media.
Furthermore, and despite the good work done in signing players so far this window, the net spend remains relatively low. Slaven even said in his press conference last week that Newcastle had outspent us in net terms. Slaven clearly believes that William Carvalho is a missing link in what he is trying to achieve this season – we shall see if the board can pull that one out of the hat as I personally do not believe the deal is dead.
It was also the board who took us to a stadium which cannot host a home Premier League game until a month into this season. Starting a season with three league games on the road is not easy for any football club – the fixture list for us pulled out a title contender, a side with a new manager and a newly-promoted club. Each of those scenarios will look to their early home games to lay a marker down for their season and their fans – we have arrived to those grounds as homeless lambs to the slaughter, regardless of who may or may not have the better squad.
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I travelled a 620-mile round trip to see us limply lose 3-0 at Newcastle – the Bank Holiday traffic saw me in my car for more than 15 hours there and back over the course of the weekend. Yet I still have faith in Slaven Bilic as the right man to lead our football club and hope sincerely that he is given the opportunity to do so. No other manager in our entire history has taken us to two top-11 finishes in his first two top-flight seasons. He is third out of nine in our Premier League win ratio table (see below). A lot of the early success can be attributed to the form of Payet but, after losing him mid-season last term, Bilic has set about building a new side and deserves the opportunity to make that side gel.
West Ham Managers’ Premier League Win %
Alan Curbishley – 37.1%
Alan Pardew – 36.36%
Slaven Bilic – 35.44%
Harry Redknapp – 34.94%
Glenn Roeder – 30.99%
Billy Bonds – 30.95%
Sam Allardyce – 30.7%
Gianfranco Zola – 27.78%
Avram Grant – 18.42%
Of course, we clearly have our problems. Despite my defence of Slav, I can see we are struggling to defend as a team, that we are making far too many individual errors and that we are finding it difficult to work the ball into threatening areas, regardless of which players are available. But I also know that Slaven shows courage in the face of adversity – see the 0-0 draws fought out when devoid of attacking personnel in his first season or the clean sheets when really needed last season. The players dig in for him when they have to, as at Southampton recently, although I recognise we need to lose the ‘when they have to’ from that statement moving forward.
The pressure is now on to perform at home, a pressure amplified by the results on the road. I have been saying for weeks that we would have a difficult start to the season and the knock-on effect will mean that Huddersfield at home will not simply turn our season around – things could even get worse before they get better as West Brom are no pushovers at The Hawthorns and Tottenham were last season’s runners-up. I have also, however, previously stated that our campaign will kickstart in October and November – form and confidence is temporary but class is permanent and we have very good players in our squad. Get them fit and playing together, get two or three wins to boost confidence and belief and I still firmly believe that we have what it takes in our squad – and our manager – to have a very decent 2017/18 season, despite the disastrous start.
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