The Blind Hammer Column
In his new weekly column it is Broken Record time again for Blind Hammer.
Slaven Bilic knows more about football in his little finger than I do in my entire body. Despite this he does have something in common with me. Whilst I am totally blind he has sporadic areas of puzzling blindness. The Antonio experiment at right back was stubbornly persevered with for months despite the weight of evidence that it was not working. It appears that only pressure from Sullivan caused its final abandonment. Now Bilic seems determined to play four at the back despite overwhelming evidence that it fails against the strongest PL opponents. I and others wrote last week that we needed a more defensive setup against Manchester United and our predictions of a heavy defeat in its absence was wearyingly vindicated.
One narrative which emerged after the Manchester United result was to argue that we should “put it behind us”, recognise that Manchester United are a fantastic team, and that we were stripped of some of our best players who may have made a difference on the day. It was no guide to the rest of our season. We will not be playing United every week.
Such a view is hideously and terrifyingly complacent. The reality is that the Manchester United performance was not a freak one off but part of a continuing pattern which urgently needs addressing. We regularly concede goals at an unacceptable rate. Over the last year we have received thumping’s not just from Manchester United, but also from Manchester City, twice, three times if you include recent pre-season, and Arsenal. This defensive weakness is not just confined to top six teams. Just over a year ago we were, in the space of three weeks, conceding four goals away to West Bromwich Albion and at home to Watford.
Over the Summer I have repeatedly argued that the club analysis of last season was fundamentally flawed. The contention that we flirted with relegation last season because we did not have a fit striker was just plain wrong. The reality was that we flirted with relegation because we had one of the worst defences in the league. We conceded goals at a rate for large parts of the season which inevitably threatens relegations. We conceded more leads than any other team. Our defensive feebleness is long running, pre-dating our entry into the London Stadium. Leaky defensive performances place massive pressure on our offensive requirements. Our team are under a burden to score at least 2 or 3 goals in order to achieve a win or a draw. I won’t go into the stats here as I have repeatedly quoted them elsewhere.
The baffling thing for me is that Bilic has repeatedly shown that he can solve this problem. This is a tactical and strategic challenge which Bilic has successfully confronted. Bilic has proved on more than one occasion that he can set up a team which does not concede goals. He did this in the final season at the Boleyn where, denuded of Payet, Lanzini and Sacko to injury he made us hard to score against and ground out vital points. Even more crucially, last season, when we were confronting the very real prospect of relegation, he revamped the team organisation to make us hard to beat. Critical points were achieved against high flying, title chasing Spurs and just as importantly we finally managed to shut out the Lukaku menace in our home game against Everton.
Bilic deserves enormous credit for displaying the tactical nouse to grind out these results under huge pressure. Both Read and Collins described, after the Everton performance, how Bilic had coached them in the tactics needed to stop Lukaku. Bilic argued that Lukaku could be stopped if you kept him with his back to goal. The critical thing was to avoid him turning and prevent his powerful runs into the box. Read and Collins used Bilic’s tactical insights to great effect. They combined to man mark him, with the “spare” defender intercepting Lukaku’s movement at the point he tried to turn. The result on the night was a justification of Bilic’s analysis and coaching.
This makes Sunday’s tactical response inexplicable. You did not need to be a UEFA qualified coach to identify Lukaku as again the main menace. Why did not Bilic remember the lessons he taught so well last season? I was depressed and confused as soon as I saw the team. I could not understand why Fernandez was playing and Collins was not partnering Obonna and Read. Why had Bilic abandoned the back 3 formation which had worked so well before?
All this matters because in football belief and confidence is everything. We have two important games coming up. Southampton is a team devoid of confidence at the moment, having failed to score at home in 7 attempts. If we provide the habitual 2 o 3 goal advantage to them this will cause an explosion of relief and confidence for both their team and their crowd. If, on the other hand, we do not concede for at least the first half this will rank up the pressure on the home team. Newcastle
Are another challenge looming where confidence may be shaky after their return to the Premier League and a relative lack of investment in their squad. Again conceding an easy goal to them will release pent up anxieties for both their players and crowd and provide momentum that will be difficult for our team to resist.
Bilic himself described Sunday’s performance as “horrible”, a performance which will inevitably cause problems for them in addressing morale this week. Players need confidence not just in their own performance but in the system in which they are playing. No amount of mental toughness will survive regular 4 or 5 goal thumping’s against opposing Premier League Teams.
3 at the back is obviously Plan B for Bilic. His Plan A is to play 4 at the back and fight fire with fire, flair with flair whenever possible. He reverts back to defensive solidity only when backed into a corner by results. In the Payet days we could more easily overcome 2 goal deficits by scoring 3 of our own. We do not have such creative momentum now.
3 at the back is not the easy panacea which will automatically transform West Ham’s fortunes. It was tried in the away games against Manchester City and Chelsea last year and we lost both games. However we were not the recipients of a 4 or 5 goal routs on either occasion. Losing is one thing but the manner of a defeat is also important in building confidence both for players and fans. We may still have lost to Manchester United, they have other potent weapons apart from Lukaku, but a 4-0 reverse was far less likely.
For me the “Plan B” of 3 at the back needs to become a more consistent option, especially in away games. Like in the Spurs and Everton games it may also be necessary to deploy even at home against teams which are likely to outclass us with their squad options. This was why I was so disappointed that 3 at the back has not figured as an option over the summer in either squad recruitment or squad pre-season preparation . We have marched into the season with a “gung ho” approach which ignores lessons from last season.
Bilic has shown that he has the intelligence to deploy different, more defensively secure team organisation. We need to see more of this to help build the confidence which is so necessary in the squad. In financial terms West ham should be challenging 7th in the league. We are no longer minnows with resources outstripped by clubs such as Everton and Newcastle. We should at least be competing in the top half of the table. Floundering in the lower reaches of the league suffering repeated hammerings should not be acceptable this season.
Bilic has shown he has the skills experience and tools for the job which needs to be done. I fervently hope that he does not show his stubborn side and instead shows the flexibility to use the full tool set available to him.
Please check back after the match for the results.