Talking Point

The Evolution of Chica and Bilic

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Rolling back the clock to a time when the English leagues were dominated by strength and power, the evolution of football in England has been one of the most radical changes in any sport.

From the abolition of the back-pass rule, forcing defensive units to become more aware and adaptable on the ball, to the injection of pace and technique from foreign shores, football is a game ever-changing, radicalising and moving forward. Rarely, if ever, does one succeed in such an environment by reverting to ways of old.

However, taking a past tactic and reinventing it is an art form in itself and one lead by the genius of managers such as Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp.

Only when you come to very boundaries of mastery is it possible to enforce evolution. Identity is a bi-product of this and synonymous with the greatest managerial minds of our time.

Where some have influenced the sport as a whole, others evolutionary rebellion was more narrow, focusing on change within existing systems, rather than the invention of an entirely new philosophy.

Any revolution requires special players, ones that believe wholeheartedly in the manager’s philosophy and are willing to back it to the hilt. In Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich, the journalist following the team interviewed several players about the way Pep had changed their position and playing style, sometimes having them play three or four different positions in as many games. Asking them where they would prefer to play, the response from every player was the same, “I will play wherever the manager asks me to play”. This wasn’t paper talk and blind support, it was a collection of the worlds best players opening their minds and embracing the vision of the coach with utter dedication, believing this will make them better as a team and as individuals. This is also about understanding the players, what they are capable of and how they perform best as a team.

Bilic inherited a defensive, direct team with a brief to play attacking, entertaining football and in his first season, he delivered in spades. However, losing such a key piece of the puzzle in Payet – and to a lesser extent Moses – robbed Bilic of the glue that held his masterpiece together. Payet’s creative genius and vision, along with Moses’ pace were never replaced and replicating the blueprint of that incredible season became impossible.

The truth about what followed – the disastrous transfer window, the problematic season, the problems with the board etc – we may never know, but whether of his own making, or the boards, Bilic soldiered on making do with what he had. This league is probably the most unforgiving in the world and he’s got us through two seasons successfully which should not be overlooked.

Overall, I think my point is this. Maybe Bilic is tactically naive and maybe he is coming to the end of his time at West Ham, but maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s one or two steps away from creating something special and a legacy that we can carry forward.

There’s no doubting the challenges he’s faced but he’s always carried himself with dignity, honesty and integrity. That’s the kind of manager I want in charge of West Ham and although I don’t know the answer to the question I raised above, I know that I want to give him time and the opportunity to show us what he’s been trying to build.

The evolution of Chica

Boasting an impressive CV, Hernandez has represented two of the biggest clubs in world football, playing alongside some of the worlds finest players and under some well-celebrated managers. He’s played in numerous systems but wherever he’s been, he’s been celebrated for his goal scoring. However, this isn’t the only aspect of his game that’s impressive and I want to take a look a little closer into certain opinions/myths that surround him and how to get the best out of him.

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The demands placed on Hernandez in his time at Man Utd and Real Madrid were very different to those at Bayer Leverkusen and West Ham.

At Utd and Madrid the demand was to score when given the opportunity; to finish, plain and simple. This is far from plain or simple considering the skills necessary to create the space and time the runs needed to score at the highest level, however, pressing and tracking were far less prominent – in most games – as both teams had a tendency to dominate the ball and possession.

Moving along to his time at Leverkusen, Hernandez was required to adapt his game, becoming a starting striker – where he had been an impact substitute previously – and also add new dimensions to his playing style. These new dimensions were mostly based on tracking back, defending from the front and managing his game over 90 minutes.

In a recent interview for the club website, Hernandez professed to being happy to evolve as a player, as well as a person, in his quest to improve throughout his career. I believe this and his time at Leverkusen and now with us goes a long way to prove it.

A number of top journalists have criticised Bilic for playing him as a lone striker, stating the lack of precedence for their critique. This simply isn’t true and if they’d done their homework, they’d know that he was deployed there on a number of occasions for Leverkusen and also at Utd and Madrid, although to a lesser extent and it’s not as relevant due to the gulf in quality and resources between the teams.

Chica is capable of playing as a lone striker as long as he receives the service he thrives on. He needs players around him with speed and guile capable of unlocking defences and rewarding his clever movement with pinpoint passes.

The truth of the matter, for me, is that we currently don’t have the personnel available to get the best out of these kinds of tactics, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1. The one thing, above all else that’s required to play fluid, passing football or fast counter attacking football, is quality passers.

At our best we had Payet, Lanzini, Song and Noble in his prime – Payet alone averaged four key passes and three accurate crosses per game, our current best is Cresswell with 1.5 key passes and 2.2 crosses. These players could open up a defensive line with one brilliant through ball and on top of that, they had the vision and ability to do so time and again. How Hernandez would have thrived in that memorable season.

Sadly, however, this is no longer the case with a slightly rusty Noble (although IMO the man of the match against Spurs, he was a class act), Obiang, Kouyate and Fernandez the current crop.

Obiang came back to form against Huddersfield but for all of his talents, he lacks the ability to consistently choose the right pass and execute it, as do the other midfielders mentioned. This is where Lanzini comes in and when he’s back nobody will benefit more than Hernandez, but for now, we need a solution without him.

Avoiding the dark ages

Modern football has become about dominating the midfield and at the moment we’re underpowered in this crucial department.

Without being able to keep possession our only viable outlet is Carroll. This limits our play but also creates opportunities. It may be predictable, but it can be effective. We need to be careful is our use of this because it restricts a number of our players and isn’t suitable against all teams. Used in the right way it can be highly effective but we need to use it effectively and I don’t believe it should be our plan A.

Playing direct football to a target man doesn’t have to be a throwback to the dark ages though. Yes, football has come a long was technically and in terms of fitness and speed, but not all teams can be filled with the players necessary to succeed playing out-and-out modern football. It’s all about playing to your strengths and finding a way to blend styles successfully. Even Guardiola had to adapt his tactics and philosophies on his journey from Spain to Germany and now to England. He hasn’t tried to enforce his famous Barcelona blueprint on his new teams, he’s reinvented them to suit the competition while staying true to his personal philosophies and beliefs. This is what Bilic needs to achieve with his players. They all need to commit body and soul to this vision and philosophy, giving their all to achieve it. This can only happen with belief.

I think we’re in for a real battle until January but we’ll do ok. If the board back Bilic – as they absolutely should and there is no excuse for not doing so unless they choose to part company with him – and we land Carvalho, Denilo or another high-quality central midfielder with excellent passing and the ability to break up play, then I believe Bilic will have the final and arguably most important piece of his puzzle, his masterpiece.

Only by giving him this opportunity can we truly know and personally, I want to find out.

COYI

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Match Preview

Huddersfield Formation Fun - The Formula For Success?

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With our first home game of the season approaching, I want to look ahead to what lies beyond the current gloom and start discussing the areas I believe can change our fortunes. The contributors on here have done an excellent job of dissecting our on and off-field issues and these articles have raised a number of poignant discussion topics. Credit to all of the writers for exploring the positives, as well as the negatives, in what has been a turbulent time for everyone involved with West Ham. Hopefully, this article continues that trend and looks ahead to what we can do, rather than behind at what has passed.

So, with that in mind, throw on your manager hats and prepare to critique!

Catalysing change

In my opinion, something radical needs to happen to kick start our season. Against Huddersfield, the manager will have a similar squad to last season (although a lot thinner – sorry, I couldn’t help myself) but with two quality first team additions, Hernandez and Zabaleta.

The reason for drawing attention to this is to highlight the lack of freshness in the ranks. Sometimes, the addition of new recruits can inject new life and vigour into a team, but sadly this hasn’t been the case for us so far. A big part of this is down to the new players not having long to gel and also not being available at the same time – since Arnautovic’s suspension.

While Hernandez has been a breath of fresh air and probably our best player – along with young Declan Rice – his efforts haven’t been matched by the majority of the team and they have failed to inject the positivity they deserve.

With the transfer window firmly shut until January, we can all agree that there is no catalyst for change here.

Another area that can bring change is in management. Again, this is an area that has been discussed in great detail but it isn’t one I wish to explore in this article. This article is looking at what we can do with what we’ve got, not what might happen in a speculative and highly unpredictable future.

So, with another area of potential change put aside, where does that leave us?

Tactics and formation

As I stated at the beginning of the article, something radical needs to happen in order to break us out of our current form. In my opinion, the best way to achieve this is to freshen up the formation and tactics.

There are numerous potential benefits to this and in our current form, I can see little downside. After the 3-0 at Newcastle the bar is low and we should take advantage of that.

Of the potential benefits, the following two make the strongest case for change.

1. Change of focus

The players have obviously been working on a 4-2-3-1 formation over the summer and it appears that Bilic is trying to implement a more possession based passing game. For whatever reasons, this hasn’t worked (yet) and the players must be losing confidence. Heads drop as soon as we concede and one has to wonder how demoralising this is for the players. Yes, they get paid a lot of money etc but they are human, young and under incredible pressure. We shouldn’t underestimate the effect this has and something needs to switch the player’s focus away from this and refocus it elsewhere. Learning, implementing and operating in a new system could be a welcome distraction and focus minds on their tasks, rather than the plethora of negative thoughts available at request.

2. Getting the best from the players available

One criticism that I have of Bilic is his tactics, or more specifically his lack of tactical flexibility. Strangely, this is in stark contrast to his first season when he was open to changing formation and tact on a regular basis.

Bilic has become a manager that try’s to fit the players to the tactic, rather than creating a tactic that gets the best out of the available players. This became clear with his persistence of the 4-2-3-1, a formation that is heavily reliant on the double pivot shielding the back four. One of these players has to be able to receive the ball under pressure and buy time for the team to transition, with the other player capable of breaking up attacks and sniffing out the danger. One, or ideally both, should have an excellent passing range in order to start counter attacks or sustain pressure when building from the back. With Obiang and Noble’s lack of form, moving away from this formation could have helped the team significantly. With full backs playing high up the pitch there is no surprise that we’ve come under severe defensive pressure and have subsequently conceded so many goals.

Formations

Below I’m going to put a selection of formations and give some reasons as to why they could work. These have all been suggested based on the suitability of the players available for Huddersfield.

4-3-3

This formation keeps Zabaleta in the team and his importance as a leader, along with his experience, could be crucial. This is the only formation of the three that involves him and this is purely based on what I believe to best for the team and formation.

This formation allows us to defend in numbers when needed – dropping into a 4-5-1 – which could be key against a well drilled and organised team. There are also less significant changes in the formation which should ease the transition from the 4-2-3-1 and make the players feel more comfortable. This might not be the radical move we want, but it could be a conservative middle ground.

The risk is that Hernandez gets isolated and the wide men get pinned back. However, Hernandez is remarkably good with his back to goal, considering his height, and with powerful, fast and skilful support on the wings, he shouldn’t be isolated for long.

Holland has been brought in to add pace and a fresh mentality. He’ll be dying to impress and work his socks off for the team. This can be infectious and the players could gain a lot from this young man, who has been pulling up trees in PL2 team. He also brings some much-needed pace to the side, as well as unpredictability and skill.

3-4-3

This and the following formation are based on playing with three centre backs and two wing-backs. This is why Zabaleta missed out, unfortunately, although I did consider bringing him into centre midfield, which Guardiola did numerous times last season. However, the “square pegs in round holes” argument would be a valid one and maybe it’s one risk too many. Also, I can already feel the searing comments of certain patrons on here so I’ll leave this one… for now ;)

With the personnel available to us, I believe this to be our best solution. We utilise three centre-backs, allowing us to draft in the experience of Collins or the raw talent of Rice – I’ve opted for the latter due to his passing range and mobility. It allows our forward-thinking full backs the licence to play higher up the pitch with less risk of them getting caught out of the game. It gives us support for Hernandez upfront and allows us to shield the defence even further at our core with two central midfielders. This also addresses our main weakness this season, conceding opportunities through the centre of the pitch. We force our opposition to play wider and also have enough presence up front to make them think twice about committing too many bodies forward.

The negative aspect of this formation is losing Zabaleta and only being able to play two of Rice, Kouyate, Obiang and Noble in the centre.

3-5-2

This is the riskiest of tactic. The reason for the risk is the potential reward but it does involve a contentious decision – to play Antonio as a wing back – and also relies on the fitness of Andy Carroll. I personally think Antonio plays the wing-back role well when the team hold their shape and discipline. However, I accept it’s a risk/reward call. If available, Sakho could also be paired with Hernandez but due to the uncertainty surrounding him, I’ve opted to leave him out of these examples.

The key in this, for me, is playing our game where our strengths lie. This is on the flanks and not in the centre, where we’ve been attempting to play. Aside from Hernandez, our best and most threatening attacking talent exists out wide in Antonio. His pace, power and unpredictability can terrorise the opposition and getting him on the ball deeper in our own half gives him more opportunity to get up the pitch quickly and cause problems. Yes, I know he may get caught out once or twice, or more, but the team can be setup to cover this. Obiang, our most defensive minded midfielder, can shadow his side of the pitch and drop in for him as soon as he bolts forward.

Cresswell on the opposite flank offers another outlet and is arguably more comfortable going forward than defending. These players offer us a direct attacking threat, as well as a vital outlet when we’re under pressure.

The main negative to this tactic is the risk around Antonio but this is mitigated by the tactical setup of the team and ensuring everyone is on the same page strategically. I think it’s a risk worth taking at a time when we need something to happen for us. It also relies on a fit Andy Carroll, which may prevent us starting with it. However, we could if we used Sakho in his place and we could also change to it in the latter stages of the match if Carroll comes on from the bench.

Onwards and upwards

In a testing period for our club on and off the pitch it’s time to look forward and find positivity where we can. We are West Ham and that will never change. Fortune may be forever hidden but that will never stop our pursuit of it or our passionate support from the terraces and beyond. In a time of turmoil, positivity can be the catalyst to take us to calmer waters, and that all starts with us, the fans.

Please criticise, discuss and dissect the formations and article to your heart’s content as nothing makes me happier than seeing constructive discussions going on about the team, rather than the antics of our board and current situation, that are all sadly beyond our control.

Onwards and upwards – forget he protests and focus that energy on the team, giving all the positivity we’ve got!

COYI

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Match Report

Reflecting on Southampton

A tactically astute and energetic team performance secured maximum points at St Mary’s for the first time in the clubs history.

The players executed their manager’s instructions with precision and discipline, moving with purpose and fluidity as they fought their way to victory. In Slaven’s own words “The key was everything, we played a fantastic game. We had our plan and the players executed it brilliantly.”

The players

The whole team performed admirably but I wanted to pick out a few for praise, starting with Snodgrass.

His energy, closing down, organisation, discipline and technique are superb. Held the ball well, chased and closed the opposition from the front and tracked his man every time. He made the most high-intensity sprints of any player on the pitch with 81 and was a constant thorn in the side of the opposition.

He also covered more ground in the match than every player except for Noble, who covered 12.09km with Snodgrass a close second with 11.79km.

One of his best assets is his intelligence on and off the ball. His runs are calculated and his positional awareness is exemplary. He constantly communicates with his teammates, orchestrating defensive and attacking movements down his flank. He works incredibly hard and covers his full back well, this time partnering with Cresswell to great effect.

Obiang was back to his best and although his goal grabbed the headlines, it was his dominant performance in midfield that earned him man of the match. He completed 39/49 passes (79.6%), scored one goal, created one chance, one assist, one take-on, seven ball recoveries, 3/4 tackles, three interceptions and 2/2 aerial duels. He was imperious.

Randolph was again solid in the sticks. He displayed excellent shot stopping ability and held onto several shots that lesser keepers would have been forced to parry. He appeared to command his area well and his distribution was varied and accurate.

Carroll again led the line superbly. Strong, agile and his movement appears to be improving by the day. His movement for the goal was excellent and he showed great composure with the finish It’s frightening to think of what he’ll be capable of if he remains fit and injury free.

Kouyate was nothing short of heroic at right back. His athleticism, power and understated technique give him a versatility afforded to very few players. He was outstanding.

Noble deserves a mention too. He was brilliant throughout the match, providing the engine in midfield along with Obiang, as well as chipping in with some excellent passes and a well deserved (and correctly awarded) goal.

He was deployed in a slightly deeper role and this allowed him to cover the defence more effectively and utilise his range of passing. He completed 44/51 passes (86.3%) and made 11 ball recoveries.

Our captain has come in for a lot of criticism this season, with myself included, but he led by example and fought for every inch of ground he covered. Well played Nobes!

Bilic

This man has been tested on every level this season. His honesty, integrity and belief in playing attacking, expansive football are commendable and he does not always receive the praise he deserves. Southampton are a top side and Bilic set the team up perfectly to exploit their weaknesses.

As I covered in my last piece, he’s not the finished article, but he’s got all the ingredients to become one of the best managers in the league. He can be a little naïve or stick to seemingly lost causes at times, but it’s all part of his make-up and I admire his character.

For any remaining doubters out there please find the following information courtesy of our official website:

“For Bilic, Saturday was his 25th league win as West Ham United boss – no manager has reached this feat quicker than the Croatian in the club’s 122 year history.”

He’s earned our admiration and respect and if the club are serious about their vision to improve, then retaining Bilic is key.

Tactics

Bilic was bold and started with a 4-4-2. Antonio partnered Carroll up front and Snodgrass came in for Lanzini on the left wing. The work-rate and intelligence of Snodgrass aided the team in retaining their shape and prevented us becoming overloaded in midfield. Antonio and Carroll both put in tremendous shifts defending from the front, pressing Southampton’s midfield relentlessly and forcing errors.

Kouyate was excellent filling in at right back and Cresswell showed great improvement, helped along by his new wing partner Snodgrass.

Reid and Fonte looked more comfortable playing together and put in a dominant defensive display. Fonte’s passing range is superb and his composure on the ball is a huge asset to the team.

After the Manchester City defeat on Wednesday, Fonte revealed that the players felt responsible for the nature of the defeat as they failed to follow the manager’s tactics. This was not the case against Southampton as previous mistakes were rectified.

From front to back the team attacked and defended as a unit. This was a display that encapsulated Bilic’s style of play, high-energy tactical pressing, with fast fluid attacking movement. Although so far this season we’ve only enjoyed glimpses of this coming together for 90 minutes, this was as complete a performance as we’ve seen this season.

Looking ahead to West Brom

The players will take confidence into their game with West Brom and I’d be surprised if Bilic changed the formation. We may see a change in personnel if Byram is fit and chosen to play, but that would leave a tough call on Kouyate with his inclusion necessitating the withdrawal of Noble or Obiang, neither of whom deserve to be dropped.

At least this is a good problem for Bilic to have and it’s good to see competition for places, even in such an unorthodox manner.

Tony Pulis is a better tactician than people think and he’s created a strong and resolute squad of players that will be very tough to break down. They will match our physicality and not many teams in the league can boast that. They are a potent threat from set plays and will pose more of an aerial threat than any of the teams we’ve faced recently.

They will look to keep things tight and restrict the space between their lines. Snodgrass, Antonio, Carroll and Feghouli/Lanzini will need guile to create space in which to operate and transitioning quickly will be key.

The added energy, technique and composure of Snodgrass will again be a welcome addition in a match that could be defined by the finest of margins or moment of brilliance.

The team seems united, invigorated and hungry and I feel renewed confidence, rather than trepidation, going into our matches once again.

Super Slav has got his mojo back and the team looks like it’s ready to forge ahead in its new chapter and keep the momentum going, starting with West Brom.

COYI


Match Report

Reflecting on Manchester City

Before we start analysing this match, it’s important that we appreciate and understand the quality of our opposition. The result hurt, of course it did, and the last thing we wanted was another decimation at the hands of Manchester City. However, the result needs context.

1. I don’t believe there are many teams that could have matched or beaten Man City in the form we encountered. As Darren Lewis of the Sun mentioned, this is not the barometer by which West Ham should be judged.
2. Gabriel Jesus, Sane and Stirling are the fastest, most skilful front line of any team I can think of, certainly in the Prem.
3. We played poorly and gifted them opportunities. Sadly for us, so high is their skill level that they converted each of the three opportunities into goals.
4. Despite their domination in possession, they were restricted to four shots on goal. However, they scored with three of these.

This isn’t designed to defend the performance, but the gulf in ability, cost of acquisition and wages has to be noted. Jesus and Sane alone cost almost £70 million and it tips over £110 million when you include Stirling.

To achieve results against teams with far superior financial power requires something special from the players and the manager. Unfortunately, it didn’t come together as we all hoped but we shouldn’t forget that we were very long odds to win or draw this game.

The acid test

It’s not fair to judge the manager or the players based solely on this performance. Better teams than ours have and will be beaten by similar margins, so let’s not hit the self-destruct button just yet.

There are also contributing factors that compound the effect of the defeat and make it feel worse than it is.

These factors are:

Losing Payet

We wanted to show the world that things are going to be OK without our leading creator. Had we finished the game losing by one or two goals, we’d feel justified in our beliefs that we can still achieve great things without him. Sadly, that’s not necessarily true. However much we want to ignore it, Payet is the most creative player in Europe and we don’t have a player of his talent’s at the club anymore. Lanzini is a rough diamond that needs to develop, and I think he will, but we lost something very special in Payet and we need time to adapt and overcome, which we will.

Recovering from the cup defeat

The 5-0 defeat we suffered in the cup is fresh in the memory and everyone would have wanted to rectify that. In some ways it must have added extra pressure to what was already a very difficult game.

Bilic

We are all so desperate to see him succeeded, but we have to cut him some slack. He is far from the finished article and has made mistakes and sometimes it appears as if he’s done little to rectify them. The team, for a long time, has been defensively poor and we are conceding too many goals. There appears to be a lack of tactical clarity implemented by the manager and players sometimes look lost and uncomfortable in their positions. The players are not without blame, of course, as they have failed to execute the game plan effectively.

I believe Bilic is similar in some ways to Lanzini. He has all the abilities to become a be one of the best, and on his day can compete with anyone. However, consistency is the key and Bilic needs time to grow and learn. He, similar to Lanzini, needs stability, support and a wide berth in order to succeed. I hope he gets it, but we must be patient as there will be a lot more highs and lows as we forge ahead in our quest for stability.

Full backs

Sadly, Cresswell hasn’t fully recovered from his injury and has been underperforming since his return. He has been at fault for several goals and desperately needs and injection of confidence and some competition to up his game. Masuaku will hopefully provide the latter on his return from injury.

Byram had a good game against Middlesbrough, but he received more defensive cover from Feghouli, which helped. Unfortunately, against Man City he wasn’t at his best and Feghouli didn’t provide the cover that he had previously. This compounded Byram’s problems and left him exposed against one of the best attacks in Europe.

Teams like Spurs, Everton and Chelsea epitomise the importance of having high calibre full backs/wing backs. Ours are developing and will need time, but I think we have some promising talent.

For me, it also highlights how important our need to get cover for Byram was in January. I understand if no suitable players were available, but Jenkinson or Debuchy on loan for the rest of the season didn’t seem beyond us?

New signings

Snodgrass had an excellent debut. His technique, ability to retain the ball and his desire to defend and organise were exemplary. He has been performing to the same high levels for Hull all season and although he played just 31 minutes (including injury time), we got to see what he brings to the team.

He completed 15 of his 16 passes in his short time on the pitch. Noble was our best passer completing 35 out of 43, which highlights how effective Snodgrass was in this key area.

His ability to hold on to the ball also gave our attacking players time to transition, which allowed us more options going forward. His share of possession was 1.9% which almost doubled Feghouli’s 1% in the 60 minutes he was on the pitch. Noble was again our leading player in this area with 4.4% but he played the whole game, where Snodgrass was limited to 31 minutes.

Despite a couple of errors and the fact he is finding his feet – in a baptism of fire – Fonte made some great passes under severe pressure and gave his all. He also chipped in with five interceptions, four clearances, three headed clearances and one tackle. I believe this partnership will grow to become one of the strongest in the league and if our full backs can develop in a similar fashion, then the future is bright.

Tactics

I thought Bilic would start with a back three against Man City. The extra defensive cover combined with more players in midfield appeared a more calculated choice. Everton and Spurs have also been successful against Man City in this formation and it’s a system that we have experience playing.

It’s unfair to say Bilic went with the wrong system, but the choice not to change it, especially at half time, was a curious one.

Sane and Stirling’s blistering pace was exposing our flanks. The precision passing orchestrated by Silva, Toure and De Brunye carved through our midfield and the speed at which they transitioned into our defensive third was frightening.

With Byram and Cresswell finding it difficult to contain the threat, Fonte and Reid were often pulled out of position creating numerous pockets of space for them to exploit. It was a masterpiece of movement from the away side, but we should have addressed this tactically and switching to a back three seemed the logical choice.

Bilic decided to stick with the same formation after half-time, possibly believing that the player’s lack of execution and pressing was the issue, not the formation itself. Unfortunately, we encountered the same problems and little changed until the inclusion of Snodgrass and Fernandes.

The heat maps from the game show that Man City’s attacking players Jesus, Sane, Sterling, De Brunye and Silva operated almost exclusively on our flanks. Fonte, Reid, Cresswell, Byram, Lanzini and Feghouli are highlighted on our heat map, showing how deep we were defending, especially on our right.

It also shows how high Cresswell’s average position was and when we compare this to their attacking heat map, we can see how heavily they targeted this area.

Moving forward

We need to put this match behind us and move on. Southampton will prove a stern test on Saturday but one that we can win.

Southampton are a fantastic football club and they have to be admired for the way they run the club and conduct their affairs. They have a wonderful system for recruiting talented players and managers and despite consistently losing both they continue to perform.

They share many similarities with Sevilla and their business model. Both are superb footballing institutions. But I digress…

All praise aside, there is work to be done to pick the team up and focus on Saturday’s game. We bounced back with a 3-0 win against Crystal Palace after our last heavy defeat to Man City, so we’ve set precedent.

Bilic and the team will have a few days on the training pitch and Fonte and Reid will have more sessions to get to know each other. It’s important to remember that this was their first game together, that Fonte wasn’t fully match fit and that these partnerships take time to develop.

Mistakes from Wednesday will be analysed and improved upon. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see Snodgrass start in place of Feghouli, who will provide better cover for Byram, as well as energy, technique and skill. I don’t expect to see any more changes, but if Kouyate were fit then personally I’d consider starting him in place of Noble.

This will be a tough match and Southampton are a quick, energetic team and they’ll be hungry to get points on the board.

If we can put the Man City game behind us, focus on the fundamentals and give our all, then I think we stand every chance of securing a victory.

Whatever the result, I know we’ll hear the deafening chorus of our away fans shaking the rafters at St Mary’s and I know we’ll all be cheering along, wherever we are.

Onwards and upwards!

COYI


Match Report

Reflecting on Middlesbrough

This was an excellent team performance against a disciplined Middlesbrough side. The players showed quality, determination and desire – everything that can be asked of them.

Carroll was again superb. He looks fit, confident and unstoppable in his current form – long may it continue. His prowess in the air is unrivalled but it’s his vision, passing and interplay that have taken his game to a new level. He leads by example from start to finish and we can only hope that his injuries are behind him.

Obiang was imperious in midfield, consistently breaking up attacks and launching counter-offensives. He is currently the most effective tackler in the Premier League with a success rate of 91% winning 41 of his 45 tackles. He is quickly developing into one of the best holding midfielders in the league.

The whole team performed well and the players look united. We can’t underestimate the effect of the Payet saga and its impact upon Bilic and the players. They have all handled this unprecedented situation with dignity and professionalism, something they have rightly been commended for.

With that behind us, the world seems brighter and there is an air of optimism around the club again. Bilic appears happier in himself and his tactics, along with the player’s determination to execute them reflected this.

Lanzini

Lanzini has started to flourish in Payet’s absence. Even at the height of our powers, last season questions were asked about the practicality of playing both attacking midfielders together, fearing that necessary defensive duties would suffer.

The issue became more noticeable at the start of this season with our well-documented struggles. Little did we know, at the time, what was developing behind the scenes.

Since Payet’s exclusion from the squad, Lanzini has been tasked with providing the spark in our creative engine, and he has not disappointed. He may not yet be as technically developed as Payet, but what he lacks marginally in technique, he makes up for ten-fold with energy and fight. The stats below highlight what a huge contribution he has made over the past two games, as well as his versatility.

Crystal Palace

*One goal (1st)
*Two chances created (2nd)
*Take ons 5/6 (1st)
*Ball recoveries 10 (1st)
*Tackles 2/2 (3rd)
*Pass completion 87.5%

Middlesbrough

*Five chances created (1st)
*Attacking third passes 18/23 (1st)
*Corners 2/4 (1st)
*Take ons 2/3 (2nd)

Hungry players

I thought the club showed realistic ambition in the signings of Jose Fonte and Robert Snodgrass. Fonte is one of the best centre backs in the Premier League and brings experience and composure to our defence. He will be highly motivated to end his career on a high and he will be committed to giving his all for the club and his teammates.

Snodgrass is a hugely underrated player who is technically excellent and mentally resolute. He, along with Fonte, are clever signings that bring more than just their ability on the pitch. They bring steel, determination and leadership.

These are the type of players that we need.

The caveat with Fonte is his age. Had he been two or three years younger he would surely have had the opportunity to move to one of the top teams in Europe. Fortunately, he has ended up in claret and blue.

Hats off to the board for the efforts so far in the transfer window and also for the way they did it – behind closed doors as much as possible.

I’d consider Scott Hogan in this category and I think he looks promising. However, his injury record is concerning and I’m certain this has been a key factor in the delay/suspension of his transfer. I’m not convinced this one will go ahead as it appears the club could have secured it much earlier if they’d been motivated to.

Square pegs in square holes

One of the key factors in our recent improvement is the return of Sam Byram. Having players playing in their natural position is crucial on many levels. It allows a team to function effectively with an in-depth tactical understanding of their role. It also allows the players around them the freedom to concentrate on their role, rather than consciously, or subconsciously, concerning themselves with covering their teammate’s shortcomings, understandably brought on by a lack of experience in their position.

However, we look at it, having a natural right back fit for selection has helped us improve.

Byram has been instrumental in the past two games, especially against Middlesbrough where he got a full 90 minutes. He boasted an 82.6% pass completion rate, created one chance from a right wing cross, made four clearances, two tackles and two interceptions. His energy and defensive intelligence brought solidity to our back line and his ability to get forward and support the forwards provided a welcome outlet.

Considering his recent return from a lengthy injury, combined with relatively little Premiership experience, I’d say he’s come back strong and looks highly capable of making the position his own.

However, one thing that concerns me is our lack of cover. Fatigue, injury, illness and suspension could all render Byram unavailable for a number of games and currently, we have Antonio, Nordtveit and possibly Arbeloa as cover. None have shown the ability to deputise for him effectively.

This is no easy matter, however. Recruiting any high-quality player in the January transfer window is notoriously difficult, let alone a full back. We also have to consider what type of player we sign. With Byram developing well do we want to sign a similar prospect? Can both be kept happy and motivated while fighting for the starting berth? Or do we sign a more seasoned player, as we attempted with Arbeloa, so Byram can be mentored but also receive competent cover should he be unavailable to play? It’s a tricky situation for the club.

Personally, I would consider the latter option, favouring a move for Ivanovic, Sagna, Zabaletta or a player of similar profile. These things are considerably more complicated than they appear and I’m certain both Bilic and the board are fully aware of the necessities of the team and will be doing all they can to recruit sensibly.

Looking ahead to Manchester City

This game should answer a lot of questions. Man City ran riot against Tottenham and they were unlucky to walk away with a draw. They are a team that, on their day, can play some of the most sublime, free-flowing, attacking football on display across Europe and we’ll need to be at our best. However, they are vulnerable and teams have exposed their frailties this season.

Discipline, controlled aggression and concentration will all be key factors in this contest. Our defence will be strong and I believe that Fonte will match and improve the performances of Ogbonna in central defence. With Byram and Cresswell on the flanks and Reid partnering Fonte, we have a formidable defensive unit.

Obiang and Noble will assist in shielding the back four and this will allow Byram and Cresswell to venture forward and provide an overlapping threat down either wing.

The team feels more united now and we’ve witnessed the tactical genius of Bilic at work when it’s in harmony with the team. Those players are capable and motivated to go and execute every game plan now, and I think we pose a challenge to anyone in the league.

We need to retain our belief and continue to grow and build as a team. The addition of Snodgrass adds a wealth of ability and grit to the side, and Fonte will bring leadership and composure.

Whatever the result on Wednesday under the lights, I’m confident that we’ll give a good account of ourselves and show everyone what we’re building here at West Ham.

COYI


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