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.
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.