The S J Chandos Column
We all acknowledge Payet's importance, but lets not forget Kouyate's value to the side!
Well, what can you say about that ‘performance’ (or rather lack of it) against Man City? Just when you think the team have turned a corner, all the old faults and weaknesses re-emerge. We hoped that the nightmare experienced against Arsenal had been put behind us, then we had to watch that total debacle against City. There were certain similarities between the two matches, in that we were competitive until we conceded and then too many heads dropped and a rout ensued. However, for me the biggest common denominator in both matches was the absence of Kouyate and the power, strength and momentum that he brings to the side. While Payet is crucial to our creativity and forward play, perhaps it is time that there was greater recognition of Kouyate’s importance to the energy, physicality and cohesion of the side. In my last column, I expressed concerns about his month long absence, at the African Cup of Nations, and the City defeat served to cruelly underline the point. Lets just pray that Kouyate returns from the ACON (at the earliest possible opportunity) fit and uninjured.
I had hoped that the combination of Obiang and Noble in midfield would compensate for the loss of Kouyate’s power, industry and drive. Unfortunately Bilic did not start Noble and we fell well short. Kouyate is probably the only player of his sort in the current squad; a tall, powerful player, with natural drive/aggression to his game. He is equally comfortable playing as a centre-back, a defensive anchor or a box-to-box midfielder, who is capable of getting forward to score important goals. Arguably, last Friday night’s result underlines the fact that we need another player of Kouyate’s stamp. And fortunately, we have a firm recommendation from the man himself. Kouyate recently praised Anderlecht’s Kara Mbodji’s qualities and suitability for the PL. Mbodji is 6ft 3 inches tall and is an absolute power house on the pitch. Moreover, like Kouyate, his fellow Senegalese international, can play centre-back, as a defensive midfielder and, further forward, as a central midfielder. If James Collins departs to Crystal Palace this January, Mbodj would be an ideal centre-back replacement and, vitally, provide cover for Kouyate in midfield. Yes, Mbodji is currently also part of Senegal’s ACON squad and that might be a consideration. However, if he is the right option, at the right price (he is likely to be available for c.£5m-6m – subject to January’s inflationary prices), then we would have to muddle through until he is available in early February (and even earlier if Senegal are eliminated from ACON). Alternatively, we should look for another player of very similar physical and footballing qualities.
As I write, it appears that Zaza, Calleri and Tore have (or will have) their loan spells cut short. While it looks as if a move (loan, with a view to a permanent deal) to Roma may be on the cards for Feghouli and the club also look to be open to offers for Adrian. I have said it before, and I will say it again, the club has suffered due to the shortcomings of the last summer transfer window. The recruitment was just not good enough (in total contrast to the previous two summer windows) and the consequences are that we are having to attempt to ameliorate the mistakes this January. And we all know that is not a comfortable position to find yourself in and lets hope that the club are able to do it, even if it likely means recruiting at inflated fees.
The players that we are being linked with in this window are legion, including Defoe, Hogan, Batshuayi, Jenkinson, etc. To date (if reports for to be believed) West Ham have already had three bids rejected for both Defoe and Hogan. And that is the nature of the January window, it is essentially a sellers market and selling clubs are able to play ‘hard ball’ on fees. I would welcome the addition of Michy Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea, but there is a suggestion that they may try to link the deal to a permanent move for Antonio and that is not a price worth paying. Antonio has been one of the positives, so far, this season and we cannot afford to lose him from the squad. If we can get Batshuayi on a stand alone deal then great, but otherwise we should pass on the opportunity.
Who would I like to see us recruit this January? There is talk of a January loan deal for Chelsea keeper, Asmir Begovic, and a subsequent c.£15m summer deal for Joe Hart. Adrian’s fall from favour is a sad and rapid development, but there is no doubting that the erratic nature of his keeping came to the fore this season and it has costs us points. However, he is still one of the best ‘reaction save’ keepers around; it is just a pity that he is not more disciplined and dominating in the box. Can he rectify those faults in his game? I would have hoped so, but it very much looks as if his time at the club is coming to an end. Whether Bilic decides on making a change in January or sticks with Adrian and Randolph until the summer will be revealed in due course.
One of the most pertinent criticisms of the summer recruitment was that it was too exclusively focused on the forward positions, at the expense of addressing our defensive vulnerabilities. It is widely acknowledged that we have insufficient cover at right-back. There are numerous rumours about loan or permanent bids for right-backs such as Jenkinson and Iorfa. There is no doubt that there is a need for cover and competition for Sam Byram, at right-back/wing-back and it has been a problem position at the club for some considerable time. That now needs to be rectified and it is just a question of whether the club go for a more experienced option like Jenkinson or opt for the undoubted potential of a player such as Iorfa. There are strong arguments in favour of both options. Iorfa has the potential to become a top class right-back and he has local/Essex connections, being born and raised in Southend. While Jenkinson is older/more experienced and has previously played for the club. Furthermore, it is possible that Jenkinson could be available on a loan deal, with a option to buy in the summer, which would help the January transfer budget to stretch that bit further.
While we have a quality option at left-back/wing-back in the form of Cresswell, are we really convinced by the cover/competition? The club brought in Arthur Masuaku in the summer, but he has struggled with injuries and looked out of his depth in the PL. Perhaps he needs more time to adapt, and an extended period injury free, before we can judge his ultimate suitability. At the same time, young prospects such as Stephen Hendrie and Lewis Page have failed to impress and have been loaned out or sold. Perhaps Bilic will prioritise a right-back in January and continue with Cresswell-Masuaku until the summer. If Masuaku then exits, recruiting a left-back like Leeds Utd’s Charlie Taylor may be on the agenda in the summer.
At centre-back, we could continue with the Reid-Ogbonna-Colins-Oxford combination. However, as previously stated, there may be a bid for Collin’s services by Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace. At 33 years of age, a decent bid could very well prove successful for the Welsh international. If that is the case, we will need a similiarly powerful centre-back to replace him. Yes, we have the emerging potential of Oxford and Burke, but the most immediate priority is to strengthen our squad for the remainder of this season. Burke will not be back with the club until next season and I suspect that while Oxford will eventually grow in to a top-class centre-back, his best and most immediate first team opportunities will in the defensive-midfield role. For that reason, I would go for a powerful centre-back such as Kara Mbodji, especially if (like him) they can also be deployed as a defensive or central midfielder.
In defence/midfield Nordtvelt has not particularly impressed so far, but it is likely he will be given more time. Generally, we are probably ok in central midfield until the summer, providing that we do not lose anyone. It is just a pity that a young, hungry youngster like Josh Cullen is not currently at the club and pushing established players for a starting place. His performances on loan for Bradford City have been very good and hopefully that will be beneficial for his long-term development. It is just that he is as good (if not better better) a prospect as Harry Winks at Spurs and I suspect he could and should have had PL/cup exposure this season. As stated, the talk of selling/swapping Antonio is a total nonsense, to sell our top scorer would be madness and his pace and strength up front cannot be easily replaced. So, the club must stand firm on that issue, but it is likely that we will lose other wide players such as Feghouli and Tore. So we need at least one wide player and the favoured option seems to be Hull City’s star player, Robert Snodgrass. Snodgrass is a very good player, but has tended to play for less fashionable PL clubs. I believe that Snodgrass could finally realise his full potential with West Ham, playing alongside the likes of Payet and Lanzini. Plus, he has the versatility to play not only on the right flank, but right across the front line. It is all about possessing more class options in the squad, with greater strength-in-depth to promote competition and give quality cover; rather than considerations about ‘who would be selected over who’ in a ideal first team XI. Nor is it a ‘problem’ to have more then one player that is a dead ball/set piece specialist. I am sure Bilic would welcome more of those type of problems! Regardless, whether you favour Snodgrass, or other options, the fact remains that we probably need to recruit least one new wide player this January.
However, the vast majority of media/social media speculation has focused on the Hammers recruiting one or two new strikers this January. As I write it seems that Brentford’s Scott Hogan (on a £12.5m-15m permanent deal) and Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi (on loan) seem to be the favoured options. The speculation around a possible deal for Defoe seems to have abated. Essentially, Defoe was seen by the club as a quick (and short-term) fix up front. However, Sunderland have predictably resisted West Ham’s overtures, because they obviously see Defoe as central to their PL survival chances this season. The only way that a deal might be sparked is if the player himself submitted a transfer request, but that does not appear to have happened to date. Perhaps he fears a back lash from irate Sunderland fans? That is understandable considering the fall out, and continuing legacy, of the circumstances in which he exited West Ham in 2004.
As stated previously, I would gamble on Hogan and happily take Batshuayi on loan (providing Antonio is not part of the deal). Hogan has excelled as a goal scorer in the Championship and he could join Cresswell and Antonio as excellent additions from the 2nd tier. The only proviso is that there is no long-term issues relating to his previous knee injuries. We must not recruit another injury prone striker, whether that is Hogan or a more established PL striker like Sturridge. The issue with Batshuayi (apart from the Antonio link) is his match fitness and form. His match time this season has been very low at Chelsea and it has obviously affected his fitness, confidence and form. However, if he is sufficiently fit, only game time will rectify those other issues. If all goes well, we could recruit a classy striker and with an hunger to prove a point about his ability to excel in the PL. And that would only be a good thing.
If he does excel for us, it is unlikely Chelsea would be open to a permanent deal in the summer. But, on the other hand, knowing Chelsea, if they recruit another mega million pound super striker and they might just decide to cash in on Batshuayi. If that happened, we would then be in pole position to seal a permanent move. Alternatively, Batshuayi goes back to his parent club in the summer and we try to secure a big deal for a top striker like Inter-Milan’s Mauro Icardi.
Maybe the Hogan-Batshuayi emphasis is a false one and other options will emerge out of left field, who knows? What we do know is both Bilic and Sullivan have confirmed that, ideally, in January there will be (1) a emphasis upon recruiting British/UK based players and (2) a minimum of three new players recruited. I agree with the policy of recruiting a majority of British/UK based talent in this window, as they have the best chance of quickly settling and having a maximum positive impact. As for the target figure of three recruits, that is likely to translate in to a right-back, a wide midfielder and at least one striker. However, will three recruits be enough to address all the needs/lack in the current squad? Almost certainly not. To do that we would probably need to recruit five or six. With a central defender and a second striker being added to the wish list. While the factor x in the equation is the goal keeping position? Will other pressing priorities see the Adrian-Randolph combination continue until the end of the season, with a big goal keeping addition being planned in the summer?
Three, four, five, six ….. this would be the required scale of signings to address all of the issues in the squad caused by a bad summer recruitment. However, the likelihood is that the difficult nature of the January window will actually see recruitment of three or less new players. If that is the case, we must prioritise the most pressing positions, get by elsewhere for the remainder of this season and then address the remaining substantive issues in the summer.
I just hope that the club’s management and board have learnt the lessons of last summer and ensure in future they get the recruitment right at that juncture and just use the winter window to make minor adjustments/sign players of quality that unexpectedly become available. Also, from next summer, the emphasis must be firmly upon quality over numbers and ultimately that costs. Hopefully, the quality of our youth system will produce more high quality home grown talent and make some transfer expenditure unnecessary. Although the best possible policy is to strike a successful balance between the two strategies (quality youngsters and top class signings).
But first lets complete good and effective business in this transfer window, get through the remainder this season (ideally with a top ten finish) and then re-group and refocus our ambitions/targets in 2017-18.