The Season So Far
…has been unbelievably frustrating.
West Ham’s 2015-16 was unforgettable for a myriad of reasons. While the stats-bods, including this writer, were busy pointing out how incredibly lucky the Hammers were getting, reminding everyone else how heavily they were being outshot and how unsustainable it was for Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini to keep burying screamers from all distances and angles, Slaven Bilić’s men were simply enjoying it and milking the limelight.
They began this season striding forth into the London Stadium, spring in their step, while the owners spoke about taking the club to the next level and competing with giants like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. They had European football to look forward to. They had a squad of class players. They had a manager who didn’t take any shit from anyone. This was gonna be fun.
Then the injuries started. Then they suddenly had no right-backs. Then they had no strikers. Then the goals dried up. Then the goals started going in at the other end, and in sizeable numbers. Then Bilić ran out of ideas and started talking in clichés about desire and passion. Then Payet, seemingly fed up at being better than all of his teammates combined, picked up his ball (metaphorically speaking) and went back to France.
A short burst of form in January and February all-but guaranteed Premier League survival for another year and after that they once again fell apart, losing five on the bounce – and three of those defeats were against Bournemouth, Leicester and Hull, which tells you how bad they are at their worst.
At the start of the season this column predicted a safe if often bumpy journey towards midtable mediocrity, and that’s eventually what West Ham have got. Whether that’s good enough to save Bilić, who apparently has just the two remaining home games to save his job, remains to be seen.
The Final Few Games
Still with no right-backs and no strikers capable of staying fit for any length of time, and with the likes of Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Winston Reid enduring particularly bad campaigns, and with goalkeeper Adrián and defender Angelo Ogbonna seemingly having disappeared from the face of the Earth, ending the season on a high is going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.
The big talking point is the future of Slaven Bilić. Andy Carroll and André Ayew should be fit for the run-in, which will do the beleaguered Croat the world of good, and their last two games have yielded clean sheets, so they’re obviously doing something right all of a sudden. They need to end their reliance on wondergoals soon, though.
To say that West Ham actually have tactics is a bit of a stretch but here we go.
Usually, we would expect a deep and narrow (and still somehow porous) back four, a tight and disciplined (but still hopelessly exploitable) midfield two in front of them, with some kind of free-form trio of lightweight, workshy show-ponies getting in each other’s way behind a relatively harmless number nine.
Last week, however, Bilić tried a new trick, reverting to an 80s/90s-style 3-4-1-2, so we could also see a deep and narrow (and still somehow porous) back three, a tight and disciplined (but still hopelessly exploitable) midfield two in front of them, two rather embarrassing wing-backs running up and down the line, with just one lightweight, workshy show-pony in the number ten role, and two relatively harmless number nines getting in each other’s way up front.
The defensive strategy will be, as ever, to let Darren Randolph do all the work while everyone else gets confused by competent opposition attacking play and starts throwing themselves in front of shots, hoping that visible shows of passion and oomph will get the furious home fans off their backs.
In attack, Lanzini tries trick-shots from stupid distances, Robert Snodgrass crosses the ball a lot like the Championship-grade winger that he is, and Andy Carroll commits fouls, falls over the ball and moves with the balletic grace of a giraffe trying to jump through a basketball hoop. André Ayew is okay at snapshotting a ball goalward but offers little else.
You can never rule out a wondergoal when West Ham are concerned, no matter how badly they’re playing or how many shots the opposition have had in the game up until that point.
Sofiane Feghouli, now out-of-favour, is really good.
Michail Antonio, unavailable, and Andy Carroll, an injury doubt, have highly skilled foreheads.
Slaven Bilić, for all his faults as a manager, is a pretty affable guy.
Most obviously, they play with absolutely no organisation at any stage of the game, and this is rarely a good idea.
Speaking of bad ideas, playing good players out of position and playing bad players at all are also notably counterproductive plans. A back three of José Fonte, Winston Reid and James Collins isn’t going to be good enough to stop Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min. Darren Randolph is not a Premier League goalkeeper, and in Michail Antonio’s absence and with doubts remaining over the fitness of Carroll and Ayew, they may not have a single player capable of playing as a striker. Jonathan Calleri is a striker and he is fit, but he’s rubbish.
It’s worth reiterating that West Ham literally have no tactics and that Spurs very much do have tactics. This is a significant advantage for the visitors.
Besides that, on a moral note: Andy Carroll is everything wrong with football and no evidence to the contrary or suggestions that balance be applied can disprove this notion. It’s only a matter of time until Carroll joins forces with T*ny P*l*s and opens up some kind of interdimensional vortex allowing an unspeakable alliance of Satan, Ctulhu and the monster from Stranger Things to conquer the Earth.
Carroll should play but persistent doubts about his fitness remain, while last week’s wing-backs Edimilson Fernandes and Arthur Masuaku could miss out as Sam Byram and Aaron Cresswell are available. Pedro Obiang and Michail Antonio are both out, but the good news (ahem) is that Mark Noble is back after suspension.
Spurs will want to put the pressure on Chelsea here and only a win will suffice. We should expect them to get it, but in a derby there’s always the chance of the unexpected and West Ham are due a wondergoal. What should really be a routine 3-0 is likely to be a nervy 2-1.