West Ham United shipped 51 goals in their final season at Upton Park, in their first season under Slaven Bilic. They ended that campaign only four points off a Champions League spot, but no team above them leaked goals at anywhere near the level that the Hammers did.
On the other hand, that year, Bilic’s side scored as many goals as Arsenal, and only Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and champions Leicester City scored more.
But there comes a point when the plan of outscoring the opposition becomes much more difficult to execute if you keep conceding at the back. Two years ago, the Irons’ goal difference was +14. Last season, that was flipped to -17. Keep going at anywhere near the rate they’re clocking so far this season and that number will plumb new depths.
Despite another heavily-conceding defeat, the biggest plus from the weekend’s 3-2 loss away to Southampton was probably the fact that, in Javier Hernandez, West Ham actually have a striker who can score goals. But even that is moot when the defence leaks so many at the other end.
There should be perspective, of course. West Ham haven’t played a home game yet, and the two away games they’ve faced are tough ones in Manchester United and Southampton. One point from those two games might have been considered a decent return, and even after having played so long with only ten men against Southampton, there are definite positives to take from the team’s ability to claw itself back into the game, despite their inability to hold out for a draw.
But even if there are some small reasons to believe that it’s not all doom and gloom just yet, there’s an inescapable feeling that Slaven Bilic is a man under severe pressure. Not only do the Hammers sit bottom of the (meaningless, at this stage) table with by far and away the worst goals against column, but the manager has also overseen a squad overhaul which now means he’s in charge of a team that is, on paper, surely one of the best outside of the top seven.
I asked James Jones, Editor in Chief of Football FanCast and also the founder and editor of West Ham World, for his thoughts on the start of the season and whether or not Bilic should be feeling the heat.
“Bilic came across as a man who knows he’s under a lot of pressure after the Southampton game,” he says.
“We’re used to him coming out after a game and being honest about the team’s performance and contentious refereeing decisions, but this time he was a short with his answers and unwilling to confront the real reasons why we lost that game.”
One of the most engaging managers in the game, Bilic is always wonderful to listen to, and that honesty has always been one of his most relatable qualities. When managers are interviewed after games, passions are still running high and no one wants to say anything to get themselves in trouble.
Bilic usually appears calm and forthright, meaning a post-match interview with the Croatian coach is probably worth more than it is with most others. But that’s not enough to save him from the pressure.
“It’s very concerning that we have a former centre-half as manager and the likes of Julian Dicks on the coaching staff, yet our defence has been our biggest downfall over the last two seasons. Even in his first season we conceded 51 league goals on our way to a top four challenge.”
“All that, but he continues to insist on not strengthening the defence with two weeks left of the window. If the last two results have taught us anything, it’s that we really need to spend money on another centre-half. It’s all very well getting bargains like Javier Hernandez for £16m but if we’re conceding more than he’s scoring, what’s the point?”
This is as strange a summer as the Premier League has known. Aside from the barely fathomable amounts of money being thrown around for players who certainly wouldn’t be considered top tier, the state of play now seems to have placed an emphasis on managers who organise their teams into well-drilled units and – theoretically – get more out of their squads than the sum of their parts.
Whereas the league used to be filled with the ‘arm around the shoulder’ types of managers, the league’s balance seems to be more in favour of the strategic thinkers instead.
Bilic, with his rousing qualities and ability to motivate his team, seems to be in the camp which seems to be heading out of fashion for the moment. The question now is whether he can tighten up the defence and deal with the high-pressing, well-organised teams West Ham will face this season.
“Every single West Ham fan wants Bilic to get this right and start taking the club to where it was two years ago – battling for a top six spot and competing with the big boys – but, at the moment, patience is wearing very, very thin and if we don’t get a result against Newcastle I think it could be time to consider replacing him,” says Jones.
“Breaks my heart to say it but we cannot go on like this much longer.”