At its most basic, fundamental level, there are two key aspects to football management; motivating your players and organising your players. While few can criticise Slaven Bilic for the ability to inspire his Irons in increasingly recurring times of strife, the equally recurring disorganisation that initially creates them can no longer be ignored.
Bilic may be a master of the battle cry, ready to lead the charge against all odds into no man’s land, as we saw when his side staged a shock 3-2 comeback against Tottenham at Wembley last Wednesday, but he is not the all-seeing general of tactics and strategy West Ham desperately need to stop each season becoming a nervous stare-down with the relegation scrap – just as we saw when they threw away a two-goal lead at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
If those encounters constituted the two matches Bilic had to save his job, we saw the very best and the very worst of the Croatian; his greatest gift as a manager, juxtaposed by his most intrinsic, no longer ignorable flaw.
We’re reaching the part of the season where the table doesn’t lie, and it currently tells us West Ham are gravely underperforming. Based on their summer net spend alone, West Ham should be at least two places higher than their current standing of 16th. But considering their squad was hardly in a precarious state at the end of last season and their only four signings of the summer are all highly experienced at Premier League and international level, being closer to the top half than the relegation zone seems like a minimum requirement after ten games.
Instead, the Hammers have taken less than a point per game and have conceded the fourth-most goals of any top-flight side – despite the fact they’ve played just two of last season’s top six so far. They now face the remaining four in the space of the next seven league games. Logic suggests results will only get worse.
Of course, not every cause of that disappointing start traces back to Bilic. Certain players have let themselves down, certain summer signings just haven’t turned up and David Gold and David Sullivan continue to draw criticism for the direction they’ve taken the club in. Bilic will argue the owners’ refusal to sanction late a deal for William Carvalho – a failed summer signing who would have given the Hammers real presence and quality in midfield – has left him short too.
But the statistics tell their own story and the majority point to a manager who has failed to install the most basic level of organisation, preparation, focus and discipline amongst his squad. West Ham have incurred the second-most yellow cards and second-most red cards of any Premier League side, while conceding the most penalties and the fifth-most goals from corners and free kicks. The trend is too strong to simply blame it all on individual errors – clearly, the adequate preparation just isn’t there.
At the same time, neither Bilic’s pre-match game-plans nor his in-game decisions are paying off either. He’s used six different formations in the Premier League already this season and rather tellingly of how ineffective those changes have been, he’s hooked off four players at half time in the top flight this term. That’s almost one every two matches.
Likewise, West Ham have picked up the sixth-fewest points after taking the lead, are yet to win any after going behind, have conceded the second-most goals in the final 15 minutes and the joint-most in stoppage time. Although two of West Ham’s ten top flight goals have come from the bench this season, that all points to Bilic’s repeated failure to adequately change games depending on the situation. The Hammers have failed to hold onto leads and to get back into games, while intrinsic disorganisation between the defence and the midfield continues to cost them late on – something which also hints at a general lack of focus amongst the squad.
Crystal Palace’s last-minute equaliser provides a perfect example. Perhaps a player of Michail Antonio’s experience should know to keep the ball in the corner rather than naively whip a cross into the box and give possession back to the opposition. But Bilic’s part in the goal is represented by the three players standing on the edge of the penalty area. Whether it’s a matter of preparing the players in training to know their jobs in such scenarios or simply screaming at them to get back from the dugout, all three should have been in West Ham’s own half anticipating a counter, nowhere near Antonio’s masy run. Palace were allowed to launch a counter-attack with four West Ham players already cut out of the game.
Once again, we can point to the experience and nous those players clearly have. Javier Hernandez, Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini should know better. But in modern football, managers can’t expect players to always act correctly of their own accord; they need specific game-plans drilled into them for specific scenarios. In any case, it wasn’t the first case of blatant disorganisation we’ve seen from West Ham since the start of last season and at this point, the goal feels simply symptomatic.
It is impossible to ignore how frequently Bilic’s players turn up when he needs them most. Last season, they responded to Dimitri Payet’s decision to leave the club with a run of eleven points from their next six games and after five subsequent defeats appeared to put Bilic’s job in the balance, they once again hit back with four clean sheets in five games, including a 1-0 win over Tottenham that ensured survival.
Last week’s comeback against Tottenham provided another example; once again, Bilic’s job hinged on a good result and the players eventually delivered after what must have been an incredible half-time team talk. That’s as much a consequence of how well-liked Bilic appears to be amongst the players as his ability to motivate his team.
But it only generates a vicious cycle when combined with Bilic’s tactical and organisational inadequacies. They play a pivotal hand in creating the scenarios that West Ham eventually find some way out of. The statistics prove that in abundance and after almost 18 months of the same recurring inconsistencies, it’s time for the cycle to end.