Around this time last year, when West Ham were just a point away from breaking into the top four, David Sullivan promised to offer Slaven Bilic a new contract in January 2017 – if the Croatian manager could prove he wasn’t a one-season wonder.
“I will give Slaven a new deal in January. I just want to see that he is not a one-season wonder. I’m sure he is not, but we will talk next January — or at the end of next season.”
January has come and gone, West Ham have endured their most turbulent season since the days of Avram Grant and as far as the British media are aware, the terms of an extended deal are yet to land in Bilic’s in-tray. Having cut an increasingly frustrated figure in recent weeks in the face of underwhelming results, it seems Bilic could be a man under pressure – and Sullivan could be having doubts over whether the 48-year-old is the right man to take the club forward.
Make no mistake about it, West Ham became sloppy after Bilic’s debut season brought a record points haul in the Premier League and Europa League football to the club’s new home, the London Stadium.
The problem was that it felt like a dream; European football in a 60,000 capacity ground with one of the stars of Euro 2016, Dimitri Payet, running the show was a million miles away from the Chicken Run, Championship playoffs and the attritional warfare of Sam Allardyce’s four years in charge; but the reality of the most competitive top flight in world football and the club’s inevitable limitations soon caught up with them, far quicker than expected.
The star-studded striker to lap up Payet’s copious supply of created chances never arrived in the summer of 2016 and West Ham’s pre-season preparations clearly didn’t have the desired effect. Unready for a new campaign on a new pitch that creates the illusion of added grandeur even if it is the same dimensions as Upton Park’s, the Hammers lost seven of their first eleven games this term, including elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Astra Giurgiu. In fact, by mid-December, West Ham had won just six times across all competitions, losing eleven, and scored more than one goal at home on just one occasion in the Premier League – a 4-2 defeat to Watford.
Bilic must take responsibility for that; he was given a new stadium, a wealth new signings during the summer and a bumper contract for his star player. But amid the hysteria of West Ham’s new era, he allowed the players to lose their focus. The Croatian practically admitted as much after a humiliating 5-1 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in December, revealing his players lacked intensity even in training.
“It was a big humiliation. I feel sorry for the fans and the club. We played some good games in this season, and had some good moments today even at 0-0 and 1-0 down. But I have to be honest and say we don’t have the intensity and from the dedication comes the quality. We don’t have it the same as last season, even in training. We have it occasionally in games and that’s why we are so up and down.”
That being said, there have been mitigating circumstances, arguably beyond Bilic’s control. David Gold and Sullivan’s media presence only seemed to hinder West Ham’s search for a top-class centre-forward last summer and probably forced them into the compromise of signing Andre Ayew, a forward rather than a finisher, for a club-record fee.
Similarly, the club somehow managed to finish the summer window with a wealth of attacking midfield options but only veteran Alvaro Arbeloa, who hasn’t featured since the defeat to Arsenal, to challenge the injured Sam Byram at right-back. The numbers were there to cope with a potentially long Europa League run, but Bilic’s squad was unbalanced. How much say managers have over transfers these days is always open to debate, but West Ham’s transfer policy last summer was unquestionably wide of the mark.
Likewise, events at the London Stadium were inevitably distracting. It must have been hard to keep the team and the club focused when the media were regularly fielding questions on fan violence, the stadium’s suitability to football and disorganised policing.
Then, of course, came the Dimitri Payet situation in January. It may have galvanised the team to claim six wins in ten since the revelations first surfaced, performing far better as a cohesive unit, but how long Payet’s desire to return to Marseille had disrupted matters behind the scenes remains unconfirmed. His body language hadn’t been right for some time.
None of those factors take away from the fact Bilic failed to keep the team on track as the club embarked upon unprecedented ground, and that questionable lack of ruthlessness does dent his managerial credentials. West Ham’s board showed no sentiment in parting with Sam Allardyce despite him doing a good job in east London and if they want a truly top-class manager to take the club forward, it might not be the man who currently dons their dugout.
It’s worth noting his Besiktas side lifted the Super Lig title last season – the Croatian never bettered third place during his two terms with the Turkish club – and some selection calls this season, not least including Cheikhou Kouyate at right-back, have truly baffled.
But twisting on a solid hand is always a gamble and amid an era in which short-term success takes increasing precedence over long-term goals, West Ham will struggle to find a manager with as close a connection to the club as Bilic.
Comparing managers to Arsene Wenger may not be particularly vogue at the minute, but just as the Frenchman has always held Arsenal’s best interests in his heart, Bilic can be the custodian who embodies the old and the new at West Ham, who keeps the club united amid massive changes off the field and can claim that legitimacy amongst the fans even when results aren’t going his way.
Slaven may have gotten sloppy, last season’s seventh-place finish may have flattered him and he may not be a groundbreaking manager destined to take West Ham to the very pinnacle of the game. But Gold and Sullivan will struggle to find a better fit for one of English football’s most unique clubs in the middle of one of the most important chapters in their history. Fortunately for West Ham’s owners, they have another season to make up their minds.