There is little dispute over which striker offers West Ham greater natural pedigree; 97-cap Mexican international Javier Hernandez has scored goals for Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid, whereas Andy Carroll, overlooked for Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad, has never plied his trade in the Champions League. But there’s equally little dispute over which is more instrumental to West Ham’s results at this moment in time.
West Ham are yet to pick up a single point this season without Carroll in the starting XI, while none of Javier Hernandez’s three strikes have earned his new club any points in the Premier League table. In fact, since the beginning of last season, the Irons’ win rate has been 16% lower without Carroll in the starting line-up – dropping to just 27% in his absence – whereas the east Londoners have actually scored just one more goal in the 575 minutes Hernandez has been on the pitch this term than in the 52 without him.
The stats speak for themselves and yet, there is still no debate over whether Hernandez should be in the starting line-up. There is, however, humungous pressure on Slaven Bilic to get best use out of a £16million signing who was expected to fire the Hammers into Europa League reckoning when he arrived from Leve in the summer. Bilic’s decision to sub off Chicharito against Swansea last Saturday was met with a chorus of boos and jeers from the London Stadium faithful, alongside a disbelieving shake of the head from the 29-year-old himself.
Ironically, though, that substitution directly lead to only West Ham’s second top-flight win of the season, as Arthur Masuaku and Diafra Sakho combined for the winner in a laborious encounter with the Welsh outfit. Hernandez may be one of the most clinical poachers in the Premier League, but his influence on West Ham’s results thus far has been minimal – a conundrum that has seen the West Ham manager employ three different formations already this season, fielding his summer signing as a lone front-man, a wide forward and as part of a two-man strike partnership.
In all instances, though, Bilic has eventually found himself reverting back to Carroll’s directness, physical presence and aerial threat at the expense of Hernandez’s predatory instincts and in many ways, that sums up exactly where West Ham are at right now; a squad filled with proven Premier League talent and a wealth of options in attack, unable to escape an attritional brand of football because of their unreliability when it comes to the very basics of the game.
Whenever Bilic attempts to introduce a more open and expansive style, the kind of style Hernandez’s technical qualities would unequivocally benefit from, simple errors and disorganisation let the Irons down. The pressure on Bilic builds as results go awry, the season starts to unravel and suddenly, the Hammers are back to grinding out wins with Carroll as their focal point.
That cycle has persisted since the start of last season, which is exactly why West Ham invested so much in bringing Hernandez and wide forward Marko Arnautovic to the club over the summer. But it’s incredibly easy to forget we’re just seven games into the new campaign and Hernandez hasn’t even completed the third month of his three-year contract.
Yes, West Ham need to find a way of playing that gets the best out of their biggest talent since Dimitri Payet and yes, Bilic’s boys need to pick up the pace after a slow start to the season, but transitioning between two strikers of completely different moulds was always going to require evolution rather than revolution. In fact, Bilic’s hopes of making Hernandez his star man instantaneously by fielding three attacking midfielders behind the diminutive finisher lead to hefty, humiliating defeats at the hands of Manchester United, Southampton and Newcastle in the opening weeks of the new season.
That shouldn’t have been a surprise, either; not only does the 4-2-3-1 setup leave the Hammers short of bodies in vulnerable defensive areas, but the kind of service Chicharito requires – balls into feet and preferably inside the box – is completely different to the long balls Carroll thrives on. The 19 days between Hernandez’s summer arrival in east London and West Ham’s first game of the season was never going to be long enough for Bilic’s side to transform the entire tactics, structure and style of their forward play.
Indeed, remodelling the Hammers to get the best out of Chicharito will be and should be a long-term process, one that will have to be balanced against West Ham’s chances of positive results. Considering how they continue to hinge so pivotally on Carroll at this moment in time, that process could take the whole season and could require more signings in January too.
The ultimate question, though, rests on whether Bilic is the right man to oversee that transition. While he struck the perfect balance between the organisation Sam Allardyce left behind and the attacking verve of Lanzini and Payet during his first season in the Hammers’ dugout, last term saw those two aspects of the Irons’ game greatly polarise; they were either thrilling going forward and chaotic at the back, or direct, defensive and attritional in a bid to eke out much-needed results.
Of course, Payet’s departure halfway through the season didn’t help, the Irons losing out on their talismanic creator, but tactics have always been arguably Bilic’s greatest weakness as a manager – something that becomes particularly evident during the Irons’ many shambolic defensive displays.
While Bilic clearly knows how to motivate his players, that inability to organise leads to doubts over whether he can create a system that will see Hernandez thrive, let alone slowly and steadily transition his team towards it while obtaining results.
For the time being, however, patience is required – modifying West Ham from a team that win games with Carroll up top to a team that win games with Hernandez leading the line isn’t as simple as changing a name on the team-sheet – and the pressure from the fan base certainly isn’t helping.
As much as Hammers supporters understandably want to see the full extremities of Chicharito’s talents as soon as possible, the reality is that West Ham have a long way to go before they become a Hernandez team.
In the meantime, as we saw on Saturday, there will be occasions where Hernandez is sacrificed.