There were unlikely many punters who had a flutter on a thrilling 3-2 at the London Stadium last Saturday but in retrospect, it’s perhaps the result we should have expected, because it epitomises exactly where West Ham are at right now – vibrant and varied options in attack offset by intrinsic disorganisation between the back three and the two midfielders operating in front of them.
That may seem a harsh indictment considering the quality Tottenham have shown going forward this season and particularly on the road, winning all three of their Premier League away games with eight goals scored, not to mention the superlative form of Harry Kane who has netted eight times for club and country since the start of September.
And yet, all of Tottenham’s goals on Saturday were avoidable. Andy Carroll may have given away possession twice in dangerous areas but it still required just two passes to unhinge West Ham’s defence and midfield for the visitors’ first goal as smart movement from Dele Alli and Kane’s well-proven prowess were unattended by the back three.
The second goal followed a similar pattern and both came in a period of the match where West Ham appeared to be otherwise in control, while the Christian Eriksen strike that proved to be the winner was a consequence of focus lost after a Kane free kick cannoned off the woodwork. The Danish international, easily Tottenham’s best finisher from long range, was left free to find space on the edge of the penalty area.
To an extent, every goal in football is avoidable in one way or another. But in the context of a London derby against high-quality opposition that was always going to be tightly contested and actually saw West Ham finish up with more possession than during their 2-0 win over Huddersfield a fortnight ago, they felt cheap to give away. Tottenham netted three times within the first hour, without ever really hitting top gear.
Inevitably, the blame must fall on Slaven Bilic’s doorstep. Once again, perhaps a harsh analysis considering the differences between the two sides on paper, but the fact of the matter is that his West Ham side have a bad habit of conceding easy goals and being dogged by inconsistency – particularly at the back. Tellingly, the Hammers paid dearly for disorganisation against Tottenham after claiming four points from a possible six and recording three consecutive clean sheets across all competitions.
Considering the rift at the end of the transfer window, a poor display defensively did Bilic little favours. But it’s clear these problems stem back to him – West Ham conceded a whopping 64 times last season, the third-most of any side not to be relegated, and after shipping 13 in just six games already this term, those issues obviously haven’t been resolved. Bizarrely, Bilic declared during the final few days of the transfer window that he didn’t want another option at centre-half.
In many ways, that highlights the long-standing criticism of Bilic; tactically, he lacks compared to many of his Premier League counter-parts. It’s not just a question of defensive structure either, although that has done the most damage to West Ham so far this season; electing to bring on Carroll for the injured Michail Antonio after 28 minutes proved a prime example.
Many were surprised the towering centre-forward wasn’t included in the starting XI, considering how important his physicality was in the win over Huddersfield and the draw with West Brom. But it quickly became apparent that West Ham had worked on a specific game-plan to pressure Tottenham’s back three with the pace of three more mobile forwards playing in their familiar positions.
Rather than throwing on Andre Ayew, however, very much a like-for-like for Antonio, Carroll entered the fray, Javier Hernandez returned to being a square peg in a round hole out wide and ten minutes later, with the substitute getting caught on the ball twice, the Hammers found themselves two goals down.
That substitution made a structural change to the Irons’ set-up off the ball and the reaction of the players suggests it caught them all off guard. Sure, they’ve played with Carroll up top before, but suddenly the game-plan was completely different in terms of shape, pressing from the front and service going forward. The adjustment period cost them dearly.
However, there is always a flipside to the coin and what Bilic lacks in tactical knowledge and application, he makes up for in motivation and team spirit, something else that was evident on Saturday. We’ve seen West Ham capitulate before but his side dug deep to get themselves back into the match; they were arguably one cute push into the small of Carroll’s back, courtesy of Davinson Sanchez at a corner, away from finishing up with a hard-fought point as Tottenham struggled to cope with late pressure after going a man down.
Saturday isn’t the only example of the team clearly feeling motivated and playing for their manager, either. In fact, there’s atrend of West Ham putting in good performances – and their second half display against Tottenham falls into that category – when they know their manager is under pressure. After Dimitri Payet exiled himself from the first-team in January, West Ham went on a run of eleven points gained from five games, and after five straight defeats ending in April, the side lost just one, also winning three, of their final seven league fixtures last season.
Whether it’s Bilic getting the right reaction from his players, or the players themselves pulling together for the sake of their manager, the team always turns up when he needs them most. While that’s a fantastic trait to have, and probably what has kept Bilic in the job during those periods of increasing scrutiny, it explains the inconsistency we’ve seen from West Ham since the start of last season. Furthermore it’s not the kind of trait you can build a strong season on – rather, a campaign closer resembling Dunkirk.
Tottenham may be high quality opposition expected to beat the Hammers on paper, but everything about the ninety minutes on Sunday encompassed Bilic’s successes and failings as a manager, his tactical short-sight, his inability to organise the team defensively yet also the comradery and spirit he inspires within the squad.
With his contract due to expire at the end of the season and the east London outfit looking to become a top eight Premier League force at a bare minimum, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the board take a different route for 2018/19.