The return of Andy Carroll from injury against Huddersfield Town earlier this month proved to be one of the catalysts to West Ham United ending the run of three straight defeats they had started the Premier League season with, but it also gave manager Slaven Bilic a new conundrum.
The Croatian boss was desperate to strengthen his attacking options during the summer transfer window with Carroll and Diafra Sakho spending so much time on the sidelines last season because of injury, and he was successful as he brought Marko Arnautovic to the London Stadium in a club-record deal from Stoke City, with Javier Hernandez also arriving from Bayer Leverkusen.
In Hernandez the east London outfit finally look to have a striker who has proven he can score goals on a regular basis for top European clubs like Manchester United and Bayer – as well as for his country Mexico – and is known for his penalty area poaching skills.
The former Red Devils man showed his awareness and finishing ability when he scored from two rebounds in the six-yard box in the 3-2 defeat against Southampton last month.
However, while the 29-year-old and Carroll may have been a great Premier League partnership 15 years ago when it was commonplace to play two strikers, things have changed in recent times.
Of the top clubs in the English top flight now, only Manchester City are currently featuring two strikers together in their starting line-up, with many other teams favouring a 4-2-3-1, 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 system.
West Ham used the latter in the 2-0 win against Huddersfield at the London Stadium, but while it suited the likes of Carroll and Michail Antonio down to the ground, it pushed Javier Hernandez out to the left-hand side in a position where he certainly isn’t at his most effective.
The Mexican struggled to make an impact out wide against the Terriers and he was taken off in the 64th minute to be replaced by Andre Ayew.
Bilic decided to go with the same XI and formation for the trip to West Bromwich Albion last weekend, and Hernandez once again looked uncomfortable out wide and was much more involved when he pushed inside later on in the match following the introduction of Marko Arnautovic.
When questioned about playing the 29-year-old out wide prior to the EFL Cup clash against Bolton Wanderers, the Croatian manager admitted that he is struggling to accommodate both him and Carroll in their natural positions. As quoted by London Evening Standard, he said…
“I am thinking about them [Hernandez and Carroll] the most but it is hard to have them both in their natural positions. It is hard to do that and then have three at the back, with Antonio and Arnautovic, it is almost impossible.”
So where does Bilic go from here?
It is clear to most West Ham supporters and neutrals that Hernandez must play through the middle to be the most effective, and Carroll is obviously in the same situation.
So, is the Croatian really willing to sacrifice the impact the Mexican could potentially have in order to fit other players into his team?
This is where he needs to change his mind-set.
If West Ham want to secure the best possible finish in the Premier League this season – and one that could even save Bilic’s job considering he is out of contract at the end of the campaign – they must play the duo through the centre.
The Croatian certainly has some formation options to choose from to ensure that happens, too. The old-fashioned 4-4-2 – or a similar adaptation of it – could work considering the wealth of midfield options that West Ham have available to them.
Antonio and Arnautovic would be comfortable out wide – more so than they would be in the wing-back positions if the team lined up with a three-man defence – and the likes of Cheikhou Kouyate, Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble could keep things ticking over in the middle in front of the back four.
While that system would certainly be useful away from home, the Irons would also have the option of being more attacking on their own turf if they adopted the 4-1-3-2 formation that Pep Guardiola is using with City right now.
With Kouyate sitting in front of the back four, the Irons could have Arnautovic, Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio ahead of the Senegal international, with Hernandez partnering Carroll up top.
It might be seen as risky, but it would also mean that West Ham can be an attacking force at their London Stadium home after struggling to adapt to their new surroundings last term.
Bilic is facing a make-or-break year with the east London outfit, and he must consider the aforementioned changes to ensure that they don’t waste Hernandez’s undoubted talents.