Rewind back to last Thursday night. West Ham had just been knocked out of the Europa League following a 2-1 defeat against Romanian side Astra Giurgiu after Hammers boss Slaven Bilic put out a weak second string side full of youngsters and fringe players, despite needing to get a win to progress to the next round.
The side Bilic put out had just one first team regular that will feature in his first eleven this season, and that was Carl Jenkinson who was ineligible for the trip to Arsenal due to his loan agreement. Other than that, the only experienced players were fringe players, like back-up goalkeeper Darren Randolph, Kevin Nolan, Modibo Maiga and Argentine youngster Manuel Lanzini.
The side he put out wasn’t ever going to be good enough to get the result, and it is fair to say the risk he took didn’t pay off as the Hammers were knocked out, leading to a lot of negativity amongst Hammers fans before a ball had even been kicked in the Premier League.
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Many fans argued that prioritising the Arsenal game was a waste of time, but obviously Bilic’s decision was justified.with the Hammers coming out 2-0 winners at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
But nonetheless, the bigger picture isn’t just one game and clearly Bilic binned the Europa League on Thursday as he didn’t rate the Hammers’ chances in the competition. Whilst that will disappoint some fans, it could well be a blessing in disguise.
The turning point for Bilic was most likely the 2-2 draw against Astra at Upton Park the week earlier, where the Hammers blew a 2-0 goal lead following James Collins’ red card. And it was the way that game went that would have convinced the Croatian that the competition was not worth the hassle.
James Collins’ red card was preceded by injuries to Joey O’Brien and Enner Valencia and the Hammers blew a 2-0 lead after playing so well for the first half of the game.
He decided that with staying in the Premier League being so key ahead of the club’s move to the Olympic Stadium, a European campaign simply wasn’t going to be viable given the squad depth currently at his disposal.
It was certainly the right decision as the risk of the Europa League causing poor league form was too great, and in his first season at the club Bilic needs to convince in the league more than in any other competition.
We all saw how the Europa League affected Everton last season, who arguably have a stronger squad than West Ham. Their Europa League campaign held the Toffees back massively. They went from a fifth place finish without the competition to an 11th place finish with it, and considering West Ham finished 12th last season, a similar drop in league position could potentially mean relegation.
The competition would take too much out of Bilic’s squad and the fantastic win against Arsenal showed that keeping his players fresh for Premier League action was a good choice.
Doing that over the course of the season will see the Hammers achieve better things in the Premier League than they would have done with the Europa League to contend with as well.