Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

West Ham 2 - 0 Huddersfield (And Other Ramblings)

As a kid growing up, one of my favourite films was "Big Trouble in Little China". Being a boy from Essex, I'm pretty sure that the attraction revolved around being shown a world totally unlike anything I had ever even imagined before. Up until I saw Kim Cattrall battling the Wing Kong, I'm pretty sure the most exotic thing to have ever happened in Harold Hill was when my mate Danny's dad bought himself a new Fiat Uno and promptly crashed it into a skip.

The plot is bananas, featuring warring Chinese clans, mystical warlords, metaphysical battles and Kurt Russell running around in a tank top. I do not know what else you could possibly want from a film.

I would estimate I have seen it roughly 3,000 times.

The 1980's - rubbish for everything except movie posters and Alan Devonshire

One of the many running gags is the nice subversion of the movie trope of the time, whereby the all American hero (Russell) has to be constantly rescued and kept alive by his Chinese allies. During the course of all this they tell him that "China's got a lot of Hells". They then relay these to him at various points in the ludicrous plot to scare him. The list includes the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces, the Hell of Boiling Oil and the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners. 

To this list I would also like to add - The Hell of Having To Watch Slaven Bilic's West Ham play Must Win Games. 


By my estimation, this was the fifth such game that Bilic has faced since the start of last year. Hull, Burnley, Swansea and Spurs were all presented at the time as being of such great importance that should we have lost them, then Bilic would have been sacked. 

The ironic thing is that these games were mostly dreadful - Spurs excepted - but we won them all 1-0.  I'm almost tempted to say that perhaps Sullivan and Gold should make every game like this except for the fact that I'm not entirely convinced they wouldn't take that seriously, the crazy bastards.

Now, twenty fours hours on, I am still unsure exactly how I feel about this game. We won - WE WON - and you don't take that for granted these days as a Hammer. On the other hand, Huddersfield made West Brom look like AC Milan '94 so it's hard to gauge whether this chaotically oppressive performance was indicative of an improved ability to snuff out teams or just a lot of hard work to blow away an awful opponent.

Mostly though, I just want something to dream on. It's draining to always be stumbling from one self inflicted crisis to another, like the newest action hero of our time, Wayne Rooney - Uber Driver Man. And in the end, that's where I've landed. Let's enjoy that all too rare feeling of wandering out of a stadium and being able to excitedly discuss a win.


Individually, there were some cheery moments as Michail Antonio turned in the kind of performance to make you mutter "Michail, these men have families" under your breath as the Huddersfield back line were introduced to what I am reliably informed the kids call "Beast Mode".

Exhibit A M'Lud.

Whilst I have described this as the slowest West Ham team I've ever seen, that's not a charge that can be laid at the door of Antonio. He was the central cog of this performance, such as it was, transitioning us from unpromising midfield possessions to advanced territories with either outrageous strength and skill or just via jet fuelled bursts.

As tactically incoherent as I find us to be under Bilic, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that this is the best way to use Antonio. The bottled lightning he poured into our attacks looks to me to be exactly the kind of break that would best utilise Javier Hernandez, or would do if he wasn't wandering about on our left side like a horse who'd got confused and roamed out of his paddock.

What's interesting about that is that when I looked up Chicharito's heat map over at Sofascore.com he actually spent more time infield than it seemed at the game. I wonder if that's because he made several fruitless breaks inside looking for passes and flicks that never came, as we became overly fixated on smashing the ball towards Andy Carroll.

Either way, what is evident is that the Mexican is more defensively diligent than I gave him credit for, but in reality I'm not sure I wanted to find that out. I remain perplexed as to why a renowned, proven penalty box striker would not be the most advanced player on your team.


Behind all of this, we lined up with three at the back. I would say that this is really our best defensive alignment because it allows our slow, ageing and disorganised backline to individually only have to cover a smaller area of real estate. Jose Fonte, in particular, seems to thrive in this system and once again looked every inch the European Championship winning centre back that he actually is. Like, really, it's on Wikipedia and everything.

James Collins remains our sturdy umbrella, carried around for conditions such as these where the rain teemed down with such strength that it caused the game to look as though it was being played behind a shower door. On sunnier days, against better opponents who will move the ball with greater penetration he will probably be an unnecessary piece of kit, but here he was in his element.

But the issue with playing this way is that if you have three centre backs you really want at least one who is comfortable advancing with the ball at his feet, or distributing the ball forward with some alacrity. This isn't true of any of our four available centre back options. As such, teams can press heavily against our midfield players and then let our back line keep it, safe in the knowledge that at some point Collins is going to get bored and launch one in the general direction of Andy Carroll, whether he's on the pitch or not.

It also asks a huge amount of the wing backs, as they must perform their defensive duties whilst offering the width that won't be provided by a narrow midfield three. Here, Pablo Zabaleta confounded his critics (including me) by showing off a suitably lung busting capacity to do just that. Some of his forward raids were of the Blackadder-General Melchett-Goodbyeeeeee variety, but perhaps on a night like this he had correctly determined that a bit of headless running about might not be the worst thing in the world.

I see Zaba's gone again

Better teams will exploit those gaping holes behind our wing backs, but for this particular game it was fine as Huddersfield seemed content to keep it scoreless for a while and then rely on the Shitty Late Goal Syndrome to work its magic. As it was, they never threatened and as outrageously fortunate as Obiang's goal was, it felt like the least we deserved.


The Spaniard was partnered alongside Kouyate in the most mobile midfield pairing we can put out. They needed to be too, given that the full backs were charging forward like Scalextric cars when your nan has a go at them on Christmas. With Mark Noble mysteriously absent, there was a noticeable increase in mobility but a decrease in actual meaningful passing through that area, not helped by the back three going aerial more often than not. 

Kouyate was somewhat anonymous, getting about the field well but failing to really impose himself on the game as we know he can. I suspect that the lack of play through the middle made it tough for him to get into the game. Obiang, by contrast, got on the ball a lot more but found it equally as difficult to pick passes to get us moving. For all those who want Noble out of the team, tonight was a salutary reminder that central midfielders who can pass and carry the ball aren't to be dismissed lightly. 

It's also worth mentioning that a number of this team were returning from injury. As is customary, the line up resembled a rehabilitation centre as Reid, Obiang, Kouyate, Antonio and Carroll all got minutes under their belt after disrupted pre seasons. It's probably not an unrelated point that because our pre season work seems so amateurish we end up with players trying to get up to Premier League speed during competitive fixtures. 

We tend to eschew the money making tours to the Far East and US but if nothing else, playing a higher standard of opposition before the season starts might get the players a bit sharper. Each of the last two seasons have been characterised by this failing. 


So, that's a lot of tactical chat but what of the match? Well it was a scrappy, nervy, tentative affair which seems like a predictable by product of deeming a game a "must win" affair and telling the world that the managers position was "under review" and then having the maddest transfer window possible.

For all that Huddersfield were disappointing. Set up to contain, they did this moderately well for an hour although we went close in the first half when Kouyate narrowly failed to convert a Carroll cross-shot, and Hernandez hit the bar after some more Antonio bullying of the Terriers back line.

But we look a team bereft of confidence and ideas. Our 3-4-3 line up stifled any forward progress from the visitors, but led to some confused attacking patterns too. I would describe us as a footballing Rubik's Cube just now. Whenever Bilic puts something right within the team, he is doing so at the expense of somewhere else.

So the defence was shored up, but the midfield weakened. Perhaps this was precisely why William Carvalho was targeted so strongly. On nights like this he would have been our key player. Shorn of Lanzini and Arnautovic we lacked creativity and guile, but made up for it with a willingness to smash the ball long and play through the driving rain. Say what you will about Bilic, but he keeps winning these games and his team, by and large, continues to play for him.

If Zabaleta truly can play at wing back then that opens up another set of tactical possibilities, and if Antonio plays like that for the rest of the year then he will win plenty of points on his own. But, and you knew this was coming - there are some fairly significant problems in there too.

Despite the win, and all the good stuff mentioned so far, I still found this a fairly baffling performance. Most of this revolves around one player - the pissed Geordie elephant in the room - Andy Carroll.

Bilic hitched his wagon to that particular star many moons ago. The beginning of his falling out with Diafra Sakho was when he dropped him for Carroll in the 15/16 season despite Sakho being at the heart of all those famous early wins.

Like many before him, he was suckered in by the siren song of a player who would be worth building a team around if he could ever stay fit and this was a different team. Because of Carroll's persistent injuries it's not possible to set a team up to play completely to his strengths and so we have a curious halfway house. The 15/16 team was flying with an attacking game plan built around giving it to Payet at every available opportunity, and putting pacy mobile forwards in front of him to either create space or latch on to the inevitable inch perfect pass.

This worked splendidly for a long time, and carried on after Carroll was inserted into the team even if he looked as uncomfortable with that style of play as an Australian in a library. But the house of cards couldn't survive the hurricane that was the 2016/17 season. Carroll played in that same system once more, but those other pacy forwards were gone and soon, so too was Payet.

That left us with a team designed to play one way, with a centre forward very obviously suited to another way. There were moments of excellence - we'll always have Boro away - but most of the time, the disconnect between a midfield trying to play a style suited to galloping, mobile forwards floundered as they discovered that they were actually playing with the Angel of the North.

All of which leads me to the question that all of us were asking after last night - what is the plan for Javier Hernandez? Here he was a nominal left sided forward but got about a bit, but rarely into the box. This last bit is crucial, as the entire reason we signed him is his ability to snaffle goals from nothing. Here he was shunted wide and asked to try and link with Carroll. It did not work.

Presumably Arnautovic will replace him on Saturday, and with Antonio rolling on the other side that leaves a straight choice between Hernandez and Carroll as the solitary striker. Ironically, both might better as a pair, but that too is an impossibility because that would give deeper defensive responsibilities to Antonio and Arnautovic which is the sort of thing to give a man Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Quite where Lanzini fits into any of that is beyond me. Can he play as part of a solitary midfield two? Can Steve Parish rap? Sure, but I don't imagine anyone thinks it will end well.

Now, having too many good players isn't a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue that the squad as currently constructed is too thin but does have quite a decent level of consistency across the personnel. The drop off from first teamer to their replacement is generally minimal but it's a problem that some of them don't really have a replacement.

But bigger still is this issue of style. Are we a team who like to play 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3? I don't really know what Bilic wants, and whilst there is value in versatility and tactical flexibility, there is more value in your players having some sort of consistent idea about what you want them to do. We won this game by winding up Carroll like a clockwork rhino and letting him loose against a defence who hadn't seen it before. The idea that will work against West Brom or Spurs seems fanciful to me.

To my mind, the answer seems to obviously be that Carroll should be an impact sub, meaning that when he gets injured the disruption is minimal. This hybrid solution of setting the team up to play without him and then just sticking him into the team anyway...well, that way relegation lies.


All of which suggests that our optimal line up has Hernandez leading the line. I think that's defensible but only in a world where we play with Lanzini close to him, and in a way that allows Arnautovic and Antonio to join quickly from wide positions. Maybe that's possible but it feels like a long way from where we are. The greatest irony of all is that our most flexible and adaptable striker is probably Sakho, but he seems destined to remain on the naughty step for the rest of his time here. 

One name I haven't mentioned is Andre Ayew who actually changed this game. Most were unhappy with Hernandez going off, but that's the reality with so much invested in Carroll. Instead it paid dividends as Obiang fluked one off a defender and then Ayew tapped a second in from a corner, on the line. I have struggled to define Ayew as a player but his predominant and obvious skill is the ability to score goals. Looking solely at time on the pitch, he is scoring a goal for us once every 224 minutes. That amounts to a goal every two and a half games. Not bad for a player who may or may not exist in this dimension. 

In all the permutations I ran through above, it never once occurred to me to put Ayew into the team, and yet the man has an undeniable something whereby he continues to contribute even when he's not playing well. This feels like something that will be very useful at West Ham.


And where does all of this leave Bilic? Everywhere and nowhere, baby. The cynic in me suggests that this will just perpetuate his death of a thousand cuts, as this win staves off the axe for another few games until the next time. It's never far away because our form, fitness, confidence and tactics just don't lend themselves to consistent performance. 

As an example, I can't even hazard a guess at the team on Saturday, for a game against a West Brom team who aren't very good but were 4-0 up in an hour in the corresponding fixture last year. 

So this win doesn't really change anything. If you were a fan before then you'll have been pleased at the obvious togetherness on the field, and are probably of the belief that the securing of the three points overrides all else. Win, get the points, build from there. I'd have some sympathy for that it wasn't for the fact I've heard that at least four times before. 

I keep waiting for the building bit. 

For those, like me, who advocate change then I'm not sure this will have moved the needle either. A disjointed, confusing performance that led to a thoroughly deserved, basically dominant win isn't the easiest thing to process. It's kind of like that time Johnny Depp appeared in the Vicar of Dibley. I just don't know what to do with the information.

Another three up top configuration I don't understand

I'll tell you what though. These games are painful. The constant strain of going into that stadium, a stadium where it already requires a massive effort just to get any atmosphere into the place, and having to watch these knife edge encounters is debilitating. Whatever the circumstances of the 2015/16 season, it was joyful because everybody had the shackles off. 

For Bilic to survive he needs to recapture some of that. I don't think he's going to do it without a better plan than he had here. But in the moment, here and now, that matters not. A win is a win is a win. I'd just as soon not return to Hell any time soon though. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Good article as ever.

    I feel all fans are converging at the same point now and agree the Sullivan issues and even that Bilic isnt going to make it.

    I wanted to give him time hoping he would sort out the defence and for me this is the biggest mark against him. Even if sulliven etc is underminding his ability to do his job there is no excuse to spend a year or more with our poor defensive problems unsolved.

    Bilic will stay untill the end of the season I think and then we get somoene else. I doubt it will be a good signing as a good manager wont want to work with our chairmen. So no solution in sight for me...

    100% dont agree on the stadium now. The atmosphere reminds me of UP last few years which was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

    The fans are responsible for the atmosphere. It is just the modern fan base...no singing and leave early.

    Take care

    Hammer Keith