West Ham must return to playing with a four-man backline if performances on the pitch are to get better.
Slaven Bilić first switched to three at the back for West Ham’s away fixture against Crystal Palace in October, after picking up just one victory from the Hammers’ seven opening fixtures.
The change of system brought about an immediate upturn in West Ham’s performance level as they strolled to a 0-1 victory, which could easily have been more.
Almost immediately in the next game, against a struggling Sunderland side at home, West Ham reverted to type and scraped out a depressing 1-0 victory thanks to a last gasp Winston Reid strike.
Bilić rightfully stuck with the system through what could have been a blip and guided West Ham to their best performance – bar none – of the season against Chelsea in the EFL Cup with a 2-1 home victory.
But since that win West Ham have failed to put in a single comprehensive performance and have picked up just one win from their previous seven games.
In that time Slaven Bilić has largely stuck with the three-man defence of Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna and Cheikhou Kouyate – with the notable exception being West Ham’s recent 2-2 away draw with Liverpool.
With the Hammers forced into utilising a four-man backline after James Collins’ early injury against Arsenal, there were signs of improvement in both the performance level and work rate among Bilić’s men.
Cheikhou Kouyate was injured for that game but was fit for this week’s home match tie against Burnley, and despite the four-man defence working well for West Ham at Anfield, Kouyate was shoehorned back into a returned three-man backline.
The decision was anything but negative.
It’s obvious why Slaven Bilić first employed the three-man defensive system in the away victory at Palace all those weeks ago now.
West Ham’s defence was leaking goals for fun and at times centre midfielders Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate could not have been further away from the defensive action.
Flooding the defence and the midfield allowed West Ham to get more bodies in and around opposition numbers and take a more solid approach.
The short-lived nature of the system’s effectiveness is reminiscent of Sam Allardyce’s 4-6-0 formation employed first against Tottenham after a run of bad results.
West Ham won that game 3-0 thanks in part to a Ravel Morrison wonder goal, before going on to manage just two victories from 16 games, despite largely employing the same system.
The three-man defensive system is often used as a stop gap by Premier League teams with the only notable example of any sustained success with the formation being used by Antonio Conte’s present Chelsea side.
But Conte’s system is more of a 3-4-3 and offers far more fluidity and dynamism than West Ham’s rigid 3-6-1 formation.
Michail Antonio, so effective when taking on full backs, is now forced to start his runs from far deeper due to his role as an auxiliary wing back.
Aaron Cresswell’s recent performances have also suffered from the crowding of that particular area of the pitch.
Yet it’s not just in the wide areas that West Ham’s players are struggling.
Manuel Lanzini’s form has dropped off a cliff since he was asked to cover a new role out wide opposite Dimitri Payet – whose performances have also blinkered.
Angelo Ogbonna looks shakier than ever at the back and despite – in theory – having more options for a short pass thanks to the flooded midfield, West Ham are punting the ball up front more than ever.
West Ham should not be afraid to revert back to a four-man defence permanently just because of early performances were poor.
In fact, if they stick to the three-man defensive system and let performances stay as they are, the Hammers could end up in an even worse state.
Lose to Hull City at home on Saturday with Reid, Ogbonna and Kouyate shepherding the defence and Slaven Bilić’s judgement – to stick rigidly with what has become a hugely negative system – should be called into question.