On Saturday afternoon, West Ham welcome Tottenham, one of our great, traditional London rivals, for a game of critical importance to both teams.
This match takes on particular relevance to the home team, following what has been a poor start to the season. Although we have managed to gain four valuable points in the past two Premier League games, our performances were anything but convincing.
The 2-0 win against Huddersfield relied on a little bit of luck, with Pedro Obiang’s deflected strike breaking up what was a nervous stalemate to that point. The game against West Bromwich Albion was a very dull affair, hardly befitting top-flight standards. We were expected to win this game, even taking into account that it was always going to be tough, playing away at the Hawthorns.
In contrast to these sub-par performances, we were all buoyed by an emphatic 3-0 win against a struggling Bolton side in the Carabao Cup. Slaven Bilic put together a mix of experienced first team regulars together with six of our exciting players from the U23 team, and the result was pleasing.
It provides our manager with some positive headaches in terms of formation and player selection.
What is our best formation?
In order to improve the strength and solidity of the midfield, in addition to adding venom up front, Bilic has resorted to formations such as the 3-5-2, 3-4-3, as well as some closely associated alternatives.
The vexing question which arises from these positive alterations in shape relates to player selection and positioning. For the past two weeks, Chicharito has been placed on the left-wing, well away from Andy Carroll, who Bilic has preferred as our central striker. In addition, in the second half against West Brom, Antonio was pushed back into right half-back. This must be addressed and altered very quickly.
Chicharito is a central, fox-in-the-box striker. Surely, the simplest ploy would be to use Carroll or Diafra Sakho together with Chicharito as our twin central strikers. While Carroll demonstrates great ability in aerial combat, he does not seem to possess the versatility and reflex movements that Chicharito is famed and revered for.
For some reason, which some folk find difficult to fathom, it seems that Bilic has placed enormous faith in Andy Carroll’s abilities, and potential to lead West Ham to glory. The simple truth is that we can’t expect the other talented players in the team to cater to Andy Carroll’s needs – a sure path to relegation to the Championship! I believe that Carroll may be more effective as a super-sub, starting with Sakho and Chicharito, but while Bilic is boss, this is unlikely to occur.
On the assumption that we resort to a 3-5-2 for the Spurs game, the next question is directed towards midfield player selection. Before doing so, it is important to point out that the 3-5-2 can assume a number of geometric shapes.
The classical set-up employs a defensive midfielder in front of the back three, together with two wing-backs and two central midfielders. The alternative involves an inversion of this basic shape.
The two wing-backs and midfielders retain the same basic positions, but an attacking central midfielder takes the place of the defensive midfielder. In normal circumstances, Manuel Lanzini would be the ideal person for this attacking play-maker role, sitting in just behind the two strikers. However, until Lanzini is fit to resume playing, it is likely that a defensive midfielder will be utilised.
There are two or three possible alternatives for this crucial position; Declan Rice, Cheikhou Kouyate or Winston Reid. Although this may be viewed as slightly contentious, I would favour Declan Rice. He was a stand-out player in the game against Bolton, showing composure and versatility well beyond his age. I am certain that Kouyate would fill this position very well, but I’d be loathe to break up the impressive midfield partnership he has forged with Pedro Obiang.
Likewise, Winston Reid has been a pillar of strength in the back three, and accordingly best left in this crucial position. The rest of the midfield five poses less of a selection problem.
Obiang and Kouyate are the obvious starting central midfielders. Both players are willing to take on attacking duties; in situations where this occurs, one of the central midfielders must track back into a more defensive holding position. The choice of wing-backs also presents certain selection problems, as well. I feel that our most dangerous player, Michail Antonio, should be used as a right winger whenever possible.
Against Spurs, I suggest that he assumes a more advanced position than a classical wing-back – somewhat of a hybridised position, closer to Chicharito, but still within reasonable proximity to Cheikhou Kouyate. He will be expected to assume a number of different roles, but fortunately, he has the athleticism and stamina to fulfil these needs.
The choice of left wing-back also poses a somewhat difficult decision. The two contenders for this position could be either Aaron Cresswell or Marko Arnautovic.
One solution could involve moving Cresswell back to his familiar left-back role, thus allowing Arnautovic to assume the more advanced wing-back position. This choice could still allow Cresswell to act as an over-lapping winger, which he uses with much aplomb. The back three could consist of Reid, Zabaleta and either Ogbonna/Cresswell, or even Jose Fonte.
If Declan Rice is selected to play as a defensive midfielder, I would prefer to see the back three adopt a triangular shape, with Reid at the apex. This would allow Reid to give Rice support on occasions when Spurs break through the middle. At other times, he should be allowed to track back and support the other two centre backs when required.
For the present time, the two obvious strikers will be Carroll/Sakho and Chicharito. In a game which I expect to be fast paced, it may be useful to consider using Arthur Masuaku, Nathan Holland or Sead Haskabanovic should our starting players show any sign of fatigue.
This choice of formation and player selection should be satisfactory, although in the absence of classical wingers, we are still left with two players who may possibly play out of their optimal positions – Arnautovic and Antonio.
At the time of Lanzini’s return, we should be able to play with wingers on either side of a central striker, using either a 3-4-3 or dare I suggest, a 4-3-3 formation.