When Slaven Bilic arrived last summer I though, ‘lets’ be fair and see what he might do in his first two years as manager.’
Had we reached our present situation by the end of that two year time period, I’m sure most of us would have been fairly happy with that outcome.
In this article I’d like to give an explanation of this unexpected success, while also suggesting that the rest of the season, while promising so much, also has potential problems that must require early assessment and rapid intervention.
However, credit where credit is due.
Despite the doubts about the lack of any Premier League managerial experience, Slav and his team have reached a position within quarter of the time expected. This is quite outstanding, for a new manager in his first season in England. Three exceptional features have marked his tenure to date.
1. Almost from the outset, he has managed to introduce a style of fast, attacking, quick, creative football, which has been an absolute delight for all West Ham supporters.
2. In his own quiet way, he has managed to gain the respect of all members of the playing squad (Morgan Amilfitano, excepted), whether they were entrenched members of the Allardyce era, exciting new signings, or our younger promising players from the Academy.
In doing so he has, in many cases, either resurrected the playing careers of players deemed to be ‘past it’ (Collins, Zarate, and, Noble to name but but a few), or improve further on the best qualities which he could recognise in all of our players.
3. In a post-match press conference in September, he essentially espoused what I like to refer to as the Main Principles of Slaven Bilic. Initially, I could identify five principles…
– Pace & Acceleration
– Defending with numbers (in front or from behind)
– ‘Quality’ on the ball
– Ability to adapt to and change to different playing styles and set-up
In addition to these initial principles, I would like to add three extra points which may not have been clearly stated, but have become obvious with experience…
– Igniting of attack from the defence philosophy
– Importance of ‘scoring early-scoring again’ attitude
– The philosophy that every player starts with a clean-slate and/or chance of improvement
Even within this early period, there were some important challenges which could have un-done all the great work seen in the first two to three months – injuries to some of our key players.
For a two month spell, we struggled in many games, but managed to survive as we approached the all-important home game against Southampton. This was to be a critical game in the determination of our near future.
Sitting in 12th position at kick-off, a loss would have meant a further slide down the table to 14th place, plus an awful effect on morale.
The first half was awful, and we were lucky in managing to limit the damage to a just one goal deficit. Time will reveal what Slav actually said to the boys during the break, but the second half turn-around will long be remembered by young and old.
And then we began 2016 with a second display of spirit and passion byt securing a memorable home win and the double over a very good Liverpool side.
While this leaves us in a very healthy and unexpected 6th spot, we should mix the celebrations with a few issues which may serve to threaten our potential path to a top seven finish.
First, we have lost Manuel Lanzini for a few weeks. While we have some good players already back or in the process of getting near to full fitness, it will be much longer until Diafra Sakho is fit to play, and even then, we can’t be sure how quick he will be to reach full playing capacity.
Under the best of circumstances, Valencia and Sakho form our best striking pair. Carroll has scored two important goals due to his heading prowess, but we cannot call on him or Jelavic to score on a regular basis.
Quite recently, there has been talk that Mauro Zarate may be sold to Malaga during the January transfer window. While his form has been somewhat patchy, he is a proven goalscorer. Bearing in mind the recent loss of Lanzini, and delayed return of Sakho, if we lose Zarate our current list of strikers look will be thin and rather ordinary.
It is at this time that Slav has to convince Zarate that with continued hard work, together with a greater sense of knowing when he should pass the ball, he will get plenty of playing time.
If Slav can negotiate a more promising future for Zarate at West Ham, then we are well on the way to a very memorable season.