After a shocking result on Thursday, Hammers fans were understandably pessimistic about our chances of going to Manchester City and getting a result. With an injury list longer than Peter Crouch and a team not fully settled into a system that played to their strengths, it was important to ensure that the effort and performance of the players was evident heading into the international break.
Sadly, this was not the case. We have made a habit this season of starting poorly, and yesterday was no exception. By the 18th minute it was 2-0 and it felt all but over. The defending for the first two goals was extremely poor, and once again, there was a disturbing lack of attacking creativity. The second half, however, was much better. We looked far more organised at the back, and offered a lot more going forward. Continuous pressing from the wing backs and a resurgence in our build up play kept the City defence guessing, and it was only a matter of time before a Masuaka cross found the head of Antonio and we were back in it. The ‘nothing to lose’ attitude was evident, and attack minded substitutions emphasised our desire to chase an equaliser. However, unfortunately, this occasionally left us vulnerable at the back, and with a nice bit of interplay, a slight lapse in concentration from Adrian and a cute finish from Sterling the game was over. There is no doubt that the second half performance was far more encouraging, and I’m sure every West Ham fan will hope that this is the mentality in which to build on when returning from the international break.
For me, these were the key talking points after the game:
- 3-5-2 does not work: I am in no way criticising Bilic for trying something new. In a team that is down to it’s bare bones, it is very difficult to create a system that is consistent when the team is forever changing. However, this choice seemed unjustified. Not only had Collins/Ogbonna/Reid never played together as a three, but the lack of positional understanding throughout the pitch left huge pockets of space, which City easily exploited. What started as a 3-5-2 quickly became a 5-4-1 due to City’s ruthless pressing, and their use of wing play stretched our defence out wide, keeping us on the back foot for almost the entire first half. A welcomed switch of Tore for Byram saw another experimental 5-2-2-1 and the signs were far more positive. We defended better as a unit, and the attacking build up was confident and composed. I hope we see this formation after the break.
- Jury is out on Tore: As a foreign player, I keep thinking that Tore will get better. As each game goes on, I keep expecting him to adapt quicker but his progress is frustratingly slow. Yes, he was placed in a bizarre central midfield/help out on the wing position, but the man looks terrified on the ball at times. He does not look confident and seems to always struggle when offered the decision of pass or run. I know Bilic has experience of managing the player, but how he can think he is worth £12 million is beyond me. It was a good piece of business by DS to loan him instead and it will be very interesting to see how he develops. I really do hope he improves with time, but with the imminent return of the likes of Payet, Lanzini and Feghouli, I cannot see him getting ahead of any of them.
- Masuaka and Byram superb again: Our defence without question improved with the inclusion of Byram at right back, and we looked far more resolute overall. Both looked to overlap the wingers, and offered support when necessary. Byram shows so much composure considering his lack of experience in the Premier League and he MUST start in order to allow Antonio to roam forward with zero fear. Masuaka once again highlighted his strength and power, especially when roaming forwards and was so deserving of his assist. He is making an instant impact, and I truly believe Cresswell will have to be at his very best to get back into the side once fit.
- Lanzini is a game changer: When Lanzini came on, there was no doubt we possessed a greater attacking threat. Like Payet, he has the ability to bring people into the game and I am sure that when they both return we will be a different side. He is so comfortable with the ball at his feet, and has a great passing awareness to open up defences. Hopefully he will be back to his best after the break.
- The ‘Antonio Debate’ is dead: Any last gasp hopes that Bilic or fans had of Antonio becoming a right back has been dealt it’s final blow, and that is mainly down to Antonio’s unrelenting ability to show how good he is further up the field. Defensively he was once again poor, and his lack of defensive awareness no doubt cost us the first goal. This all changed second half however, when he was pushed up the pitch to his natural position of right wing. He was fantastic as always, strong and powerful running forwards, great 1 on 1’s, consistent crosses and an absolute beast in the air. I know I am of course biased, but I believe he is swiftly becoming one of the best wingers in the league, and if needed, I genuinely believe he could do a very decent job up front. As rumoured, (as always by @ExWHUemployee) the likes of Debuchy and Chambers have been linked with us, and I hope Bilic gets one of them to add cover for Byram, as it is now 100% clear, Antonio is not a right back.
- Aguero should have been sent off: A very minor point, as in fairness, unlike the Chelsea fixture, I don’t think this would have changed the result of the game. However, it was a nasty elbow to Reid’s throat and I am baffled that the referee hasn’t spotted it. No doubt the FA will take action against Aguero, but it is worth noting that once again we have been on the wrong end of another poor decision.
So yesterday marked our second defeat in three games, with no points picked up away from home and an team structure that looks far from cemented, should there be pause for concern? Absolutely not. I am normally very disappointed to see an international break break up the Premier league routine, especially so soon after returning, however, this year it is without question a blessing in disguise for West Ham.
Bilic was quoted after the game as saying: “We can’t play much better than this, when we are missing 6 or 7 key players. When they come back after the international break, we will be much better and it will be a different West Ham.”
I must admit I have to agree with him. Excluding refereeing decisions, our start to the season has looked lack lustre and uninspiring, and on the surface, unimpressive. However, take into consideration that we have already faced two teams that will no doubt be challenging for the title this season, 3 points isn’t such a bad total. Especially when you you look at the ridiculous number of injuries Bilic and his staff have had to contend with. By the end of the international break, Payet, Lanzini, Feghouli, Nordveit and maybe Carroll will be back to first team action. There is no doubt our attacking line up will be back to it’s best, and not forgetting the new additions of Fernandes and Zaza, Bilic will be spoilt for choice in who to select, giving us the depth and creative spark we so desperately crave.
I have no doubt that Payet will stay, and his absence from the first team very much seemed precautionary so as to make sure he is 100% fit for the home game against Watford, where our season really does begin. He is by far our best player and his ability to make others around him better is something we have been in desperate need of. The break will also allow the new players to gel within the squad and it should create a solid team dynamic when moving forward into the next run of games. Speaking of games, if you look ahead to our next 6 fixtures, (Watford, West Brom, Southampton, Boro, Crystal Palace and Sunderland) there is no reason why we can’t take maximum points and with an almost fully fit squad, we should be looking to the next few weeks with a real sense of optimism and excitement surrounding this new chapter in our club’s history.
I am unbelievably delighted for Michail Antonio who has been called up to Sam Allardyce’s England squad for the first time. He is so incredibly deserving of this accolade and his rise from non-league to England is something that should be congratulated and celebrated.
I am of course devastated for Mark Noble who once again has missed out on a place in the England squad. For me, Noble has been playing as consistently as Henderson, Drinkwater etc but for the last 4-6 years. It’s a farce that he hasn’t been given an opportunity to shine, and I really hope he continues to impress in time for the next England selection in 2017.
Thanks for reading. COYI.