After a last gasp free kick from the incomparable Dimitri Payet, West Ham came away with a rather pathetic 1-0 win against Accrington Stanley in the EFL cup on Wednesday night. Despite taking 96 minutes to break down a League Two side, it would be foolish of Bilic not to take every ounce of much needed confidence from the victory and move forwards into our crucial home fixture against Southampton. I don’t know what it is about home fixtures, but there is always a feeling of unrelenting optimism. Whether it be the excitement of the unknown, buzz of what could be, or that huge echo of ‘bubbles’ around our new stadium, I always had the sense that the slate was wiped clean ready for an entertaining and enjoyable afternoon despite our poor start. There was however, absolutely zero hope of any ‘enjoyment’ being taken from today’s game. We were (once again) utterly embarrassing. I am honestly shocked at the fact that I am running out of words to describe how disastrous our defence is. ‘Shambolic’ and ‘laughable’ spring to mind. But that’s not even the worst part. What was even more catastrophic was the ENTIRE team performance.
Many could be forgiven for expecting the teams to be going in 0-0 at half time. A distinct lack of build up play left an unenergetic West Ham team desperately trying to keep hold of possession, with long balls being played into both Zaza and Antonio who were unable to deal with the strength and commanding presence of Southampton’s defence, especially Van Dijk. Individual defensive errors and a poor lack of cover have been our main issues this season, and today was another brutal example. From the middle of the pitch, Southampton players were not closed down properly, allowing Tadic to plough through, completely ignored by Nordveit, slotting it through to Redmond who found Austin with ease. Reid and Ogbonna once again highlighting their inability to communicate, both allowing Austin to drop off for a comfortable finish. In the second half, it didn’t get much better. West Ham seemed to lack any form of attacking awareness, constantly playing the ball back to the defenders instead of roaming forwards and in desperation began launching the ball forward to no avail. This shocking ability to carry the ball was soon punished in the 62nd minute, first lost by Reid with a poor clearance, then Kouyate in a dangerous area, allowing Austin to play a cute pass, taking Ogbonna and Arbeloa out of the game, giving Tadic a tidy one on one against Adrian to tuck away Southampton’s second and write the game off. By this point the game was dead and buried. The fans were on the players backs and despite an average appeal for a penalty and a scrappy attempt that was almost cleared off the line, West Ham possessed no real attacking threat going forwards. With tired legs and an confirmed knowledge that the game was finished, West Ham’s defence easily let Steven Davis slip through their line, almost ignoring to pick him up and giving James Ward-Prowse a tap in from a weak Ogbonna clearance. 0-3 to the away team and another embarrassing performance in front of the home fans. Mark Noble’s face said it all as he slumped down the tunnel. The signs are worrying, and the fairytale of last season is already a long and distant memory.
For me, these were the key talking points after the game:
- Our defence is doomed: With Masuaka becoming the next casualty in our extravagant injury list, Arbeloa was forced into the left back position, with Nordveit continuing in at right back. Despite his experience and much needed calmness in possession, Arbeloa could not keep up with Redmond and it made for a tough afternoon for the former Madrid man. I am sure he will be far more comfortable when he returns to his favoured right back position, but he never really seemed in control today. His lack of pace also really affected both Antonio & Payet who were constantly having to pass back due to his lack of attacking intent. Nordveit, once again, had another shocker. Despite many saying he can do a job at right back, I just do not see it. So many of Southampton’s chances came from the left hand side, and the space he left for the attacking wingers was quite frankly frightening. Similarly to Arbeloa, he just does not have the attacking instinct to get forward when necessary, limiting any form of creativity for the wingers. I know Byram hasn’t had the best of times this season, but at least he understands the role and has the knowledge to cover the attacker when not in possession. Bilic really doesn’t seem to trust him, but with limited reinforcements on offer, I would certainly give Byram the starting spot against Boro. Reid and Ogbonna once again showed that they still have glimpses of their old season self, but it still isn’t good enough. I can’t count the number of times they lost the ball in dangerous areas, and some of their decision making when clearing was deluded. With his contract up next year, and his patience for first team opportunities wearing thin, I would most certainly give Reece Oxford a start against Boro next week. I was surprised that he wasn’t selected against Accrington Stanley in mid-week, and there is only so much time before he begins questioning what he has to do to get a chance despite everyone crumbling around him. A mix up in the defence is NEEDED.
- Last chance for Zaza: In my last column I mentioned that Zaza really needed to start proving his value, and personally I felt it was another average performance. Fans may feel it was his best performance so far in a West Ham shirt due to his aggression in the air, but don’t be fooled. He didn’t press from the front, won nothing in the air and is never looking to create space for a killer pass or through ball. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem to possess a specific skill set for Bilic to exploit. He has no real pace to get in behind defenders, yet he also seems unable to head a ball, as plenty of crosses were made to him yesterday that constantly went over his head. You could argue he was very isolated yesterday, but due to his lack of awareness and graft, it is partly his fault with his refusal to drop back and make runs. We are desperate to have Carroll and Sakho back, with both offering something different up front. But for now, Zaza or Fletcher are our only options, and personally i’d go for the later against Boro. Fletcher is strong and pacey and due to his youth will be eager to impress Bilic, so should put in a huge shift. Zaza’s time is running out.
- Lanzini disappeared: For a man who West Ham fans have always championed as one of our best players and finest players with the ball, Lanzini was a mere shadow of himself yesterday. The guy could not string a pass together. Despite constantly dropping back to help Noble out deep in midfield, he looked so out of touch with the rest of the team. On many occasions he continued to pass back to the defenders, and I don’t think I saw him attempt to take anyone on and use his skill to get past players. I wasn’t surprised to see him go off at half time, as he was way below par by his usual standards, but what was most concerning was his lack of effort and care when we went 1-0 down. He genuinely looked lost, and we need both him and Payet to get back to their short and sharp link up play to build some confidence and get the whole team playing as a unit.
- Adrian only saving grace: For a man who has had possibly the worst start to season in his career, I was surprised to see Adrian in the starting line up. With many fans calling for Randolph to start, Adrian had to put in a good performance and personally I thought he did fantastically. Yes, he conceded three goals, but if it wasn’t for him it could have easily been 7 or 8-0. Two of which were special saves. Having watched him, I can’t help but feel sorry for him at times. No doubt, some of the goals in previous games have been his fault, but with a constantly changing back line, and no organisation in sight, I really feel he is occasionally taking the criticism for the defenders poor set up. This was clearly highlighted yesterday, after making a brilliant stop Adrian came to collect the loose ball, only for Nordveit to practically kick it out of his hands and put even more pressure on the defence. Nonetheless, Adrian should take a lot of confidence from his performance, and I hope he takes that attitude into helping organise and structure his defence during the game against Boro. God knows they need it!
- No Plan B: I would argue that every game this season we have started second best, and yesterday was no exception. At times we looked like we could make something happen during the first half, but there was no spark or cutting edge chance for the fans to get behind at all and it seemed like it would be a dull 0-0 by half time. However, as soon as our poor defence let Southampton slip through and give Austin his goal on the 40th minute, we lost all sense of structure and plan. With that in mind, Bilic took it upon himself to mix it up, removing the lacklustre Lanzini and bringing on the exciting prospect of Feghouli to give width to the midfield. The issue is, however, that when going behind we have absolutely no idea how to break down a team’s defence. Countless times yesterday, we would pass it back to the defence from midfield as the wingers and Zaza were too high up the field, and if that didn’t work, boot it up to Zaza or Antonio (who seems like our new target man?!) lose the ball and repeat. After the second goal went in, the players seemed desperate. Trying to make ludicrous passes to get the crowd going, they are completely drained of any creative influence and the days of quick, tiki taka like passes around the edge of the box seem dead and gone. Bilic’s changes however; which included Fernandes for Noble (came too late) and Fletcher for Nordveit, (Pushing our top scorer Antonio back to the dreaded right back position) showed he really is running out of ideas and does not have a clear Plan B to resort to when things are going wrong. It needs to be sorted quickly if we are to see any comebacks this season. I guess we can only hope that we actually start well at some point this season.
So the West Ham faithful will inevitably be asking themselves, ‘is this it?!’ After an unforgettable season, saying goodbye to the Boleyn, welcoming the exciting prospect of a new home and spending over £60 million on reinforcements, have we really thrown in the towel already? After only six games are we already inclined to expect a season of mid table obscurity or worse… a relegation battle?! What is clear, however, is that some fans are already running out of patience. For a club that promised so much at the start of the season, it is only so long before the spotlight of the team’s failures moves from the scapegoat of the London Stadium to the man in charge himself. It is easy to sweep these concerns under the carpet, but let’s not be naive, the booing has begun and calls for Bilic to be removed have already strengthened in numbers. Never have I seen so many West Ham fans leave early, let alone at the 65th minute. As soon as Tadic’s shot hit the back of the net, hundreds of infuriated fans rose from their seats and began leaving the stands, full well knowing that even with 25 minutes left, their team had nothing left to give. It is desperate times for the Hammers, but personally, I think sacking Bilic is the last thing we should be considering. Yes his tactics haven’t been clear, but last season he produced one of our highest ever League positions simply because he got West Ham doing the basics correctly. At present, this is not happening, but the vast majority of our goals have come from individual errors and sacking our manager is not going to solve that instantly. There is a deep rooted issue here, infected with a lack of communication and understanding within our defence and I believe it is only with consistency and a slow build of confidence that is going to resolve it. Again, something a new manager would not be able to solve instantly. But what is even more crucial, is that Slaven Bilic, regardless of whether he is favoured or not at present, is the closest thing ‘West Ham United London’ have to ‘West Ham United.’ In a period where change is rife, and dissatisfaction continues at every corner of West Ham’s new identity, Bilic is an immovable memory of the past, an icon of everything good that West Ham fans hold dear. Removing him would not solve the problem, but see the legacy of our club completely fall from beneath it’s feet. Now is the time to back him.
Let’s hope our road to recovery begins against Middlesborough next week.
My team against Boro (4-2-3-1): Adrian, Byram, Oxford, Reid, Arbeloa, Noble, Obieng, Antonio, Payet, Feghouli, Fletcher.
Thanks for reading. COYI.