Bilic position to be in question after lacklustre second season

Bilic position to be in question after lacklustre second season

It has been a testing season for the fans of West Ham United. After bidding farewell to their beloved Upton Park in a campaign where the Hammers almost earned a Champions League qualification berth, their fans have this year had to become accustomed to new, contrasting and somewhat alien surroundings at their new home at The London Stadium.

Whilst that was never going to be an easy transition, the fruition of their football played in Slaven Bilic’s second season has become the more alarming agenda in East London in recent months. Questionable tactical decisions, an alarming rate of losing games from winning positions, lack of attacking outlets in the team and a very disjointed look to West Ham’s first x11 has resulted in this season proving every bit as uninspiring and anticlimactic as last year’s was exhilarating.

Sitting in 15th place in the Premier League on 39 points, the Hammers appear to have just about secured safety for next year, any other outcome would simply have been a financial calamity with serious implications for the club to ponder in the new stadium. However, one win in the last eleven games doesn’t signify progress for a side that were riding the crest of a wave last year and claimed the scalps of Man Utd, Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool (the last three away from home).

There is a considerable degree of sympathy to be had for Bilic in this difficult season of transition; particularly the 2016 summer transfer window which significantly highlighted the somewhat haphazard recruitment policy at the club. 9 incomings were signed last summer (to improve the squad size in preparation for the Europa League); from 5 different European leagues with only Andre Ayew and a 34-year old Alvaro Arbeloa boasting any Premier League experience. Not only have the majority of the recruits failed to settle, the squad chemistry and unity has been affected, so much so that last season’s star-man Dimitri Payet saw fit to demand a transfer back to his previous club Marseille; a mutiny which the club could only make way for, receiving £25m in January for Payet in the process.

Another cause for bemusement among West Ham fans is the tactical choices in most of Bilic’s squad selections; frequently opting to play experienced players out of position such as the likes of Havard Nordtveid and Jonathan Calleri rather than playing younger squad members like Sam Byram and Ashley Fletcher in their natural positions. Only last Saturday in their 0-0 away stalemate at Stoke, West Ham’s main attacking threat Andre Ayew was withdrawn on 69 minutes with no signs whatsoever of any injury for Mark Noble. Ayew’s clear bemusement at the substitution was evident for all to see.

It must be pointed out that this isn’t the first time a Slaven Bilic side has waned in the final furlong of a season. In 2014/15 at Istanbul club Besiktas, the Black Eagles had spent much of the campaign at the top of the table, but flagged badly in the final third of the season and eventually finished third (eight points behind the eventual champions Galatasaray). Besiktas have in fact gone from strength-to-strength since his exit, currently on course for a second straight Super Lig title in Turkey.

West Ham have three ominous looking fixtures before the owners will review Bilic’s position at the end of season; Tottenham and Liverpool to visit the London Stadium on the 5th and 14th May respectively along with a tough final-day away fixture at Turf Moor. Three fixtures that despite not being so domestically crucial given West Ham’s virtually assured safety, will do so much to shape their future and direction from the dugout. Much to ponder for Messrs Gold & Sullivan.

Chelsea’s Challengers

Chelsea’s Challengers

Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night confirmed that the Premier League race is very much still on going into the New Year. Antonio Conte’s side have recently found a level of consistency and momentum to win an extraordinary and record-equalling 13 straight league games in a run where a formation of 3-4-3 appeared to be tailor-made for Chelsea’s side.

Five points clear (1st with 49 points) of second-placed Liverpool, Chelsea are no doubt a rejuvenated side this season, with a manager who has succeeded in rediscovering the players thirst for glory at the club, crucially of those world-class individuals who were so out-of-form and criticised in Eden Hazard and Diego Costa under previous management. They are one of only two clubs not to have a single injury currently affecting the first-team squad and after failing to qualify for European football in last year’s treacherous campaign, they are benefitting so greatly from the lack of Cup distractions.

However, Tottenham’s dominance and superiority in the London Derby on the 4th January highlighted not only that Chelsea are by no means infallible, there are weaknesses in the team (lack of free-scoring, susceptible full-backs and possibly centre-backs too) but also that there are five other hungry teams in the hunt who boast too much quality to be ruled out of the race at this early stage; the sides are listed as follows:

Liverpool: 2nd with 44 points- Arguably one of the most impressive free-scoring sides in the league. Jurgen  Klopp’s side play with a high-intensity expansive freedom, averaging almost 2.5 goals per game.  Goals can come from any of their midfielders, wingers or forwards. The likes of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are enjoying the form of their careers. Jurgen Klopp’s tactical astuteness was revealed in the recent 1-0 victory at home to Man City where their usual open free-flowing style was sacrificed to absorb City possession in an impressive defensive performance; a trait they will be obliged to repeat in forthcoming big games this season.

Squad depth and injuries could well be the biggest potential hurdle to Liverpool’s title challenge as their most gifted player in Philippe Coutinho has been out injured since November (is nearing a first-team return). Their other major worry is the constant uncertainty between goalkeepers Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet; the majority of Liverpool’s fellow challengers have a world-class goalkeeper they can call upon. What Klopp would do to have this luxury.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

Tottenham: 3rd with 42 points- Not only have Tottenham just resoundingly beaten leaders and London rivals Chelsea,  they are in scintillating form; having won their least five games consecutively, blowing away both Southampton and Watford with 4-1 away wins. They boast one of the best goalkeepers and centre-backs respectively in Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld, combined with the most attacking, buccaneering full-backs in the Premier League in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker. Dele Alli’s exuberance and ability is shining through after a poor European Championships and quiet start to the domestic season and Harry Kane’s goals and leadership show no signs of relenting. Tottenham look a side hungry for honours to illustrate their remarkable tutelage and progression under manager Mauricio Pochettino since his arrival in 2014.

Whether Tottenham can banish the memories of last year’s capitulation at Stamford Bridge, is another matter. They are due to restart their Europa League campaign again in February in the knockout-rounds and they do lack the experience and arguably squad-depth that other contenders can boast, but the ability and talent is there in abundance.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 8/10

Man City: 4th with 42 points- Despite boasting some of the world’s top talents and a manager who has claimed a title in six of his seven seasons in club management, defensive problems have been rife this season; resulting in City trailing leaders Chelsea by seven points, a shortfall that was not predicted by most upon Pep Guardiola’s arrival to the club. John Stones is still learning the game, Claudio Bravo has proved vulnerable, Vincent Kompany is frequently injured and Pablo Zabaleta and Alexsandar Kolarov are inconsistent at best. There is also a worrying discipline problem at the club, receiving seven red cards this season in all competitions; more than any other Premier League team.

However, on their day Man City are a formidable force and with their world-class trio of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, City pose a creative attacking outlet that can unlock the sternest of defences at any point in a game. City fans will look back to the 2013/14 season (when City overtook Liverpool on gameweek 37 to clinch the title after winning their final five games of the season) for title-marching inspiration. In their recent 5-0 win in the F.A Cup 3rd tie at the London Stadium, City displayed a cutting edge and an exhibition of ruthlessness that will give them momentum going forward.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

Arsenal: 5th with 41 points– The side that typically divide so many an opinion. Arsenal have endured an inconsistent campaign thus far that has offered many similarities to every previous season for the past ten years. Capable of a mesmerising creative style and devastating counter attacking-play on their day (displayed best in their 3-0 demolition of Chelsea in September), but suffer from that soft underbelly, the lack of a commanding centre back (despite Shkodran Mustafi’s impressive arrival last summer) and a rousing leader.

An injury list that does not seem to relent, poor away form, the imminent Champions League knockout ties to nemesis Bayern Munich and the enduring worries regarding the expiring contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil does not favour their prospects of assembling enough impetus to challenge leaders Chelsea.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 6/10

Man United: 6th with 39 points-A team boasting an array of superstar footballers and ego’s  for any global club to envy. A fairly inconsistent first three months of the season consisted of a very disjointed looking United team, with various new signings and certainly their manager taking time to settle. Many dropped points this season have in fact come at Old Trafford in games they have completely dominated but have struggled to break down resolute, stubborn defences.  The demanding Thursday-Sunday schedule will recommence in February as they return to action in the Europa League.

However, it must be said that after seven straight wins (in all competitions), United are rightly in buoyant mood as they are experiencing a consistent run of form that will build significant momentum for a title charge if they can maintain their current run; despite being 10 points off leaders Chelsea at this halfway stage. United also have strength in depth, having the luxury of being able to call on the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial from the bench when chasing a game. Furthermore, there is certainly no shortage of winners or experienced heads in the squad, with eight of the current squad holding Premier League titles to their career honours history.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10