Thursday, 25 May 2017

Transitional season for West Ham, who must do better to attain top six status

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic deserves credit for securing an 11th place finish amid a number of ongoing difficulties over the past season.

Bilic himself has spoken about the “obstacles” of this season, when West Ham failed to improve on the 7th position attained in the final iconic season at the old Upton Park ground.

Indeed, the move to the London Stadium proved to be an ongoing headache for much of the season. The team took time to settle in the new environment, with many of the supporters unhappy. There were stewarding problems and some incidents at the early games.

Fortunately, things have settled down, with the team managing to win seven home games in the league, whilst drawing four others. Things should be better next season.

On the field there were the problems with French talisman Dimitri Payet, who went rapidly from hero to zero with fans. From the moment the Frenchman decided he was going on strike, manager Bilic decided he had to leave the club.

The owners had wanted to make Payet stew in the reserves but the player was clearly causing such disharmony it was better to get rid of him. Indeed, Bilic managed the situation well, using the discontent to galvanise the rest of the squad. This saw a revival in fortunes over Christmas and New Year with siginficant back to back home wins over Burnley and Hull then another victory away to Swansea.

The problems for Bilic though did not just reside with the change of ground.The club did not recruit well last summer. The signing of striker Simone Zaza on loan, with a view to a permanent move, proved a disaster. The loan was cut short in January.

Others like Havard Nordtvelt and Sofiane Feghouli took time to find their feet. Record signing Andre Ayew was injured in the first game against Chelsea and did not really start showing what he can really do till the latter part of the season.
However, the most confusing thing was the failure of the club to recruit a right back, as well as forward cover. Making matters worse, for some reason, the versatile James Tomkins, who could be relied on at full back or centre back, was sold to Crystal Palace for £12 million.

Striker Enner Valencia was also loaned to Everton for the season – another strange move, as those brought in to play in his role clearly were not better than the Ecuadorian.

The strange thing was that with a jump in gate revenues from the 35,000 attendances at the old Boleyn ground to 57,000 at the London Stadium, the club did not splash out on players. When the sale of Payet for £25 million is put into the mix, West Ham only paid out around £15 million on new players over the season. What the salaries were for some of the free transfers is another question ofcourse.

Among the successes was 21 year old Edimilson Fernandes, an £8 million buy from Swiss club FC Sion, who looks a real find.

On the plus side, West Ham do have the makings of a really good team, if they can hang onto their best players. Michail Antonio was outstanding, finishing top scorer, despite having his season cut short in April. Manuel Lanzini has stepped up to take on Payet’s creative mantle and could even eclipse the Frenchman in time. Cheikou Kouyate continues to improve and together with Pedro Obiang should provide a strong midfield duo next year. At the back Winston Reid remains one of the best defenders in the Premier League, while full backs Aaron Creswell and Sam Byram could become a formidable pair. Given the addition of a few quaility players up front and at the back and West Ham can move on to become a top six side.

It would though have been good to see more from the youngsters coming up through the West Ham ranks. There were limited opportunities for the likes of Reece Oxford– not helped by the early exit from the Europa League.

The latter part of the season saw the team at its most consistent, losing just once in the last seven games. The highlight of the season for fans was the victory over Spurs, which effectively secured West Ham’s Premier league status, whilst ending the north Londoners title hopes. Other notable displays over the season included the victories over Swansea and Crystal Palace at home – the latter with Andy Carrolls spectacular overhead kick to score.

Matters were not made easier for Bilic over the closing months of the season with seeming constant stories in the media about his demise. Those stories must have come from somewhere. Whilst hindsight is a wonderful thing, West Ham were never in the relegation dogfight, yet there were some who seemed to want to make out that they were.

The manager has to now plan for the next season. He has notably retained his dignity, whilst making comment about obstacles that have been in the way this past season. He has also said that moving to a big stadium does not immediately make for a big club – the transition is a gradual process that takes place over time.

The fans seem happy with Bilic. Though, from the owners angle, they no doubt look to teams like West Brom and Bournemouth, where the manager has had less resources than Bilic and wonder whether things should not have been better.

However, if they want  success then the owners need to keep faith in Bilic and dig deep in their pockets this summer. They have the resources, with the increased gate and TV money.
Bilic is popular internationally and can attract top talent. If handled properly, West Ham can move onto the next stage and really challenge for a top six place.  So a difficult season but looking forward, the future at the London Stadium looks bright.

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