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West Ham: Untied

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It’s easy to imagine that back in May, Sam Allardyce packed up his laptop, prised his name off the office door and swung his Range Rover out of the Boleyn Ground content that he had eked out every last drop of ability from his squad. After all, in four years he had brought them up from the Championship and firmly deposited them in mid-table. Three seasons of finishing 10th , 13th and 12th represented a job well done but for long periods, fans and increasingly the owners were not content with the style. In a results business, he nailed a sensible remit only to get discarded for an idealistic one.

All a rather familiar scenario for Allardyce who left both Blackburn and Newcastle mid-season having found new ownership desiring more than a lick of paint. The problem for both these clubs was that his departure set in motion an hourglass of failure; new coaches produced lesser results and each team were relegated the next season.

Combine too a rudimentary study of shooting statistics and it shows that the teams Allardyce managed at West Ham consistently created sub-par numbers in comparison to their finishing positions.  While maybe not as extreme as the undisputed master of such strategies, Tony Pulis, the methods Allardyce employed were effective and similarly less than scintillating.

Knowing all this, come August,  I was fairly confident that the challenges West Ham were obliviously idling towards would be tricky to overcome and that once more, a team shorn of the protective bear hug of Allardyce would freeze its way through winter and struggle to survive; indeed I have the betting docket to prove it.

The Manager, The Player

On paper, the recruitment of a passionate former fan favourite player with zero experience of the league from a managerial perspective looks a little speculative. Slaven Bilić arrived in the early summer fresh from two years of par results at Beşiktaş, a job he took after helming Lokomotiv Moscow’s worst season in the post-Soviet game. With his managerial reputation residing almost entirely from work in the international arena as coach of his native Croatia, he represented something of an risky choice, one possibly more borne of emotion than Allardycian reason.

A more logical move was the signing of Dimitri Payet. It was one of the more notable signings of a summer that showcased a newly rich second tier of European football residing in the mid to lower echelons of the Premier League. £10.5m wasn’t a vast sum but in securing a player who had created more shots than anyone in Europe in 2014-15, West Ham pulled off a neat scoop, surely in years gone by he’d have been a cert for one of the Italian giants? His age was the one potential downside with any contract liable to carry well into his 30s and potential decline. No matter: he’s been their standout player and in averaging a goal contribution of 0.68 per 90 minutes from a total shot contribution of 5.70 (per 90) he’s placed himself among the league’s high performers.  Indeed, that he has maintained his rate of shot creation across the last two seasons: 3.9 (per 90) both years suggests that he has not been limited by the higher standard in England. This is where the 28 year old signing can pay off, a career to learn game smarts plus eminent transferable skills and an instant impact.  The slightly older player can sometimes lead a team where the 21 year old starlet may shrink.

The Start, the Luck

During the early months of the season, West Ham benefitted from a peculiar run of scoring. They scored from their first shot on target, then their second on four occasions, a scenario unlikely to repeat–indeed it hasn’t–and found themselves spending long periods of time fending off the opposition and holding for good results.  Little about the team, bar the excellence of Payet, looked as though it was of sufficient quality to mount a European challenge but in their first ten games they were full of goals: only once did they fail to score at least twice.

A superficial look at the results makes it appear that the entire attack revolves around the fitness of Payet, they only scored five times in the seven complete matches he missed but if we scratch a little deeper we find that West Ham’s shot profile is almost indistinguishable whether he has played or not:

west ham wowo payetSo: this is important and in some way quite impressive, West Ham’s form has little to do with Payet’s fitness, when he played they were riding an enormous wave of shot conversion (red) that was inevitably going to decline (blue), which it did during the period he didn’t play. Bilic’s system survived the loss of his best player with little alteration in fundamental shot rates.  Next time it is presented that West Ham’s success has been based around the form of Payet, anyone reading this will know better.  Is he their best attacking player? Probably yes. Are they a better team with him in it? Not necessarily.  There is scope for further pulling this apart based on schedule, but that is unlikely to move the dial too far away from the clear point here.

Less impressive among these numbers, at least for their medium to long term potential is that West Ham have been a sub-par total shots team and a roughly par on target team.

But they’re sixth

The expected goals models don’t deviate far here, both Paul Riley and Michael Caley peg them in 11th and i’ve got a couple of simple shot-based models that have them 11th or 12th yet they are sitting happily in 6th place having lost only five times. After coming off their conversion fuelled peak in the autumn, they have settled onto an average around 1.6 points per game, with little deviation. They simply haven’t had a crippling run of results; even their eight game winless streak involved six draws, enough to keep them ticking along and out of the range of any tabloid powered crisis flashlight.

There are genuine problems among their shooting numbers; only Crystal Palace have conceded twenty shots as frequently as West Ham: eight times, and that average of nearly sixteen per game is more often associated with relegation threatened teams. Also an early positive skew towards time spent winning has declined as the season has worn on. Indeed shot rates are not good when faced with a deficit, they rank 13th in shots for (11.4 shots/90) and dead last against (17.6/90) suggesting recovering deficits is not a strong suit.

Regarding personnel, given this inability to limit opposition shooting, it seems odd to see that the core of the team that has played most consistently is defensive. Kouyaté, Tomkins, Noble, Cresswell and Adrián have all played over 80% of available minutes and Ogbonna, Reid and Jenkinson have all played 55% or more.  Forward options seem to have been less consistent and at least from a numerical perspective the sale of Zarate, a solid shot contributor from limited minutes, seems slightly odd. Lanzini has contributed when fit, but a lack of goals has characterised the play of the chosen forwards: none have more than four all season.

Going Forward

It’s easy to presume that West Ham are at the top of their curve and that a reversion is inevitable.  I calculate that they are about four points ahead of a general expected total which is certainly in the realm of likely variance and the nature of a 38 game season means that it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that they could continue to overhit an expected level til season’s end. It is less likely that they skew any further upwards, and a slight drop down the table is the smart call, certainly Omar Chaudhuri’s collation of Sporting Index’s predicted points lands them in 8th position but within only three points of 11th.
So what do we think of Bilic? In truth it is hard to know; 23 games characterised by a big positive goals skew for at least half of them is masking shooting numbers that aren’t far away from those created last season. Much like Allardyce he has so far come out on the right end of them.  With relatively little change in the squad year on year, it could be possible that we are seeing a similar situation to that which occurred at Everton after David Moyes 11 year tenure ended. That first season after, 2013-14 under Roberto Martinez, Everton performed solidly, almost as if the Moyes blueprint had carried over into the new man’s reign. Last season and this, Everton look far less secure and more like the team that Roberto built.  It’s possible that it will be next year when we see the true character of a Bilic team, and it is hard to know whether that will be enough to stall the Allardyce hourglass.
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