Which Way Next? 2015-16 West Ham Season Review
Remember when the goal for West Ham this season was to merely stay up in the Premier League and bank that upcoming TV money for their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016-17? Remember how thankful West Ham were that they were knocked off in the EL qualifying playoffs to avoid distractions? Those were innocent times. Led by Slaven Bilic, the club achieved their highest point tally ever in the PL era and had their highest seeding in the table since finishing 7th in 2001-02. They set a record for both goals for and goal difference, and for little bits of time even snuck their way into Champions League conversations. They'll have to instead settle for qualification into the Europa League, but it was more than a job well done for West Ham.
Go past the billions of analytical pieces on the outlier that’s been Leicester and you’ll find a couple of posts from earlier in the season about how West Ham’s start was the perfect storm of unsustainable conversions going their way and Dimitri Payet doing ridiculous stuff on a regular basis. They basically beat every traditional big team on the road to begin the season through timely scoring and parking the bus, two things that don't sustain long term. Arguably the defining “West Ham aren’t as good as where they are in the standings” post wasn’t an article, but a six minute YouTube video from Joel Salamon:
Funny enough though if we divided their season into thirds, you can see a clear trend in the right direction.
This isn’t to say that West Ham haven’t been the beneficiaries of luck, or that Joel’s analysis was wrong at the time. Far from it, it nailed a lot of good points about West Ham. They were scoring at obscene rates during the early parts of the season and even though it cooled off, they still ended up with the 18th highest goals to shot on target conversion rate in the Opta era (2009-10 onwards). Unless you’re at the level of Man City or Man United under Fergie, there’s almost no chance you are going to repeat that.
However, there were good things to take from this season that have a decent chance of repeating next season. Adrian continues to look like one of the best shot stoppers in the Premier League. He had one of the best Shot Stopper ratings according to Paul Riley's xG model, and his numbers since coming into the PL have consistently been right up there. There's still many things we don't know about goalkeeping, but as the sample size has continued to increase, his level hasn't wavered much at all. Just ask Bournemouth and Liverpool what it's like to be on edge knowing your keeper is prone to giving up a howler at any time.
We can't speak enough of just how good Dimitri Payet was this season. He might well have been the best set piece player in the PL this season, whether it be his audacious free kicks or setting up teammates for headers. In open play he was also remarkable as well, and all that production for £12M was great business. Now the accuracy of his free kicks will probably decline next year as they're a volatile metric, just look at what happened to Yaya Toure after his super hot 2013-14 season, but Payet's career overall has had a weird trajectory. He flirted as a disappointment through a good portion of his early years before hitting his stride in 2012-13, then 2014-15 he became one of the 3-5 best players in Ligue 1 and has continued at that level with West Ham. Perhaps he could be the type of player whose age curve is kind to him when he hits his early 30s? West Ham sure hope so, and will pay to find out if he can be somewhere close to this level for the duration of his contract.
West Ham late season was very similar to the early season version of Leicester with shots and goals in abundance both ways. Overall, their matches featured on average a high 28.6 shots per game but beyond that stylistically they also share a bed with Leicester. Analysis done on Team Styles by Johannes Harkins which built on an earlier version by @SaturdayonCouch seems to lend credence to this idea:
Newly crowned champions Leicester City being grouped with West Ham is interesting as both teams have overachieved this season relative to most pre-season expectations. They profile relatively similarly across most statistics, but what sticks out for me is that both have below average possession but convert it to shots at a high rate, as reflected in their shots: possession ratio.
I don't know how long this could last as a relevant tactic even with Leicester's success, but it is clear that with how high volume their games have tended to be this season and their reliance on set piece goals, the comparisons between the two teams has merit to it.
We can talk much more about West Ham's season on the pitch but perhaps the biggest thing to take from this season is in the future: they just got a brand new stadium that approaches 60,000 capacity for basically free. Seriously, that’s a thing that actually happened. Remember all the problems Arsenal had financially for like seven years after their move into the Emirates? West Ham don’t have that issue to deal with. Tottenham are facing similar issues with their new stadium being constructed. This is such a big game changer that in a few years time could assist their transformation into one of the bigger clubs in the league and given the riches abound, maybe even Europe. I say could because Newcastle offer the cautionary tale of a team with a big stadium and the size that should merit being a huge brand, but a lack of organizational sturdiness that has failed to take advantage of their resources. It's really one of two paths West Ham can take: become the new Newcastle, or join Tottenham and Liverpool in the "All we need is one mistake from the traditional top 4 to sneak into the CL" club.
A lot of credit for West Ham's success has gone down to Slaven Bilic, especially considering how languid the second half of last season was under Sam Allardyce. This year, West Ham were a team that spent loads of time ahead, ranking 7th in time spent in a winning position with 1073 minutes. For reference, the league average this season was 845. It's no secret that when teams are ahead, they tend up to give up more shots and generally lose more territory, it's the basis of what stats people call "score effects". West Ham suffered more than most with this, with their shot numbers ranking below the league average in this scenario. They conceded more territory and it decreased their overall numbers because they were actually solid when the game was tied. All their shot numbers when in a draw scenario were in the top 3-5, the type of spot you want to occupy if making the CL is the goal.
So Moe, do you think Bilic is a good manager after all that mumbo jumbo you went on about?
*insert shrug emoticon*
I mean I'm not going to say that he's a bad manager, and it's impressive that all of West Ham's underlying numbers rose throughout the season while doing stuff like playing Michail Antonio more and using the "lump it up to Andy Carroll and let him wreck havoc" card when needed, but it's just one season and if we're being honest, just being competent after replacing Sam Allardyce can make you look better in comparison.
It will be interesting to see what West Ham do this summer with all the economic power they've garnered, seeing as they have some rather glaring holes to address. The center midfield rotation leaves something to be desired while the carousel of strikers they've got is kind of average. Diafra Sakho is the best of the bunch and is pretty decent but I'm skeptical he's the type of striker you want if you're truly challenging for a CL spot. Andy Carroll is what he is, and this season is probably the best he's played since that half season with Newcastle in 2010-11. The rumor mill has linked them to the likes of Michy Batshuayi and Alexandre Lacazette before Lacazette + Lyon rejected their advances.
Putting my Ligue 1 fan boy hat on, a combination of Michy Batshuayi and Idrissa Gueye this summer would do West Ham wonders for next season and beyond. Batshuayi had a really productive season for Marseille despite playing with a below average supporting cast. He's only 22 and he's got the athletic build to fit into an up tempo attack. A striker core of Batshuayi/Sakho/Carroll would more than hold its own with the other big clubs vying for the higher spots.
As high volume tackling central midfielders, there have been numerous comparisons between Gueye and N'Golo Kante, which is easy to do when you look at them. Both came from Ligue 1 last summer, have basic statistics that resemble each other and one of them has been relegated to the 2nd division while the other has been praised to the moon for starring in the most unlikely English champions in decades. I don't think Gueye is quite as good as Kante in terms of creating counter attacks from his defensive actions, but even if he was it wouldn't have mattered because Aston Villa were one of the worst attacking teams in recent Premier League memory. I have a soft spot for Gueye though in general and it shouldn't really take more than say £5-6M to pry him away this summer. He's a nice player and could fit well with West Ham.
Where West Ham go from here is tough to predict, they could easily catch fewer breaks and drop off into mid-table, or turn into genuine reliable European contenders. Just on the merits of this season alone though, it's been a rousing success for what they wanted to achieve. Their highest finish in over a decade, a record points tally, one of the best summer buys in Payet and some wacky exciting games which doesn't really mean anything but I'm a sucker for a team that entertains me. There's still a lot to do for them to achieve a potential ceiling as a genuine force in English football, but they're on the right track, and maybe their new stadium will host more than one qualifying leg of European football next year.