West Ham 2016-17 Season Preview: Warning Signs Ahead?
A top 7 finish for the first time since 2001-02, a record points tally in the Premier League era, home to one of the best players in the league whose stock rose even higher at Euro 16. There were quite a few things to celebrate last season for West Ham fans, and we haven't even mentioned the brand new 55,000 Olympic Stadium practically gift wrapped to them for this season and beyond. It was a common rhetoric that as a result, this could be the start of an ascension that in no time would take the club to the heights that the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool currently reside.
And yet, it's close to the start of the season and West Ham look almost as incomplete a puzzle as they were at season's end. Which is a bit confusing seeing as their numbers would've indicated that perhaps some things could've been restructured.
Remember when Swansea in 2014-15 finished 8th and lots of analysts were worried that they lucked into a spot in the table because lots of variance went their way? Well West Ham were a better version of that Swansea team but they too benefited from lots of variance, whether it be statistical or just the fact that Liverpool and Chelsea had shocking seasons. In some ways it's also kind of like the 2014-15 Tottenham side that finished 5th despite real sign of overachieving, but in their case the next season they just suddenly became a dominant team. Meanwhile Swansea went the opposite and simply returned to being a generic lower mid-table side.
So are West Ham going to follow the Swansea route or the Tottenham route? Who knows really. West Ham were a break even team in terms of shots at around 52%, which is fine enough. Adrian more and more is becoming a goalkeeper who can save your team 2-4 goals per season, which is valuable in of itself. Dimitri Payet was awesome last season as a creator and Andy Carroll played his best season in years with a 0.5 non penalty goals p90 rate which outstripped his xG p90 rate of 0.39 (though I guess Diafra Sakho having a 0.41 xG p90 rate and a 0.28 NPG p90 sort of evened things out). But running very simple regression analysis showed West Ham overachieving their points tally by quite a bit. I roughly found their talent level to be around 54-56 points which would've had them finishing in 8th-9th place and takes some of the shine off of last season. Stuff like this as well scream an eventual return to the mean:
"But we were only four points off 4th place" - Some West Ham Fan out there
Technically yes, you are right. West Ham were rather close to being in the Champions League. I literally can't refute that statement. But let's be real here; the table can lie quite a bit. The element of luck is something that fans don't want to really acknowledge because it's not really that fun a concept. It's easier to praise a team on a hot streak for intangibles that nine times out of ten don't actually exist. West Ham were 3rd in the league after 10 games despite playing fairly below average stuff because they led games early on especially against the bigger clubs away and just sat back absorbing pressure, as evidence by them finishing 5th in minutes played in the lead.
Now I don't want to totally disregard the legitimate improvement West Ham showed towards the end of the season, because they were certainly better as they became the early season version of Leicester where games featured lots of shots at both ends, beating teams by volume more so than efficiency. Some of their games towards season's end were downright wacky and it contributed to West Ham matches featuring on average a league high 28.6 shots per game.
So an average team with variance going their way would probably be the best way to describe 2015-16 West Ham. But hey, lots of PL TV money coming in and a brand new stadium to entice players who couldn't get gigs at higher up clubs. This must've meant that West Ham would really push strong and find certain targets to help them consolidate their standings as an upper tier PL club and not totally waste Dimitri Payet's remaining glory year(s).
Transfers in: Manuel Lanzini (permanent deal), Sofiane Feghouli (Free), Andre Ayew
Transfers Out: James Tomkins
I mean it could be worse.
First off it was a bit humorous to see West Ham linked to numerous strikers during the transfer window. Whether it be Alexandre Lacazette, Michy Batshuayi or even the most recent in Wissam Ben Yedder who's off to Sevilla. Who knows how far they went with each pursuit but the end result was almost a negative on two fronts. One was that they came up empty with said strikers, the other was that it allegedly upset Diafra Sakho to the point where he demanded a transfer and nearly got a move onto West Brom to be part of Tony Pulis' "Theater of Dreams" before complications halted the move. Assuming there's no lingering issues with that, West Ham still have a decent mid tier PL striker to use but they still could very well do with another one.
Now as a Marseille fan, I can totally appreciate West Ham reuniting two key members of the 2014/15 side that were one of the most fun teams in Europe. Andre Ayew has been pretty good over the years as a Swiss army knife type of player, even playing spot minutes as a central midfielder. But he's going to be 27 in December and considering he started playing in Ligue 1 at age 18-19, perhaps his prime will cut off quicker than the typical winger. He makes West Ham better if only because he's better than Lanzini, but at £20M it's kind of a lukewarm move for a team with fairly deep pockets and European football to offer.
There were other rather glaring holes with the squad and the need for another LB has become crucial with Aaron Creswell being on the shelf for around four months. Jordan Amavi would be an intriguing fit, assuming he's back to 100% capability. West Ham could also stand to have a few more central midfielders on the squad. Joe Allen showed himself to be a really good counter pressing midfielder under Jurgen Klopp and also had a fine enough showing at Euro 16. Allen leaving perhaps wasn't shocking, the fact that he went to Stoke at only £13M was. Considering the crazy fees going on domestically, there are worse moves to make than paying that transfer fee for him.
Idrissa Gueye as well would've been a very nice value play. Let's put on the Ligue 1 fanboy hat once again: he was good at Lille and had all the attributes for a successful move abroad. Funny enough, he was rated by some as a better player in France than N'Golo Kante. Southampton wanted him when Aston Villa beat them to the punch. Yes he was part of that awful Villa side, but a £7.2M release clause is like peanuts in this market. At ~£20M, West Ham could've had two prime age central midfielders who correspond fairly well age wise with Payet. There's still time obviously for West Ham to fix this up, and getting Feghouli on a free is a nice little move on the fringes but as currently constructed and with the holes in their squad, even with the Ayew signing there's still considerable cracks to paper over.
Hey let's play a game called "Are West Ham Better than Team X":
Are West Ham Better than any of the North London or Manchester Clubs?
Are West Ham better than Chelsea/Liverpool?
Are West Ham better than any of Leicester/Southampton/Everton/Stoke?
Maybe. That seems fair enough that West Ham could beat out 1-2 of those teams. Southampton are going through some retooling while Stoke have this weird Frakenstein collection of talent. But it also could be argued that they could finish worse off than all of them. The early over/under lines are out for the PL and West Ham are projected to finish between 54-55 points which isn't too bad a projection considering their underlying numbers suggested their talent level being around there.
But I can't help but feel that even reaching that target would be an accomplishment for them with what they've got currently. Even putting variance aside; they got a peak season out of Payet in his late 20's and Carroll had as good a season as you could probably ask out of him. Just looking at their talent alone, their attack really overachieved compared to what was expected and it's very plausible their goal totals shrink by 10-15 goals for the reasons that already been outlined. Let's say West Ham score 50 goals this season, do they have the personnel to be an above average defensive unit? I'm skeptical of that outside their goalkeeping.
If anything, this season could be the start of truly figuring out just how good Slaven Bilic is as a manager. We really don't know much about him still and perhaps he was just a guy who had luck go his way and that was the best it'll get. Or, he might be closer to a Mauricio Pochettino or even some of Sam Allardyce's teams back in the day where they could make the sum better than the individual parts. In fairness, Pochettino also showed more evidence that he had a chance at being a top manager with his splendid work at Southampton. Regardless, after a successful first season, Bilic's stock is white hot but a pedestrian mid table finish in 2016-17 would temper enthusiasm. It will help us further determine if he's more of the real deal or just a Croatian Mark Hughes.
10th place. Bilic's approval rating begins to drop while stronger murmurs emerge of a possible Payet transfer. Meanwhile somewhere Sam Allardyce and his evil twin Sam Allardici chuckle to themselves.