West Ham: Better Expected?
Despite finishing eleventh, West Ham endured a pretty miserable season. The only real highlight was killing off the last 3% of Tottenham’s title challenge by beating them 1-0. A stream of transfers failed to impact the first team, some weird numerical skews killed their chances early on and the question of whether Slaven Bilic was the right man for the job started to linger. He had elicited slight structural improvements in performance in his first season and got a tidy bounce from positive variance. A string of great results against big teams away from home, in which West Ham took early leads and fended off the cavalry, were the bedrock of a seventh place finish and fewer defeats than Man Utd and Man City. Season two was very much a return to prior and lesser form.
Broadly West Ham are a reliable outfit. In eight of the last ten Premier League seasons they have participated in they have scored 40-something goals. In seven of those seasons they have landed between 40 and 51 points. One time they bounced forward (2015-16, 65 goals, 62 points), one time they got relegated (2010-11, 33 points, 20th).
Is this good enough though? What should West Ham be aiming for?
Stadium, revenue, an opportunity?
The move to the Olympic Stadium is the first aspect of the club that gives them a huge opportunity to transcend from the mid-table and aspire to more. Although attendances this season were often less than reported, the new ground has the potential to add 20,000 or more on top of the 35,000 that used to pack the Boleyn Ground. Even allowing for discounted seating in less appealing fixtures, that’s a huge jump in income.
And that could move West Ham into a category of their own. The TV money jump helps everyone, but West Ham's latest (2015-16) revenues placed them seventh in the league with income around two thirds that of Tottenham. Their London rivals’ spell in the Champions League and general success will move them forward again, but adding extra match day income can put daylight between West Ham and the other mid tier clubs; Everton, Southampton, a returning Newcastle and others. They also hold the added appeal of being a London destination for potential transfers. Overall it’s an appealing structure, and they appear as well set as any time in their recent history, but really, and this is the kick: they should be doing better than they are.
Seventh was slightly flattering in 2015-16 and metrics pegged them as somewhere around the eighth to tenth best team in the league. Seventeen points vanished last season but the underlying basis of this only took a comparatively small step back. Expected goals pegged them around tenth to thirteenth and they finished eleventh.
The simple tale is thus: West Ham during Bilic’s reign, and before, have projected as a mid table outfit, which is more or less what they were under Sam Allardyce. In 2015-16 they got the breaks and landed high in the table, in 2016-17 they didn’t get the breaks and eventually lugged their way up into the midfield. The difference between Allardyce and Bilic in this regard was that Allardyce was consistent in defying relatively mediocre metrics to land safe, primarily through overshooting against defensive expectation. Each of the last three seasons has seen a big focus in attack on heading the ball--to be expected for an Allardyce team with Andy Carroll in the ranks but it has continued with Bilic. A third of expected goals generated in 2014-15 were via the headed route, and a quarter in each of Bilic's seasons, all compared to a league average of about 17 to 18%.
*As an aside/curio, Michail Antonio scored six headers in the first 12 league games of the season (to add to 6 more from the back half of 2015-16), then only managed seven headed efforts in total for the remaining 17 starts he made, none of which landed on target. I guess teams started to mark him.
Bilic has had two seasons of high variance, one positive, another the opposite and the staid control that Allardyce inevitably brought has been replaced by a more unstable outlook.
Formation indecision, soft centre
Part of the problem for the team in 2016-17 was an inability to settle on a formation. West Ham finished the season with a run of games playing three at the back, a basis that they had previously tried and ultimately abandoned after their very slow start. Perhaps Bilic was unsure how to set up his team to get the best out of them? They were uniformly terrible against the top six and went 1-2-9 with the Tottenham result the only victory. They played an even six games apiece with a back three and a back four. With a back three they got steamrollered at home 0-4 by Liverpool and 1-5 by Arsenal, with a back four, Man City, Chelsea and Man Utd all arrived and won, though with less dominating shot profiles. Nine times across the season, Bilic switched between the three and the four but results remained erratic, with no great overarching pattern emerging, perhaps until the end.
But if we keep digging, we find they achieved eight clean sheets from just 16 games with the three centre backs (compared to two from 22 with four at the back), and against their peers conceded just four goals total in ten games. Now this begs the question: does this mean Pablo Zabaleta’s aging legs will be utilised at wing back? Or will the formation changes continue? The three has become fashionable in the league once more, in the wake of Antonio Conte’s usage, but West Ham had tried it to little avail on three occasions in 2015-16. Overall Bilic’s team has struggled to create an identity, and his relentless tweaking has not helped here.
Regardless of formation, it seems the defence wasn’t always in step. Only Sunderland conceded more chances than West Ham from logged completed throughballs--25 to West Ham’s 18--and both teams conceded a league high seven times from such opportunities. These are relatively scarce events and liable to fluctuate but nonetheless it represented double the volume of 2015-16 and a headscratcher for their manager.
Retained existence in the Premier League will always be the first target, and last season's early season scares showed that they aren't immune from that yet, but much more should be the aim. What factors are hindering that progress?
Transfers and continuity
The specific performance conditions that Allardyce effected felt like they had a ceiling, and moving on from him was a positive move. Bilic’s first season indicated that he might have been a good appointment, and he is still carrying just enough kudos to justify the continuity of retaining him into 2017-18, but that doesn’t get to the crux of the issue. The club has failed to progress on the field and one of the primary issues here has been its short sighted use of the transfer market.
Until Dimitri Payet forced through a £25m transfer back to his homeland in January--for what were rumoured to be “non-football” reasons--James Tomkins’ £10m move to Crystal Palace in the preceding summer was a notable outlier. West Ham are not a selling club. They are not a selling club insofar their players are rarely coveted by larger clubs. Since returning to the Premier League in 2012-13, they have consistently spent at a deficit, but have rarely pulled in any more than token income from turning over their squad. I hammered their 2016-17 transfer policy before, but the truth is it goes back a lot further and while the team maintains its position it’s unlikely to be classed as a problem. However, the team lacks continuity.
Pablo Zabaleta’s swift arrival is endemic of the lack of foresight that has afflicted West Ham’s recruitment in recent years. At 32 and past his best in a high energy position, Zabaleta can fill a gap, but is unlikely to move the needle. Often mid-tier clubs are seduced by the profile of decorated players moving out of larger teams and see them as worth a gamble. In moderation, such players can give a fillip to a younger squad but when the team’s last two signings in January were a 33 year old centre back (José Fonte) on a two and a half year deal and a 29 year old winger (Robert Snodgrass)--another likely energetic role--on a three and a half year deal? It’s an unfortunate trend. Talented players, sure, but at entirely the wrong end of the age curve, with zero resale value and potentially about to fall off a performance cliff.
The idea that Bilic staying gives continuity is undermined by such a short sighted transfer strategy. And the blueprint for what the club should look to be doing exists one hundred miles down the M3 in sunny Southampton. Here’s a club that has such a strong structure in place that their down year was a point better that West Ham’s reversion to the norm, and underlying metrics were still sound enough to rank them in the top seven for expected goals for the fourth consecutive year. A tough to measure blend of Claude Puel’s methods and variance meant they bottomed out, but their bottom is significantly higher than West Ham’s right now, and their background structure is built to survive not just changes in playing staff but managerial moves too. Their player development and identification means they can comfortably rejig their team while supplying the rich with new toys, while maintaining a solid position. With Puel gone, they are a positive managerial appointment away from again challenging the outskirts of the top four, and continue to punch well above their weight at exactly the time building a club while remaining in the league has a huge upside.
So Bilic continues...
With Rory Campbell at the club and analytically minded, and Michael Caley having previously been consulted, it's not as if West Ham have zero smarts in this direction, its just there is precious little evidence that more recent Bilic era recruitment is switched on, at all. Perhaps meandering around in mid-table is enough for the club's hierarchy, but David Sullivan and David Gold are fans too, and they're currently missing out on maximising the return on their investments by operating a reactive recruitment model. West Ham's future can be much more, but only if the influencers can see the bigger picture.