Could Rafa Benitez replace Slaven Bilic? Is the Spaniard the answer to West Ham’s sub-par performances?
Following three successive losses in the first round of Premier League fixtures, bookmakers are already speculating on the future of West Ham manager Slaven Bilic. Many have made Rafael Benitez the odds-on favourite to succeed the Croatian, noting his dissatisfaction with Newcastle’s transfer activity. With this in mind, pundits and West Ham fans alike are beginning to ask if Benitez may be the answer to West Ham’s myriad of on-field problems.
Under Bilic, West Ham have been notoriously slow starters. A win over Arsenal at the start of the 2015/16 season was followed by losses to Bournemouth and Leicester. Similarly, the 2016/17 season began with a run of one win in seven games. This season, three consecutive losses have seen West Ham also ship ten goals.
A contributing factor in this has undoubtedly been the pre-season injuries sustained. Antonio, Manuel Lanzini, and Andy Carroll have all missed the opening games, with Lanzini making a second-half appearance against Newcastle. The latter has, however, since withdrawn from the Argentinian international team with a knee injury. Coupled with Winston Reid’s warm-up injury prior to the 3-2 defeat to Southampton, and West Ham’s squad appears increasingly threadbare.
Yet this has been a common theme during Slaven Bilic’s tenure. West Ham have lost key men on many occasions. Aaron Cresswell, Diafra Sakho, and, inevitably, Andy Carroll, all missed large numbers of games last season. Even without injury, fitness has proven an issue. The Hammers conceded seventeen goals after the 75th minute last season, dropping points from winning positions on seven occasions.
Are these issues the fault of Bilic’s training methods? Possibly. Both Reece Oxford and Enner Valencia were reportedly surprised at the comparatively hard work put in during training when they arrived for loan spells at Reading and Everton respectively. Moreover, Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart allegedly expressed a desire to push the squad further in pre-season. The reports of lax training methods, the high injury levels, and a lack of match fitness cannot be coincidental. Evidently, West Ham’s on-field problems stem from training ground activity.
This would not be a problem under Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard is notable for his aerobic training methods, which emphasise simulating plausible match scenarios to provide physical and mental stimulation. A more active role for the individual would undoubtedly go a long way towards reducing complacency, and thus the issue of conceding late goals.
Benitez has also stressed a need for greater coordination between medical and coaching staff to reduce the numbers of injuries. At Newcastle, Benitez has added Daniel Marti and Cristian Martinez to the pre-existing medical staff, with the Iberian contingent increasing the level of communication within the club structure. A similar addition to West Ham’s medical team, led by Gary Lewin, would be an entirely plausible move.
Also improved at Newcastle were the training facilities, with 4G pitches installed so as to lessen the impact on players. Additionally, increased massage sessions and individual fitness programs aided recovery times on a personal level, as did Benitez’s rotation policy. West Ham currently only have 23 first-team players, and therefore, barring any late deadline day acquisitions, loan signings and a productive January transfer window will surely be necessitated. Indeed, Reece Oxford’s recall would seem necessary given West Ham’s defensive frailties.
Nevertheless, there is perhaps enough depth in quality to persuade Benitez that the basis for a rotation policy is in place. Moreover, without European football, West Ham are, any potential cup-runs notwithstanding, focused entirely on the Premier League. Large-scale rotation may not be necessary.
Benitez tends to favour the 4-2-3-1 formation, influenced by his idol Arrigo Sacchi. This places emphasis on a solid defence that can transition quickly into an attacking unit. West Ham holds the basis for the adoption of this. Along a number of Premier League teams, including Spurs, they favour the same formation. Indeed, the Hammers lined up in this formation in all three of their opening fixtures.
In terms of transitioning into a more fluid unit, West Ham have the players necessary to achieve this ideal. Cheikhou Kouyate, Mark Noble, Declan Rice, and Pedro Obiang all have the attributes to play as the holding midfielders Benitez has traditionally demanded of his sides. This would allow them to drop behind the ball to aid in defence when the opposition control possession. On the wings, Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic are physically imposing players capable of forcing the opposition inside. Centrally, Manuel Lanzini offers the creative range of passing to open up the pitch and create room for Javier Hernandez or Andy Carroll to work.
Time would be needed to adapt to Benitez’s zonal marking and triangular passing system. Tactically, there would likely be no quick fix. Yet, as with the staff, facilities, and squad, the foundations are there for Benitez to build a familiar system to those he has enjoyed such success with in the past.
Will Benitez Move?
Rafael Benitez would very likely represent a high-profile, and effective, acquisition for West Ham, however – will he move? Firstly, Slaven Bilic has four games to save his job. It is entirely possible that, with an international break, Bilic may inspire his squad to improve their results and thus save his job. David Gold and David Sullivan have previously given managers plenty of time to improve results, though with the new pressure of the London Stadium it is unlikely Bilic would survive a loss to Huddersfield.
Secondly, would Benitez want to move? His frustration at Newcastle’s transfer activity might provoke a reaction, but a run of good form off the back of the 3-0 win over West Ham would almost certainly persuade him to wait until at least the end of the next window. Moreover, Newcastle fans adore Benitez following last season’s success. St. James’ Park has a seating capacity of some 8,000 less than the London Stadium. Nevertheless, it’s sheer height, and the proximity of the crowd, would make its touchline an attractive prospect if Newcastle can enjoy another successful season.
Benitez would be a good fit at West Ham. His management style and tactical history would adapt well to the existing structure. But whilst West Ham’s run of bad form extends into last season, for Benitez it may yet be too early to consider leaving his current project.