Ahead of tonight’s Carabao Cup match against Bolton, Slaven Bilic has stated that it is ‘impossible’ for Andy Carroll and Javier Hernandez to play as a strike partnership, as many West Ham fans have demanded. Such an attitude is likely to resurrect questions over Bilic’s lack of ruthlessness when it comes to player management. Trying to please everyone may foster morale within the squad, but perhaps at the expense of suitable tactics.
Bilic’s claim rests on the fact that a front-two, consisting of Carroll and Hernandez, would leave no room for a number of high-profile players. At least one of Michail Antonio, Marko Arnautovic, and Andre Ayew would miss-out following Manuel Lanzini’s return from injury. Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Mark Noble’s return from injury will create further competition between himself, Declan Rice, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Pedro Obiang. Quite simply, the depth in quality as a result of West Ham’s summer window has left Bilic with the task of trying to please everyone.
Bilic’s current solution is to rotate the squad, and play a 3-4-3 formation that includes as many key players as possible. Yet, by his own admission, that squad has lacked goals this season. West Ham have thus far scored just four, including one highly fortuitous deflection against Huddersfield. Against West Brom on Saturday, the dearth of chances highlighted the need for change.
Playing Carroll and Hernandez together in the mould of a ‘Little and Large’ partnership like that of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips is an attractive option for fans, offering as it does the prospect of far more goals. For Bilic, however, it means that the formation must be rebalanced to accommodate this partnership. A 3-5-2 would maintain West Ham’s back three, and include a front two, but would leave little room for West Ham’s many attacking midfielders. Indeed, if Noble and Kouyate started, as would be expected, one midfield spot would be left for Antonio, Lanzini, Arnautovic, and Ayew to fight for, a spot which would leave them out of position at any rate.
Yet neither Arnautovic nor Ayew have done much to justify their statuses as West Ham’s record transfers thus far, though the latter has shown promise as an impact substitute. Similarly, Pablo Zabaleta’s lack of pace has been exposed a number of times this season, and Bilic may therefore be tempted to experiment with Antonio in that position again. None of these changes would be easy. Players would dissent at being benched or played out of position, whilst the board would undoubtedly express concern if marquee signings were overlooked. Nevertheless, West Ham, though now out of the bottom three, remain in an uncertain position, with change needed to ensure Premier League football next season.
Bilic is capable of being firm with his players. Last season, he received praise for his handling of the Dimitri Payet transfer saga in January, ensuring that the disruptive player did not negatively influence the rest of the squad. That same will is needed now in order to find a solution to West Ham’s lack of imagination on the field. If results do not remain consistent, then dressing-room attitude will sour anyway. Player happiness must be seen as a product of results, not the reverse. Change is needed, and the best way to accomplish that is by tactical evaluation, and the authority of the manager over squad selection. If players wish to start, then they should do so on merit. Otherwise, Bilic may find that change comes in the form of a new manager, rather than a new system.