The season of promise for Bilic and West Ham
This season, everything was meant to change. Recent years have seen West Ham United go through some good and some bad times, but their move to the Olympic Stadium was meant to be something of a watershed moment. The Hammers have always been a club full of ambition, but this season has not gone to plan, far from it in fact.
Defeat on Wednesday at Champions League-chasing Arsenal was their fifth in a row and stretched their winless run to seven games. After last season, which saw the club finish seventh in manager Slaven Bilic’s first campaign, their last at Upton Park, expectations were that they’d push on and become a regular fixture in the race for European places. But this run, and a season full of inconsistent performances, has left fans fearing the worst and demanding Bilic, a former player at the club, be sacked.
The Arsenal result leaves West Ham in 15th place, just three points above the drop zone. Pressure is growing fast on Bilic, because the reason set of results, which also includes defeats away to Bournemouth and Hull City and at home to the champions Leicester, is not the first to put their season into jeopardy. They won just two of their opening eight games and have conceded four or more goals to Watford, West Brom, Arsenal, Manchester City twice and Manchester United, with all but one of those games coming at their new home.
Rather than showing deep-lying issues at West Ham, of which there are sure to be a few, their form shows just how tough it can be to manage the amount of changes they have gone through. Criticism, at least at the level Bilic is receiving it at, is incredibly harsh and he still deserves time to prove the club will push on under his stewardship.
Curse of the new stadium
Moving stadium is bound to be strange for anyone, but for a club the size of theirs, with their ambition, it was a huge step forward. The atmosphere at the London Stadium, as it is now known, is completely different to Upton Park, because it is almost twice the size. For years West Ham could rely on the hostility of a smaller ground allowing their fans to play a bigger part in the game as they were closer to the pitch. But more expensive, impressive surroundings are better suited to elite players, and while West Ham want to reach that level one day, but in the short term, teams will enjoy playing in a far less intimidating environment.
Any manager can make excuses, and Bilic is far from immune to this criticism. Some may say hiding behind the new stadium is an easy way out, but it shows the club is operating on a new level. Whether Bilic was involved or not, the recruitment last summer was by no means good enough and has simply not worked out on the pitch. Sofiane Feghouli and Andre Ayew were brought in to offer creative support to Dimitri Payet, their standout player from last season, but injuries and struggles adapting to life in the Premier League have hampered their progress.
Payet himself became a well-documented hindrance in January, first by refusing to play for the club and then becoming part of a long drawn out transfer back to former club Marseille. Such a situation doesn’t bring with it on field issues, but off field too. With the France playmaker ostracised completely, and uniting players and fans alike in acrimony, it took a lot of work for Bilic to keep the ship steady. It was at that point that performances and results improved, with back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough appearing to end any lingering concerns of relegation.
Desperate run causing fan unrest
Only one win has followed in over two months since, though, and they are showing very few signs of maintaining or increasing it with seven games remaining. The bottom half of the Premier League has tightened up in recent weeks and most of the teams in there cannot yet sleep soundly. Looking at the bigger picture, the Hammers are just four points behind Southampton, who are ninth after beating Crystal Palace at St Mary’s on Wednesday night.
Even ignoring the fact Bilic reportedly needs a hip operation, which his biggest doubters may perceive as another frivolous reason for his defence, there is definitely a case for saying he does not deserve the sack. The club’s joint owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, who are self-proclaim supporters, have set their stall out to place them among not only the best clubs in London, but also England. Signs are promising, with money to spend and the new stadium, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Perhaps the growing population of fans demanding for Bilic should lower their expectations, because they have only had nine top half finishes in the Premier League era, one of which came under the Croat last season.
The scale it is measured on tempers expectation. By recent standards, West Ham are struggling badly, but overall there is not too much cause for concern. Early signs are they are not yet ready to compete on the level they wish to, but with the club undertaking the biggest shift in stature in their history less than 12 months ago, it will take time. It may be that Slaven Bilic needs to be replaced for long-term progression, but at this stage, with everything he has done and has had to deal with, there isn’t much of a case for suggesting that time is now