Thursday 19 July 2018

Bilic's lack of progress is no optical illusion

Bilic worked himself close to the sack in April with the club on a run of five straight Premier League defeats before rallying slightly with 12 points from his final seven games. Photo: Reuters
Bilic worked himself close to the sack in April with the club on a run of five straight Premier League defeats before rallying slightly with 12 points from his final seven games. Photo: Reuters

Sam Wallace

In many post-match interviews, Slaven Bilic appears like the veteran detective who has just come straight from breaking the news to the victim's family: a tie at half-mast, a thousand-yard stare and a demeanour that suggests a man who would dearly love to be able to forget the horrors he has seen.

And Bilic has seen some horrors in the past seven days alone, starting with Andy Carroll's brain-fade second yellow card against Burnley and continuing with his West Ham team's marking for the first goal of the disastrous 3-0 home defeat to Brighton on Friday.

He always accepts bleakly the reality of his precarious position after defeats like these, as if this is the way things simply have to be at West Ham, although that really should not be the case.

Bilic worked himself close to the sack in April with the club on a run of five straight Premier League defeats before rallying slightly with 12 points from his final seven games. At that time it was Craig Shakespeare's effect on Leicester City that had prompted West Ham to consider their manager's position, and yet Bilic has managed to outlast him, too. Shakespeare took 29 points from 21 games before he was sacked. In the same period Bilic has managed 21 points from 22 games.

One of the fringe benefits of managing West Ham is that the club itself offers many distractions to anyone trying to pin the blame on an underperforming manager. There was the move to the new stadium last season, which at one point resulted in supporters fighting one another, and then the gloriously incoherent summer transfer window of 2016 when you really felt that the club was just one fake Wikipedia entry away from bidding for a non-existent footballer. But hang on a minute, the low-water mark for that transfer window, loanee Simone Zaza, who tiptoed towards his infamous Euro 2016 penalty like the secret R Whites Lemonade drinker, is currently La Liga's player of the month after six goals in four games for Valencia. Admittedly, they try to spread it around, but given that the three previous recipients were Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, you could say that the problem might rest more with Bilic than Zaza.

Since the last season at Upton Park, Bilic has failed to get anything like the best out of his players. The upwardly mobile managers - Marco Silva, Sean Dyche, Chris Hughton - have built teams that are more than a sum of their parts. Bilic has done the opposite.

Given that Bilic was a defender himself, there seems to be none of the defensive organisation one would expect of a Premier League side that had a full week's training to prepare for Friday night. Bilic inherited the defensive competency of Sam Allardyce when he took over the team in the summer of 2015 and that first season was built on a rearguard that kept 11 clean sheets in the league alone and benefited from the goals of the departed Dimitri Payet.

The current crisis, as well as that which engulfed West Ham in the second half of last season, feels like one that would have been avoidable with the kind of rigour and organisation that many of Bilic's managerial peers have brought to bear on the game.

It helps Bilic that he is the kind of manager fans instinctively warm to, with a strong connection to the club and that first-season seventh-place finish in the bank. But since then the side has not made any progress under him in an era when the competition among managers to seek out the smallest details to improve players and performance is tougher than ever.

Perhaps it was a nod to the cult of marginal gains that Bilic observed in his Evening Standard column on Friday that he wanted to change the colour of the perimeter area around the pitch to improve the players' willingness to join attacks and get back to defend. Bilic's argument, it seemed, was that the green perimeter made the playing surface look artificially bigger and discouraged his players from covering the ground required.

It was the kind of observation that a manager finessing a successful team might make. When it comes from a man whose team does not seem to able to defend set-pieces it sounds more like the proverbial rearrangement of the deckchairs.

Bilic has failed to deliver any progress in the last 12 months and as a consequence everything is pulled into the debate, including, it now seems the optical illusion of having a stadium that is too big.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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