What next for Slaven Bilic and West Ham?

With a somewhat unexpected and highly credible 7th place finish in the Barclays Premier League, there was a buzz of excitement as Slaven Bilic guided West Ham towards pastures new at the end of the 2015/16 season. Free flowing attacking football led by the mercurial Dimitri Payet had fans and pundits alike purring with excitement. A state of the art 60,000 capacity new home awaited. Big name signings were rumoured, with co-chairmen David’s Sullivan and Gold fuelling speculation with on the record statements of intent. So what has gone wrong this season at the London Stadium for a West Ham side that showed so much promise? I look at back on this season and ask what the future holds for Slaven Bilic.

Expectations were high. Transformed from a purpose built athletics stadium that took pride of place in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the London Stadium as it was now known was ready to play host to an exciting side who had just delivered West Ham’s best league finish in fourteen years.

Increased revenue generated from the Premier League’s renegotiated television deals sparked belief that the club could be positioned to challenge for European qualification once more.

What followed was a summer of steady, but unspectacular recruitment. Havard Nordtveit and Sofiane Feghouli arrived on free transfers, Manuel Lanzini’s loan was turned into a permanent deal and Arthur Masuaku joined from Olympiacos. Crucially though, high profile targets did not arrive. Alexandre Lacazette, Michy Batshuayi and Christian Benteke were among a host of top class strikers linked with the club. None signed.

A disappointing pre-season followed. One win in six matches left many questions lingering around what expectations to set for the season. The club reacted. Andre Ayew set a new transfer record for the club, arriving from Swansea for £20.5m. A few more low-key signings arrived before the window shut, but nothing to really support the ambition mooted during the summer.

What has followed has left many fans very disappointed. An early exit from the Europa League, crowd trouble and injuries to a string of players highlighting a lack of depth in key positions. Players found themselves in unfamiliar roles, playing in a stadium they weren’t used to. Conceding goals was a wound that Bilic seemed unable to patch up. The Boleyn Ground fairy tale farewell was fast becoming a distant memory.

Had the emphasis on signing a big-name striker and failing to deliver had a detrimental effect on those already at the club? Did this current crop of players overachieve last year? Whatever the answer to those questions, the club were struggling and the players were performing well below par.

Suddenly, an improvement. Three wins on the spin heading into Christmas and a surge up the bottom half of the table lifted spirits.

Something was wrong though. The demeanour and attitude of one individual was clear to see for all watching. That individual was Dimitri Payet. He cut a frustrated and forlorn figure throughout West Ham’s early season struggles. At Old Trafford in the EFL Cup, his frustration and lack of desire for the fight ahead was clear to see. On January 12, Bilic confirmed the news. Payet wanted to leave.

What followed was an acrimonious departure for the player many fans had hoped would elevate them to among the Premier League’s elite. His return to former club Marseille ebbed back and forth throughout the remainder of January until a £25m fee was agreed. Good riddance the sentiment from many fans who had idolised him a few months previously.

The signings of Jose Fonte and Robert Snodgrass followed, and all seemed more harmonious within the team after Payet’s exile. Three wins in the four games since the announcement showed the players had moved on, looking forward towards the future.

Since then, inconsistency and a string of injuries have contributed towards a lethargic end to the season. Were it not for those two brief periods of form, the club could and perhaps should have found themselves deep in the relegation mire. As it is, Bilic will have one more crack at strengthening the squad in the summer and striving for the next level. If he is given the chance.

What is clear is that if West Ham wish to progress at the rate they have promised the supporters they want to, changes are required. Wholesale changes.

Gone must be the mindset of retraining players to cover a variety of positions. Problem areas on the right hand side of defence and left side of midfield must be addressed, and the foundations must be laid at the feet of creative maestro Manuel Lanzini. Sentiment must be cast aside, and concerns raised around the longevity of the likes of Andy Carroll and Mark Noble.

Bilic still has the believe of many West Ham supporters. That belief however will be tested by the clubs performance in the transfer market this summer.

 

Posted in Football, Sports | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Who will survive…?

Image

Only eight games remain. As many as 10 teams could conceivably still be threatened with the dreaded drop. Has time run out already for QPR and Reading? A lot of questions remain at the bottom end of the table as we enter the final phase of the season.

Barring a miracle, you would have to feel that managerless Reading and QPR are now powerless to beat the drop. A lack of quality has been evident at Reading throughout the season, in all areas. Home form is often key to a clubs chances of survival during the course of a long season, and that is something that hasn’t been consistent enough. Despite rousing performances such as the comebacks against West Brom (to win) and Chelsea (to draw), home performances have been far too inconsistent, with only four home wins in fifteen played.

Image

Along with that, Reading possess the worst defensive record in the league with 57 conceded, and the worst away record with only five points from a possible forty-five. Worse still, they have no manager at the helm. The timing of Brian McDermott’s sacking seemed unfair and unwarranted given the lack of time that a new boss will have. The real issue this season has stemmed however, from a lack of investment in the playing staff. The money spent by the club on transfer fees has been modest and well within their means, and predominantly on Championship/League One players with no top-flight know how and experience. Ultimately it looks increasingly like a strategy that won’t pay off, and with McDermott’s sacking, it seems like panic may have set in – either way, expect them to be relegated as a result.

QPR would appear to be well on their way to joining Reading in the Championship. Despite adopting the complete opposite approach to their transfer dealings, a title winning run of form is necessary for Harry Redknapp to save them for relegation. Their run of fixtures in the close season run-in are relatively kind, but of similar difficulty to Reading, with fifth-placed Arsenal at home providing the sternest opposition on paper. But Redknapp has admitted that he feels 37 points to be the bare minimum needed to survive this season – a figure that would require QPR to take at least 14 points from their final eight fixtures. Broken down, that equates to victory in at least half of those matches, and two draws and two defeats to come. It seems unlikely for a team who have only won four games all season (thirty played.) The most worrying aspect of QPR’s plight must surely be the financial implications relegation will have, and the extroadinary amount of money they have blown on wages and transfer fees.

Image

As a result, they do possess more quality in their squad then Reading, and the January signings of Remy, Townsend, and Jenas have vastly improved them going forward, along with the solid Samba in defence. The trouble is that its come too little, too late – and the repercussions with relegation are sure to be severe.

So who will join them? With the league table as it stands, teams as high as Stoke in 11th place will still be looking over their shoulders despite enjoying a seven-point cushion to the drop zone. But while their home form may have dipped over the last couple of months, Stoke have more than enough in reserve to make sure they don’t slip into trouble. Likewise, Norwich and the French-led renaissance at Newcastle have enough quality and determination in their squads to fend off any possible threat to their status. West Ham too should have nothing to worry about, though a victory sooner rather than later will ease the nerves of Sam Allardyce and an Upton Park faithful struggling for consistent results and confidence of late.

That leaves the final relegation spot to be realistically contested between Sunderland, Southampton, Aston Villa and Wigan.

Sunderland may be in the most comfortable position of the four teams in question, but they are on a shocker of a run. Ever since back-to-back wins against West Ham and Wigan, they haven’t won in seven games, and only picked up three points in the process. A problem all season has been the ability to find the net, with only Steven Fletcher and the penalty taking abilities of Craig Gardner proving reliable sources for goals. To make matters worse, the fixture list is not kind either. Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton are among three of the next four opponents – each of those sides in the top six. Their other fixture in that period will be a fiercely contested local derby away at Newcastle. The potential is there for their dreadful run of form to continue, and Martin O’Neill will not want to need a result on the final day of the season, as a trip to high-flying Tottenham awaits..

Southampton shocked everybody when they dismissed Nigel Adkins in mid-January. The immediate appointment of a non-English speaking manager in Mauricio Pochettino seemed risky at the time, and results have in reality fared no better since his arrival. Despite that, the style and spirit that Adkins built at Southampton has continued to shine under the new manager, and despite results not necessarily reflecting their performances, many pundits and fans alike continue to admire the way they have performed. In Rickie Lambert, they have the leading English goalscorer in the Premier League, and a reliable source of goal getting. His linkup play with the likes of Lallana, Puncheon and Rodriguez have provided the Saints with valuable firepower, and led them to significant wins against Manchester City and Liverpool. Their defensive worries remain however, as at times they leak goals far too easily. Having said that, they have one of the better run-ins of the teams near the bottom, and will feel they have as good a chance as any of the four to beat the drop..

On paper, the two in most danger remain Aston Villa and Wigan, who both continue to be anamolies. Villa are occasionally awful, and at times look bright and full of talent – whilst Wigan seem to start their season from the beginning of March onwards, having played themselves into all sorts of trouble in the previous six months. It’s tough to call which team you fear for most.

Paul Lambert’s team have had problems all season with their lack of leadership, defensive discipline and experience throughout the team. The absence of Stiliyan Petrov has left a gaping hole in their midfield, and defensively they have been all over the place for the majority of the campaign. Despite the tough times, Lambert must be admired for his courage and belief in this extremely youthful and raw squad. He has stuck with his philosophy of evolving his players on the pitch, and not shying them away from the intense media scrutiny some of their performances have come under.

Image

At times, they have been wonderful to watch, particularly in the striking department. Christian Benteke has been a real find with his pace, strength and ability to finish, whilst Andreas Weimann has shown occasional flashes of brilliance and individual ability. The what-if question will linger on though as to whether Villa would be in this predicament had Lambert not had a well documented fallout with England’s £24m striker, Darren Bent. Could he have formed a lethal partnership with Benteke? We’ll never know this season. As far as fixtures go, you’d say Villa have their work cut out. A fairly dismal home record is unlikely to be improved upon against Liverpool and Chelsea, which leaves huge pressure on the home fixtures against Fulham and relegation rivals Sunderland. A daunting trip to Manchester United also awaits, and a showdown final day fixture is very much in the pipeline..

Currently, they hold a three-point initiative over Wigan. A side who continue to baffle fans and pundits alike with their performances from week to week. It’s no secret that Roberto Martinez likes his team to play attractive football that allows his creative players to express themselves. The weakness with such a philosophy is that they are all too often exposed at the back, and have an equally poor defensive fragility as Aston Villa do, with 56 goals conceded. But this time of season is fast becoming known as Wigan time, as they suddenly come to life and realise the gravity of the situation. With an FA Cup semi-final place under their belt, and history on their side, Wigan may just be building the momentum they need to perform another heroic great escape.

Image

And wouldn’t you just know the fixture list has thrown up another potentially thrilling finale to the season. Winnable home-games against Swansea and Norwich remain, with Champions League hopefuls Tottenham still to visit the DW. Follow that with crunch matches away at fellow strugglers QPR, West Ham, a resurgent Arsenal and title chasing Manchester City, and you find yourself thinking it could come down to the last day again. Wigan have proven themselves to be great escape artists in the last two seasons, and this season, things couldn’t get any bigger than a potential winner take all home game – against Aston Villa.

By then of course, it could be academic. But just incase it isn’t, be sure to not just keep your eyes on this one, but on the game at White Hart Lane as Sunderland are potentially in big, big trouble….

Posted in Football, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Wenger criticism is perhaps unwarranted..

Image

It’s been a frustrating season so far again for Arsenal, and Saturday’s shock FA Cup defeat at home to Blackburn has done nothing to lighten the mood around the Emirates. Out of the title race within a couple of months of the season starting, defeated by League Two side Bradford in the Capital One Cup, and several inept defensive performances this season has left even the most loyal of fans questioning the continued reign of Arsene Wenger. But is the criticism justified?

Unless a miracle is to happen in the knockout stages of this seasons Champions League, it will be 8 seasons without a trophy for the Gunners. It’s a statistic that is leaving all Arsenal supporters increasingly frustrated. Domestic competition is now fiercer than ever and a team who only a decade ago would be favourites to lift the Barclays Premier League title along with Manchester Utd, now find themselves in a constant battle to remain one of the top four clubs in England. Arsenal’s once safe passage into Europe’s top competition each season is no longer guaranteed, as they must now not only do battle with Manchester Utd, Manchester City and Chelsea, but with Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool to a lesser extent.

Many things remain the same at Arsenal. A flamboyant, free-flowing and easy on the eye style that when firing, earn Arsenal an overwhelming flood of admirers. But things have also changed during the last decade that aren’t so good. Once renowned for their strong defensive capabilities, Arsenal have developed an unnerving frailty in recent years. An inability to hold on to leads, a lack of resistance when under pressure, and a number of glaring individual errors have all contributed to the failings of Arsenal in recent seasons. One thing that Arsenal clearly lack is leadership. A player, or number of players willing to standup, take responsibility and organise a team capable of building and defending leads has eluded the Gunners in recent years. And when they’ve found those calibre of players, they’ve lost them soon enough. Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie to name just a few, driven to leaving the club in order to match the ambitions that their talents should allow them to fulfil.

Pressure is mounting from fans for Wenger to change his philosphy, and strategy in the transfer market. Arsenal have held on to the ideology of buying young players and developing/nurturing their talent for a long-time, and Wenger has often been proven right with a number of purchases. Wenger may argue he already has enough experienced players to call upon whom he feels are capable of taking responsibliity and dictating the direction of Arsenal’s matches – captain Vermaelen and Arteta perhaps those in question. Right now though, they’re not doing a sufficient job. Individual errors, and lapses in concentration are rife in a squad that often look like they lack belief. The biggest worry for Arsenal is that it affects them in all areas of the pitch – Szczesny provides little confidence for a very penetrable backline, Mertesacker is a shadow of the colossus he appears to be in the German national side, Ramsey lacks any kind of midfield identity, seemingly not knowing what kind of midfielder he is meant to be, summer signing Podolski is either fantastic or absolutely anonymous, and the less said about Gervinho the better. Quality strength in depth is seemingly what Arsenal lack at the moment, and despite possessing such precocious talents as Walcott, Cazorla and the ever-improving and imposing Wilshere, Arsenal seem to lack the cutting edge required to generate a consistent run of form. But is change the option? I don’t think so.

Wenger may not have won a trophy since 2005, yet he has continually succeeded in bringing Champions League qualification in every season since. For some fans that isn’t enough but its a massive feather in the cap in a time where Arsenal have neither had the financial power or capability to attract world-class talent to the club like their rivals. Financial statistics from the last decade show Arsenal have made a net profit of £15m from transfers in the last ten years, in comparison to Chelsea’s loss of £524.5m, Manchester City’s loss of £417.8m, Manchester United’s loss of £123.4m, and Tottenham’s loss of £102.3m. With those statistics on offer, even Wenger’s biggest critics surely can’t hold him accountable for a transfer budget that is surely not within his control, and his sides limited success can surely be attributed to Arsenal finding themselves playing in the most financially competitive and high calibre league in the world.

He does have things to work on and address. The need for controlling influences alongside the emerging Wilshere should be top of his agenda, and the need for a regular goalscorer remains despite Theo Walcott’s promising recent form. But Wenger is gradually moulding a set of players able to compete at the highest level, slowly but surely. His main aim with the current set of players will be to strengthen their defensive resolve, as their attacking prowess is their for all to see. The Arsenal supporters have long had the saying ‘in Arsene we trust’ – I suggest they keep that faith a little while longer.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why our Ryder Cup heroes must come of age in the Majors

Image

They helped inspire the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history last September. With Europe 10-4 down against the United States with two afternoon matches left on the course, England’s finest had their input on proceedings.

Luke Donald produced a superb long iron at the 17th to extingush the challenge of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. That was followed by a truly inspirational performance from Ian Poulter, providing the kind of scintilating golf that current world no.1 and partner Rory McIlroy would have been proud to produce.

Both Donald and Poulter would go on to produce superb performances in the Sunday singles, providing Europe with victory in the opening two matches. Justin Rose was another who shone on Sunday against United States stalwart Phil Mickelson. Mickelson himself had enjoyed a fine Ryder Cup and led Rose by one with three holes remaining. But a clutch putt for par on 16, and birdies on 17 and 18 turned the match in Europe and Rose’s favour. The English contingent wasn’t done though as Lee Westwood finally brought his A-game to Medinah on Sunday. Having struggled throughout, Westwood produced a solid performance to comfortably beat Matt Kuchar 3&2.

Under the most severe pressure and media scrutiny, the United States had faltered and Europe had relished the opportunity to step in and complete the most remarkable comeback golf had ever seen. A serious statement was made by Donald, Poulter, Rose and Westwood on that day – but in reality, the hard work is still to do. With Westwood finally joining his countrymen in making the move to playing full-time on the PGA Tour, England’s finest must focus on winning major championships. Not competing, WINNING.

Despite all the success Europe have experienced in recent years during the Ryder Cup, the fact remains that getting the job done in major championships remains a real problem. Only four of Europes winning Ryder Cup team have experience of winning major titles, in comparison to the United States team who fielded a team of seven major champions – as well as the reigning FedEx cup champion and Players champion. Breakthrough performers on the big stage in the last couple of years come in the form of major champions Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson, as well as FedEx cup champion Brandt Snedeker – and with NI pair Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell producing major championship wins of their own, there is a danger that England’s top golfers may miss out on the opportunity to cash in on Tiger Woods’ temporary decline unless they sit up and take notice.

Perhaps that’s a little harsh – because on reflection, Lee Westwood’s career for one is something you can only marvel at and have the utmost respect for. From a slump into the golfing doldrums into the resurrection of becoming one of the finest ball strikers in professional golf, Westwood has achieved great success. 39 tournament victories across the globe is impressive enough –  but it’s not enough for a man of his talent. Not only has he not won one of golfs major championship, Westwood is yet to win a second-tier WGC event or flagship event on the European/PGA tour. Superb off the tee, and fearsomely accurate in his iron play, it’s a surprise that Westwood isn’t a multiple major champion, let alone a winner of one. Yet its his shortcomings with his putting and general short-game that have ultimately held him back – they reared their ugly head during the Ryder Cup, and it’s something that must be addressed – and fast. Joining the US PGA tour full-time is probably his admission that his time is running out – Westwood must usual the adjulation and spirit of the Ryder Cup success to win a major this year, or he risks being known as one of the best nearly men in major championships.

Luke Donald is well regarded as one of the straightest and most consistent players in the world – and rightly so. His iron play is often unparalleled and his consistency of putting inside 10ft is amongst the elite. The former world no.1 is a winner of both European and US PGA Tour money lists in 2011, and has bagged back-to-back BMW PGA Championships at Wentworth. A highly impressive golfing reputation and CV only lacks one real quality – consistency in the major tourmaments. A record that boasts only 5 Top-10 finishes in his last 22 major starts is not a record that Donald will look fondly upon. Donald’s relative lack of distance off the tee may be a factor in his major shortcomings so far, but with impressive performances at the Masters and Open in the last couple of years, it’s hard to see a game as good as his, coupled with a temperament as calm as his, going unrewarded for much longer. One thing must change though you feel – developing a ruthless streak down the stretch to take those opportunities, or else you feel a similar tag to Westwood as the nearly man may tarnish Donald’s career.

A player of a similarly calm nature is Justin Rose. A career that thus far has gone largely unrewarded for some steady performances is finally beginning to flourish. Much improvement has been made to Rose’s game in the last three years, culminating in multiple victories on the PGA tour. A vast putting improvement, and an ever-evolving iron game are symbolic of Rose’s continued success – along with a calmness and serenity that seem to be taking the career of European’s only ever-present at last years Ryder Cup to new heights. A superb start to the 2013 season indicates Rose may be the man to strengthen Britains foothold at the top of world golf, and relieve the mounting pressure on his fellow countrymen to win an elusive major title.

Being under pressure is something that Ian Poulter is known to thrive upon – a sensational matchplay record in the Ryder Cup, a WGC Matchplay championship and World Matchplay title support the notion that Poulter has all the tools mentally to do get the job done. 6 stroke play titles in the last 3 and a bit years, and 3 top-ten major finishes last season would indicate that the consistency that Poulter has talked about and strived for in his game is finally coming together also. With his Ryder Cup heroics from Medinah fresh in the memory, it would seem now is the perfect time for Poulter to take the iniative and strike that major blow. Team success is all very well and good, but for this current crop of top English golfers to define their careers, each one must do better in the major tournaments to justify their standing at the top of the game. The good news is that they all know it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment