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.