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To Bilic, or not to Bilic?

Filed: Thursday, 6th October 2016
By: Gary Portugal

On every metric, Slaven Bilic is failing THIS season, no matter how well he did last season. Whilst the excuses trotted out may have some merit, such as injuries and the stadium move, in the end they are just that – excuses.

In truth the decline started at the back end of last season, when Swansea battered us at Upton Park and we failed at Stoke on the last day with an assured European place on the line. To take one point from our last four fixtures of the season, all of which were winnable and three of which were at home is appalling. There's no other way to say it.

Despite all of this, I would NOT sack Bilic at the moment. Why not? Not because he’s a nice guy, which he undeniably is. Because, simply put, I cannot think of a suitable, realistic replacement. Steve Bruce? No thanks. Harry Redknapp? Ditto.

With Avram Grant it was different – there WERE other options available,but the Board dithered and we paid the price. Circumstances are different now. There simply are few, if any, realistic alternatives to Bilic out there right now.

Does he deserve an ongoing free pass based on that? Nope, definitely not. But much as I think he DESERVES to be let go following our shambolic start, in my view sacking him now is not the answer, and could well make things a lot worse.

Am I being harsh by implying that if a decent replacement WERE available, that we should sack Bilic? In my view, no. The start of this season has been an unmitigated failure, from the Europa League onwards. Obviously the ultimate responsibility lies with the players, but Bilic does bear a significant portion of the blame for the nasty situation we find ourselves in.

He’s a lovely guy, in contrast to the ogre who was his predecessor. As such, it pains me to see him failing this badly , because he’s a really decent human being. In terms of results, it really could not be any worse. Booted out of Europe by average opposition, on our own patch. In the bottom three for the international break , with arguably the worst defence in the division at the moment. With few positives to find, the question becomes , who is responsible for all this, and to what degree?

Of course the players, Bilic and his staff and the Board all bear SOME responsibility. Nobody is guilt-free here. Not even the supporters. Obviously the football has been a shambles. But even BEFORE we’ve conceded in recent matches, the atmosphere at the 0lympic Stadium has been very subdued. INCREDIBLY quiet at times, although it was slightly better for the Boro fixture.

I think that the Board worked hard this summer to bolster the squad, but with limited success. It did not help matters that the Board telegraphed and advertised its intentions to all and sundry in a very unsubtle way, regarding transfers. Nobody can fault the amount of money invested by the board in recent seasons. But they left it very late to bring Zaza in, for which we’re paying a price now, as he does not look sharp.

The Board were also slow to recognise the need for cover in the full back positions, even before Cresswell’s injury and given Byram’s lack of top flight experience. We brought Arbeloa in but only at the last minute, even though he was available all summer. Which means that if the Board can be faulted, but only a bit, then the bulk of the blame lies with the players and managerial staff.

Where exactly has it gone wrong for Bilic? Initially, the problem was the well documented playing of players out of position - specifically Michail Antonio and, to a lesser extent, Havard Nordtveit, neither of whom are proper full backs. Eventually Bilic saw sense, or was MADE to see sense, but by that time, the damage had been done.

More recently, team selection has been an issue as opposed to playing people out of position. Persisting with Collins , despite his catalogue of errors (starting with conceding a late equalizer in Romania and continuing in ALL his Premier League appearances apart from the Boor game, when he finally played well) is the best example. Ogbonna is way more mobile than Collins and much better on the ball, yet Bilic persisted for too long with the Welshman.

Bilic continues to play Simone Zaza, who to date has barely registered a shot on target and has struggled to even hold the ball up. Fletcher may be young, but in his limited time on the pitch he’s looked more of a threat than either Zaza or Jonathan Calleri. Against Boro, Bilic finally thought outside the box and played Antonio up front, which was long overdue. The man DID play upfront at times for Forest, so this was not THAT radical an idea, and should have been tried sooner, especially given Antonio’s goal scoring record this season and last.

But sadly, Bilic also chose to start Gokhan Tore against Boro, who is arguably our worst player of the season to date, and still looks unfit. Why do this when options like Spfiane Feghouli and Manuel Lanzini were available?

Bilic has lacked the bottle to bench senior players who are underperforming, notably Mark Noble and Cheik Kouyate, both of whom have been substandard. These two have failed to give adequate protection to the back four, yet have been rewarded with starts, whilst Pedro Obiang has been left to rot on the bench until recently.

It is true that none of our wingers have covered themselves in glory from a defensive point of view, but this responsibility must lie more with our holding midfielders, and with Bilic in terms of the formation he chooses. Just because Noble is the captain and Kouyate was such an engine LAST season does not mean that they should be left of the hook. And a player like Reece Oxford has been TOTALLY frozen out. Why?

If we’re not going to play Oxford then why didn't we loan him out, assuming he’s old enough to go out on loan? Additionally, was it really wise to sell James Tomkins, given our limited cover at right back and the ageing of Collins? Did Bilic have a say in the sale, or was it forced on him by the club? Or did Tomkins simply demand a move? We may never know what really happened there, or not for a while anyway. But Tomkins certainly would have come in handy at either right back or centre half in these first seven games.

The length of our injury list also calls into question Bilic’s training methods. All teams suffer injuries, but what we are experiencing this season is beyond the pale. Something is not right and the way our players train, warm up and warm down must come under scrutiny.

The latest casualty, Byram, whilst making a diving header, injured his hamstring after just five minutes on the pitch. Andre Ayew lasted less than 20 minutes on his debut. Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot, though. Did we really need to risk Andy Carroll on a dodgy Romanian pitch? Did Arthur Masuako really need to start against Accrington, given our pre-existing injuries at fullback?

One way of assessing our current situation is to ask what place we would be in if we had a TOP manager, with our exact current squad. Under Guardiola, Wenger, Mourinho, Klopp, even Kouman, would we be 18th? I doubt it.

Obviously, we’re in no position yet to get a manager of that stature, but that is not my point. My point is simply that these players have not become bad overnight, despite making a series of avoidable individual errors in the first seven games. A better manager would have seen our league position improve considerably, with the SAME squad.

Final thoughts on the matter? In an ideal world I’d replace Bilic as he has not been good enough THIS campaign, despite being very successful last season. But in the REAL world, we cannot sack/replace him. There simply is nobody out there worth taking a chance on now.

I sincerely hope that the point vs. Boro has not only stopped the rot, but marks the start of us gradually getting back to our best after the international break. Bilic is a good person and I would love to see him turn it around, but I’m not overly optimistic. In my view, even at this early stage the table does not lie. We need to start sorting it immediately, at Selhurst Park.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.

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