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West Brom 0-0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)


Filed: Monday, 18th September 2017
By: HeadHammerShark


I am a terrible Englishman.

I do not drink tea or coffee, and society is simply not able to cope with that. I have lost count of the conferences, meetings and social visits that have ended with me drinking nothing while a host looks on disconcertedly, or worse, scrabbling round in a distant cupboard for some Ribena. Which I also do not drink, but am now forced to out of a desire not to be impolite.

But, to an outsider, context is everything.

I'm not sat in that front room drinking the purple teeth destroyer because I want to, but because it's the least worst thing available to me.


"Who said you could attack?"


And so to the footballing caliphate of West Bromwich, where modern practices are eschewed and shunned in favour of safety-first football that will one day be studied by great physicians of the future as the first cause of mass eye-bleeding in the English Midlands.

Or put another way, this was so terrible a game of football that shortly after the final whistle blew, ISIS claimed responsibility for it.

But all of this has to be placed in a wider context. I'm not sure Slaven Bilic wants to drink this particular brand of Ribena either, but he is left with little choice. The start to the season has been so dreadful and his team so inept that he simply had to act, and the basis of any such self renewal is always the defence.

And so it has come to pass that Bilic has returned to the 3-4-3 formation that best suits his slow backline and least suits his current attackers, and the results have been two clean sheets, four points and great swathes of existential anguish.

Whatever your opinion on the quality of these last two games, one can't deny that it feels an awful lot better to have four points in the bank and to be moaning about the manner in which we gained them rather than being, well, Crystal Palace.

***

This was a curious game in so much as it felt that we were very clearly the better side but the xG map below from Caley Graphics doesn't agree. This is a reflection that while we came closest to scoring, those chances themselves weren't really very good. Instead we relied on individual excellence to fashion something from unpromising situations. Sort of like when Susanna Reid rolls her eyes at some shit Piers Morgan is saying and somehow continues to be professional while working with an hyperactive adolescent orang-utan.



Entirely appropriate


And so Pedro Obiang brilliantly spotted Ben Foster trying to tunnel his way out of the stadium to play for a team where he wasn't the main creative force, and audaciously lobbed him from all of 40 yards, only to see it crash back off the bar. Chicharito also burst through on to a Carroll flick on and was cynically hacked down by Foster when through on goal, albeit heading away from the danger area.

But as far as goal scoring chances go, we didn't create too much that would usually result in a goal. Our xG of 0.2 is the lowest I can ever remember from us, which will be hard to comprehend for some given we hit the bar, but if you think about it this makes sense. If Obiang were to try that shot again (which he did in the second half), he would be very unlikely to score (he put the second effort on to the roof). All this is saying is that we didn't create much by way of high quality chances even if we by and large dominated the game in most ways.





Our best chance was probably a glancing header from Fonte that, on another day, could have flashed into the corner. This is promising because we relied heavily on set pieces last year, although the gap between Payet and Cresswell in terms of delivery is, um, noticeable.

But mostly this was fairly agricultural fare. There were long balls to Carroll once more, and a near complete reliance on Antonio to carry the ball and fashion chances from deeper positions.

Furthermore, Chicharito was once more banished to the left as we continue to sacrifice all our attacking options at the altar of CarrollBall. There was a moment in the second half when Bilic had Arnautovic, Antonio, Hernandez and Carroll on the pitch at the same time during a brief foray into the realms of Ossie Ardiles. This came about because James Collins was injured and Bilic replaced him with Arnautovic and returned Antonio to right wing back AS THOUGH LAST SEASON NEVER HAPPENED.

It boggles my mind, but we're apparently back there again.

***

Reactions to these columns are always pretty interesting, even if not always complimentary. Some of you were upset last week that it was all too negative - why can't you take more positives out of being bottom of the league? - while others think it's all a bit repetitive. For the former I offer no apology, but the latter is, I think, a problem. Some of that is the natural spin off from writing match reports about the same team, which will always lend itself to repetition, but also because we do seem to be stuck in some sort of footballing Mobius Strip. I can't quite figure out if I'm doing thirty eight different match reports a season or the same match report thirty eight different times.



West Ham's road to recovery


For that reason, I can see some glimmers of hope from Saturday, which is kind of ironic because I'm pretty sure that some West Brom fans were engaged in a mutual suicide pact towards the end.

It wasn't much by way of hope, admittedly, but the faint whisper that Bilic is at least seeing what his problems are and making some tangible moves to fix them. We remain a see saw of a team, whereby walking up one end simply causes the other to shoot up. As such, two clean sheets and barely any chances given up suggests that he's temporarily fixed the defensive side of things, but it's clearly been done at the expense of our attack.

In reality that's the right way round, because if you don't concede you can still pick up points, but when you concede two goals every week it places an intolerable strain on the attack. So we have gone with three centre backs and for the most part we look very comfortable although it should be acknowledged that both Huddersfield and West Brom had all the offensive ambition of the Swiss Navy.

Spurs will be the acid test of our nascent recovery. They are a proper team who will be smarting from their last visit and who need a result to stay in touch, even at this early stage. Defensively all our success against them has come with a high press, so I don't really know how we will get on with that on Saturday if Carroll is playing. He doesn't offer the mobility of Calleri and Ayew, who did it so well last season, which causes concern as we don't really want Spurs to have time to pick us apart.

Behind him, with just two in the centre we run the risk of being outnumbered again, leaving Kouyate and Obiang to do too much physical work. It also seems feasible to expect Spurs to target those wide open spaces in behind our full backs. West Brom didn't do this because the last one of Tony Pulis's full backs to cross the half way line was stapled to a horse for a week as punishment.

So, you can say that Bilic picked a fabulous time to get his defence in order, by doing it against two of the least ambitious teams around. Alternatively you could posit that he wasted a great opportunity here to kick the season into a higher gear with an away win at a team who were actively avoiding attacking as if they were some kind of Gandhi tribute act.

***

In examining why we play three at the back - everyone is old and slow and doesn't really know what they're supposed to be doing at any given moment - it's probably worth considering why the 4-2-3-1 has stopped working.

Usually in this formation the two full backs bomb forward, and the deepest lying central midfielder drops into the back line to make a three. There are those of you with coaching qualifications who can better expound on what this does to the game, but looking back to 2014-15 and 2015-16 when we were at our recent peak, we had Alex Song to superbly fill this role. Looking more widely around world football you will also see players like Mascherano - the Catalan Hayden Mullins - Sergio Busquets and David Luiz floating around in these roles.

This fluidity of movement is what separates the elite from teams like us, but it does explain why centre backs quite often appear in midfield roles without explanation. Song fell away for us in 2015-16 but Noble was outstanding that season, and furthermore having Dimitri Payet in your side can help detract from a lot of other deficiencies.

I suspect that Havard Nordtveit was bought for this purpose last year, and it might also explain why Bilic has been so keen to blood the likes of Reece Oxford and Declan Rice. Each are converted centre backs who can play in midfield, and should be able, theoretically, to drop back and assist without the mass panic and confusion that seems to accompany it these days.

With none of these options really paying off, Bilic targeted William Carvalho and might well have got him if everyone involved in the process wasn't a fucking lunatic. But he didn't, and as a result, with Obiang the only player fit enough and impressive enough to occupy the role, Bilic seems to have decided that the chaotic defending being offered by the four at the back can't continue.

What is noticeable, however, is that going to a back three seems to render us pretty impotent going forward. However, that is in contrast to last season, when we actually looked quite fluid at times and produced our better displays with that line up.

The Geordie in the room here is that when we played that way we didn't have Andy Carroll as the focal point of our attack. Playing him, and smashing long balls in his vague direction, seems to negate other players. Hernandez, as seen below, is visibly uninvolved in games when shunted out wide and Kouyate too seems strangely neutered.



Times Javier Hernandez touched the ball and then pondered firing his agent


So while I respect the point, and acknowledge the necessary evil of getting down into the mud and sewers to battle with Huddersfield and West Brom, I'll also add that I really struggle to see how this formation beats better teams.

***

I'm guessing that the coach journey back from this game was an interesting one. Earlier, Carroll went off shaking his head in disgust at the notion of being substituted, with all the self awareness of a man who has actually dyed a section of his pony tail blonde. Already we had seen Chicharito withdrawn, trudging off with demeanour of a man hired to perform magic tricks at a party but then being asked to serve the trifle instead. Neither Ayew or Sakho will be happy on the bench, while the notoriously zen like Arnautovic isn't going to last long as a substitute before going apeshit in some highly public fashion.

That just leaves Antonio, who was shunted back into his least favourite position and suddenly I am left to wonder if Bilic is going to achieve the stupendous feat of giving all these players gametime and somehow keeping none of them happy?

Adding Manuel Lanzini back into the mix further complicates matters, although the reality there is that the Argentine walks straight back in and the rest must fight it out. In the end, I can't really tell you what I think Bilic will do because none of these forward players beyond Antonio and maybe Arnatouvic make much sense for this system.

My biggest gripe with the use of Hernandez isn't so much that he is starting out wide because he can drift infield, but more that he is so deep. It doesn't seem like it should be beyond the wit of man to conceive of a system whereby we get our penalty box striker into the box.

In real terms, it's actually hard to make a case for Hernandez playing if this is going to be the system we employ from here. Arnautovic would do the wide job better and is a more natural fit. Antonio is untouchable on the other flank, leaving only the central position to decide. I suspect Bilic will go with Carroll even though the fans will clamour for Hernandez, and Sakho is going to stay in a bench-based purgatory until he can resume his transfer wanderings in January.

In reality, that's probably a sensible decision because I just can't see Hernandez as a lone central striker in this formation. All of which does rather beg the question - what formation did they buy him to play in?

***

It's never a great sign upon entering a football stadium when you are presented with a rock hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster and given the option of "doing a Shawshank" at some point in the second half if it all gets a bit much. But that's the way of it at The Hawthorns.

I actually feel rather sorry for West Brom fans, who are trapped in what I call the "Scudamore Snare" - the club is reliant upon Premier League status and thus this must come before all else. No notion of entertaining football can be considered without first weighing up if it would jeopardise their safety. It is the way of things for mid table sides and we were there ourselves just a couple of seasons ago.

And so it comes to pass that even when they have a good transfer window and make exciting signings like Kieran Gibbs, Oliver Burke and Grzegorz Krychowiak (taking the well trodden path from Seville to Paris to West Bromwich), there is still a feeling that Pulis has only done all of that with a view to turning them each into a centre back. Even Gareth Barry popped up, so slow that he could play for us, and sat in front of the back four looking to break up play. There wasn't much ambition on show.

But for all that, they are a team who know how they play. Each of their players understands exactly what is required of him, and each carries that job out diligently. It's not interesting to watch, but it's effective.

By comparison to us, one would say they are at least in possession of an identity, and an obvious path forward. Buy better players and add some attacking intent and it's not hard to squint and see them in the top ten regularly.

By contrast, Bilic is behind them now. He is striving to find that sense of self and is presumably aware that while his current system seems tailor made to extract the best from Jose Fonte, it is similarly rendering Cheikhou Kouyate almost totally ineffective.

Bilic is a bright man, and will know all this, and the advantage he holds over Pulis is probably that if he gets his system right his attacking players will deliver more for him in the long run.

But perhaps the most pertinent question of all is this: if the way forward from here is to take this Allardycian approach to the game whereby we fixate on defence, respect the point and try to build on top, then why would you ever employ anyone other than Allardyce to implement it? Bilic is hampered here by the fact that he took an Allardyce team and advanced it, before regressing with terrifying speed once Payet downed tools. Few would argue that the current team, in this vein of poor form stretching back to the beginning of 2017, are much different to any of Allardyce's teams.



Miss me much?


And here's the rub. You can play like this to steady the ship for a while but eventually fans will want more. There has to be more to life than respecting the point at West Brom. Thus, the search for an identity goes on but it strikes me that the one you probably don't want to take on at West Ham would be that of Sam Allardyce.


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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