Isolating blame at West Ham is tricky. Saying, for instance, that Slaven Bilic’s time is probably up is often taken as an indirect defence of the club’s ownership. Because battle lines have been drawn in public, with Bilic himself becoming increasingly adversarial in press-conferences, the temptation is to believe that a side has to be picked. Either West Ham’s supporters must be with their board or with their head-coach, but not both.
On Saturday, the 3-2 loss to Tottenham was highly descriptive of the on-field issues. The home team were chaotic for long periods of that game and the ease with which Mauricio Pochettino’s forward line cut through their defence was alarming. Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are all talented players, but Bilic’s players performed as if they were completely unaware of the collective threat they posed. Not just ignorant of their individual qualities, but also their habits and traits on the field. Unfortunately for Bilic, it’s impossible to dress that up as anything other than a preparation problem – or, more seriously, as an inability to nullify a known threat. The late comeback showed some spirit and softened the embarrassment, but it was little more than a mask for a poor performance.
Bilic does have qualities, but almost everything positive written about him begins and ends with his motivational qualities and the personal relationships he’s able to foster with players. In the past, he has overseen good results against Tottenham, but in hindsight – and with the contrast of results achieved outside of that isolated fixture – they’ve been indicators of nothing other than strong derby focus. Dimitri Payet was instrumental in the spring of 2016 and, earlier this year, the level of application and concentration far exceeded that seen in almost every other game.
The irony is that while those two wins unquestionably strengthened Bilic’s position – and the second almost certainly saved him from the sack – they’ve also shown how unsuited he might be to this job. He’s obviously capable of fanning the natural animosity towards Tottenham and stoking certain fires in the bigger fixtures, but not of mastering the cold-blooded detail in the more mundane matches.
To the outsider, West Ham look like a club pulling in many different directions. While the varying personalities contained within the management structure all work for the same organisation, they all appear aimed towards different agendas and loyal to a range of approaches. That has most vividly been demonstrated by the transfer processes. Earlier this summer, the club appeared to have arrived at a more balanced approach and their swift identification and capture of targets suggested that lessons had been learnt, not least from issues created a year before.
But the tone is different now. The snafu between David Sullivan and his manager after the transfer-window closed, relating to the opportunity to sign Grzegorz Krychowiak and Renato Sanches, exposed the lack of consensus. Clearly, there are contrasting ideas about what the way forward should actually be at London Stadium.
West Ham’s board members are relatively unique within the Premier League. While the modern trend now is for executives to be silent and to rarely appear in the media, they are clearly determined to be public facing. Karren Brady still has a national newspaper column, David Gold has a Twitter account, and quotes from David Sullivan regularly appear online. Under those conditions, where a manager is forced to operate under a swirl of forthright opinions, the situation calls for a particular type of coach.
That type doesn’t appear to be Bilic. Managers who operate successfully inside a vacuum – within clubs shaped by politics, for instance, or situations in which their role is strictly limited to the training-ground or compromised by pressures from above – tend to either rely on glinting squads or pronounced tactical acumen. Rarely does it create an optimal situation, but one, or sometimes both of those factors allow the team to exist in relative independence.
Currently, the best example of that in England is probably Rafael Benitez. In spite of Newcastle’s notoriously vague model and their meagre efforts in the recent transfer period, he has a limited group of players performing well above their means. His side retain some obvious flaws, but the rigidity of their structure has allowed many of them to fade. Under different conditions, he performed similarly well at Chelsea: he was parachuted in to replace the sacked Roberto Di Matteo in late 2012 and, despite being famously loathed by the crowd and in charge of an imbalanced squad, would ultimately finish third and win the Europa League. Not a commentary on the impact of his personality, of course, but a measure of how resistant his methods are to interference and imperfect situations. Benitez does not need to have a lot of control to be successful.
By contrast, Bilic seems to be at the mercy of the collective mood. The kind of manager who accentuates existing strengths, but is powerless to cure major structural weaknesses once they emerge. Under more favourable conditions and within a sporting network attuned to his strengths and weaknesses, he would likely be successful. In this particular case, though, he is a man on an island, lacking the technical resources to make the most out of a trying situation. It’s not necessarily a judgement, but it is a reality.
The mind always wanders back to the Robert Snodgrass transfer and the interview given by the Scottish international after he left. Snodgrass described a laissez faire coach, one who believed in confidence and expression over order, and was never truly convinced that Bilic knew much about him as a player. Perhaps that was the Croat’s failing, perhaps it was an ugly commentary on how West Ham do business; either way, one imagines that a more pragmatic manager, the type who places greater stock in the game’s tangibles, would have been able to extract more value from the investment. Even if, as seems to have been the case, the decision to sign him was taken by someone else.
Really, this is the crucial issue: owners don’t abandon their methods easily – particularly those who have spent decades in the game and believe in their way of doing things. Sullivan and Gold are not for turning and neither are they in any obvious hurry to sell up and move on. They should have employed a director of football. They haven’t. They should pursue players who all conform to a particular set of beliefs. They don’t. In each case, change seems highly unlikely. Consequently, the most realistic hope is for the manager’s role to be adjusted to that imperfect thinking. Specifically, it’s important that the next move is to employ someone unencumbered by that lack of unified culture and a manager capable of distilling the best parts of what, regrettably, will presumably always be a haphazard recruiting strategy.
That would involve humility on the owners’ part. No little self-awareness, either. But they must recognise the need to create immunity from the difficulties that they create. If Bilic is to go – and that does seem inevitable – his replacement can’t just be anyone. Not a motivator, not someone dependent on unity, but rather the kind of disciplinarian who can create a hermetic seal around the first-team, insulating it from the rest of the club.