At the stroke of midnight on Wednesday 31st of August many West Ham fans might have breathed a sigh of relief with the close of the transfer window. Despite nagging rumours to the contrary Dimitri Payet stayed at the club, 10 new first-teamers had signed and only a couple of players departed. However, doubts remain – following successful summer business the previous two seasons this window felt less than spectacular with questions being raised regarding the overall strength of the squad.
Before going any further three things need to be acknowledged in mitigation; firstly the inflation in transfer fees brought about by the most recent TV deals – when a striker as limited as Christian Benteke is fetching a £32million transfer fee it’s not easy find value in the market. Likewise the threat of Britain leaving the EU has resulted in sterling (no, not Raheem) taking a bit of a buffeting on the international markets, effectively making foreign transfers around 10 per cent more expensive. And finally the club could not have anticipated the second successive early elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Romanian side Astra Giurgiu – with a potentially long campaign in the offing it was easy to see how volume in player trading may have taken precedence over quality.
Once manager Slaven Bilic’s tactics are examined it becomes even more difficult to detect a unity or coherence around summer purchases and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what sort of team the Croat’s West Ham are. Lacking resilience at the back the squad lacks the pace in midfield and quality at full-back to play a counter-attacking style. A quick glance at match statistics would dispel any thoughts of them being a possession side either. In conclusion, the Hammers seem little more than a Payet side (with a sideways nod to the abilities of Manuel Lanzini). Take those two out of the team, as has been the case so far this season, and the first XI looks decidedly average.
Other sides have bought well, meaning it will be difficult to better last year’s seventh place especially if the results against the better sides (as they already appear to be) dry up. A feature of Bilic’s side is how seldom they dominate inferior opponents and just two wins against the bottom three last season points to some potential banana skins this term.
The area of least concern is between the sticks. Despite the occasional histrionics and a weakness off his line Adrian has proved himself a good quality goalkeeper and has deservedly been handed a call-up into the Spanish squad. Darren Randolph is a competent if not brilliant deputy and currently an Ireland regular. Likewise, at left-back Arthur Makuasu appears to offer the injured Aaron Cresswell real competition and the team greater defensive solidity in an area hitherto lacking both.
At centre-back James Tomkins has left his boyhood club for a very reasonable £10m – especially bearing in mind he was a fourth choice behind Angelo Ogbonna, Winston Reid and James Collins. However, Reid hasn’t yet returned to his pre-injury form of last season and is looking hurried and out of touch. The signing on a free from Mönchengladbach of Håvard Nordtveit as a utility defender/holding midfielder is an expression of the foolhardiness of aiming for a bigger squad at the expense of quality. Although technically good, two-footed and decent in the air the Norwegian international lacks the pace for a midfield spot and the defending ability to challenge the regular centre-halves. Unkind comparisons with former Hammer Radoslav Kováč won’t be long coming.
The situation up front has been some way less than ideal. Enner Valencia lost form and confidence and has been shipped off to Everton on a season’s loan. Although the Ecuadorian never for a moment stopped giving his all, his pace and fierce shot never made up for a lack of footballing nous. Diafra Sakho has embarked on a huge strop and can be considered persona non grata. A real shame as his form when first at the club alongside Valencia and supported by Stewart Downing was nothing short of sensational. One way or another Bilic has rid the club of all three – on the face of it an odd judgement.
Andy Carroll is a limited player despite an underrated left foot. But his lack of link-up play doesn’t suit Bilic at all. And yet another in a seemingly endless run of injuries could be a positive as it pushed the club into the market. Nothing sums up the transfer window better than Chairman David Sullivan’s earlier pledge to buy a £30m striker before finding nobody wanted to play for The Irons and finally paying Swansea £20m for a right winger-cum-forward only for André Ayew to rupture a thigh muscle half an hour into his debut. A reciprocal axiom to the one about fortune favouring the brave?
Jonathan “Julian” Calleri seems a punt for the future and little can be read into his form. Yet the signing of Simone Zaza from Juventus on a loan-to-buy move for £28m if not a full-scale panic buy certainly displayed signs of the jitters. Despite being a full Italian international Zaza only scores at a rate of one in three, lacks blinding pace, isn’t dominant in the air but works hard. Sound familiar? Yes, if it wasn’t for the £20m plus disparity in transfer fee it’s difficult to distinguish him from Sakho.
Perhaps the brightest signings are Swiss midfielder Edmilson Fernandes from Sion and French-born Algerian international Sofiane Feghouli from Valencia. Although a relative unknown Fernandes is expected to go straight into the side to supplement the attacking strength of Payet and Lanzini. Feghouli is lightning quick, has a good touch and as proved against FK Domžale an eye for goal from wide.
Which brings us to the most vexing area of the pitch, the right side. Following injuries to on-loan Carl Jenkinson and young signing Sam Byram last season the right-back position was filled by Michail Antonio, a natural winger. Even the least educated football brain could see the former Forest player was positionally all over the place in defence. All except Bilic who insisted he could convert the player and concentrated on filling the squad with right wingers. Some sympathy should be extended to the manager – it is one of the less appealing traits of the Premier League players are bought and sold as seen, with little attempt at development.
Meanwhile Fegholi was followed by both Ayew and perplexingly the woeful Gökhan Töre – the squad began to resemble a Theresa May cabinet so full was it of right-wingers. The Turk wasn’t bought but arrived on loan due to Bilic being the only person in the club to rate his former player. Three league games into the season and the penny dropped for Bilic as a series of poor defensive performances from Antonio culminated in the acquisition of Alvaro Arbeloa from Real Madrid. So there we are, one inexperienced and one over-the-hill right back, four right-wingers.
This all taps into the abrasive personality of Bilic. Ever the idealist he doesn’t appear able to tolerate deficiencies in his players even if they are of his own creation. Antonio and Ogbonna have been ruthlessly and humiliatingly withdrawn during games (the latter before half-time on his full debut) while Morgan Amalfitano and Sakho have suffered from off-field fallings-out. Each may be acceptable but taken together they appear less the acts of a manager and more of a dictator.
Let’s hope our manager turns out more Josip Tito than Slobodan Milošević.