With Leicester City stealing the limelight with their unprecedented run, the revival of West Ham United has gone somewhat unnoticed. The Hammers are in fifth place and chasing a Champions league spot and on current form look like strong contenders for it. The arrival of former favourite Slaven Bilic as manager replacing the reliable but uninspiring Sam Allardyce has sparked life back into the East London club who have faltered in recent seasons. Having finished mid table in the past three season since returning to the Premier League following a one year stay in the Championship, it appeared as though West Ham had once again found their level. But with the arrival of Bilic and a change in overall attitude at the club, things have started to look up for the Hammers as they slowly climbed the table towards unchartered territory.
What has been most impressive about West Ham this year has been their confidence going into matches, something that they sadly lacked under Allardyce. Not that big Sam was necessarily a negative manager, more so that the general approach was to stick with the tried and tested formula and hope that it got them the result they were looking for. Calling it a long ball approach is unjustified but the use of Andy Carroll as a figure point up front did imply that the direct approach was favoured. The problem with sticking to a certain formula regardless of the nature of that formula is that your opposition can figure you out fairly quickly and if smart enough counteract it therefore nullifying your attacking threat. Under Bilic that has happened less often with the Croatian boss more than willing to adapt his approach in order to win the game. In a sense that is why West Ham are outperforming expectations and at the same time playing with a freedom that has been lacking over the years.
Bilic is part of a new batch of managers that are slowly making their way into the Premier League. Like Southampton’s Ronald Koeman or Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, Bilic approaches the game with a different view point. Whilst more longer serving managers in the League view each match as part of a long term chess game – willing to give up one point here to ensure three points the following week, Bilic takes each game as it comes with the desire to win each one individually. He analyses the game in advance and sets his tactics accordingly to counteract specific threats but unlike some of his other fellow managers is more than willing to adjust or go for it if the game is not panning out just as expected. Take for example last weeks clash away to Everton. Starting with three central defenders in order to match the attacking Everton trio of Mirallas, Lukaku and Lennon, West Ham found themselves outplayed and overrun with Everton dictating the play and in doing so surging into a 1-0 lead. At half time, Bilic switched his approach bringing on Carroll for young Reece Oxford and changing to a more direct 4-4-2. The switch looked to have failed when Lennon ran through to put Everton 2-0 up 11 minutes after the restart but by then Bilic had already seen the balance of the game shifting. He made the switch following the dismissal of Everton striker Kevin Miralles and the reluctant of Everton boss Roberto Martinez to change his formation before the break. Eventually the switch began to work with West Ham scoring twice to draw the game before snatching a late winner through their talisman Dimitri Payet right at the death.
The win against Everton was their seventh in the past eleven Premier League games and leaves them one point behind Manchester City in fourth and only six points off second place. Whilst Bilic is a huge element of this seasons success, the players must also take a lot of credit. West Ham have done a good job in blending their recent siginings like Victor Moses, Sam Byram, Michail Antonio and Pedro Obiang into the first team along side club mainstays like Mark Noble and James Collins. The introduction of youthful exuberance has also helped West Ham to flourish with Reece Oxford in particular a revelation. But with any successful team, West Ham owe a lot of their good fortune to one player this season – Payet. The Frenchman arrived in the summer from Marseille and has been nothing short of spectacular. He drives the team forward and has been at the heart of almost every good move that the team has started and finished this season. Its little wonder that he is being touted as a potential winner of the PFA Player of the Year trophy after a breathtaking debut season in the Premier League. Bilic will be keen to finish the season strongly and secure European football for next season before embarking on building up his squad for the next campaign. Next year will be an exciting one for the club regardless as they move to the Olympic Stadium which with it brings larger gate receipts and increased revenues. That money will be pushed back into the club and the first team with the hope that Bilic can build apon what he has started. Given what he has achieved so far, the chances of that happening must be incredibly high with the sky being the limit now for the mighty Hammers.