After a quarter of the season, the occasional football fan is scratching her head at why West Ham is in the top 4 while familiar names like Liverpool and Chelsea are missing. Weren’t they in a relegation battle a couple of seasons back, saved by the miracles of Big Sam? How have they beaten a ruthless Manchester City and an Arsenal team that beat Bayern Munich, besides swatting away struggling Chelsea and Liverpool? Has the dawn of the last season at the Hammers’ home for more than a century triggered some sort of nostagia-powered Hollywood script at the Boleyn Ground?
At first sight, all it took was the departure of Sam Allardyce, dubbed Allardici by the English media for his unwavering love of playing the catennacio style. West Ham started taking the game to the opposition and was rewarded with more than desirable scorelines. But it could be argued, as it always could be, that Allardici loosened the proverbial sword for Slaven Bilić to emerge as a miracle man of sorts. Allardyce is tactically the poor man’s Jose Mourinho and while that might not sound like much praise in the context of the current pits “The Special One” finds himself in, history is a great leveller. An Allardician team is basically a tribute to Rocky Balboa because “it’s not about how hard you can hit but about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” This is not just about spatial awareness while defending but also about the type of players that the manager trusts or signs.
Allardyce prefers pantomime old-school British players, epitomized by Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble, who play their hearts out sans world class technique supplemented lightly with cheaply acquired African muscle like Alex Song to keep the team on its toes. That West Ham midfield would readily punt the ball forward as soon as they got it as if it was some spherical package left by Hans Gruber for John McClaine. However, 4 years of Big Sam created enough of a defensive structure to see out games with scrappy second-half winners and a work ethic that Jurgen Klopp would punch the air over. But this was a modest team with modest ambitions that occasionally startled giants, got into brawls with relegation contenders and somehow managed to hover around that annoying area between the top half and the bottom half of the Premier League table.
Enter Bilić. The former centreback, a mainstay of the Croatian team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, is no stranger to the fans at Upton Park, a record-breaking transfer under Harry Redknapp two decades ago. A clutch of players including Nolan and Stewart Downing left the club and in came Dmitri Payet from Marseille, Mauel Lanzini on loan from UAE-based Al Jazira and Angelo Ogbonna from Juventus. The loan deals from the previous season of Alex Song and Carl Jenkison were renewed and Victor Moses was additionally borrowed from Chelsea. The Hammers then shot off the block by shocking Arsenal on opening day and since then no team has really made them sweat, except Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth before their wretched spate of injuries.
Bilić has changed how the team transitions from defense to attack by putting the onus on his midfielders and it has made a world of difference. While the brilliance of Payet has been unmistakable in every game so far, his midfield partners sitting in front of the defense have been phenomenal. The wide-players keep changing but the midfield in a 4-3-3 is a solid foundation with Senegalese Cheikhou Kouyaté and skipper Noble covering ground and breaking up play, especially against attacking sides like Manchester City, while providing extra bodies running in while attacking. Local highschool boy Reece Oxford has also shown enough maturity in the holding midfield role to keep former Gunner and Barcelona-loanee Song out of the team. Thus, it would seem that Bilić inherited a beat-up pick-up truck and instead of rehauling the whole thing, he stuck a Dodge supercharged V8 in it. The results have put more expensively assembled teams to shame.
Bilić is no stranger to puckering up and going all Gandalf in front of Balrog while defending, from his playing days. But the tempo at which Premier League football is played has become faster and faster since then and getting a team to defend is much harder these days, as Mourinho would attest. The return of Andy Carroll from injury has provided fresh impetus to aerial play in the final third, if teams were wising up to the wily running of Diafra Sakho. Once the business end of the season reaches peak in the next two months, there might be a better grip on the future of this team but like Swansea under Michael Laudrup and Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino, this West Ham team has been a breath of fresh air in the busy mid-table scramble in the Premier League. But until then, this team looks to be on course to throwing Upton Park a farewell party season, reminiscent of the Gunners’ parting from Highbury, before their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016.