Midway through the first half, Slaven Bilic switched his wingers. Michail Antonio went left, André Ayew went right. It was a sure sign that Bilic’s tactics were malfunctioning.
In theory it made sense for West Ham United to start in a 4-4-2 system, which plays to the strengths of both Andy Carroll and Javier Hernández, for the first time this season. Yet a plan that looks good on paper will never work if players are confused by their instructions and in practice West Ham’s ponderous approach rarely stretched Swansea City. There was no flow, no rhythm, and the disgruntled atmosphere at the London Stadium grew to a mutinous pitch when Diafra Sakho replaced the ineffective Hernández in the 78th minute.
A dire game was drifting towards a goalless draw and for the first time there was a sense of the narrative shifting against Bilic, whose hold over a hitherto adoring public seemed to be slipping, belatedly allowing the board to contemplate sacking the Croat without having to worry about a supporter backlash. Hernández furiously shook his head on the bench and the crowd sympathised with the £16m striker’s incandescence at having made way instead of Carroll.
Yet a prominent theme during the past 12 months has been West Ham’s knack of grinding out an ugly win just when Bilic is thought to be on the brink. It happened on several occasions last season and the pattern continued when Sakho, who tried to engineer a move to Rennes in the summer, vindicated Bilic’s unpopular decision by converting a cross from his fellow substitute Arthur Masuaku in the 90th minute.
There was a similar vibe when West Ham responded to losing their first three games by earning an unconvincing victory against Huddersfield Town last month and there is a temptation to conclude that winning while playing poorly is proof that a decent team will break out once confidence comes flowing back. It is partly this sense of longing that has protected Bilic, an intelligent and charismatic man who speaks articulately and wears his heart on his sleeve.
He is hard to dislike, which explains the desire to see him do well. Other teams in West Ham’s position might have downed tools in an attempt to force their manager out, but Bilic’s players continue to fight for him, masking the lack of any discernible style of play by demonstrating their battling qualities.
“I see that they want to do it,” Bilic said. “After the first three games, when we were on zero points, I didn’t see no discipline in the camp. On the contrary, I felt that we wanted to do it all together. Are they doing it for the manager or themselves? At the end of the day, it’s not important.
“You can talk about the quality of our performance today but we won the game because we didn’t give up. We didn’t raise unbelievably the quality of our game in the second half, but if I am on the pitch and I don’t care, it was the perfect situation not to care. But we didn’t. We forced that goal.”
The problem is that the longer this persists, the more Bilic will come across as a motivational cheerleader rather than a tactical mastermind. That might be enough to keep West Ham out of the relegation zone but it is not a solid foundation for success.
Having risen to 15th after picking up seven points from four games, West Ham have an opportunity to build after the international break. “Now I’m expecting for us to do much better,” Bilic said.
He is safe for now, but ultimately this was the kind of uneven performance that shows why his long-term future is less certain. Unless Bilic can snap them out of the wearying cycle of constantly needing a scrappy win to ward off a major crisis, West Ham will have few compelling reasons to extend his contract at the end of the season.
The Guardian Sport