Hernandez can't carry hapless West Ham vs. Brighton as Bilic nears the end
LONDON -- West Ham signed Javier Hernandez to aid their climb to the next level but instead, the Mexican international finds himself a lost soul within a club lurching towards relegation. Friday's 3-0 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion was fright night for the Hammers, 17th and teetering above the Premier League drop zone.
Manager Slaven Bilic's tenure surely approaches its end. His failure to find a role in which Hernandez might do what he does best - score goals -- is emblematic of a team without direction under a manager on borrowed time. This season, like much of last season, West Ham have been in a week-to-week cycle of chaos and calm but a rout in which they defended terribly while hardly creating a chance took the club into crisis territory.
"I have to say sorry to the fans," said Bilic. "It's not the first time, they deserve better than this."
Patience with the manager is wearing wafer thin at the London Stadium. Hammers fans are on Hernandez's side, annoyed when Bilic plays him out of position or withdraws him prematurely. They are yet to see anything like the best of a player whose summer arrival from Bayer Leverkusen was given top billing.
Co-chairman David Sullivan went as far in August as to suggest Hernandez might "potentially the best player who has ever come to the club" but the smile that won worldwide hearts at Manchester United has been a rare sight in East London. He has scored just three goals, and those came in 3-2 defeats at the hands of Southampton and Tottenham.
Hernandez is no longer the surprise package he was in Manchester, where Sir Alex Ferguson played him almost as often as substitute than starter and reaped 59 goals from 157 appearances. Bayer's sale price of £16 million, low for today's market, had hinted that, at 29, he might not be the megastar Sullivan predicted, but even at his apex, Hernandez would struggle to carry this West Ham team.
Bilic, who seems to have altogether abandoned tactical nuance, prefers to use Andy Carroll as a battering ram but with Carroll suspended, Hernandez was given the central striker's role he has been craving. When Bilic employs him on the wing, as has repeatedly occurred this season, Hernandez looks what he is, a centre-forward out of position, his body language expressing his discomfort.
While he may not possess the brutish power of Carroll, Hernandez is a fine header of the ball, with ability to climb high and get considerable purchase on the ball. Brighton, though, were wise, and when the Hammers got the ball into the opposing penalty area, he found himself crashing against the Brighton's brick-wall central defensive partnership of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk.
"Our two centre-halves were outstanding but they have to have a team in front of them and you have to have defensive strategy," said Brighton manager Chris Hughton afterwards.
Throughout the evening, Brighton worked to Hughton's careful preparation, while rudderless, mindless West Ham swung wildly in the wind.
"We were a bit too ordinary in front of the box," said Bilic, attempting to explain. "We waited for the ball to drop instead of attacking it."
After Glenn Murray put Brighton ahead in the 10th minute, his header from Pascal Gross' free kick an object lesson in centre-forward play, West Ham piled on pressure, but their attacking was incoherent.
Manuel Lanzini as playmaker with Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic flanking a central Hernandez read promisingly on prematch team sheets, but there was no sign of chemistry. Arnautovic, lethargic except with the ball at his feet, frequently cut inwards, across Hernandez's territory and Lanzini's skills became lost amid the midfield forcefield Hughton had placed ahead of his defence.
It took until the 40th minute for Hernandez to have a first shot, blocked by the ever-attentive Dunk. When he and Arnautovic at last linked up on the stroke of half-time, a long-range shot drifted wide, giving Albion goalkeeper Mat Ryan no save to make.
Within seconds, West Ham were two down, Jose Izquierdo benefitting from poor defending from Pedro Obiang and forgettable goalkeeping from Joe Hart. Bilic's half-time response was to throw on Andre Ayew, for a 4-2-4 formation that asked Lanzini to drop back into midfield. That brought little better from Hernandez or West Ham, for whom the second half was as disastrous as the first.
Murray's second goal, a penalty, sent angry Hammers fans peeling to the exits, and there was unrest in the stands in front of where Sullivan sat, trying his best to remain impassive in the knowledge TV cameras were focusing on him. Bilic, pacing manically and in terse discussion with his assistants, did not shield his dismay.
"I'm not worried, but I'm realistic on the other hand," he said, when quizzed on his future.
Brighton was a performance to damn him, even if Sullivan and co-chairman David Gold are historically reluctant to sack managers. Hernandez may soon be someone else's problem, though West Ham's concerns run far, far deeper than him.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.