Tactical errors, lack of enthusiasm doom Slaven Bilic at West Ham
There were two very distinct parts to Slaven Bilic's final news conference as West Ham manager after Saturday's 4-1 defeat to Liverpool at their still unfamiliar home of the London Stadium.
The first part was pure post-match analysis, something Bilic has always been excellent at -- a rare mixture of honesty and insight. No agendas. No blame. No nonsense. The second part was somewhat deeper and felt like Bilic trying to write his own obituary as West Ham manager or attempting to put himself out there for another job. It was packed with references to his character, his faith in his staff and his pride at coaching in the Premier League, having come from "a small country."
Two days later, he was no longer a Premier League coach, dismissed after two-and-a-bit years.
Bilic's decline as West Ham coach was both very sudden and very drawn out. If that's a contradiction, it's that Bilic went from hero to zero almost overnight this time last year but has held on since, even when his job felt increasingly untenable and when the media constantly reported that he had one game to save his job. West Ham's owners genuinely wanted to give Bilic time, but ultimately, they could no longer justify their faith.
The stark decline has been most evident in Bilic's demeanour. Upon his arrival in England and throughout an overwhelmingly successful first campaign when a Dimitri Payet-inspired Hammers challenged for a spot in the Champions League, he was a lively, inspirational and funny character who breathed life into a club that had a fan base coming off the unhappy Sam Allardyce years. But for close to a year, Bilic has appeared gloomy, weary and preoccupied, almost resigned to his fate.
For all West Ham's problems on the pitch, for which Bilic takes responsibility, it's easy to have sympathy.
The success of his first season was largely based around the wonderful performances of Payet, who was playing out of his skin in order to play his way into the France squad ahead of the European championships on home soil. It worked brilliantly because after one season in claret and blue, Payet found himself starting in the Euro 2016 final (and inadvertently influencing the game when his tackle forced Ronaldo to depart early).
West Ham intended to make a "statement" signing ahead of their first campaign in their new home, placing bids for various exciting attacking talents to drum up interest in season tickets at the London Stadium. But then, due to a combination of poor acumen in the transfer market and Payet's wonderful first season, they realised that no one could attract the crowds like Payet, a ready-made hero. They staked their faith in him, though Payet soon realised that he wasn't fussed about West Ham after all.
His job -- getting into the France side -- was done. He wanted to return to Marseille and made it obvious by his behaviour around the training ground. On the field, he offered sporadic moments of genius, but it was evident from his body language that his mind was elsewhere, which completely disrupted that crucial opening period of West Ham's new era.
"This team, the staff, we gave him everything. We were always there for him," Bilic said after it became clear that Payet wanted to leave. "I feel let down. I feel angry." He, and West Ham, haven't truly recovered.
The stadium woes, too, cannot be overlooked. Statistically, clubs moving to a new ground suffer a significant dip in form, and West Ham's problems were increased due to the questionable nature of the London Stadium. There is a genuine feeling among home supporters that West Ham have "sold their soul," and considering that Upton Park was one of the few grounds capable of creating a genuinely intimidating atmosphere for away sides, it's clear that something has been lost.
Bilic cannot be held accountable for these problems, even if he knew the situation upon taking charge, but this doesn't absolve him of blame.
For all the club's mistakes in the transfer market, there are still some excellent players: Javier Hernandez, Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini is a front three worthy of the top half of the table, while Marko Arnautovic and Andy Carroll offer excellent alternatives. But those players haven't been used properly -- Hernandez, in particular, has been forced to do things he plainly isn't suited to -- and the defence has often been in shambles. West Ham are basically less than the sum of their parts, and for that, Bilic must carry the can.
At times, West Ham have made elementary errors, and in a sense, the first two goals they conceded Saturday told the story: They left themselves hugely open to the counter-attack for Mo Salah's opener while their set-piece defending for Joel Matip's second was comical. These have been constant problems. While Bilic made the reasonable point afterward that these two factors were "outside" the basic game plan he worked on throughout the week in training (which largely worked well in open play), it does not mean they are factors outside his control.
A side coached by Allardyce, the man Bilic replaced and the go-to manager for Premier League survival, would not allow his team to be exposed in such situations. Yet this is a talented manager. In that glorious first season, Bilic appeared excellent at devising game plans against bigger opponents. West Ham won away at Arsenal, and Liverpool and Manchester City in the opening months.
He is a studious, intelligent manager who provides concise and accurate postmatch analysis in press conferences, which is partly why he has proven so popular as a television pundit. But there were too many tactical mistakes and too many sloppy concessions that Bilic hadn't been able to fix.
The most disappointing thing was that Bilic's enthusiasm disappeared completely. There are managers who compensate for tactical shortcomings with their motivation and man-management skills, but increasingly, it seemed that Bilic could depend upon neither.
As such, there's a dour feeling around the club. The fans are frustrated with players, manager and owners -- and seemingly unsure whom to boo first. At full-time on Saturday, most had long departed. It was a bleak scene, far from what West Ham's owners imagined when they signed up to the new ground.
The fact that they're set to appoint David Moyes suggests that they're looking for someone to drill the side defensively, which was his specialty at Everton. But Moyes has become compromised by his deeply pessimistic demeanour at Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Sunderland, and this is a club in desperate need of a lift, a burst of life. Ultimately, Moyes might shore up the defence, but it's difficult to imagine that he will inject the positivity to provide the fabled "new manager bounce."
West Ham might well recover from this malaise, but it won't be an overnight fix. This will be a long, hard season.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.