The Season So Far
West Ham’s first season under Slaven Bilić has been an unqualified success, making a mockery of previous manager Big Sam Allardyce’s parting "be careful what you wish for" to the fans. The idea that the Irons couldn’t possibly compete with the Premier League’s big boys, and should be thankful just to turn up and play – with a complete absence of flair, ingenuity or fun, no less – has been well and truly refuted.
The highlights of the season will probably be the barely believable smash-and-grab victories away to Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, way back at the start of the season, in which they scored seven goals and conceded just one. That said, with an FA Cup semi-final ahead - should they win their replay against Manchester United -there’s a real chance of silverware being won, and that would trump everything else, even if they somehow snuck into the fourth Champions League spot.
It’s impossible to look back at this West Ham season without mentioning Dimitri Payet. The big-money signing from Marseille has more than delivered the goods in his first season, scoring eight goals and providing seven assists in 22 Premier League appearances thus far, and leading their FA Cup charge with a further three goals, all of which were belters. As well as scoring goals and providing assists, Payet has brought a sense of wonder back to the Boleyn Ground. He will go down in club folklore as the player who gave the historic stadium a final season to remember.
The Season Ahead
The Hammers currently sit in fifth place in the Premier League and they’ll have their eyes on securing the fourth and final Champions League spot. This is a rather unlikely hope: as well as their underlying numbers, which as we’ll see below are categorically Not Good, they have a rather demanding set of fixtures ahead. To expect Bilić’s men to do anything bar fall away is to ask rather a lot of them.
Rather than aiming for the top four, they should be focusing on securing a more realistic top six finish and trying to win the FA Cup. The last ever FA Cup game at the Boleyn Ground will be an occasion to remember – least of all for the stadium foam hands, which really are a thing – and should they get to Wembley they will fancy their chances of getting past an Everton side that can’t stop leaking stupid goals.
Bilić has varied his approach depending on the opponent this season, regularly switching between proactive and reactive mentalities and a series of formations to boot, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 being his preferred setups. One of the big Croat’s great strengths is his ability to quickly and calmly spot an opposition weakness during games and switch things up to easily exploit it, without compromising his own team’s efforts. Few Premier League managers can so easily improvise and implement an effective Plan B.
In the recent and scarcely believable comeback win against Everton, for example, Bilić abandoned his more patient Plan A, brought on Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll for Reece Oxford and Emmanuel Emenike, and told his players to bombard Everton with crosses, having worked out that he had sufficient security in midfield and a clear advantage in the opposition box with this strategy. As a result, West Ham scored three goals in twelve minutes.
Presumably, West Ham’s Plan A tomorrow will be similar to the ones that worked so well away to the other big clubs earlier in the season: come flying out of the traps with an attacking line-up, build up a decent lead if possible, and then park the bus.
While their attack isn’t the most prolific in terms of overall output (398 is the 7th highest shots total in the league, ditto 131 on target), their conversion rates are stunning. Their overall conversion rate of 11.1% is the second highest in the division, their shots on target conversion rate (33.8%) is the third highest, and the same is true of their shots in the box conversion rate (15.8%). Simply put, they’re scoring a very high proportion of the shots they take.
While their Plan A is usually to create chances in open play, they’re very strong from attacking set pieces: 11 goals from all set pieces is the third highest total; more specifically, no team creates more chances from free-kicks and only six do so from corners. Payet is an excellent set piece taker and they have a surplus of attackers who are good in the air. Only Arsenal and Southampton take more headed shots per game than West Ham.
They work pretty hard without the ball, too: 19.9 tackles per game, 17 interceptions, 9.8 fouls and 2.3 offsides are good figures for a team that varies its approach in most games according to their opponents’ strengths, and consequently averages a mere 48.7% of possession.
On an individual level, Payet is playing like a young Juan Román Riquelme, while Adrián’s save rate of 78.0% is the second highest in the league. The key players are playing really well.
If there’s a weakness in this team, it’s that their underlying numbers are totally unsustainable – at both ends of the pitch.
In attack, 169 of their 398 shots have been from outside the box. Combined with their high number of headers attempted, this means that they’re producing a lot of "poor" attempts and converting an improbably – almost impossibly – high percentage of them. In the long run, they will start to miss more of the long-range rockets and headers they’re currently putting away.
Defensively, they’re really rather bad: only four teams have allowed more shots on their goal this season than West Ham’s 426. 229 of those have been from inside their own box and 128 have been on target, so really it’s a miracle that they’ve only conceded 33 goals.
It’s tempting to suggest that West Ham currently being fifth in the table is something of a falsehood. All it would have taken is for a few of Payet’s insane goals to have flown wide and a few of Adrián’s saves to have been goals, and West Ham would have been smack bang in the middle of the table. Games like the one away to Manchester City, for example, where West Ham got outshot 27-6 and won 2-1, simply don’t turn out that way very often.
Chelsea’s season is more-or-less over but a fairly strong line-up can be expected. There’s a chance that a few more fringe players will get a run-out than usual, but this is Chelsea, and fringe players never seem to play as much as they should. Eden Hazard might play, but let’s be honest: he doesn’t really want to.
As for West Ham, it would be a surprise if they didn’t play their strongest available team. There’s perhaps a chance that Carroll will start ahead of Sakho, but other than that it seems pretty easy to predict.
West Ham need the points more than Chelsea and without the suspended Diego Costa, the Blues don’t seem to have that much bite in attack (ahem). It’s hard not to feel like both teams would take a 0-0 draw.