The Season Just Gone
West Ham’s 2015-16 was unforgettable for a number of reasons. First of all, it was the last season at the Boleyn Ground; second, it will always be remembered for the emergence and spectacular consistency of Dimitri Payet; thirdly, because few "midtable" teams have ever put together such miraculous runs of form despite reliably putting up such horrible shot numbers.
They began the season winning away at the Emirates, the Etihad and Anfield despite being overwhelmingly outshot in all three games – the key in each game being sneaking a lead with some kind of bizarre, fluke goal and then extending it with either another that was even more absurd, or simply by picking off their increasingly desperate opponents on the counter, having parked the bus and successfully weathered the mother of all storms.
The latter half of the season saw more of a swagger develop, as Payet and Manuel Lanzini, among others, found their shooting boots and repeatedly pinged in ridiculous goals from all distances and angles, while the Irons’ opponents continued to create and yet somehow miss heaps of decent chances.
None of this is to say that West Ham’s success was undeserved or that they weren’t loads of fun to watch, but the numbers overwhelmingly suggested that their eventual 7th place finish was something of a misnomer. Slaven Bilić will have to get very lucky indeed for the same types of performances to yield the same results this time around.
The Season Ahead
That said, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic: the Irons’ move to the Olympic Stadium, now for some reason known as the London Stadium, will boost match-day revenue and theoretically allow them to compete with the Premier League’s big boys in the long-term; they’ve kept hold of Payet, tying him down to a lucrative new contract as of February 2016; the likes of Sofiane Feghouli and André Ayew have arrived to bolster what has at times looked like a rather threadbare squad.
Injuries have already given Bilić something of a riddle to solve, with all of his full-back options seemingly exhausted before a ball has even been kicked in anger (yes, they’ve already played Europa League games, but no-one kicks a ball in anger in the Europa League). Given the unbelievable amount of good luck that benefited West Ham last season, there are still plenty of question marks regarding the manager’s tactical nous, although he has at times demonstrated sufficient canniness to earn the benefit of the doubt for now.
That said, those same question marks mean that expecting another 7th placed finish from this West Ham team seems frankly absurd: the top six can be pencilled in in whatever order we like, what with Manchester City and Manchester United significantly stronger than last year, Arsenal and Tottenham very unlikely to fall down the table and Liverpool and Chelsea almost guaranteed to put up a better showing this time around.
Are West Ham, a side as reliant on wondergoals, backs-to-the-wall defending and more wondergoals really the best of the rest? No, of course they’re not. That being said, are they really that dreadful? No, that’s equally ridiculous. A safe if sometimes bumpy journey towards midtable mediocrity surely awaits.
All of West Ham’s most ridiculous away wins last season were founded on the basis of a deep and unbelievably committed defence, a dynamic and powerful midfield and loads of invention and, yes, good luck in attack. We can expect Slaven Bilić to attempt to reprise this idea on Monday.
The defence, extremely makeshift in fashion due to the number of injuries suffered and a bizarre lack of depth at full-back, seems very unlikely to be capable of keeping Chelsea out, so that plan is flawed from the outset, but it’s difficult to see Bilić choosing to go all-out-attack given that this will leave his full-backs even more exposed.
We can expect a deep and narrow back four, a tight and disciplined but dynamic and explosive midfield three, with some kind of free-form front three, or perhaps two strikers with a nominal number ten flitting around and exploiting the space behind them. The front two plan makes most sense, given that one of them will be Andy ‘Onmeheadson’ Carroll, whose only real use is as a semi-effective outball for teams penned into their own boxes, as West Ham surely will be here.
Normally there would be rather a lot to write in this section, but this particular version of Bilić’s West Ham isn’t that great. Carroll and Enner Valencia are able finishers and Feghouli is simply bloody brilliant, but with Payet some way off of full fitness and Ayew unlikely to start, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea should really be able to deal with the Hammers’ attacking "threat" (yes, I am aware that Branislav Ivanović, 68, and John Terry, 94, will start this game).
If Chelsea have anything to worry about, it’s West Ham’s considerable aerial threat, both from open play and set-pieces. Few Premier League teams are as effective when it comes to creating and finishing chances from these situations. With Payet unlikely to start and Lanzini ruled out, the steady supply of wondergoals that kept West Ham moving forward should surely dry up, but who knows, logically speaking it should’ve dried up long ago already.
Most obviously, Michail Antonio is not a right-back, much less one that knows how to deal with a left-winger of Eden Hazard’s calibre. If Chelsea are going to look to exploit an obvious weakness, that’s the most glaring one. That said, Sam Byram playing out of position on the other side against Willian is almost as scary. The thought of Hazard and Willian running at Antonio and Byram in itself should be enough to give Bilić nightmares.
Besides that, Andy Carroll is f**king s**t and no evidence to the contrary can disprove this notion.
Furthermore, they simply can’t be as lucky as they were last season. Eventually, unless they’ve done some seriously good work on the training ground in pre-season, they’ll collapse like a house of cards.
It’s the first day of the season so it’s pretty hard to say, but let’s have a stab at it anyway.
2-1 Chelsea, but it’ll only be close because the Blues’ defence has a combined age of 703.