Just as everyone breaks an unrealistic New Year’s Resolution around this time of year, a West Ham injury crisis takes hold of the squad with equally inevitable timing. The similarity between the two? Annoying predictability with an essence of failure. Yes, you will most definitely drink that beer you promised to leave alone until 2017, just as Hammers fans will see their side flourish in the early months before tailing off towards mid-season as if frightened of the prospect of actually succeeding. Although the worst is now over, who knows what could’ve been accomplished if the Hammers avoided an eight game winless slump? If West Ham United had a pound for every time they surpassed expectation before immediately changing course and proceeding to crash and burn miserably, they could probably afford another Dimitri Payet – something that they definitely needed in the last few months.
Payet quickly established himself as one of the most creative midfielders in the league within the first few weeks of the season with his trickery, vision and eye for goal. Under the tutelage of Slaven Bilic, this allowed for fast build up play and plenty of movement off the ball, something that was virtually non-existent under Sam Allardyce. But alas, all good things must come to an end, which was certainly the case when Everton’s James McCarthy clumsily clattered into the back of Payet (and somehow avoided a sending off) midway through West Ham’s draw against Everton in early November. Following confirmation of a three month lay off for the French international, the Upton Park faithful did not witness a win until late December against Southampton and instead saw any glimmer of attacking intent quickly vanish before their very eyes – lessons must be learnt.
Although this problem was certainly not helped with the addition of plenty other names to the injury table, Payet is clearly the man that was most sorely missed. On average this season, Payet has played 42 passes and four ‘key’ passes per game, a total that far exceeds the likes of Manuel Lanzini and Victor Moses. His spatial awareness and ability to spot a pass is the catalyst of the fast flowing football and non ‘hoofball’ related tactics that West Ham need to use in order to be a genuine danger to opposition defences. So, how should the Hammers assert themselves as a dominant force without their beloved #27?
In Bilic’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the CAM role is definitely the most influential, with the team being built around the central player in the attacking line of three. However, when Payet is absent from this position, only Manuel Lanzini is able to flourish with similar prowess when undertaking the same role, and he’s had his fair share of injuries too. The cogs will not turn whilst there is a weak CAM link – we all still have vivid and scary nightmares about Kevin Nolan. West Ham should instead focus on the success of the likes of Watford this season should they need a tactical switch, who have implemented the old school favourite of 4-4-2. The two strikers, Deeney and Ighalo, have arguably been the best forward pairing in the Premier League this season, and West Ham also have capable strikers who can operate as a duo with the likes of Sakho, Carroll, Valencia and, to an extent, Jelavic.
Playing behind two strikers – one of the CDM’s (Kouyate/Noble/Song) that operate in the the 4-2-3-1 formation are then pushed higher up the pitch alongside Lanzini, pressurising the opponent more into making mistakes and offloading passes to the aforementioned attackers and wingers in the form of Moses, Antonio and Zarate (the latter isn’t a natural winger but could probably do a good job there if needed) and overlapping full backs. Granted, Bilic would have to find more depth in these areas, particularly out wide, as the injury crisis will unsurprisingly worsen throughout the year but it is important to establish a slightly more diverse Plan B rather than a Plan A lacking creativity.
As Payet completes his return from injury, many of those wearing claret and blue will awake from their boredom infested slumber and dream of consistent performances and attacking football – but these incredibly frustrating last few months will be sharp in the memory. Hammers fans, be aware. Although everything seems rosy at the moment, teams will be going out of their way to target Dimitri Payet and he will naturally miss more games before the end of the season. There must be a tried and tested Plan B, and until this is established, my new year’s resolution will be to write more slating and pessimistic articles.
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