Slaven Bilic struggled to prevent West Ham United tenure going stale
After months of speculation, the inevitable finally occurred on Monday - Slaven Bilic was sacked. Admittedly, West Ham United has been poor this season. How much blame falls on the former manager?
August proved disastrous. A 4-0 opening day defeat at Old Trafford set the tone. Two more losses, this time against Southampton and Newcastle United, had Bilic's side rocking. The first Premier League victory arrived at home to Huddersfield Town. Yet, since then, the Hammers have won just once in seven games. During that run, they were dominated by Brighton & Hove Albion. That set alarm bells ringing. Most recently, though, the Irons were beaten comprehensively by Liverpool, 4-1.
It all means West Ham sit a disappointing 18th in the table, a point from safety. Hoping to challenge the country's most reputable sides this season, they instead find themselves trailing all three newly promoted teams, having already tasted defeat against two.
The east London side also possess the league's worst defensive record, conceding 23 times in 11 games. It is unpleasant reading for Hammers fans. Still, things hadn't all been bad.
The EFL Cup has provided respite, maybe even hope. Particularly, the dramatic turnaround at Wembley. West Ham came up against fierce rivals Tottenham in the fourth round. At 2-0 down, the game looked over. It wasn't. Bilic's team battled back, scoring three second-half goals to book a place in the quarter-finals. No doubt that was the highlight of a miserable three months.
The astonishing performance to defeat Spurs couldn't be reproduced on the Premier League stage. In the next encounter, West Ham were denied three valuable points when Wilfried Zaha's 97th-minute equaliser earned a draw for rock-bottom Crystal Palace. Perhaps things would have worked out differently for Bilic if the Hammers had held on. The blows seemed relentless. Is this season's unacceptable showing all Bilic's fault, though? Or have other circumstances played an important role?
After 18 years away from Upton Park, Slaven Bilic returned on 9 June 2015, signing a three-year contract as manager. His impact was evident. During the Croat's first campaign, the Hammers produced two victories over Liverpool, took four points off Arsenal, Chelsea, and both Manchester clubs, as well as picking up a win against Tottenham. Results showed West Ham were bridging the gap to England's biggest teams. Finishing seventh further emphasised that point.
Sixty-two points, the club's highest ever Premier League total, eclipsed the 47 gained the season before. After 12th and 13th place finishes in the two previous campaigns, expectations were raised accordingly. Bilic was now under added pressure to repeat, or better, such feats.
Coinciding with the club's success was its signing of a somewhat unknown Frenchman. Dimitri Payet joined West Ham on 26 June 2015, only 19 days after Bilic. The former Marseille attacker proceeded to astound English football fans with his quick feet, exquisite control, sublime passing range, and pinpoint free-kicks. During his debut season, he made 38 appearances in all competitions, scoring 12 times while providing 15 assists. Payet was shortlisted for PFA Players' Player of the Year.
The playmaker was also superb for his country in Euro 2016, finding the net three times during France's journey to the final.
Over the next five months, though, he failed to replicate the form which had earned him West Ham's Player of the Year award. The reason later became known. Payet's flair had been replaced with a longing for a return to Marseille. In January, West Ham granted his wish, selling him for £25 million. Although the club had made a £15 million profit, no amount could compensate for losing their most influential player.
Payet was the catalyst in Bilic's initial success. His departure was where the downfall began to take full effect. The Hammers ended the season in 11th, with 17 fewer points than the year before. Was it a significant backwards step, or even fair to compare the two campaigns? Payet's exit was a major factor in the club's drop in standards. Bilic was faultless in that instance.
Moving away from Upton Park also proved troublesome. The modernised, 60,000 seat London Stadium wasn't to all supporters' liking. Some even began fighting among themselves while watching their team struggle to regain form. An unnecessary distraction, Bilic was once again blameless.
Nevertheless, the club's problems were mounting, both on and off the pitch. The Croatian's time at West Ham United was drawing to an end unless he could quickly revitalise his side.
Bilic entered the final year of his contract with one last chance to improve results. West Ham spent over £40 million in the summer transfer window. Although it was only the 12th highest total among Premier League sides, four quality, experienced players arrived at the London Stadium. Joe Hart, England's number one goalkeeper with 74 caps, joined on loan from Manchester City. Full-back Pablo Zabaleta also left the Citizens after serving for nine years. To add attacking strength, Marko Arnautovic was signed from Stoke City for a club record fee, along with Bayer Leverkusen's prolific striker Javier Hernandez.
Hart has made 11 league appearances this campaign, conceding more than two goals per game on average. Zabaleta's played a part in the competition's worst defence ten times. Arnautovic is yet to score or assist in seven matches. The club's main goal threat, Chicharito, has scored four times in 11 contests, but just once in the last five. Up to now, West Ham's latest recruits have failed to perform. For this particular problem, as well as the club's frail defence, Bilic is definitely culpable.
The past 18 months led to Monday: judgment day for Bilic. He failed the test, losing his position after nearly two-and-a-half years in charge. Although certain events affecting the club's performance were out of the manager's hands, his dismissal was the correct decision. Slaven Bilic's tenure had gone stale. West Ham United stagnated under his leadership. A change was required. Step forward, David Moyes.