Crawl to safety not satisfying West Ham
Manager Bilic says ‘there is frustration’ after scoreless draw against Stoke City, writes Richard Jolly
In such transformative times, it is an understatement that a year can make a dramatic difference. Twelve months ago, as Donald Trump and Brexit were curiosities and possibilities rather than electoral phenomena, as Leicester City were preparing to win the Premier League title, West Ham United sat fifth, ahead of Manchester United and Liverpool, eyeing Uefa Champions League football.
Fast forward a year and Championship football cannot be discounted. West Ham are crawling towards survival with successive stalemates offering a semblance of solidity. They have 39 points. “It may be enough,” manager Slaven Bilic said. “We are not panicking but we are not safe.
“We don’t want to go into the last day of the season with the radio on, asking what the score is [at other games].”
It is a plausible scenario for a club relegated with 42 points in 2003 and who face Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool next. Yet staying up should not prompt celebration. Theirs has been an underwhelming campaign.
Often a byword for entertainment, West Ham have embraced dullness. Sending on midfielder Mark Noble for forward Andre Ayew brought signs Bilic was settling for a point.
His last change, when Robert Snodgrass was introduced ahead of Ashley Fletcher, drew boos from the West Ham fans who had spent the opening minutes serenading “Super Slav”.
But the Croatian’s star has waned with the club’s.
Last season proved a false dawn.
West Ham’s difficult start to life at London Stadium is only one factor in a subsequent decline as the gulf between ambition and reality has been exposed.
Fourteen signings have been made, none an unqualified success, and the disgruntled Dimitri Payet’s January departure stripped them of stardust.
Without him, Manuel Lanzini was a lone source of creativity, though Cheikhou Kouyate at least injected dynamism with forceful surges.
Jonathan Calleri tried to offer invention, attempting to shoot with a rabona but a man with a solitary West Ham goal to his name might have scored with more conventional methods.
It was a self-defeating brand of showboating.
Ayew at least had the ability to attempt the spectacular.
His improvised overhead kick drew an athletic save from Jack Butland. “Great reactions,” Bilic said. Further stops from the Ghanaian and Manuel Lanzini suggested Butland, making his second start after 13 months out, impressed the watching England manager Gareth Southgate as well as Stoke’s Mark Hughes.
“You need a top-class keeper to make match-defining saves and that is what Jack did,” Hughes said.
Until Bilic shut up shop, it was an open game.
The scoreline was instead testament to the lack of quality at two clubs who have regressed. Stoke procured just a fourth point from seven games.
They failed to score for the fourth time in six.
Wishful thinking may explain why a section of fans thought Joe Allen scored when he volleyed into the side-netting.
Winston Reid also made a brilliant block to deny Saido Berahino. The £15 million (Dh71.3m) forward’s wait for his first Stoke goal or, indeed, his first for anyone for 427 days, was then prolonged by Adrian, with a diving save.
On a day of fine goalkeeping, Adrian also made a fine double stop to keep out the enigmatic Marko Arnautovic.
“I am pleased with the clean sheet,” Bilic said. “But in the belly there is frustration we didn’t win.”
It has been a stomach ache of a season for West Ham.