Like the British Summer, West Ham’s European Tour began at the start of July and was over before the first week of August had ended. A 2-1 [4-3 on aggregate] loss to Astra Giurgiu was the end of a qualifying campaign that had seen visits to Andorra, Malta and Romania, 3 red cards, a penalty shoot-out and a number of thoroughly embarrassing performances. Being knocked out of the Europa League would be less of a bitter pill to swallow if it were possible to understand the reasoning behind the club’s approach to the competition. Somewhat unsurprisingly, West Ham have managed to manufacture themselves a worst-of-every-world situation.
The announcement of the teamsheet for the game last night was one that confirmed the worst fears of many fans. The media generously called Bilic’s selection a ‘weakened team’. In reality, it was a combination of development players/ squad deadwood [Jenkinson notwithstanding], none of whom have any hope whatsoever of playing first team football next season. And yet, the manner of the performance somehow managed to make the defeat sting just that little bit more.
When Lanzini slid a finish in off the post after 3 minutes, eyebrows were slowly raised. Maybe we aren’t quite dead and buried just yet? It was a typically West Ham thing to do – offer you a glimmer of hope, before cruelly snatching it away from you shortly after. You’ll hear fans of a certain disposition bang on about the ‘West Ham way’, which roughly translates as some vague notion of sides in the past that played attacking, expressive football with players brought through the club’s academy. This is at best rose-tinted nostalgia, at worst utter self-delusion. Last night was the true definition of the ‘West Ham way’ – providing you with just enough hope to cling to so the inevitable crushing of your optimism cuts you deeper. Bubbles floating and fading and dying like your dreams.
After the opening goal, West Ham looked the better side for half an hour and enjoyed a dominant spell of possession and generally looked quite comfortable.
However, the sky is blue and the grass is green and West Ham pissed away their lead. Despite the fact that in the first leg Constantin Budescu was shooting everytime he caught so much as a whiff of Adrian’s aftershave, the Astra captain was allowed to shoot from the edge of the box and he violated the back of Randolph’s net. 5 minutes later the capitulation was complete, Budescu doubling his tally after Kevin Nolan was attracted to the ball, like a small child chasing after a butterfly, and left his man with an easy tap.
And then it was dead. There was a brief spell just after half time where the corpse looked like it was twitching, but there was never really any chance of a miraculous recovery. Lazarus, this was not. Truth be told, you only needed to look at the bench to see that was the case. Thee was only one player who had previously played a first team game, and only one player who could legally buy themselves a pint. There was no danger of them getting back into the game, and they failed to defy expectations. European Tour over.
In the cold light of day, as undeniably infuriating as the decision is, you can understand Bilic’s decision but it raises as many questions as it answers.
The one concession that has to be made is that he did put out his strongest team in the first leg and they were cruising until Collins got himself sent off. As a senior pro, Collins should be ashamed of his ill-discipline and his failure to learn from the mistakes of the previous 2 rounds, where we had struggled after being reduced to ten. Clearly the prime objective that Slaven Bilic has been given for the season is that the club must remain in the Premier League. Any other result would be catastrophic and he has obviously been told that the retention of top flight status is the only metric by which he will be judged.
Therefore, you could make a case that prioritising Premier League games by resting first team players is justifiable… if the game he was saving the players for were one that would could feasibly pick up point from. Let’s face it – playing Arsenal at the Emirates is not a game that we are going to get anything from. Even getting a draw there would fall heavily into ‘bonus points’ territory. It’s difficult to say that writing off the game on Thursday in the hopes of picking up a point on Sunday is a decision that can be vindicated.
Ok, fine. That’s not a defensible decision. Perhaps it suggests that it’s not just the game on Sunday that Bilic is concerned about – he doesn’t care about the Europa League and is worried enough about the detrimental effects of playing Thursday-Sunday to survival hopes that he sacrificed playing in the competition to make it easier for his team to pick up points even further down the line. Except, this makes even less sense – if we had no aspiration to play in the Europe League this season, why bother with it this far? Why not bin it off in the first qualifying round? What have we possibly gained from it?
This is where the worst-of-every-world situation comes into play. The only way beginning a European qualifying campaign is a worthwhile pursuit is if it results in group stage football. Our first game was played of July 2nd, 39 days after the end of the Premier League season. Admittedly, only players who hadn’t played towards the end of the previous season were involved in the first game, but all first team players were in training by then, so had their summer’s cut short. This is going to result in a long season for the players, even if their potential number of games has just been greatly reduced.
It’s difficult to see these qualifying games have been anything but thoroughly useless as preparation for the season as well. The majority of teams selected for these games have been populated by development squad members and fringe players, none of whom will realistically have a role to play this season given that many of them have failed to impress against vastly inferior opposition. The games that have involved first team regulars have been a waste of time as they have been interrupted by players being sent off. The purpose of pre-season games, aside from improving match fitness, is to familiarise players with the shape and playing style of the side of the season ahead. This is even more important given that it’s Slaven Bilic’s first season in charge as the players are having to deal with the unknown quantity of a new manager and learning to play his way. West Ham were unable to reap the benefits of that as they have had to play long portions of these games with ten men and it’s obviously difficult to develop a tactical system when you’re playing with one man less.
Besides not being beneficial to the footballing side of things, the club have had to carry the burden and strain of travelling to and from these games, as well as playing a schedule of domestic friendlies that were organised as a contingency plan for any early-round knock-out. It has undoubtedly been a bit of a logistical nightmare and one that has resulted in no tangible benefits. All that has been achieved is selling out the home games a few times, which has probably filled the coffers of the club a bit. Beyond that it has been a complete waste of time and the injuries picked up to first team players Joey O’Brien [thank god] and, more worryingly, Enner Valencia, have made the costs vastly outweigh the benefits.
West Ham have done all the hard work with none of the reward. If this was the way it was going to end up, why not save the hassle and just get knocked out in the first round? Why wait until the last possible hurdle to effectively throw the game away? This qualifying campaign has been a limp-wristed, half-hearted hand job and we’ve not even managed to bust a nut from it.
On top of everything else, it’s a horrible precedent to set before the season begins. It demonstrates that the club has no ambitions beyond finishing 17th and living to fight another day in the top division so that the move to the Olympic Stadium isn’t a financial disaster.
From Bilic’s perspective, it’s a vaguely understandable act of self-preservation – if he stays up, he won’t get sacked. But it’s a cowardly one; it suggests he doesn’t back the depth of his squad, or himself, to contend on multiple fronts. If this is the way he treats a European cup competition, what hope can there be of a challenge for a domestic cup? All other interests will fall by the wayside in order to preserve our status in the Premier League. It’s incredibly disheartening to know that the best that we can hope for this season is a mid-table scrap and eventually settling for 14th place.
This ‘European Tour’ has been a bag of rubbish that splits and spills as you take it out to the bin, it’s the knock of the deliveryman as you’ve just sat down to take a shit, it’s the puddle of water on your bathroom floor than makes your socks wet, it’s the first scuff of a brand new pair of trainers.
What a crock of shit.