Since his arrival last summer Slaven Bilic has quietly enacted a revolution at West ham ringing in the changes in a side that had lost its way in the second half of last season. Consolidating the impressive backline, he has added mobility and guile in midfield to provide better support up front.
As a result, the Hammers are flying-high in in the Premier League table and are nicely positioned to push for a European slot just as the business end of the season begins in earnest. As our injury worries finally seem to be settling the big question is what is our strongest starting XI? It is a measure of the strength of our squad that there is hardly a position where selection isn’t worthy of debate. Here Blowing Bubbles attempts to find out what West Ham’s best team really looks like…
Goalkeeper: Adrian In goal, Adrian is a truly top keeper and his statistics compare well with David de Gea, Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois. Indeed, Adrian is well above them with a shots saved per game ratio that is second highest in the division. Darren Randolph has performed admirably in his absense, however, so while we have a clear number one at the moment there is obvioulsy real competition for the shirt.
Left back: Aaron Cresswell To be fair to the man, Sam Allardyce left a more than capable defensive unit behind him. With the European Championships coming up this summer Cresswell has to be pushing for an England place after kicking on again this year.
Centre-backs: Winston Reid & James Tomkins The centre-back situation is truly contentious. Most observers would agree that Reid is our cornerstone but Ogbonna, Tomkins and Collins all have legitimate claims on the second berth. In essence, this call is so close that the choice should be made on a game by game basis according to the opposition and our tactical plan.
Tomkins and Ogbonna both have pace and can therefore push forward with confidence, but where we are planning to defend deep then Ginge is our best at suffocating the opposition with his tenacious shot blocking. For what it’s worth, we have had eight clean sheets in league and cup games this season using four different centre back pairings during which the appearance count has been Ogbonna (6), Collins (4), Reid (4) and Tomkins (7 – 6 as right back). Tomkins would get my nod to partner Reid on a regular basis.
Right back: Sam Byram Carl Jenkinson started the season as our first choice right but but lost form and confidence. This forced Bilic to intervene by bringing in Tomkins as a makeshif right back. Tomka has been excellent defensively but full back is a specialist position and his lack of offensive nous means that the arrival of Sam Byram should provide greater penetration up the right wing.
Holding midfield: Mark Noble & Cheikidh Kouyate Slaven’s midfield set up employs two players in front of the back four. Cheikidh Kouyate has pushed on from the fine performances of last season and is really enjoying Bilic’s reign. Alongside him, released from the burden of carrying an ageing Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble looks back to his best and has started to push forward more.
With Alex Song regaining fitness and form and Pedro Obiang providing an energetic alternative, the competition in central midfield is intense. However, Noble is our heart and Kouyate our strongest engine and these pair get the nod when fit.
Attacking midfield: Dimitri Payet, Manuel Lanzini & Michail Antonio At the attacking end of our midfield, Payet has been simply sensational and already warrants comparisons with the likes of Carlos Tevez and Paolo Di Canio. We can only pray that he remains injury free for the rest of the season. Not far behind has been Lanzini who is another fine lock picker and can allow Dimitri some rest time from conducting our attacking orchestra.
The third spot alongside this pair provides a compelling battle between Victor Moses and Michail Antonio, which the latter is currently shading by virtue of his impressive physical impact and energy during recent games .
Forward: Diafra Sakho At the tip of our attack there is a battle almighty ahead. Enner Valencia is finally delivering upon his undoubted potential and has benefited from a more central role that has produced a string of recent goals. Th e soon-to-return Andy Carroll remains almost unmarkable when fit and his impact at set pieces (both offensive and defensive) should not be underestimated, while new signing Emmanuel Emenike will have not come to sit on the bench. Overall though Diafra Sakho edges it due to his goal threat.