Will defensive improvements keep Slaven Bilic safe at West Ham?

Whichever way you look at it, August was a forgettable month as the 2017/18 Premier League campaign began for West Ham. Three defeats, ten goals conceded and with just two in reply, already the clouds of doubt were gathering quickly over the immediate future of Slaven Bilic. That’s nothing new for the Croatian, given the speculation surrounding his position for a year now.

After guiding the team to seventh and 11th-position finishes over the last two seasons, now in the third and final year of his three-year contract with the club, Bilic arguably faces the most difficult campaign of his tenure thus far.

Indeed, when looking at Oddschecker to compare bookmaker offers and odds for the Premier League ‘sack race’, Bilic is considered amongst the favourites to lose his job and second only to under-fire Everton boss, Ronald Koeman. Likewise, most bookmakers still have West Ham at odds as little as 6/1 or even 5/1 for relegation.
Despite what the bookmakers think, it appears that at least for now, Bilic still has the backing of the West Ham board, with suggestions he will remain in charge until the end of the season, even with speculating linking Carlo Ancelotti as a possible replacement, following the Italian’s departure from Bayern Munich. Clearly, a lot may happen between now and then, but improved results and positive form in September will have undoubtedly strengthened his position.

​Much of that improved form appears to have come through a willingness to adapt and change, due in no small part to Bilic tinkering with the defence to good effect. Aside from the home defeat against Tottenham, three clean sheets in the other games against Huddersfield, West Brom, then Swansea, produced a return of seven points from a possible 12. Add the clean sheet against Bolton in the Carabao Cup, and things are looking far more positive.

Playing three at the back and utilising deeper central midfielders has helped the team defend more stoutly as a unit, significantly reducing the amount of chances opponents can create. Stronger displays as a team have also brought improved individual performances, with defensive players now amongst the highest rated for performance within the squad.
The challenge now is building on this solid defensive platform and individual form, to pick up more precious points throughout October. On paper at the very least and looking at the fixture list, the matches against Burnley, Brighton, then an absolutely dire Crystal Palace side, are all games from which West Ham should be gaining positive results.

If the team heads into November nestled comfortably in the top half of the table, the dynamic changes completely. Important ahead of a November and December schedule featuring some very difficult games to navigate, but with other encounters that are entirely winnable if the signs of improvement continue.

If West Ham conclude the year with a comfortable enough buffer zone between themselves and the relegation zone, talk of Bilic being sacked will be a thing of the past, because rocking the managerial boat just wouldn’t make sense. Add to that the prospect that his cause could also be aided with a signing or two in the January transfer window, the season as a whole may bring less suffering and far more to cheer about than the start of the campaign would have suggested.

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