Cast your mind back to the start of last season. After just a few games of the 17/18 season, we were mildly optimistic that one of our summer signings could be a shining light in the quest for West Ham to become an exciting prospect to watch.
Slaven Bilic, or his former co-chairmen, signed Javier Hernandez in July 2017. Fans were expecting a goal-hanging poacher to arrive at the club, but his first few appearances surprised us somewhat. Eager to impress, he showed a good work rate and covered more of the field than we perhaps expected.
He scored twice in just his second appearance, which was against Southampton. Unfortunately, the Hammers lost the game, but the Mexican probably had his best day of the season. Having seen Bilic leave the club, Moyes come and go, and now Pellegrini begin his reign, Chicharito now has to impress again and fit into a new system and way of thinking.
Hernandez is at his most comfortable as a central striker, there’s no denying that. But, will Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham side play to his strengths and can the chosen formation (when it’s finally settled) work for him?
The biggest factor in fulfilling Chicha’s potential is support from his teammates. Not emotionally, but technically. He feeds off clever runs, great crosses, smart thinking moves — the perfect long ball if he must — but all of his needs require a reshuffle of mind-set and personnel. Not for the first time in recent Hammers history, we have the battle between talent and system.
Does Pellegrini recognise that he has someone in Hernandez that can put the most important stat on the board; goals? Or will he be intent on making the striker work to his own methods and to play with whichever other nine outfield players he wants to select at any given time?
Here’s the thing, as a non-football player, it’s difficult to get my head around this whole ‘system’ and style of play conundrum. As a footballer in general, there is a set of skills that are necessary. As a striker, the ability to score goals is a necessity. How hard can it be to adapt your play slightly in order to accommodate the majority of the team?
This isn’t in any way an attack on Javier’s abilities, personality or commitment. It’s just a suggestion that compromise is going to be required from all players in a time of transition — just as players from the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea have had to do recently, and as Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool players have had to do over the past few seasons.
The benefit to the manager here is that he’s built a squad over the summer, not just a team. The drawback for Chicharito here is that he’s now 30-years-old, which isn’t old by any means but once a ‘three’ prefixes the age of a footballer, there’s normally others ahead in the selection rankings.
Manuel can work with what he has — it might not be easy, but it’s doable.
If he has a formation and style in mind that can utilise most of his players, then I think he will (and probably should) do so. That’s not to say that Hernandez is doomed to a life of permanent benched misery, just that he may have to adapt to the system, opponents and teammates around him if he wants to start regularly.
In reality, he isn’t going to get in to the starting line-up ahead of Marko Arnautovic who, if he plays his cards right, could have the team built around him and his attributes. The Mexican struggled to score last season. In 26 appearances he netted five times, none of which resulted in a win.
There were times, however, that he was played in a wider position by Bilic, one that he isn’t as comfortable with. He provided no assists in that time and had an overall shot accuracy of 54 per cent.
This sets off alarm bells that the ‘Little Pea’ just isn’t the type to adapt to new thinking. All right he’s attack-minded, which is what Manuel Pellegrini will hopefully bring to the club overall, but his style is set in stone and he knows what he is and isn’t comfortable with.
West Ham has a bank of talented players who, if they roll their socks up, can perform to their strengths and gel as a team. The right system can work and Hernandez may prove to be the key to successful attack, but I don’t think Pellegrini needs to change his mind-set to accommodate one player.
The most likely outcome here is for our Mexican striker to be an impact-substitute, or to be shipped out in January — he could prove to be another club’s saviour.