West Ham’s seventh placed finish two seasons ago set expectations rather high for Slaven Bilic as he headed into his second campaign in charge. The Croatian manager achieved such success in his first campaign courtesy of Michail Antoino’s surprise goal scoring prowess and Dimitri Payet’s sudden transformation into a consistent world-class player. However, the club’s goal scoring that season overshadowed a middle of the pack defense led by average league players like Winston Reid, James Collins and James Tomkins — all capable players but below the quality that West Ham are aspiring to attain.
This past season, Payet returned to inconsistency before abandoning the club in January and both the club’s offense and defense fell far below expectations. The Hammers scored 18 fewer goals this past term and gave up an extra 13 than in Bilic’s first. None of the club’s signings in either the summer or January, aside from Lanzini’s deal becoming permanent, made any real difference except for stunting the growth of the club’s youth players.
Many clubs aspire to be as successful as Chelsea or Manchester City but their youth model should be more of a cautionary tale than an inspiration. Young players like Reece Oxford and Domingos Quina were left to play reserve football while the senior team struggled to find a spark. Perhaps having a hungry youngster biting at their heals would give the elder statesmen a proper kick in the rear, and if not, Bilic can help welcome in the next generation of West Ham talent.
A club that finished 11 points clear of relegation and 16 points clear of Europe should’ve handed the keys over to the young guys for a while. Instead, Bilic continued to play transfer flops Robert Snodgrass and Jonathan Calleri instead of giving those meaningless minutes to youngsters, who those minutes would’ve actually mattered to.
Players like Declan Rice, Ashley Fletcher and Quina made the bench consistently towards the end of the season but the first two only got a handful of minutes. Quina, meanwhile, racked up 12 bench appearances in the Premier League this season without ever seeing the pitch.
The constant rumors of Bilic’s sacking certainly must’ve played into his decision-making. Youth development takes a backseat when your job is on the line. The excitement around the club when Reece Oxford dominated Arsenal in Bilic’s first Premier League game gave fans, both of the Hammers and of the overall Premier League, some false hope that there would be an exciting new youngster to follow, especially an English one.
West Ham can’t go forward until it gives real chances to its youth players because the older players appear to be getting complacent. If the Hammers are to become one of the Premier League’s better clubs, there has to be true competition for places. Older players who arrived on transfers can’t be given precedent over young players purely because of how they arrived. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and Bilic isn’t going to find out what he has unless he gives players like Oxford and Quina a shot with the big boys.
Guest post contributed by Jack Radetic