I know as West Ham fans this is really quite difficult to imagine, but just for a minute try and focus your mind on this scenario really hard. Imagine a fantastical world in which we had no injuries. I know it’s farfetched, I know we’ve never seen the like, and I know that labelling it as wishful thinking wouldn’t even do it justice, but just bear with me. Imagine if Slaven Bilic had no injuries, no suspensions, and no impact on team selection of any kind; Slaven miraculously has a full squad to choose from. For the first time in a long time at Upton Park, picking a starting eleven from this squad actually proves to be a challenge, with the strength of squad and even depth of squad in some areas.
With a good mix of youth, heart, passion, and pure class to boot, our current squad provides all the kind of excitement and hope we could’ve realistically wished for moving into the Olympic Stadium next season, but if we had a fully fit squad, which eleven men would make Bilic’s cut? I’m going to go through the team, in a series of articles today, with my own personal picks for our best eleven, which I gladly recognise is open to debate, as for a nice change we are able to debate which player out of a group is the best fit, not which player is the least detrimental. The formation is also up for debate, but I’m going to apply one of Bilic’s favoured set-ups, and in my opinion the most effective when used properly, the 4-2-3-1.
Arguably, there’s not going to be an easier decision in the team than this. Cult hero Adrián has captured the hearts of the East End faithful since his arrival from Real Betis in 2013, made all the better by the fact we paid nothing for the privilege, and the Spanish stopper has basically been an ever-present in the team since replacing Jussi Jaaskelainen as the first choice keeper half way through the 2013/14 season.
Sure he has his moments in which you question if he has a screw or two loose, namely his red cards away at Southampton last term (despite being rescinded afterwards) and at home to Leicester this year following that flying scissor kick into a Leicester player half way inside their own half (which arguably wasn’t a red either), but for every one of them moments, there are countless in which he seems to save us. A fantastic stopper, good with his feet, confident, that winning penalty against Everton, and a passion for the club which has endeared him to us all, there really is only one man for the job.
An honourable mention can be offered to Darren Randolph, who performed very well during Adrián’s suspension earlier this season, but the number one spot firmly belongs to the man from Seville.
This is where things get a bit tougher. My vote is going to James Tomkins despite not actually being an out-and-out right back, and my gut feeling is that this position could see a change of opinion in the coming weeks, but for the moment it’s Tomkins. The other two options are the actual right backs, Carl Jenkinson and new boy Sam Byram, but I have my argument over why currently I’d choose Tomkins over each of them, one argument being far more concrete than the other.
As for choosing Tomkins over Jenkinson, well, anyone who’s watched West Ham regularly this season won’t need me to explain that. It really is a shame because we know from last season how good Jenkinson can be. He was solid throughout most of last term, and I, like most, was happy to see him return on another year long loan from Arsenal. That happiness quickly turned sour, though. Jenks has conceded 3 penalties this season, most recently against City yesterday (despite being debatable it was clumsy from the full back nonetheless), and had cost us at least 6 points if not more. Last season you never quite trusted him on the ball, as he seemed clunky and slightly out of control, but he consistently proved us wrong. This season, that same fear hits you when he receives the ball, except our fears all too often become a reality. His poor performances led to Tomkins being drafted in at full back, and he has played well there ever since, easily enough to retain his place over Jenkinson, and unfortunately, I won’t be too sad to see the back of Jenks as he returns to Arsenal after this season.
The other option is the new boy purchased from Leeds for around £3.7 million, Sam Byram. The only reason I choose Tomkins over Byram here is that I haven’t seen enough of Byram to judge him fully yet. However, when Byram did have to come on early against City yesterday for the injured Jenkinson, I thought he looked solid. He seemed calm and composed on the ball, which would potentially be a worry when coming from the Championship straight into a game against arguably the best squad in England. A few more games under his belt learning to play the way Bilic wants him to and I feel like he could make that right back spot his own, an exciting prospect for the future given he’s only 22. For the moment though, I’ll have to go with Tomkins, who remains solid whenever called upon.
The centre back partnership is arguably the most difficult decision Slaven would have. We find ourselves with four top quality centre backs, which despite making it difficult to choose the two starters from, is a great problem to have. Current form plays into this decision a lot for me, but I’m going with Winston Reid and James Collins. Like I say, the beauty of this decision is that were Ogbonna or Tomkins used instead, I would be no less confident as both have also proven themselves, but Reid and Collins edge it on form. Winston Reid has been a part of our first choice pairing at the back since our season in the Championship and looked the part at the lower level. Questions were asked of him as to whether he could do it in the Premier League, but he has certainly silenced any doubters with his performances over the past three and a half seasons in the top flight, drawing the attention of many top clubs before fending them off with his signing of a new deal towards the tail end of last season. He rarely looks in danger, is commanding in the air and calm on the ball, and on form he would be my definite choice for one of the two centre back spots.
As for Ginge, his inclusion in my selection is far more based on his current form. There have been times in the past where you may question his ability, he often seemed to have a mistake in him no matter how well he was playing, and arguably we thought earlier on this year that he was getting on a bit. While we were happy to have him, it was generally accepted that he was our 4th choice. However, he didn’t let that affect him, and when he got his chance, did he prove us wrong or what? Since his emergence back into the first team Collins has resembled a brick wall, getting in the way of anything and everything, seemingly being everywhere, doing everything you could ask from a centre half. Against Southampton he was magnificent, against Liverpool he kept a £32.5 million Benteke safely in his back pocket, and those are just two examples.
Long term wise, Ogbonna or Tomkins probably have more of a claim to this place, both of which barring the odd blip (For example, Ogbonna’s clumsy tackle to give away a penalty at Villa, or Tomkins giving the ball away leading up to the 2nd goal at Watford) also appear solid at the back, but on his current form you can’t look past Ginge right now.
Another open and shut case really. Aaron Cresswell has nailed down the left back spot since his arrival from Ipswich the summer before last. Despite a relatively rocky start to this campaign, the Scouser has since recovered his form and reminded us of exactly why he won our Hammer of the Year last season. Confident and calm on the ball, a good delivery and the ability to pop up with a goal every now and again, as we saw at Villa, Aaron really is the only choice at left back.