Bilic, the great survivor, clings on at West Ham

AP
Slaven Bilic is increasingly being regarded as a great survivor, a coach who somehow manages to pull off a victory for West Ham United when he is under the most intense pressure.
AP
Reuters

West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic reacts on the sidelines as he watches his team play Tottenham Hotspur in the English League Cup fourth round at Wembley Stadium in London on October 25, 2017. The Hammers won 3-2.

What's sometimes cruelly referred to as the "sack race" in English soccer is off to a fast start in the Premier League.

Just nine games have been played and already three managers — Frank De Boer (Crystal Palace), Craig Shakespeare (Leicester City) and Ronald Koeman (Everton) — have lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, the man who topped the preseason bookmaker lists for the first coach to be fired in England's top league is still clinging on.

Slaven Bilic is increasingly being regarded as a great survivor, a coach who somehow manages to pull off a victory for West Ham United when he is under the most intense pressure.

Just this week, Bilic acknowledged he was among the managers in jeopardy and had spoken to West Ham's chairman about his situation after a humiliating 0-3 loss to Brighton and Hove Albion last Friday, which left the club above the relegation zone only on goal difference.

Typically, West Ham came from two goals down against Tottenham Hotspur to win 3-2 in the English League Cup on Wednesday, and the players can take some confidence into Saturday's league match at last-place Crystal Palace.

It is becoming a theme for Bilic.

Last season, West Ham lost 0-3 at home to Southampton in September, but reacted with a draw and three straight wins. The Hammers lost 1-5 at home to Arsenal in December — in one of the poorest displays by any side all season — but followed that with a draw at Liverpool then three straight wins. Chastening 0-4 and 0-5 home losses to Manchester City in January were both followed by wins.

This season, it has been a familiar story, with an abject 0-3 loss at Newcastle in late August making it three straight defeats to start the season. West Ham bounced back with two wins and a draw in its next three games. The Brighton loss was possibly the low point in Bilic's reign, but again he has come through.

The former Croatia defender was a popular appointment in June 2015, having played for West Ham for 18 months from January 1997, and he guided the team to a seventh-place finish with its highest number of points (62) and goals in a Premier League season.

West Ham left its Upton Park home of 112 years to move to the Olympic Stadium the following season and the change has coincided with West Ham's problems, with the team prone to collapsing after going behind and lacking any real identity. Bilic works under co-chairmen — David Gold and David Sullivan — who have a track record of mostly standing by their managers, and Sullivan said last week that he always wants to honor contracts "unless things are desperate" because "I believe in morality and what's right".

AFP

West Ham United defender Angelo Ogbonna scores the team's third goal — the winner — against Tottenham Hotspur during their English League Cup fourth-round match at Wembley Stadium in London on October 25, 2017.

Bilic's three-year deal expires at the end of the season and he may be facing the same scenario as his predecessor, Sam Allardyce, whose contract was allowed to run down.

If he makes it to the end of the season, of course.

"This should be the standard for us in terms of closing down, in terms of sacrificing for the team," Bilic said after the comeback win over Tottenham. "Some games we may lose, but I am quite positive we are improving."

With eight points in the league, West Ham is having its worst nine-game start to a season since 2010. Its trumpeted quartet of signings — Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez — haven't quite hit it off, and Bilic has criticized his team's work rate.

West Ham's players held their own meeting at the training ground on Monday and team unity was in evidence against Tottenham when goalkeeper Adrian sprinted the length of the field to celebrate what proved to be the winning goal by Angelo Ogbonna.

It was yet another lifeline for Bilic. A win at Palace will earn him more breathing space.

At Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger headed in his first goal since joining the club in the offseason in the 26th minute and Willian doubled the lead in the second minute of stoppage time. Dominic Calvert-Lewin pulled one back but Everton lacked time to equalize and Chelsea held on to win 2-1.

Bristol City of the second tier is the only non-Premier League team still in the competition. Arsenal, Bournemouth, Leicester, Manchester City and Manchester United also advanced on Tuesday.


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