Slaven Bilic looked drained and exhausted as he stood in one of the Etihad Stadium’s corridors. He looked, frankly, like a man who had been badly beaten. He had, in fact, led West Ham United to one of the wins of the season, a fabulous, gutsy, backs-against-the-wall 2-1 victory against a team that even at this stage seem likely to end up as champions.
For most of a second half, played almost entirely in shooting distance of West Ham’s goal, he had crouched and pointed, dashed down the touchline and bellowed any instructions he could think of to keep a relentless Manchester City tide at bay.
Bilic had already seen West Ham beat Arsenal and Liverpool away, but at the Emirates and Anfield his side had glided relatively securely towards three improbable points. This was different.
“If you are playing a team like Manchester City it is different, with the greatest of respect, to Arsenal and Liverpool. City don’t miss a ball. Their passes are not square passes, they go here and there,” the West Ham manager said, gesturing frantically behind and to the side of him. “They have that quality.”
The way City tore at West Ham after falling two goals behind in a manner that said little for a £70m defensive partnership of Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi, resembled Manchester United in their pomp.
When, in September 2012, Tottenham Hotspur snatched their first victory at Old Trafford since Terry Venables was in charge along the Seven Sisters Road, they went three goals up and almost found it was not enough. There was something of that here.
West Ham’s triumphs on the road are the most glaring examples of what is becoming one of the themes of the season – the success of away teams. Some argue that the prevalence of the 4-2-3-1 formation makes counter-attack easier; Bilic claimed it is the increased pressure on the home team.
“When you play away from home and it’s 15 minutes gone, you get a throw-in and it’s easy,” he said. “But when you’re at home and it’s 0-0 you are running to the ball because, in your mind, you are thinking, ‘We have to score, we have to score’. And from the patience you have as an away team something may open up because you are not rushing things.
“It’s why there were so many away wins in the first three rounds of games in the Premier League. From 30 games there were only six home wins.
“It isn’t going to stay like that – it’s impossible – but, especially in the beginning, when you are desperate for a home win, that pressure, that rushing is sometimes your biggest enemy.”
Bilic pointed out that for clubs like West Ham a target for the season is a nebulous concept. For Manchester City a season is measured in silverware, for Watford by remaining in the league. For West Ham’s board the absolute priority is not to face the embarrassment of entering the Olympic Stadium as a relegated team and by September this is a scenario that can already be discounted.
Bilic said that under Sam Allardyce West Ham were fourth at Christmas and he would gladly take a repeat.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” he said. “The one advantage we have is that we have flair players who fight for the team. Players like [Dimitri] Payet and [Manuel] Lanzini are running for the team right at the end and it’s not common for these types of players to do that. They tend to be more flashy.
“That’s why we are winning games and it’s a good feeling – it’s like walking into a pub full of girls.”
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