Something had sparked in the spirit of West Ham United. For perhaps the first time this season, the Hammers seemed to have the bit between their teeth as they mounted a comeback from 3-0 against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. But then Slaven Bilić made a decision that compromised all that. He stemmed the momentum of his own side.
By countering the injury to Michail Antonio and moving Javier Hernández out to the right wing, Bilić knocked West Ham out of their stride. Up until that moment, the Mexican striker had looked lively, capable of scoring more than the one goal he already had. Out on the wing, however, the former Manchester United man was wasted.
Why would anyone ever play Hernández on the wing? He is the perfect epitome of a poacher, as he has demonstrate countless times over the years. That’s surely why West Ham signed him from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer – to score goals. So why did Bilić move him from the position where he could score goals, at a time when it seemed likely he would score goals?
All three of Hernández’s goals for West Ham so far – the close range header against Spurs and the opportunistic tuck-away double on the rebound against Southampton – have come from a central position. The two goals against the Saints in particular wouldn’t have come about had the Mexican been anywhere other than in the penalty box. It’s the only place where his poacher’s instinct is worth anything.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to October 2016 to find a goal Hernández has scored from a central position, and even then his run for Bayer Leverkusen against Borussia Dortmund ended up with him applying the finishing touch just outside the six-yard box. He has found the net 14 times for club and country in the time since, all from a central area of the pitch, namely the penalty box.
A Failed Experiment
Hernández simply doesn’t have the traits to play elsewhere. He is averaging just 1.3 key passes per game for West Ham this season, with Michail Antonio, Mark Noble and Aaron Cresswell all averaging more than the Mexican so far this term. He has yet to contribute a single assist, making just 0.7 crosses per game.
Of course, that’s in part down to Hernández’s usual positioning. He’s rarely in a position to cross the ball, and there’s a reason for that – he’s not very good at it. Just like he’s not very good at involving himself in the general play through midfield, averaging just 17.8 total passes per game. To put that into context, Joe Hart averages almost twice as many passes per game (32) as Hernández.
This isn’t meant to expose the weaknesses and deficiencies of Hernández; it’s merely to point out the type of player he is, and how baffling Bilić’s decision to use him on the right side against Spurs was. It’s difficult to understand the reasoning for such a move. What does the Croatian see when he sees Hernández?
A Difficult Place To Thrive
The 29-year-old needs creativity of others to feed off, though, and he isn’t getting that at West Ham right now. Cresswell is the only player at the club who is averaging more than a single cross per game, with not one West Ham player contributing more than a single assist in six Premier League outings. Those numbers paint the picture of a team struggling to get the juices flowing in the final third.
This underlines how well Hernández has done to notch three goals already. He has had very little to work with, which makes Bilić’s call on Saturday all the more confusing. Although the Croatian denied that the Mexican was shifted out wide following Antonio’s withdrawal. “I spoke to him after West Brom game and today he started as a centre forward and then he had to change the position because we wanted to stay in the same system as it was working well,” he said.
“Even then, he was in good areas so you can't say he was out wide. Against top teams everyone has to defend and he was in a position where he would have been if we were playing two strikers. When we were attacking he was not playing on the wing, he was a striker. It's not very easy to play with him, Andy, Antonio and Arnautović and play with three centre-backs.”
Whatever the semantics of where Hernández ended up playing against Spurs on Saturday, he wasn’t at his most effective, even if he still managed to find the net. Bilić has come in for a lot of criticism of late, some of which has been unfair, but with decisions like the one he had made on Saturday, the Croatian’s not making it easy for himself.