Bilic drills Hammers well in charge up table

West Ham's Michail Antonio celebrating his goal in the 1-0 league win against Sunderland last Saturday. Slaven Bilic has given the team added steel while Dimitri Payet has proved his worth with key goals.
West Ham's Michail Antonio celebrating his goal in the 1-0 league win against Sunderland last Saturday. Slaven Bilic has given the team added steel while Dimitri Payet has proved his worth with key goals.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ahead of West Ham's trip to Everton today, here's a look at how the Hammers have become Champions League contenders.

Slaven Bilic's men have 46 points after 28 games and are just a point adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City, who have a game in hand.

THE RETURN OF BILIC

Slaven Bilic has brought a calmness and assurance as manager that rubs off on his players and no one has a bad word to say about him at the training ground.

The former Hammers defender tells his team that they should be afraid of no one and should never settle for a draw, whereas his predecessor Sam Allardyce was accused of being more interested in not losing.

Bilic exchanges high-fives with the squad as they walk into the dressing room. But he showed his other side in banishing Morgan Amalfitano for his attitude after he missed a team meeting in the summer. The players realised then that Bilic was not to be crossed.

The Croatian did not give lengthy talks in pre-season, leaving the players wondering about his approach. That changed when he delivered a punchy speech about how to beat Arsenal on the opening day. This week he wanted them to ruffle and bulldoze Tottenham Hotspur.

SULLIVAN'S EYE, PAYET'S CLASS

No player since Carlos Tevez has brought so much excitement and expectation to West Ham as Dimitri Payet.

The playmaker had the most assists in France last season and was watched by West Ham co-chairman David Sullivan, who pores over player statistics.

He recommended Payet to Bilic, who returned with a detailed report on him 24 hours later. The negotiations took a month and they paid twice as much as they were initially told he would cost.

The strength in depth was highlighted by more than £50 million (S$98 million) of talent sitting on the substitutes' bench when they beat Chelsea in October.

EMPHASIS ON TRAINING

West Ham often shipped goals in the last 15 minutes of matches last season and this time they look like winning them. They are fitter and leaner. Bilic employed compatriot Miljenko Rak, a 68-year-old fitness coach who had coached other sportspeople in Croatia.

From pre-season, training has had a high intensity. James Collins has cited sharper training as an important factor because it naturally feeds into games.

Bilic has worked on ball retention, moving it quickly and playing out from the back, using small pitches and four-on-two drills, to change Allardyce's direct style.

PERFECT TACTICS

They identified that Liverpool were weak on aerial balls, so repeated drills paid dividends when Michail Antonio and Andy Carroll scored with headers in January.

Similarly, against Tottenham they moved to a three-man backline to prevent their opponents owning the midfield.

Kurt Zouma was identified as Chelsea's weak link and Payet was asked to run at him. The same was said of Arsenal centre-back Per Mertesacker.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Bilic drills Hammers well in charge up table'. Print Edition | Subscribe